Ken Trewick is late. Which is very unlike Ken Trewick. He told me he’d pick me up at 9.30. And as I stand in the sunshine on the footpath outside my brother’s old Queenslander, I wonder what’s going on. Not that I know Ken too well. I’ve met him a few times I suppose, and I’ve heard some of his story. But I’m going to drive to the Stawell Gift with him.
I first noticed Ken’s name when I was looking through a list of Stawell Gift winners.
1950 W.K. TREWICK (BRISBANE)
I remember wondering what a Queenslander was doing at the Stawell Gift. A few years later I was talking to a bloke who knows a fair bit about Australian Rules football in Brisbane. He mentioned Ken Trewick. Played for years. Good player. Won the Stawell Gift. Made a fortune. I thought, I am going to ring this Ken Trewick.
I got onto him at his home in Wilston, Brisbane. He said he’d never told anyone how it all happened but that he’d think about telling me. I asked him how he went on the punt in 1950. He dropped his guard. “Mate,” he said, “I’m still fuckin’ livin’ off it.” A few months later he rang me at home in Melbourne. One of his ten-second calls. “Ken here. I’m comin’ down this weekend for the Newmarket. I’m gunna back one. I’ll give you a call. Cheerio.” I thought it might have been easier for him to duck round the corner to the Wilston TAB. But I’ve learnt there are punters, and there are punters.
I met him that weekend and he did tell me some of the story. The horse, Bel Esprit, ran second but he backed it each way. (“Yeah, mate, paid for the expenses.”) Since that day in March 2003 he has rung to tip me good things at Eagle Farm (“Mate, I got one for you tomorrow”), to bag the Geelong Football Club (“Mate, you’ve got to go in and get the football”) and to ask after The Leader (“Who’s that, Ken?” “Mate, your missus, the leader of the opposition”).
I am looking out for his car, a 1974 Falcon, when a different car pulls up. Ken jumps out. (“’Day, mate.”) He looks fit. He stands tall and is well-sunned from days on the golf course. He wears a polo shirt, knee-length shorts, a cap and new runners. He looks like he’s about to enrol in a Bachelor of Physical Education. I jump in and we’re away. Every year Ken drives 1,800 kilometres to the Stawell Gift, the 130-yard footrace held every Easter in Stawell, three hours west of Melbourne. He usually leaves at 1 a.m., drives to Narrandera, has a T-bone and a couple of Tooheys, flakes in a motel, and then drives on to Stawell the next day. This time we’re taking it easy. Ken is 79.
“Whose car?” I ask.
“My mate’s,” Ken tells me. “It’s newer.”
“What is it?”
“’76 Fairlane. It’s got a new engine. He wants me to run it in.”
The car is enormous. The white bonnet looks as if it should have a little Australian flag at the front. I feel like the PM or one of the Blues Brothers. Ken chats away as we head out through Cunningham’s Gap. He’s got a bit of mail on a Gold Coast runner – a beach sprinter. But he’ll wait for the word. He talks punting, story after story. We stop at Warwick for petrol. There’s a bit of coolant leaking out. “She’ll be right,” Ken says.
An hour later, just outside Yelarbon, the engine overheats. We glide into a service station in the sleepy main street. She spits and hisses and coolant covers the driveway. Ken has the $2,000-on-a-new-engine-for-his-mate’s-car look. It matches my three-days-in-Yelarbon-and-not-in-Stawell look. The mechanic saunters out. “Bit hot, mate,” he says. He gets an old watering can, lifts the bonnet and pours water on the engine. He taps a few things. Checks a hose. When the radiator cap cools he takes it off, looks at it and says: “Wrong bloody cap. This one seals. Won’t let her suck back from the overflow.” We nod. There are maybe 11 items in the spare parts section of the Yelarbon Service Station. But he returns with the correct cap, fills the radiator with water and screws it on. “You’ll be right.” It has taken him 20 minutes.
“How much?” Ken says.
He thinks. “$8.80.”
We get back in the car. Ken slaps his leg: “Well, we’re 1,990 bucks up and we haven’t had a bet yet.” We go through Goondiwindi. Gunsynd, the town’s great grey colt, gets a mention. Then Ken starts talking about the old days, about joining the airforce in 1944 when he turned 18. He reckons he had nothing better to do. He had left school after Scholarship, as the final year of primary school in Queensland was called. He worked odd jobs but nothing grabbed him – except football. Like his four brothers Ken played for Windsor, an inner Brisbane suburb. Long-limbed and athletic, he was hard to beat at centre half-back and occasionally had a run in the ruck. Football was never going to make him a quid though.
