Sydney Showground was the Holy Grail for many horse enthusiasts of the time. To compete at Sydney Royal is what some of them lived for, and I mean lived for. Some travelled the countryside, sleeping rough at country shows in order to qualify for “The Royal”. For cattle and sheep folk on the land, showing their stock meant that they could increase their income as well as their prestige amongst their various communities. For some, winning at Sydney Royal would be the highlight of their lives.
Horse people are no different, but there is something about horses that drive people to extremes. I have seen people who could not rub two coins together, struggling to feed their kids and keep a roof over their heads but with the most beautiful horses in immaculate condition. For some, it’s the love of their lives – no sacrifice is too great.
Others, loaded with money, have horses come and go, are always looking for the next champion and are happy to pay for it. If the battler, on occasion beats the toff, and this is rare, for the toffs have all the connections, you can be certain that next year the toff will appear with the battler’s horse, and the battler will have a new horse float and still be loaded up with hungry kids.
High stepping hackney ponies plough around the perimeter of the showground pulling immaculately polished carts, each with a very important looking gentleman with a long stick aboard, most wearing bowler hats, their legs in the boiling Australian sun, covered carefully with little blankets.
Posh looking women overly impressed with their own importance, sit sidesaddle aboard immaculately groomed show hacks. They file past Franz Mairinger, who is not accustomed to shows such as this in his native Austria, and he raises an eyebrow as they bounce clumsily by.
Show jumping competitors are walking a course that they are obviously in awe of. Some, show trepidation at the impressive array of huge broad oxers, steep unforgiving uprights and the dreaded triple combination. Some of the competitors have never seen anything like this before and the feeling of nakedness in the centre of the Sydney Showground adds to their nervousness.
Mairinger is standing on a podium and as Horden joins him, he puts his hand on his friend’s shoulder stating proudly “Impressive course hey Franz?”
Mairinger surveying the course carefully replies “Sufficient, Mr Horden, but a far cry from what they will encounter at the Olympics.”
“It’s more of a course than anyone has ever seen in this country.” replies Horden.
In the warm up area, horses are intermittently jumping a flimsy looking vertical jump and just as Horden walks past, a horse smashes through the fence breaking one of the poles.
“Get another pole.” orders Horden.
I skinny pimple faced kid who has been flat out rebuilding the warm-up jumps as they are destroyed, runs off and returns with another rail.
“Gentleman could I have your attention for a moment please?” calls Horden in a load voice.
The competitors gather around him, some mounted and some on foot as Horden addresses the group.
“I think gentlemen, you are all aware, that up for grabs today are positions in the first Australian Olympic Equestrian Team. The man who will coach that team, Franz Mairinger, will judge you. It is our concern that some of you and your mounts may not have the fitness to compete in a serious
3 Day Event. Obviously those who have been training with Mr Mairinger have an understanding of the gruelling workload that will be imposed. Those that have not, consider what riding you have been doing lately, consider the level of fitness and age of both yourself and your horse and if you don’t think you are up to it, do us all a favour and retire now so we can focus on the young men who are better suited.”
Two of the competitors standing and listening are considerably older than the rest of the group and look to be in their 40s, whilst the others were mostly in their 20s. The older men were Bill Roycroft and Laurie Morgan. It was apparent that the age remarks had been aimed at these two; for there were no others in the competition conspicuous for their years.
Laurie Morgan and Bill Roycroft
Roycroft and his mate Morgan had been competing all over their native Victoria, beating all comers at shows week after week. They had no doubt that they would be in the reckoning by the end of the day.
Roycroft was share farming with his young family and gained his riding fitness by catching and breaking brumbies, his toughness and ability are not deminished by his years.
A rush of greenery, the thunder of hooves, panning back, a herd of wild horses, brumbies galloping down a bush track, behind a single rider barreling along swinging and cracking a stockwhip. Flanking him on both sides were two other riders ducking branches and jumping logs at breakneck speed whilst keeping the mob together, stopping them from wheeling off in either direction.
