HE WAS THE REINING CHAMPION
GENTLEMANLY, QUIET AND COURTEOUS WITH A GREAT MANE OF SILVERY HAIR IS HOW RAY THOMAS FONDLY RECALLS BART CUMMINGS, THE MAN WHO WON 12 MELBOURNE CUPS
THE man had an aura about him. With that great mane of silvery hair – and those eyebrows – Bart Cummings was instantly recognisable.
I remember the first time I ever interviewed him. It was after the Wakeful Stakes in 1989 and I had to report on the race for the old Sunday Herald broadsheet in Melbourne.
Cummings was the trainer of the outstanding Tristanagh, who was dominating the fillies classics that spring and had just romped home in the Stakes.
I listened as more experienced journalists questioned Cummings about Tristanagh before I plucked up the courage to ask the great trainer where she ranked with his best fillies.
“I don’t know,’’ Cummings replied. “I’ve had some good ones.”
Then two days later at early morning Flemington trackwork, I walked past the “Cups King” and quietly said: “Good morning, Mr Cummings.’’
Cummings offered his hand, asked my name and said: “Call me Bart.’’
As a sports-mad schoolboy during the ’70s, I grew up marvelling at Cummings’s ability to prepare champion racehorses to win Melbourne Cups, Golden Slippers and just about everything else, so for this junior reporter, I was humbled and have never forgotten this simple, but kind, gesture.
Cummings was gentlemanly, polite and courteous, never refused an interview, always made me feel at ease – but he would let me know quietly and firmly if his time was limited.
Despite his longevity and extraordinary success, fame didn’t change him.
I once asked him how he coped with the pressure of being Bart Cummings.
“I don’t think about it [fame] much,’’ he said. “S’pose it’s good people recognise me because it means they are taking an interest in racing.’’
I also learnt Bart lived for tomorrow. He rarely, if ever, spent energy reflecting on his career.
In 2003, I rang the maestro to request an interview as he was about to pass a significant milestone – 50 years as a trainer.
Cummings listened as I explained the reason for the interview request before there was a lengthy pause. Finally, he replied: “No, you have to be wrong.’’
“But you have Bart, the record books say you started in the autumn of 1953,’’ I replied.
“Hang on a minute,’’ said Cummings as he shuffled some papers and did some checking of his own.
“Yeah, you’re right,’’ he said. “I didn’t know it had been 50 years. 50 years? Time goes quickly when you are enjoying yourself.’’
His training record was truly Bradmanesque: 12 Melbourne Cups, seven Caulfield Cups, 13 Australian Cups, five Cox Plates, four Golden Slippers, 32 Derbies, 24 Oaks ... 268 Group 1 wins in total, and an estimated 8000plus race wins. I once asked him if there was a secret to his success. Cummings h C pondered the answer, then gave an insight into what makes a great racehorse trainer – and for him it began in 1950.
His father Jim was a trainer and won the Melbourne Cup that year with the champion Comic Court.
Bart was the horse’s strapper and recalls success that day as a life-changing moment.
“When Dad won the Cup you could say it gave me a bit of ambition,’’ Cummings said.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do before that day.’’
Cummings says he learnt a lot about training racehorses from his father.
“Dad knew about horses,’’ Cummings recalled. “He used to work at a station in the Northern Territory and rode the 1910 Alice Springs Cup winner.
“They used to breed and sell horses at the station as remounts to India. Dad used to do the lot – raise them, feed them, train them and then ride them down to Port Augusta, where they were put on a ship for India.
“He realised there was no future in that and gave it away after a couple of years.
“The only pay he received was two horses and a pony.
“He rode them down to Adelaide and started training not long after that.
“I guess it was good grounding for him, the best way to learn about horses.’’
Bart took out a trainer’s licence in 1953 and in his own words, he wasn’t an overnight success. It took him two years to train his first winner.
“I had about half a dozen in work but it wasn’t easy back then. It was pretty tough,’’ Cummings said.
“It was only when I went to New Zealand to buy my own horses that I started to have some success.
“I decided unless I buy my own horses, I’ve got no hope.’’
Cummings had what they call in the racing game “the eye’’ for purchasing yearlings – that indefinable, inherent quality that only the truly gifted horseperson has.
Few if anyone did it better than Cummings.
His champions read like a “who’s who’’ of Australian racing: Storm Queen, Galilee, Light Fingers, Century, Tontonan, Leica Show, Leica Lover, Dayana, Taj Rossi, Leilani, Think Big, Lord Dudley, Maybe Mahal, Cap D’Antibes, Ming Dynasty, Hyperno, Luskin Star, Best Western, Campaign King, Beau Zam, Shaftesbury Avenue, Let’s Elope, Saintly, Dane Ripper, Viewed, So You Think.
I tried many times to get Bart to rate his champions, but he was always reluctant to do so.
“They have all been pretty good horses and their owners are good friends of mine so I wouldn’t want to rate one over the other,’’ he once said.
He eventually conceded that Galilee, Saintly and So You Think ( ridden to a 2009 Cox Plate win by Glen Boss, pictured below left) were the pick of the champs. The only trainers with comparable records to Cummings were his late, great rivals Tommy Smith and Colin Hayes. When I once asked Bart about Smith and Hayes, he recalled them with humour and reverence.
“Tommy Smith was a good competitor ... always a constant irritation though. Colin Hayes was the same – to a lesser degree,’’ he laughingly replied.
Cummings always said training racehorses was “a way of life” – and what a life it was.
In one of my last interviews with Cummings, I asked him to describe himself. The answer was so typical of the man.
“I’m just an ordinary sort of fellow ... can train a bit though.”