In the box seat: Kerryn Manning, 39, harness racing driver-trainer
In this story
My family moved to Great Western [in Victoria] just after I was born, so I grew up around horses. It was love at first sight and I did pony club and then, when I was 12, learnt to drive in the cart. As I got older I got more confident and at 16 I got my trial licence. After you do 20-odd trials and pass each one satisfactorily – get round the track okay and don’t run anyone down – you can apply to get a licence to drive in proper races.
Dad [Peter] trained 20 or so horses and I basically begged to leave school after year 10 to go work for him as a stablehand. I started to drive most of our stable horses at the races from when I was 16-and-a-half. When I was 21 we had a trotter, Knight Pistol, who was invited to race overseas, which back then was rare. I managed to win a big race in Norway, which was an experience. At that stage not a hell of a lot of women were racing overseas.
It’s a lot more common now for women to be drivers or trainers. I don’t find we have the same struggle [that exists in gallops]. Michelle Payne – good on her to win the Melbourne Cup; she’s obviously put the hard yards in. Only once or twice in the time I’ve been in harness racing have I heard a rude comment, so I don’t feel there’s any sexism.
I have two sisters and a brother. My eldest sister, Donna, she drove in races and then married a harness racing fella and farrier. She trains a couple of horses now, more as a hobby. My brother, Ashley, was never interested in horses. He likes motorbikes and thinks we’re all mad. And Michelle, my other sister, worked with Dad for a little while, and now she trains about 15 horses.
At the moment I train about 15 horses, too, although there have been as many as 30 in the past. But it’s a very unforgiving job – it’s 24/7 – and as you get older you realise life is not all about horses.
I hate mornings. There are a lot of late finishes with night racing and often I don’t get to bed after trots until 2 o’clock. The day starts for me working horses about 8.30, so we’re a lot different to the gallops and there are no really early mornings. And I can eat what I like, too.
I got my trainer’s licence in about 2003. I mainly drive the horses I train but I still drive a lot for Dad and sometimes for Michelle. It gives more pleasure to drive a horse to win that you train, obviously. But any winner is a good winner to drive. My husband, Grant [Campbell], also trains and drives. But now he’s started a job with IRT flying horses around the world, so he’s away a fair bit.
In 2005 I got the world record for the number of wins by a woman harness racing driver – 2132 wins – which was previously held by a German driver. Now I’m at almost 3600 wins.
There’s a sign at each end of Great Western, “Home of myself, world-record holder.” It seems weird because I have to drive past it all the time, but nobody’s knocked it down, which is good. I’ve been very lucky in my career to drive a lot of good horses and achieve a lot of things. All those achievements sink in more as you get older.
I’ve had a few bad falls but nothing too serious. My worst one was a dislocated shoulder that put me out of action for three months. I’ve also done a few ribs, and I broke my nose about a year ago in Melton when the horse went down on the first turn and I landed on my face. At least nothing ran over me – that’s usually the worst part. The broken nose didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would, but there was a bit of blood. Fortunately, there are a lot less falls in the sport these days.
I won the [$750,000] New Zealand Trotting Cup last November, and was the first female to do that. It was about a week after the Melbourne Cup and, in the trotting world, it was a similar feat to Michelle’s. I was driving a horse I train, Arden Rooney, and we also won the 2015 Hunter Cup, the richest race in Australia, at Melton. It’s a thrill to train such a nice horse.
I shy away from publicity a little bit, but it’s amazing the amount of people in harness racing who were… not angry… but disappointed with the difference in the coverage Michelle got compared to what I did. It didn’t bother me ’cause I’m happy to win and go along quietly. But a lot of people thought it should have had a lot more said about it. Look, it made the national news, so I thought that was pretty good; that doesn’t happen too often.
Unfortunately, harness racing is a lot more about keeping the punter happy these days. Harold Park races moved to Menangle and Moonee Valley moved to Melton, so crowds are not great now. It’s sad to see. Occasionally there’s a good crowd at a meeting, which is exciting, but it doesn’t happen too often.
Some weeks are very rewarding and some weeks can be very unrewarding – just like any job. But I enjoy training my horses and if I can just keep winning now and then, I’m happy with that. More than likely I’ll still be out there when I’m 70.
• AFL: Collingwood v Carlton
Saturday, 1.45pm (AEST), Melbourne Cricket Ground
• NRL: St George Illawarra Dragons v Canberra Raiders
Thursday, 7.50pm (AEST), Jubilee Oval, Sydney
• Super Rugby: Sunwolves v Western Force
Saturday, 3.15pm (AEST), Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo
• Netball: Queensland Firebirds v Northern Mystics
Saturday, 5pm (AEST), Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre
• Motorsport: V8 Supercars – Perth SuperSprint
Saturday and Sunday afternoons, Barbagallo Raceway, Perth
• Basketball: Opals v Japan
Saturday, 8pm (AEST), Nagaoka Athletic Stadium, Japan
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2016 as "In the box seat". Subscribe here.