Ahead is a set of stockyards made up of a large central yard with several smaller yards on either side of the main gate. The riders have done their jobs well and the wild horses file through the gate and into the main yard followed by the central rider close behind, whilst one of the wingmen moves in quickly to secure the gate. The group of around 15 horses fit easily into the large yard with the following rider keeping them together skillfully and with his cracking stockwhip, the horses’ wheel their way around the yard until they are controlled close to the gate through which they originally entered. Just as one terrified horse braves the stockwhip and ducks under the lash, Bill Roycroft notices the gate at the other end of the holding yard is not secured. The rebel horse bolts for the gate and the other horses emboldened by his action, follow; the gate and freedom beckoning.
As the crow flies, the most direct route to the far gate is through the smaller holding yards on the side of the main yard. Roycroft gallops his horse directly at the 5 foot fence and his horse jumps it without a thought, one stride another fence, another stride another fence, a short dash and Roycroft reaches the gate before the panicking horses do.
Secured in the holding yards, the horses mingle around, a water trough is filled and Roycroft throws several bales of hay into the enclosure. The three men stand on the bottom rail of the yards leaning over the fence with the lead rider viewing the bunch with a knowledgeable eye.
“Not a bad bunch aye.” states Bill.
The wingman agrees, “Yeah, coupla goodies there, any ya fancy as jumpers Bill?”
Roycroft is always on the lookout for his next competition horse, “Could be mate, but we’ll have to wait to find out, I’m off to Sydney tomorrow for the Olympic trials.” Roycroft’s mates were always ribbing him about his age and the way he is able to keep up with the young fellas, “Bit long in the tooth for that aren’t you Bill?” replies his friend with a wry smile. “Don’t you start!” smiles Bill.
Whilst Horden had given his previous speech in the warm up area at the show, the man standing next to Roycroft was Laurie Morgan. Morgan, also in his 40s is an awesome all round athlete, supremely fit and would easily handle men half his age. He had been a serious boxer and a top level Australian Rules footballer, however his love was horses and he came with Bill fully intent on making this team. Morgan has a work ethic second to none bordering on obsessive, he expects no more from the people around him than he does from himself and that is perfection, nothing less. He is super-competitive and does not cope particularly well with defeat. Morgan can be a little prickly, but he is a leader, the kind who always takes the ball up and leads by example. Few who knew him would doubt his ability to make this team.
The football season had recently finished and Morgan had been mustering cattle in North Queensland in order to raise funds for his equestrian pursuits. The stark reds and greens of tropical North Queensland were the backdrop for a herd of Brahman cattle meandering along, stirring up clouds of red dust amongst the tropical greenery which was still flourishing despite the rains finishing some weeks earlier. An assortment of Aboriginal and white stockmen rode lazily amongst the slow moving cattle, pushing them steadily toward a narrow river crossing. Steep banks on either side of the well-worn track funneled the cattle into a narrow formation. As the first cattle approached the river, the water suddenly erupted as a huge saltwater crocodile lunged forward, narrowly missing the cattle closest to the water’s edge.
The lead cattle shied and ran backward into those following behind as does one of the stockmen’s horses, and the rider is lucky to keep his seat. The herd scattered away from the river crossing.
Morgan, who is employed as the head stockman, witnesses the incident. “Ugly big bastard, hold it there fellas, don’t push ’em, the bloody crocks back.”
An Aboriginal stockman rides up beside Morgan, “We won’t be crossin here boss, he’s gonna protect his hole and he looks hungry. He’s bigger every year.”
Morgan is agitated, “I have to get back to the homestead Jimmy. I leave for Sydney tonight, for trials.”
Jimmy knows Morgan’s intensity and never-say-die attitude, “How you gonna manage that boss?”
“Listen Jimmy, you take charge, work your way down to the east with the mob to the next crossing but I have to get back today.”
Morgan rides up onto a raised section of the bank and looks off in both directions. Another stockman rides up beside Jimmy, “What he looking for?”
“Watch.” replies Jimmy.
Morgan had apparently seen what he was looking for and he galloped off to the west where the river narrowed to about 20 feet. He rode away from the river to give his horse time to gather momentum, he then turned and headed directly for the narrowest span of water.
Without breaking his stride, the horse leapt over the river, just landing on the water’s edge on the far side. With an almighty splash, the water exploded as the crock rushed toward the commotion, but Morgan and his horse were up and out of the water before there was any real danger. Scrambling out onto the dry ground on the other side, they continued at a gallop off into the distance.
Jimmy calls behind, “Good luck boss, ya crazy bastard!”