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From the black stump to the Queen of Kembla, Gwenda Markwell remembered

A tough and talented horsewoman, beloved trainer Gwenda Markwell worked her way from humble beginnings in country Queensland to win 19 trainers’ championships on her adopted home track of Kembla Grange.

Much-loved trainer Gwenda Markwell has died aged 61. (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

‘Beyond the black stump’ is an Australian saying to denote a place so far into the country’s dry inland ‘outback’ that it is considered to be in the middle of nowhere. The late trainer Gwenda Markwell’s hometown of Blackall, outback Queensland, is where that black stump is.

“There was nobody bludging out there, that is for sure,” Markwell’s long-standing business partner and longest-serving owner, Ross McConville, said. “Gwenda came from a very humble background to achieve a lot, and she did it all with hard work.”

Markwell died from cancer on Friday, aged 61.

As Peter Moody was walking back to the tie-up stalls at Rosehill after winning the AU$10 million Golden Eagle, reflecting on Markwell’s life gave him pause for thought.

Blackall, population 1416, is about 400 kilometres north, up the Mitchell Highway, from where Moody was raised in Wyandra; their hometowns so isolated that a four-hour drive is considered the same neighborhood.

Markwell was the daughter of a farmhand widower and his second wife, a Welsh immigrant optometrist. The youngest of three, her parents had died before she was 20 but she had already left school at 15 and made her name on the vast outback sheep stations of the region, and then for a short while as a jockey on its dusty and dangerous tracks. She had soon made her way south, seeking opportunity.

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Gwenda Markwell was loved and respected across the racing industry. (Photo by Brook Mitchell/Getty Images)

Moody had heard of Markwell before their paths crossed in person, her skills with horses ensured that, but then he got to see first hand as co-workers under the legendary Colin Hayes.

“I met Gwenda when I was at Lindsay Park as a young fellow and she was recognised as a great horsewoman then,” Moody said. “I didn’t know Gwenda was ill and these things creep up on you. It is very sad, but it is great that she has been recognised here today. 61 is way too young, I have been thinking of her today for sure … I am not far off that age (53). It really hits home.

“She was a terrific trainer who had a wonderful career, for anybody to win 19 premierships at their home base you really have to respect that.”

Markwell’s dominance at Kembla Grange, and those 19 titles, including a sequence of 13 in a row, was what most racing followers will remember about the trainer. More than half of her 1037 career wins – 517 – were at the track just south of Wollongong, but for the trainers, jockeys and stablehands in the area, her impact goes beyond statistics.

Rival Kembla trainer Kerry Parker was honoured to represent Markwell’s stable in the parade ring before Burning Need ran in the Golden Pillars, one race after the Golden Eagle.

“The press always called her the Queen of Kembla, but I always called the track ‘Gwenda Grange’ – I don’t think anybody will ever top what she has done there,” Parker said. “She was just one of the hardest workers I have ever known, she was always elbows deep into whatever she was doing, but also a terrific person that would help you out whenever she could.”

The jockey Parker was about to leg aboard was perhaps the most famous in world racing, Frankie Dettori, but Markwell wasn’t one to get star struck and one of her outstanding characteristics was to treat people for who they were.

Fellow Kembla Grange trainer Kerry Parker. (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

A jockey more to Markwell’s style was the laconic Nash Rawiller, who said many of his fellow riders were reeling from the news, including Markwell’s former apprentice Kathy O’Hara, who withdrew from her riding engagements on Saturday.

“I got a call from another jockey yesterday and he asked me ‘this news isn’t true, is it?’ and when I said it was he just broke down and cried,” Rawiller said. “Gwenda meant that much to a lot of people. She has played a big part in a lot of people’s lives in racing and those people just have that much respect for her.

“She was one of the toughest ladies you will ever meet, up until about four weeks ago she was still driving the horses to the races in the truck. It is really sad, and a big loss for Sydney racing, but especially Kembla Grange.

“She was very tough, but underneath that she had a great heart and gave a lot of people an opportunity to make a living and a life in this industry.”

Seven-time Sydney champion Darren Beadman had the highest strike rate of any jockey for Markwell, he rode 25 winners at 22.7 per cent for the stable.

“She didn’t always say a lot but when she rang you up for a ride you knew the horse was going to be right on the day,” Beadman said. “Gwenda was a great horse woman, she was a worker and she was great to have a chat with in between races. She was a remarkable woman.”

Gwenda Markwell was 19 times the leading trainer at Kembla Grange. . (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

The old-school trainer often drove the truck to race meetings as far afield as Goulburn or Newcastle and often left her phone aside, but one of her longest term owners, Hong Kong surgeon John Shum, joked “when she did answer the phone you couldn’t get her off it.”

“I will miss her dearly,” he said. “She always took care of the horses, she was very patient and put them first.”

That horse-first attitude was evident in the way Markwell worked tirelessly to rehome her horses as well.

That there were only two Group 1s to Markwell’s name out of those 1037 wins is indicative of a trainer who made the most of what she had, without the churn of most big stables, and also to the greatest regret of her career.

When Grand Zulu beat Mummify, Makybe Diva and Elvstroem in the 2004 Tancred Stakes, the AJC Derby one week later seemed at his mercy but owner David Choy elected to send the horse to Hong Kong.

“A lot of people, myself included, tried to convince him he should run the horse in the Derby,” Markwell recalled in an interview.

Without Markwell’s attention, Grand Zulu never found his spark at Sha Tin, and was never the same after returning to Kembla Grange at five-years-old, either.

Angel Of Truth won the trainer a Derby at Randwick 16 years later but she was unlucky in-between. Matthew Sandblom’s 2012-13 provincial horse of the year and Group 2 winner Rolling Pin seemed bound to win at the top tier before he broke down after finishing fourth behind All Too Hard in the 2013 All Aged Stakes. Shum’s homebred Al Be Nimble was another on the rise before injury halted his rise.

Perhaps it was because of her own humble beginnings that she was so often keen to provide a leg up for those who were willing.

O’Hara is just one rider to benefit from Markwell’s mentorship, but more recently mature age apprentice Brock Ryan and before that Scott Pollard, who rode 62 winners for the stable.
When Markwell was facing a staffing crisis ten years ago she turned to hiring Indian students from the University of Wollongong, helping train the complete novices in yard work. One of them, engineering graduate Nigil Mohanan, is now the stable foreman and a trackwork rider after having no previous experience with horses.

The recently licenced McConville and Mohanan will continue to run the stable but Markwell’s legacy will live on through the people she has helped.

The streets around the stables near Kembla Grange are named after champion racehorses – Phar Lap Avenue and Manikato Parade turn into Kingston Town Drive, where Markwell’s stables were.

Given the pathway Markwell took to be champion, and the opportunities she provided others in the area, a road named in her honour would not be out of place among those champions of the turf.

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