Wendy Green, Sheila Laxon, Mark de Mestre and John Letts in conversation with Bryan Martin, 13 August 2010
BRYAN MARTIN: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to our third session here this afternoon. We do hope that you are enjoying today. It’s a very special time not only for horse racing but for the culture of Australia and building up to this magnificent event, the 150th Melbourne Cup. The next four guests are very important people, like everyone at our symposium today and the theme is: what does the Melbourne Cup mean to you, what has the Melbourne Cup done to your life basically. At the conclusion of this particular session we would invite your questions too. We would like you to have the chance to shoot a question to any of our panellists who are about to join us.
Can I introduce them to you: first up on my left in red is a lady whose life was changed forever back in 1999 with the win of Rogan Josh. Bart Cummings got his 12th Melbourne Cup. Would you please make welcome Wendy Green. [applause]
Alongside Wendy is a lady who absolutely etched her way into the history books and into the great record of the Melbourne Cup preparing the Melbourne Cup winner back in 2001, the champion mare Ethereal - the trainer is Sheila Laxon. [applause]
The great horse trainer, Etienne de Mestre, prepared Archer to win the first two Melbourne Cups and he won five of the first 18. He was an outstanding trainer way back. He’s not here today but his grandson is - Mark de Mestre joining us. [applause]
Alongside Mark is a gentleman who you have seen earlier bring in the holy grail, the Melbourne Cup. He has had the unique experience of winning two Melbourne Cups, a champion jockey now retired - one of the all-time greats and a wonderful ambassador for the Melbourne Cup and for racing John Letts. [applause]
Wendy, over to you. I remember in 1999 after the win by Rogan Josh, the headline was ‘Wendy in wonderland’. Tell us about the experience of owning a cup winner.
WENDY GREEN: In 1999 I was fortunate enough under the guidance of a wonderful jockey called John Marshall and a fantastic magician called Bart Cummings to beat the Godolphin stable with a horse called Rogan Josh. On that day I certainly and I think Bart Cummings as well dobbed me ‘Wendy in wonderland’. At the time you don’t realise that it’s going to be that different tomorrow. I had won races before and I can say that the feeling on the day was the same as if I had won the race at Birdsville. However, the prize was a lot bigger. That didn’t come for ages. That turned up in the post in my letter box over a million dollars a few weeks later.
So on the day, Bryan, I can honestly say I was bewildered. My second day at Flemington, my first day had been on Derby day on the Saturday where we had won also. So I was probably thinking that this was a bit of a habit. It wasn’t really until the week after that the whole implication of what it meant to become part of a dream and to join that exclusive club called the Melbourne Cup Winners Club that I realised what an impact the Melbourne Cup was having on my life, and indeed what it meant to the rest of Australia as I travelled home with the cup in the back of my car and confronted the people who were the people who stopped on that day. I confronted the people and said, ‘Wendy is this is the cup? This is the story of what it means to be an Australian.’
BRYAN MARTIN: You should tell our audience also that, in driving back from the Melbourne Cup, you were driving to Darwin.
WENDY GREEN: That is correct.
BRYAN MARTIN: There is no further point to drive to.
WENDY GREEN: No.
BRYAN MARTIN: In the back of the car you had the Melbourne Cup.
WENDY GREEN: This is correct, yes.
BRYAN MARTIN: How many stops do you reckon you made?
WENDY GREEN: Along the way there were about seven stops when we counted back on it but I think the number of people was a lot more than seven. I hadcome from Melbourne from the glamour, from the Moet and from the fashions on the field and all these glamorous ladies. I had heard stories about people dancing on tables at Maxim’s in Toorak. I was a bit tempted there at one stage because I thought that was what one did when one won a Melbourne Cup. Wherever we went as a family that week, we were celebrated and people were saying, ‘How can an unlikely horse from Western Australia, how can unlikely very naive people like yourselves almost dare to bring a horse across the Nullarbor to Melbourne and race in Melbourne?’ I should have twigged then that that was really what people were dreaming about all over the country but what people had never really believed could come to fruition.
Off we set out going home after this magnificent week in marvellous Melbourne and we thought that was it. We thought we would get home and life would settle back into what it had always been, Mrs Green the school teacher although I had this new title ‘Wendy in wonderland’ and that in itself was another wonderful thing. Just before that my son had come home from school and he said, ‘How many dads have I got?’ and I said, ‘Only one. Why?’ He said, ‘It’s not fair because the teacher at school said my friends has two dads and another one had three dads and not to worry about that, that made them very special people.’ After the Melbourne Cup Geoffrey’s teacher called me in and said, ‘I know we have had this father discussion but Geoffrey now claims he has three mothers - he’s got Wendy in wonderland, Mrs Green the teacher, and Mum.’ I suppose that was a big change too.
Back going home it was that whole empty continent thing. We knew that we had to travel all those miles back and we knew it was going to be a long road but we knew we had this cup and we knew that we had lots and lots of stories to talk about. The bush radio went ahead of us - the bush radio meaning the ABC talkback show of a night-time. The policemen, the northbound coach lines and the truckies that went ahead of us. I can tell you ghost stories that would make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, but we will get to that some other symposium. People would say, ‘Can you stop at this truck stop’ or ‘can you stop at this pub’ or ‘can you stop by this letter box? There’s a man coming in from the station.’ At first we were really puzzled by this; we didn’t understand why we should stop. But the message that came back from that loud and clear was that suddenly a real Melbourne Cup hadn’t disappeared up a sheep’s skirt and hopped on a helicopter in the middle of the infield and gone somewhere else; it was a cup in the outback of Australia travelling through the centre of Australia, and people wanted to see it. People wanted to know if it was ours to keep, if they could touch it. It wasn’t in a museum.
So we started to stop. It was at Coober Pedy where I really had an epiphany, if you like. It came to my mind that it was definitely the race that stopped a nation but it was much, much more than that. When I spoke to these immigrants from eastern Europe that had come here after the war, very hard-working, wonderful, old dignified men who had worked every day of their life, they told me their story of being an immigrant in a land of the fair go, and the Melbourne Cup - a cup that gave everyone a fair go - defined the ethos that they believed in so passionately, and to touch that cup, I am getting a bit passionate too. What they said was to touch it was to make a tangible link with a symbol of that identity, and it just blew me out of the water.
BRYAN MARTIN: We will come back to hear more about the origins of the horse out of Western Australia. Sheila, I would love to pose a couple of questions to you. You mentioned earlier as a young lady that you came out from the UK and the first stop was here in Canberra.
SHEILA LAXON: It was indeed. In fact, I understand this used to be the Canberra Hospital here and that is where I worked. My very first stop was in Canberra and I worked in Canberra Hospital for three months.
BRYAN MARTIN: You were born in Wales?
SHEILA LAXON: I was.
BRYAN MARTIN: You actually got a licence to drive double decker buses in England; is that right?
SHEILA LAXON: Yes.
BRYAN MARTIN: You have been involved in horses all the way through your life.
SHEILA LAXON: Yes, mum used to have the beach ponies come to our place for the winter holidays so we learnt to ride on them. They were very naughty. We didn’t have saddles or anything posh like that so we learnt to ride bare back. They would buck us off or roll in the grass to get us off. That was a very good grounding of learning how to read horses and outsmart them.
