Two-up, Tattslotto or the track, many Australians like the punt and on Melbourne Cup Day, the first Tuesday in November, even those who would otherwise give racing no second thought sit up and take notice. If you’re like me, you don’t have to like racing particularly to enjoy the Melbourne-wide public holiday the State Government declares every year to mark the “Race that Stops a Nation”. It stops because we’re all on holiday.
Personally I wouldn’t know one end of a horse from the other. Possibly the psychologists would have something to say about a childhood remembered listening to my father “taking the scratchings on the wireless”, an old valve type Astor Mickey every Saturday morning, followed by the broadcast races in the afternoon. He thought of the process as a form of entertainment and often didn’t even bother to bet and if he did, it was for never more than a few dollars for the day. In time I asked him if he were to add up all the wins he had had and compare them alongside to all the losses, well would he be a bit in front, or rather a bit behind. His response was frank and to the point, “Listen son, mark my words, if anyone ever tells you they win on the TAB they are lying to your face.”
It was a good attitude to bring to the punt. Racing for him was a culture. Occasionally he would take the family to a country race meeting and apparently this was supposed to be something of an occasion. I remember it was invariably stinking hot and for some reason I never quite fathomed, I always seemed to be over dressed in my Sunday best. On arrival my mother would put out a picnic rug and a Thermos on the lawn, Dad would disappear to inspect the bookies’ tents and my sister would take off to admire the horses in the training yard. It was usually at this moment that I would ask for the first, but certainly not for the last time that day, “Can we go home now?”
But the gees gees were in the old man’s blood. His brother had been a jockey riding for the racing stable of Frank Musgrave in the 1930s and before that their father had worked as a stockman for Coghlan and Boase & Co, stock and station agents in Ballarat. During my own childhood our cousins in that town kept a racing stables which legend has it was even moderately successful for a while. My memory of that place was being put without a saddle or bridle on top of an old grey mare that I was told had not galloped for about half a century. The next thing it was off with me clinging to its neck like grim death, charging towards the busy main road which loomed up ahead at the end of the path. Looking back on it, it was probably my strangling hold on the neck of the horse that had sent it flying down the path in the first place and the harder I held on, the faster she went. Finally, as I contemplated throwing myself off before the impending intersection and its looming road traffic, my grip must have relaxed and the horse stopped mid stride. “Oh thankyou dear, dear horsey,” I whimpered as I climbed down gingerly from on high, determined to never go through that again. My cousins though were more than impressed when they came up. “Crikey, Ian, we haven’t seen that horse so very much as move in years. How on earth did you manage to get her to gallop?” Apparently natural horsemanship is something you are born with.
The family of Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge were certainly born to horsemanship. A daughter, Alice Wragge even managed to marry one of the stable hands, an itinerant bricklayer who worked at Yallambie, very much to the enduring outrage of her father. Wragge’s Yallambie featured an extensive stables complex which dated from the previous Bakewell occupation of the property and which survived into the 1980s, the sound of clip clopping hooves echoing across the years from a time when the concept of horsepower carried a literal meaning. A brother of Thomas Wragge, Henry, whose diary was found under the floorboards at Yallambie Homestead, is also remembered as one of the earliest practitioners of equine veterinary medicine in the Victorian Colony. In the words of Winty Calder: “Horses were an essential part of the life of the Wragges”, and properties like Yallambie and their Riverina pastoral holdings could not have been run without them. (Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, p173).
Quoting from her father Frank Wright’s memories, Calder goes on to recount an occasion at Jessie Wragge’s 1910 funeral and an incident that well illustrates the horse skills present in the family.
The cortege must have been about half a mile long. Behind the horse-drawn and black plumed hearse were two or three mourning coaches followed by a great line-up of buggies, traps, jinkers and the like, all horsedrawn. Starting at Yallambie, the procession went via Upper Heidelberg Road to the Heidelberg Cemetery. As the hearse approached the bottom of the hill near Rosanna Station, one of the horses attached to the first mourning coach started to play up just about level with where the entrance to the Yarra Yarra Golf Links subsequently stood. Probably the vehicle’s brakes were not effective during the long descent. There was no britching in the two-horse one-pole harness and all each horse could do was to try to hold back with the collar up near its head.
The off-side horse of the first coach started to kick, and got one leg over the pole. The coach ran off the road to the right and crashed into the fence in a fair tangle; and there it stuck.
The hearse continued slowly on, crossing the gully and the new railway. The second coach stopped and so did the rest of the procession. The horse had no discernment at all, or else it would not have picked that company for its misbehaviour. From a dozen vehicles poured over fifty men – brothers, cousins, second-cousins and others who had spent a great part of their lives in saddles. They rushed in a mob to the tangle of horses, making soothing, hissing noises to calm them.
In a second, someone was sitting on the head of the fallen horse while others were unharnessing all the others. The hearse continued slowly plodding up the hill to the west. The horses were reharnessed, the coach hauled out of the fence by a dozen men and the horses coupled up again. The men rushed back to their vehicles, and the procession reformed. The hearse was only about 200 yards ahead, and before it got to the top of the rise the vehicles were back in place.
(Cader: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, p211).
