Strange things happen in racing. Let me tell you about one of them: ‘the Selkrig sequence’. It started in October 1963, just half a century ago, and ran well into 1964.
My father migrated to Australia in the late 1930s. One thing that utterly bewildered him in his early years here was Australians’ passionate attachment to betting on gallopers, trotters and greyhounds – well, that’s what his contemporaries told me later.
Somewhere along the line he must have solved the mystery. By the early 1950s, when we were living in Melbourne, he had turned into a punter. Not only that, but he and my mother owned at least two gallopers. My earliest memories include travelling to trainer Des Judd’s tables at Mentone to see these mighty steeds.
Dad would occasionally take me to the track. The betting side of things fascinated me. I loved numbers, so it was a good fit.
One night we went to the Melbourne Showgrounds for the trots. I must have been around 10 or 11 years old. Dad was on a specific mission – to back Brilliant Future. When the betting opened, Brilliant Future was 10/1 and there it stayed. I tried to talk Dad into backing Charltonian instead, for the simple reason that I liked its driver Dai Fitzpatrick.
Charltonian was the 6/4 favourite. Dear reader, you can guess what happened next. I did talk Dad into Charltonian. It sat in ‘the death’ all the way outside – yes – Brilliant Future, and lost in a photo to the self-same Brilliant Future.
That should have ended my interest in punting there and then, but (as later events were to show) it didn’t. Maybe one of the reasons was another trip to the Showgrounds. Ah yes, the night of Kunama.
Dad was having a wretched meeting. Coming to the last, he asked me (in despair more than anything else) for my opinion. The dialogue then went something like this.
Me (with all the confidence of the ignorant): ‘Kunama – it’s good value.’
Dad: ‘Kunama? – it’s older than Methuselah!’
Me: ‘Yes, but it wins – you can’t ask for more than that’ (yes, I knew the cliches, but probably not much about form).
Dad: ‘But it’s been running in the bush.’
Dad again: ‘Well, I’m not doing much good. OK – and (magic!) if it wins I’ll give you a pound.’
I can’t vouch for Kunama’s age or actual form from so long ago,and I don’t know how much Dad invested on it. What I remember is that Kunama seemed to be sweating profusely when he plodded onto the track, that he looked like Methuselah, that he was last to leave the mark, that he sat near the tail of the field until heading into the back straight on the final lap, that he raced around the field in the blink of an eyelid, and bolted in. I think Dad got 25/1. Did I Get my pound? Yes I did.
Racing dropped off the agenda when the family moved to Sydney in 1958 and two years later to the bush. On leaving school I returned to Sydney in early 1962. Racing was the furthest thing from my mind until well into the following year, when I began to spend more time with a mate named Paddy.
The Selkrig sequence begins
Ray Selkrig (left) at the Bong Bong Race Club with the 2013 Cup
Now Paddy was a punter. He knew his stuff, but at first he couldn’t get me to the track.
Then one day Paddy said vaguely in passing that Ray Selkrig had ridden the winner in the first race on the Saturday just gone , and would probably also win the first race this Saturday coming. I must have been at a loose end, so I went with him to Rosehill. I think it was my first visit to a racecourse since leaving Melbourne as a kid.
Now Paddy and I should have been paying attention to bigger events at the time. The Vietnam War was widening (and the government of Ngo Dinh Diem was about to fall). A federal election was just around the corner in Australia. John F Kennedy was in the last month of his life and his presidency. Geelong (joy of joys!) had just won the VFL premiership for the first time in 11 years. Our university exams were only days from starting, and I had a full-time job as well. Then there was the little matter of our ages: Paddy was 19 and I was 18 – the minimum age for betting was 21.
The date was 26 October 1963. Selkrig’s mount in the first was Atomiser. Its form looked erratic, it wasn’t well weighted, and it was doubtful at the distance. Still, to appease Paddy, I put five bob on it at 15/1. To my astonishment it won. Paddy said it showed how good a rider Selkrig was. The bookie gave me four pounds. I had no other bets that afternoon.
I must have applied myself to my studies or some such thing over the next few months. Well, I didn’t go to the races anyway. Paddy and I did, however, notice something: over the 10 Saturdays before Christmas, starting the week before Atomiser’s triumph, Selkrig had ridden the winner of the first race six times. At three of the other four meetings, he had no ride in the first – only once was he defeated. Most of his winners were at short odds, but we thought we might be onto something anyway.The fact that he had also been unplaced in the first on the last Saturday of the year passed us by.
