Is there anything more beautiful than a horse in flight? I don’t think so, just to watch a horse running is an awesome experience. The beauty of its gait and with its mane and tail blowing in the wind it is surely a splendid sight to behold.
At Melbourne in Australia when it is close to the first Tuesday in November, everyone begins gearing up for the annual running of the two mile classic horse race, the Melbourne Cup. Horses are the subject on everyone’s lips.
There is a heightened palatable atmosphere and a sense of expectation from both the locals and visitors, who can easily sense it. The city shops are full of fashionable frocks for fabulous fillies and racing breakfasts, racing brunches, racing lunches and racing dinners are in full swing as total Melbourne Cup madness abounds.
This uniquely Australian phenomenon truly takes our nation by storm.
Everyone is all a flutter and, will more than likely have one on the race. No one really understands why, but in every office, shop and factory someone runs a book on it.
People who have never had a bet in their life throw good money after bad, or else into the pot of an office sweep, as if it was going out of style. People who have never seen a horse in the flesh so to speak, or attended a racetrack, become completely stupid about it. Women who have never worn a hat before spend a fortune on one just so that they can be part of the scene, get into the game or become a part of the folly of the fashions on the field.
In Melbourne the Cup day is an annual holiday, but only in the city. Country people of Victoria miss out on the holiday but everyone flocks to the local pub or comes in from the barn or field to watch the race on the telly. Anyone in the city who can’t make it to the track can enjoy a picnic alongside the banks of the Yarra, or in a tent pitched in a field or a car park. The fashionable attend fundraising Melbourne Cup Lunches at the ‘Crown’ Casino and at a myriad of Hotels and private homes all over the town. It is all about being at the height of avant-garde.
In the cities of Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, Hobart and Darwin economic productivity takes a massive nose dive for the duration of the race. In Brisbane where I lived from 1999 – 2009 people were completely nuts about Melbourne Cup Day. Believing that you will be able to conduct any sort of serious business on that day was pure folly, as it is on the day before, when the talk is about nothing else and all the pre Cup day parties are taking place.
Here at Melbourne skinny self sacrificing super models also parade sensational clothes up and down in city streets and arcades. At pre pre the Cup lunches ladies of style turn up to see what the fashion gurus say they should buy and wear to the Cup. The trainers of the horses, who remain silent for the other 364 days of the year, and usually go about their life pre-dawn alone, roll out in their tweed jackets with suede arm patches, skinny ties and a jaunty herringbone hat to talk to a clamouring press party all eager to get into the action.
Silk, nature’s fabulous wonder fabric spun by silk worms in tiny cocoons also gets analyzed. It even rates a mention in newspapers, not in the context of a dress, but by racing commentators memorizing the coloured silks that the jockey wears. Jockeys, who spend their whole life in the dark galloping horses against the clock in the early hours before dawn when the rest of us are still sleeping, suddenly come into the light. The winning jockey becomes a hero, if only for the day. They also join into all the pre-cup madness as shops around the town deck out their windows in silks, satins and pictures of previous cup winners, their owners, trainers and trophies.
As Australian actor Geoffrey Rush commented in that wonderful line from the movie Shakespeare in Love, ‘its a mystery’.
Over my lifetime I have had some special ‘horse moments’ as some members of my family on both sides of my bloodline, were involved in the world of horse racing as bookmakers on one side and jockeys on the other.
From when I was about nine years of age I would go with my father to the annual yearling sales at Inglis stables in Sydney. In those days we would sit on wooden benches overlooking the ring where yearling horses were paraded. Its much fancier now as racehorses have become such big business.
My father would busily note down on the catalogue the ones that he thought might be the horses to watch. He taught me all about fetlocks and withers, how a good horse stands and looks in the leg and, if he had the make up of a stayer or sprinter.
Sometimes we would also get up really early and go down and watch the trackwork at Randwick racecourse. Freezing in the pre dawn in winter was not much fun, but once the horses started running everything was fine.
There was one morning when I was fifteen we were Inglis stables really early to get the latest gossip. I was asked if I would like to be photographed with a horse. To my mother’s unending shame I ended up on the front page of the paper and she took a ragging for it from all my relatives.
It was the late 50’s and after the war everyone was still struggling to regain some sort of equilibrium. It had been, and still was a time about folding brown paper bags and recycling them, of keeping every bit of string and rubber bands that you gleaned from packaging just in case you needed it, or saving up glass bottles and cashing them in for threepence or sixpence back from the manufacturers.
