Part 5 “Mirrabooka” Horseman of the southern cross

A week later the Team for the 1956 Olympics is announced; Wood, Jacobs, Crago, Barker, Winchester and Thompson. Both Roycroft and Morgan are conspicuous in their absence. It was largely believed that Roycroft, in his 40s, was omitted due to his age. Most of the riders selected were in there 20s or early 30s.


Roycroft was not impressed; he believed he had done enough to be selected. He had put his life on hold at the time, which for a father with a young family, was a much bigger deal than some of the young guys who were being supported by their parents. He had shown his abilities and he felt he had more than equaled all of the other trialists. It came down to age, something he couldn’t control. Roycroft was far from finished, though outwardly he supported the effort, just below the surface of his polite exterior was a burning desire to prove that he could do it. He would now have to wait for the next opportunity and continue to improve himself in four years and being four years older, push for another chance. As always, the challenger needs to be good enough to knock out a champion to prove his supremacy, take the referee out of the equations by being so good that they can’t leave you out. And in doing so, he would leave no stone unturned.

Morgan was filthy; he had no doubt that he had gotten off on the wrong foot with Mairinger. But he should have been shown more respect; no-one had worked, or was willing to work, as hard as him. There was talk that he was a risk due to his professional status as a football player. In these days the Olympics were strictly amateur, any hint of professionalism could be an embarrassment to Australia in the midst of holding its first Olympics. This didn’t placate Morgan and as he argued the point, he tried to rebuke his professional status but underneath he felt no matter what he did, he had ruined his chances of making it to the Games. Morgan wasn’t finished and he pooled his resources and garnished assistance from friends and relatives. When the Australian Team left for preparation in England, he was hot on their heals. Maybe someone would pull out, possibly an injury or illness, and should that opportunity arise to grab a spot, he would grab it. He entered all the competitions that the Australian Team entered and on most occasions beat most of them. He was proving to everyone that he was the better athlete and he would show them that they had made the wrong choice. Mairinger would have to admit he had made a mistake.

Maringar could not help but admire Morgan’s tenacity, what a competitor, what commitment, what potential. Morgan’s efforts were not wasted and they had been noted and stored by Franz for a later date, but for now he needed to focus on the task at hand.

The Australians competed at every opportunity, they rode borrowed horses and with limited preparation performed admirably. They developed a reputation for dash and courage, riding rounds on the cross-country fearlessly at high speed, but unfortunately there is nowhere to hide in the dressage arena and weaknesses were exposed by keen but green riders on horses sound and honest, but unfamiliar.

The Australian riders were gathered in a hotel room in Stockholm Sweden, the location for the Melbourne Olympic equestrian events. A newspaper article heralded the arrival of the Australian Jumping Team with a cartoon depicting an Australain aboriginal riding a kangaroo in the style of a bushranger.


Dave Woods, the Captain of the Team, throws the paper on the table, “Looks like they are taking it pretty seriously.” he said with an air of disappointment.

“Any publicity is good publicity.” replied Horden. He had achieved his goal, Australia would compete and anything more from this point forward would be a bonus.

“Look on the bright side,” said Bunty Thompson, “if we don’t aim up no-one at home will even know about it!”

Crago is quick to find a positive in the room full of doubt. “Yeah, and when we win the gold medal no bastard will know about it either.”

The men’s laughter is broken as Mairinger enters the room. “Good to see you in good spirits gentleman, could I have everyone gather around the table for a moment please?”

Tomorrow the competition begins with the Dressage. To prepare a horse properly for the Olympics takes five years, we have had five months. Dressage is the specialty of the Continental riders, they have practiced it here in its classical form for 2,500 years. You have worked hard and are well on the right track, however five months can be no substitute for generations of tradition.

Do not be surprised or dejected if, at the end of the first day, we are behind. The second day is ours – speed and endurance. It has been generations since the Europeans rode this style for practical reasons. In Australia however, your lives have been based on it. As children you trotted miles to school, jumping all obstacles on the way. As adults you have ridden as stockmen, for hours mustering cattle and sheep. This is where we will come to the fore.

Gentlemen, you are the first Australians to compete on horseback at the Olympic level. Where you place is irrelevant, you have achieved your Olympic Dream. We are here, go out and do your country proud. The enormity of what has been achieved hits home suddenly and the relaxed air is gone. Yes they were behind the eight ball, but it is not the Australian way to just go out there and compete. There is stirring in the gut of the men as they contemplate the task at hand and they will certainly give it a serious crack.

In the warm up area for the cross county, Dave Woods rides up to Brian Crago who is about to start his round. “Lickety-split mate, don’t look back.” Crago replies with his usual humorous vibe, “By the time I finish this round they’ll be mentioning my name with
Betty Cuthbert and Dawn Fraser.” He smiles but his normal confidence is dented by the enormity of the occasion.