In the airforce he ran the two-up school and got to the races as often as he could. Some weeks he’d be flush, other weeks he’d have to sit around the barracks “with the arse out of my tweeds”. When in Sydney he’d go to Canterbury where, in between chasing the local fillies, he had a few punting triumphs. If nothing else he always got a hot dog from the vendor who spruiked: “A loaf o’ bread and a pound o’ meat, and all the sauce that you can eat; buy ’em here and die round the corner.”
The afternoon passes talking about those old days: days of footy and cricket, of SP bookies and billiard saloons and barber’s shops, the walls adorned with racing photos and shots of gaberdine-coated sports teams standing on the steps of an ANA Lockheed Electra. We get to Coonabarabran around dusk and stay in the Poplars Motel, across the road from the football ground, where one of Ken’s runners won the Coonabarabran Gift back in the 1960s. Ken watches The Bill, while next door I read his old scrapbooks. There will be more to hear tomorrow.
It’s a magnificent autumn morning. We have breakfast. The Fairlane fires up (“you beauty”). Ken drives. As we head towards Gilgandra he starts telling me the story of the 1950 Stawell Gift. In July 1948, Footscray played Richmond at the Exhibition Ground in Brisbane. The curtain-raiser was between Queensland, starring all four Trewicks, and Canberra. After the early game the umpire, Horrie Hyde, approached Ken: “You’re gunna run against Eric Cumming at half-time.” Ken said: “Like bloody hell I am. I’m stuffed.” But he did. Eric Cumming was a champion professional runner in Victoria. Not that Ken knew. They raced over 100 yards in football boots. “I stopped with him for a good while,” Ken remembers, “and all of a sudden I said goodnight and beat him – much to my amazement.” Sitting in the stands was a bloke called Jim Devine. He thought: “We’ve got a live one here.” He made a mental note of the name, Ken Trewick. And said nothing.
Don Eggleton trained foot-runners. He contacted Ken and explained there was a quid to be made in professional running. Ken was broke. He loved a beer (“Did you have a beer, Ken?” “Mate, I wrote the book”) and a bet and somehow got by. Recently married to Betty, who was pregnant with their first child, he was open to suggestions. Ken had tremendous natural speed but no technique. Eggleton set about teaching him to sprint. It was hard work. (“I got very sore.”) He got stronger. After a few months he ran a trial against John Short, his training partner, at Windsor Oval. Something clicked. Coming down the track he had a wonderful feeling. He flew over the last 20 yards. (“This is all right.”) He ran two yards inside even time. Even time – 100 yards in 10 seconds – is pretty quick. If you can run inside even time and have the right handicap, you’re a betting proposition.
By now Ken was developing his distinctive style, his fine legs taking long, graceful strides and his forearms pumping like the driving rod on the wheels of a steam train. One afternoon he was set to train at Mayne Athletic Club. As he was warming up a gunshot came from inside the dressing room. Puzzled, Ken went in – and found Don lying on the floor with a bullet wound to his head. Unbeknown to Ken the starting gun was a real pistol that fired real bullets. The clocker needed to see the smoke and the pistol was all Don had. It had accidentally gone off, the police concluded, possibly as he was bending over to pick up some lane markers. Ken carried Don to the cab and sped towards the hospital. “I was the first cabbie to go through the Valley junction at 50 miles an hour.” Don died soon after. Ken went to Don’s place to tell his wife, a conversation he will never forget.
The incident knocked Ken around. He thought about the futility, the sheer ill-luck of it all. He also thought his chance to make a quid was gone. More devastating news followed. Betty and Ken learnt that their child would be stillborn. The loss had a profound effect on Betty, and on their relationship.
Ken is quiet for a while. The Fairlane cruises past the big satellite dish on the outskirts of Parkes. As we near town his phone beeps. I take my turn behind the wheel. Ken gets his message and makes a call. It’s another tip for the nags. We’re quickly in Forbes and on towards West Wyalong, and Ken is away again.
Jim Devine still hadn’t spoken to anyone. But when he heard about Eggleton’s accident he wrote to a Melbourne trainer by the name of Ernie Muldoon, who had trained three Stawell Gift winners around the time of World War I. (“Devine knew how to find a quid.”) Muldoon told Ken he was an ideal prospect and offered to pay his and Betty’s fare to Melbourne, put them up in his own house and feed them. He would prepare Ken for the race and Ken would keep his mouth shut, ensuring he secured the gentlest handicap and longest odds possible. Not a soul could know what was going on. And if things went to plan, they would make a fortune. All of them.
