Unassuming. That is the word which comes to mind when you meet Leon Macdonald.
Never mind that he’s one of the State’s most successful horse trainers, inducted into the Australian and South Australian Halls of Fame in 2014 and named local trainer of the year in 2016/17.
With a career spanning more than four decades and a raft of Group One winners to his name, the 75-year-old has good reason to be proud of his achievements in the cut-throat world of thoroughbred racing.
Almost reluctantly he admits that being inducted into the Australian Hall of Fame was a “pretty big honour” and he is quick to give praise to the “wonderful horses” he has trained.
Perhaps his modesty comes from the challenges he faced in the early years when his ambitions brought him into conflict with his parents who were grieving over the loss of their 21-year-old son (Macdonald’s brother) in a road accident.
Or perhaps it’s the tough love he experienced growing up, firstly in Port Augusta where he was often in trouble with the nuns at the local Josephite school and then at Sacred Heart College where he boarded for three years.
Ironically, his first contact with horses came from his father who was a hobby trainer. Young Leon would help clean the stables and do other odd jobs until he left for boarding school at the age of 14. His passion for the races grew at Sacred Heart where he had plenty of partners in crime.
“I sat next to Michael Webster, who later became a bookie…all the boarders used to watch films every Saturday night but Michael and I used to stand out the back and when everyone had gone in, we’d jump the fence onto Brighton Road and go to Wayville to the trots,” he recalls.
“We got caught once or twice and got into trouble…six of the best…but it didn’t stop us from going again.”
Similarly, on free weekends he and his mates would find an excuse to leave the school premises and go to the Morphettville Racecourse. It wasn’t just the students who liked to punt either. Macdonald says one of the brothers who took the boarders for study hour used to call him up to the front. “I thought I must be in trouble but on his desk would be the Wednesday form guide and he would ask me what I thought,” he says.
After leaving school, Leon told his father he wanted to stay in Adelaide and be a strapper for his uncle, Ab Macdonald, who had stables in Moore Street, Somerton, but “that didn’t go down well”.
“You haven’t had an education to do that’,” he remembers his father saying.
Macdonald spent the next four years at the Commonwealth Railways in Port Augusta but longed to get back to the “big smoke”.
He returned to Adelaide with his family and lived in Bray Street, not far from the Morphettville stables owned by his other uncle, George Macdonald, and which he now owns.
Macdonald was working full-time at ETSA but George insisted he obtain his trainer’s licence and offered to look after his horses for him during work hours.
When he was in his early thirties, Macdonald “got up the courage” to quit his job and take on full-time training.
Even then, his parents were “never fine with it”, he says.
“They thought I was mad. I became closer to George, that didn’t help the situation one little bit.”
Macdonald’s mother was of Irish Catholic heritage and he says he “never ever truly understood her” until he read Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes.
“The whole family was such a typical Irish family. The daughters all had to go to their mum’s place every day after lunch, and the one that didn’t go, well they all talked about her.”
Macdonald’s own memories of his Catholic upbringing include going to “early Mass” at 7.30am every Sunday. “Only the no-hopers went to the later one,” he quips.
In 1967 he married Brighton girl Pam Levett in the Sacred Heart Chapel.
“There was a great, great drama because she wasn’t Catholic,” he says.
“It was terrible in those days – I had a mate in Port Augusta who was Methodist and I was supposed to be his best man and I wasn’t even allowed in the Church.”
Macdonald says his faith has wavered in recent years but he still has Christian beliefs and values.
“Whether you go to Mass every Sunday or not is one thing but you never lose the values,” he says.
He is extremely grateful to Pam for her support over the years, particularly during the tough times when he first took up full-time training. With two young daughters who had just started school and “three or four slow horses” to train, he says it was a big risk to take.
“It was terrible…there were times when it was hard to pay the bills.”
His first big break came in 1985 when French Cotton won the Group One Derby.
“That was probably the turning point, it gave me a kick-a-long. I mean it was a $100,000 race and I was used to maybe races worth $8000 to $10,000.
He also says he has been fortunate to have loyal owners such as Noel Neitz and Ron Lehmann and he has had “enormous success” over many years with Harry Perks.
His 17-year partnership with jockey Clare Lindop is one he is clearly proud of.
“It’s been a great partnership – when Jason Holder (Macdonald’s apprentice) left for overseas I needed a jockey and I liked Clare’s work ethic so that’s how it happened.”
“She won a Victorian Derby on Rebel Raider (pictured on front page) and a Magic Millions two-year-old on Augusta Proud – they’re her two biggest winners but she’s won three premierships since she’s been with me.”
Both daughters, Christine and Sue, have been involved in the stable and Sue’s husband, Andrew Gluyas, who began working for him when he was 15, is now his partner. Christine’s husband, Terry McAuliffe, is a well-known racing and sports commentator.
Success continues to flow with 49 wins in 2016/17 earning him the prestigious C S Hayes award for SA Trainer of the Year, and just last month the stable’s Pretty Punk won the Hobart Cup. Macdonald, who is grandfather to six boys, says he has no intention of retiring.
“I’d have to say that I’ve still got the fire for it, but having Andrew there enables me to keep going,” he says, adding in his own matter-of-fact way “you’ve got to do something”.
- The annual racing Mass will be held at St John the Baptist Church, Plympton, at 10am on Sunday March 11.
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