BRYAN MARTIN: It is quite unique what you achieved in winning the Melbourne Cup as a trainer and the first official female trainer of a Melbourne Cup winner. You were in another life married to Laurie Laxon who prepared Empire Rose, so a husband and wife who have both trained a Melbourne Cup winner.
SHEILA LAXON: Yes, and 13 is very significant. It was 13 years since Empire Rose won the Cup when Ethereal won the Cup. That was another significant 13 on my way through to the Melbourne Cup.
BRYAN MARTIN: What was your first inkling about this great race, this iconic event here?
SHEILA LAXON: Would you believe I was talking to somebody horsey when I arrived in Canberra and he was going on about this Melbourne Cup. I must have looked a bit ‘what’s he talking about’. I had been involved with racehorses in England to some extent but I hadn’t heard of the Melbourne Cup. I think his amazement that I had never heard of it made me recall that yes, I remember that day, I hadn’t heard of the Melbourne Cup and he could not believe that someone didn’t know about the Cup. So many years later it became a significant part of my life, but his horror - you can’t mean that. It was his reaction that made me think this must be a pretty special race.
BRYAN MARTIN: The mare Ethereal came through and won the Queensland Oaks. You brought the horse from New Zealand. You travelled over from New Zealand and won the lead-up to the Queensland Oaks. So she really was the star three-year-old at that time of the year here in Australia up in Brisbane. You then set the horse on a Caulfield Cup course originally. Was the Melbourne Cup always on the radar or was it just the Caulfield Cup?
SHEILA LAXON: She had been nominated for the Melbourne Cup so I guess that was also a possibility. But I know after she won the Caulfield Cup the owners were very adamant that they weren’t going to carry on to the Melbourne Cup and they wanted to set her for the Hong Kong Cup which her Mum had won some years previously. If that’s what they want to do, that’s owners privileges. But when I started working her after she had a day or two off after the Caulfield Cup she was so incredibly well. I remember talking to Peter and saying, ‘I really think you should consider the Melbourne Cup. She just bouncing out of her skin. She feels fantastic.’ Don’t you talk to me about that. We’re going for the Hong Kong Cup. So from there on in it was my game plan to be able to change his mind.
BRYAN MARTIN: And it rained through the night before that Cup in 2001. Was that going to play into your hands?
SHEILA LAXON: Not really. She won the Oaks on a very good track and I did think that she needed fairly good footing to see her best. The Caulfield Cup was a slow track although compared to New Zealand standards it was probably a good track. I was really happy with her on the morning. I took her out for some exercise and I came back thinking she has never been better, she has to give it her best shot today. That’s when I heard it had been raining down there all the time and it was quite wet. I must say I was very anxious about whether she would handle the distance on a wet track. I did go into the race feeling quite pessimistic about her chances, I must say.
BRYAN MARTIN: When did you realise that she was a real winning chance?
SHEILA LAXON: Scott just straightened up, sat there and sat there, and next minute I just see him go and she wins. But when I saw the replay I thought how could I have been so confident, there wasn’t that much in it.
BRYAN MARTIN: Extraordinary win. Mark, it’s fantastic to have you. the grandson of Etienne de Mestre, who in the initial years of the Melbourne Cup going back 149 years etched a place in Melbourne Cup history akin to Bart Cummings winning the first two with Archer. The first question I have to ask you: can you lay to rest did the horse walk to Flemington or did it come by ship.
MARK de MESTRE: The horse was shipped to Sydney and then put on another ship and shipped through to Melbourne. Archer never walked to Melbourne, although I believe some of Etienne’s other horses did. History shows that they walked horses from Sydney down to Nowra. On a few occasions they sent them by train out to Liverpool and then walked them down to Nowra. You would wonder them why, sending them by train to Liverpool. No, that’s a myth. Andrew alluded to it today, and you quizzed me last night about it.
BRYAN MARTIN: Archer beat the same horse both years in 1861 and 1862? The horse who ran second ran second in both races. What happened in 1863?
MARK de MESTRE: In 1863 Etienne sent his application or his nomination in to the VRC or to the committee as it was then, and it arrived on a Wednesday and the Wednesday was a public holiday in Melbourne - Succession Day, I think it was - but only the Victorians knew it was a public holiday. So his application was looked at the next morning and the stewards said, ‘No, it’s too late, we won’t accept him,’ and he was favourite to win. All the Victorian and the New South Wales trainers and owners appealed against this but the committee wouldn’t go back, so all the New South Wales trainers and owners withdrew their horses from that race and there were only seven horses that ran in the 1863 Melbourne Cup. It was won by a Victorian obviously.
BRYAN MARTIN: That was the year Banker who won the race?
MARK de MESTRE: I am not sure.
BRYAN MARTIN: The Victoria Racing Club was formed one year after that in 1864. It’s an extraordinary story - five cups in 18 years.
MARK de MESTRE: After the 1863 adventure he said he would never race there again but he did come back and won three more.
BRYAN MARTIN: We heard Andrew [Lemon] talk the two Tim Whifflers. Coming from interstate he prepared Sydney Tim Whiffler.
MARK de MESTRE: Yes, against Melbourne Tim Whiffler.
BRYAN MARTIN: John Letts, in 1972 you came to Flemington for the first time to take a ride in the Melbourne Cup.
JOHN LETTS: I had never been over the border from South Australia. In November 1968 I rode the great Rain Lover in the Adelaide Cup and I was going to ride him in the Melbourne Cup, I thought. Grahame Heagney who trained the horse said after the race, ‘You’ll ride him in the Melbourne Cup.’ A jockey’s dream is to win a Melbourne Cup, mine was to ride in it. And of course we lost the horse to Micky Robins and Jimmy Johnson was Micky’s rider. I had to watch him from Balaclava that day and he won the Melbourne Cup by eight lengths. A year later, just to make me feel good, he won it again. Then I thought this will never happen to me. Sometimes in your life you get one opportunity and it’s gone, and I thought it will never happen. In 1972 I get a phone call from a friend of George Hanlon, a friend of his, to ride the horse because at that stage I had given up more or less riding in a Melbourne Cup. The phone call was on a Wednesday morning, which was six days before the Melbourne Cup, and the phone call went something like, ‘Is that John Letts?’. I said, ‘Yes’ and I was just going to the Gawler races. The guy at the other side said, ‘Have you got a ride in the Melbourne Cup next Tuesday?’ I started to think which ones of my mates go out Tuesday night and drink. I really could have lost the ride in the Melbourne Cup because my answer was, ‘Look, I haven’t taken one at the moment but I am waiting on Bart Cummings, Colin Hayes or Tommy Smith to ring me.’ The guy said, ‘I am ringing up for George Hanlon. He’s got a horse called Piping Lane in the Melbourne Cup.’ I said, ‘What weight has he got?’ He said, ‘48 kilos’. I had to struggle to ride the weight but I thought this is my chance to ride in it. I had never heard of Piping Lane. I said, ‘I will be there next week to ride him in the Melbourne Cup.’
