IN HIND SIGHT: MAX PRESNELL
MAX PRESNELL was born in 1939 and grew up in the Doncaster Hotel in Kensington alongside Randwick Racecourse. His father was the publican and his earliest recollections are the sound of horses “clippity-clopping along to the track in the morning before dawn, which is still the sweetest sound I’ve ever heard”. His was a childhood surrounded by racing and racing people, by stings and punter and mug lairs, and the language of it. He became a copy boy for The Sun and went on to chronicle the great and not-so-great moments in Australian thoroughbred horse racing. Some of those that couldn’t make the pages of the paper (for various reasons) he’s now collated into a book, Good Losers Die Broke.
How was it, as a kid, growing up in a pub?
The Doncaster had a seedy, shall we say, area for ba ling racehorse trainers, desperados, brokes, drunks, pick-pockets in the bar. Upstairs we had 25 rooms for guests which included about ten permanents, and they were all knockabout people. The beauty in the Doncaster and my childhood there, was a lot of visiting trainers would stay at the Doncaster, a lot of big jockeys. Bart Cummings’ father, he stayed there.There was a communal breakfast and dining room, and the subject of the morning was always the races, the fights, the rugby league, the cricket. It was a great sporting time, and I always had a passion for newspapers. I’d go and get the papers at the front door, that was my job as a kid. My parents would read the comics and I’d read the sporting pages.
What was it like, horse racing and sport in postwar Australia?
It was a very vibrant era in racing and in Australia in general. Characters abounded. In fact it produced brilliant men. Aer the Great Depression and also World War II, people lived more on their wits than education. One of them was “Two BobTommy”. My father knew him well, said he was the publican’s greatest nightmare. He wasn’t violent and he wasn’t a drunk, but he was just a pest. He would run raffles with no prizes. He’d run for SP bookmakers. He got the nameTwo BobTommy because he’d always be asking, “Have you got two bob for my dinner?”
Well, he becameTommy “TJ” Smith, perhaps the greatest trainer in Australian racing history. He started from nothing. My father said he had absolutely nothing to recommend him, a li le man with a squeaky voice. He did have drive, which is what made him a pest. But my father held him in the highest esteem. He said you couldn’t believe a man that had so li le going for him went so far. He was awarded an OAM. He ended up with a harbour frontage of Sydney Harbour. Lloyd Williams once said he could have been the CEO of BHP.
How did it come about that you got the gig as a copy boy at the Sun?
School was no good to me because they tried to make me a tradesman at South Sydney JuniorTech where they specialised in woodwork, metalwork and technical drawing. Aer three years' intensive training, I couldn’t whi le an edge, use a file, draw a straight line. I turned 15 on a Friday and started work as a copy boy at the Sun on the Monday. I went to night school and learned shorthand and typing. You couldn’t get an education from university that I got from working at newspapers.
The Sun was an aernoon newspaper running against the Daily Mirror and the striving for circulation was intense. Even as a copy boy running messages, you got mixed up in the flow of it. You’re listening, watching, being involved with great reporters. You’d hear the news editor, how he addressed people. You’d hear sub-editors talking to journalists, telling them you’ve done this wrong, done that wrong. It was invaluable.
Do you remember your first big story?
I do – and it’s still probably the biggest story I’ve ever done: the 1961 AJC Derby when Mel Schumacher pulled Tommy Hill’s leg. It was certainly not a literary masterpiece but where I’ve got some
pride about it was with the speed of it. As a cadet I was doing the stewards’ enquiries and suddenly I heard this massive noise – protest in the Derby. Well I’d gone in there, the cadet, one of the lowest jobs in the paper, and of course Tommy Hill, the rider of Summer Fair, was alleging that Mel Schumacher, on Blue Era, had grabbed his leg. And the stewards didn’t believe him. And I remember the quote to this day: Jack Burke, the chief steward, said, “Are you sure?” And Tommy Hill said, “Mr Burke, I’d know if a snake bit me.”
It was. Anyway they listened to the evidence, and of course Schumacher said it’s preposterous. I told Ernie Christensen, a great sporting writer of the time, who said that Hill wouldn’t say that. I said, “Ernie, he did say it.” I dashed upstairs to the phones and told the sports editor that Tommy Hill said bang, bang, bang. Then I ran downstairs and of course I got the story, which others got too. But running up and telling them what was coming gave the
Sun the edge. It was a circulation bale. We were on the street half an hour before the story broke; sold thousands' more papers.
The protest was upheld?
They’d just starting using film to watch replays; they were black and white like Charlie Chaplin movies. Side-on it showed a lile bit of scrimmage near the post.The head-on view showed distinctly Schumacher, leaning across and grabbing Tommy Hill’s leg. So, that’s what sunk Mel Schumacher. It also sunk me because I’d backed Blue Era. In those days you could have ducked out and had a bet
“Irememberthe quote to this day: TommyHillsaid, ‘Mr Burke, I’d know if asnakebitme.'”
with the bookmakers that the protest would be dismissed. It was about 5/1. There was plenty of time. But because of the enormity of the story and because I probably just still didn’t believe he could do it, I didn’t go out to save.
