True grief can only be understood by those who’ve experienced the lingering pain it brings.
Garry Kirkup has struggled with profound grief these past seventeen months. His emotional pain has far exceeded the ravages of the injuries he sustained in that horrific motor accident near Junee.
It was around lunchtime on a Sunday in early December 2017. Garry had spent the weekend in Coolamon, visiting the parents of his much loved partner Samara Johnson. He and Samara were just forty minutes into the return journey to Canberra. He still doesn’t know what happened.
The car left the road at Eurongilly, slamming into a tree with devastating consequences. Samara died at the scene, while Garry was airlifted to Canberra Hospital with critical injuries.
Abdominal complications required multiple operations, while his left foot sustained extensive damage below the ankle - enough damage to warrant the insertion of twelve screws and a plate. Fractures to his right hand completed a horror list of injuries.
The highly respected horseman has had tremendous support from many people, during his long and painful rehabilitation. “I’ll never be able to adequately thank Samara’s parents Phil and Robyn Johnson”, said Garry. “Despite handling their own grief, they supported me at the post accident hearing and are there for me every minute”.
Canberra trainers have thrown their full support behind Garry and his staff at Thoroughbred Park. “Thanks to the kindness of people like Matt Dale, Luke Pepper and Doug Gorrel my horses haven’t missed a beat”, said the trainer. “It would take me a week to thank all the people who’ve helped out. It’s been overwhelming”.
Garry has been back around the stables for three months gradually increasing his workload. “I’ve been mucking boxes, mixing feeds, and even saddling a few up”, explained the trainer with a hint of frustration.
His rehabilitation won’t be complete until he can ride work again. “I’m missing riding trackwork terribly”, said Garry. “I’ve been riding half my team in work for most of my training career. The steel will be removed from my foot any day now, and I’m just praying I can get back into the saddle”.
Garry Kirkup grew up on Navua Stud, a 400 acre property at Grose Wold near Richmond (NSW). The business was established by his father Ray Kirkup, who was a well known and respected figure in the racing industry for several decades. “Dad was an extraordinary horseman who combined pre-training, spelling and commercial breeding on the property”, recalled Garry. “Older people will remember stallions like Globetrotter and Martial Tito standing at Navua Stud. Neither were sensations, but got plenty of winners on outside tracks”.
Ray Kirkup’s life changed dramatically in the mid 1970’s when he met a smooth talking, confident American who had visions of turning the Australian breeding industry on its head.
Ferd Calvin was the man who pioneered the introduction of American stallions to a market dominated by English, Irish and French imports. He had already gotten away to a flying start with Bluescope and had a couple more to follow.
Not only did Calvin offer to buy Navua Stud, but earnestly requested that Ray should stay on as Stud Manager. “Dad jumped at the opportunity”, recalled Garry. “The property was renamed Dawson Stud, quickly becoming one of the best known breeding farms in Australia”.
Calvin put the place on the map when he imported Swiftly Morgan (Nasrullah) and Dignitas (Round Table) to join Bluescope. All three stallions did a great job for the American visionary.
Ferd Calvin was to have a profound influence on young Kirkup’s life. In the late 70’s he purchased a much larger property at Cootamundra, which has subsequently generated a rich history in Australian thoroughbred breeding.
Ray Kirkup answered Calvin’s call to move to Cootamundra and it was an excited sixteen year old son who went with him. Calvin transferred Bluescope, Swiftly Morgan and Dignitas to Cootamundra, later adding Garganey and Lorenzaccio to the stallion roster.
Garry Kirkup was to spend more than a decade working for Calvin on Dawson Stud. He learned every conceivable facet of horse management and stud work and rode horses whenever an opportunity arose.
When Ferd Calvin died in the early 1980’s the well appointed property came under the notice of TV icon Mike Willisee, who was passionate about racing and breeding thoroughbreds.
For yet another decade Garry and his father pre-trained Willesee’s racehorses for a select band of Sydney trainers. They also looked after a very busy commercial stud enterprise, revolving around stallions like Snippets, Sir Dapper, Sovereign Red and Rubiton.
The ever discerning Willesee had noticed Garry Kirkup’s expert handling of horses over a period of time. It was Willesee who suggested Garry should apply for a licence and train horses which were not measuring up in the city.