Ken was still living from day to day. He agreed to the deal. If he won he’d get the prize-money and a small share of the betting. Windsor won the premiership in 1949. A few weeks later, Ken and Betty caught the train to Melbourne. Muldoon met them at Spencer Street Station. From that day on they were Ken and Betty Anderson.
Mul, nearly 70, was an imposing figure. (“Six foot two, hawkish features, and I knew from his handshake he was solid.”) He and his wife Monica lived at 260 Dandenong Road, close to Caulfield racecourse, with two old bachelors, Major Smith and his brother Bertie, and a white cockatoo which sat on the front fence wolf-whistling at the sheilas who walked past. Mul was something of a Bart Cummings-meets-Jack Gibson type. He didn’t say much. He was an astute punter who didn’t mind putting the money on. But it was only ever smart money. And not a zack would go on W.K. Trewick (Brisbane) until he knew him inside out – how quick and committed he was, and whether he could handle pressure. Mul gauged the first two elements relatively easily. He watched Ken run and immediately knew he had plenty to work with. He put Ken on a strict training program.
Ken was disciplined. He worked hard and looked after himself. He even subscribed to an old maxim of runners that any sexual activity whatsoever was detrimental to performance. “I tied a string around my old fella every night.” His stance put a lot of pressure on his marriage. “Women around foot-runners is dynamite,” Ken reckons. “So wives, they’ve got a lot to put up with. The sex life is out the gate. I could handle it but Betty couldn’t. I tackled Mul one day and said: ‘I’m going to have to get out of here. This isn’t worth wrecking a marriage for.’” Mul assured him that he had the goods and, if he stuck at it, they’d all be loaded. He asked Ken for a few more months of his life. Ken agreed to continue. Betty went back to Brisbane. “It was a sad time,” says Ken, “but you have to make decisions about your life. She couldn’t hack it, but I realised I wasn’t going to give up this chance to make a quid.”
Mul understood the pressures on Ken. He was in a foreign place, trusting people he hardly knew, doing something he knew almost nothing about. He had no money. He had to stay hidden away and couldn’t talk to anyone outside the house. And that meant he couldn’t gain racing experience by competing in the lead-up gifts. Sure he was fast, but the big question still was whether he could be fast under pressure: whether he could race, whether he could chase. That’s what they were gambling on.
From December 1949 Ken trained twice a day at Caulfield racecourse, mid-morning and late afternoon. Mul would get home from his job at the post office and give him a 45-minute massage. As Mul worked Ken’s muscles with his secret liniment – a sweet-smelling, homemade paste – he’d talk to him about running. Ken would have a shower and they’d all sit down, Ken and Mul and Mrs Mul and the two old bachelors, for tea: roasts or thick lamb chops, always with lots of vegetables, and a cup of tea in the sitting room where they’d talk or play 500.
Nobody else in Melbourne knew that Ken Trewick was in town. Very few knew Ken Anderson was in town either. But Ken couldn’t remain anonymous forever. Mul had to officially register him as a runner with the Victorian Athletics League and nominate himself as Ken’s trainer. Joe Bull was secretary of the VAL. He received hundreds of registration papers, far too many names for anyone to remember. There was no reason to notice W.K. Trewick.
Ken also needed a mark – the position he would start from in handicap events. So he needed to compete in an event. Mul thought Eltham (“wherever that is”) was a quiet enough meeting so they nominated. He put Ken in “the longest pair of khaki shorts you’ve ever seen” and sent him to the blocks. “This is my first start in a race,” Ken told the official at the top of the straight. “Now what do I do here?” Burdened by his attire and wearing particularly uncomfortable spikes, he did nothing. (“I followed them down the track.”) He looked like a bit of a bushwhacker. They got on the train and went home.
With all his training, Ken was really improving. His action was terrific. Mul was growing in confidence but he was worried there were spies around. To be safe he put Ken on the train and sent him up to Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. “I wondered what the hell was going on.” Ken was met on the platform by another trainer, Mick Flanagan, a man of ample tummy who had grown up with Mul in Junee. Flanagan had booked Ken Anderson into the Commercial Hotel, right next to the station. Mick trained Ken along with his other runner, Tommy Hishon, on the cricket field next to the seven-furlong start at the Wagga racetrack. Hishon had won prize-money all over the place. Mick wanted them to run a trial.
“Take three yards,” Mick said to Tommy.
“You want me to give him three,” Hishon checked.
“No,” Mick said. “He’s gunna give you three.”
There’s no bastard around who can give me three, Tommy thought. Ken could. He beat him easily. Hishon looked at him as if to say he wouldn’t tell a soul, and committed his name to memory: Ken Anderson.
