It will be 50 years ago tomorrow since a lightweight jockey W.A. (Billy) Smith wrote his name into equine immortality when he booted home 50-1 shot Hi Jinx to pinch the 1960 centenary Melbourne Cup.
Over the next few years and long before Bart Cummings earned his sobriquet The Cup’s King and for whom Smith once rode many of his best lightweights, Billy Smith became known as ‘the cup specialist’. You name it and the Ballarat-born Smith, now 82, practically won them all with Adelaide a notable exception. These included three Perth and Moonee Valley Cups along with two Australian and Sandown Cups, and many of the biggest races here and in New Zealand where he was champion jockey for five years before returning to Melbourne permanently in 1961.
Not only did he then win that year’s Caulfield Cup (Summer Fair) but the following year managed to pass up the winning ride on that year’s cups double winner Evens Stevens (only the fourth time to that point) whom he had earlier ridden to some notable wins in New Zealand. Smith also pulled the wrong rein with just his third Cup ride in 1948. Only the day before the race he switched mounts to finish 17th in preference to being aboard 80-1 winner Rimfire. His decision provided one of the Cup’s most historic moments as substitute 15-year-old Ray Neville, in just his ninth ride, became its youngest-ever winner in what was also the first Cup photo finish.
Yet as Smith told Crikey, on a day when he is an honoured guest at this year’s Melbourne Cup street parade and returning to Flemington where he hasn’t set foot for 20 years, how he came to win the centenary cup illustrates racing’s extreme vicissitudes of fortune, because he very nearly pulled the wrong rein again.
Now retired on the Gold Coast, and the same age as Bart as he points out, Smith in recalling his greatest thrill in racing harks back to not just another time and place, but when racing was less a hardcore business. Then the big-name jockeys were as much the stars as the horses and they even had the top trainers dancing to the hoop’s tune as they freely exercised their right to pick and choose their Cup mounts right up to the death. Now try telling a Cummings or Waterhouse you won’t commit to your Cup ride until after Derby Day has been run, as Smith did in 1960.
As for his own special Cup anniversary, Smith, whose health is up and down by his own admission, says while he got a lot of thrills out of racing winning the Cup is “easily my biggest”.
“That night I went to Wirth’s circus to receive the traditional golden whip bestowed on the winning jockey, but they ended up presenting it to me live on television at Channel Nine when television was still a bit of a novelty. It’s gold mounted and I’ve still got it. I would never consider selling it.
“I suppose winning the 100th Cup is unique because I won’t be around for the 200th,” he quipped, while revealing it didn’t immediately register just what a big deal it would turn out to be for the rest of his life. But then it was hardly prompted at the time by returning to scale to what was perhaps the most muted reception ever accorded a Cup winner, given the five year-old Kiwi mare’s shock win.
Everything about the race is so much bigger now in the way it is celebrated around the country. And so are the jockeys: “Now they all ride short (shorter stirrups) but in our time none of them rode like that. I think they were much better horsemen then than what they are nowadays. Also today the weights are much more compressed where in my day you had a much greater variance between the bottom and top weight.”
More importantly the champion horses of either s-x in his era were much less likely to have their racing deeds prematurely nipped in the bud and packed off to stud after just two or three seasons. But such are the economics of today’s global thoroughbred industry, no one knows if superstar and boom stallion in waiting So You Think has run his last race after a mere 12 starts following the Cup.
“If So You Think wins the Cup his stud value goes through the sky, and nowadays some don’t race beyond three. They just don’t keep them racing like they used to. I think if he won the Melbourne Cup they could go ‘right … straight to stud’,” Smith figures.
But Smith agrees So You Think’s billionaire 84-year-old Malaysian owner, Dato Tan Chin Nam, would at his time of life get greater satisfaction in seeing his champion racing on next year to further etch his name in racing history, despite the tens of millions being thrown at him to do otherwise.
“Yes he could afford to say ‘let’s put him away and we’ll come back for the Cox Plate and the Cup again next year’. His wealth could well be a blessing where the public gets to see more of him and that’s good for racing. Australians love a great horse where it can capture their imagination. But then they can also fall by the wayside pretty quick too,” he cautions.
So when did it really hit him he’d won the 100th Cup? “To be honest it didn’t really register straight away. Of course it was a big deal surrounding it but it didn’t sort of hit home or ring a bell that not only had I just won the Melbourne Cup but it was the big one — the 100th running. It was really only during the presentation I realised I’d won the centenary and it was something nobody else could repeat.”
As to his thoughts on whether So You Think can get the Cup distance, he has some very practical advice: “He’s looked a winner all the time so far and he’s proved it. There’s no doubt he’s an outstanding horse. I don’t know if we will get the two miles but Bart Cummings is a better judge than me, and he wouldn’t run him if he didn’t think he could get it.”
To read the full transcript of the Q&A with Billy Smith visit the Crikey Sports blog.