Almanac Horseracing (Plunges): Like stealing wheat from blind chooks


by Hayden Kelly



Well it’s Spring in our previously wonderful City and a fine day it wasn’t. I could join in the chorus and muse how it came to this and wonder about how I can trot down to Dan Murphy’s, mingle with people I don’t know, and buy a box of Abbotts longnecks, but I can’t get my dogs clipped let alone have a haircut myself. By the way, longnecks come in boxes, lesser quantities come in slabs.


I enjoyed a couple of longnecks tonight and rolled a Capstan ready-rubbed, read a story which has caused me to muse on the imprecise science known as The Punt. The story I read was in regard to a bloke who two weeks ago invested $40 on a four-horse all-up bet. His potential dividend was $88k. Now the first two legs saluted and, for some reason known only to the punter, he cashed out the bet for a $340 collect. Of course the next two got up.


Please mate what were you thinking?


If $340 meant that much to you perhaps you shouldn’t have been having a $40 bet in the first instance. If you really liked the first two, why not have your $40 on the double. You would have collected in excess of $800 as per my calculation. If you were nervous you could have cashed out after the third leg for around $10k.


Enough of that. My mind turned to times when a horse could be set for a race, and a killing on The Punt could be made by those in the know. Trainers who could set a horse usually were low key, very sparse with their words to the point their wife wouldn’t know when a horse was ‘set’.


Perhaps the best at it in Melbourne in days gone by was Tommy Hughes senior who trained some very good horses, amongst them Heroic Stone. Old Tommy was a bit down on his luck in 1965 and set Heroic Stone to win the George Adams Handicap. It’s fair to say he gave the horse a couple of ‘quiet’ runs in the lead-up and the bookmakers put him up at double figure odds. The Hughes stable backed him as if there were no tomorrow and he saluted as planned. This is 1965 the year before decimal currency and the stable collect was over 100,000 pounds [does anyone have a keyboard with the pound symbol on it btw?]. The collect was put in a chaff bag and placed in Heroic Stones Stable for the night. The next morning Tommy discovers old Heroic has taken a fancy to the folding stuff in the chaff bag and eaten half it for breakfast. According to those who should know he said to the bloke he was with: “oh well he earnt it he is entitled to eat it, we’ll set him again.’


I have owned a couple of horses over the journey and I can assure you the fast, the slow and the somewhere in between horses all cost the same to feed. In fact my advice to anyone contemplating racehorse ownership is if you are buying a horse to help pay your rent get used to sleeping in the bus shelter.


It’s hard for a horse to fly under the radar these days but tonight I was musing on two such occasions in which I was involved.






My first trainer was a bloke called Gary Sherer based at Tatura. Brilliant horseman who knew how his horses were going as he rode them in work and when Sherer said “get on, it will win” more often than not they won.  Gary rings sometime around July 2005 and says he has a horse in his stable Fiddes who is for sale for 13k. He confides the owner won’t race the horse in NSW where according to Sherer he will be a much better horse as the foreleg he leads with the Victorian way is bung and if he gets on the good foreleg the NSW way its money for jam. The usual suspects found the 13k and we assumed ownership of Fiddes who, I hasten to add, had won six races before he started to feel his bung lead. So ‘Buster’ as we called him was our next meal ticket and the money to be made was North of the border. The plan was a simple three race strategy


A run at Wagga on October 14 to test the theory – with a moderate betting strategy. A soft run back in Victoria at Bendigo on 9 November and he would run down the track as a consequence of his bung leg. No bets today. Pay day would be the Snake Gully Cup on 18 November.


The problem with horses is they don’t always grasp the plan. Buster wins at Wagga under a tight hold and not much money was on at 8/1 in the old, or $9 in the new. We were now comfortable about his ability to go the NSW way and it was off to Bendigo for the ‘soft’ run where he would finish midfield according to the plan. Buster was feeling that well in himself he decided he would put in  – and finished second by a long neck.