So I went over on Sunday. I will have a look at Flemington on Monday and I slept in. So I thought I better go and have a look Tuesday because I am riding there in the afternoon and I actually slept in again. Then I said to the young girl at the motel, ‘Could you get me a cab to get to the races please?’ She said, ‘You won’t get a cab today,’ and this is the year of 110,000 people. Luckily for me my brother was in Melbourne playing golf. I left a message with him, ‘You better pick me up and take me to the races, I have got a ride in the Melbourne Cup and I can’t get there.’ So he came round and he picked me up. Nothing had gone right at this stage towards this run in the Melbourne Cup. Because on the Saturday night, going back a couple of nights, I went on a TV program and the guy said, ‘You have got a ride in the Melbourne Cup,’ which was a big deal for an Adelaide jockey to get a ride in the Melbourne Cup. He sat me down and he said straight to air, I will ask you a few questions, ‘You are riding in the Melbourne Cup Tuesday, John.’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Are you excited?’ I said, ‘Yes’. He said, ‘Do you know the horse?’ I said, ‘I know everything about him. I have watched all his form, I’ve watched the replays, I’ve seen all the tapes on him, I’ve done everything; I know everything about him.’ He said, ‘What’s his name?’ I said, ‘Palace Lane’. He said, ‘You mean Piping Lane?’ I said, ‘Yes, that’s the one.’
You know the stories that come out of Melbourne Cups. I got to the races. You know Flemington - I had never experienced anything like that in my life. One hundred and ten thousand people and the most I had ridden in front of was 20. We pull in the gate. My brother pulls in. It’s Melbourne Cup day and you drive into the members and you drop people off again and you drive out again like out of a horseshoe. My brother dropped me off and I got out of the car and I will never forget this. I had my suit on, I had a saddle on this arm and I had my race bag in this hand. I went to the members gate - I was that high - and I went to walk through the gate and the guy there, on the one day of the year they get the white coat and sheriff’s badge, said, ‘What do you want?’ I was the size of a pigmy; I had a saddle on this arm; I had a race bag full of gear in this hand; and it was Melbourne Cup day. I said, ‘I am the plumber,’ and I thought I would be smart. And he was smarter. He said, ‘The plumber’s gate down there.’
So I walk into the room and you can imagine you walk into a room as big as this at Flemington. There’s Roy Higgins, Harry White, Pat Hyland and there’s Midge Didham, the Skelton boys - they were all there - and I thought, ‘What am I doing? I’m on a 80:1 or 100:1 chance; I have no chance in the race.’ There is a story out of the Melbourne Cup but just cutting that short, I went out in the mounting yard and I had never met George Hanlon and I didn’t meet the owner before the race. He had four runners, George. I went out in the mounting yard; I got no instructions, nothing. I met Piping Lane 10 minutes before the race. I never seen him again ever.
The sad part of that for me was we had a reunion some 28 years later and I went to Launceston to see him again. I got there the day after he died. It was going to be the reunion, because to me he was my path in life. I never had the chance to thank him because, as you know, after the presentation the horse walks, the jockey walks, the presentations are there. I never had the chance to thank him. When I went to get on him in the mounting yard I had never met the connection, no nothing. When I to get legged up I said to the young girl that was leading the horse around, ‘Where do you ride this horse, front, back, side wherever?’ She said, ‘I don’t know but you’d better ride him properly.’
I was sitting in the gates and I will never forget this: Neville Voight was sitting alongside me on a horse called Hay burner. I went out in the race and I have spoken this story - can I tell the Chicquita Lodge story?
BRYAN MARTIN: Absolutely yes.
JOHN LETTS: What happened is before I went out to the race, I spoke to Harry White and I said to Harry, ‘Where do you make your run at Flemington?’ because I knew Harry when he and Roy Higgins had come to Adelaide. Harry said, ‘Jump him out of the gate, son, and put him to sleep. When you get to Chikita Lodge get into the race. That’s where we all get serious.’ I thought Chikita Lodge - plan A. Now I didn’t know Chikita Lodge was a racing stable on the outside of Flemington. I thought Chiquita Lodge would be a 30-storey high big tall lodge like a motel with a big sign on the top that said Chiquita Lodge. So I went out into the race and I think plan A - right, I will go to sleep like Harry said, get around to Chiquita Lodge and get into the race. It’s a racing stable at the 1,000 metres at Flemington.
So I get down to the barrier and I’m thinking - there are 24 of us in it. I hadn’t done a lot of studying on the race because I didn’t think I had much chance. I was sitting in the gate and I thought, ‘I ought to have another plan in case the first one doesn’t work. That’s a long way to go before anything happens so I will put that to plan B and I will have plan A.’ I was sitting in the gate alongside Neville Boyd who was on a horse called Hay burner, a stablemate, and 110,000 people out there. I said to Neville, ‘What do you think?’ because I didn’t know Neville; he was from Sydney. He said, ‘Not much.’ I said, ‘Have you got a chance?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘These are stablemates,’ conversation nerves, I suppose. He said, ‘Nor is yours, no chance.’ And all of a sudden I felt really confident.
I was sitting there and Higgs went alongside me on Gunsynd. He was the only grey horse in the race; he drew 10 and I drew 11. I thought Roy has been around; he’s won a couple of these. Plan A might be that I follow Gunsynd. He’s the only grey in the race and I thought I can’t miss him unless of course the clerk of the course joins in and then there’s a couple of them. So we are sitting in the gate and we’re ready to go. I will never talking to one of the American jockeys and he described to me about the Kentucky Derby how you hit the wall when you jump out of the barrier and you also hit that wall when you turn for home again. I was sitting in the gate there and I thought, ‘Wherever you go, Higgs, I’ll be right on your back, one step behind you.’ We jumped out of the barrier and the wall was there - whoosh. For the first time in his life Gunsynd missed the jump and I was in front of him. I thought, ‘Well if Higgins is going to follow me he’s in for a shock because I actually don’t know where I am going.’
Anyway we went down the straight the first time and I go out the straight and I’m thinking Chicquita Lodge - no, it’s not there at the 2000; it’s not there at the 1600; it’s not there at the 1400; it’s not there at the 1200 - I thought they must have pulled it down last night. We get to the 1000 metres and all of a sudden right alongside me there is the old grey head Gunsynd. I thought, ‘Higgs is off so am I.’ There was about 12 jockeys in the race who were following Higgins. But one of the things that you never ever forget in your life is when Roy went, I went and so did all the others because they were following the champ, they were following Higgs. We turned for home and I was running 11th, and there was 22 in the race.
I thought my first ride in the Melbourne Cup might be my last but I am going to beat half of them home; I have something to remember - I thought that at the top of the straight. Then I got down a bit closer I was 11th, 10th, 9th, eighth, seventh - and when you don’t know the place, I didn’t know Flemington, I thought I know the winning post is right down there and I am starting to pass a few of these blokes. I get down with 100 metres to go and there was a mare in the race called Magnifique and the favourite - Brucey Marsh rode her. A memory that will never leave my mind, and it was what I thought and excuse me for saying this, ‘Fall over you bitch,’ and she slowed up. So I went on and won the Melbourne Cup.
I went over the line and I thought, ‘I’ve won a race at Flemington, you beauty.’ Harry White came up and hit me on the back and said, ‘Good luck to you, son, you have won the Melbourne Cup.’ And I thought, ‘I’ve won the Melbourne Cup.’ I just couldn’t believe it. I went out on the track not knowing anybody. Like Wendy said with the fathers, I come back and I had that many fathers along the fence and mothers - they were all there and they got there within three minutes. I went back in, and you’re it. As you can recall, Bryan, because you were with me until five that next morning, and I am sitting down and one of the greats of Australian racing was a guy named Billy Cook. Billy came up to me and he said something which has stuck in my mind, ‘Son, this is the day in your life. Everything is going to change from today.’ I thought it’s the Melbourne Cup another race but I didn’t realise the impact it would have on your life.