You also kept your biscuits in a tin with a colourful cockatoo on the side, which was also a symbol for the unique Aussie characteristic of making a galah, or fool of yourself. Tin was the all round great preservation material when I was growing up. You kept your bread and your race winnings in it. Tin was the great invention of the century. It really saved the boys at the war because tinned food could be easily carried in your swag on the back of your horse.
You could also eat your meals from them in the terrible trenches where there was no way to heat or cool them. The statistics about the horses who carried the light horse brigade into battle during the first world war are just to dreadful to contemplate.
Country boys from all over Australia took their tried and tested faithful steads away with them knowing they would never bring them back. But they couldn’t imagine being in the cavalry without them because they knew the could depend on them and could trust them with their life.
The 50s in Australia was a time when life was simple, but safe. Horses were still part of daily life. The horse incredibly pulled the baker and his cart as he plied the streets at Coogee Beach when I was a child dispensing both bread and manure as he rolled along.
Making hay while the sun shines my girlfriend down the street’s mother used to gather the latter up, soak it in water for weeks in barrels in her backyard and then pour it onto her dahlias. She won first prize at the Sydney Easter Show and we thanked the horse the next day with an apple.
Saving your copper pennies in a jar to grab a movie with your friends down at the Boomerang movie theatre near the beach was the thing to do. At the flicks all sorts of beautiful horses carried heroes like Australian actor Errol Flynn as Robin Hood .
Then there were the westerns; The Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans in the Saturday afternoon serial. At movies I took my sons to when they were growing up Guy Williams as Zorro’s brilliant black horse springs instantly to mind as one incredibly beautiful animal.
There are a lot of movie horses over the years that I have admired. I grew up with Black Beauty and seeing Elizabeth Taylor race on Pi on National Velvet.
My favourite movie moment however was in Ben Hur (1959) when the four white horses, who are to race in the Roman arena the next day, come to say goodnight in his tent to Arab sheik Ilderim, played by that wiley old character of 70’s film the late great Hugh Griffith.
The look of surprise on actor Charlton Heston’s face when the curtains part and the four horses are revealed and coaxed into the tent says it all. One could believe Heston wasn’t acting. And, I envied him the chance to pat them all. Then in the famous chariot race, well Ben Hur’s Arabs and his former friend Massala’s beautiful blacks ran with all the heart they could muster.
My uncle on my mother’s side would occasionally turn up out of the blue to take me to the track with him to see harness racing. This happened mostly up in the Newcastle area of New South Wales, where my second cousins were jockeys with the collective name of Schofield, my grandmother’s maiden name. Watching harness races was then, and still is a very different experience. While I appreciate the ‘trotting and pacing gaits’ for me watching a horse galloping is much more uplifting. I suspect that it is a lot to do with my own riding experiences as a child, but more on that later.
Dear Uncle Jim would pick me up in his shiny FJ Holden, the car of which he was one of the original designers. My mother used to tell me about his proud moment when the first Holden rolled out of the factory. All I could think was how terrible that something made of metal and fake horsepower had actually replaced man’s best friend for centuries, the horse. But it was one of our families proudest moments and Uncle Jim, her brother, had been part of the Holden team who had given birth to one of Australia’s greatest icons. So we all cheered.
At the time we lived just up the hill from Coogee Beach, appropriately in Carr Street. It certainly had its advantages. Each morning right on dawn you would find me swimming in the ocean as part of the daily routine of my life.
Quite often one or two strappers (each horse in a racing stable has its own personal valet called a strapper) would turn up with horses to work them in the sea and on the sand.
Salt water swimming is especially good for a horse endeavouring to ‘put on condition’ before the racing season. And galloping on the sand afterwards was good for their hooves and for strengthening their muscles.
Sand is a natural cleanser and every day my father would also use it wet to clean his own feet, because nature’s remedies were very much part of the routines of our life in those days. We didn’t need Mrs. Beeton’s book we knew them all and thought that everyone else did as well. The remedies were passed down through the family.
After we had swum, we would watch the horses for a while and then walk up to the end of the beach where the fishermen came in. They arrived in their boats from a night’s fishing and would sit in one end and scrape and scale the fish with huge Crocodile Dundee type knives. They would fillet them, and roll them in newspaper and we would take them home for my mother to toss in a pan with butter for breakfast. Yum.
