Thursday, March 13, 2014

R.I.P. The Professor

I mentioned that I'd like to pay tribute to Roy Higgins on this blog, so what I'm going to do is to print my column in 'Al Adiyat' in this chapter.  I submit my column every Sunday, but I think that the magazine is published on the Tuesday or the Wednesday. Anyway, whichever it is, it'll have been published by now - and out of courtesy to the magazine, I didn't want to print my column here until after it was already out in its proper form.  If you didn't know who 'The Professor' was, the column will fill you in, and it should also make it clear why so many people feel that a friend has died, even if, like me, they never met him.  There was a memorial service held for him at Flemington today, and I would imagine that there will have be thousands of people there.  To an English reader, the best way of explaining his position would be to say that riding-wise he was Lester, but out of the saddle was as approachable as Lester is withdrawn.

I never saw Roy Higgins on a horse, but I've seen a lovely video of ten champions of the late '60s and early '70s, horses such as Taj Rossi and Vain, and he's riding most of the horses in the film.  I'd love to get a copy of that video again even if only to watch him riding: he was a beautiful rider to watch, like Joe Mercer only more so.  But the two ways in which he appeared on my radar most were firstly on the radio and then in Winning Post.

Roy Higgins retired from race-riding in 1984.  His first non-riding project was as advisor and organiser (including organising the jockeys such as Mick Mallyon and Greg Hall who did ride in the film) for the Phar Lap movie, although correctly speaking this took place before his retirement.  But then his main retirement job started on Blue Diamond Preview Day at Sandown in February 1991.  I remember this because I was in Melbourne but wasn't at the races, so heard it.  His new role was as mounting yard pundit on the radio station 3UZ, now Sport 927.  The first race was the Fillies' Blue Diamond Preview, and the David Hayes-trained Maribyrnong Plate winner Raise A Rhythm was odds-on favourite.  Roy picked out an unraced grey filly on looks, called Irises, trained by Rick Hore-Lacy and ridden by Greg Childs if my memory doesn't fail me.  She won at 12/1.  That got his new job off to the best possible start, and he and his microphone duly became an integral part of the mounting yards of the four Melbourne racecourses pretty much until he died.

His second retirement job made him and myself colleagues, a fact which used to give me a lot of pleasure.  I have three weekly columns (the aforementioned one in 'Al Adiyat', my stallion profile on the thoroughbredinternet website - whose subject is, needless to say, one of Roy Higgins' mounts this week, Century - and the international round-up in 'Winning Post') and the 'Winning Post' column is the most long-standing, as come this summer I'll have been doing it for 22 years (and will have missed only one week).  Roy didn't write his column in the paper for that long, but he was doing it for quite a few years.  Roy did an awful lot for charity, and I think that, although he was paid for the column, he basically started writing it as a favour to Fr. Joe Giacobbe, the paper's founder and former proprietor.  The paper was set up to raise money for Father Joe's charity, the Doxa Youth Foundation which helps under-privileged children and to which Roy gave a lot of his time, and it was a massive boost to the paper that Roy used to write a (very good) weekly column in it.

Anyway, the world became a slightly poorer place on Saturday, and I thought that this blog should mark that.  Here we go.


Last Saturday should have been a wonderful day for Australian racing, with the past two Emirates Melbourne Cup winners Fiorente and Green Moon filling the quinella in the Darley Australian Cup over 2000m at Flemington.

The Darley Australian Cup can be regarded as Australia’s premier weight-for-age race (although the Moonee Valley Race Club might disagree – and the newly re-branded ‘Championships’ coming up in Sydney might alter that assertion anyway).  The Emirates Melbourne Cup, though, remains Australia’s most iconic race, and it is a huge boost to its status that its past two winners have now confirmed their status as true weight-for-age stars.

However, as Flemington’s card on Saturday afternoon drew to a close, news broke of the death of Roy Henry Higgins, one of history’s greatest jockeys who ultimately proved himself much, much more than ‘just’ a great jockey.  In a heart-beat, this news turned a day of general jubilation into a day of mourning.

Roy Higgins rode in the era when Australia’s greatest jockeys generally spent significant parts of their careers in Europe.  He was a rarity in that he mostly stayed at home.  Consequently his international profile was lower than that of some of his peers – but in Melbourne he was king.

