A former teenage punter and Ballarat boarding school bookie — fulfils a long-time ambition to interview the jockey known as “the cups specialist” –W.A. (Billy Smith) now long retired at 82 on the Gold Coast.

A Crikey exclusive by Ross Stapleton

When W.A. (Billy) Smith was born in Ballarat in 1928 he was a natural to become a jockey given his size and natural lightweight.

But his start mucking out stables at 13, hardly foretold of a riding career that would eventually see him ride more than 1700 winners around the world along with many of our biggest races, but best of all … pinch the 1960 centenary Melbourne Cup on 50-1 long shot Hi Jinx in a hectic three-way finish:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pahjsQ4hLvY&feature=player_embedded[/youtube]

At 16 he was licensed as an apprentice and rode in his first Melbourne Cup two years later in 1946 on 200-1 rank outsider Queen Midas who finished 27th in a big field of 35. At the time he wasn’t to know his 19th cup ride aboard another 200-1 no hoper finishing second last in 1971 would be his Cup swansong, before putting away the whip aged 50 in 1978, as the physically demanding ravages of being a jockey and past injuries caught up with him.

Intriguingly Smith’s centenary Cup win could have so easily been otherwise if the racing gods had followed a different path. Not only did he only accept to ride Hi Jinx on the Saturday evening after his designated cup ride (Aircraft) had bled earlier that day in the Mackinnon Stakes, but he could have possibly ridden two other cup winners.

He opted to ride Bart Cummings The Dip in 1962, thus passing up renewing acquaintance with that’s year’s cups double legend Even Stevens on whom he had won decent races earlier in New Zealand. But he also pulled the wrong rein with his third cup ride in 1948. Just 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 saluted in the first ever cup photo finish in only his ninth ride.

Still for all his many successes, it’s guiding Hi Jinx to win the centenary cup by just half a neck from Howsie (20-1) with Caulfield Cup winner and 7-2 favourite Ilumquh just a head away third in an all-Kiwi finish that’s his lasting legacy. Not that the crowd of 101,478 was breaking out the champagne toasting his success, as the long odds saw him greeted with what was then reckoned to be the quietest reception afforded any cup winner.

But as Smith told Crikey, he noticed it not at all as he returned to scale on cloud nine knowing he had won the big one. Yet the wider significance of winning the historic 1ooth hadn’t yet registered and took some time before it did.

The five year-old mare finished well back in the Caulfield Cup in her first Australian outing without Smith aboard as he was riding more fancied stable mate Aircraft who was also among the also-rans. Smith was then aboard when Hi Jinx ran second in the Moonee Valley Cup. Yet Hi Jinx wasn’t his preferred cup mount as was still booked to be aboard Aircraft on the first Tuesday in November.

In a remarkable testament to the breeding legacy left by legendary 1890 cup winner Carbine, Hi Jinx on the maternal side could be traced back to champion sire Foxbridge, who in turn was a descendant of Carbine. Carbine’s pedigree was held in such esteem that Phar Lap was bought sight unseen from a New Zealand sales catalogue by his trainer Harry Telford purely on the basis of having Carbine blood on both sides of his family tree. And guess who today carries that same family gene that links Carbine via Foxbridge… none other than So You Think. Again on the maternal side through his mum Triassic.

In recognition of its centenary status, the VRC had raised the 1960 stakes from 15,500 pounds the year before to 25,750 before it reverted back to the 1959 total again. Smith won the cups double albeit a year apart when he won the 1961 Caulfield Cup on Summer Fair, and thereafter in the following years became colloquially and perennially linked in the press as W.A. (Billy Smith) “cups specialist” as he set about landing the big cup races all over the country. Hence his cup roll call includes aside from the big Spring double, Sydney, Brisbane, three Perth and Moonee Valley, two Australian and Sandown Cups, most of the big Victorian provincial cups, along with a string of New Zealand’s biggest races where he was five times champion jockey before resettling back in Melbourne in 1961.

The 1960 cup was most notable for the immortal Tulloch having his first and only Melbourne Cup start when he lumped 10.1 to finish a brave 7th as 3-1 favourite. It was the only time in his 53 starts including 36 wins he failed to run a place. Jockey Neville Sellwood was lambasted for asking the champ to come from a hopeless position in the 32 horse field that saw him make up a staggering 46 lengths over the last six furlongs, yet still four lengths from Hi Jinx.