Our next trip to Rosehill was on 18 January 1964. In the first Selkrig was riding Royal Sovereign. It was 7/2. I thought to myself, ‘might as well go for broke’. My bet was three pounds, Royal Sovereign won, and I made 10 pounds and 10 shillings (or 10 guineas, in old jargon – big money in those days). Royal Sovereign went on to win the AJC, VRC and Queensland derbies – yep, we could pick ‘em!
A Damascus conversion
In my more rational moments I was still sceptical about the idea that the same jockey could keep winning the first race at almost every meeting. Whatever the reason for the recent results, they couldn’t continue – could they?
Our next racing adventure wasn’t until 29 February 1964 – yes, it was a leap year – when we went to Rosehill. Since Royal Sovereign’s win, Selkrig had not ridden anything in the first race on Saturdays. This time he was aboard Aranulla at 10/1. The favourite at 1/3 was Reveille. ‘No chance Aranulla’, I thought to myself, but I still put 10 pounds on it. Don’t ask me why – I can’t explain it.
Reveille was well back in the run, after missing the start. Aranulla won, leading from barrier to box. Reveille chased hard to overhaul the winner, but just missed. I made 100 pounds and my doubts evaporated.
Our next journey was a fortnight later, again to Rosehill – on 14 March 1964. Selkrig was on Carnation Girl in the first, the Merrylands Stakes. On form and weights it looked at best a remote chance – and there was no way it could run the distance of seven-and-a-half furlongs.
Paddy said it couldn’t win. In my right mind I would have agreed.
I, however, had become a true believer in Ray Selkrig’s invincibility. I put 50 pounds on the mare at 12/1. We met in the stand as the field went into the gates.
Paddy: ‘What did you back?’
Me: ‘Carnation Girl, of course.’ My faith in Ray Selkrig was total.
Paddy: ‘I told you, it can’t win.’
Me: ‘What have you backed?’
Paddy: ‘Peaceful Song.’
Now Peaceful Song was the favourite at 6/4. George Moore was aboard, and George was by far Sydney’s leading rider.
Me: ‘What about Selkrig?’
Paddy: ‘Won’t happen today’ – I was shocked.
Paddy again: ‘How much did you put on?’
I showed him my ticket. with ’650′ scrawled on it. The zero was barely visible.
Paddy: ‘You had a fiver on it? You’re mad!’
Me: ‘Nah, I’ve put 50 on it – that’s six-five-0 on the ticket.’
Paddy: FIFTY? You really are mad.’
Away they went. Peaceful Song sat behind the leader, George rang his proverbial bell on straightening, the perfect run came for him on the rails, and he steered Peaceful Song through an opening as wide as Sydney’s Heads. The crowd started to cheer another of George’s faultless rides.
And then, and then? Down the outside came, yes, Ray Selkrig on Carnation Girl. It charged up to Peaceful Song as they hit the line. Photo! I was shaking. Up went the numbers.
Yes, Carnation Girl had done it. It had broken a race record too. I was a tidy 600 pounds to the good – an astonishing amount for that time, when a decent house could be bought for a few thousand pounds.
I was a bundle of nerves approaching the bookie for payment of my 650 pounds, but he seemed completely unfazed by his loss. His clerk simply reached into his bag and gave me the cash!
Paddy was furious (with himself more than with me). I felt simply bullet-proof, and nearly doubled my winnings before the afternoon was over. I caught the train home, my pockets stuffed with notes, and was probably lucky to arrive safely.
It’s worth recording here that the famous Eskimo Prince won the Golden Slipper on the same day and that its owner, Perc Galea, won a fortune in bets. Perc threw 10-pound notes into the crowd. I should probably have done the same thing!
The bubble bursts
By this time Paddy and I had formed the impression that Selkrig’s succession of first-race wins was a purely Rosehill phenomenon. Our perceptions were probably distorted by the wins of Aranulla and Carnation Girl at big prices. In fact (as we had earlier realised) Selkrig had been winning the first at Canterbury, Randwick and Warwick Farm too. When he didn’t win the first, it was usually because (having no ride) he couldn’t.
