‘ANDREW GRESKIE’S FLING WITH THE SPORT OF KINGS…..’

Andrew Greskie first savoured the roar of the crowd back in 1973.

He was seven years old, and garbed neatly in Brown and Gold, when he led North Wangaratta through the streamers and balloons, and onto the field, for their first-ever Ovens and King League Grand Final.img_3886

His dad Len, who had enjoyed a stellar career with Wangaratta Rovers, had, four years earlier, been handed the unenviable task of resurrecting the Northerners.

Rock-hard Lennie, the epitome of on-field toughness, played 236 consecutive games -often with a splitting migraine- and figured in four premierships with the Rovers.

Relishing the challenge at his new club, he introduced a brand of ruthlessness and discipline which culminated in this long-overdue premiership.

He would have spared his most special thoughts for young Andrew – who was no doubt nipping at his heels amidst the wild celebrations – and hoped that sometime in the future, the lad might be able to follow suit………..
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But it wasn’t to be…..

“I played Midgets in the same team as North Melbourne’s Darren Steele, and against some future stars in Danny Craven, ‘Pas’ and Mark Stone. That’s my claim to fame. But I don’t think I had what it took to be a player. Besides, at that age, I was more interested in being a jockey.”

Andrew recalls Don Hackett, the sports teacher at Galen despairingly yelling out to him during a training drill: “Nah Greskie,…… You’re gonna be a jockey.”

His interest in the Sport of Kings had initially been fostered by a next-door neighbor Peter Taylor, who was a jockey; and by frequent visits to his uncle, Rex Greskie, the Clerk of the Course at Flemington. His grand-father George provided some of the genetics. He was an old bush ‘hoop’.

Andrew lived on the corner of Scott and Tudgey Streets, just a short jaunt to the Racecourse. He’d sneak through Hal Hoysted’s stables, head across the road, and hang around old horsemen like Paul Erwin, Donny Winzer and Dennis Gray – and the jockeys, Col Matthews, Robbie Beattie, Brian Creed, Brian Johns and Gaye Mullins.

“I loved the smell of the stables; it was just a natural thing. I was drawn to the racing game,” he says.

It was Peter Taylor’s wife Ann who first legged him up onto a horse.

“I was petrified at first. I just hung on for dear life, but after cantering around for a while I thought: ‘How good’s this.’ ”

The die was cast…….
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At the tender age of 15 he secured an apprenticeship with local trainer Dennis Gray. But, with one apprentice already in his stables, Dennis soon reasoned there weren’t enough horses to keep the youngster in work, so he transferred him to Epsom, under Bob Durey.

Then another complication presented itself. Durey decided he’d like to return to race-riding, which again left Andrew in a pickle. Fortunately, a Wangaratta connection, Stephen Aldridge, who was attached to the renowned Hayes stable, put in a good word for him.

Suddenly he was presented with the opportunity of a lifetime, and found himself at Lindsay Park, the plush’ training operations,  at Anguston, 80km from Adelaide, apprenticed to the great Colin Hayes.

“You can imagine; at 15, and so far from home. I was desperately homesick. Some nights, I used to sleep out in the paddock, I was that unsettled. But the Hayes family were really good to me, and, after all, I was living out my dream,” he recalls.

Andrew had created an impression with his talent and eagerness to learn, and had his first race ride just before his 18th birthday. He rode his first winner at Clare, not long after.

“It was a 10/1 shot, and wasn’t really expected to win. One of its stable-mates was the favourite, but when I passed the post first, I think everyone was shocked, more than anything.”

His first city winner followed soon after, when he piloted home Lindsay Park’s Arctic Thunder, which saluted in the Deloraine Graduation.img_3884

From then on, his progress was quite staggering. The winners came along with such regularity that he had already maintained a stranglehold on the Adelaide apprentice’s premiership….. That was until the management of Lindsay Park decided to send him across to Melbourne, in preparation for the Spring Carnival of 1984.img_3885

The consensus was that, as Hayes’ leading apprentice, they’d use Andrew in claiming races ( when apprentices were able to claim weight). It was all rather heady stuff for a lad of 18, to be thrust into the thick of things at the Mecca of racing.

At one stage he was having such a good trot that he was just behind the gifted Darren Gauci, as Melbourne’s leading apprentice.

One of those wins was on Nouvelle Star, which was of particular significance to the Hayes camp, as it was Colin’s first success in a newly-minted partnership with a mega-rich Sheik.

On one unforgettable day, Andrew rode a treble at Sandown and was just pipped for a fourth win at the same meeting. He was flying, and admits he enjoyed the glamour of it all.

“But then, there was the other side. If you were on the favourite and you got pipped, the punters would give you a hard time. So there was always heaps of pressure……”

There were times, also, when he fell foul of the stewards: “ I always tried my guts out when I was riding – especially as an apprentice – and it resulted in a few suspensions. I learned to control myself a bit more in later years.”