I was sitting in there and I put my suit on. I get ready to go out and the stewards intercom comes on - J Letts to the stewards room please. I thought even the stewards over here are nice; they are going to congratulate me on my ride; they must do that here. They took me into the room and they said, ‘J Letts, you rode Piping Lane in the Melbourne Cup?’ I knew I had so I thought I will get one right. I said, ‘Yes, sir, I did.’ He said, ‘Your whip action, you hit him in front of the saddle.’ I said, ‘That’s right.’ He said, ‘Don’t you realise that you are not allowed to hit him in front of the saddle in Victoria?’ I said, ‘No sir, as a matter of fact, I didn’t.’ He said, ‘We are either going to fine or suspend you.’ I said, ‘Thank you sir.’ They send you out. They only send you out for a little while. I went outside. Then they took me back in after about 30 seconds and said, ‘J Letts, can you give us a reason for hitting him there in front of the saddle?’ I said, ‘No, sir, I can’t.’ They said, ‘It’s going to be a fine or a suspension. You can’t give us a reason. Wait outside.’ That was the second time. They took me in a third time - you can’t give us a reason. I said, ‘No, sir, I can’t give you a reason.’ He said, ‘Okay, we’re going to pass sentence - out.’ Back in again the fourth time and when I went in I thought - they have given me so many opportunities to give them a reason, I better give them one. When I went back in they said, ‘It is either going to be a fine or a suspension. You can’t give us a reason.’ I said, ‘Excuse me, gentlemen’ - I thought they would never have been called that before, that will help me a little bit - put yourself in my position, there are 110,000 people out there today. I got to the front at the 100 metres. I was going to hit that old B - I won’t swear now but I did then - wherever he had hair.’ They said, ‘Wait outside.’ So I came back in and they said, ‘J Letts, under rule LR48 we are fining you $100.’ I said, ‘Thank you, sir.’ They said, ‘That’s not for hitting in front of the saddle, that’s for swearing in the stewards room.’ That was my introduction to Melbourne racing, but it wasn’t a bad introduction.
BRYAN MARTIN: A fantastic introduction. John touched on how his life changed forever winning on Piping Lane and we will talk about Beldale Ball a bit later. What did it do to you that day in 2001, Sheila?
SHEILA LAXON: It was amazing how recognised you are wherever you go. I had a bit of trouble - I know on the Thursday I said I would go shopping for my daughter because she’d been bad at school and wasn’t allowed to come to the Cup to watch - that’s another story. I had done afternoon stables and gone back to the place where I was staying. They had gone out and I hadn’t got a key to get in so I just went down in my scruffy stable gear and ended up in the shopping mall, and the people there that were just following me around wanting autographs. I was mortified because I looked so scruffy. On the way out we went past a shop that sold wigs that we grabbed a blond wig and I wore that for quite a long time until I managed to accommodate myself. The reception you get from people is just amazing. If you have never been used to having that. You would have found the same, Wendy, that whenever you go anywhere they know who you are. From being miss nobody to somebody who is recognised wherever they went - not so much now but then - it was quite difficult to get used to.
BRYAN MARTIN: It seems to be the only sport that does this, that gives you this star status, and it’s something that stays with you. It is as though people want to be a part of it with you.
WENDY GREEN: Winning the Melbourne Cup certainly, but I think I’m a bit like Mr Letts over here; I just wanted to get the horse to Melbourne and race in the Cup. You say it’s probably the only sport. I actually won a trophy once for tenpin bowling and I have to agree with you I didn’t get the same recognition.
BRYAN MARTIN: I have to ask: how in the hell did you come up with a name like Rogan Josh, it’s something off an Indian menu? Why didn’t you call it Tandoori chicken?
WENDY GREEN: We tried. We had to put three names in. I didn’t realise then that you could ring the board and say, ‘Is this name taken? Can I have this name?’ Yes, Tandoori trader was the name we submitted, along with Vindaloo and Rogan Josh, so we were really on to the curries and the spices. Rogan Josh’s mother was a horse called Eastern Mystique and the sire was Old Spice. We thought Posh Spice and Victoria Beckham and all those names and we realised that probably we couldn’t name it after a real person and we thought about the curry counter in Coles. So we went off to the spice rack at Coles. There were some fabulous names there. I can’t believe that everyone doesn’t do this. It was a purple packet. People who are superstitious and do have dreams tend to win Melbourne Cups, and being very superstitious I liked the purple packet which was Rogan Josh. That was the third name, and the powers that be said you can call him Rogan Josh.
BRYAN MARTIN: How did Bart Cummings come into the equation? Was it after the running of the Perth Cup?
WENDY GREEN: It was indeed but there is always a long history of getting to a Melbourne Cup. I think I heard this morning a quote that racing has long been a misogynous sport and women haven’t had a role in racing, and that’s very true. I come from a family of bushies who have had a long association with horses. Girls in my family really didn’t race horses and didn’t have much to do with it. Ironically my mother - this is one for the history books, Andrew - is the great-granddaughter of Jack Riley who was ostensibly the man from Snowy River. My father never believed this because it meant that a woman might be connected with horses and we had other roles in life.
By the time I got the horse I had that dream - we’ve got this horse, obviously anyone who gets a horse must have a chance at winning a Melbourne Cup. I think if everyone believes it, that is the belief that is the reality, isn’t it? Having fought with my brother over ownership once he realised the horse might be good, I then wrestled him away and I got him to a trainer in Perth. The Perth trainer was very good and very kind to us but more a man who said, ‘Well, you have a good horse, have a lot of fun, pay the bills and come on Sunday and you can have a pat.’ We call that ‘pat and pay’ day.
After the Perth Cup - Bart Cummings was on the track that day. We were beaten by a horse first up over 3200 metres. It was a horse called King of Saxony owned by the Miller family. We were by far the best horse in the race. We had an armed guard on our horse on the day because the first five favourites had armed guards, but the first up over 3200 metres didn’t have an armed guard and beat us. I was devastated, furious and heartbroken; and I said, ‘I am not racing in Western Australia any more.’ They said, ‘You can’t take a horse across the Nullarbor to Melbourne. We don’t do that.’ I think there had been Heron Bridge and one other somewhere that had done good stuff. I said, ‘No, I am taking him to Max Lee’s in Newcastle.’ They said, ‘Do you know Max Lee?’ I said, ‘No, but I am taking him to Max Lee’s.’ They thought I had really lost my marbles and they said, ‘You think you are going to win a Melbourne Cup. You have got a handy Western Australian horse that has won a Bunbury Cup. Why do you think you can do this?’ I said, ‘Because I know it’s true.’ They said, ‘Look, we know someone who knows someone who works in Bart Cummings stable who knows Bart Cummings’ foreman. If we going to go to the eastern states, perhaps we could contact Bart Cummings.’ I said, ‘That’s good.’ No-one knew Bart Cummings - I all knew him but no-one was game enough to ring him up. I don’t think anyone knew how to genuflect.
