Veteran trainer Steve Wolfe unearthed his latest stakes-winning galloper at Ascot last Saturday when his top three-year-old, Red Can Man, upstaged more fancied rivals to win the $100,000 Listed Fairetha Stakes.
The Gingerbread Man gelding, a winner at three of seven career starts to date, has now stormed into calculations for the $500,000 Group 2 WA Guineas at Ascot on November 23 for a popular self-taught horseman whose fascinating career has spanned more than 35 years.
Widely respected among his peers for his often-outspoken advocacy for the future of the racing industry in his public interviews, Wolfe is one of WA racing’s most polarising characters and is the state’s only trainer to occupy full-time operations in both metropolitan and provincial areas.
Now 71, he has turned out multiple class thoroughbreds from both his Albany and Ascot stables over the past few decades, however, his story is also one that has been marred by personal tragedy along the way.
“I was born in Gnowangerup and spent about four years of my life there,” Wolfe said.
“Then I went to Quairading and I was there until I was about 10 or 11 before moving Frankland River.
“My old man used to work in the farming community and then he got a war service farm at a place just out of Frankland River.”
Growing up, Wolfe’s only family connection to racing was through his uncle’s ownership interests in racehorses at Mount Barker.
A similar attempt years later resulted in Wolfe’s official introduction to the sport, however, at that stage he would never have predicted that it would be the industry he would forge a prolonged career in down the track.
“I got involved in racing in Frankland when I was about 21,” Wolfe said.
“A mate and I bought a horse off of Mick Sheehy and that was our first venture into the industry.
“It wasn’t very successful.
“Norm Franks trained it originally and we gave it to Eric Hansen, who was a good bush trainer, and he never won a race with it but ran a couple of places.”
Wolfe’s next foray into the world of racing would come after a search for employment led him to farms in the central wheatbelt region.
Cashed up after completing successful stints in Kalannie and Koorda, he decided to try his luck again.
“I finished up shear-farming for a bloke called Bob Melbourne and, the first year we put some crop in, we had a good season,” Wolfe said.
“I came to Albany and thought I was a millionaire.
“I didn’t come from here, but between a mate and myself, we set up a stable in Albany with Gary Mann, who is now deceased.
“We rounded up about a dozen horses and, unfortunately, there was only one bloke with any money and that was me.
“None of us had any brains and, by the end of the season, we hadn’t won a race.
“I went from being quite a wealthy young chap after having a really good wheat season, to having nothing and finishing up with only two horses.”
With his tail between his legs, Wolfe went back to shearing and later followed his wife at the time, who was the daughter of prominent trainer Kevin Smith, to the remote town of Pingrup.
Asked if he ever worked at a racing stable between then and now, the dominant Great Southern and highly-successful city trainer’s answer is extraordinary.
“No, I’ve never worked at a stable at all,” Wolfe said.
“I had a fair bit to do with Phil Colombera as a friend, but everything I learnt was learning off myself or listening or watching people.
“Phil used to work for some good trainers like Johnny Davis and Des Crowe and, early doors, I spent some time with him.
“I was virtually self-taught all of the way through.
“My first wife actually had her licence before I did for about six or seven years and then, when the numbers started getting a bit bigger, she bailed out and said, ‘you better take over’.”
Despite having built up reasonable stable numbers and starting to gain some momentum on the track once he officially took over the operation from his wife, Wolfe resisted the temptation of turning his training pursuit into a full-time occupation.
He says witnessing the mistakes of others had made him reluctant.
“I kept shearing probably longer than I needed to, but I always said that I’d never give up shearing until I knew I didn’t have to go back,” Wolfe said.
“I’d seen a lot of people in the industry fly in for two or three years with a couple of handy horses, which we had pretty early.
“We bought a horse called Our Old Selection from over east and he won 13 races for us and was still winning races at 11.
“He held the state record for about 20 years.
“Then we just kept getting a bit bigger and bigger and getting more people into it.
“I wanted to make sure I was on the right road before I gave the shearing away.”
At the time, Wolfe and his wife and children were still primarily based in Pingrup while Wolfe continued his shear-farming, however, each summer holiday the family relocated to Albany for its annual racing season.
A few years later, the breakdown of Wolfe’s marriage resulted in him moving to Perth and taking the plunge into horse training full-time.
“I went through a few hard times after that, a lot of hard times,” Wolfe said.
“I got to Perth and only had about five horses in work and couldn’t afford much at all.
“As I got going, we had a bit of luck.
“We had Go The Grey, who was a good horse, and we also won a Bunbury Cup and a Pinjarra Cup with King Brian.
“We were renting the stables at Leake Street and Whiteman Park and all over the place.”
Wolfe and his new partner, Maureen Keay, had hopes of purchasing a horse property in the city but were unsure if they had the finances to do so.
They later found a way to buy a house and stable on Matheson Road in Ascot, the hub of thoroughbred racing in Perth, as well as still occupying a rural property in Albany that Wolfe had acquired years earlier.