The starter commences the countdown with Crago on his horse standing in the 10 second box. Today he is riding for his country, it’s not about money it’s not about impressing the girls, this is the real deal and he will give it all he has. “4,3,2,1” Crago explodes out of the box and he attacks the first jump like it is the last he will ever ride; he is away. Over the loud speaker, the commentator crackles “And there goes the 3rd Australian rider, after a very poor day yesterday the Australians have been impressive to say the least on a daunting course, their previous two riders have gone clear and fast, and a good ride by this rider Crago, could actually see them in the standings.”

Crago rides like a man possessed, the crowd cheers as he shows no respect for the intimidating cross country course, his borrowed horse is bold, not the kind of horse he is used to, but he has obviously bought into Crago’s belief that nothing is too hard. At the halfway point, Crago’s round is the quickest to this point and he is starting to make ground on the rider in front of him, a German competitor who started his round a minute in front of his. It gradually becomes apparent that Crago will need to pass him. It is touch and go as to whether he should try to pass him prior to the next jump. Crago decides that patients is the better option and he slows his horse to a trot in order to let the German negotiate what is a fairly complicated water combination. A massive woven log of 1.2 meters with an equal spread,  a 1.5 meter drop into the water, one stride to a structure of giant woven bottles in the water with a height of 1 metre, two strides then up a 1 metre bank to exit the water.

The crowd has gathered at this jump though the line is straightforward, the water is relatively deep and many have fallen here today. The German’s horse is struggling with the round; he is obviously tired and needs to be urged on with the crop. He is put off slightly by the crowd, and finding a bad takeoff point at the first element, he scrambles over the massive woven log dragging his back end, the landing in the water is awkward to say the least  the one stride to the next element becomes a bumbling trot, he stops and hesitates before launching At the jump, his impetus all but gone The rider urges him on, he jumps early but the heavy water holds him back and he lands in the middle of the woven bottle element. The jumps construction is flimsy and with the horse scrambling all over it, it begins to disintegrate. The horse is now in a horrible tangled mess, trapped, his hindquarters awkwardly in the air he is unable to free himself and it is a life and death struggle to keep his head above water level.



The German is thrown clear and is stunned as he surveys the scene and he hasn’t got a clue where to start. No one from the crowd moves to help. Crago, who has been held up and has watched the drama unfold, can see that if nothing happens quickly this horse will get a lung full of water and will be doomed. Crago jumps from his horse, and without hesitation enters the water. In a split second he is at the horse’s head, placing his knee under the horse’s cheek he holds the horse by the nose. Once he has broken the alignment of the horse’s spine, the horse surrenders as a zebra to a lion. The struggling ceases immediately and Crago holds the horse calmly, reassuring him until help arrives and the jump is dismantled. Crago releases the horse who has a big shake and is led, hardly the worse from the experience, out of the water.

There in no doubt Crago has saved his life. Unfortunately, Crago’s round is a mess and he now has 60 penalties for dismounting on course and with the extended delay in rebuilding the course the individual times are horribly mixed up. Crago receives ridiculous time penalties but they are irrelevant, the 60 point penalty for the dismount has ended the Australian Team’s slim chances of a medal.

Later in the day, Teams are seeing to their horses, washing down and packing up. The German Coach approaches Franz Mairinger. “A nasty incident out there today Franz.”
“Yes, you almost lost a horse.”
“But you lost a medal, what that rider did is tantamount to treason.”
“It is a pity about the medal, but that horse would have drowned.”
“There are many horses Franz, sometimes sacrifices must be made. No doubt your rider will be disciplined”.

Mairinger is disgusted at the attitude of the German Coach, who obviously puts medals well ahead of horses’ welfare. Franz loves the competition but not as much as he loves his horses.
“This attitude is the reason I left the School, the love of horses is being lost on the continent. These Australians still have the belief that a horse and rider are partners; the horse is not a machine to be discarded at the drop of a hat. It is for this reason that they will win medals, no, not at these Games, but as long as they can maintain this honest respect for their equine partners, the medals will come.”
The German scoffs at Franz’s honest spoken heartfelt words. “Beautiful words Franz, but words do not win medals.”

Maringar approaches Crago who is shattered that he had let his Teammates down. Crago speaks before Mairinger can get a word in. “I’m sorry Franz, I really am, I’ve let you down. I know I cost us a bloody medal. I’m sorry Franz. I just couldn’t leave that horse to drown mate. I just couldn’t do it.”

Mairinger, smiling, places his hand on Crago’s shoulder, “You have nothing to be sorry for. If anything, I want to thank you.”
“Thank me? For what?”
“For reminding me of the reason I took this job and how much I love horses. We certainly have something here amongst us Australians that is sadly missing elsewhere. I am heartened by what I have seen and found here amongst you and your Teammates. We will be back.”

Maringar places his arm warmly around Crago’s shoulders and they walk off. The ice has been broken, now the serious work with four years to prepare horse and rider for the next Games to be held in Rome, begins. No stone will be left unturned.

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