So Smith takes up the story of that day and reflects on all his years as one of our greatest big race jockeys in this Crikey interview.

Ross Stapleton: So how confident were you going into the cup starting at 50-1?

Billy Smith: The trainer and part-owner Trevor Knowles was pretty confident because he knew she could run two miles and that’s more what we were banking on. The funny thing is I had not originally come over to ride Hi Jinx in Melbourne, I was aboard stablemate Aircraft in the Caulfield Cup and Hi Jinx also finished down the field. But then I was on her to finish second in the Moonee Valley Cup. I was still down to ride Aircraft in the Melbourne Cup but the trainer Trevor Knowles was prepared to hold off getting someone else for Hi Jinx until after I had ridden Aircraft on Derby Day before making any decision.

Well then in the Mackinnon Stakes Aircraft bled and that was the end of him for the cup and the fact that Knowles had been prepared to wait, worked out good to say the least. It’s all completely different now, but when you were a stable jockey then they would give you a chance to pick and choose where now they don’t.

I had actually won what is now the Salinger sprint (then the W.D. & H.O. Wills “Hallmark”) on the Saturday with another Knowles stable entrant Karina, who was a smart sprinter and had won some good races back in New Zealand. So I was staying with some friends then, but Trevor had my number and rang me straight away early evening to say ‘that horse isn’t running, are you on Hi Jinx’? And I said ‘yes… good’ and that was it!

Having ridden her in New Zealand and also most of her work at Flemington while she was there as well as at Moonee Valley, it wasn’t as if I didn’t know her going into the cup. She was a good handicapper who could run the distance alright and that’s what I was banking on, but the trainer was more confident than me where she had the staying breed in her (take a bow Carbine).

The weather was pretty good for Melbourne come the day and I was left more or less to ride my own race. She would always take a little time to balance up, but also you had to factor in there was 32 runners in the race, not like today. It was a fairly good run race because no one got into any trouble for interference or anything after it. I had pretty good run really throughout the race. A couple were stumbling and dropping back at the half mile and I thought I had to get out and get going then.

I could see the other horses where I knew Ilumquh was back inside me and (runner up) Howsie was up in front and I knew the both of them pretty well from New Zealand, so that’s when I had to get out and get going. It ended up being a pretty good three-way battle going to the line where it was head and head to the finish really. I knew a furlong from home we were going to be some chance to win against what was two pretty good horses.

STAPLETON: When did it really hit you that you had not only won the 1960 Melbourne Cup but the 100th?

SMITH: 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.

Of course it’s the one race everybody loves to win in Australia and they call it the race that stops a nation… which it does. I got a lot of thrills out of racing but there’s no doubt that’s easily my biggest. That night I went to Worth’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.”

STAPLETON: When you came back to the winner’s stall you must have been on cloud nine. Can you remember what was said to you by the connections?

SMITH: I was on cloud nine alright! There was only one person there (trainer) Trevor Knowles, and he was half-owner anyway and naturally we were both very thrilled. Considering I had come over to ride Aircraft that Spring, it’s funny how things turn out where it could have been a totally different story if that horse hadn’t bled on the Saturday. But to be perfectly honest, I don’t think he was going well enough to win anyway had he started. He wasn’t going as well as what he had been in New Zealand. So that’s a good example of the swings and roundabouts in the fortunes of racing where it comes with a lot of highs and lows.

It’s funny but back then none of the winning cup jockey’s got presented with their own replicas of the cup like they do now, so I was given my own cup by the VRC up here on the Gold Coast at a special presentation back in 2004, which was nice for me and my family. Then I knew about four years ago when I needed open heart surgery following a heart attack, that they were planning on inviting the jockeys down for the 150th  anniversary. So it was a joke with the medical people where I said: “Well you can’t let me die because I’ve got to go to the bloody 2010 Melbourne Cup”.

STAPLETON: Does the Cup present as so much bigger now than it did in your day?

SMITH: Oh it’s completely different now to what it was in our day with riders like Scobie Breasley, Billy Williamson, Neville Sellwood, Ronnie Hutchison and Jack Purtell, where they were just completely different. 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. Old Billy Cook and fellas like that, oh Christ they were real horsemen and great riders really. Also today the weights are much more compressed where in my day you had a much greater variance between the bottom and top weights. The jockeys today are certainly bigger and heavier.

