It’s been the perfect brew!
For many years, hotelier Graham Payne has happily mixed pulling beers with training racehorses.
But the horses have won out.
Currently mine host at Stuarts Point Tavern in the Macleay Valley seaside resort just north of Kempsey, Cessnock-born Payne says his days behind the bar are coming to an end.
“This is my 12th and last pub,” he told NSW Country & Picnic Racing.
“I’ve had an interested buyer and the sale has been finalised today. That will be it for pub life.
“I’m 64, and it’s time to take a step back for more family time as we have eight grandkids.”
And to focus more on his beloved horses as well.
Payne has made an art form out of buying “Mexicans” (aka Victorian horses) and winning with them.
When we chatted, he had eight horses in work at his Coffs Harbour base on course (around a 50-minute drive six mornings a week) and, you guessed it, all from south of the border.
His latest success was with lightly-raced Written Tycoon four-year-old Imprinted, who broke through at Kempsey last Monday when having his first start for his new trainer.
On the same day, Payne was at Newcastle where his Country Championships heat winner Baileys ran an excellent second to Akasawa in a Benchmark 74 Handicap (1350m) on the Beaumont track.
Previously trained at Cranbourne by former jockey Adam McCabe, Imprinted had been placed at that track and Pakenham from his first six starts.
“I bought him for $30,000 and syndicated him amongst friends,” Payne said.
“If you can get a horse which finishes within a few lengths of the winner at a Victorian provincial meeting and obviously is sound, they are always going to pay their way in country NSW.
“Group 1 winning Cranbourne trainer Greg Eurell offered $50,000 for Imprinted the day after we secured the deal to buy him.
“When we bought Imprinted, we knew he had to be gelded and we did that. Then he had an accident, so it has taken some time to get him to the track.”
Payne owes much of his success with “Mexicans” to Melbourne contact Darren Freyer, who specialises in sourcing tried horses.
“Darren has done a terrific job securing horses for me,” he said. “He knows exactly what I am looking for.”
Racehorses have long been a great passion for Payne. As a seven-year-old he helped out the late John Wilkinson at his Cessnock stables and then as a teenager rode five or six horses exercise each morning through the bush for now retired trainer Robert “Pud” Davies.
Yet it was a heart attack in 2008 whilst he was running a pub at Cudal (near Orange) which convinced him to rekindle his passion.
“It was pretty serious,” he said. “I had five stents put in initially, then started to get angina again and went back to see my cardiologist.
“I finished up spending 14 weeks in hospital, and was flown from Orange to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney.
“I remember Dr Mark Adams, who saved my life, saying when I left hospital that “two out of five don’t make it”.
Payne subsequently picked up an infection, and another trip to Sydney eventuated, where he had three bypasses at Strathfield Private Hospital.
“My aorta exploded when I was on the operating table,” he said. “It was touch and go, but thankfully I pulled through.”
Understandably, those issues changed Payne’s thinking. When he began to recover, he and his wife moved back to the Hunter (settling at Muswellbrook) and decided it was time to get serious about his health.
Not surprisingly, he went back to his “first love”, realising the exercise surrounding training his horses would be of great benefit.
After racing a couple of “slow ones”, Payne called on his old mate Freyer – who got him a $27,000 package deal to buy two horses, Kinetics and Secret Encounter.
“Secret Encounter won first-up for us at Muswellbrook in January, 2011 (when Jeremy Sylvester trained him), and then first-up again at same track at $26 a couple of months later when I started training again,” he said.
“Kinetics went under narrowly at $26 at his first run for us also at Muswellbrook (beaten by now retired Australia’s winningest jockey Robert Thompson, AM).
“He turned out to be a wonderful horse, winning the $50,000 Muswellbrook Cup at $17 in 2011 and a number of other good races around the bush.”
Payne was a talented and versatile sportsman in his younger days. At 16, he was the youngest to play first grade soccer for Weston, slotting 14 goals in seven games.
He played rugby league for Cessnock, winning the comp in 1977, and also won the 1981 comp when captain-coach of Greta.
Payne eventually achieved his ambition to play first grade soccer with Cessnock, and also was pretty handy with a cricket ball, opening the bowling for his home town team as a 16-year-old.
He was a pretty dab hand with his fists as well.
“I made the final of the NSW Golden Gloves in 1975, and lost to Phil McElwaine (who three years later boxed his way to a middleweight gold medal at the Edmonton (Canada) Commonwealth Games) on a split points decision.”
For all his sporting accomplishments, to say nothing of “dancing with the devil and beating him” (a reference to his health issues), Payne looks back on his 2018 Jungle Juice Cup victory at Cessnock with Kentucky Flyer (yes another Mexican) with tremendous pride.
“It was like my Melbourne Cup being my hometown race and I had been trying to win it many times,” he said.
“Kentucky Flyer was my fifth consecutive runner, and I bought him in partnership with good friends, Newcastle bloodstock agent Darrell Kidd and Sky racecaller Anthony Manton, only a few weeks earlier for $18,000 (Jungle Juice first prize was $16,740) on Darren Freyer’s advice.
“It was a terrific thrill to win the Jungle Juice Cup after years of trying. I was very emotional and could hardly talk when interviewed on Sky afterwards.”
Then based at the Criterion Hotel (one of only two pubs in the small Southern Tablelands town of Crookwell), there’s no doubt the beer flowed freely upon his return, especially as Kentucky Flyer was backed from $15 to start $4 favorite.
And whilst the beer won’t flow freely much longer at a Payne establishment, you can bet he will be doing his best to ensure the winners do!