Anyhow, eventually through a whole chain of people, we got a message to Bart - through Jo Agresta it was. It came back through the stable back down to me ‘Bart would be delighted to have your horse.’ But of course I never spoke to Bart. I never had the opportunity to even speak to the stable, but we duly put him on a horse with some Western Australian water, spelled him half way across the Nullarbor, gave him a drink of water and he got to Bart Cummings’ stable. At that point we lost track of him. We didn’t know who to ring up, didn’t know what questions to ask, didn’t know where to go.
BRYAN MARTIN: I bet you still got the bills.
SHEILA LAXON: Well it was true what someone said last night, it was $105 a day but $130 a day if I dared speak to him. I was working three jobs just to get to this point and there was no way I was going to pay $130 a day. Everyone was saying to me, ‘You will be the laughing stock of Western Australia if you do this. You cannot do these things in racing.’ Of course, all the blokes were saying, ‘You can’t give a woman a racehorse and expect her to know what to do.’ It was quite a horrible situation.
Eventually Reg Fleming got to be foreman at Bart Cummings’ stables and we got a phone call from him and he said, ‘Mr Cummings has said that you should watch the race’ not are you coming down to see the race. I think he wondered who we were. He said, ‘You should win at Mooney Valley on Friday night.’ So we put the house on it and came sixth. Anyhow, afterwards Robert said, ‘Don’t drink champagne tonight and don’t ring the stables, we would like to make a good impression if we are going to contact Bart Cummings about racing,’ and I really was as wild as I was on Perth Cup day. Robert went to bed so I rang the stable. Bart of course wasn’t at Saintly Place that night. He was probably with the owner somewhere else that had won that night. I said, ‘I am very disappointed in Mr Cummings and I’m very disappointed in the stable. I really think it’s about time I had a say in the direction of this horse.’ They said, ‘You’ve always had a say. Why haven’t you rung us?’ I said, ‘All right. You will be hearing more from me.’
The next morning the phone rings as I am getting ready to go to school, ‘Hello?’ and it was ‘Good-day, it’s Bart here. Something happened last night, I hear you rang the stable. Neighbours unhappy?’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘Throw stones on your roof?’ ‘No,’ I said. He said ‘Your neighbours don’t know what we’re doing in Melbourne and they’re telling you that I’m not a good trainer?’ ‘No, and I would never say that, Mr Cummings.’ ‘All right,’ he said, ‘I don’t know what went wrong, he’s eating up today; he’s a good handy horse. I think I can do something with him. I will be in Darwin next week, I’ll meet you.’ The next week he turns up, we turn up, and we decide to take him out for dinner. We arranged to meet him and he says, ‘Do you have a boat?’ Of course we didn’t have a boat. I said, ‘Yes, we have.’ He said, ‘How big is it?’ I said, ‘Just one of those little tinnies.’ It was a long story and a long way to Bart Cummings’ stable. But after the dinner that night - this was just after the Darwin Cup before racing got serious down here in the eastern states in Victoria - he left and with a wink and a smile he said, ‘I think we’ve got the toast of the Spring Carnival in my stable,’ and that was a long way out. I think we were 363 at that stage on the list of nominations. It was a big deal.
BRYAN MARTIN: What about on the day, he had won the Mackinnon Stakes on the Saturday at weight for age for he dropped about eight kilos from 58 to 50, was it?
WENDY GREEN: Fifty-one he started.
BRYAN MARTIN: So he dropped seven kilos. What did Bart say to you about his chances on Cup Day?
WENDY GREEN: He’s never going to be beaten.
BRYAN MARTIN: Did you put the house on him?
WENDY GREEN: I had a good bet on the Saturday on the weight of age because he started at 16:1. That was a phenomenal race. It was Joe the track rider who said that when he got on him on the Monday, it was like hopping out of a mini minor and suddenly discover that you were driving something with a V8 motor. He said to me, ‘We’re never going to be beaten.’ Of course then all the tactics of how you are going to ride him - Bart’s is to ride them from behind; the jockeys tend to have a different idea. I remember Bart said to J Marshall when he legged him up, ‘Johnny, you ride him like an old-fashioned stayer, you don’t touch him until you get to the clock tower which is about 200 metres out. As soon as you hit that clock tower you’re into him.’ So that might be a riding whip breach there.
I remember he took him to the front, a very roughly ridden race, got right across in front of this mad field, the whole field just about come down at the 200-metre mark after they jumped and there we were behind the sheik’s horse Central Park. Frankie Detorri is on the second seat from the sheik’s stable and we sat behind most of the way. We get to about 600 out and the whole field is coming over him and Johnny is sitting there; he’s not moving. Central Park - what an incredible ride that horse put in that day - and I said, ‘Oh, John, hit him, really get into him, get him up there,’ you’re riding the race. He sat there and he sat there. In the whole field we were fourth, we were fifth, we were fourth, we were fifth and all these other horses that we were terrified of are now taking our running.
He hit the clock tower and out come the whip. John is a left-hander and the horse tended to lug so he lugged the right way, and the call started: it’s Central Park, Rogan Josh, Central Park, Rogan Josh, and it was Rogan Josh - Bart’s got his 11th Melbourne Cup. If ever a race was planned, a race was ridden to the best of someone’s ability, J Marshall has to be given the credit of sitting quietly, of riding how he was instructed. If ever you were to say: how does a magician know how to bring to fruition a dream, it was that day. That is really for me what Bart Cummings was all about and what racing was all about and what the Melbourne Cup was all about, because that day we were the underdog, the welter horse from Perth. The commentator who was on the Sky Racing Channel said that he would race naked down Collins Street if we win - he has never done it. You think: what have I done? You just have to believe. I remember I said on the microphone that day that makes me Wendy in Wonderland. I wish I was back in the staffroom at my school because that was the moment that I was overwhelmed and I knew what they would be thinking out there away from it all in a little classroom saying, ‘This is what magic is about.’
BRYAN MARTIN: Wendy, you have taken on a role as ambassador with the Melbourne Cup when it tours. You have been to London and Los Angeles; is that right?
WENDY GREEN: And Dublin, Dubai and Auckland. I have been to New York and Boston. I have been pretty lucky, haven’t I?
BRYAN MARTIN: You obviously love telling the story. What sort of reaction you see when you talk to people in foreign countries about something that you are so close to and we all are close to, what is the general reaction you get?
WENDY GREEN: It’s really incredible, and I can’t tell you why we get the reaction we did. In Dublin this year there was a wonderful audience of fantastic racing people, fantastic barons of industry, marketing people and tourism people. I would tell the story about the journey home through the centre of Australia, I talk a lot about the christening of the baby and how people interpret the cup. Even the toughest of racing men will stand up and clap after they hear our story. They all say in the same total bewilderment with which I tell the story, they come back and say, ‘What an incredible story, what an incredible statement a nation is making to itself, and what a wonderful story it is for us as horsemen to be able to live that dream with you.’
BRYAN MARTIN: Mark, what sort of memories do you have of your grandfather and what stories have been passed down from his great success?
MARK de MESTRE: I have no memories of him. He was 29 when he won the first Melbourne Cup. He died in 1916, and I was born in 1941 so there was no memories at all. But I was indoctrinated right from a very early age on the Melbourne Cup and how important it was for the family. Over the years, because I was a farmer, with all the shearers they would walk on to the property and say ‘Oh, de Mestre, Archer’ so I could have probably been called Archer; it would have been the same thing.
