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Insider’s memoir tracks the life of an intensely private trainer

17 December 2011 1,177 views No Comment

WHEN I was six, my teetotal father Bill Fitzgerald, who for years had played in the ruck for Collingwood seconds, took me to see the 1950 Caulfield Cup. It was my first day at the races.

After walking from our deeply suburban home in nearby East Brighton, we positioned ourselves on the cheapest part of the racecourse, known as the Flat. On Dad’s urging, I had two bob each way on the favourite, Grey Boots, with a gnarled old bookmaker who scribbled down some hieroglyphics that looked to me indecipherable.

Ridden by the legendary Neville (”Nifty”) Sellwood, Grey Boots won the race. Ever since I went with my ticket to collect, I have been fascinated with thoroughbred racing and especially with the voices of the race callers and commentators, who still seem to have retained the sound and timbre of the ’50s.

As Les Carlyon points out in his fine and idiosyncratic chronicle,The Master, it was in 1950 that an immaculately dressed, 23-year-old Bart Cummings strapped the locally bred Melbourne Cup winner, Comic Court, for his shrewd father Jim Cummings. With Pat Glennon on board, Comic Court won in a canter. Although it could not happen now, young Bart won a poultice on the horse, which he backed at big odds.

In his personal portrait of the famously laconic 84-year-old trainer, who has a tally of 12 Melbourne Cup wins, Carlyon confides that he first interviewed Bart Cummings in 1974. For almost 40 years, this highly accomplished author has been an intimate observer of the career of someone he convincingly argues is the greatest racehorse trainer in Australian history.

In some respects, The Master is an unusual book. At the beginning, Carlyon explains he is not writing a biography of the famous trainer. Nor is this an ”authorised” work. Indeed Cummings published his own life story, Bart, in 2009. This book, Carlyon claims, is ”a memoir that is skewed … towards events that I was fortunate enough to witness firsthand”. This also applies to people and horses that Carlyon has come to know, especially since the early ’70s.

Complemented by more than 100 superb illustrations, The Master is an anecdotal account of Cummings’ many ups and downs. In the nadir of his career in the ’90s, when Carlyon explains that the great man ”was beset by financial troubles that would have crushed a lesser spirit”, Cummings managed to win three more Melbourne Cups.

This was a feat only equalled by the three Cup wins that Cummings achieved when he was a young trainer on the rise to a fame that sometimes baffled him.

My favourite photograph in the book is that of silver-haired Governor-General Sir John Kerr presenting the 1977 Melbourne Cup, won by Cummings’ Gold and Black. His slurred and swaying performance suggested that the GG was under the influence of alcohol. Yet in his typically understated way, Cummings, who was close to the action, offered the following wry observation: ”There was a strong wind blowing that day.”

Carlyon’s prose in The Master is a pleasure to read. Much of his insights are deceptively simple. Hence he recounts Cummings’ formula for success: ”Lots of good feed, lots of hard work.”

Towards the end of this satisfying book there is a colour photograph of Cummings, his grandson James and son Anthony, who is a successful trainer in his own right. Carlyon writes: ”Anthony says that his father has taught him everything that he [Anthony] knows but not everything that Bart knows.” Bart explains that there is a reason for this: ”Anthony is a competitor!”

Carlyon writes that, in the early ’40s, a young Bart Cummings was an unwilling student at Sacred Heart College in Adelaide. When he turned 14, he told his parents he’d had more than enough of school. ”I must have been really bad,” Cummings says, ”because they didn’t argue.”

The reality is that Cummings remains a difficult man to know. Jockey Roy Higgins spent 16 years riding for Cummings, including winning the 1965 and 1967 Melbourne Cups on the relatively tiny Light Fingers and on the big-hearted Red Handed. Higgins, who retired from riding in 1984, confides: ”I’m not sure I got to know him 100 per cent … or learnt everything about him … I think that’s how Bart wanted it.”

Higgins concludes that, with the exception of Cummings’ wife Valmae, there is no one who can truthfully say they really know him.

Yet, despite a wealth of fascinating and often arcane information about the elusive Cummings and the sport of kings, Carlyon’s book still hasn’t answered my often-asked question: Why do we train racehorses in the early morning when they usually race in the afternoon?

Review of THE MASTER by Les Carlyon Macmillan, $59.99
The Sydney Morning Herald December 17-18, 2011, SPECTRUM pp 26-27