‘BOY FROM CHESHUNT WHO MASTERED THE PUNT……’

The King Valley is renowned for its reliable rainfall, fertile soil, spectacular scenery and wine-production. Its rich history weaves tales of marauding bushrangers and brave pioneers.

Chinese settlers, who moved there from the Goldfields in the mid-to-late 19th century, became market-gardeners and merchants.

At the same time, families staked claim to substantial plots of land, intent on making their fortune. They grew crops and raised cattle and sheep. Many of their descendents still farm in the area.

Henry Connolly and his wife Elizabeth typified the new-arrivals. They farmed a substantial sheep-grazing property at Degamero. Thankfully for them, the Degamero-Cheshunt Primary School kicked off in 1883 and enabled them to educate their eight kids, who arrived in quick succession.

Numbered among them was sixth-born Eric Alfred, who was to become one of Cheshunt’s most famous exports…………

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An intense interest in the Sport of Kings offered Connolly Snr. the opportunity to take his mind off affairs of the land. There was no shortage of Race Clubs in the vicinity for him to indulge his sporting predilection.

Tracks at Moyhu and Greta were close-by. If he wished to travel further, St.James, Benalla, Boorhaman, Springhurst, Beechworth, Wangaratta and Tarrawingee boasted active Clubs.

Eventually, his fascination for the racing game prompted him to uproot his large family in the mid-1890’s, and re-locate to Melbourne, where he would satisfy his ambition of becoming a racehorse trainer.

Young Eric decided early on in life that he would also make his living from the turf.

Legend has it that he laid his first bet at the age of 10. He was in his mid-teens – and residing in Melbourne with his parents – when he supposedly sold a pony in his possession for eight pounds. The next day he wagered on every race at Flemington, and did so well that he turned the eight pounds into seven hundred.

In 1903, aged 23, he bought an undistinguished sprinter,The General, trained it as a jumper, and netted 14,000 pounds when it won the Grand National Steeplechase.

The obvious gift that he had for judging horses and understanding the nuances of racing were to stand him in good stead throughout his colourful career.

This was illustrated when he prepared Celerity to win the 1910 Oakleigh Plate, and guided Sea Prince to the 1913 Williamstown Cup, both sprint races.

But he was also adept at setting horses for longer distances, as evidenced by Murillo’s win in the prestigious 13-furlong Metropolitan Handicap in 1927.

Connolly regarded the Newmarket Handicap as probably the toughest race to win. He was proud of Rostrum’s triumph in 1922. Sunburst backed up for him the following year, by taking out the coveted event. Along with the handsome trophy for Sunburst’s win, he collected 100,000 pounds in wagers, to neatly complement his share of the stakes.

By now, his training and punting feats were becoming the stuff of legend.

The term, ‘The Luck of Eric Connolly’ became part of the Australian idiom. But casual observers of the sport were not privy to his fastidious approach to racing.

He trained the horses that wore his red and black colours, well away from the public eye, and set them for races months ahead. He developed a photographic memory and had a great eye for form.

It was said that he would show up at the track well ahead of the first event, applying his keen horse sense to suss out the mood, temperament and mannerisms of the gallopers, and keep a close watch on trends in the betting ring.

His sorties into the ‘ring’ were eagerly observed by punters.

Connolly was always conservatively and immaculately dressed. Reserved, quietly-spoken and disciplined, he drank moderately, smoked heavily, and had many friends. Included among them were the rich and famous; the most prominent being John Wren, a larger-than-life gambling identity, underworld figure and ‘string-puller.’……………

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By the end of the 1920’s Eric Connolly’s winnings, along with his income from investments, had earned him an estimated 250,000 pounds, and the reputation as Australia’s outstanding punter.

There were plenty of down days, however, in which he enriched the book-makers, but he continued to abide by his philosophy : ‘Money lost, nothing lost /Courage lost, everything lost.’

One of the stories that enhanced his mystique concerned Nightmarch, a champion New Zealand stayer, in which Connolly had developed an intense interest, bordering on infatuation.

It’s owner, Mr.Alan Louisson, was Chairman of the New Zealand Racing Conference; a man more interested in racing as a sport than exploiting it for its financial windfalls. In the spring of 1929 he brought Nightmarch over for an assault on several Australian races.

He was surprised one night, after dinner, to receive a visit from Eric Connolly, who, in the course of their conversation, asked him if he was interested in selling Nightmarch.

“No-one in Australia would give me the price I’d want for him,” Louisson snorted.

“Don’t be too sure about that,” replied Connolly.

“I’d want 10,000 pounds for him,” said Louisson in a tone that suggested no-one would throw away that sort of money..

“He’s mine, then,” Connolly said, reaching out his hand to shake on the deal……………….

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Early the following morning, Connolly received a phone call from Mr. Louisson. He’d had a sleepless night, and worried that he was letting New Zealanders down by selling a horse that had a chance of winning a good race in Australia.

Eric Connolly was most sympathetic to his predicament: “I agree,” he said. “I suppose it would probably look as though you’d walked out on them.”

“But since I left you last night, I have already made plans and put them into effect. I’ll cancel the Sale if you allow me to map out Nightmarch’s spring program.” Louisson, relieved to regain control of his ‘pride and joy’, consented.

And so, Eric Connolly became Nightmarch’s Campaign Manager…

He convinced Alan Louisson that the stallion should be set for the one-mile 1929 Epsom Handicap, rather than the 13-furlong Metropolitan, for which he had been entered, and already heavily backed.

In the meantime Nightmarch won the Tattersall’s Spring Handicap. He then went on to win the Epsom by two lengths.

The result was a bonanza for Eric Connolly, but the 10lb penalty for winning the Epsom wasn’t appreciated by the big punters, who had already outlaid huge amounts on him to win the Metropolitan. He went out as 3/1 favourite, but was beaten into second place.

Sensing that Connolly had played a part in this turn-around, several threatening phone calls came his way, some indicating that he’d be lucky to arrive back in Melbourne in one piece. Had they known how much he’d won by backing Loquacious, which defeated Nightmarch in the race, they’d have been even more incensed.

Nightmarch’s versatility was shown when he won the two-mile Randwick Plate a few days later.

The next race mapped out for him by Connolly and his owner was the W.S.Cox Plate. He won that, and then ran third in the Melbourne Stakes. The stage was now set for the 1929 Melbourne Cup.

But there was an even-money chance in the Cup that turned off even the most ardent Nightmarch admirers – his half-brother, Phar Lap.

It was mostly Connolly money that sent Nightmarch out as 9/2 second favourite.

Phar Lap set a frantic pace early in the race, but was beaten when the horses entered the straight. Nightmarch came over the top to defeat Paquito, with the favourite Phar Lap fading to finish third.

On all sides, it was agreed that Eric Connolly’s planning for Nightmarch was brilliantly executed. The public dared to speculate what dividend he’d reaped from the measured campaign that he outlined for the Cup winner in 1929, but the popular figure was in the hundreds of thousands……….

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After a heart attack in late-1929, Connolly was forced away from the racing scene. He was acknowledged, in succeeding years, for his benevolence to charitable organisations and the down-and-out.

When he passed away in 1944 ( aged 64 ) at his Toorak home, due to coronary thrombosis, he left a modest estate of 5741 pounds to his surviving daughters…..He would often lose equivalent amounts in one day on the punt.

The ‘Luck of Eric Connolly’ had finally run out……….

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