The Melbourne Spring Carnival throws up uncertainty as quickly as the odds change in the Melbourne Cup all-in market. The favourite one day, can find himself the despised outsider. Every year we play the guessing game that is the Spring Carnival.
It’s never an exact science, and in my thirty-eight years as a racing writer, I’ve seen Caulfield Cup winners and likely Melbourne Cup victors pull out an indifferent track gallop, draw a bad barrier or rain affected track as the punters watch their hard-earned go down the drain, figuratively speaking.
In the spring of 1965, the Caulfield Cup favourite was scratched the morning of, and only one man thought she’d ever make it to the first Tuesday in November. That man of course, was arguably Australia’s greatest ever jockey – Roy Higgins. I had the pleasure of working with and relying on Higgins for information during my time as a daily paper journalist, and his account of the three incredibly crucial weeks between the two Cups was pivotal to the bond between horse and jockey that would transcend Australian racing and connect with the hearts of the general public.
After nearly falling in her final lead up to the Caulfield Cup, Light Fingers’ trainer Bart Cummings had no choice but to withdraw her from Australia’s second most important handicap. Unlike humans, you can only treat horses to a certain degree. You can’t over-medicate them because they can go off their feed. Light Fingers was a small, lightly framed mare as it was and she needed all the strength she could muster to get to the Melbourne Cup. It was a balance of easing the pain with medication, but at the same time being able to work her into fitness so that she was ready for arguably the toughest race in the Southern Hemisphere.
Ironically, she was in so much pain that she couldn’t have a jockey on her back, and instead Cummings and his team had to swim her in the Maribyrnong River, hoping that those miles of swimming would translate to miles in her legs.
Higgins told me that during this uncertain time, where his favourite horse, who he called ‘Mother’ because of her calming nature for the other horses in the stable, that he wasn’t sure she would make it to the Cup, but he was willing to forego rides on other fancied runners in the hope that she would make it.
“There was no shortage of outside offers once Light Fingers came out of the Caulfield Cup. Other stables had written her off, but I stood my ground. She had so much to offer, I was prepared to stay with her. I knew, unlike other trainers and owners, that Bart was working around the clock. My filly’s so good that if she gets to the post she just might win and if she does it would break my heart not to be her rider.”
As history tells us, this tiny chestnut mare, who had a heart as big as Phar Lap, not only made it to the barriers, but she wore down another of Cummings’ runners who was a big, strong colt and had had a faultless preparation, called Ziema. Higgins said that because Light Fingers had been used to calm Ziema down when he was being unruly around the stable, that when the colt felt her presence, he started to slow down and wait for her, which was when she stuck her neck out and did the unthinkable.
I remember visiting Higgs’ house many times over the years, and of all the winners he had ridden, and the great races he had won, the only framed photo was of Light Fingers.
Even though that was almost forty years ago, every spring carnival tells similar tales. From Big Philou in 1969 to the Caulfield Cup’s shortest-priced favourite in forty-one years, when Maldivian played up at the start and was withdrawn thirty seconds before the gates opened, the Spring throws up things that no trainer, punter or racing journalist can prepare for, but must quickly adapt to.
by Patrick Bartley
Everyone loved Roy Higgins. A warm and genuine character with a great sense of humour, the boy from the bush was known as ‘The Professor’ for his freakish ability to read the track and his easy eloquence. He became a household name not just for his work in the saddle but as one of the first jockeys to embrace the media.
Higgins’ racing record was extraordinary. He rode Bart Cummings’ first Melbourne Cup winner, Light Fingers, in 1965, and was one of a handful of jockeys to win the grand slam of racing: the Golden Slipper, Cox Plate, Caulfield Cup and Melbourne Cup. Over his 30-year career, Higgins clocked up 2312 wins, including 108 Group 1 races. All this, despite a never-ending battle with his weight.
Roy Higgins died in March 2014, aged 75. His televised funeral took place in the mounting yard at Flemington, a fitting tribute to the humble man who had a profound effect on horseracing for more than five decades as jockey, commentator and teacher.
This is a celebration of a great Australian, with racing royalty, friends and family sharing their stories and memories of Roy Higgins, the gentle trailblazer who touched their lives.
About the Author
Patrick Bartley is the chief racing writer at The Age. In 2013 he won his second Bert Wolfe Award, the Victoria Racing Media Association (VRMA) award for Media Excellence in Victoria. Leading up to that award, Patrick had won three consecutive VRMA awards for Best News Story. Patrick’s investigative reports with John Silvester, into Tony Mokbel’s racing interests in 2007, were recognised by many as highly influential pieces. Penguin published On the Punt, a collection of Patrick’s columns, in 2010.