A legend on and off the track: Saintly and Frightening with Bart Cummings at Flemington the morning before the Melbourne Cup in 2003. Photo: Steve ChristoKing of the Cup’A legend in every sense of the word’Bart’s horses win after his deathCummings passes away at 87Gai Waterhouse and Tony Abbott lead tributes
“There’s something radically wrong,” Percy Sykes opined to Bart Cummings, then very much a newcomer at Flemington, regarding Light Fingers in 1965.
Light Fingers had been a strong fancy for the Melbourne Cup, but pulled up sore after the Caulfield Stakes with a ricked muscle in her neck and shoulder. Even trotting she threw her neck around in pain, and she missed the Caulfield Cup. Cummings went into a renowned pose with hands behind his back and in deep concentration about the mare that was doing a figure eight in front of the pair on the morning before the first Tuesday in November.
Little did I realise at my first Melbourne Cup this was an initial portrayal of genius when it came to thoroughbreds, and something I would witness in following decades that made him great, particularly for Australia’s greatest race.
“You can’t run her,” Sykes told him, according to his biography “Bart – My Life”. But the Cummings prowess and instinct came into play. “Percy Sykes gave Light Fingers a cortisone injection in her sacroiliac, an admission that she was not fully fit but the Melbourne Cup is its own ultimate fitness test,” Cummings decreed, and felt she had the horsepower to match her heart.
Under extreme riding from Roy Higgins, Light Fingers overcame stablemate Ziema in a dynamic staying duel. Cummings became only the third trainer in Melbourne Cup history to prepare the quinella, and went on to achieve the feat five times.
The race that stops a nation emphasised his ability, notching 12 in all, and 10 placings from 89 starters. Prior to Light Fingers, old-timers reckoned no other trainer would top the five achieved by Etienne de Mestre from what was regarded as a less demanding era.
As Cummings’ 266 group 1 successes confirms, he was a great trainer over any distance with any type of horse.
Galilee was probably his best, but then Saintly was outstanding, and mares like Leilani, Maybe Mahal and Light Fingers produced dazzling results for the master and his achievements have been rated with Donald Bradman. But adversity came into play, too, and he rolled with the punches with the same dry delivery as triumphs.
“Humour is his defence, the moat around his secret world, and he is good at it, quick, dry and disarming. No one in Australia plays the wag better,” Les Carlyon, the weight-for-age wordsmith, maintained.
Cummings was outed in 1961 for 12 months due to sudden improvement in his charge, Cilldara, who had won at Morphettville after finishing last at the provincial track, Gawler.
At the Cummings appeal, Tommy Smith and Sykes gave evidence that blinkers, a new invention to Australian racing at the time, were responsible for the reversal, definitely acceptable in later decades. Alas the plea fell on deaf ears.
In 1969 another disaster struck when Caulfield Cup winner Big Philou, prepared by Cummings, was nobbled before the Melbourne Cup, and following a positive due to a mistake by staff, Cummings on April 11, 1979, was given 14 days to dispose of all of his 120 horses and 48 hours to find trainers for his 16 horses racing the following weekend. He was allowed to return in July.
However the king hit came in the late 1980s with the Cups King syndicate supposedly in partnership with a major accounting firm. “In 1989 on the syndicate’s behalf I bought almost 90 yearlings for $22 million from sales in Sydney, New Zealand and the Gold Coast,” he explained. “Recession and rising interest rates really hit hard in 1989 and financially it couldn’t have been a much greater disaster for me. I was left holding unsold yearlings . . .”
Sixty-four yearlings went into a fire sale. “The takings were $9 million for a group of horses I’d paid twice as much for,” he stressed.
Still Cummings battled his way back, and Let’s Elope taking the 1991 Melbourne Cup helped. T. J. Smith, not one to praise rivals, once paid him the supreme compliment after winning a major race.
“Only a crumb off the great man’s plate,” he conceded, but wanted the Melbourne Cup changed to a shorter distance.
“You don’t change the posts because you can’t kick a goal,” Cummings, who mellowed with age, countered.
Dealing with him in the hectic Sydney afternoon circulation battles with The Sun and Daily Mirror when jockey engagements and the future campaigns were vital, Cummings would change his mind more than his shirt. Frustrating. “You should try working for him,” son, Anthony, quipped about a unique personality, the like we didn’t see before nor will ever see again.
Once in a departure lounge at Tokyo, returning from a Japan Cup, Leon Corstens, then Cummings’ foreman, remarked to me: “Anybody that thinks they know Bart Cummings doesn’t know him.”