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Horse racing is much more than an excuse for gambling. It is a love for the beauty, grace and speed of the horse. It can also be an intellectual battle of examining competing facts and trying to formulate the future from results of the past. In some ways it is an investigation, as performed by an eager detective. And in other ways it can be the thrill of a crossword puzzle, with multiple possible responses, but ultimately only one correct answer. It is a thing of beauty as much as it is a matter of commerce. I have been involved with horse racing in both practical and intellectual ways. From time spent as an apprentice jockey, to later the research of bloodlines in the multimillion dollar world of thoroughbred breeding and sales. And for the past seventeen years I have provided speedrating information to the racing industry and public through my company: Speedratings - Leonard Marlborough.


May 13th 2008 09:34
A simple question, or so it appears at face value: how many aboriginal jockeys have won a Melbourne Cup?

The Melbourne Cup of nineteen seventy-three was run in bright sunshine. Less than three weeks earlier we witnessed a Caulfield Cup run on the heaviest of tracks. I had decided quite early that Gala Supreme would win one or both Cups, and took him in doubles to do so. And watching the torrential rain fall every day leading up to the Caulfield Cup I grew even more confident for this horse so adept on a wet track. And he did not disappoint with his brave effort in the mud: but unfortunately one horse proved even better than he in the wet conditions, the New Zealand mare, Swell Time.

Gala Supreme wins Melbourne Cup
Gala Supreme wins Melbourne Cup

The changeable weather was not unusual. This was the weather of the old Melbourne when rain was common and often heavy, and sunshine only a moment away. Gala Supreme was as adaptable to change as we also needed to be (with umbrellas and sunglasses twin accessories on any day. Sometimes optimistic. Sometimes both tools equally useful).

I had all my bets on Gala Supreme early (at odds of ten to one) and running doubles still live with Taj Rossi (a brilliant Derby winner). I stood on the lawn some two hundred metres from the finish post and watched the day unfold. My friends were captivated by the excitement and occasion, and were broke and disillusioned well before the Cup. I told them to wait for one bet. They had not. I waited. Patiently. A win such a long time in gestation.

It was a masterly ride by Frank Reys to have Gala Supreme one off the fence, not far from the leaders, coming from the outside barrier (24) as they passed me the first time. I nodded my head in appreciation (and anticipation). As they turned for home I momentarily lost sight of Gala Supreme who was now buried in a pack just behind the leaders. And then as they drew to where I stood some two hundred metres from the winning post, I saw the blue (aqua) colours of Gala Supreme squeezing through a gap left by the favourite Glengowan as he drifted off his straight course. Room enough. Gala Supreme was surging to victory as he passed me for the second time. It was only to be a narrow win, but I knew it for sure, even from my angle of uncertainty and even when the shouts and urging cries of pleading punters made the broadcast indecipherable. I could not see the winning post to be certain. I did not hear his name made clear by broadcast. But I knew he had won.

Frank Reys was a masterful jockey, and by reputation a gentleman. He had returned to riding from injury and adversity and his speech on winning that day is still remembered by many for his gentle dignity. He died quite young, at the age I am this very year (or is the dividing line of youth drawn always with the crayon of the very young? By many measures old, by some measures too young for death). I later came to be of the opinion that he was the first aboriginal jockey to win a Melbourne Cup. But on that day at Flemington I did not know.

There is debate as to whether the jockey on Archer, the horse to win the first two Melbourne Cups, was aboriginal. The history of Johnnie Cutts is shrouded in mystery. When the bulk of the white stockmen walked off the land to join the goldrush they were replaced in many instances by an aboriginal workforce. Most likely (the rumour persists) Johnnie Cutts was aboriginal, but history is less than kind in allowing us this certainty.

But we are positive that Frank Reys was preceded by at least one aboriginal jockey in the tiny figure of Peter St Albans, who won the 1876 Melbourne Cup aboard the wonder filly Briseis. At age thirteen, Peter St Albans is also the youngest person ever to win a Melbourne Cup. He secured the mount after the regular stable jockey could not make the featherweight of 6 stone and 4 pounds. Peter had an earlier (and even younger) victory aboard Briseis when, as a twelve year old, he rode her to win the Doncaster when she had only to carry 5 stone 7 pounds. By the age of seventeen Peter St Albans had won the Sires' Produce Stakes and the Geelong Cup. (his real name was Peter Bowden but he took the name of the stud where he worked. It made him sound in history more English aristocrat than featherweight native stockman. History is always deceptive on face value alone).

Peter (of uncertain surname) lived and worked at St Albans stud in Geelong with his aboriginal mother, who most likely performed domestic duties. It is rumoured that James Wilson, the owner of the stud, was his father.

Peter St Albans went on to become a successful trainer and trained Forest King who was runner-up in the 1891 Melbourne Cup. The Geelong Racing Club each year award the Peter St Albans Trophy to the champion jockey at Geelong (most wins at that circuit).

To further confuse the issue, Frank Reys referred to his background as Filipino in most interviews of the day. He believed that it would have hindered his prospects had he admitted openly to his aboriginal heritage. His daughter Shelley Reys is the director of Reconciliation Australia and a prominent voice on aboriginal affairs.

If compiling quiz question for a trivia night do not be tempted to ask:

How many aboriginal jockeys have won The Melbourne Cup?

The argument and debate most likely would rage all night.


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