LONG LIVE THE KING
HERE’S what you won’t see again. You won’t see this man with a grey mane and rearing eyebrows sauntering down the steps of the grandstand on Melbourne Cup day.
He’ll be wearing aviator sunglasses and an expression that says he’s turned up only because he has nothing better to do.
He’ll dab at the rill of a tear on his cheek because he always gets hay fever when he wins a Melbourne Cup.
He’ll walk slowly because he hates bustle – it frightens the horses – and there will be a hint of a smile.
That’s because he’s spotted the media and needs to think up something arch.
If his first essay at drollery works, his smile will become lopsided, as though he’s surprised himself, which he hasn’t.
He is a shy and solitary man – unknowable, really – and humour, the dry wit of the old Australia, is his defence against intruders and a cagey way to hide his intellect.
There will be no fists in the air, no hugs. He won’t say he’s focused because he doesn’t believe in sports babble.
You’ll not see this again because Bart Cummings is dead and no one else is like him. No one has ever been like him.
He was that rarest thing, an original. The world changed and he didn’t. Fame got to other people and he just shrugged it off as another imposter. He backed his instincts and ignored the coattuggers. He belonged to the golden age of racing that existed before the corporates turned it into a seven-days-a-week casino with a soul to match.
Racing got smaller and Bart got bigger. The Melbourne Cup’s ultimate hero turned out not to be a horse but a man.
Cummings had only one hero, his father, James, a shy and courteous man who learnt his trade roping brumbies at Alice Springs and trained Comic Court to win the 1950 Melbourne Cup.
As a child Bart had asthma so severe he sometimes turned purple as he gasped for breath.
His father took him to a specialist in Adelaide who scratched his arm and exposed him to toxins from feed, horse hair and hay. Bart’s arm went red. Nothing to worry about, said the doctor. All you have to do to be free from asthma is to stay away from horses and stables.
Outside, on North Terrace, Bart, all of 16, turned to his father and said: “We’ve done our dough.” Sixty years later, the fee for the consultation still rankled. “Fourteen guineas!” Cummings would snort.
Maybe there was another hero apart from his father: the horse itself. Cummings loved looking at horses in the inky lights after dawn, loved trying to get into their heads. He’d stare at a filly doing slow work with its neck arched, its head and tail on exactly the same line, and nod approval. Horses weren’t just animals; they were puzzles to be solved. No two were the same. You’d see Cummings, elbows on
TO BE ASSOCIATED WITH BART CUMMINGS JUST IN GENERAL IS AN HONOUR DARREN BEADMAN (JOCKEY) BART CUMMINGS STANDS ABOVE ALL IN THE HISTORY OF AUSTRALIAN RACING DARREN PEARCE (AUSTRALIAN TURF CLUB EXECUTIVE)
the running rail, sucking on a boiled lolly, staring at one of his horses as it picked grass after a morning gallop. What was it thinking? Why was it laying its ears back?
That was his genius, solving riddles about horses. But, like everything else about him, it was hidden behind his wit.
Cummings is famous for his reply long ago to the council inspector in Adelaide who told him he had too many flies around his stables.
“How many am I allowed to have?” Cummings asked.
People were always trying to discover his ‘secret’. The assumption was that it had to be something deep and mystical, a formula for turning base metals into gold. The truth was rather more ordinary and has been on show for 60 years. Cummings was an exceptionally good feeder and knew just how much work a horse could take. But lots of trainers are good at these sums.
What distinguished Cummings was his character. There was a ruthlessness, a self-belief that few possess. Cummings simply made plans for his horses based on everything he knew and everything he had learnt from his father. The plans were formed and refined in his solitary world and, once made, there was no voluntary deviation, no concessions to the views of outsiders or the media, so that on the eve of a Melbourne Cup the horse was looking exactly the way he had planned it would look four months ago. The ‘ secret’ was simply this: there was no secret – none except what was going on in Bart’s head.
He wanted horses to relax, to learn to breathe, to be like him. Bart knew how to relax; some of us have never seen him walk briskly. After Viewed gave Cummings his 12th Melbourne Cup, Joe Agresta, Bart’s track rider and a superb horseman, was so excited he was shaking. Cummings invited Agresta to the Terrace restaurant for a drink. Agresta arrived there an hour later, still trembling.
“He’s sitting back and looking at the Melbourne skyline and he says: ‘ Hey, Joe, you see that big wheel over there?’ He was pointing to the Southern Star Observation Wheel at Docklands. ‘There’s something going on there. That thing hasn’t moved for five or six days’. I thought to myself: ‘He’s got to be kidding, this bloke. He’s just won his 12th Melbourne Cup and he’s sitting there worrying about this big Ferris wheel thing’. I couldn’t believe it.”
It was the same at the stables. “We’d be rushing around,” Agresta said, “and Bart would say: ‘Joe, these flowers are a bit dry. You’d better water them’. And I’d say: ‘Bart, we’ve got to get to the races’. And he’d say: ‘Yeah, I know, but just give them a bit of water before you go’. We’re talking about Cup Day or Derby Day. We might have eight runners for the day. And he’s worrying about the flowers!”
Agresta also produced one of the wisest observations about Cummings: “If you think you know Bart, you don’t know Bart.” Just about everyone who’s ever worked with him says that in the end he was unknowable.
Bart left this world at the place he loved best, his farm on the Nepean River at Castlereagh. Princes Farm is like him: languid, understated, private – and purposeful.
Here he was a different person, effusive and animated, a French nobleman showing you his estate. He takes you to a wren’s nest and marvels at its beauty. He stands there, proprietor and curator, pointing out trees you might have missed. “There’s a liquid amber – got a few of them. See the jacaran- das? Those are pines over there.” He swings his arm to the river bank. “See those? They’re Chinese elms – see how they make a row. And the poplars – see the poplars?”
Here he was nearly knowable. And he left us – well, sort of. Some will forever see this bloke wandering out of the grandstand after winning the Melbourne Cup and pretending he only did it because he had nothing better to do.
HE’S REALLY SET THE BAR AND WE’RE ALL TRYING TO JUMP OVER IT
DAVID HAYES (TRAINER) HE WAS A GREAT TEACHER, A MASTER TRAINER AND IT’S VERY SAD. THE RACING INDUSTRY HAS LOST ONE OF THE ALL TIME GREATS NIGEL BLACKISTON (STABLE FOREMAN)