Part 6 ” Mirrabooka” horsemen of the southern cross.

Australian equestrianism had arrived. We had a style; it was gung-ho, up the guts, no holds barred “never take a backward step”. Of course none of this was at the expense of our horses.

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Franz Mairinger now had four years to mould a Team, find the right horses and train properly to produce the best Team he could. In the first Games, only three riders were required on the Team, if one did not finish, the Team was out. A new rule allowed for four Team members with the final score calculated on the best three results.

Australia had begun to compete abroad and riders with financial backing could go to Europe where Australian riders, after Stockholm, had gained some notoriety.

Back in Australia, Franz Mairinger ran clinics and training camps regularly. The first proper Three Day Events were being run as well as regular One Day training events. The standard was rising. All through this period, Roycroft and Morgan dominated the Australian scene; their determination and commitment after not making the first Team, had only strengthened.
Morgan, within reason, had sorted his differences with Mairinger, but there was always a challenge for Franz to get the message across to these men who took the attitude: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Franz knew better. There was no doubting, that between the quality of Australian Thoroughbreds and the fearless style of the Australian riders, they could more than compete in the cross country and jumping phases, but dressage needed to be worked on. The Australian way of just ‘make it work’ didn’t hold up in the loneliness of the dressage arena. Trying harder doesn’t necessarily make it better. The winning riders could sometimes finish on their dressage scores with no jumping penalties. This had to be the goal, but to win overall, the Australian dressage scores had to be n the pace.

Morgan and Roycroft had driven with a loaded double horse float from Victoria to Bowral in New South Wales, for the next and final Australian training camp. Soon they would know if the work they had done over the past four years had been in vain. Would Mairinger still secretly hold a grudge against Morgan for his prickly hard-to-deal with attitude? Would Roycroft’s age of 45 go against him as it did last time? Morgan himself is also 45, but the difference between Morgan and Roycroft is Morgan’s fitness and strength.

Both men are exceptional riders but we are all a product of our past. Aside from his equestrian prowess, Morgan had been a supreme athlete; a Victorian heavyweight boxing champion, four years with the Fitzroy Football Club and a State representative in rowing and polo. Laurie Morgan’s equestrian achievements were extraordinary, but he excelled across disciplines. Rowing is an exact sport. Every single aspect of the stroke must be mastered and then implemented in a calm, relaxed yet powerful way. There are elements of the sport that cross directly into riding; there is the softness and the flow of a rower as he recovers down the slide to prepare for the next stroke, which requires gentleness, and a caress in order not to adversely interfere with the run of the boat. Only elite rowers understand, there is the moment of the catch, a fraction of a second where every fibre of the athlete’s musculature is switched on, the self control is finite, the connection between the bottom of the rower’s feet on the foot chocks and the end of the oar blade in the water could easily be compared to the connection created between a rider’s seat, legs and hands. Any slip or lack of control in any of the joints of the body will let you down. Anyone who has done both sports to any level will know. Morgan had developed his concentration and self-awareness through his rowing and other sporting experience, this was his point of difference and no-one in the Equestrian Team could have equaled him. He was truly a product of his past.

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In Bowral, all trialists from around Australia had gathered and the results of all competitions throughout Australia, and indeed competitions where Australians had featured throughout Europe, had been monitored and Mairinger was acutely aware of every detail, of every result, of every rider and horse. This was the first time they had all come together in one place and some of the competitors had never met each other.

The men had gathered together on the lawn of a beautiful homestead in the picturesque Southern Highlands. Most are dressed formally in riding regalia with Morgan and Roycroft standing amongst the group noticing that there were plenty of riders with whom they were unfamiliar.

Brian Crago, the only member of the first Team from Stockholm who would be backing up to trial, approached the pair. “G’day Bill, g’day Laurie,” he welcomes, shaking hands with both men. “I was hopin’ you two guys would give it another go.”
Morgan replies in a friendly, but as always, slightly defensive tone, “I told you at the last tryouts Brian, you hadn’t heard the last of us.”
Roycroft, noting the unfamiliar crowd observed, “Bloody hell Brian, who are all these blokes? I don’t think I’ve seen half of ‘em at any of the events I’ve been to in the last couple of years.”
“Yeah most of them are continental riders Bill.”
“Continental riders! I thought this was to pick the Australian Team!”
“Oh they’re Australian Bill. Since we sent our first Team to the Games, any bloke who could afford it has been in Europe for the past couple of years competing with the best to try to make this Team.”
Horden and Mairinger interrupt Crago as they walk out onto the verandah to address the trialists. Horden takes the floor. “Good evening gentlemen and welcome to the 1960 Australian Equestrian Olympic Team trials. Over the next three days you will be competing for a place in this Team. Your performance here, along with results from local and abroad over the past three years, will determine your place in the Team or not. Several of the continental riders gave a knowing smirk and nod to each other. Morgan turns to Roycroft “Here we go.” Horden continues, “I will be taking everything into consideration when selecting the Team to be coached again by Mr Franz Mairinger to represent our Nation in Rome next year. Gentlemen, I wish you all the best in competition and on behalf of our generous host, extend an invitation to you all to partake in light refreshments before tomorrow’s competition.” Waiters mingle amongst the men with trays of refreshments. The group of men go through the formalities of introducing themselves to one another. A man dressed in the finest riding attire approached Crago who was still in conversation with Morgan and Roycroft. He pushes his hand out to Crago in greeting, failing to acknowledge the two older gents. “Crago isn’t it? William Clayton-Thomas, nice to meet you, you’re the only one trying out from the last Team I understand.”
“Nice to meet you. That’s right, other blokes have families and bills to pay, for me I felt like there was some unfinished business to attend to. This is Bill Roycroft and Laurie Morgan.”
“Indeed,” Clayton-Thomas not overly interested in the introduction, “you put up a fair show last time, but hasn’t the sport come a long way?”
Crago responds, a little embarrassed and annoyed at the treatment of his mates. “You might say that, but it’s still just horses and jumps.”
“Yes, I’ve purchased a few good horses whilst I was competing in Europe last summer, a nice stallion, might be able to improve the Australian stock.”
Roycroft, suddenly interested, forces his way into the conversation “What sort of horses you riding?”
“Warmbloods of course, they seem to be taking out everything at the moment, bred for the purpose.”
Now Roycroft is a staunch fan of the Australian Thoroughbred and he believes there is no substitute when is comes to the Three Day Event. “So Thoroughbreds can’t go with ‘em?”
“Thoroughbreds are racehorses Mr Roycroft.” Replied Clayton-Thomas somewhat arrogantly.

