The Courier-Mail

FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME

- WITH BERNIE PRAMBERG bpram­berg1@hot­mail.com

N ORM “Whop­per” Stephens will be one of the first through the gates at the third an­nual Deagon Com­mu­nity Pic­nic Race Day a week from to­mor­row.

For more than 70 years, the colour­ful trainer and ex-jockey has been at his­toric Deagon Race­course be­fore dawn on most days of the week.

Renowned for his dry wit, Stephens, 84, is up at 2.30am ev­ery day and usu­ally waits at the race­course gates when they open at 3am.

He will not have a run­ner at the gala meet­ing on Septem­ber 13, but he will still be there with bells on.

“I’ve got three two-yearolds in work at the mo­ment but don’t have a horse suit­able to race on the day,” he said.

“But I’ll be there. You have to pa­tro­n­ise the meet­ing. It’s pretty big for the com­mu­nity.”

Another lo­cal trainer, Jim Mur­doch, who with wife Cather­ine wrote and pub­lished an ex­cel­lent history of Deagon Race­course three years ago, said a race on the day had been named to recog­nise Stephens’ con­tri­bu­tion.

“We’ve called it The Deagon Train­ers’ Whop­per Stephens Hand­i­cap,” he said.

“All the Deagon-based train­ers thought it ap­pro­pri­ate for the day.”

Although the first race meet­ing at Deagon was held in 1885, the Com­mu­nity Race Day will be only the third public meet­ing held there in more than 70 years.

This year’s event is a TAB meet­ing and will also in­cor­po­rate three har­ness races on the grass in ad­di­tion to the gal­lops.

It fea­tures all the glitz and glam­our as­so­ci­ated with the track such as fash­ions on the field, cor­po­rate mar­quees, VIP ar­eas, live mu­sic and DJs.

The oc­ca­sion also in­cor­po­rates all the fam­ily fun of a pic­nic meet­ing, with foot races for adults and kids, wheel­bar­row races and the like.

Deagon-based trainer Pat Duff and his ap­pren­tice jockey Jessie Philpot, 20, said the day was a ma­jor event on the com­mu­nity cal­en­dar.

“I’d de­scribe Deagon as a real bread and but­ter area,” Duff said.

“It’s al­most like go­ing back to another era in some ways.

“There are a lot of friendly, hard­work­ing, down-to-earth peo­ple around the Deagon, Sandgate and Brighton ar­eas.

“I no­tice it when I take horses down to swim at the beach at Sandgate.

“Peo­ple who might have no in­ter­est in rac­ing want to know what you’re do­ing … they want to have a chat. There is a lot of history around Deagon and the race­course is cen­tral to much of that.’’

Duff has been a lead­ing Queens­land trainer since the 1960s and is also a renowned master and men­tor of ap­pren­tice jock­eys. Top-lin­ers Mick Dittman, Michael Pelling, Jim Byrne and Mandy Radecker, the first fe­male to win the Bris- bane ap­pren­tices’ premier­ship, were all in­den­tured to Duff.

Philpot is the latest in a long line of as­pir­ing jock­eys to learn the craft un­der Duff’s tute­lage.

She has the right genes. Her par­ents, Gus and Donna, were both jock­eys. although they dis­cour­aged her from fol­low­ing them into the tough rac­erid­ing caper.

“But once they knew I was go­ing to be ap­pren­ticed to Pat they changed their minds,” Jessie said. “Now they couldn’t be more sup­port­ive.”

In re­cent weeks, first-year ap­pren­tice Jessie has rid­den at meet­ings as far flung as Cun­na­mulla, Roma, Gladstone and to­day will be in the sad­dle at Bund­aberg.

“It’s been great ex­pe­ri­ence and I’ve rid­den seven win­ners so far,” she said.

About 4000 tick­ets have been pre-sold for the Com­mu­nity Race Day and or­gan­is­ers ex­pect a ca­pac­ity crowd nudg­ing 8000. Aside from the Com­mu­nity Race Days, the only other meet­ing held at Deagon was in Septem­ber 2007, dur­ing the equine in­fluenza cri­sis.

Although it was a “closed” meet­ing be­cause of the epi­demic which crip­pled the rac­ing in­dus­try, it was Deagon’s first of­fi­cial race meet­ing in 66 years.

It was de­cid­edly low-key, but for “Whop­per” Stephens who had rid­den a Strad­broke win­ner at age 15 in 1948, trained a Sil­ver Slip­per win­ner in Syd­ney and gained no­to­ri­ety in the art world as the sub­ject of artist Sam Full­brook’s por­trait which won the pres­ti­gious Archibald Prize in 1974, it pro­vided close to the big­gest thrill of his life in rac­ing.

Stephens owned and trained a horse named Shinto, which won the first race run at Deagon for 66 years.

“It had come back from a bowed ten­don and to win at Deagon where I’d been since I was 12 years old was pretty spe­cial,” he said.

And “Whop­per” reck­ons Septem­ber 13 at Deagon will be pretty spe­cial as well.

I’D DE­SCRIBE DEAGON AS A REAL BREAD AND BUT­TER AREA. IT’S AL­MOST LIKE GO­ING BACK TO

ANOTHER ERA.

PAT DUFF

 ?? Pic­ture: Tara Croser ?? LO­CAL KNOWL­EDGE: Vet­eran trainer Pat Duff with ap­pren­tice jockey Jessie Philpot at Deagon.
Pic­ture: Tara Croser LO­CAL KNOWL­EDGE: Vet­eran trainer Pat Duff with ap­pren­tice jockey Jessie Philpot at Deagon.
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