The Master: A Personal Portrait of Bart Cummings
By Les Carlyon
Pan Macmillan Australia, $59.99, pp 343
What does it take to win a Melbourne Cup, the toughest two-mile handicap in the world, the horse race that’s older than the Australian nation and every year stops it for three and a bit minutes on the first Tuesday in November?
You might think it just takes a good horse, and while having one never hurts — in 1930, the greatest of them all, Phar Lap, made Australians forget the Depression for a while — it’s no guarantee of success.
The best galloper I’ve seen in 35 years of punting, Kingston Town, was beaten in the 1982 Cup. Three years earlier, the horse who might have been anything, Dulcify, broke his pelvis approaching the heart-crushing Flemington home stretch and had to be put down.
Indeed, anyone looking for guarantees in a sport notoriously indifferent to them could have done worse over the past half-century or so than to put their money on one man: James Bartholomew Cummings, ‘the Cups King’.
Bart, as he is known, has trained 12 Melbourne Cup winners, seven more than his nearest rivals and roughly one every four years since 1965, when the brave little mare Light Fingers dug deep to win the big one.
That first Cup win was a portent of what was to come, as Cummings trained not only the winner but the second horse, Ziema. He would do the same next year, when Galilee ran down the ever-game Light Fingers. He has won the race with near-champions such as Galilee, Let’s Elope and Saintly and he has won it with dour handicappers such as Think Big, who scored in 1974 and 1975 and didn’t win a biscuit in between. He’s even won it with a horse named after a curry, Rogan Josh, and he was a very bland curry indeed until Bart got his hands on him.
And it’s not all about the Cup. Cummings, who will turn 84 a fortnight after this Tuesday’s Cup, has won every important race on the Australian turf calendar, most of them several times over. You’d be forgiven for thinking, as Les Carlyon writes in The Master, that he has ‘perfected the imperfect art of training’.
Cummings’s record is comparable to Don Bradman’s, and that is not all he has in common with the greatest cricketer ever born, as Carlyon observes. The two men belong to a time, not that long passed, ‘when it was thought proper for sports heroes to be humble, and when they didn’t use social networking sites and a forest of exclamation marks to tell us about their trip to the supermarket. Modern fame, you suspect, still baffles Cummings. He is a man formed in another era’.
This passage reveals much of Carlyon’s intent in this book. His personal portrait of Cummings is, by way of reflection, also a lament for what racing has lost in the drive to draw the crowds by creating a circus-like atmosphere in which everyone, trainers included, is encouraged to carry on like a clown.
An example: in the minutes before the 2010 Cox Plate at Melbourne’s Moonee Valley racecourse, Cummings’s star So You Think was spooked by ‘pop singer Daryl Braithwaite … belting out ‘The Horses’’. A quick thinking official cut the music, and So You Think calmed down and went on to win the race for the second year in a row. Even so, as Carlyon writes, ‘many of us … were left with the feeling that some of the people running races these days don’t know much about horses’.
That could never be said about Carlyon, or his subject. Though he is best known these days as the author of blockbuster military histories Gallipoli and The Great War, Carlyon has long been Australia’s pre-eminent racing writer. True Grit: Tales from 25 Years on the Turf, first published in 1998 and never out of print, is his masterpiece.
So when it comes to the thoroughbreds in this book, we are in the hands of two masters. Carlyon’s descriptions of the horses, and their races, are thrilling. He is no anthropomorphist — a horse is a horse, of course, of course — but he does get inside the complicated equine head. When So You Think cruised to the lead in that second Cox Plate, rider Steven Arnold gave him a tap with the whip. The horse turned his head, as Carlyon records, ‘as if to say:
“No need for that.”’
Carlyon makes brilliant use of the faceless fringe players — the strappers, the stable foremen, the vets, the track riders — who combined know more about the horses than anyone else. Cummings’s long-time track rider, Joe Agresta, is a font of wisdom in these pages.
The Master is beautifully illustrated with photographs (the ones of a steely-looking young Bart are wonderful) and watercolour portraits of some of Cummings’s best-known horses. Carlyon’s attention to detail extends to the captions. I love this one, for a photo of So You Think in the tunnel that leads to Flemington’s training tracks: ‘Other track riders would stare at the horse and say: “Bloody hell!”’
There may be no certainties in racing, or publishing for that matter, but if there’s a racing person in your life, putting this book in their Christmas stocking is as safe a bet as you can get. The picture that emerges of Cummings, especially in the final chapter as he relaxes with the author over a few glasses of red, is a revealing one, far more interesting than the public caricature of the unknowable genius who breaks his silence only to deliver witty one-liners.
To finish with the question posed at the outset, what does it take to win a Melbourne Cup? Well, after reading Carlyon’s account of the man who has won the race more times than anyone ever will, it seems the answer is this: work your horses hard and feed them well. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But then, as Carlyon writes, quoting the gnomic Agresta, ‘If you think you know Bart, then you don’t know Bart.’
Stephen Romei is the Australian’s literary editor. His blog, A Pair of Ragged Claws, is at www.theaustralian.com.au/thearts