The towering green-roofed stables which overlook the Wangaratta Racecourse provide the appropriate backdrop on this balmy late-spring afternoon, as I yarn with one of the true identities of country racing.
His marathon day, which has maintained a frenetic pace from the moment the alarm sounded at about 4am, is winding down.
Besides supervising track work, there might have been a myriad of assorted tasks to consume the boys at Ledger Racing, such as mucking out boxes, feeding, shoeing, grooming, swimming, checking on agisted horses, educating, breaking-in, re-rugging, communicating with owners and poring over prospective fields.
So that when race-day comes around and the Ledgers and the thoroughbreds head near and far, nothing is left to chance – they’re set to go.
John Ledger’s love affair with horses has encompassed most of his 59 years. His dad, George, was a small-time trainer in Yarrawonga and from the time John climbed aboard the old pony in the back paddock, he was hooked.
George had a fair bit of success in the 60’s and ’70’s and when John’s brother, George Jnr, took over the reins, he too, became highly respected.
John was four years younger and played a minor role, in between being consumed by his twin sporting passions – equestrian riding and football.
He competed in his first equestrian event at the age of 6 and rode for 40 years.
“I loved it. I had a favourite horse called ‘Nobby’, which I rode for 20 years. He was a beauty. Even now, when some of my old mates see me they call me ‘Nobby’ or ‘Horsey’, he says.
At his peak, John contested all of the semi-professional major show-jumping events on the eastern seaboard, including World Cup events in Victoria and New South Wales. He represented Australia in events in New Zealand. When the equestrian team was selected for the 1988 Barcelona Olympics he missed the cut, but was named on the ‘short-list’, to be included if anyone pulled out.
Chris is now following in his father’s footsteps and treading the equestrian trail.
I’d heard that John was a bit of a tough-nut as a footballer, but didn’t realise that he’d had such a long and varied career. He chalked up a heap of games with Mulwala, interspersed with 50-odd at Yarrawonga.
When his good mate ‘Salty’ Parish wanted to leave the Pigeons for another O &M club, Rutherglen, John decided to go with him. They spent a couple of years at Barkly Park, before ‘Salty’ headed back to Yarra. Ledger returned back home, where he was to take the coaching reins for three seasons and finish with around 250 games in the ‘Mul’ guernsey.
He had been working at his trade as a boilermaker and doing odd jobs like pulling petrol on a Sunday. He and Kerri had four young boys and not much money and George, whom he’d been helping with his training, suggested he should apply for his trainer’s licence.
His biggest break came in 1996 when an old horseman, Len Rhodes, offered him a half-share in a Blazing Sword filly, later to be named Blaze The Turf. She was to win four big races, including the Group 3 Autumn Stakes and the Zedative Stakes.
So John Ledger had proved that, when he got hold of a good horse, he could bring the best out of it.
George Jnr’s death from bone cancer prompted his best clients and family friends to ask John to take over the training of an exciting young stayer, Brave Chief. They were interesting times, as he recalls: “After George’s passing, quite a few of his old owners found other trainers. But it was the loyalty of people like Frank and Maria Vodusek and Tony and Dawn Taber that made life easier for us “.
Brave Chief, a hugely popular front-runner, gave Ledger some of his greatest racing moments. He won 18 races (8 of them at Moonee Valley) and just under a million dollars in prize-money.
His biggest win was in the weight-for-age Sandown Classic, in November 2000, which he won in course-record time. John’s son Adrian, who had ridden Brave Chief in several of its wins, stood down to allow Paddy Payne to take the ride. Adrian strapped him instead.
“Adrian had a good association with the horse, but thought Paddy would suit him”, Ledger recalled. “That was the sort of unselfish kid he was”.
Adrian had begun riding when he was still in nappies and was helped onto his first pony. He started his apprenticeship at 14 with his uncle, George, then spent 20 months with Russell Cameron, in Melbourne.
He had become a successful rider and he and John and the other Ledger boys, Brad, Chris and Travis were as thick as thieves. It was Adrian who made the suggestion that they shift their stables to Wangaratta.
“It was hard work bringing the horses from Yarra to Wang, which was the closest available course. Ayd said ‘Dad, this is crazy, why don’t we see about shifting over here.’ Within a couple of weeks of us finally deciding and talking Kerri into it, we’d taken up the option on the land that the Race Club owned and got the necessary approval. That was in 2000. Three years later we were over here lock-stock-and-barrel.”
The magnificent complex that they now have is a tribute to their hard work, as is the 200-acre agistment property, Adrian Park, out at Killawarra.
It is a lasting tribute to the second eldest Ledger son, whose loss after a race at Corowa shattered the family in 2005.
Adrian crashed to the turf when his horse, Daring Movement, fell near the home turn. He was flown to Canberra, but didn’t regain consciousness. He was 25 and left a young wife, Amy, who was expecting their first child (Josh is now 9).
John was returning from the Echuca races that day and switched on the radio to listen to the race. “They said there had been a fall. I feared the worst,” he reflects. The family headed to Canberra to be at Adrian’s bedside. “We’d been inseparable. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t talk about him”.
“I’ve always blamed myself, in a way, for what happened. The week before, we were going through the fields and Ayd said he’d be having two rides at Corowa. I asked him, ‘What about Daring Movement’. He said, ‘Dad, I don’t like the thing’. ‘ Mate, 100 bucks is 100 bucks, the money’ll come in handy for you and Amy’, I replied. ‘Okay, I’ll take it on’, he said”.
Adrian had ridden about 150 winners and had a reputation as a talented jockey, with a knack of being able to handle difficult horses.
It was a heart-wrenching moment for the family when Power of War, which Adrian had a fair bit to do with, saluted at Randwick five weeks later. It was the stable’s first win after his accident.
“It took us ages to come to terms with Ayd’s loss, but we got some good help from Racing Victoria. They’ve been terrific with their support, ” he says.
A real turning point for Ledger Racing in these difficult times was the loyalty shown by one of Australia’s top trainers, Mick Price, who organised for his horses to be pre-trained and spelled at Adrian Park.
The arrangement has continued to this day. One of the many star ‘boarders’ has been brilliant sprinter Lankan Rupee, which Chris Ledger broke in and looked after, early on. Chris spends a couple of weeks a year at Caulfield, under the tutelage of Price.
The Ledgers also look after many Blueblood Thoroughbred horses which are not quite ready for city-standard races.
They’re the complete racing family. Chris is now in the training partnership with John, Brad is the stable foreman, Travis handles maintenance and is the property manager at Adrian Park. Kerri handles the finances and Sonja is office manager.
The dream of getting hold of another top horse, akin to some of those he has trained, like, Romantic Lover, Soleil, Brave Chief, Blaze The Turf, Mind Your Head, Secret Toy Bizness or About Face, is part of what keeps John Ledger going.
That, and the addiction that is racing – and the memory of Adrian.