Today you wouldn’t be allowed to take horses onto a public beach, but back in the 50’s in Australia things were a lot more relaxed. We left our doors open when we went out and until I was nine and my sister left home to be married, my bed was on an open verandah (off the main street) and when it rained my father would throw his leather coat over me. I always knew when the baker was coming because I could hear the horse’s horseshoes resounding on the road. Then came the moment it seemed I had waited for my whole life. Learning how to ride.
In my first year at high school I experienced my first flight in a DC3 aeroplane, which took me through a stormy night to stay with another uncle, his wife and two young sons on their ‘property’ near Tamworth in northern New South Wales. (We were a big family). It was Angus cattle, sheep and white pig country then, with nary a big guitar in sight. Uncle Ivan had been a soldier and gained a great deal of land by ballot in a draw following the war.
The piece he acquired had been part of the historic nineteenth century Goonoo Gonooo sheep station and head quarters for the Australian Agricultural Company (A A Company). It was part of the original land grant by King George IV through the British Parliament to the A A Company in 1833. It was a lovely parcel of land in two sections, one of which included the locally named ‘sugar loaf’ mountain on which I have enjoyed many a wild ride with my cousin Peter. But I am getting ahead of myself, at first I had to learn to do that.
While others may dream of instruction in proper riding schools with jodphurs and safety helmets or smart riding hats my experience was very different. On the first morning I got dressed into the rough twill country pants and boots my mother had kitted me out in from a second hand store in Railway Square at Sydney. I wandered down to the barn to see what my uncle and his two sons, my cousins were up to. He was busy shoeing a horse, as you do, and the boys were just off to feed his Sydney Show award winning white pigs, which were the pride of his life.
‘So’, he said to me in his broad country drawl, ‘you want to learn to ride a horse Miss City Slicker?’. I affirmed that I did. ‘See that bridle hanging up on the hook’ he said, well take it and go out into that paddock and catch one’, he said, flinging a finger in the direction I was to take.
Well I have never been one to shirk a challenge, so I took it down and walked off. I heard him chuckle in amusement as I left. Ten minutes later I came back into the barn with a horse in tow. I was talking softly to it and it was walking quietly beside me. We had already bonded that black and white pinto and I.
He jumped up so fast that he knocked over his tools and a stool nearby as he said very quietly, Carolyn don’t move. I just looked at him in surprise as he sidled around closely, took the bridle out of my hand and led the horse out of the barn to a post outside where he tied it up. He came back in and looked at me, for what seemed like ages and asked softly how I had caught the horse? “Well”, I said, “there was a few in the field so I picked out the one I liked the look of, walked up to him, talked to him, put the bridle on him and bought him back. Did I do something wrong?” “No”, he said “you have done very well. I will teach you to ride this afternoon after lunch. In the meantime we all have morning chores, and that includes you”. Go and help your cousins. And he walked off purposefully toward the house.
After feeding the animals with my cousins we went back to the house for one of my aunt’s bountiful breakfasts. After Uncle Ivan had left the table to go back outside, my aunt appraised me about how he couldn’t believe what I had done. Apparently it turned out that I had picked his own horse out of the field, where he had forgotten he had put him with the mares overnight. It was a most attractive horse with its black and white markings, and a stallion that would let no other person on the farm touch it, or near it except for him. So it seems I had passed the test well and he taught me to ride, country style.
Being a city slicker, except throughout my teens, I didn’t have the chances to ride as often as I would have wished. I did go to Randwick Races though every Saturday they were on there with my parents. This happened from when I was about 9 until I was 19 and left home to be married. It was the family ritual. I saw many a famous horse of my day, including the mighty Tulloch race. Then there was Prince Darius and Wenona Girl, another special pair.
In those days I studied the form, the bloodlines and track trials so that I gained a modicum of knowledge about the racing game. I always thought the betting aspect was really for mugs and you may as well drive down the street throwing your money away. But it certainly hooked you in.
I was disciplined about betting and when I ran out I stopped, not like those who would sell the shirts off their backs to keep going. We mostly went onto the flat at Randwich, which was in the centre of the field and in the boiling sun without any shade. On special days Dad lashed out and Mum and I enjoyed the privileges and pleasures of the Paddock, where we could look at all the toffs in their top hats and tails over the fence in the Members enclosure.
The biggest amount of money I ever won by betting on a horse was on Red Wind when he won the 1960 Metropolitan Handicap. At the time he was to be ridden by the latest in a line of young successful jockeys Hilton Cope.
He took him to the front to lead at the beginning of the race and at one point was 20 lengths in front of everyone else. Though they tried to run him down at the end he held on by six lengths to win. I had just started work in those days and had saved up five pounds. I bet it all on the nose, backing my judgment.
