The Fernie name has been synonymous with Goldfields racing for the best part of six decades and, when you think of WA’s best country trainers, Peter Fernie rates at the top of a highly-regarded list.
The third-generation trainer and Kalgoorlie born-and-bred 53 year old has prepared more than 650 winners since taking out his training licence in 1998 and hit the ground running at the opening meeting of the Kalgoorlie season last Saturday when saddling-up four of the six winners on the card.
Fernie, the son of the late John R. and grandson of Robert Fernie, grew up following his father around the stables and was only nine years old when John’s former Hannans Handicap winner, Cambana Lad, won the 1974 Group 1 Railway Stakes at Ascot.
John had transferred the grey galloper to the care of Perth trainer and good mate, Frank Dixie, after producing the gelding to win the 1972 Hannans Handicap from his Kalgoorlie stable, Cambana Lodge, where his son has based himself for the past 20 years.
“Dad and his brother used to train out of here together,” Fernie said.
“They’d usually have about 10 or 12 horses.
“He trained Cambana Lad for Bill Murphy, who used to own the Palace Hotel and actually owned the stables where we train from now, then Dad bought them off him.
“It wasn’t named after Cambana Lad, it was named after another horse a few years before that, called Cambana, which went quite good.”
After finishing his schooling, Fernie completed a mechanical apprenticeship before following the common town trait into the mining industry.
He worked as an underground driller for 10 years and tried to juggle his workload while messing around with a few horses, however, the long hours and gruelling lifestyle soon took its toll.
“I was training when I was mining for a bit, because Dad passed away and I was still doing it, but it was too hard,” he said.
“They changed the shift-work to 12-hour shifts, so it was hard to do that and the horses.
“I bought a commercial cleaning business because I needed something to do.
“I still do a little bit of it, but not a lot.”
Fernie has since developed his racing business into a full-time profession, with his stable consisting of 30 horses in work at any given time during the Kalgoorlie season and, clearly, his results speak for themselves.
Aside from his year-in, year-out leading trainer awards and hometown feature race success, which includes multiple Kalgoorlie Cup and Hannans Handicap victories, Fernie has trained 86 winners over the past 12 months alone, returning an incredible 22 per cent winning strike rate.
He trained the third-most overall winners of any trainer in the state last season and currently sits fourth on the same premiership table this season, just half-a-win from third position.
Asked how he built his stable into such a powerhouse operation, a modest and humble Fernie deflects his praise from himself.
“I just think it’s a weaker grade, really, and I get great support from all the Perth trainers that send me horses,” he said.
“I don’t think I could do it without the support I get off all of them.
“It just evolved over time.
“You get more and more horses, breed more, get more horses sent to you and then you’ve got to do something with them.
“It’s a very hard game but, if you look after people, they look after you in return.”
Fernie has not only had a strangle hold on the local Kalgoorlie and Esperance racing scene for many years but also extended his success to the city ranks recently when celebrating a metropolitan winning double with his only two runners, Little Fish and Pym’s Royale, at Ascot on March 9.
Little Fish, a home-bred Patronize four-year-old, is quickly building an imposing record after producing six wins and three minor placings form his nine starts to date.
Pym’s Royale, a former cast-off galloper who Fernie elected to lease at the start of last year, has won seven of his 11 starts for the Cambana Lodge camp, including two at city level.
“It’s a bit of a shock, we’re not used to it,” Fernie said.
“Usually we go there and get our arses kicked, so it’s a bit different going there and having a couple of decent ones.
“We try to go to the sales every year to buy one or two now, which we never used to do.
“We never had any young horses because all we were doing is buying tried horses, but we’re actually going to the sales and getting a couple now.
“If they’re any good, they go to Perth, and if they’re not, they come back here.”
In a sentimental twist, Fernie and his long-time loyal owner and best mate, Andrew Inglis, raced Little Fish’s dam, Red Fish Blue Fish, a decade ago.