Let me throw some names at you. First, Darren Beadman ...
Darren Beadman was an apprentice ofTheo Green’s, who I’ve got a chapter on. A wonderful
man, he’s the Bart Cummings of apprentice jockeys. What Bart Cummings did for Melbourne Cups, Theo Green did for apprentice jockeys. He developed Ron Quinton, Malcolm Johnson. I was at the track one morning, early, and Theo said, “Max, have a look at that kid there”, pointing to Beadman. He said “He’s gonna be the best of all my boys”. Now, Malcolm Johnson had just changed the face of apprentice jockeys. Ron Quinton was a champion. Theo said: “Mark my words, that kid will be the best.”
Another one: Jimmy Cassidy.
Jimmy was one of the controversial ones and a champion in my book. He was going to sue me once, I said that in the saddle he “looks like a dog shagging a boot”. But Cassidy was involved in so many visions splendid. None more so than the Melbourne Cup with Might and Power [in 1997] where he took it to the front and raided it. You don’t win Melbourne Cups in front, you don’t do that. And there was Cassidy, the last 100m, pumping away, “shagging the boot”, pumping, pumping in his unique style, geing the best out of that horse. Greg Hall thought he’d won it on Doriemus. But Cassidy prevailed.
He’s a remarkable character. Never a dull moment. Even in his later years he was still a great jockey. I saw Scobie Breasley when I was in England in the ’60s and he was an old man with hair as white as snow. A master. As an old man he beat Lester Piggo, who most would say was the world’s greatest jockey. I never thought I’d see a jockey as good as old Scobie. But Cassidy was.
Kerry Packer. Have much to do with him?
I might have got a few grunts and looks of contempt. You talk about stories, I had a great one about his being with [bookmaker] Bruce McHugh, who was a mate of mine, and this is when Packer was being huge money, millions. John Benaud was our sporting editor and I said, "John, here we are, this is a lovely story, this is front page [of] the Sun;
this isn’t back page." He said, yes, very interesting. I went away very contented with my front-page scoop. But it didn’t go in the paper.
I stormed around there full of high dudgeon, foul language omitting from my mouth. And John said sit down. I sat down. He said, “Kerry’s got us by the short and curlies and I’ve had instructions from upstairs not to upset Kerry.” The thing that upset Kerry most was his bets being made public. John said that if the piece went in you might be out of a job, I’ll be out of a job. So that was Kerry Packer. Kerry and his father Frank were only too happy to glory in the betting deeds of other big punters. But Kerry did not want his bets in the paper. In some instances I got them in, and it was a sensational story.
They wouldn’t be more sensational than Fine Cotton. Where were you in that?
I was at Warwick Farm on the day and waiting for the correct weight, which wasn’t announced. And I would say everybody at Warwick Farm knew that Fine Cotton was a ring-in for Bold Personality. I knew who was behind it and I would say I was among 1500 people in the know. It was a massive balls-up.
Super Impose was the first horse that I sort of took a liking to and I’ve had a few favorites since. How about yourself?
I often say that I haven’t got Super Impose as a “champion” though he was a great horse. My champions were Todman, Tulloch, Vain, Kingston Town, Sunline, Makybe Diva, Black Caviar and Winx. I had to be dragged yelling and screaming that Black Caviar was a champion, because the distance was so restricted [to sprint races]. But then again when you saw her win the Newmarket, when you saw her win that TJ Smith at Randwick, when a top-class racehorse, Hay List, bounded out in front and there was Black Caviar on her wrong leg, four lengths behind, and you say, "Oh no, she can’t pick this horse up." She picked him up, on the wrong leg she picked him up and beat him easy.
Winx will be aiming for three straight Cox Plates on October 28th. She’d slot in easily to the “champion” category?
In last year’s race, Hartnell had come off one of the most impressive Turnbull stakes we’ve seen. Makybe Diva had won the Turnbull Stakes. Northerly won the Turnbull Stakes. It’s a great measuring ground. Winx cruised up to Hartnell at the 600 – and I’d tipped Hartnell, he was flying – and just breezed past him.
I once tried to seek the definition of a champion and I went to everybody with the question: how do you define a champion? And the best description I got was from ArthurWard who was a jockey and a trainer. He said a champion is a horse that doesn’t just beat another top-class horse, but donkey-licks them. And that’s something I apply today. You’ve got to do it over a period and do it more than once. On his day, no horse would have beaten Lonhro, but he had his share of off days. KingstonTown didn’t have any off days.
“A champion is a horse that doesn’ t just beat another top-class horse, but donkey-licks them .”
TwoBobTommy withhisdaughter, whodidokayout ofracingherself. Presnell's royalplayground atRandwick.
Asanapprentice,Darren Beadmanwasthemaster. MightandPowerpips fellowgreatDoriemusinthe 1997MelbourneCup.
Black Caviar: a great horse, no arguments. But Winx [ ] sits comfortably in the "champion" class.