My father told me that I was a fool, but there it is, perhaps I was. But I had seen the horse in trackwork, looked at its condition in the mounting yard before they went onto the track, as I had been taught and, just had a gut feeling that I ran with.
It netted me a thousand pounds, when Red Wind romped home at two hundred to one, a princely sum in those days. My mother purchased the photo of his win and framed it and it was on the wall for years and years and came back to me after she died in 1999. Ah…those were the days.
In my twenties I was busy producing three baby boys in five years but in between time I would manage to hire a horse occasionally and enjoy a ride. In my thirties we went to the Melbourne Cup the year Polo Prince won. We sailed from Sydney to Melbourne by ocean liner and were sea sick the whole way and still slightly seedy the day of the cup. Nevertheless we raised a cheer and backed the winner.
I would from time to time also take my sons trail riding in French’s Forest when they were growing up, but like everyone else, life, timing and tight schedules living in the city took over. As economy and life together improved in the 70’s and early 80’s in Australia, I went to stay on the Belltrees property at Scone.
This glorious place was where my grandfather had been head gun shearer of sheep at the turn of the twentieth century. We enjoyed a memorable early morning ride around the property with one of the owners, the White family.
He showed us the field where all the mares, heavy with foal were grazing in grass up to their knees. Scone is surely one of the most beautiful places in New South Wales and perfect horse country.
This was the last time that I rode a horse so it is a special memory.
I was fortunate enough to travel to England and Europe over many years and had many a horsey moment there as well.
At London on my first trip in 1972 I headed straight for the Tate Gallery, which housed many of the famous horse paintings by George Stubbs (1724 – 1806), the eighteenth century British artist. I used to pour avidly over books containing his work in the Randwick Public Library as a teenager.
Stubbs is now recognized as one of the greatest and most original artists of the 18th and early 19th century, towering above other practitioners in the field of animal painting. His genius flowered astonishingly in celebrating English sporting and country life.
I had already seen his marvelous work ‘lion attacking a horse’ painted in 1762 on trip to Melbourne in the late 60s. An incredible image it was in the National Gallery Collection of Victoria, part of the Felton Bequest of 1949.
The title describes exactly what’s happening – a white stallion is being torn apart by a ferocious lion in a starkly theatrical landscape of willowy, wind swept trees and distant hazy mountains. The horse is majestic but doomed, the lion, a ravaging monster.
Then finally there was Vienna.
My visit there is one of the most enduring memories I have of horses in my life.
Once I knew we were going to Europe for a conference the following year I saved up and purchased two front row seats under the royal box to attend a performance at the Spanish Riding School.
In those days you needed to arrange seats over six months ahead. It was my once in a life time event. Seated in the classically designed hall the horses danced toward us carrying out their grand equestrian routine to the sound of music from Austria’s favourite son the composer the waltz king himself, Johann Strauss II.
The Spanish Riding School continues a tradition that began with cavalry tactics used by Greek soldier and mercenary Xenophon (430 – 354).
This amazing school has been in continuous operation for over 400 years.
As a designer who enjoyed the history of architecture I knew the performances took place in a grand eighteenth century building, the Winter Riding School.
In this lovely sunlight- flooded hall a portrait of Emperor Charles XIV, who had founded the school, is positioned strategically over the royal box opposite the entrance so all the riders can raise their caps to him before they ride.
I already knew the story of the Lipizzaner horses and how they had been saved from destruction in their spelling paddocks by an American colonel during World War II as tanks and men advanced across the Austrian countryside.
I had read copiously during my teen years about how they were trained in the classic dressage techniques that for centuries had practically help horse and their masters in battle.
I was not disappointed. Magical moments like this are rare and this is my own most special memory of horses, one of the most poignant of a life spent admiring these wonderful animals. It was a performance of unparalleled harmony between horse and rider.
In 1983 the story of Phar Lap burst onto the movie screens and every Aussie grabbed their family and friends to find out all about the horse that had helped so many little Aussie battlers through the Great Depression (1929 – 1940’s).
The story of Secretariat, America’s most loved racing horse who won the ‘U.S. Triple Crown’ The Kentucky Derby, The Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes in 1973 was also the subject of a movie released in America in 2010.
Down through the centuries horses have contributed much to the cultural development of every country on earth. Certainly an association with horses in art, in flight and in my life has only enriched it.
Just to watch a horse run…!
Carolyn McDowall The Culture Concept Circle 2010- 2012
Watch the Secretariat Trailer