Nicholas Godfrey on the Melbourne Cup

With the Melbourne Cup days away, Nicholas Godfrey recalls a memorable encounter with the legendary Bart Cummings.

  • Sunday 01 November
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The day I met the Cups King

I’VE been lucky enough to attend the Melbourne Cup a few times, and can bear witness to the fact that ‘the race that stops a nation’ (TM) most definitely lives up to the hype.

However, perhaps the most indelible episode in my personal Melbourne memory bank comes from 2011 and did not happen on the racetrack itself – despite the year in question having featured a thrilling contest as French-trained Dunaden touched off Red Cadeaux.

Rather, I’m looking further back on the same day to The Terrace, the chic racecourse restaurant overlooking the winning post, because that is where I spent an hour over lunch with the late, great Bart Cummings, having breached his various defences – among them a sceptical maitre d’ clearly suspicious of the oik who says he is ‘here to meet Mr Cummings’.

Watch the 2020 Melbourne Cup at Flemington live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) at 4am on Tuesday 3rd November.

“Bart doesn’t do interviews,” said Australian journalists. Perhaps he made an exception as he had a new book to promote, an excellent memoir penned by his friend Les Carlyon, doyen of Aussie sportswriters.

That said, the man himself didn’t seem entirely enamoured of any PR process to the extent of making an early departure from his own launch event a few days previously.

Be that as it may, against the odds I somehow found myself seated adjacent to Bart and a couple of family members in the premier eaterie at Flemington.

Admittedly, this was a fairly daunting prospect in its way. Let’s be frank: epithets like ‘legend’ are often used cheaply, but here we were talking about the foremost trainer in the history of Australian racing. Cummings was an international icon – a true great and a true original.

What is more, he had a reputation as someone who didn’t say a lot and didn’t suffer fools; enter the anxious, stuttering Pommie racing writer nervously chewing his fingernails.

Thankfully, Cummings soon put me at my ease. “Give the boy a chair,” he gestured to his long-suffering daughter before further scrutinising the lunch menu featuring an elegant-looking selection, especially the duck starter which offered confit pithivier, Peking and parfait with crostini. It is fair to say Cummings was not obviously impressed at the fancy fare.

“What I want is plain duck,” he said, bemused and politely exasperated, to the server. “I don’t know what this means. Plain duck – can’t you just give me plain duck?”

A few minutes later, the canard duly arrived in a dumpling-style arrangement, accompanied by a slight raising of those famously bushy grey eyebrows before their owner tucked in. “I still don’t know what it is,” he said quietly, smiling to himself at the absurdity of it all. “But it tastes all right so we’ll see how we go.”

Innocuous as it was, the exchange was enlightening. For plain duck, read plain-speaking: one tough cookie, albeit always with a laugh not far away. “He takes his work seriously but refuses to take himself seriously,” suggested the aforementioned Carlyon.

Bart Cummings is not one for fripperies or fuss, never likely to be mistaken for a tall poppy, though he might enjoy cutting down a few.

Be that as it may, if you didn’t know you would never have guessed this impish 84-year-old with the mane of silver-grey hair was one of the most celebrated figures in the history of the sport, racing’s answer to Don Bradman. Yet there he was, suspiciously eyeing the hors d’oeuvres at his second home, three hours before neither of his two representatives came anywhere near adding to his astonishing record of 12 Melbourne Cup victories.

Nobody else has won more than five times; not content with saddling merely the winner, Cummings trained the first two home on five occasions. That’s probably why they erected a statue in his honour at Flemington.

I gently suggested to him that he must feel like he owned the place. “I still have to pay just like everybody else,” he shot back, throwing off any hint of affectation. “I just like to treat everything normal, try to keep a low profile,” he added. “It’s not working, of course.”

Bart was renowned as the ‘Cups King’ – plural, because he also won five Caulfield Cups, 13 Australian Cups (another G1 at Flemington, over 1m2f in the autumn) plus five Cox Plates and four Golden Slippers. More than 260 Group 1s altogether, with a multitude of-class top horses like Saintly and So You Think; nine Aussie horses of the year, in fact.

Cummings’s first Melbourne Cup winner dated back to the filly Light Fingersin 1965 at the height of Beatlemania when he was 37. After ten more, Cummings’ final success came 43 years later with Viewed in 2008, when he was 80 and Beyonce was topping the charts. The Fab Four may have long since departed but the ‘Cups King’ just kept going, well into his ninth decade.

Time to get serious, so come on Bart, tell us your secret – how do you train a Melbourne Cup winner?

“There’s no magic formula,” he said (of course). “You’ve got to buy the right horse, you’ve got to be patient and you’ve got to feed it right. Good tucker, be kind to it, when it needs a break give it a break – that’s about it. It’s relentless work and taking an interest in your horse’s welfare, and above all plain common sense. If you’ve got all those things covered, you make your own luck.”

For all that he was one of the most famous men in the racing world, Cummings also had a reputation for being a shy, solitary individual, ill at ease with his celebrity, despite its longevity.

Why then had he done the book? “We both need the money,” he said. And he laughed. It soon transpired that you do a lot of laughing when you’re with Cummings, his fondness for the droll one-liner undimmed as he entered his 85th year. “You're only as old as your horses, and mine are as young as two,” he told me. A well-rehearsed line, but a good one all the same.

I ventured that it was good to see him looking so robust. “It’s good to see you looking so healthy as well,” he grinned. We both know it wasn’t me that had a couple of serious health scares the previous year, when Cummings suffered a bout of pneumonia. A stint in hospital meant he was forced to do the unthinkable and miss a significant part of the Melbourne spring carnival.

If the obituaries weren’t being written, the retirement notices were certainly ready for the press. Not, though, as far as Cummings was concerned – and he wasn’t keen to dwell on the issue. “We’re all right now, soon back up and running,” he said, hospital ward a distant unloved memory.

“I couldn’t wait to get out of there,” he added. “You can’t change the past and you can only influence the future by being positive and doing what you do best. That’s what I’ve done – I’m still up and out every morning.”

Here it should be admitted that the last paragraph was several separate responses shoved together. Bart said every word, just not in one go: he seldom offered three words where two will do. Three sentences constituted an oratory.

He wasn’t short of an opinion, either. British racing? “Two-bob,” because of the prize-money. “Listen to Mark Johnston, he agrees with me,” he said. “He knows the prize-money’s better in Australia.”

OK, what made Black Caviar so good? “Because she had the neck of a duchess and the arse of a cook.”

Interfering owners? “I’ve been asked countless times how much I charge to train a horse,” he said. “I say to owners, ‘I’ll train it for 50 bucks a day, but if you want to give me a hand, I’ll charge you 75.’”

Not for nothing was the Cummings wisecrack remains part of Australian racing folklore. They really did break the mould when they made James Bartholomew Cummings.

That hour in the company of a national treasure was unforgettable. Trite as it may sound, when he died aged 87 in August 2015, it was a privilege to write a 3,000-word obituary for the Racing Post.

I just hope I did the great man justice.  Mind you, I suspect he would have taken great joy in pointing out about any errors. With only a few words and an impish grin.

Nicholas Godfrey on the Melbourne Cup
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