By Jordan Gerrans
A larrikin that loved his family and cherished winning races on his local track at Home Hill.
That is how long-time Burdekin trainer Ray Tapiolas is being remembered after his sudden passing earlier this week.
Tragically, Tapiolas passed away from a heart attack on his 71st birthday.
While he had not started a horse in his own name this year – the Tapiolas family were taking a break from the gallopers to focus on their farm work – racing participants recall chatting with Ray and his wife Denise at the Cluden Park track earlier this month.
The surname Tapiolas has been a constant in North Queensland racing circles since the 1950s, with Peter Tapiolas, who eventually passed the baton to his son Ray, with his son – Chris – giving him a hand down at their barn every morning.
Ray started out helping his father around the age of 20 with the horses and was involved with the industry for more than four decades, preparing their gallopers on their cattle and cane farm.
“It is in the blood. Grandad was the best and Dad and I were just country trainers,” Chris said this week following his father’s death.
“It filtered through down to Dad and eventually I got involved about 10 years ago.
“Everyone knew him all the way up to Townsville, he was the type of bloke to stop and chat to anyone and everyone – he was just that kind of a bloke that wanted to chat peoples ear off.”
Ray and Denise both spent at least a decade each as secretary and president of the club at Home Hill.
It is people like the Tapiolas’ that keep regional club’s alive in the Sunshine State.
“When you talk about racing around the Burdekin, people always talk about the Tapiolas’, that is for sure,” Burdekin Race Club president Ricky Gudge said last year.
Townsville-based trainer Joanna Hassett always felt included and appreciated at the track when she travelled her gallopers down the highway to the Burdekin for their race days.
Hassett wanted to race her horses at that track as locals like Ray made it an enjoyable and positive atmosphere.
“He was just a larrikin, if you were in a bad mood or stressed about your horses, Ray would crack an inappropriate jockey that would make you come back to earth,” Hassett said.
“He would make you feel that it was not all so serious and there was fun to be had.
“But, in saying that, he loved his racing and he definitely loved Home Hill and all the Burdekin Race Club, the whole family are stalwarts of the club.
“They are a great family and Ray embraced everything that is country racing, he was a genuine volunteer that all race clubs need.
“People like him are the backbone of country racing, just genuine people.”
The Hassett yard has run into a purple patch of late – preparing two winners from their last four starters – and dedicated Bakuhatsu’s victory on Tuesday afternoon at Cluden Park to Ray as he passed away just the day before.
‘I thought if anyone is going to get me over the line, it is going to be Ray,” she said.
The four-year-old gelding is unbeaten since arriving at the Wulguru stable and it was a knowledgeable eye at the track that informed Hassett that Bakuhatsu had won first-up.
It can be a tricky angle when it comes to a photo-finish at Cluden Park from the grandstand and Tapiolas – who has watched races at the track for much of his life – gave Hassett a winning nod.
“Ray has been a great friend to me – the entire family have been really – and they have supported me professionally by giving me horses to train,” Hassett said.
“When Bakuhatsu won his first race for me, the week before last, Ray and his lovely wife Denise were at the track and we were yarning and joking as we usually do.
“And, because the race was such a close photo finish, I was worried that I had come second but Ray was quick to tell me I had won, so there was hugs, kisses and high fives.
“They were right there for it.”
Ray’s father Peter trained the Townsville Cup winner back in 1975 with a stayer named Namdrae.
And, Ray and Chris have raced their team of horses in Peter’s colours since: pale blue, white stars, sleeves and red cap.
According to Racing.com’s statistics, Ray prepared 33 career victories when he held his own licence.
As his son Chris explains, Ray enjoyed training TAB winners at Townsville but more than anything, he loved preparing winners on Home Hill Cup day.
A mare named Starlistic was Ray’s “pride and joy” – Chris said – winning 11 races in North Queensland for the Tapiolas’ before retiring in late 2016.
Starlistic won on the local Cup day, as did Hibachi Miss in more recent years.
The stable never spent massive money on their horses but always produced consistent results with the cheap stock.
While there is never a “good time” for someone to pass away, Chris thinks it is fitting that Home Hill will race this coming Saturday – July 9 – and Ray’s life can be celebrated.
“He would have really loved that the club is racing just days after his passing,” Chris said.
“He always liked winning TAB races but most of all, he loved winning on Home Hill Cup day, that was the thing he loves to do most.
“We did it a few times over the years and I got to share that moment with him a few times, which was really great.”
The Tapiolas family has donated $5,000 to increase the prize money of the Benchmark 60 Handicap over 1830 metres next Saturday.
Ray’s mates referred to him as “Drover” with the idea being floated of naming the race “Drover’s Cup” in his memory.
There are also plans for other races on the day to have names remembering Ray’s life.
Chris has been blown away with the messages and calls he has received this week following his father’s passing, most of which saying how much they loved being around Ray.
Racing Queensland extend its deepest condolences to the Tapiolas family.