Billy Prain struggled with mixed emotions as he walked off Warwick Farm racecourse on Wednesday November 28th - his last day as a trainer.
His two runners Stately Lord and Victory In Paris had finished out of a place, which was hardly the swansong he’d hoped for after a training career of thirty one years, and a total of fifty two years in the business. But racing is an unforgiving business, and Bill knows better than most that things don’t always go to plan.
He’s been saying for a long time, that he’d retire when his valued owner and friend Fred Peisah decided to call it quits. Given the choice, Fred would have continued to race horses until his final breath, but rapidly deteriorating health in recent times has left him with no alternative.
Fred Peisah has operated Lomar Park Stud at Werombi for fifty years, standing a number of successful stallions including Le Cordonnier, Steel Pulse, Mister C, Archregent, and Arena who died last year.
The former solicitor has been a regular seller at Inglis Sales over the years, but has always enjoyed racing some of his “home breds”.
Peisah and Prain have been an unshakeable combination for three decades, and according to the trainer, have never exchanged a harsh word. “Goodness knows where my life would have taken me had Fred not come along”, said Bill last week. “He set up stables at Warwick Farm in the late 80’s, and appointed Bernie Kelly as his trainer. I had just finished riding, and was actually working as a barman at Cabramatta Leagues Club. Former jockey Bill Camer told me Fred was looking for an assistant to Bernie, and I was lucky enough to land the job”.
Billy Prain was one of seven children born and reared at Parramatta. His father Col had been a moderately successful jockey in central and northern Queensland, and had always hoped one of his five sons would follow in his footsteps. “Dad rode a few winners with limited opportunities, and constantly encouraged me to give it a go”, recalled Bill. “I was the only one small enough to even consider an apprenticeship, and the idea did have some appeal. I left school at 14 yrs and 10 months, and ‘fluked’ a position with veteran Rosehill trainer Vic Thompson Snr”.
At this time of his life Bill was known as Bimbo, a nickname given to him by his mother Joyce. “I was always running out the door with my pet Border Collie pup, and mum would sing the popular song “Bimbo Bimbo where you going to go e oh”, said Bill. “It happened almost every day, and before long family and friends were calling me Bimbo. The nickname stuck with me for many years, and I still get it from time to time”.
Billy weighed all of 36kgs when he began his apprenticeship, and he quickly learned to ride under Vic Thompson’s tuition. He rode miles of work with capable jockeys at Rosehill and made a steady rate of improvement.
He became very unsettled and disillusioned after two years with Thompson, and sought a release from his indentureship. “A couple of times in my life, I’ve been in the right spot at the right time, and the first lucky break was just around the corner”, reflected Bill. “Theo Green was based at Rosehill at the time, and was already an established tutor of apprentices. He had a couple of good prospects at the time called Quinton and Spinks, but he was able to take me on”.
One year passed before Theo deemed his junior apprentice ready for a race ride, and it was almost a dream start. “I rode rode Tar Lad for the boss at Gosford, and a couple of strides from home I sensed victory”, said Bill. “A horse ridden by another Rosehill apprentice Keith Bonnyman, grabbed me on the line. I ran five straight seconds on Tar Lad, and was beginning to think I was doing something wrong”.
By a strange twist of fate Bill’s first winner came from another stable. Tommy Kennedy, also training at Rosehill had been watching the tiny apprentice, and thought he was capable enough to use him on a two year old filly called Unrecorded, at a Warwick Farm Saturday meeting on July 1st 1967.
This was Bill’s 50th race ride, and his confidence levels were low - not that he mentioned that to Kennedy.
At last it happened! Unrecorded won comfortably, in the colours of high profile bookmaker Ken Ranger, who raced many horses in that era. The monkey was off the little bloke’s back.
Bill’s first metro winner for Theo Green was a handy horse called Colisee Star, in the white and tartan colours of long time client John Bradshaw, who was always supportive of the stable apprentices.
Colisee Star later carved himself a little slice of Sydney racing history, when he won an International Invitation Jockeys event at Rosehill. The ever innovative Sydney Turf Club brought several big name riders to Sydney, and the promotion got a lot of press space. “I strapped Colisee Star that day, and I got a big thrill when he won with the Italian Gian Dettori in the saddle”, recalled Bill. “Who would have dreamed, Gian’s son Frankie would one day become one of the world’s most celebrated jockeys”.
Billy Prain enjoyed a very rewarding apprenticeship. He rode winners for many leading stables, and was runner up in two Sydney metro apprentices premierships.