Well, the big day arrived and Buster was in fine fettle to the point where Sherer went past “Get on” to saying “I have been working with horses for 20-plus years and this bloke is a certainty, the only thing that could stop him is if I roll the truck on the way up to Gundgai.”


At the time I was on my farewell tour from Telstra as a consequence of artistic differences with the recently installed American management group and the Snake Gully Cup Farewell Hayden Kelly Lunch was organised at the Spencer Hotel in West Melbourne. A couple dozen of us or so assembled there, and the bill went on the Telstra credit card [oh the days of corporate largesse]. The collective was staff, customers and suppliers, all of whom had one thing in common, the love of The Punt.


Well the beer and the wine flowed and the food was good and the camaraderie was something to behold. We all knew something not many others did and all we had to do was wait for it to unfold. In fact the refreshments were so good my partner in crime and fellow owner Gavin realised the next morning he’d had his substantial bet on the good thing twice.


Now Tatura to Gundagai is no mean trip. In fact it’s a 740km round trip and Buster was off to an early start and due for a late night home. As long as the faithful stable pony Neville was on board all would be good as Nev and Buster were besties. Neville was an interesting little chap. He was saved from a trip to the abattoirs at the tender age of 30 when Carmel Sherer bought him for $100 off the back of a truck en route to the Echuca horse sale. Nev enjoyed nothing more than a bucket of chips on a cold day at Ballarat and on a hot day at Echuca he loved a vanilla icecream, but he was particularly besotted with the lush green grass on the irrigation channels around Tatura. Neville also had the ability to somehow get under a low slung electric fence, escape from his yard and wander up the channel for a feed, which is precisely what he did on race morning.  Accordingly the float left 30 minutes late after Nev reported for work. I digress but Neville was a good little bloke and died around the age of 40 on the banks of an irrigation channel with a gutful of sweet grass – what a way to go.


The Cup was on at around 4pm and around 3.30 I ask the barman “Do you have a TV we can get Sky on? We want to watch a race. His response was along the lines of “We don’t have a TV let alone a TV with Sky Racing.” Simpler times. No racing on phones (they were for talking on) and no one wanted to find the nearest Tote. Now the bloke behind the bar says “We have a radio. How about you listen to the race on the radio and what’s the horses name?” I obliged with the name and he sets the radio up and around 4pm on a Friday afternoon the Spencer Hotel is suddenly a pub from the 1950s. Around 50 [the regulars were on now, courtesy of the barman] punters are crowded around a crackling radio listening to a race. Jeez if we all had cigarettes hanging out of our mouths and hats on it would have been a real step back in time.


It really was an easy listen. Buster with Scott Pollard aboard sits outside the leader and with not much urging goes home an easy winner by 2 lengths. The pub erupts. Those in the know have got 11s into 9s and the regulars are happy with $6. Well the beer and wine flowed like water over Niagara Falls and being men of the people we didn’t head to the casino. We stayed at the Spencer and dined out on kebabs from the adjacent kebab van. (Seriously, after a good lunch and far too much to drink is there anything better than a kebab?)


Neville and Buster arrived back at Tatura around midnight, Sherer had consumed a slab of Crownies on the way home (the driver was sober), fell out of the truck muttered to his wife the money is in the glovebox and Carmel fed and watered Buster and as a special treat left Neville out of his yard to wander down the channel for the night.


I have the time-honoured Snake Gully Cup trophy in my house at Anglesea and when I catch a glimpse of the thing, it brings a smile and a recollection of the day we landed a well-orchestrated plunge. Fair dinkum it was like stealing wheat from blind chooks.


Buster had two more starts for us third in the Italian Cup at Tatura and fourth at Sandown in the slaughter of all slaughters by G. Boss. His bung leg gave out and he was retired to the long yard.




Read more musings from Hayden Kelly HERE.



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  1. Cracking day. And brilliant depiction of the 1950s pub.

    Similar scenes Easter Monday Lunch 2002 at the Brekkie Creek when You’re Joking won the Country Cup at Oakbank. The whole public bar was on.

  2. Brilliant, Hayden

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