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