Winning team: Bart Cummings (right) with jockey Roy Higgins, winning horse Red Handed and stable foreman Maurice Yeomans at the 1967 Melbourne Cup. Photo: SuppliedIn early 1960 Mick Robins, a horseman from Broken Hill, heard that a young trainer by the name of Bart Cummings was looking for staff.
Robins arrived at the office of Cummings’ Adelaide stable only to be told there was no longer a job available for him.
Eight years later, Robins was standing in the Flemington mounting yard just minutes after his courageous stayer Rain Lover won the first of two Melbourne Cups. From the surrounding well-wishers and media a familiar figure emerged with his arm outstretched; it was Cummings.
“He’s won the previous two Melbourne Cups and he said: ‘Well done, son. I knew I should have taken you on in 1960. That was a bad mistake on my behalf’.
“But we were lifelong friends from then on. You would watch him mould a horse into a great stayer. He might bring 20 or 30 yearlings back from New Zealand but if they didn’t show what he wanted they were out the gate before they ever raced,” Robins said.
Robins, now 85, says Cummings’ father, Jim, was keen for his son to be more than a horse trainer.
He explained that Cummings senior sent Bart to a sheep ranch in Broken Hill as part of his training. “Jim became sick very quickly and he [Bart] was called back from Broken Hill to be at the bedside of his dying father.
“Actually we all thought [brother] Pat would make the horse trainer of the new generation as he and his father were inseparable while Bart liked a social life. But you could see in a very short time how he quickly became the master trainer of Australian racing. He’d target a race and win it. In fact, I think he’s won everything that a horse trainer could,” Robins said.
Bart’s son Anthony recently commented that much of his father’s success came from his extraordinary ability to keep his horses happy.
Former Moonee Valley racing manager Fred Fox, who marvelled at Cummings from his position in charge of the South Australian Jockey Club, recalled how finicky and meticulous he was.
“My office window looked out over the mounting yard at Morphettville and it seemed in those times the lawn mowers couldn’t cut the grass beneath the surrounding rails. And Bart knew this and all of his team would arrive in the mid-afternoon and would be picking at the succulent new grass that had come through along the rails.
“He was always doing something to get that extra inch,” Fox said.
Former jockey and now leading trainer Gerald Ryan said Cummings’ career was something that all in the trade wanted to emulate.
“I was a little bit lucky as my seat in the jockeys’ room was right next to Roy Higgins so I’d hear Bart and Roy talk endlessly during the day over the performance of their horses,” Ryan said.
“You see in those times we had no TV and you’d only get the one look at it and it was fascinating how they both spoke with such conviction about the horses’ runs. I’d follow him around the room asking him this and that.
“I just knew all the advice I could get from Cummings would be invaluable. But shortly after I got my licence Bart said: `I think we’ll have to ease up on that advice. You’re the opposition now’.”
Cummings enjoyed the fruits of punting but it was his brother Pat who would engineer betting plunges that would send tremors through betting rings.
While Bart rarely discussed winning plunges, his favourite story was the day he won the Golden Slipper at Rosehill in Sydney.
Cummings had dispatched a smart two-year-old called Storm Queen to Sydney but had to send Pat to not only watch over the youngster but to put on the massive commission.
The SAJC had begged Cummings to remain in Adelaide to be present for the Queen’s Cup as Her Majesty was coming to Australia to present the trophy and the master trainer looked certain to win the event with Galilee.
Cummings recalled: “Galilee got the job done. He bolted in but I was more concerned about Storm Queen in Sydney. We had a thumping bet on her but I was trying to hear the race on the public address system while we were all lined up for the presentation and the governor was embarking on a long speech that made it hard to hear the final stages. In fact, the Queen said to me: ‘You seem agitated’ .To that I said: ‘I’ll tell you in the next 20 seconds as I’ve got a filly in the Golden Slipper in Sydney’.
“Just then I heard ‘little-known Storm Queen wins the Slipper and I turned and smiled to Her Majesty, who said: ‘Good result,Bart?’ ‘The best ma’am. In fact, if you’d like to come back to the stables after the races for a snort you’re more than welcome. It’s my shout’.”
While some believe Cummings was shy rather than aloof, he always managed to get the fiercest press conference on his terms. Senior VRC executive Julian Sullivan remembers driving Cummings to a Melbourne Cup press conference in Cup week.
“He said to me the rules are, Julian, that once the press conference looks like its half-way through, interrupt holding a phone saying I’ve urgently got to ring the stables. Then head straight out the door and we’ll meet for a couple of beers,” Sullivan recalled.
Former chief racing writer for the Sun, Keith Hillier had a 30-year relationship with the trainer. “He used to send me Christmas cards once I became the racing editor and then when I went to Sydney he took me to dinner at this beautiful restaurant where there was Bart, myself, three breeders and three owners. The only two who didn’t put their hands in their pockets were Bart and me.”
“For a few years I ghosted his column and I took the cheque to Caulfield one day and he said: ‘Go to the bookmakers and cash it and we’ll go halves’. And the next season we did the same again. In fact, I think I put in for a rise for both of us,” Hillier said.
His relationships with jockeys were hot and cold, but his long and successful friendship with Higgins brought together two of the greatest racing identities in this country.
While Higgins laughed that Cummings would have won only 10 Melbourne Cups had he not won two of them for him, Cummings replied: “You would have won none if you hadn’t ridden for me.”
It was a special relationship as Higgins and his family remembered Cummings chartering a plane to Deniliquin, the home of Higgins’ father who had suddenly died. As the champion jockey reflected: “That’s the measure of a man, isn’t it.”