Hey presto, the dignity of the funeral procession was preserved. The wayward horse had chosen the wrong lads to mess with on that day. Horses were a part of the family’s everyday life as evidenced by Frank Wright’s further childhood memories at Upper Heidelberg Rd:
“I remember Will (Wragge) arriving one day on horseback and taking me on the pommel to Yallambie… I clearly remember an uproar one day [about 1902] when a party from Yallambie were riding to Essendon [probably to see Syd Wragge’s fiancé Grace Wilson], and Alice (Wragge) was thrown from her horse in Bell Street. Our place, being nearest belonging to the family, was returned to and Alice’s face, all grazed and bloody, made a vivid impression on me, as she sat on her horse in our yard before dismounting.” (Cader: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, p139).
But of course it was at Thomas Wragge’s 110,000 acre property in NSW that the horse really came into its own and Thomas was very careful about the care of his animals.
“During the 1880s Thomas Wragge’s property became so large that much time was used riding to different parts of it, and many horses were needed. Always concerned about their welfare… one particular way in which Thomas cared for his horses has long been remembered. He insisted that a bucket of water should remain in the shade near the stables during the summer, so that bits could be immersed in it and cooled before being put in the horses’ mouth. Any man who failed to do so was instantly dismissed.” (Cader: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, p105).
Country race meetings had their place in this world and Calder mentions a meeting at Tulla which, as a communal occasion, seems to have interrupted the shearing in that year:
“Race meetings were important social events. New Year’s Day 1887 was a Saturday and, after the usual homestead chores, all hands went to the races held at Fisher’s selection beside the Deniliquin road. Significantly, the Tulla diary entry for the next day reads: ‘Nothing much doing today – hot day.’” (Cader: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, p116).
Fisher’s selection was a small holding taken up within the wide boundaries of the Tulla leasehold and according to Calder was “a continuing source of nuisance and annoyance for Thomas Wragge”. There was a bush pub located on the selection, a mere mile from the Tulla woolshed. The implication here is that sore heads after New Year’s race day drinks resulted in a diary entry, “Nothing much doing today,” with the station sheep perhaps fortunate not to face men with sharp shears after a day and night of solid drinking.
Thomas tried to buy the selection and its pub on a number of occasions but antagonism between him and the proprietor, a Mrs Beaton, meant that she refused to sell to him at any price. Eventually Thomas solved the problem by means of a simple ruse. Calder continues:
“He persuaded a man from Geelong to pose as a buyer, and that man finally made a deal with Mrs Beaton, paid a deposit and obtained a receipt which he handed to Thomas. It has been suggested that Thomas promptly rode over to the pub, ordered everyone out of it and burnt down the building.”
Thomas might not have approved of a bush pub and a country race venue in such close proximity to his woolshed, but the racing of horses was an important social activity for 19th century Australian pastoral dynasties and a family like the Wragges were no exception. They structured their year around the Melbourne Cup, moving down from the family’s properties in the Riverina annually to be in Melbourne for the running of the Cup. They then stayed on at Yallambie throughout Christmas and the hottest months of summer to avoid the worst heat of inland NSW.
As an event, the Cup has been run over 2 miles (3200 metres) at Flemington every November since 1861. Many people like to have a little flutter on the result with the certain knowledge it very probably is just “chucking money away” all the same.
We’ve all heard the story.
A man I know gets his haircut from a chap whose sister is married to a bloke who drives a taxi who gave a ride to a sporting type wearing a loud jacket who had spoken to a lad who sweeps out the stalls at a stables where he got this tip straight from the horse’s mouth, from Mr Ed, the talking horse.
Whether the Wragge’s liked a wager themselves is unrecorded but it could be argued that the very act of farming in a marginal landscape in NSW, a test for the soul and an arena for struggle in anybody’s language, was itself a form of gambling.
We like to think that flying in the face of adversity is a part of the National Character but in latter years it has come to mean something more. Australia has the dubious honour of losing more money on gambling per capita than any other nation on the planet – something well over $1000 on average per adult annually. 80% of Australians, the highest proportion of any country, wager something, somewhere, sometime but this hasn’t necessarily been a problem historically. For most of the history of the running of the Melbourne Cup, there were few other methods of gambling available to the general public, even with the inevitable illegal SP bookmaker working out the back of a shop in the suburbs. The process of picking a winner was a reward in itself. But when gambling left the track and entered our pubs and clubs in the form of poker machines or into a Casino at Southbank the State Government insisted we had to have because “the other states have got ´em”, it entered the vernacular. It made a few people, the owners of poker machine and casino licences very rich, but at the cost of making some folk very poor.
Like my father listening for the “scratchings” without placing a bet, I like to think it’s all about the process and not the end in itself. It makes horse sense that if I buy a lotto ticket then leave it unchecked for weeks, I’ve bought weeks of entertainment value. There is always the idea lurking at the back of my mind that there is a possibility of it being a winner, no matter how unlikely the reality. It might even explain the continuing popularity of the Cup in an Australia where there are now so many other forms of gambling available. You see, the Cup is not just about the gambling although that has always been a part of it.
At the first running of the Cup in 1861 the VRC issued two ladies tickets to every gentleman club member in the belief that “where ladies went, men would follow”. So historically the Cup has always been about other things – the fashions and the flirting, the boozing and the bookmakers, the race track and the roses. But most of all it has always been about the horses and the holiday. What other excuse do we need to have a good time?