The Blackfriars mare won 11 of her 30 starts, as well as placing on a further 12 occasions, and a chance moment led to the pair re-acquiring her in 2013.
“We raced her on lease and then gave her back when she retired,” he said.
“We noticed her in a sale and she only got sold for $200 so I rang Eddie Rigg and he was in Hong Kong and said they couldn’t get her in foal so she must be going to the knackery.
“I said, ‘no, she can’t be going there’, and we bought her.
“We have the whole family now, four of them.”
Little Fish, the first of Red Fish Blue Fish’s offspring to race after her previous two foals died shortly after birth, is the older brother to Fishy, a Gingerbread Man three year old, as well as an All American yearling colt and Vert De Grece weanling filly.
Despite finishing third at Ascot last Saturday, the talented sprinter produced arguably a career-best performance when rattling home from 11th position at the turn to finish third to Special Reward in an extremely fast-ran affair.
“He’s pretty special, isn’t he?” Fernie said.
“They ran 1.09 and he was the only one making up ground.
“If you watch him, he still doesn’t even know what he’s doing.
“He didn’t show anything early days, he was shocking.
“Dion Luciani said to get rid of him and, even now if you work him by himself, you’d think he was no good.
“But he’s got a motor.”
Asked if he’d ever consider relocating to the city if he acquired more horses of the same ilk as Little Fish and Pym’s Royale, Fernie says it is unlikely.
His 23-year-old son Luke, however, may open a satellite stable at Ascot in the near future.
“Anything is possible, but at the moment I’m happy where I am,” Fernie said.
“Luke’s most probably going to move to Perth, but he’d probably only have two or three in work.
“The ones that show a bit could go there, but it wouldn’t be many.
“He’s come a long way, a couple years ago he wasn’t that interested but now he’s really interested.
“It’s hard for him because he’s still working full-time, too.”
While Fernie was at Ascot for Little Fish and Pym’s Royale’s races on Saturday, Luke was in charge of the stable’s 11 runners back home at Kalgoorlie.
Of their four winners, however, the victory of Wocknwoll meant more to the family than usual.
The Hala Bek mare took out the Bronte Stewart Memorial Handicap (1100m), named in honour of a prominent local racing identity and Fernie and Inglis’s close friend who lost his battle to cancer 13 months ago.
“Winning that race two years in a row is pretty special,” Fernie said.
“Andrew and I winning it together makes it even more special.”
Fernie and Inglis picked up where they left off on Saturday after causing a boilover in last year’s $130,000 Listed Kalgoorlie Cup (2300m) with $21 outsider, Inject The Venom.
Not usually to reflect on his achievements, Fernie rates the moment as one of his best career highlights.
“I just enjoy winning races and seeing the look on the owner’s faces,” he said.
“But Inject The Venom was most probably the best because Andrew has been such a big supporter.
“I had a lot of support from the people who were in Black George when I was starting off, too, and he won a Hannans.
“A few local blokes bought him, so that win meant a fair bit to us.”
When asked about the training philosophy that has delivered the him continued success throughout his career, the highly-astute horseman says he likes to keep things simple.
“I just try to keep them happy, mate,” he said.
“If they’re a happy horse they’ll put in for you but, if they’re not, I think you’re struggling.
“If you start trying to win races it’s when the pressure starts coming right on you and you also don’t want to push the horses to do it.
“I think you’ve got to be mindful that they’re not machines.”
As the Kalgoorlie racing scene heats up ahead of their seven-month season, one thing can be rest assured; the Fernie stable will rarely be far from the winner’s stall.
After producing a record 61 winners at the historic track last season and enjoying a blistering start to this year, it’s safe to say the Cambana Lodge dominance is set to continue.
“I enjoy it and I really like the animals so I couldn’t see myself giving up in the near future,” Fernie said.
“I don’t know if I’ll always have as many, but I can’t see myself handing it up.”