He remembers Theo Green with great affection. “The day I walked into his stables, he used an expression that has become legend in Sydney racing”, said Bill. “Son I don’t know if I can make you a good jockey, but I’m sure I’ll make you a good person, is the statement he made to all of his new recruits. The boss was tough but fair, and he never stopped stressing the importance of reliability, honesty and integrity”.
Bill rode right through until 1987, finishing with a total of 700 winners. He travelled to many country carnivals with trainers like the late Tom Sewell, and won races all over the State. He never won a race on Bay Cobbler, but rates him the best horse he ever rode. He was a horse of huge talent, but soundness issues plagued him throughout his career. Bill won a race on Bourbon Beau, and many races on talented horses like Let’s Fly and Prince Tattenham.
He decided to settle in Wagga after marrying his sweetheart Julie Herford, and quickly established his position as one of the best riders in the region.
It was during his country sojourn that Bill experienced a very low point in his career. He rode a two year old called Rojolamo at Bathurst, in a 1000 metre ‘scamper’ in October 1982. He settled down well back in the eight horse field, after having to check severely soon after the start. Rojolamo finished third, less than a length from the winner Top Of The Nap who went on to much better things.
A subsequent inquiry found Bill guilty of “not giving Rojolamo every opportunity to win the race”, and he was slapped with a 12 months disqualification. His appeal was partly successful. The penalty was reduced to six months, which didn’t erase the disappointment of being disqualified for the one and only time in his life. “You can’t overcome interference in a 1000 metre race”, said Bill. “The leaders are off and gone by the time you recover. The stewards didn’t agree, and I had to suffer the frustration and indignity of a six month ban”.
Billy Prain’s final winner as a jockey was a gelding called That’s Sharp in the 2KY Hcp at Randwick in March 1987. He had a handful of rides over the next three months, but his retirement was imminent.
Bill’s life took another sudden turn when Bernie Kelly resigned as head trainer for Fred Peisah. Before he knew it, the recently retired jockey was asked to take over as trainer, and a new exciting phase of his racing life began.
The partnership between Billy Prain and Fred Peisah became one of Sydney racing’s most enduring. The majority of the horses were Lomar Park bred, and whilst no champions appeared, a few really nice horses came along.
Moment’s Pleasure was a source of great enjoyment for Bill and Fred Peisah. The talented filly was up and running early in the 94/95 season, winning the Newcastle 2YO Classic, followed by the Gr 2 Reisling Slipper Trial. She ran a very respectable race in the Golden Slipper from a nightmare barrier to finish seventh, only 3.9 lengths from the winner.
One year later Moment’s Pleasure went within a neck of giving Bill that elusive Gr 1 win, when narrowly beaten by Flitter in the Winfield Classic.
“She had it won, when Jim Cassidy secured a freak rails run on Flitter to grab us in the last couple of strides”, reflected the trainer.
Regal Chamber did a good job for the stable, while Emilio could have been the best of all. He won several races despite being chronically unsound.
Bill’s life seems to have been a series of major events, and the 1995 event stopped him in his tracks. He ignored several danger signs of an impending illness, and was stunned when a colonoscopy revealed advanced bowel cancer.
Major surgery was followed by a never ending course of chemotherapy, which wore the little bloke down. “I had an injection every week for twelve months, in conjunction with many blood tests”, recalled Prain. “The chemo knocked me about badly, and I would spend three days a week doing nothing but vomiting”.
Bill has been in remission for eighteen years, and as his retirement begins, the 67 year old is in reasonably good shape. He and Julie have three devoted daughters Bianca, Chantell and Candice, who have provided their parents with four grandchildren. Bill hasn’t given much thought to what he might do down the track. For now, babysitting is his number one priority.
When Moment’s Pleasure was mixing it with the best two year olds in the Autumn of 1994, Billy placed his faith in an inexperienced teenage jockey.
That jockey has gone on to become one of Australia’s best, with two Melbourne Cups to prove it. When Billy announced his retirement recently, Corey Brown was among the first to respond. I’m sure Corey won’t mind my quoting his email to the man who helped shape his destiny.
“Just want to say thank you to one of the best blokes in racing, and more so in life. I loved you and your family, since the day I met you guys. I will never forget what you did for me, as a sixteen year old kid starting out.
Bill it’s been more than a “Moment’s Pleasure”.
Love you mate. Enjoy retirement.
My sentiments exactly. Enjoy retirement Billy Prain and congratulations on a good job well done.