FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME
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