The danger attached to his profession was never far away. “I got knocked out at Murray Bridge one day, and spent a night in hospital. Then there was the time I went through the rails in a race at Victoria Park…… But that was all part of the game.”

He reflected that, whilst regular winners gave him confidence in his ability, it also made him a touch big-headed.

“I was playing up a bit, and started to put on weight,” he says. Inevitably, the stable elected to send him back to Adelaide.

His health began to detoriate , and he decided to return home to Wangaratta, where he eventually recuperated, resumed full fitness and got down to his riding weight.

So he headed back for another crack at Adelaide racing. The Hayes stable offered to take him back on board, but instead, he began riding freelance for a few years ; in particular, forming a fruitful association with leading trainer David Balfour.

“I had one of my best wins for David,” he says, pointing to a photo of the Adelaide Guineas of 1990, a Listed race, in which he guided Faraday to victory in a blanket-finish.img_3887

“Have a look at the blokes behind me there,” he says, with a hint of nostalgia……”Harry White, Greg Hall, Rod Griffiths, Peter Hutchieson…..All champs in their own right.”img_3888

Andrew enjoyed a high sporting profile in Adelaide, and loved the lifestyle.

“I always liked a good time,” he says. “I used to knock around with a few of the Glenelg footballers – blokes like Kernahan, McDermott, McGuiness, Cornesy and also the actor Gary Sweet, who was tied up with Glenelg.”

“We’d regularly go to a disco called ‘Lenny’s’. It’d be rocking of a week-end. I suppose that’s not ideal when you’re a jockey, and trying to keep your weight under control…………”

He was only 26 when health problems again intervened – and put paid to – his glittering career in the saddle. He’d ridden more than 500 winners – roughly 120 of those on city tracks…….
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Andrew re-settled in Wangaratta – to be back with his family. He remains a relatively anonymous figure in his home town, but on his regular visits to the races, is rapt to catch up with old acquaintances.

He was at a Wangaratta meeting about five years ago, when David Hayes, who had a couple of horses running, stopped for a yarn about old times and enquired about his health.

The following day he received a phone call from Tom Dabernig – David’s nephew and training partner – offering him a job at the stable’s re-located operations, 16km from Euroa.

He’s been there ever since, working on Track Maintenance at Lindsay Park, under manager Richard Nettleton. A usual day sees him up at 5.30am, making the hour-long trek to Lindsay Park, working until 3.30pm, before heading home to Wang.

“It’s a busy place,” Andrew says. “They’ve got about 120 horses there at present, and there’s always plenty going on……. I’ve just got to resist the urge to jump on a horse……..”img_3891

AN ADDICTION TO WINNING – THE BRIAN JOHNS STORY.

Can there be a tougher way to earn a quid than being a jockey?

It’s the only sport that has an ambulance trailing you around while you’re competing.

And at a touch under 55kg you’re taking your life in your hands when you’re trying to guide a 500kg hunk of horse flesh around a tight course in the helter-skelter of a race.

What about the constant battle to control your weight ? Or having to rise at some unearthly hour to ride trackwork on a frosty winter’s morning ? Or answering to a cranky owner or trainer after you’ve ‘butchered’ a ride ?

What motivates a young bloke to become a ‘hoop’. In search of the answer, I track down one of Wangaratta’s finest-ever, Brian Johns, who experienced most of the highs and lows that the racing game can throw up.

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Brian rode for 32 years. There was hardly a track in provincial and country Victoria, or southern New South Wales, that he didn’t know intimately. He even ventured up north and turned trips to Darwin and Queensland into working holidays when the weather would start to turn sour down here.

He looks misty-eyed as he explains the adrenalin-rush that he’d experience when he was on a good horse and it was ‘going flat-stick’.

” Your eyes become watery and you’re willing it to go faster…faster. I’d compare it to what it must be like to drive a Formula 1 racing car. You become addicted to it.”

“And you never lose that urge to win”.

On his occasional trips to the races these days, he gets itchy feet ; wondering what tactics he’d use as a race is unfolding. He recalls the atmosphere that would prevail in the Jockey’s room, pre-race, in the old days.

“If four or five fellah’s reckoned they were a genuine chance to win, it could get a bit testy ; there wasn’t much chatter. One bloke was a give-away. He’d nervously pick at his nails. We knew if he started doing that, he felt he was on a ‘good thing’.”

“After the race it might become a bit strained, too, if someone became critical of another jockey’s tactics. But when the last race was run, that’s when you’d conduct the post-mortems.”

I asked him why he didn’t head to Melbourne to further his career. “Simple. I was having too much of a good time here. I’m a country boy”.

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Brian was 12 when he caught the racing bug.

His uncle, Ron Arnold, had given his sister Debbie a horse, which was in foal. When the foal duly arrived -and grew- Brian jumped onto it and would ride it around the perimeter of Jack Stamp’s dairy.