We head through Temora. The only time Ken stops talking is when he’s passing a truck. He eases out and then guns it. The fuel gauge goes down as quickly as the speedo goes up. The bonnet rises and you feel like you’re in a speedboat. We’re flying.
The season was in full swing when Mul called Ken back to Melbourne. The VAL had brought out a couple of international stars for that year’s Stawell Gift to generate more public interest. Barnie Ewell was a charismatic African-American who thrilled Australian crowds with his backmark charges. Albert Grant, a Scot, had won the famous Powderhall Gift. Grant was boarding at the home of Joe Bull, his wife and their attractive daughter. He was competing in events around Victoria, while waiting for Stawell.
When Ken got back he looked fantastic. He ran a brilliant solo trial, recording a time that surprised even Mul. Now there was no way he could be nominated for an event before Stawell. Furthermore he was very tanned, and his mother had sent him a distinctive dark blue tracksuit. He strutted around like Errol Flynn. (“I stood out like a country shithouse.”) But the money wouldn’t go on at Stawell unless Mul knew a bit more. Ken needed to race someone of note. Although it was risky, Mul invited Grant to practise alongside Ken Anderson. For a couple of weeks Grant trained with them and ate with them, but he would always return to stay overnight at the Bull’s house. One morning before they started their work, Grant said to Ken: “They’re very social people, the Bulls.” Ken knew exactly what he meant.
One afternoon Mul trialled the two runners in a match race, up the rise near the 10-furlong mark at Caulfield. Ken stormed home, running five yards inside even time up a steeper gradient than at Stawell. “I beat him easily,” Ken remembers. “It comes back to the sexitis.” The stable believed W.K. Trewick was a certainty. And Grant’s impressive credentials suddenly meant nothing. Which meant Mul had a problem. Grant now knew he couldn’t win at Stawell and had to find another way to make his Australian visit profitable. Mul offered him a cut and asked him to keep quiet. It seems the cut wasn’t enough, and Grant took his own course of action. (“The greedy Scot.”) News of Muldoon’s runner made it to at least the pillow, if not the breakfast table. And lucrative news it was.
Joe Bull was the only person in a position to find out who this runner really was. All he had to do was check the records. W.K. Trewick was Ern Muldoon’s single registered runner. Bull now knew exactly who was going to win the Stawell Gift and he intended to make the most of it. When the Stawell handicaps were announced W.K. Trewick was given nine yards. Then Barnie Ewell won the Wangaratta Gift, for which he was penalised a yard, and all the other runners were put forward. Ken would start from ten yards.
At this point, unbeknown to the Muldoon camp, someone had a sizeable bet at big odds on W.K. Trewick with the prominent bookmaking identity Jack Taffe. Once the bet was laid, the punter gave Taffe the vital mail. Taffe could now take bets with total confidence on every other runner at Stawell. Big money. In the week leading up to Stawell, Mul started receiving anonymous phone calls. Blokes peered from behind newspapers to watch Ken train. “It got that way,” says Ken, “that every time the gun went off a tree moved.” They were Taffe’s spies. The Muldoon camp drove up on Good Friday morning, passing through Stawell and on to Hall’s Gap, in the nearby Grampians. Mul had rented a place out there to keep Ken away from the media. He had an inkling that all hell was about to break loose.
They returned to Stawell that night for the call of the card. When the prices went up Mul was furious. More than 40 bookmakers were fielding but not one had Ken longer than 20/1. It was then that they realised someone had taken the price. They got only three bets on of 800 to 40. Then, as the bookies wound the price in, Muldoon’s boys kept taking the shorter and shorter odds. Their confidence confirmed the rumours that had been floating around Stawell that afternoon – and suddenly “every Tom, Dick and Harry got on. Even the eskimoes. Everyone.” Ken was backed from 20/1 into 3/1 on. The Age called it “the biggest pre-race betting plunge in Stawell Gift history” but was dumbfounded as to why. “[Trewick] has little known form.”
The next day Ken was drawn in a middle heat of the Gift. He won easily, with plenty in reserve, in the blistering time of 11 seconds and 13/16ths. (“I ran like a breeze.”) The bookies groaned. Some of the experienced runners didn’t like it either. Someone claimed Ken had run at Willow Bridge. Ken had never been there. The Stawell Athletics Club secretary, Hank Neil, approached Ken and asked: “You signed this stat dec to say this performance sheet was right?”
“Yep,” Ken replied.
“Are you in crook?”
“No,” Ken assured him.
That was good enough for Hank Neil. Mul whisked Ken off to Hall’s Gap before the press could get at him. Meanwhile Ken’s brother Jim had driven all the way from Queensland for the weekend. Journalists spotted his name and banged on his door. “Are you Trewick?” they asked. “Yes,” he said, “Jim Trewick. And if you see my brother can you tell him I’m lookin’ for him.”
