Some hours later, the Anzac Day march is complete, the mounted police are now escorting the Light Horse troops through the city on their way back to the Sydney Showground at Moore Park, which has been used as a marshalling point for the returned service personnel on horseback.
Each trooper has been assigned a mounted officer and they ride back two abreast.
Constable Brodie has been assigned to a man called Neal Lavis. Now Neal is a lovely quiet bloke, with the air of a horseman. There is a quietness that comes with true horsemen, particularly when they are riding or are around horses. It is a respect for the animal, for the horse is most at ease when things are calm and consistent. The horse wants to be relaxed in a field of lush green grass, rhythmically swatting away a few flies with his tail, or having them swatted by his mate’s tail as they stand top to tail, warm summer days with a slight breeze acting as an early warning system should a strange smell arise, high on a hill where they can see for miles. So safe that they can happily lay on the soft green bed confident that their herd mates will watch for danger and signal to them with plenty of time to spare. This is all a horse can want; every step closer to this makes a horse happier. This is how a horseman feels, he sets the horse at ease, offers no confusing signals and allows the horse to relax at every opportunity; a horseman is like a green field in spring. Neil had this vibe and Constable Brodie recognised it as they rode together.
“What do you do with your horses?” asked Neil.
“I event,” said Brodie “but I love dressage and have a great instructor, Tina Womelsdorf”
“I know Tina, she trained with my instructor Franz Mairinger.”
“Franz Mairinger? Tina talks about him all the time, I have read his book, I feel like I know him.”
“I knew him well.”
“Did you ride dressage?”
“What level did you ride to?”
“I won a gold medal at the Rome Olympics trained by Franz.”
“Oh my God, sorry mate, I had no idea! I would love to hear about it and learn more about Franz. I think someone should write a book on his life.”
“Once we get these horses put away let’s go and have a beer and I’ll tell you all about it.”
That evening the two men met up to talk horses. Neil Lavis was an unassuming quiet man, thoughtful and confident in his 70’s with a fantastic memory. He had been in his late teens and early twenties at the time of the incidents he would now impart; but as he spoke it could have been yesterday. The Olympic gold medalist began to tell an amazing story, a story, which truly rivals that of the great Don Bradman, a story that all Australians should be aware of. It would be the first of many versions of this story that Constable Brodie would hear over the next few years on his quest to bring to light this amazing journey.
The year was 1952, and Australia was still recovering from the Second World War, times had been tough. As is known now, but were not so then, men that returned from war often returned with issues. Today many would be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and treated medically, though one could argue that even more could be done today. In those days, it wasn’t spoken of, some turned to drink, some turned to crime, most found something to keep them busy. Some of Australia’s, and in fact the world’s, greatest sportsmen were born out of this era. Men had obsessions that were somehow therapeutic, and if nothing else, kept them sane and out of trouble.
Horses are a great distraction, and a young, enthusiastic equestrian movement was developing in Australia. Australia has had a long and intimate relationship with the horse. In a huge country with sparse roads, once out of the main towns horses were still often the main form of transport. At that time, Australia is said to have ridden on the sheep’s back, referring to the importance of the wool industry but stockmen, cattlemen, shepherds and farmers of all types still relied heavily on horses in their day to day life. Most country children had been raised on the backs of horses riding to school, riding on the farm, competing at pony club and local shows. Unfortunately, to an extent, the classical riding skills and techniques of European origins had been bastardised into something that “just got the job done” plenty of grit and determination but not much style and grace.
There were plenty of horses too. The racing industry in Australia was strong and it had held the country together through the depression where the great Pharlap thrilled the struggling masses, creating at least something to cheer about in times of not much cheer.
The Australian thoroughbred is hardy and tough and most riding horses in Australia had a healthy splash of thoroughbred blood, all except the heavier draft breeds who had forged roads, plowed fields and pulled trees for the building of the country. I specifically refer to the “Australian thoroughbred” because though most all-purpose horses had some thoroughbred background, so too, did the Australian thoroughbred have some mongrel blood. The thoroughbred racing fraternity would not entertain the idea that the thoroughbred breed had been tainted by impure blood, but the facts were that at this time many racehorses were registered from an unknown station mare or unknown stallion. This splash of mongrel led to a tougher, hardier type than the European thoroughbred; a hybrid vigour if you like. These horses made an easy transition when ridden by gutsy tough riders from the racing world into the world of equestrianism. Most had very good jumping blood having originated in Ireland, where to this day, there is more jump racing than flat racing. Most people in the equestrian world fail to recognise the dynasty of the Thoroughbred as a jumping horse.
