Hector Edwards Gray, the greatest New Zealand jockey of his era, was born in Albert Town, Otago, on 18 November 1885. He was the son of Joseph Gray, a contractor, and his wife, Margaret Hoad (née Edwards). The family moved to Normanby, Taranaki, where as a schoolboy Gray showed considerable promise in athletics. He was selected to represent New Zealand (presumably in age-group events) in a team to visit England, but his father refused permission for the trip.
Joseph Gray, although himself a noted horse-breaker and trainer of young horses, also frowned on his son's ambition to become a jockey. The youthful Hector played truant from home to ride trackwork for Thomas Paget at Stratford. He began racing at a Wanganui meeting on 2 October 1902 and had ridden three winners at a Patea meeting before his parents learned of his fledgeling career. Joseph Gray then relented and allowed Hector to join the stable of Taranaki trainer Jervis George. Gray came out of his apprenticeship with a steadily growing reputation, and moved to Auckland.
Hector Gray's racing career was marked by outstanding success as a rider and a series of suspensions for dubious practices. He was the subject of rumours that he deliberately lost races and intimidated other jockeys. His defenders claimed he was victimised by officials jealous of his success.
In 1908–9 Gray received a two-year suspension for allegedly preventing a pony named Mighty Atom from doing its best in a race. He worked on a farm during the suspension, then came back, three months into the 1909–10 season, to be the country's leading jockey with 64 wins. He won another premiership the following season, with 79 wins, and had two more successful seasons before moving to Australia in 1914. Gray won the Essendon Stakes and Australian Cup in Melbourne on a horse named Wallolo, but was suspended for two years for alleged 'inconsistent running' when Wallolo finished third in a lead-up to the Sydney Cup. It was effectively a life disqualification as his licence to race in Australia was never renewed.
Back in New Zealand, when his term of disqualification expired, Gray was immediately successful and won premierships in 1917–18, 1918–19 and 1920–21. In 1921 he left for England to race there. He rode more than 100 winners during a two-year stint in England, France and Belgium.
In 1925, less than two years after his successful return to New Zealand, Gray was suspended for life for an alleged corrupt practice. The sentence was remitted after five years. Gray, now in his mid-40s, was at an age when most jockeys are retired or past their best. He resumed riding when the 1929–30 season was three months old, yet he finished the season with 75 wins and his sixth premiership. The following season he won his seventh premiership riding 116 winners. It was the first time a New Zealand jockey had bettered 100 wins in a season. The following season the veteran horseman was third in the premiership with 64. But he again lost his licence, for alleged race-fixing at a Dargaville meeting, and this time it was not renewed. Gray then turned to training, first at New Plymouth, then at Takanini.
Gray's individual records – 919 New Zealand wins, 116 wins in a season and seven jockey's premierships – were inevitably eclipsed as the number of race meetings steadily increased. Nevertheless, he had achieved remarkable success, particularly considering the enforced breaks in his career.
Fitness, strength and good judgement of pace were listed by contemporaries as reasons for Gray's mastery. Careful study of the opposition also played a part, but this could hardly account for Gray's remarkable record of winning at his first ride in each country that he rode in. Nor does it explain the fact that, although he rode almost entirely flat races, he won over hurdles and also won the only two trotting races in which he competed.
Gray had married Ellen Mary Pitt at Auckland on 20 January 1908. They were divorced in 1929, and on 19 March 1930 he married Ruby Maud Paterson at Wellington. She had divorced her first husband, James Hay, in 1928. Hector and Ruby Gray had no children. Hector died at Auckland on 8 March 1957, survived by his son, Joseph.
Hector Gray won a reputation for being an especially crooked rider even at a time when the racing industry was neither clean nor well-policed. Yet he is best remembered as by far the most successful of contemporary jockeys.