Roy Higgins did, in fact, spend two summers (1963 and ‘64) in France in his younger days, but the trips were not successful, and at the end of the second stint he was delighted to come home and stay there.  From a British point of view, his most notable victory in France came in a relatively minor race at Chantilly in September 1963 on Grey Lag, trained for Sir Peter O’Sullevan by his great friend Rae Johnston, the legendary New South Welshman who (after a lengthy and stellar international race-riding career based mainly in France in which he won every English Classic at least once, including winning four of them in one year, 1950, alone) enjoyed a tragically short stint as a trainer in France before suffering a fatal heart attack at the races in 1964.

Roy Higgins might have cut little ice in France, but at home he dominated.  He hit the ground running on his return to Melbourne in 1964, winning at Caulfield on the Roy Shaw-trained Sir Dane on his first day back and then following up on the same horse in the Cox Plate later that spring.

Thereafter, the winners kept flowing.  Higgins won the jockeys’ premiership in Melbourne in 11 of the 14 seasons from 1964/’65 to 1977/’78, his reign only interrupted twice by Harry White and once by Jim Johnson.  He was a supremely gifted rider, possessing tremendous balance and a beautifully correct style.  Furthermore, he was peerless in his preparation and tactical acumen – hence the nickname ‘The Professor’, inspired by Professor Henry Higgins in ‘My Fair Lady’ and given to him early in his career by ‘Sporting Globe’ writer Rollo Roylance.

Born in Koondrook on the Victorian bank of the Murray River in June 1938 but raised in Deniliquin in New South Wales, Roy Higgins served his apprenticeship with Deniliquin trainer Jim Watters before moving to Melbourne, where he lived for the rest of his days.

During the years in which Roy Higgins was Melbourne’s dominant rider, he rode for most of the leading stables in the land, including as principal jockey for Melbourne’s seven-time champion trainer Angus Armanasco for nearly two decades.  However, ahead of all others, Roy Higgins’ name will be linked with the Flemington stable of Bart Cummings, the pair teaming up to land great wins with a stream of champions during 17 glorious seasons.

Although Roy Higgins had had a ride for Bart Cummings (who at the time was still based solely in Adelaide) on a horse called Native Statesman at Moonee Valley a couple of years previously, the Cummings/Higgins bandwagon started to roll in the spring of 1964 when they teamed up to win the Edward Manifold Stakes, VRC Oaks and Sandown Guineas with the tiny filly Light Fingers.  The following spring Higgins landed an emotional victory on his favourite mare in the Melbourne Cup, getting home by a nose from her stablemate Ziema.

Two years later, Higgins and Cummings won another Melbourne Cup with Red Handed, while at the other end of the spectrum they won the Golden Slipper in Sydney in 1966 with Storm Queen and in 1973 with Tontonan.  Other champions for the team included Century, Taj Rossi, Leilani, Galilee, Big Filou, Lowland, Fulmen, Dayana, Cap D’Antibes, Lord Dudley and Leica Lover.  Furthermore, Higgins won numerous big races for Tommy Smith, including the 1972 Cox Plate on the mighty Gunsynd.  He also had the leg up on Smith’s two greatest horses Tulloch (in a trial at Pakenham shortly after he had finished his apprenticeship) and Kingston Town, and was called up to ride the outstanding Victorian sprinters Vain and Manikato when their regular jockeys Pat Hyland and Gary Willetts were unavailable.

Roy Higgins battled with his weight from the outset, and even aged only 27 he really struggled to ride Light Fingers at 8 stone 4lb in the Melbourne Cup.  Ultimately he gave up the unequal struggle in March 1984, having not ridden in a race since the previous October, when he had taken time out of the saddle to act as consultant to the makers of the movie ‘Phar Lap’.  He always used to say that his ambition was ‘to become a fat old man’, and he duly found it a blessed relief to be free to set about achieving this aim.

However, in ‘retirement’ Roy Higgins became much, much more than just a fat old man.  As a jockey Roy Higgins had been supreme – but in the final 30 years of his life, he graduated from great jockey to great human being.  As radio pundit, journalist, charity worker, pillar of the racing community and ‘fair dinkum good bloke’, Roy Higgins – Member of the British Empire, Inductee into the Australian Racing Hall of Fame – enriched the lives of succeeding generations of racegoers, professional and public alike, sharing his wisdom with kindness, humour and humility.

To paraphrase John Donne and Rudyard Kipling, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, because when it tolls for a man of the calibre of Roy Henry Higgins – a man who talked with crowds and kept his virtue, who walked with kings nor lost the common touch - it tolls for us all.

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