Following in their father's footsteps in the harness
racing industry came naturally for the Williamson boys. Sally
Rae speaks to the family about working together and staying
Phil Williamson never pushed his sons into the harness racing
As far as the highly successful North Otago trainer was
concerned, they had to want to do it. But one by one, they
started coming into the stable - first Nathan (now 24), then
Matthew (22) and finally Brad (18) - as each decided they
shared the passion.
''They've all basically got the disease without being asked
to do it. I didn't force them into it. I wanted them to have
the passion themselves.
''Racing's not a game of lucrative amounts of money. [It's] a
game you have to want to do it for the love of it. If you can
get a living out of it, you've done well. It's a way of life
that we enjoy,'' Mr Williamson said.
Phil Williamson has enjoyed considerable success as a trainer
since making the major decision to give up the security of a
guaranteed income at the local tannery to follow his passion.
The family stable has won some major races over the years
with horses such as Role Model, Let's Get Serious, One Over
Kenny, Allegro Agitato, Leighton Hest and Springbank Richard.
Now he and his wife Bev, who is an integral part of the
operation, are also enjoying seeing their sons' succeed in
the racing world.
''We're chuffed, there's no doubt about that. They've made
not just a small impression but a big impression,'' he said.
The down-to-earth, engaging and hard-working Williamson
family operate a busy stable from their property at Totara,
just south of Oamaru.
Nathan Williamson is now based in Southland, where he trains
on his own account, while Matthew and Brad work at the Totara
stable when not away driving at races. Their sister Jasmyn
(20) is studying at Lincoln University.
Matthew, who left school at the end of year 11 at Waitaki
Boys' High School to start working for his father,
acknowledged the siblings had been ''so lucky'' to have grown
up in a racing family.
''Dad's just come in out of nowhere, got into it, got where
he is. We've got successful already because [we] came with a
start. Dad had to make his own,'' he said.
Phil Williamson grew up at Kaka Point, in South Otago, and
was not from a horsey background. But next-door to Port
Molyneux School lived a trainer called Len Tilson, who had a
horse called Stella Frost who won the 1969 New Zealand Cup
later disqualified for causing interference to another
horse). The impressionable young Phil thought it looked
He started to listen to races on the radio - ''I used to
listen to two things, the All Blacks playing and horse
racing'' - and while he knew nothing about racing, he became
''infatuated'' with it.
After a couple of years of ''eating my lunch'' at South Otago
High School, he was preparing to head back for his third
secondary school year.
He was approached to see if he wanted to be a jockey.
''I said, anything that stops me going back to school sounds
good to me''.
However, weight proved an issue and while he rode one winner,
Frosty Light at Invercargill, he decided to ''flag it'' and
get into harness racing.
He had his introduction to harness racing working for Alister
Kerslake at Highbank near Methven, later moving to Oamaru to
work for Dick Prendergast.
He did about a 20-year stint at the tannery, pottering around
with horses in his spare time, until he made the big decision
to quit work and train full-time.
''I thought if I was ever going to have a crack at training,
I'd better to it now.'It was a ''big call'' - the children
were young and while the work was ''not pleasant'' at the
tannery, he had worked his way up to foreman and was making
good money. But harness racing was his passion and, with the
support and encouragement from his wife, whose family were
involved in horses, they decided to ''have a crack''.
He acknowledged now it was the best thing he had ever done,
starting with one horse and building up from there.
The Williamson children learned to ride on ponies borrowed
from North Otago Riding for the Disabled in the school
They then ''pestered'' their father to let them try harness
racing and, after getting approval from RDA, Mr Williamson
did so. They then ''raced'' the borrowed ponies on the track
and ''loved it'', he recalled.
As far as harness racing went, Matthew Williamson said he was
''not really that keen'' when he was younger, but his
interest grew as he got older.
Seeing Nathan get involved and his father having ''a
fantastic bit of success'' winning races probably helped.
''You see people winning, you want to be a part of it,'' he
He was not keen on school and horses became ''number one'',
so he left school to join the stable. In the early days,
Nathan and his father would both head away to race meetings
and he would be at home ''chipping away''.
But his goal was always to drive horses and win races. After
driving at work-outs and trials, his first race was a Kurow
meeting at the Oamaru racecourse when he was 18.
He had seven or eight drives that day and he recalled how
''nerve-racking'' it was.
''I'd been waiting on it for a fair while. It's a whole
different ball game, race day, to playing around at the
trials. It takes a lot to get used to,'' he said. Several
weeks later Matthew registered his first win, with a horse
trained by his father, winning by a nose. Things had ''just
spiralled'' over the years. He was getting more drives and
''things have really taken off'', although he admitted he
still had a lot to learn.
Matthew said this season was shaping up as his best yet and
winning the junior drivers' premiership was his main aim.
His first group one win came in May 2009, when he drove
Leighton Hest to victory in Ashburton in a $100,000 race,
which was ''bloody good''.
There was ''definitely'' rivalry among the three Williamson
brothers, and also with their father. They all liked winning
- and not only at the races.
And while he loved beating them, Matthew said: ''anytime I'm
not winning, they are the person you want to see winning''.
''If it's ever head-to-head, you love to beat them.''
Asked what made a good driver, he said being sharp and, like
any sport, ''practice makes perfect''. He had learned a lot
from his father especially.
Overall, Matthew believed the family operation worked well.
''It does all work. Like all families, you have your times.
Working together, you see a lot of each other.
''It's just one of those things that's happened. All the boys
haven't had any desire for anything else.''
And his father was a good boss, who had given his sons drives
''We've made mistakes and he's forgiven us. Luckily enough,
we've got better.''
He had ''absolutely not one'' regret about joining the family
business and his aim for the future was to ''just keep
There was a lot of good people involved in the industry -
''you wouldn't get better people to celebrate wins with'' -
and a lot of young people involved.
For Brad, the youngest Williamson, the goal was similar -
''just pressing on, just trying to get winners''.
Phil Williamson reckoned his sons probably treated him ''like
a big brother''. He was proud of how they had branched out
and made their own names for themselves, stepping out from
their parents' shadow.
Having been brought up around horses ''from day dot'' they
were ''pretty naturally gifted'' and he had always had faith
He was also very proud of daughter Jasmyn, who helped with
the horses when she was home from university and shared the
family's love of racing. The well-performed Jasmyn's Gift was
named after her.
Asked the secret to the stable's success, the affable - and
modest - Mr Williamson said he had been fortunate to strike
some very good horses, including some ''superstar'' ones, and
he paid tribute to the ''wonderful bunch'' of owners.
Added to that was ''probably a good work ethic and a pretty
good understanding of the requirements of the training
''We've worked hard - it doesn't just happen.''
As to his own future, he said he would ''just keep doing what
I do until the day they roll me into the hole''.
''If the boys end up taking over the training side of it,
that would be great. I would willingly step down, have the
boys take the reins.''