From the time racing began, there have been jumps races; point to point, steeple chase and hurdles. No other breed has been bred for as long for this purpose. In Europe where equestrianism has a heritage unbroken back to the time of Xenophon
2500 years ago, purpose bred horses had been developed for hundreds, if not thousands of years for the purpose of carrying men into battle, they needed to be strong, fast and nimble or their riders would have their heads removed. These horses had a balance of these qualities but not the endurance, speed and athleticism of the thoroughbred, who had been specifically developed for exactly these attributes.
On this particular day, a group of such Australian men and horses were gathered in
Sydney’s Centennial Park, something was afoot, a race was about to be run, a gathering of semi professional looking jocks on horses of the thoroughbred type were bustling about, generally trotting out, half out of control, struggling not to crash into each other. Occasionally, expletives could be heard yelled loudly as close calls occurred and crashes just averted.
Sitting on a well-mannered but similarly conformed horse was a young ex-solider dressed in polo apparel, he was watching the goings on with great interest. Eventually he rode up to the organiser of the race.
“Can I get a start?”
The organiser looked up, “In that get up?” referring to the polo apparel as opposed to the racing apparel worn by most of the other riders.
“Just for fun.” replied the rider.
His name was Brian Crago. Crago was a bit of a rogue, loved a bet, loved a joke and loved horses. His cheeky bravado hid a love and real respect for his equine partners, he had been raised as a rider, and as riders go, he was a good one. His father had been a horseman and had taught him more gentle compassionate ways of training a horse at a time when breaking-in meant what it sounded like; breaking a horse’s spirit until he gave up and submitted to the will of tough, hard men who saw them as tools of the trade. Crago recognised that by getting a horse to work with you, rather than simply working him, gave you a better result. Crago had done his service and returned to Australia where he had taken some interest in polo, flat racing, point to point racing and anything on which a bet could be laid. He was at his happiest when he could combine his two great loves, betting and horses in the one place.
Crago paid his entry fee, and headed straight to a bookmaker giving odds on the race soon to start.
“What odds can I get?” asked Crago
“On a polo pony?” returned the bookie “30 to 1.”
“I’ll have 20 pounds.” Crago immediately fired back.
“Done.” said the bookmaker, easy money as far as he was concerned. There were some serious ex-racehorses here that would definitely outrun this little polo pony regardless of his breeding or how well he was ridden.
At this point a vehicle pulled up close by. The driver turned to his passenger, “I think you might appreciate this Mr Mairinger.” The two men alighted to watch the goings on. The driver was Anthony Horden, a well-known man about town and a very successful businessman. He had been an outstanding sportsman in has day, it seemed he excelled in anything he put his mind to. Horden had a love of equestrianism and lamented the fact that Australia had never had a team compete at the Olympic Games. He recognised the potential of the Australian riders and horses but also recognised that without the right mentor, a trainer with the finesse of the great European riders, Australia may never reach the heights it had in just about every other Olympic event.
Enter Franz Mairinger. Franz was a good-looking man with the familiar air of a horseman. Quietly unassuming and missing nothing through his dark rimmed glasses, he had the look of a professor or artist and he certainly stood out amongst the crowd.
It is widely know that at the conclusion of the Second World War, many of the great classical art works of Europe were stolen or otherwise acquired and distributed around the world. Less recognised is the distribution of great artists who left Europe to find new homes across the globe. They have enriched society and changed the world in many ways. One classical artist who made his way to Australia was the great Franz Mairinger.
Franz was not an artist in the sense that he painted or sculpted, nonetheless, he was one of the finest artists in the world at that time, for Franz was a head rider at the infamous magnificent Spanish Riding School in Vienna, 500 years in the pursuit of equestrian perfection underpinned his classical training. Franz was selected from amongst the best riders of the Austrian cavalry to be accepted into the school. He rose through the ranks to become a head rider.
During the war, the Spanish Riding School came under the control of the Nazi party and was forced to perform under the shadow of the swastika. At the end of the war, when the Russian army was flooding down from the north devouring everything in its path, it was not easy to feed an army. The Lipizzaner mares, the breeding stock of the School, were at the School’s farm in Lipaza in the former Yugoslavia, their fate, should no action be taken, was certain, and the ancient breed was at risk of being lost. Franz, along with other members of the school, performed for General MacArthur of the U.S. Army to convince him that an operation should be mounted to rescue the mares. MacArthur was so impressed, that such an operation was undertaken and the mares were brought out of harms way.