This is an interesting perspective on Thoroughbred horses and it still exists today, even more so. The Thoroughbred was bred to race yes, but the great stallions to come to Australia had bloodlines that were developed for steeplechase, hurdles, point-to-point racing and flat racing. Many of these Australian Thoroughbred stallions originated from Ireland where jumps racing was more popular than flat racing, so for 400 years Thoroughbreds were bred to travel at speed with endurance over jumps. Roycroft was very aware of this, but was not interested in sharing his thoughts with this know-it-all. Besides, it gave him an edge that he didn’t want to relinquish.

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A fifth man joins the group and he shakes hands with all. “Nice to meet you, I’m Lavis,
Neil Lavis.”
Morgan, directing his attention to Lavis, “Now here’s a bloke with an interesting horse, what is he mate? Half Draft?”
Lavis replies, “Mirrabooka? Just a splash of Draft Mr Morgan, but he’s 9/10ths Thoroughbred, that’s where he gets his speed and stamina.”

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Mirrabooka was a big solid horse, Morgan could be forgiven for thinking he may have been half Draft. He had a big head with a roman nose and was close to 17 hands. Roycroft found it hard to give a compliment to anything other than a Thoroughbred, but quietly he admired this big friendly fellow. He had all the attributes of the athletic Thoroughbred but with the quiet stoic work ethic of the tiny splash of Draft blood that flowed through his veins. The Draft breeds have been bred for their temperament and work ethic for thousands of years. Though Mirrabooka could run with the best of them, his ancestors had helped build this country by snigging logs, dragging wagons and clearing roads. They had been line bred for their ability to work with people, to know their job and do it willingly. Many Australian Thoroughbred horses have in their lineage the odd “bred from a station mare”. A station mare was often an all-rounder, regularly tainted with a splash of Draft, though this was not readily admitted and so the Australian Thoroughbred has a little hybrid vigour. In reality, this is what Mirrabooka was, for all intents and purposes, an Australian Thoroughbred. He had just never been registered. The Draft breeds tend to be more upright in the shoulder than the long striding Thoroughbred, this leads to a more elevated front action, a trait sought after and developed in the European Warmbloods. Mirrabooka, by sheer luck, had been born with it and he was a nice mix. The name Mirrabooka, is Aboriginal for Southern Cross.

Directing his conversation to Clayton-Thomas, Roycroft comments, “Speed and stamina, that’s exactly what you need in a horse Neil.”

Clayton-Thomas responds with a I-know-better-attitude, “As I said Mr Roycroft, Thoroughbreds are racehorses. Good day gentlemen, see you on the course tomorrow.”

Roycroft can finally say what he thinks, “Bloody Warmblood, I thought half the competition was about speed and stamina.” Roycroft is in good company, all of the men are strong supporters of the Thoroughbred, three will ride ex-racehorses and Lavis’ horse, though bigger, has unmistakable Thoroughbred breeding.

Morgan, calming his loyal and passionate Thoroughbred supporting mate, “Settle Bill, we’ll sort that out tomorrow; we’ll show them why you can’t go past a Thoroughbred. Now are we gonna walk this course? Lavis, eager to learn from this well known and experienced horseman pipes up, “Do you mind if I join you Mr Morgan? ”
“No, you’re right mate, and Bill can have a talk to you about that horse of yours.” With that, the four men walk off laughing and immediately begin to walk the course.

Mairinger and Horden watch as the four men walk away, Mairinger turns to Horden “That could well be our Team there Sam.
“You could be right Franz, let’s see what the boys coming back from Europe are like. Both Bill and Laurie have had some good results in some of the local events. Age doesn’t seem to stop them.” Mairinger, slightly confused at the direction the men were walking comments, “They do know they’re walking in the opposite direction that the course will be run tomorrow, don’t they Sam?”
“It’s a funny thing Franz, I’ve noticed that men from the land who compete, always walk the course in the opposite direction the day before they ride it. They reckon it gives them a true indication of the lay of the land.” At this point, he is pulled aside to be introduced to some dignitaries, leaving Mairinger alone to look at the four men walking into the sunset and he comments out loud to himself, “You are never too old to learn something new.”

 

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