On Easter Monday morning the press declared Ken was as good as over the line in that day’s final. In the Sporting Globe, Ben Kerville wrote that Trewick moved “with the freedom of the perfectly-trained athlete … What Muldoon doesn’t know about the pro-running game you could write on the back of a tram ticket.” As they drove in from Hall’s Gap not a word was spoken. “I’ve never felt tension like that in my life.” This was where the pressure might tell.
Ken found himself in the same semi-final as Eric Cumming, and word got out that Cumming intended to protest if Ken beat him. Blokes kept coming over to Ken asking about his nomination, alleging he was in crook. “They did everything to upset me.” But in his semi-final Ken just took off. He finished powerfully to beat G.R. Kent, with Cumming third. Under Stawell rules only a second place-getter can protest and, despite Cumming’s urging, Kent declined to lodge an objection.
Ken had to wait two hours for the final. He sat and thought. He stretched and did a few run-throughs. The minutes dragged. He collected his yellow colours. He set up his blocks and then stood behind the starting area. If ever there was a time for doubt, this was it. It had been a lonely six months. As much as Mul and the others had been in his ear, telling him how good he was, he was on his own, isolated from his home and family and wife. He had often wondered what he was doing. And here he was, carrying the hopes of others, and the burden of their money, probably far more money than most of them could afford. But he also knew that if he broke the tape 130 yards away his own economic troubles would be over. If he didn’t, it would be back to the grind. He looked up the track. It was just him and his lane.
His thoughts were interrupted by the starter. Everyone was called to the blocks. “All I can remember is the gun going off,” says Ken, “and then I felt a sensation 25 yards out: ‘Go you beauty!’ I threw my head in the air going through the tape. They reckon I won by half a yard.”
Ken was mobbed by ecstatic punters. Journalists gathered round Mul, who let fly about corrupt officials and parasite punters stealing the Gift market. It was big, but it could have been even bigger. The stable collected. There was no wild celebration. They had a cup of coffee in Stawell and drove back to Hall’s Gap. When Ken walked into the room there was more than 40,000 pounds spread across the table. “That’s Devine’s. That’s Mick’s. That’s so and so’s. I’d never seen such money.” Ken was given a 2,300-pound kick, his share of the collect. And the prize-money of 500 pounds was his. He had made himself a quid.
And Ken, rather than staying in Victoria to continue his new career, returned to Brisbane, where he occasionally ran in gifts and challenges. He played 379 games for Windsor. He bought a house in Wilston and his own cab. His marriage didn’t survive and he never had children. But he met Margaret, his wife of 35 years. Mul lured him back a few years later. He set him for the 1953 Stawell Gift and they had a real crack at 100/1, even though he was off the prohibitive mark of one-and-three-quarter yards. He was run out by inches in the semi-final by the eventual winner, W.X. O’Brien.
I am driving when we get to Wagga Wagga. (“Such a good place they named it twice.”) It’s the first time Ken has been back here since 1950. We find the grand old railway station. Ken shows me where the Commercial Hotel used to stand. There’s another hotel there now. We find the racecourse and wander over to the old seven-furlong start. Ken stands there. Says nothing. I know he is thinking of Tommy Hishon because he says: “I saw Tommy years later. He said he never found a Ken Anderson. But he backed me at Stawell. Had his bet and said nothing.”
I fly to Melbourne and Ken continues on to Stawell. I meet him there on Easter Saturday. The Stawell Gift still has an atmosphere of days past: the Edwardian grandstand, the quirky scoreboard, the grass track. But it is an event now, with national TV coverage and sponsors. Traditionally a runner had to win his heat. That’s what created the pressure. Now he can make the semi-finals through the repechages late on Saturday. The old-timers don’t approve. The sponsors do: it means the big-name runners get a second chance.
Ken clocks every heat with his stopwatch. And has his bets. He wins at the Stawell horseraces on the Sunday. And on Monday we’re back for the semis and the final. Josh Ross, the scratch-marker, wins sensationally. Ken hands me a memento, a personal organiser in a brown leather cover. (“Just something to remember the week, mate.”)
As if I’ll forget W.K. Trewick (Brisbane).
First published in the first-ever edition of The Monthly. 2005?
Ken Trewick was the guest of honour at the inaugural Footy Almanac Stawell Gift Dinner at the Waterside Hotel, Melbourne, April 16.
In 2015, John O’Donnell was the guest of honour at the second Footy Almanac Stawell Gift Dinner at the Royal Melbourne Hotel.
More from John Harms