Very fortunately for me Rod Fitzroy and Joe McGrath asked me to participate in the Melbourne Cup tours. I have got to learn so much more about the Melbourne Cup, the history, the feeling and the emotion and excitement. It’s been absolutely wonderful. It will carry on with my two boys too.
BRYAN MARTIN: Are you still on the property?
MARK de MESTRE: I have retired.
BRYAN MARTIN: Is it at Shoalhaven?
MARK de MESTRE: The properties - one is at Bungendore and one at Yass.
BRYAN MARTIN: Etienne de Mestre established a stud farm and a racing training track at Shoalhaven; is that correct?
MARK de MESTRE: That was the original grant of land that his father got. Prosper de Mestre was given 1280 hectares on the southern side of the Shoalhaven River. Alexander Berry who was on the north side in the town of Berry had that. Etienne was the third son of Prosper out of 11 or 12 children. Young Prosper died quite early and Etienne stayed on there with his mother. He was keen on racehorses right from a very early age and became quite a master at it. He got involved with Tom Roberts from Braidwood who was a great breeder of horses. There was a syndicate up there called Hassell Royds and Roberts that bred a lot of the horses that Etienne trained so that was a great association. That is where all the Melbourne Cups are. They went back to the Royds family. They are now all in the vault at the Bank of New South Wales or Westpac in Martin Place in Sydney. I quite often get asked: what was the trophy from the first Melbourne Cup? It was a gold watch, and no-one knows where that went.
BRYAN MARTIN: John, 1980 [where you won on] Belldale Ball [trained by] Colin Hayes. You pursued that ride; you were pretty keen to ride that horse in the Cup that year?
JOHN LETTS: I watched Belldale Ball riding the Mooney Valley Cup. Roy Higgs rode him. I rode a horse for Colin Hayes in the race. She was walking around before the start in the mounting yard with the rubber grip on the bottom and she moved the plate and put a nail into her hoof. The vet was going to scratch her. Colin was there and he said, ‘Look, why don’t you let John take her to the barrier? If she’s lame, scratch her. If she’s not, let her run.’ We got around to the barrier and she was okay. So sometimes it’s fate that brings you into these Melbourne Cups.
I was following the two leaders and one of them was Belldale Ball outside the leader. I didn’t know Belldale Ball at all. I know he had won a race in South Australia at a country meeting but he had also won a race in England. He was raced by Robert Sangster. When I came in after the race, the horse that I rode, I must have been pretty spot on with it not being lame because it ran last. When I came in after the race CS was there and he said, ‘What happened?’ I said, ‘She’s not lame but something is not right.’ He said, ‘I don’t think she is up to this class.’ I said, ‘What was that horse you had in the race outside the leader?’ He said, ‘He’s a horse called Belldale Ball.’ I said, ‘Is he in the Melbourne Cup?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘I would like to ride him.’ He said, ‘I have a horse that has won four or five straight in Adelaide called Gay Tribo, he’s pretty good and I think he can win the Melbourne Cup - ride him.’ I said, ‘No, I want to ride that horse. He’s won a welter at Balaclava or somewhere. I just felt something about him.’ He rang me the next morning and he said, ‘Take your pick.’ And I said ‘Belldale Ball.’ He said, ‘Okay, you’re on him but you picked the wrong one.’
Then I spoke to Roy Higgins a week later when I was in the jockeys room at Flemington or Caulfield and I said to Higgins, ‘I took the ride on that horse in the Melbourne Cup, he’s only got 49 kilos,’ and Roy couldn’t ride under 55 or something. He said, ‘He’s not much good.’ I said, ‘Well, something is just telling me to ride him.’ On the Saturday I rode him in the Dalgetty. I was in the mounting yard and I had ridden winners for Robert Sangster in Adelaide but I had never met him. We were standing there with Colin Hayes and he had a horse in Bohemian Grove and Micky Mallyon rode him. We were standing there together and Robert Sangster said to me, ‘I would love to win this race.’ I said, ‘So would I.’ He said, ‘No, my other horse Bohemian Grove.’ I said, ‘Well, fair enough.’ So we went out in the race and of course Bohemian Grove won the race and I ran second. When we came in after the race because they all go to the winner, no-one came to me. I was just walking in and Robert Sangster came past as I was walking back and said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘You’ll win the Melbourne Cup Tuesday.’ He said, ‘Yes, he won easily today, didn’t he?’ I said, ‘No, not him, not that one, this one.’ He said, ‘You think you can beat him?’ I said, ‘That horse will never beat him again ever in his life.’ He said, ‘Are you fair dinkum?’ I said, ‘I am.’
We went upstairs to the barrier draw, and of course a couple of the press guys had heard me say this. When we went upstairs we drew barrier 24. When I am walking away the press guys are all there and they said, ‘A bit of pressure on you now, Lettsy, you have declared this to Sangster. You have drawn 24.’ I said, ‘There is no pressure on me at all because if it gets beat I will blame the barrier.’ So I went out with a clear mind. I was in the mounting yard before the race, and CS there with Robert Sangster and I said, ‘How do you want me to ride him, CS?’ He said, ‘You’re telling me he’s all right. Do what you want to.’ I said, ‘Fair enough,’ which I appreciated because he knew I liked the horse. He’s a five-year-old stallion, very well-bred horse.
So I went down to the gate and away we went and I led for the last 2000 metres. When we come in after the race they were all there and they all said, ‘You know, you were right.’ I said, ‘Yeah’. The press guys are all waiting for you. When I came out afterwards they said, ‘Can we have you straight away?’ So I came out and they said, ‘How did you get that thing to run two miles?’ I said, ‘I psyched him into it.’ You psyched him into it? I said, ‘This horse won a race in England. He loved Ascot. On the way to the barrier I sang God save the Queen to this horse. He thought he was back in England, and of course these guys start thinking this is true.’ They said, ‘That did it?’ I said, ‘No, we were walking around behind the barrier and I said, “You are a very lucky horse. We have drawn gate 24. We are last to go in. Next year your owner is the richest owner in the world with a lot of stud farms. You are a five-year-old stallion. The first Tuesday in November next year we’ll all be back here. But if you win the race, you won’t. And guess what you’ll be doing?’ They said, ‘That did it?’ I said, ‘No. As we walked in I patted him and said now don’t be nervous. But just what I tell you back there, I don’t want you to be nervous but the three guys standing there as I lead him out was Colin Hayes, Robert Sangster your owner and the veterinary surgeon. Your name is Belldale Ball.’ The vet told Colin and Robert, ‘I have had a good bet on this horse. If he doesn’t win I will be around in the morning. It will be just Belldale.’ You would run fast for two miles, wouldn’t you? It wasn’t true - they didn’t believe me but I thought I would throw them something like that.
BRYAN MARTIN: John, you retired in 1988 and had 2,350 winners in a stunning career in racing. You have taken on a new role not only as an ambassador for the Melbourne Cup but you are coming up to your seventeenth year as virtually the guy who is the first on horseback to go to the jockey who wins the Melbourne Cup. On the same horse Banjo for the 17th year this year, you are first to greet the jockeys - first to Damian Oliver in 2002, first to John Marshall with Rogan Josh. That’s extraordinary role to have.
