Too tough to lose : the Story of Laurie Morgan, Australia’s first equestrian Olympic gold medallist

Too tough to lose: The story of Laurie Morgan

 

Book Review by Jan Smith

Too tough to lose : the Story of Laurie Morgan, Australia’s first equestrian Olympic gold medallist.

By Warwick Morgan.  Published by Forty Degrees South, Hobart, Tasmania.

Not many sons write a book about their father, but not too many people have a father like legendary sportsman Laurie Morgan.  Australia has a proud tradition of producing world class athletes, and there are few to equal the breadth of talent that Laurie had over a range of different sports, and at the highest level. His achievements in international Eventing (a combination of dressage, cross country and show jumping), long recognised as the most all round and challenging sport in the equestrian field, could easily be seen as the pinnacle of any sporting achievements for one man.  Laurie’s talent covered many sports, it seemed that he could excel in anything he touched.  His life spanned a period of enormous social change, and this book has the added bonus of putting his sporting achievements into an historical, social and cultural context.

He was born in 1915 near Melbourne, and spent his childhood and early youth in the area around the Yea district and,  while in later life he lived in both New South Wales and the Northern Territory, he was always a Victorian born and bred.  Like many resourceful country boys, Laurie could not see the benefit of schooling, but he was very ambitious and had lofty goals.  Times were tough during the Depression, but Laurie was always involved in horses, and not just riding, but everything he could learn about them.  Like all country boys, he worked hard trying to make a living but found country life a little slow.  He had a brief stint with Victoria Police but found the discipline irksome, although it gave him the chance to develop his boxing talent which he pursued after the police force.  His football career developed while working as a station hand at Yarrawonga, and ultimately he moved to Melbourne where he played in the VFL for Fitzroy, playing thirty six games, and also became a champion young boxer.  He was a talented rower and a regular on the rodeo circuit although gave that up to pursue his love of horse racing and later breeding thoroughbred horses at the highest level. Laurie married Anne Kellet in 1940 and she was to prove his greatest supporter.  The ambition to establish a successful thoroughbred stud took them to the horse capital of Australia, Scone in NSW.  It was while working hard at Scone that he took up polo as an outlet for his competitive spirit.   Polo and racing offered many opportunities to advance socially and Laurie was quick to realise that there was money to be made if you were successful in these areas.  In a very short time Laurie graduated to international level polo.

The search for top polo ponies led Laurie to a wonderful horse called Gold Ross.  This horse was as talented and versatile as his rider.  He had won races before polo and showed talent at every level.  This part of the book is a gold mine for those interested in the history of equestrian sport in Australia.  Gold Ross proved to be an above average jumper that could also win in the show ring in hack and rider classes.  He came under the notice of visiting English judge Captain Jimmy Pearce at a training school and that was the beginning of Gold Ross and Laurie’s career in Three Day Eventing.  This horse had breathtaking talent and a wonderful attitude.  We would call it trainability today, but it is almost certain that the modern day equestrian athlete would never be as versatile and generous as Gold Ross.

The Equestrian Federation of Australia was founded in 1951, based in Melbourne.  They would chart the course of Australia’s first Olympic equestrian team for the event held in Stockholm in 1956 (horse events were not able to be held in Melbourne at the Olympics due to stringent quarantine regulations).  As host nation, Australia fielded a team of eventers, but Laurie and Gold Ross were not selected.  This caused some dissent but, encouraged by many experts, both here and in England, Laurie and Anne and their family plus Gold Ross independently boarded a ship and headed to England, a trip of over six weeks at sea.  Arriving in the depths of winter the Morgan family soon began to enjoy all the pursuits of English country life, hunting, polo, steeplechasing and most importantly, learning the importance of dressage training for the competition horse.  They competed with distinction at Badminton, and other top three day events catching the eye of many experts including Queen Elizabeth who greatly admired Gold Ross.

While Australia competed at Stockholm without Laurie and Gold Ross for a team fourth place, in the lead up to the 1960 Rome Olympics Laurie was very much in the eyes of the selectors, but this time with hugely talented Salad Days (found on a drought stricken farm whilst Laurie and Warwick were buying sheep). When the team of five riders was named, Laurie was captain.  This was the beginning of an intense planning and training regime that left no stone unturned in their pursuit of victory.  They also had to fund raise as in those days there was no government support for equestrian athletes. The exploits of the Australian team and their resourcefulness in finding short cuts on the cross country course (this was the era of bonus points for being under time) is well known. The ultimate bravery of Bill Roycroft, badly injured in a crunching fall on the cross country but showjumping after discharging himself from hospital, led to the gold medal triumph of the team together with Laurie winning individual gold and Neale Lavis individual silver.  Warwick Morgan’s book gives us so much more background to these amazing exploits.  This is a wonderful history of the sport and a detailed account of the attention to detail that began Australia’s reputation as world class riders.

After the Olympics, Laurie found it hard to settle, and was very keen to stay in England permanently.  He did for a period, enjoying more hunting, racing and some serious steeplechasing including fulfilling an ambition to ride the Grand National.  He also won Badminton Three Day Event on Salad Days in 1961, further reward and recognition of this horses talent.

Ultimately Laurie returned to Australia to pursue his ambition to develop cattle properties in the Northern Territory.   Warwick’s treatment of this period of their lives is very detailed, and worthy of a separate work, but Laurie’s drive and relentless work ethic is portrayed very clearly.

Too Tough to Lose is more than just an enjoyable read, it fills a place in our history, and records the life of an amazing athlete.  The book is beautifully presented with lavish illustrations, many not previously published before.  A valuable record of a significant period of Australian sporting and cultural history.

Available from www.warwickmorgan.com or Readings in Melbourne.

Comments

  1. Rachael says:

    Great review = thumbs up!

  2. I used to work for him and have never forgotten any of what he taught. A truely inspirational man – and Australian!

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