Arrowfield Promotion For Hard Working Leah

What you quickly learn about Leah Gavranich is that she’s all about the horses.

It might be her first season as co-trainer, alongside Paul Messara, of the Arrowfield team at Scone but Gavranich has been part of the backbone of the stable for close to 16 years.

And as much as she’s the most comfortable when the attention isn’t on her, Gavranich is very at ease when the conversation turns to the thoroughbreds.

There wouldn’t be a morning when she’s not on a horse’s back and she couldn’t imagine training the horses under her and Messara’s care without riding being part of her routine.

“I love educating horses,’’ Gavranich said.

Leah Gavranich and Paul Messara at Scone races. (Pic: Mat Dockerty/Bradley Photos)

“Horses learn from a release of pressure and once you understand that you can get them to do anything. It adds another element to our training.

“It’s a huge advantage to hear how a horse breathes, how it feels underneath you, all those added areas that give you more of a feel about a horse.

“It gives me so much more insight about training if I’ve actually ridden a horse. Its mentality, whether it’s responsive when you ask, whether it’s sluggish, or fresh. It’s a huge benefit.”

For someone so passionate about horses, it’s surprising to learn Gavranich had little to no racing influences growing up in Derby in the West Australian Kimberley region.

She revealed her first exposure to horses came around age eight when some of the neighbours started riding. But the racing industry was something foreign until she was made aware of a trackwork riding job with David Edwards in the Swan Valley.

“I absolutely loved horses, loved educating them and loved everything about them,’’ she said.

“I knew growing up I wanted to work with horses but I didn’t know what area you could go to make a living out of it.

“I wasn’t interested in racing, it was so far off my radar. Being a vet was too much hard work, I just wanted to focus on the horses first and foremost.

“Not being familiar with racing, I knew nothing about that world. I’ve been very lucky in my life, everything has come to me by chance and I’ve taken opportunity after opportunity.”

It was after three years working with the Edwards family that Gavranich decided to look east for opportunities to progress and she interviewed with Paul Messara.

Long story short, Gavranich started work in Scone in February 2008 and she hasn’t looked back.

A role as travelling foreman took her back to WA and around the world with star mare Ortensia and she was Messara’s assistant trainer for almost eight years before getting her name in the race book.

“I didn’t want to go to a big stable, I wanted to go somewhere small where I could work my way up,’’ she said.

“When you’re working with horses from Arrowfield Stud, arguably the best stud in Australia, where do you go from there. You already land in an outstanding set up so why not grow with the team.

“When Paul couldn’t be there all the time, I had a good understanding of what he wanted and we were kind of on the same page. He asked me to step up and be assistant trainer, he knew that when he wasn’t there the ship still rolled on.

“It was a natural progression (to co-trainer). I never wanted to have trainer beside my name.

Leah Gavranich says it’s a great reward to co-train with Paul Messara after over 15 years at Arrowfield (Pic: Mat Dockerty/Bradley Photos)

“I never had the bug to go out on my own. You want to work with the best horses, educate the best horses, and if you get that right the results follow.”

Ortensia was a special mare to all concerned and it’s no surprise that Gavranich has a soft spot for the multiple Group 1 winner, whose legacy remains in the Messara racing team.

If not for Black Caviar’s connections electing to bypass the 2011 Winterbottom Stakes, there’s a good chance Ortensia’s story would have been very different. She may not have won a Group 1 in Dubai, a Group 2 at Goodwood and another Group 1 at York.

Gavranich said when she came into the stable she hadn’t won for a couple of years and her owner Alistair Fraser just wanted to win another race. They did that at her first start then fate stepped in and took Gavranich on an unforgettable journey.

“There was a chance of Black Caviar running in the Winterbottom in Perth and it might have been on the Sunday (after she raced) Peter Moody had made it known she was going to the paddock,’’ she said.

“It was almost through luck of the draw that Black Caviar didn’t go. Racing WA contacted Paul about taking Ortensia. She’d run there before and had won there, she knocked off the Group 1 and it was so surreal.

“We had plans to take her to New Zealand but on the flight back she got a bit crook so we pulled the pin and while she was in the paddock we got the invite to Dubai.

“It was either run around against Black Caviar, Hay List, Buffering was around at the time, or go to Dubai and everybody is in the same boat. I galloped her the Saturday before (the Al Quoz Sprint), we worked her under lights and gave her a good gallop.

“I remember the guy who was looking after the quarantine said to me ‘I’ve been watching gallops here for years and there’s nothing in that race that will beat your mare’.

“I was pretty sick for the rest of the week. Off the back of Dubai she was invited to Royal Ascot, she ran well in the July Cup, and she won the Group 2 on the way to winning the Nunthorpe.

“It was unbelievable to be a part of that journey.”

There are currently two grand-daughters of Ortensia in training at Scone and the most attention in 2024 will be on Genzano, who rose from a maiden win to claim the Group 3 Spring Stakes on Newcastle’s Hunter program in the space of a month last spring.

Gavranich said it was a special moment to win her first Group race as a co-trainer with a descendant of Ortensia. And in an added touch the filly was wearing her grandmother’s head collar in that success.

With that win under her belt the bar will have to be raised when she returns for her next campaign.

“She always showed a lot of ability and we thought she’d be a nice miler plus,’’ she said.

“Although you hope a grand-daughter or daughter of Ortensia would go on to be a stakes horse we thought it wouldn’t be so early in her career.

Genzano winning the Spring Stakes at Newcastle (Pic: Steve Hart)

“If she comes along quite quickly maybe we’ll look at a race like the Vinery. Now you’ve won a Group 3 you’re in the big league so she has to take another step but it’s well within her scope.”

Gavranich says she gets so much satisfaction out of seeing a horse progress from the education stage to winning races, no matter what level that win is.

If you’d have told her when she started out as a trackwork rider she’d end up in the racing mecca that is the NSW Hunter Valley, responsible for a valuable group of horses, she says it probably wouldn’t have surprised her.

Perhaps the setting might be a surprise, but definitely not the level of responsibility and respect she’s earned over the years.

“I always had good drive, in terms of work ethic. Growing up in the country you’d work sun-up to sundown without batting an eyelid,’’ Gavranich said.

“If you’re passionate about something in life, no matter what it is, you always succeed. You have that natural drive where you might do a bit more because you’re passionate.

“Success always comes to those who are passionate about what they do. You get out what you put in.

“It’s not a job, I say all the time I love my job. I don’t feel like I’ve worked a day in my life.”

– *This article originally appeared in the February 2024 edition of the Racing NSW magazine

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