John “Patto” Patterson: from Legacy larrikin to living legend

In a dismissive broadside at the proliferation of ever burgeoning gambling options and corporate entertainment indulgence across major Australian racing carnivals, that doyen of modern racing writers the late Les Carlyon insisted a few years ago that “racing is about horses and people – everything else is dross.”


In this vein of thought then, old Les would surely be smiling most approvingly at Trevor Hastings’ recent publication John “Patto” Patterson: from Legacy larrikin to living legend. The book is a colourful absorbing account of just that – horses and people in Victorian racing as viewed through the prism of the man known as Patto, a remarkable horseman who was Clerk of the Course at Flemington racetrack for over 50 years.


At one level it functions very smoothly as an orthodox biography – impeccably researched, an abundance of primary source material, a well presented support cast of other characters, an adroit choice of historical detail and a very reader friendly narrative.


On this last point for example, the author is regularly mindful of his wider non racing industry readership by not allowing internal industry references and language to lose them. “Mucking out” is not allowed to pass without comment. Hastings makes a point of the translation “removed all manure and wet bedding from the stable with a pitch fork.”


Similarly, “you had to get off” in buckjumping parlance is translated as “appear to have been bucked off”. This is a careful author who looks after his reader.


And structurally, the story unpacks the various components of Patto’s life. To many he is a Clerk of the Course but he is far from being a one trick pony, as it were.


Others share experiences of Patto as a jockey, a teacher of apprentice jockeys, a horse breaker, a master teacher, a Royal Melbourne Show competitor and a drover. The common theme across all these iterations is best captured by Peter Cox, an erstwhile colleague of Patto’s from the Newmarket saleyards.


“He always stood out as a great horseman. He gets to the bottom of what a horse is thinking very easily. He has a great understanding of them and the horses seem to trust him. I’ve never seen a horse whisperer like him.”


Yet for all that, the aspect of the narrative that captivated this reader most is how the author works as assiduously as he does at exploring all the various nuances of his star attraction. With such a colourful biographical subject as Patto, one imagines it could be all too tempting for a writer to succumb to lazy habits by simply exposing the raw material and inviting the reader to join the dots.


To his credit, Hastings resists such temptations. He provides the substance of extensive interviews with the subject while carefully disassembling all Patto’s component parts, forensically presenting them for the reader’s scrutiny then putting them back together again.


With apologies to Michelangelo, it is almost as if Hastings thought “I saw the (Patto) in the marble and carved until I set him free.”


Early on we learn of Patto as a three year old lad from Coleraine when his father is killed at Tobruk in 1941. He is raised as a Legacy boy who gets by with his mum on her war widow’s pension before becoming indentured as an apprentice jockey.  His mother very reluctantly agrees but only if he is housed “with a good Catholic family”. Enter Flemington trainer Phil Burke.


Although never subsequently returning home to the Western District we get a later insight into Patto’s fondness and respect for his mum where he says “I never tasted alcohol until I was twenty-one years old. It was a promise I made to my mother that I kept.”


Later we learn of his level headed professionalism. “Everybody thinks how wonderful, you lead this one or that one…it makes no difference to me, Melbourne Cup or a bloody maiden. If a jock needs a lead, wants a lead, you give them a lead.”


We learn both of his courage and candour when he describes how he prevented a panicked out of control horse from causing serious injury or worse to a group of racegoers on Newmarket Handicap day 2010. “You don’t know these things are going to happen until they bloody happen. You don’t have time to get frightened.”


And we learn what he passed on to apprentices. “You were hands on. You didn’t learn from a book about their anatomy. You learned so much about the maintenance and care of the horse and, most importantly, you actually learned to respect the animal.” (Craig Williams).


In his foreword to the book, Melbourne writer Andrew Rule describes Patto as “an Australian original, one of a shrinking number of authentic characters not just in racing but also in every walk of life” and he is spot on.


So yes then, Patto would certainly qualify as one of Les Carlyon’s “people” that racing is all about.


While the latter was still alive one could almost have imagined him at a trial leaning across the running rail smoking a Craven A cork tipped with Patto. The image of the two of them gruffly discussing what they see is perhaps not unlike Statler and Waldorf on the balcony in The Muppets.


“Hrmmph, call that a trial!”



To purchase the book contact the author Trevor Hastings: 0427 279 500, email  [email protected]

or online at



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About Roger Lowrey

Roger Lowrey is a Geelong based writer who lists his special interests as reading, writing, horse racing, Roman history and AEC electoral boundaries. Some of his friends think he is a little eccentric.


  1. Ian Hauser says

    RJL, I’m not into the nags but I do appreciate a good book review. You’ve chosen a few classic lines and tributes to illuminate your claims. If this biography is as good as you say, it must be a cracker! I’ll be interested to read other comments by those more in the know about the racing game.

  2. Enjoyed this review.
    Thanks for this, Roger.

  3. Roger Lowrey says

    Thanks Ian. Thanks Smokie. I enjoyed writing it.

    Mind you, when JTH asked me to do this I did warn him I hadn’t written a book review since Year 10. This didn’t seem to bother him too much so I’m glad it’s half readable.

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