Racing lost one of its eternal heroes on Saturday. “Eternal” because in centuries to come, they will still be talking about a man who trained 12 Melbourne Cup winners (seven more than any other mortal), 32 Derby winners, the heroines of 24 Oaks, 5 Cox Plates and 4 Golden Slippers. More has been written and said about Bart Cummings than any other racing man in the history of the game, more so by another legend, Les Carlyon. Bart was 87; he was born the day before my mother on the 14th November 1927, and while he had long ago ascended to the ranks of the immortal, the reality is, we all have our time.
He was the man everyone wanted to know. A mantra used to play along the mounting yard fences on those spring afternoons in Melbourne. Listen to the voices and you might have thought that this “Bart” might have been blabbing to everyone: “Yeah, well, Bart said…. Bart reckons…. Bart’s keen on…”. It was as improbable as racing itself that such a cult should’ve existed around a man who said so little. Bart was, first of all, shy. He spoke sparingly, as if keeping the best thoughts for himself, which he was. He talked in phrases rather than complete sentences. Mischief glinted in his eyes, but seldom found its way south to his mouth. When he wanted to, he could say absolutely nothing with a skill that would guarantee him high political office if he’d ever tired of the dawn rituals at Flemington.
“Bart” was James Bartholomew Cummings. He was born into an Irish/Catholic racing family in South Australia, a man with no hobbies, father of five, virtual non-bettor, a one-time choir boy. He had a great mane of black (eventually silver) hair, a generous mouth and eyebrows that appeared to be climbing in search of a trellis. More important than any of this, he may have been (and there is no sensible way of proving these things) the finest racehorse trainer the world has ever known.
Cummings was a relaxed man and he liked his horses to be the same. He detested grooms who’d jag horses in the mouth with a bit, who’d shout, slap and bully, who’d do things that stop the horse from “thinking right”. As you might’ve expected for a man of his achievements, he had very distinct views about everything to do with horses and the people who worked with them. He had firm ideas about jockeys, too: “I like a jockey with a long rein; you shorten up the horse and the harder you make him pull”. The jockey had to have hands and feel.
Perhaps the most important thing though, Cummings said, was the first thing: buying right at the yearling sales. He liked to buy youngsters related to horses that had already performed well for him. The advantage of this, he said, is that you know a lot about the yearling before it comes into your stable, because so many traits, everything from eating habits to nervous disposition, are inherited. He bought Galilee, one of his brightest stars and the 1966 Melbourne Cup hero at the New Zealand sales, because he thought he was a good type, and also because he was closely related to Sometime, with whom he’d won the Caulfield Cup. He bought him despite the fact he had a flaw: he was pigeon-toed. “I look for the things I like in yearlings, and don’t make exceptions on some points. It didn’t worry me that Galilee was pigeon-toed, but I wouldn’t have bought him if he had turned out”.
So he made sure he got the right raw material. Then he taught them to relax, particularly important in a stayer, the secret being not when to run them, but when not to. He said that as though that was the recipe that separated him from the rest of the field when it came to Melbourne Cup winners. For him, most things were simple, though those of us that know the sport, also know there’s a hell of a lot more to it than just that. In 1996, I made my maiden foray to the race that “stops the nation”. “I’m not sure there’s another race you can compare the Melbourne Cup with, but of all the races I’ve had the pleasure to attend, the Durban July (in its various guises) is the only one that comes close. That day in 1996, the Cups' “King” had his home-bred “Saintly” in the race and in its aftermath, Darren Beadman, the born-again Christian, stood on the podium after he and Saintly had cruised away with the Cup.
“I’d just like to thank the Lord Jesus for his blessing…” he began in his understated voice. Good-natured cat-calls echoed from the boisterous throng pressing in from the mounting yard. No-one was doubting the power of the Lord, but it seemed that just about everyone in the crowd of 90 149 knew of another eternal truth. When it comes to racehorses, and Melbourne Cups in particular, the initials one tends to look for are “J.B.”, not “J.C”! J.B as in “James Bartholomew”, was as laid back as a Queensland Sunday.
In his youth he was a failed sheep-shearer, but he would shortly be given three cheers by the crowd. Saintly, a lengthy chestnut with a great spring in his stride, had just given Cummings his 10th Melbourne Cup, a statistic which even at that time, compared only with the feats of one other Australian sportsman of the same stature, one Donald Bradman. Best back that up for fear of being accused of a different form of blasphemy: Cummings’ nearest rival was Etienne De Mestre, who won 5 Melbourne Cups more than a century before, and we’re talking about a man, in Bart’s case, who would go on to notch up two more. His modern rivals, George Hanlon and Lee Friedeman had each claimed three victories, and might otherwise have been looked upon as giants in their own right, where it not for the fact that they were dwarfed by Cumming’s uncanny knack with horses.
The man was famous for his one-liners. As Saintly came back along the roses at Flemington, Cummings, wearing a navy suit and blue and red tie, effortlessly flipped the switch to vaudeville. The sun played on his face and his brown eyes were moist. I saw it for myself: Reg Inglis, then the boss at the famous sales company, had taken me down to witness history. You have to see this in the context that Cummings had suffered a financial crisis in 1990 when he was left with $20 million in debt from yearling purchases in the Roaring Eighties. Creditors still took three quarters of his winnings.
How much of Saintly do you own? enquired a pressman.
Darren Beadman’s always been one of your favourite jockeys?
Some said Saintly couldn’t stay.
“He told me to tell you he can now”
Did you aim Saintly for the Cox Plate or the Cup?
How good is Saintly?
“Quite a nice horse.”
You must be proud?
“I’m thrilled to bits”
The faces in the scrum, unused to Bart’s impishness, looked doubtful.
“Trust me, I am”.
Which reminds me of one last one-liner. An inspector from “Health & Safety” descended on his Melbourne yard one day and threatened to shut him down. “You’ve got too many flies, and the neighbours are tired of complaining”.
“So tell me young man, how many am I allowed to have?”
The man is priceless. Irreplaceable. Fittingly, he’s been awarded a State funeral. The only racing man known to me to do so.
This game might not always build character, but it sure as hell has plenty of characters.