STAPLETON: You rode in the 1955 cup when the great Rising Fast despite carrying the grandstand of 10 stone, was only beaten by three quarters of a length from winning an unprecedented “double-double” of the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups (in running second he gave the winner Toporoa a staggering 34lbs in what was deemed one of the roughest cups in memory, and in fact the steward’s saw fit to subsequently suspend Neville Sellwood for two months for failing to stop Toporoa from boring out on the champion).

SMITH: He was a great horse … he was all horse that fella. To do what he did to go so close to winning the two cups twice shows he was a really outstanding horse.

STAPLETON: You also rode against another of the true legends of the turf, Tulloch. Who is the best horse you’ve seen?

SMITH: Oh I’ve seen a few who were something. I saw Shannon and I think Bernborough was the first I saw that was a truly outstanding horse, and later on Kingston Town. They were all good horses in their own era and as such I think it’s really hard to compare. There were also a few average horses and I suppose I won the Cup on one of them [he jokes].

STAPLETON: Tell me about Tulloch who was in the 1960 Cup as favourite and the one horse commonly regarded as the best since Phar Lap?

SMITH: Yeah he was just a great horse but I never saw him in the run and Neville Sellwood got rubbished for his ride but having not sighted him I couldn’t really comment on that. But very few horses can ever do what he’s done, he was outstanding. There were so many good horses around in them days, but also today you don’t get a great deal of difference in the weights in the handicaps where the top weight might have 58kg but the bottom weight has only got 52.5 or 53.

In the old days there was no limit to the top weight where it could be carrying 9 stone 6 lbs or 9.7 or even up to 9.10, and the bottom weight might only have 6.7, so that’s a vast difference really. It’s also why I probably got so many good rides too… I was light on those horses.

I had great success particularly through the mid 1960’s. I think my light weight did help me pick up good rides in some big races, but before I went to New Zealand over here in Australia they used to worry about a lightweight in WFA races, but in New Zealand that didn’t matter at all. I was riding in every WFA race going round. I won two Derbies in New Zealand in my five years there.

STAPLETON: And your rating of Makybe Diva?

SMITH: I never saw her race (in the flesh) but in my own opinion I think it helped that she was pitch forked into the race on handicaps except for the last time she won (her third). I think on performance Tulloch and Kingston Town were similar but then races back in Tulloch’s time were much harder to compare because they were run so much more differently to how they are these days. They’re now bred a bit more finely and have a quicker turn of foot. Back in those days they were trained harder than what they are now … they were more iron horses. The whole things changed now so that it’s very, very hard to compare horses from different eras.

STAPLETON: Who was the best horse you rode?

SMITH: There were some very good ones and a lot of ordinary ones but I think Winfreux could rightly be called a champion, who completed the Stradbroke and Doomben 10,000 double in 1965 (only the second horse until then to do it and in just three seasons won 21 black type races including 3 consecutive Caulfield Stakes and two Cox Plate seconds).

STAPLETON: What are your thoughts on the question of whether So You Think can get the Cup distance?

SMITH: Well that’s everybody’s doubt that he can get the journey, but 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.

STAPLETON: In your time most of the best entires would still race at least beyond four and prove themselves again and again, but all over the world now few stallion prospects are allowed to race on beyond say four years? This deprives of us watching some great champions fulfilling their talent?

SMITH: 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”.

STAPLETON: Except he has such an incredibly wealthy owner in Dato Tan Chin Nam (84 year-old Malaysian owner and already winner of four Melbourne cups with Cummings), that the money may mean little to him at his stage of life compared to the enjoyment he might get from watching such a super horse continue on for at least another Melbourne Spring Carnival if not look to campaign him against the best in Europe next year?

SMITH: 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 tot.

STAPLETON: You earned the sobriquet of “the cups specialist” and he’s “the cups king” so let me ask you whether Bart’s the greatest trainer Australia’s had?

SMITH: Of the modern day one’s I would say yes. Bart and I are the same age actually and I’ve ridden for him as well as his father Jim. Roy Higgins was his main jockey when I was riding, but I used to ride a lot of the lightweights for Bart.