JOHN LETTS: There are some wonderful stories out of the Emirates Melbourne Cup every year. I look at it this way. When I go out to interview the jockey I know how it’s going to change his life. I know how he is going to change - except if you are Glen Boss where you have won three or Damien has won a couple, after the first one you realise it. Some of those jockeys don’t realise how it is going to change their lives. I always put in the comparison of when I was a jockey in Adelaide I was successful but I compare it with sitting in a room with a lot of doors of opportunity and they were never going to open. When I won it in 1972 the doors started opening because a year later I was in Africa, America, Canada - all around the world. That would never have happened if I hadn’t won the Melbourne Cup. I think to myself all lucky I was that it happened to me. There’s a lot of people you want to thank.
At the age of 14 my teacher suggested I leave school - there’s another story - and he said to me, ‘Why don’t you try to become a jockey?’ I was 13 at the time. At that stage I thought they must be small and dumb because I was. I said, ‘Mr Manning, why do you think I should become a jockey?’ In those days they used to do three tests a year and they would have the exams. We would sit at a desk with a little briefcase between us. I said I would like to get my intermediate. I have never been near a horse at 13. He said, ‘You try to become a jockey.’ So I said, ‘Okay.’ They did the exams and we got down and he said, ‘When is your birthday?’ I said, ‘July.’ He said, ‘Do you turn 14 then?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘We have exams in September so I would be looking for a job in July before the exams in September.’ I said, ‘I thought I got through on my report card because in all my subjects I got an F. Mr Manning, I got an F in every subject.’ He said, ‘I know.’ I said, ‘That is fair, isn’t it?’ He said, ‘It doesn’t go down any further. What really worried me and I really feel that you should become a jockey because the kid alongside you, he’s very smart, he’s top of the class every exam. He goes top.’ I am sitting there and we have a case between us. He said, ‘I took home the exams and I marked them all. One question and answer really worried me.’ I said, ‘What was that?’ He said, ‘You know how smart he is?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘The question was who discovered Australia?’ and he put down ‘I don’t know. And your answer to the same question was ‘I don’t know either.’ So it was time to leave.
BRYAN MARTIN: I bet it was too. Just going back to going up alongside the winning rider of the Melbourne Cup, so you have been there with Damien Oliver, with Jim Cassidy and with Mick Kinane back in 1993. What happened in 2006 because the two Japanese horses Delta Blues and Pop Rock hit the line together, Damien Oliver on Pop Rock but the guy who couldn’t speak a word of English was on the winner Delta Blues and you were going to be first up there for Channel Seven and the worldwide network wanted to hear from the winning rider. What did you do?
JOHN LETTS: That was about the longest 17 days in my life because we had the Caulfield Cup and I watched the form of the Caulfield Cup. It’s always a good form guide to the Emirates Melbourne Cup. When they went over the line, I thought Pop Rock, Delta Blues, the two Japanese horses good runs. Eye Popper was a very good run when it came before. I thought there are two chances. I can’t rehearse before the race because I don’t know the winner. I don’t see the race. I have been out there on the track now 17 years for the Melbourne Cup but I never see it. I only hear it. When they go over the line I am told down the line who run it. So I have about 30 seconds to rack my brain to ask questions that people think you should know - we have got through it so far.
When those two horses were in the Melbourne Cup I thought Nash Rawiller, Delta Blues, Nash is easy. Damien Oliver, old stager at the game, easy. Pop Rock, Delta Blues. Frank Detorri got a ride in the race. Frank speaks English, no worries. Anyway, the week before there’s a jockey change. Iwata on Delta Blue and I thought oh no, he can’t speak a word of English this guy. Before the race we have the two horses that I did give chances, Damien was on one and Iwata on the other. I said to the guys in the Channel Seven studio, ‘Listen fellas, there’s a bit of a problem here, I can’t speak a word of Japanese. If this Japanese jockey wins, he can’t speak a word of English. What are we going to do?’ They said, ‘Well none of us know any Japanese,’ and there was one guy there who did and he said, ‘I do.’ I said, ‘What is it?’ He said, ‘Sayonara and Konnichiwa’. I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘Hello and goodbye.’ I said, ‘What order?’ He said, ‘That I don’t know.’ I wrote the two bits down and put them in my jacket pocket.
I will never forget it because Greg Miles - I am sure he knew that I couldn’t speak Japanese. They get down to the 100 metres, I am sitting around behind and Greg calls the race something like: ‘And the Japanese horses are going to fight out the Emirates Melbourne Cup. It’s Pop Rock, Delta Blues Olli’s pulled the stick on Pop Rock, he’s gone up to join up Delta Blues’ - I think please, Damien, give it one extra one. Then starting to think and I thought very quickly because you have to think quickly as there is not far to go - okay, if Damien he’s won it for Ireland, he’s won it for Australia and now it will be Japan - it will never be done again. Then they go over the line and he said, ‘Japan has won the Melbourne Cup.’ I thought, you beauty, good on you Damien. They come around the corner and the guys up in the studio said, ‘No. two Delta Blues has won the Melbourne Cup with the Japanese jockey.’ I thought oh no. I canter up to him. They don’t do that in Japan like we do it here with the interviews. I have a black microphone and I canter up to Iwata and he’s pulling up. He doesn’t realise that he has actually won the Melbourne Cup. Damien hit him on the back but I don’t know whether he thought Damien hit him or punch him or whatever. We are pulling up and I race over to him and I said, ‘Winner.’ He put his hand up and he said ‘winner’. I thought what am I going to say now. I said, ‘Happy?’ He said, ‘Happy.’ Then I went to say something else in broken English, and he turned around and took off. He said, ‘Super horse.’ And that year we had 800 million viewers around the world.
I said to the guys back in the studio, ‘What am I going to do now?’ One of my producers, pretty smart, said, ‘Go and get Damien and ask him how unlucky he was that he ran second.’ Anyway we went back into the jockeys room and I spoke to Damien and said, that was incredible. I spoke two words in the shortest interview ever. He said, ‘He knows nothing but what I think was when you went up to him with that microphone he thought it was a gun.’ He might have and he took off. We did 17 interviews the next day around the world, even to Tokyo, for two words - winner and happy. It was just incredible how that happened.
You talk about the first one - Michael Kinane. He came out here and I think the Melbourne Cup was $1 million in 1993 and Michael Kinane comes back on Vintage Crop. I am waiting around the corner. It’s our first year of interviews. So he comes around and I canter up on the pony and you never say to the jockey, ‘How do you feel’ because he’s not going to say I feel terrible. You go up and you say, ‘Michael, you have come all the way around the world and you have taken our biggest prize, a million dollar race.’ He said, ‘Yes,’ and that’s all he said and he took off. This is going to be the easiest job I ever had in my life - one word and he took off. Then I realised that he was riding in the Breeders Cup which was worth a million dollars two days later.
