Thanks for the ride, Roy

As the Mel­bourne Cup looms, sad­dles up with one of the finest horse­men ever to hold the reins

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS -

THIS Tues­day sees the run­ning of the Mel­bourne Cup, Aus­tralia’s rich­est and most fa­mous horse race, one that in re­cent years has been tar­geted by glo­be­trot­ting thor­ough­breds from Europe and, to a lesser ex­tent, Asia. At the time of writ­ing, this year’s favourite was the Ja­panese stal­lion Ad­mire Ratki, a sec­ond-tier stayer in his own coun­try who car­ried a hefty 58kg to win the Caulfield Cup on Oc­to­ber 18.

Thirty-five years ago, the only place equine “in­ter­na­tional raiders’’ came from was New Zealand. The 1979 Cup was won by one the mean­est horses in Aus­tralian turf his­tory, the NZ-foaled Hyperno, and that in­fa­mous race is a good place to start a re­view of Pa­trick Bartley’s en­joy­able book on cham­pion jockey Roy Hig­gins, who died in March aged 75.

Hyperno, who did all his rac­ing in Aus­tralia, was a “mon­grel’’, to quote Hig­gins. He liked to kick and bite — sta­ble­hands, strap­pers, jock­eys, ri­val horses. If hit with the whip, he would veer through the field, heed­less of any horse in his path. But he was a tal­ented mon­grel and trainer Bart Cum­mings wanted Hig­gins, “the most in­de­mand jockey in Aus­tralia’’, to take the Cup ride. Hig­gins de­clined, elect­ing in­stead to ride the well-per­formed Sala­man­der for trainer Tommy Hughes. As Bartley writes, “Hig­gins never liked Hyperno … He told Cum­mings he and Hyperno sim­ply didn’t click …” The trainer was un­a­mused and handed the ride to Hig­gins’s fierce ri­val Harry White.

The race had a red-hot favourite, Colin Hayes’s cham­pion colt Dul­cify, the reign­ing horse of the year. It would be go­ing too far to ac­cuse Hyperno of pre­med­i­ta­tion, but about half­way through the 3200m race he crashed into Dul­cify, who was pulled up, his pelvis shat­tered, and later put down. Hyperno charged on, fe­ro­cious, obliv­i­ous, took the lead and held off a late charge by Sala­man­der, bril­liantly rid­den by Hig­gins, to win the Cup by a nose.

It was the fifth of Cum­mings's 12 Cups to date (Hig­gins had been on the first two, Light Fin­gers, a mare he loved, and Red Handed) and White’s fourth, a record he shares with early 1900s jockey Bobby Lewis. Hig­gins was left dis­ap­pointed and frus­trated, not un­com­mon feel­ings dur­ing his stel­lar ca­reer.

The main cause of his fu­ture frus­tra­tion was there for all to feel (not least Mrs Hig­gins) when Roy was born in the Mur­ray River town­ship of Koon­drook on June 5, 1938. He weighed in at almost 5kg. As Bartley dryly com­ments: “For the first, but cer­tainly not the last time in his life, Roy Henry Hig­gins was at least 1.5kg over­weight. (That mid­dle name, by the way, is partly re­spon­si­ble for Hig­gins’s nick­name “The Pro­fes­sor”, though he was also renowned for his rac­ing brain.)

Hig­gins was the youngest of five chil­dren. His fa­ther, John, “a bit of the vic­tim of the punt”, was not keen on the idea of young Roy leav­ing school to join the sta­bles of lo­cal trainer Jim Wat­ters. His mother, Ade­line, talked dad around. Bartley quotes Hig­gins: “If it hadn’t been for that weak mo­ment with my mum, I prob­a­bly would never have be­come a jockey.’’

Bartley’s un­spar­ing ac­count of the ap­pren­tice jockey’s life should be re­quired read­ing for to­day’s teens: the 3.45am starts, the ex­haust­ing work, the muck, the over-hot baths. Hig­gins, barely 15, had his first race ride at the Rive­rina town of De­niliquin on Au­gust 22, 1953. As would of­ten be the case over the next 30 years, he “was made to sweat to make the weight’’, in this case just un­der 50kg. As would not of­ten be

Novem­ber 1-2, 2014 Roy Hig­gins: Aus­tralia’s Favourite Jockey By Pa­trick Bartley Michael Joseph, 307pp, $39.99 (HB) the case in fu­ture, his mount, Cherry Girl, ran last.

Six weeks later, back at De­niliquin, Hig­gins rode his first win­ner for Wat­ters, Statu­tory. Bartley writes: “Hig­gins re­called that mo­ments after cross­ing the line he felt as if he was float­ing.’’ One down, 2312 to go be­fore he re­tired in 1983. He was Mel­bourne’s cham­pion jockey a record-equalling 11 times and was as­so­ci­ated with some of the greats of the Aus­tralian turf: Light Fin­gers, Leilani, Gun­synd, Storm Queen. He had a stint rid­ing in France, where he found the lan­guage dif­fi­cult and the cui­sine unco-oper­a­tive to his weight bat­tle.

Bartley is chief rac­ing writer at The Age and his en­thu­si­asm for the sport rolls through this book. He is at his best re­count­ing big races — the lead-up, the tac­tics, the un­fold­ing of the ac­tion, the af­ter­math — and the big punt­ing that ac­com­pa­nies them. I was sur­prised to read of the huge amounts train­ers such as Cum­mings and An­gus Ar­manasco, the ge­nius con­di­tioner of two-year-olds, would wa­ger in their hey­day.

