It wasn't too long ago that former top jockey Gary Phillips was sitting still on the back of horse, waiting for the starters orders and the gates to fly open.

These days he's the man who pushes the go button as the official race starter for the Central Districts and lower North Island.

Notoriously camera shy, the retired former top jockey is still heavily involved in the multi-million dollar industry. Phillips is as busy as he had ever been.

On retiring from raceday riding at the relatively early age of 39, he was assistant starter with Ivan Lawson before taking up the post as the official starter a few years later, and had been starting races ever since.

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Back in his day as a jockey, Phillips reached a milestone as being able to ride a 1000 winners. He retired as one of the few riders to surpass the 1000 mark, ending his career with 1,189 winners.

Only 30 other jockeys New Zealand jockeys had managed to achieve that feat, and Phillips managed many of those winners during racing's heydey when full fields were commonplaces and the jockey ranks were bursting.

Born in 1951, Phillips grew up in Hastings and when he turned 16 decided to become an apprentice jockey.

He soon learned the life of an apprentice jockey was for early risers only, getting up every morning before 5am to muck out the loose boxes at the stable.

"That's what apprentice jockeys do, it's part of the job," he said.

Phillip's first employer was trainer Charlie Cameron, however after a few months Gary transferred his apprenticeship to Foxton-based trainer Bruce Robinson. His first raceday winner was a horse called I'm a Marsh.

An apprentice jockey serves a term of three and a half years before becoming a fully fledged jockey. Success for Phillips during that time was limited. In fact, he only managed to ride 12 winners.

But once his apprenticeship was over he began to hit his straps. Coming out of his time as a jockey he began freelance riding for Percy Burgess in Wairarapa, and also for Brian Deacon at Hawera where he began his association with his favourite horse - Copper Belt.

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"Gee that brings back memories with those nod of the head finishes with fellow jockey Bob Skelton on Grey Way," he said.

While Copper Belt was his favourite, there were others.

"The best horse I ever rode was Poetic Prince, finishing third to Rubiton in the Cox Plate in Melbourne," he said.

"The best filly I ever rode was winning the 1981/82 season Wrightson filly of the year series on the Laurie Laxon trained Noble Heights."

Another horse good horse he regularly piloted was The Filbert, probably best remembered for finishing third to Bone Crusher and Waverley Star in the 1986 Cox Plate.

Phillips was aboard The Filbert in the 1986 Japan Cup, finishing third, and in doing so was the first New Zealand horse to finish place in the race.

"I also won on him in the Air New Zealand stakes at Ellerslie," he said.

Another race that sprang to mind was winning on Gold Bullion in the NZ cup at Riccarton.