“The Albany property has been here for probably 35 years,” Wolfe said.
“We’ve got a 100-metre national swimming pool, an 8-horse walker, two treadmills and we’re a five-minute walk from the beach.
“It’s pretty good now.”
Whilst Wolfe has enjoyed sustained success preparing top-class gallopers of the ilk of King Brian, Go The Grey, Mapperholic, Moodometer, Wolfe Dreams and Mr Utopia over the years, he’s also had to overcome the gut-wrenching devastation of losing two of his closest counterparts in tragic circumstances in that time.
Jason Oliver, Wolfe’s good friend and one of his main jockeys, was killed during a barrier trial at Belmont in 2002 after a horrific fall aboard Savage Cabbage, a two-year-old colt trained by Wolfe.
The galloper broke a foreleg in running before landing on top of Oliver, leaving the hoop with critical head injuries.
In the months following the life-changing incident, Wolfe was charged by racing stewards for presenting Savage Cabbage to trial with a prohibited substance in his system after tests detected the common anti-inflammatory drug, phenylbutazone.
Despite aggressively appealing the severity of the charges, Wolfe subsequently had his trainers’ licence suspended for 12 months, adding to the personal trauma he was already experiencing.
“Jason was a bit like a Shaun McGruddy to me,” Wolfe said.
“He was like a son.
“For that to happen was horrific, and it was on one of my horses, obviously.
“I used to go and stay with Jason when I went to Melbourne and was very close with him.
“It all took its toll on me, with the court proceedings and that.”
Less than seven years later and still grieving from the loss of Oliver, Wolfe’s life took another turn for the worst after his son, Chris, died unexpectedly.
In a harrowing accident, the 32-year-old passed out at the home of a mate following a heavy drinking session at the Premier Hotel in Albany and was found unresponsive the following morning.
“You learn to be resilient by those things,” Wolfe said.
“Sometimes you think you’re a bit unlucky because you’ve had all of these tragedies, but there’s always a lot more people out there who have had a lot more tragedies than me.
“I’m not a religious person, but the day after we buried Chris, we had Goldtown race at Belmont at 50-to-one and he won.
“Those are the things that sometimes make me think that maybe there is a God up there.
“You just can’t believe that those things happen.
“You can’t plan these things but sometimes someone plans it for you.”
Whilst dealing with the loss of a child is a heavy burden in itself, Wolfe’s pain was deepened further by the fact that his son’s potential in the racing industry was never able to be realised.
Asked how much of an impact the loss has had on him, Wolfe says it’s something he’ll never get over.
“Massive, mate,” he said.
“Chris lived for the horses and started riding the racehorses when he was about 10.
“At the time that he passed away, it was just so sad because we were just on the brink of being really established where we had the ammo to buy the right horses and set up two stables properly.
“The fact was that he was ready to just about take over and he could’ve taken over at any stage.
“He was a great backstop, even when he was away working on the mines, he’d come home for a week and would walk in like nothing had happened.
“It was very traumatic and I had a lot of good people help me through it and the staff, who I’ve still got, were wonderful.”
Wolfe’s main supporter throughout the tribulations encountered in his life has been his long-term partner, Maureen Keay, and whilst the couple have encountered their own battles at times, he says her strength has been invaluable.
“Maureen has been there through thick and thin,” Wolfe said.
“We all need a backstop and go through ups and downs, and we’ve had our personal ups and downs, which I’ve caused and there’s no qualms about who has caused the problems.
“But we got back together and I’ve been very fortunate in that way and she’s stuck by me.
“Through the hard times early when I had no ammo at all and couldn’t afford to put down a deposit and bond to rent a house, she assisted me with that, right through to now.
“She does a wonderful job for all concerned behind the scenes.”
With up to 40 horses in training at any given time during the spring and summer months, Wolfe also concedes that, at his age, he needs to start slowing down.
However, with an exciting talent and 19 two-year-olds currently in his system, he says he won’t be reining things in just yet.
“I’ve got to cut back,” Wolfe said.
“Maureen says that I say that every year, but it is getting closer.
“I think Red Can Man is the real deal and I’m pretty confident that he will get better over further and will be right in the Guineas.
“Shaun has been saying all of the way through that he needed 1400.
“Mood Goddess is a really nice horse, too, and she’ll come back for the Oaks.”
After occupying such a widely-travelled regime for decades and bouncing between his Ascot and Albany stables regularly, one would assume that Wolfe would be eager to take things easy in the years to come.
However, when asked when he’s likely to consider retirement, the wryly horseman insists he’ll never give the game away completely.
“I’ll always have five to 10 horses here,” he said.
“It’s been a wonderful journey and I hope it keeps going for a while longer.
“I’ve been up since quarter-to-four this morning, but that’s my choice.
“My missus thinks I’m mad, a lot of people do, but what else would I be doing?”
“I’ll put myself down for another 10 years or so, but I know I’ve got at least another five years in me.”