As far as I remember, there was no action at Rosehill until 9 May when we made our next trip there. The form guide showed no ride for Selkrig in the first. What to do? Never mind – he might find something. He did – a nag called Secret. It was 7/1. I invested 150 pounds on it to win 1050.
Away they went. Secret settled into a perfect spot, strode to the front turning for home, and had the race won a furlong out. Only it didn’t. Down the middle of the course came Magic Flash. It dashed past Secret. I could not believe it. I sat stunned for ages in the stand. What had gone wrong? Yes, of course – if Selkrig had had a ride when the form was originally published, everything would have been OK. Yes, yes – that was it. I was reason personified.
My confidence received another injection later in the afternoon. I had one other bet. it was on a horse called Bannock. It had been beaten at odds-on last start, was up in class, but was dropping dramatically in weight (to 6 stone, 12 pounds, or about 44 kg in today’s terms). I put 20 pounds on it at 8/1.
Bannock led all the way, and I was in front – just – on the day. I immediately went home, grateful for my escape.
The dream revived
Fortified by this experience, I went to Rosehill on 27 June full of confidence. For some reason Paddy didn’t come. Selkrig was riding Underwriter in the first – obviously the best of good things (!) despite its weight and doubts about whether it could run the distance. What could go wrong? It was priced at 16/1 and on went 30 pounds to win 500.
My memory of the race is a blur. I know that Underwriter was handy all the way and that it won in a blanket finish – the winning margin was a short half-head, with a head to the third placegetter. Fourth and fifth weren’t that far away either.
It took an age for the judge to declare a result. A second print of the photo was needed. The wait was agony.
Strangely, Underwriter’s win did not give me the same sense of invincibility that took hold after Carnation Girl’s win in March. I bet sparingly on the next few races and went home early – with more of a sense of relief than anything else.
Reality takes hold
Underwriter’s win was a new but false dawn. In my heart of hearts I must have realised as much because it didn’t take long for me to abandon my faith in the Selkrig sequence. There’s nothing like a few losers on the trot to focus the mind. As far as I remember it was not until 26 June 1965 – one day short of 12 months since Underwriter’s win – that Ray Selkrig again rode the first winner (Royal Standard at 4/5) on a Saturday program at Rosehill.
Just the same I had come to fancy my broader punting skills and continued to bet most weeks. Then catastrophe arrived one dark day at Canterbury in October 1965.
I got it into my head that Deep Image was the greatest certainty in racing history. It probably was a special, but that’s not the same thing as a certainty. I lost my head, and ‘invested’ on Deep Image an amount that dare not (or should not!) speak its name. Well, it was actually 200 pounds – easily the largest bet of my life – to win 600.
Deep Image was caught three wide outside the two leaders for just about the whole journey of six furlongs. It was beaten into third by Florida Keys and the aptly named Self Control. I felt sick, went home at once, and abandoned racing – for a while anyway.
Yes, I did go back to the races – about six months later – and still love a punt, but I have not tried to replicate the earlier hype. Deep Image cured me.
Postscript: a different sequence (of just two)
That’s not to say there has been no excitement. One day lives in my memory.
It was Melbourne Cup day and I went to the races at Canberra with my mate David. We were both having horrendous afternoons when we looked at the form for the second-last event at Flemington.
David: ‘Here’s the topical tip – Never Despair. Get it?’
Me: ‘Can’t win at the weights.’
David: ‘Who cares about weights?’
On went his dollars but not mine. Never Despair won easily, and David forthwith announced that Out of Danger was the ‘topical tip’ in the last.
Me: ‘Can’t win – distance too short AND far too much weight.’
David went for broke. Out of Danger was something like 12/1. It stormed home from the rear to win. David went home with a bagful. I went home with holes in my pockets. That’s racing.
There have been many other race days, successful and (often) otherwise. I will not forget being on Piping Lane at 75/1 (tote odds) when it won the 1972 Melbourne Cup. I have had the thrill of finding a winner at 125/1 (The Frigate in March 1973). They are stories for another time.
Viva las Selkrig
Ray Selkrig celebrated his 83rd birthday in March this year and passed one thousand months in July. On Caulfield Cup day it was 50 years since ‘the Selkrig sequence’ began.
I hope he remembers those ‘Selkrig sequence’ rides of 50 years ago. I always will.
Ray Selkrig on 1961 Melbourne Cup winner Lord Fury
By Once a Punter……