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.
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………..
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…….
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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…….
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……..”