Not long before the coronavirus lockdown silenced New Zealand’s racing scene, Phillipa Morris not-so-quietly made history.
She became the first woman in New Zealand to call a greyhound race.
To give you an idea of how big a bite her achievement is – that’s over 110 years of racing history. And Morris called not one, but two, races at the Manawatu Raceway on March 16.
The 30-year-old was only meant to describe one race that day, but Australia’s only female caller, Victoria Shaw, and three of her colleagues had to skip the trip across the ditch for the Commentators’ Day Out meeting because of Covid-19 travel restrictions.
Morris admits she felt the pressure in her first race, the open class 410m sprint, which was named after her: ‘Phillipa Morris Making NZ Dog History Feature’. But she’d settled the nerves by her second, ‘Victoria Shaw Celebrating Women in Racing C5’.
It was fitting that the Palmerston North meeting was also celebrating International Women’s Day.
For Morris – a TAB Trackside studio presenter – it was a “whirlwind” moment, but she hopes the main takeaway from her feat is that female commentators are considered the norm not so far down the track.
Racing is one sport where women are on par with their male counterparts in all aspects – from trainers to owners, presenters, drivers and jockeys. The only exception, at the moment, is the commentary booth.
But you can bet Morris’s ground-breaking moment will be the catalyst for change. Even if the magnitude of the occasion was only realised by the mother-of-two a couple of days later.
“I think at the time I just wanted to get through it,” she says. “I’m someone who always wants to do a really good job, so I know I can do better but looking back on it now, it’s like ‘Wow’.
“My boss said I should be really proud because now that it’s been done, it may pave the way for someone like my daughter in years to come. And hopefully she’ll be known as just a commentator, not a female caller.”
Her boss is Michelle Pickles, former television sports journalist and now media personnel manager for the Racing Industry Transition Agency (formerly the NZ Racing Board).
Pickles says Morris did a fabulous job for her first time and it would be amazing to have more women in the future, provided they can do the job.
“I’m really big on having the best person for the job – it can’t just be because they’re female,” she says. “Phillipa was the right person because she has the racing knowledge and expertise and has come a long way in the last two years.”
It’s not easy transforming from a greyhound trainer – which Morris was prior to starting her role with TAB Trackside – to a television presenter. But Pickles saw something in her.
“When we were recruiting for the presenter position, I could see how determined she was, so I thought it was possible to teach her how to be a broadcaster,” Pickles says.
Morris was raised in a racing family in Pukeatua in the Waikato. Her father, Wayne, trained racehorses before both of her parents got into training greyhounds; at first it was a hobby but it soon turned to a full-time commitment.
Surrounded by racing dogs from the age of seven meant it was only a matter of time before Morris followed suit.
“Growing up, I knew I wanted to train greyhounds, but I stepped away to do hairdressing and try other things, as you do when you’re young,” she says. “But I always came back to it.”
She eventually worked at a couple of large kennels and learnt more about the trade. She then progressed to have her own dogs.
She started with four greyhounds, but at one stage she was training around 10, and had 35 winners in a season.
Morris then went into partnership with her mother, Carol. They are still owners, but Phillipa leaves the training to her mum in Pahiatua. It became too hard to do when she moved to Auckland with her son and daughter (aged four and five) to take on the studio presenter role.
“I made the big move up here from Bulls with my kids, and I haven’t looked back to be honest,” she says. “I kind of wanted to make something of myself and I want my children to be proud that I kept pushing myself to get somewhere even when it was a struggle.”
Managing the work-life balance is possible with the help of an au pair. Morris says it’s a tricky balance with her role being rostered across different days and hours.
But she can’t complain, she says, because she “absolutely loves” her job.
“It’s that cliché where it doesn’t feel like work because you love what you do. I get to sit and watch racing, a passion of mine, and talk about it for four to five hours at a time,” she says.
There are no cues helping Morris either. She ad-libs the entire show, with only a script summarising the different segments to guide her.
Depending on her shift, Morris will still take her children to school, and come home for dinner duties. The routine may get busier now that Morris has called a race – she wants to keep going.
But right now, that’s all on hold. With no racing in New Zealand during the lockdown (thoroughbred racing is targeting a return on July 1), Morris and her children have gone down to her join her parents on the farm at Pahiatua.
“The kids have plenty of area to roam and we can help with the greyhounds as well, keeping them fit till racing continues,” she says.
Morris doesn’t consider herself a commentator yet, but she plans to keep practicing and taking opportunities whenever they arise.
“I’ve got the bug now. I’d like to get better and aim to be an all-rounder – presenting in the studio, interviewing on course and commentating,” she says.
There’s no shortage of support from commentators and people in the racing industry and Pickles says they will put steps in place to help her development.
“If she works hard and is good enough to call races on her own, I don’t see why that can’t happen in the future,” she says.
If Morris’s track record is anything to go by, she will do everything she can to improve and make her goal a reality.