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What was his secret? Beyond all the horse-whispering mysteries, the unerring gut feeling, the gnomish one-liners, behind the sheer sense for the animal, what did Bart Cummings think he had that none of his rivals had?
In 2010, after several months working together on his autobiography, Bart finally trusted me enough to bring it out. From a desk drawer in his woody, carpeted, not-changed-since-the-1970s office at Leilani Lodge in Randwick, he pulled out a packet of cards.
“This,” he said.
They were ordinary file cards covered with his handwriting. Each card had information on a horse: how long it had spelled, the date it returned to the stables, what it ate each day, its training regime, what medical treatment it had received.
“This?” I said.
Conversations with Bart were long but also short, if you know what I mean. And what I wanted to say about the secret cards, but couldn’t, was that they were so mind-bogglingly simple. In fact, if you knew nothing about horses but were given a bunch to look after, you’d probably note precisely this information in much the same way.
“Can I make a copy of one?” I said.
“For the book. It would interest people to see how you go about it.”
Bart reached across and snatched the card away.
“So – that’s a no?”
“They’re secret,” he said. “I don’t want any other trainers knowing about them.”
“But,” I thought how to put this gently, “they’re just common sense, aren’t they?”
He nodded, as if I’d finally got the point. “That’s why we can’t show anyone. Common sense. Nobody else has it.”
As frustrating as it was, the exchange was the nearest I felt I got to capturing the true Bart: the competitiveness, the paranoia, the old-fashioned simplicity, and the mischief, the glee that he’d got away with it under their noses. He was doing what he’d always been doing, what his father had been doing, and the world had over-complicated things, moved on to ideas that were seldom as good as those of the past.
Yet while he preserved the past, Bart did not live in it. He was too competitive, too focused on the next thing coming up, the next horse and the next race, to be great at reminiscing over his life. He was 82 at the time, always gentlemanly, always friendly and available, but conversations were constantly interrupted by chats with his then manager Bill Charles, other staff, owners, vets, or his grandson and protege James, about what he had running in the fourth at Warwick Farm the next day. A new two-year-old held more interest for him than Think Big’s two Melbourne Cups.
But through his horses of the present, you could see his relationships with horses of the past. Towards them he was kindly, glimpsing their quirks and hints of personality, but he wasn’t false or soppy; above all they were riddles to be solved. He was constantly thinking and plotting. So when we talked about some of his greats, such as Saintly or Light Fingers or Galilee or Let’s Elope, he didn’t recall the races so much as the problems leading up to them, the health setbacks, the unforeseen form lapses, the arguments with jockeys. (Actually, not arguments so much as jockeys making mistakes and excuses, and Bart telling them …)
He wasn’t great on some details. Of his father Jim, undoubtedly the biggest influence on Bart’s life, I asked, “What did he look like?”
After a long pause to consider, Bart said: “Normal.”
“Just a normal … man.”
I considered the son of this man: the liquid dark eyes, the whipped-cream eyebrows, the storm front of white hair. Anything but normal.
“Did he look anything like you, Bart, any features you had in common, anything about the way he spoke?”
Bart considered, and nodded. “That’s right,” he eventually said. “Just normal.”
Although he knew clearly where he stood in the racing and sporting world, Bart did see himself as just a normal man, a practitioner of common sense methods that he suspected the rest of the world might have forgotten. He didn’t deal in cliches or fake kind words for his rivals, who he saw as foes, and he could be harsh on those who fell short of his standards, but he had many people working close to him who were loyal for decades, and who loved him dearly.
He and his wife Val were a couple of their generation, unsentimental, bantering cheekily with each other, genuine, opinionated, extremely patriotic, forward-looking and unrelentingly competitive.
Nothing beats winning, he said. But when you tried to draw him on how this drive had made him such an exceptional trainer and unique person, a giant of Australian life – he was beyond flattery, but it was hard to see how the hugeness of his achievement really hit home with him – those dark eyes would blink at you in puzzlement and he would say, “Why would anyone be any different?”