Well-known local, ‘Lacky’ Richens who used to shoe the horses, would be often onto him, suggesting that he should become a jockey.

“So when I turned 15 and left school, I went and knocked on “Lacky’s” door. He took me down to see Jimmy Hoysted, who put me on as an apprentice”.

It wasn’t all beer and skittles. He took a long while to adjust to the 5am starts and Jimmy would often have to pull the blankets off him to crank him into action. There would be 20 horses to ride at trackwork.

“I remember that Jimmy was crook one morning. He got me to drive the float full of horses down to the track. Not a bad effort at the age of 15 !”

At 15 years 9 months, and tipping the scales at 36kg, he got his jockey’s licence and rode Arisaig to third place at Corowa . It was the first race of the 10,300 he was to negotiate throughout his career.

“We used to get $20 a race (plus a bit of a sling if you won). Now they pick up $200 a ride and 5% of the stake for a win, so they can make a reasonable living these days”, he says.

Brian got away to a flier in his first year and was the North-East’s leading apprentice.   The wins started coming. Hardened horsemen liked his style. They said he showed no fear, was determined, cool as a cucumber and seemed to have a natural affinity with the horses in his charge.

The first of his seven NEDRA jockey’s premierships came when he was still an apprentice. After four years his indentures were transferred to Jim Hoysted’s cousin Mick, with whom he served the final two.

On his first visit to the ‘big smoke’, aged 16, and unperturbed by the surrounds of Moonee Valley he landed his maiden metropolitan winner, Dark Prince.

He would make occasional forays on city meetings. But when I quizzed him about how many other winners he rode in Melbourne, he had to rack his brain.

“Let’s think. There was Beau Bundrie at Caulfield. It was trained by Denis Gray……. For Granted was another, and Right Aspect won a Byron Moore Stakes on Oaks Day. That was a big win.

And, of course, there was his association with Lad of the Manor. He rode the champ to victory in the Brent Thomson Handicap and also the Group Two Waterford Crystal Mile on Cox Plate Day, 2004.

‘The Lad’ holds special memories for Brian Johns. He remembers being aboard when it made its debut at Wangaratta.

“We missed the start by about 6 lengthFullSizeRenders. I went past a couple of horses at the 600 metre mark and their jockeys looked across, astonished. My horse was just cruising,” he recalls.

Lad of the Manor won 11 of its first 19 races and he was in the saddle for eight of them, including a win in Ballarat’s rich Gold Nugget.

He rode a brilliantly-judged race in the Turnbull Stakes, as Lad of the Manor moved away from the field in the home straight, only to be pipped by dual Melbourne Cup winner, Makybe Diva, in the shadows of the post.

At its next start, he piloted ‘The Lad’ in the fabled Cox Plate. I ask him if this was his biggest thrill in racing.

“Yeah, I suppose, apart from some of the big wins. It was enormous. Imagine, you’ve got a dozen quality horses, there’s all the tradition surrounding the race and the focus of the nation is on you.”

But Brian’s effort to be there was a story in itself. Four months earlier he had been involved in a freakish trackwork accident.

A young horse reared and went over backwards. He says : ” I survived the fall all right, but when it saw me at its feet it kicked the shit out of me”.

The result ? Broken ribs and a punctured lung. But soon after being discharged from hospital he got an infection and was re-admitted to Royal Melbourne Private. “I was that crook, I thought I was headed for the box”, he says.

Plenty of bike-riding and pool work was the way he rehabilited his aching 5 foot 3 and a half-inch, 55kg body, to come back to full fitness.

The following year he broke a leg at the Wangaratta Cup meeting. He only found out about the fracture when X-Rays were taken four days after the fall.

Then, in July 2007, he was on a horse called Migaloo, at Darwin’s Fannie Bay course when three horses fell at the half-way mark of a race. Both wrists were fractured, he incurred severe bruising to his body and had a broken shoulder.

Much as he would have liked to keep going, the injuries were so severe that Brian knew it was time to give the game away.

He had ridden 1020 winners, which had amassed something like $10 million in stake money.

Included in his CV were Cups at Wangaratta, Corowa (2), Tatura (2) and Towong. He had once ridden 5 winners out of 6 at a Wodonga meeting and on three occasions came home with four winners. He saluted four times in Benalla’s coveted Town Plate.

In moments of nostalgia he could recall the terrific country horses he had ridden, like Romantic Sea (a fine mare on which he won 10 races), Hunka Magic, Caesar’s Right, Well Satisfied, Beau Time, Right Aspect, Pride Rock and many others.

And the trainers from the North-East, and beyond, who had given him their support .

It was one hell of a ride.

 

Footnote: Brian once did a TAFE course in electronics and reckons that’s the path he would have trod if he hadn’t become a jockey. He now works at Brown Bros.

 

 

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