‘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……….

‘IN SEARCH OF DARBY…….’

I spot this pencil-thin, swarthy fellah in the crowd at the footy a few weeks ago…… Heck, that looks like Philip ‘Darby’ Ketchup, I surmise…….. Haven’t seen him in years…….Didn’t know he was still around………

I decide to track him down. After a few enquiries, visits to a couple of his old haunts, and numerous missed calls, he hears I’m on his ‘hammer’. Finally, the phone rings last week-end. He’s been grocery shopping at Woollies, and is waiting out the front. Can I pick him up ?………..

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I remember Darb from his days as a jockey. It’s more than fifty years ago now, that he got his start in the racing game. That’s an interesting enough yarn in itself, but when we get talking, we go back to a little town in North-West Queensland……….

He was born on Palm Island, a tropical paradise on the Great Barrier Reef, but his parents, Snyder and Phyllis, decided to re-locate to Cloncurry with their tribe of kids.

“When you say a tribe, ‘Darb’, how many were there in the family ?” I ask.  “Well, let’s see…… There’s Pauline, Reynold , Coralie , Florence, Snyder (Jnr), myself, Laurence, Mick, Lorna, Johnny, Ashley, Brian, Marlene, and there were two others who died at birth.”

The most notable change to the family dynamic came when Coralie and her husband, Peter Hill, decided to start a new life down south, at Chiltern.

“They couldn’t get rid of me, though. When they took off in their van, they realised, as they were heading out of Cloncurry, that I was in it. So they took me back; I chased after them, bawling. After three attempts, they relented. Mum signed the papers to allow Pete and Coralie to be my guardians.”

They moved to Wangaratta a little later, and young Philip  went to Champagnat College without threatening to break any scholastic records. He used to sell Chronicles in the main street after school. One night, fate intervened.

“This bloke came out of the Council Club Hotel and bought a paper off me….. Started talking and asked me if I’d be interested in being an apprentice jockey. It was Jimmy Hoysted.”

“He said: ‘I tell you what. Come over and jump on the scales in front of the Post Office. If you weigh more than six stone, I’ll give you a job’. Luckily, I was just over. I didn’t realise it till later, that apparently Pete Hill had spoken to him, and asked Jimmy if he could put me on.”

He’d just turned 15 and knew absolutely nothing about horses. “Jimmy would be on a lead pony beside me, teaching me to stand up in the saddle.”

“He was a real good boss, Jimmy. Kept an eye on me. He said: ‘Well, Philip, I’m gonna nickname you ‘Darby’ (after the great aboriginal jockey, Darby McCarthy).’ And I’ve been Darby ever since.”IMG_3706

He lived with the Hoysted’s and would be up at 4am to feed the horses, then ride trackwork from 6 to 9am. “I loved it,” he says.

In those early days he often tested the patience of the even-tempered Jimmy Hoysted, who would throw his hands in the air whenever his apprentice ‘stuffed up’ a ride. Someone recalls the conversation usually panning out like this: “…….But don’t you remember what the instructions were, Darb?”…. “No, boss.”

Darb was 16 when he rode his first winner.

“It was a handy horse called Francais, owned by Dan McCarthy’s dad Brendan. When it got up everyone treated me like I’d won a Melbourne Cup. I had to sneak a quiet drink to celebrate.”

The winners came along quite regularly in those days, and he was the NEDRA leading apprentice one year. Around 1968-69, Jimmy decided it would be a good way to round off Darb’s education if he spent some time with Mentone trainer, Andy White.

In one of his earlier city races he was on a 200-1 shot called Salience. “It was a tight finish,” he says. “Pat Hyland was on one side of me. I looked across and here was Roy Higgins’ horse looming up on the outside. That flustered me a bit….me battling it out with these champions.”

“Higgins, my hero, said to me: ‘I think you’ve won it’. But Hyland got me by a short half-head.”

Darb copped a bout of the shingles whilst he was in the city. “I was homesick for Wangaratta. It set off the first of my battles with nerves. I couldn’t wait to get home.”

He returned to Wang to finish his apprenticeship, and when he turned 21, began to freelance. It meant travelling around the North-East and Riverina race tracks. He continued to have a bit of success, but sometimes went overboard with the celebrations. “After he’d ridden a winner, he’d go missing for a few days !,” said one of his contemporaries.IMG_3705

An incident during one Corowa Cup, put a dampener on his career.

He was aboard a horse called Corobeau, trained by Martin Moriarty. “Two Wagga jockeys ganged up on me and winded my horse. It faded, to finish third. The stewards weren’t too rapt in my ride and rubbed me out for 12 months for pulling it up. I had no-one to back me up, so copped it on the chin………”

“I was in a pickle. Luckily, Peter and Tony Hill arranged a job for me up at Dartmouth, as a Scraper-Driver.”

He headed back north for a trip when the suspension was over and his license re-instated. “I’d been dreaming how great it’d be to ride a winner in front of the family. There was a meeting on at Mount Isa – about two hours from Cloncurry – and I managed to salute on a 10-1 shot. A couple of the girls got some money on. They were madly waving their tickets at me when I returned to scale. It was a bit of a thrill for ‘em, I think.”

Darb’s memories of his career keep flooding back. Of the 400-odd winners he rode, he reels off a few of the stand-outs, but he’s got a soft spot for the Hal Hoysted-trained Lumarez, which was owned by Vin Gorman, the licensee of the ‘Northo’ at the time.

“I won on him at Wang, then ten days later we won at Benalla. He went on to collect a Jerilderie Cup, too. But I’d lost trust in the NSW system. I didn’t make the trip over.”

We joke about the old phrase that a jockey’s is the only occupation where you have an ambulance trailing you around whilst you’re doing your job.IMG_3691

Darb had his share of falls, including a broken collarbone at Stony Creek, which laid him up in St. Vincent’s hospital for a while. But the worst happened in a barrier trial at Wangaratta in 1982, when his mount hit the running rail.

“I suffered a compound fracture of the leg. Broke my left tibia and fibia. Doctor Wakefield and Mr. Leitl did their best to patch me up. It took a long while to come back, and it knocked me around a fair bit.”

“I didn’t last long in the game after that…..Ended up giving it away about ‘84.”

He’s thankful for Bruce Wakefield’s help with his battles over the years, but says life’s been a roller-coaster ever since.

His son Damien followed in his footsteps as a youngster, and Darb pulls out a photo of him winning his first race at Moruya.IMG_3692
“He got too heavy to ride, but went on to become a Veterinary Chiropractor. I’ve got letters here from the Pony Club in his home town of Southbrook. He used to donate his services to them, and provide prizes for their rally days.”

Unfortunately, Damien waged a battle with alcohol and his liver gave way about six years ago. He was just on 42 when he passed away.

Another daughter, Chantelle, died of breast cancer. His other two boys – Grant and Paul – live with their mum in Townsville. Darb doesn’t see much of them these days.

He enjoys his footy, and was watching the Magpies when I spotted him all those weeks ago. His brother Mick was an emerging talent with Wang in the seventies, and won an O & M Thirds Medal back in 1974.

Darb hasn’t lost his love of the ‘Sport of Kings’. He follows it on the telly and hands me a couple of Wang Turf Club membership brochures that are sitting on his table. “I should join up, I suppose. The races still excite me.”IMG_3694

Trouble is, I don’t feel comfortable in a crowd. I just like to stay in the background these days……….”IMG_3701