The Hyperno chap­ter, with Cum­mings at his wily best, pulling a swifty on Hig­gins, is a stand­out ex­am­ple, as is the ac­count of leg­endary English jockey Lester Pig­gott and Hig­gins fight­ing out a fin­ish at an in­vi­ta­tional race meet­ing in New Zealand.

Then there’s Robert Smer­don, now a lead­ing trainer, then a star ap­pren­tice, be­ing given a rude rid­ing les­son by Hig­gins in the early 1970s.

The two jock­eys both started on the out­side of the 18-horse field and soon after the bar­ri­ers opened Smer­don “heard the voice and knew it was that un­mis­tak­able Hig­gins call’’. Hig­gins was guid­ing the younger rider to­wards the run­ning rail — “You’re good as gold. Keep com­ing in, keep com­ing in’’ — when sud­denly other jock­eys started squeal­ing, then scream­ing: “… what the eff­ing hell are you do­ing?’’

By the time the horses en­tered the straight, Smer­don “cal­cu­lated he had decked about eight jock­eys’’. Hig­gins kicked away and won the race; his young ri­val headed for the stew­ards’ room and a month’s sus­pen­sion. It is a thrilling ex­am­ple of the killer in­stinct that made Hig­gins, a gen­tle­man through and through, a great rider, the “pun­ters’ pal’’.

There are some cracking off-track sto­ries, too, such as the poker night which saw Hig­gins, who didn’t mind a whisky, crash into a glass cab­i­net at the home of fel­low hoop Jim John­son. “Aus­tralia’s sec­ond best jockey was there with a pair of pli­ers, try­ing to pick the glass from his back’’. That “sec­ond-best’’ de­scrip­tion of John­son makes me laugh. And I like the one about Hig­gins and his wife Ge­nine call­ing the Mel­bourne Her­ald’s Paris cor­re­spon­dent to help them ne­go­ti­ate a French menu. Bartley pays due re­spect to Hig­gins’s post-sad­dle ca­reer as a rac­ing an­a­lyst and com­men­ta­tor — he was a pi­o­neer of the on-horse­back, post-race in­ter­view — and his mar­riage and fam­ily life.

There is a bit of rep­e­ti­tion — we are told sev­eral times that Hig­gins had the best of both worlds rid­ing for Cum­mings and Ar­manasco – and one se­ri­ous mis­take — Gala Supreme won the Cup in 1973 not 1972 (that was Pip­ing Lane) — that should be fixed in fu­ture edi­tions.

But this book will be a treat for rac­ing fans, es­pe­cially those of a cer­tain vin­tage. In telling Hig­gins’s re­mark­able life story, Bartley also takes us back to by­gone days when jazz bands and sushi tents were con­sid­ered in­ap­pro­pri­ate ac­cou­trements on a race­course. He is ex­cel­lent on the ri­valry be­tween Hig­gins and White, who badly dam­aged his left eye in a fall in the 1969 Caulfield Cup but kept it more or less se­cret: “Here was an era where Mel­bourne’s top two jock­eys bat­tled life­long health is­sues. In White’s case he was par­tially blind; in Hig­gins’s case, he was starv­ing for 30 years.’’

The au­thor first met Hig­gins in the late 1970s (he tells a lovely story about that ini­tial en­counter) and in­ter­viewed him many times. He com­bines this first-hand knowl­edge with sec­ondary sources in this richly-de­tailed book. The chap­ters are deftly in­ter­spersed with stand­alone trib­utes by jock­eys (Mick Dittman, Alf Matthews), train­ers (Chris Waller, Gai Water­house), race call­ers and com­men­ta­tors. And it is one of th­ese, by our great­est rac­ing writer, Les Carlyon, that best sums up the jockey and the man. It’s from Carlyon’s eu­logy at Hig­gins’s fu­neral: Statis­tics alone don’t al­ways ex­plain a sports­man’s great­ness. They don’t ex­plain Roy’s freak­ish re­flexes. No one could read a race like he could. He saw trou­ble be­fore it came. No one could ride a fin­ish like Roy. No one could bring so much art to des­per­a­tion. Roy is a re­minder that jock­ey­ing is a thing of the mind as well as the body. [He] came about as close as any­one ever comes to be­ing uni­ver­sally loved. The phrase “elite sports­man’’ wasn’t around when he was rid­ing. If it had been, he would have given it the good name it doesn’t al­ways en­joy to­day.

Horse rac­ing is based on weights and mea­sures. The most dis­pro­por­tion­ate of th­ese is be­tween horse (500-600kg) and rider (50-55kg). The temp­ta­tion, surely, must be to hold on tight. It was that first men­tor, Jim Wat­ters, who taught Hig­gins the se­cret to suc­cess: “a jockey had to have a strong grip on the reins, but the horse it­self should not feel that strong grip’’.

I was for­tu­nate enough to see Hig­gins ride; White too. It’s a long time ago now — though read­ing this book makes it feel a lit­tle less so.

Roy Hig­gins with Gun­synd after the horse’s fi­nal race in 1973, left; Hig­gins on Sala­man­der (inside) is pipped in the 1979 Mel­bourne Cup by Harry White on Hyperno, bot­tom left; the jockey with 1965 Mel­bourne Cup win­ner Light Fin­gers and Bart Cum­mings

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