At the conclusion of the war, Franz decided that he would leave Europe to find a better life for his family. He eventually arrived in Australia and gradually his prowess as a rider and trainer became known. Horden saw what he needed and he approached Mairinger to become coach of the first ever Australian equestrian team. Mairinger, who had been working in factories in South Australia, jumped at the chance to get back to his first true love.
So here they were; the reason there were so many horses and riders in town was the upcoming Sydney Royal Show. Horden and Mairinger had invited all comers to attend and demonstrate their abilities. It would be the major selection opportunity for those interested in trying to make the Australian Olympic Team. Mairinger and Horden, delighted at the prospect of seeing some horse competition, walked closer to where the starter was taking up his position to address the racers.
“Alright, alright hold those horses.” called the starter as he stood on a stump by the top rail of a white fence that ran off into the distance. He called out to the men waiting for his instructions, “Ok, its very simple, race starts on my left, the course runs down the length of this fence.” The fence was of the typical post and rail construction standing about six feet tall and painted white, it was used of a morning for the local racehorses in training as a running rail.
“Exactly half a mile down there, you turn through the gate come back and finish on my right. First to cross the line is the winner, start on my left, finish on my right, other than that there are no rules.” The announcement of no rules was met with a boisterous cheer from the riders and the crowd. It alluded to what could be a physical encounter and the turn at the other end could be particularly dangerous with so many horses going from full gallop in one direction to full gallop in the other.
Horden turned to Mairinger “A little friendly competition before the show tomorrow.”
Mairinger smiled, he had had his rough and tumble days on horseback whilst a member of the Austrian cavalry, “A fine selection of horses.”
The starter boomed “Okay, bring me up to the line. Go!!!”
They were off, thundering down the dirt riding track which was on the left hand side of the fence, there was much whooping and hollering, some, caught by the quickness of the start were still facing the wrong direction and they spun and followed the throng, there would be ample chance for a brave rider to make up ground with a good turn. As they raced off into the distance, one combination is left at the start; it is Crago on his polo pony. The pony is agitated at the sudden exit of the other horses; Crago sits deep and quiet, legs draped calmly around the horse’s girth.
there is more than one way to skin a cat
“This fellow is not racing?” enquired Mairinger.
“Seems not.” replied Horden.
“Looks like you wasted your cash!” laughed the bookmaker with his acquaintances.
The racing horses started to slow in order to make the sharp and dangerous u turn so as to return on the other side of the fence, several riders are unable to pull their mounts up, such is the excitement and in some cases lack of education of the horses they are riding.
As the first of the group turn to head for home with half a mile to run, Crago turns his horse who is now working in a highly collected canter almost on the spot, away from the fence, he rides out for 10 yards or so. Mairinger’s interest is turned to Crago and his little polo pony not more than 15 hands, but looking every bit as majestic as any of the classical equine statues sprinkled about Europe. Franz though that he would not have looked out of place at the Spanish Riding School.
As the horses are approaching the finish line, not more than 100 yards to run, Crago allows his horse to go forward, with two powerful strides he launches himself over the white fence dividing the finish line, the horse lands, spins right and canters calmly across the finish line before the other racers arrive flat out under the whip.
The bookmakers and punters cry out angrily and approach the starter, they are filthy. How could this be right? He didn’t run the race! By this time the horses and jockeys are arriving back at the finish line after pulling their horses up. “Protest, protest!” comes the call. No one is happy and confusion rules the day.
The starter is unsure of what to make of it, no one had considered this outcome.
Noticing Horden and Mairinger standing interested at the goings-on, the starter calls to the well-known Mr Horden.
“Mr Horden what do you make of this?”
Horden looked to Mairinger “What do you think Franz?”
Mairinger replied, “He did say, ‘start on the left, finish on the right, other than that, no rules’”.
Horden nodded “Indeed he did.” In a loud voice he repeated Mairinger’s statement.
The starter points to Crago an announces “The winner!”
The announcement is met with boos and discontent. Mairinger calls to the starter “Perhaps you should give the other riders the opportunity to ride the same route?”
“Good idea, you heard! Any takers?”
No one came forward.