There have been some fantastic stories out of the interviews. Damien was one that was fantastic. People talk to me and they say, ‘How was the Damien Oliver interview?’ I said, ‘That was a very sad week for Damien, but I will tell you something about the Victorian public. I went out on the track on the Saturday and I went out on the Tuesday with Damien’ - he was beaten on horses that were fancied - ‘and not one of those days did the public ever abuse him at all; they were all with him. We went out into the Melbourne Cup and when we pulled up after the Cup I knew how he felt. I hadn’t been in that position but I thought I knew how he would feel. And I said to him, ‘Damien, I know it’s tough on you’ - this is before we went to air - ‘but we are all with you.’ That is how the interview went. He was fantastic. You could have gone up with the questions that weren’t right. But if you went up with the right questions it was fantastic.
Of course we had Makybe Diva - the first year she won you think she’s okay. It is like Andrew said, how could a horse with a name like Makybe Diva win the Melbourne Cup. She won the first year; she wins the second year and you think - fabulous. The third year comes along and before the race we’re called up into the stewards’ room. When she wins today, which we hope - even the stewards want; everyone wanted her to win - as soon as she goes over the line, if she wins, no-one is to go near her, 200 security on the track, she will come back and do a lap of honour in front of the crowd. I didn’t need to hear the broadcast of the race because I was around the back and I heard the crowd. She came around the corner - now Glen Boss went straight past me and went around to the 1400 at Flemington which is nearly around again. So I hunted my old pony up and went after him. I got up there and I have never seen a jockey so emotional. He had his arms around the neck; he was just loving her. I went up to him and said, ‘You know, mate, this is the one, isn’t it?’ He said, ‘I can’t be interviewed.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘I just can’t.’ I said, ‘You have plenty of time. The stewards told me to take as much time as you like with this interview’ - actually they hadn’t; they said hurry it up. But we weren’t going to spoil it. We got there and then composure and it was fantastic. We all went to see that Emirates Melbourne Cup and she delivered. People say to me, ‘Wouldn’t it have been great if On A Jeune for South Australian - I come from South Australia - had’ve got up and beat her? It wouldn’t have, because it would have been something that we will never see in our lifetime again, a mare winning three Melbourne Cups straight. It was fantastic that at the end of that line Tony Santic the owner said, ‘That’s it,’ because she leaves us with memories that no horse has ever done. We weren’t here for Phar Lap. She has left us with memories that will never ever be erased in Melbourne Cup history, and we should be very proud of what she did.
BRYAN MARTIN: Before we wrap up, John, you have been working in an ambassador role particularly around through Australia and you have seen some fantastic sites; you have been to some remote areas. You have told me so many tales about the Cup and what joy it brings to people, with people just to be able to touch and be photographed with the Cup, it continues to grow in stature.
JOHN LETTS: There are some stories out of the Melbourne Cup, and one day I’m going to sit down and I’m going to write some of them but there are a couple of quick ones I would love to share with you. We have had some sad ones; we have had some happy ones; and we have had some spooky ones. They have so many stories - the Emirates Melbourne Cup is just the dream. Everyone dreams of it. There are so many little things that people don’t realise about the Melbourne Cup.
When I was at Yarrawonga and Joe McGrath was over at the Town Hall and he said, ‘Will you go over with Lauren and go through the hospital?’ We give everybody a chance to see it. We don’t just pick a ward and say you’re it. We go and give everybody a chance in that hospital to see it. I went through that hospital and we went along and there was a nurse there, I walked past the ward and there was a dear old lady of about 90 sitting on the side of the bed in her chair. I said, ‘Can I go in?’ because I would always ask before I went in just in case it upsets some people. They said, ‘She’s very upset at the moment. We had to bring her in from her unit. She has a little puppy dog, her best mate, and there is no-one to look after it. We don’t know how long she is going to be in here. But we have got the results of her tests, and she’s going home tomorrow.’ I said, ‘Let me go in there first.’
So I went in with the Melbourne Cup and the lady was sitting there. I said, ‘Hello,’ and she said, ‘hello.’ I said, ‘Do you know what this is?’ She said, ‘I think that’s the Melbourne Cup.’ I said, ‘It is and you know this Melbourne Cup is magic. It has changed so many people’s lives. I want you to hold the Melbourne Cup and make a wish’ - I knew what she was going to wish; she wanted to go home. And I said, ‘I’ll bet you this Cup grants that wish.’ She said ‘Really?’ I said, ‘It’s magic.’ She held the Melbourne Cup. I said, ‘Thank you very much. Don’t tell me your wish’ and I walked out. I said to the nurses, ‘Go in and tell her.’ So they went in and told her that she was going home tomorrow. Now she believes that the Melbourne Cup is magic.
I went down the end to this young girl who had just had a baby. This little fellow was one day old. We went in and there was the girl, I think her name Debbie Ryan. I walked in and she was sitting alongside the bed. I said, ‘Do you know what this trophy is?’ She said, ‘No.’ She was about 24. I said, ‘It’s the Melbourne Cup.’ She said, ‘That’s a horse race, isn’t it?’ I said, ‘Yes, the biggest in the world and this is the Emirates Melbourne Cup. I would love you to have your photo taken with it.’ So we took the photo with the Cup and the little fellow was one day old; he was like a little rabbit. I said, ‘Could we have his photo taken with the Melbourne Cup?’ And the nurse said, ‘Yes, certainly.’ We laid the Melbourne Cup on a pillow on her bed. We put the little fellow alongside it, and he was about three-quarters of the way up. We laid him there alongside it and just as the guy was going to take the photo, I said, ‘Put this on the back pages of the sports tomorrow in your local paper.’ Just as he was going to take the photo, the little fellow put his hand across on to the stem of the Melbourne Cup and held it, and he went click. I said, ‘Put that on the front page.’ I said to the young girl, ‘I would love to take down all the particulars, your name and everything because you are going to be in the paper tomorrow.’ She said, ‘Okay, my name is Debbie Ryan.’ I said, ‘Now what is your son’s name?’ She said, ‘Archer’. His name was Archer Ryan and that’s a fact. I said, ‘You have seen the Melbourne Cup; you know it.’ She said, ‘No, I don’t.’ I said, ‘I do not know anybody named Archer. Last name yes, first name no.’ That goes on the front page. He was one day old. Our record at that stage was three months and 99 years of age in the one place in a hospital. This little fellow was one day old and name was Archer. It was so spooky.
Very quickly this is a sad story: we went up to Karratha and we went in and this woman come in and said, ‘John, I would love you to meet my husband.’ She took me into another room where he was, and he was on drips and painkillers comatosed. I went over and she said, ‘He’s been a fan of yours and the late Bill Collins and he would love to meet you.’ So I took an Emirates Melbourne Cup cap in and I signed it: ‘To Tony, best wishes John Letts.’ I held his hand, and when I held his hand he opened his eyes. His wife said, ‘Tony, John is here to say hello.’ He was 52 years of age. I just held his hand, and she said, ‘You’ve got your wish.’ Then she said, ‘John, we are going to bury Tony in that cap next week because he’ll be dead,’ and he wanted a little bit to do with the Emirates Melbourne Cup. He died a week later, a week before the Melbourne Cup. It was just something which was a sad part of the Melbourne Cup - it was very sad for us but something in his life before he died that he really wanted to happen. He opened his eyes and it was sad to think that that could happen.
BRYAN MARTIN: Thank you, John. We are about to take a break before coming back with the fourth session. Ladies and gentlemen, I am sure you will agree that the stories and the tales are fantastic. Please thank Wendy Green, Sheila Laxon, Mark de Mestre and John Letts. [applause]
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Date published: 01 January 2018