The fledgling trainer couldn’t believe his luck when Willesee immediately installed two state of the art training tracks on Transmedia Park Stud. Both were 2000 metres in circumference, one had a dirt surface, the other crusher dust. Both tracks were harrowed and watered regularly, and topped with new material when necessary. “Both surfaces were beautiful and injuries were few and far between”, recalled Garry. “Both tracks had a fairly steep rise over the last 400 metres. It was the closest thing to Lindsay Park anywhere in NSW”.
Young Kirkup was 24 when he prepared his first winner Pop’s Magic in an ordinary race at Cootamundra - the first of quite a few ordinary winners over the next couple of years.
He’d been closely watching a Sovereign Red filly coming through the system and liked what he saw. He liked her even more the first time he got to ride her. “Ice Cream Sundae was going to make the grade from the beginning, but I never dreamed she’d go on to win 12 races, two at Listed level and almost a quarter of a million dollars”, said Garry over the weekend.
The chestnut filly won 10 of her first 17 starts, ridden in 7 of those wins by Michael Cahill who was working permanently at Transmedia Park. Thirty years on the ageless Cahill is still competing at the very top level and only last Saturday won the Doomben $10,000 on The Bostonian.
Another notable city winner for Willesee and Kirkup was the imported Chilean mare Grillita. She won two races at Rosehill with Ron Quinton up, and the Country Cup at Randwick with Adrian Robinson in the saddle.
With Mike Willesee’s approval Garry trained a few horses at Transmedia Park for outside owners. The most notable were A Bit Of Magic (9 wins) and Prince Of Sports (9 wins).
There was disappointment on all sides in 1993, when Mike announced his intention to sell Transmedia Park to Jack and Bob Ingham, who were expanding their breeding interests. “It had been a very happy time in my life and I was sad to see it all come to an end”, reflected Garry. “Mike Willesee was a very humble man who treated everybody at Transmedia Park with the utmost respect. I’ll remember him as a good bloke”.
The end of the Willesee era heralded in a whole new phase of Garry Kirkup’s life. With ten horses in his care, Garry accepted a very generous offer from fellow trainer Ken Callaghan to set up a temporary base at Callaghan’s well appointed Capricorn Park property.
Over six months passed before stable accommodation became available at Thoroughbred Park Canberra. “Ken Callaghan knew of my predicament, and was on the phone straight away to offer help”, said Kirkup. “This game is full of generous people”.
Garry has “chipped away” quietly at Canberra for close to 25 years now, figuring prominently on the South Eastern training table most seasons. He’s made many successful city raids over the years, one of them as recently as January of this year. Just a year after his accident, Garry got himself to Randwick to win a TAB Highway with Smart As. “She went straight to the paddock after the win and I really think she’ll be very competitive in a few more Highway races yet”, said the experienced horseman.
Just a few weeks after the accident, Garry’s sister Julie and his eldest son Ben moved from Queensland to the ACT to be at his side. “I would never have battled through this without their support”, he said this week.
Ben is currently building a successful business with a product called Diamond Grid - a flooring alternative offering cost effective erosion control, and soil and turf stabilisation.
Always the thinker, it was Ben who rang the Australian Turf Club a few years ago to see if Mike Willesee’s racing colours were still available. “I was thrilled when I heard they could be used again, and they’re now our official stable colours with the addition of a white stripe to both sleeves” said Garry.
The trainer has two other sons Jack and Will, and a daughter Olivia. None have inherited the racing genes, but are all focussed on their own goals.
There’s a certain maiden three year old filly on the scene at the moment by the name of Star Of Samara - named after the delightful young lady and brilliant horse person whose life was taken much too soon. “She’s the last horse Samara and I selected and purchased together on behalf of valued clients”, said Garry. “The filly is still a maiden after 11 runs, but immaturity doesn’t help. She’ll be better next time and I desperately want her to win just one race”.
I saw a piece some time ago written by a lady called Vicki Harrison. It will make a lot of sense to Garry and to Samara’s parents Phil and Robyn.
“Grief is like the ocean.
It comes in waves.
Ebbing and flowing.
Sometimes the water is calm.
Sometimes it is overwhelming.
All we can do is learn to swim”.