(With thanks to guest blogger – Simone Kerwin)
HISTORY is peppered with the stories of young footballers who moved to the ‘big smoke’ to try their luck at the highest level, only to walk away disillusioned by the process or unable to gel with the lifestyle. But there is only one among their number who has gone on to train two Melbourne Cup winners.
The Robert Hickmott story reads like something that might have been dreamed up by a sports-loving youngster mapping out his life… first I’ll play junior footy with my mates, in between helping Dad train horses, then when we’re teenagers, my mates and I will win a senior country footy premiership together; I’ll get noticed by a couple of league clubs, give it a whirl in the AFL, play a bit more footy, then get back into the horses and help guide a couple of them to take out the richest race in the land for a wealthy, generous owner.
Sounds like pie in the sky stuff, but essentially that’s how life has played out for Rob, or Hicky, as he is better known locally. Of course, a life viewed in hindsight can often seem like a fairytale, but even the laidback subject at the heart of this story can appreciate the great fortune and long-lasting memories that have come his way over 49 years.
Rob was born and raised in the Wangaratta district, and developed a passion for racing in his very early years, while helping out around his father John’s stables at Eldorado.
“Dad was a real estate agent at the same time, so we’d get up early and do the horses, then I’d go to school and he’d go to work at about 8am,” he said.
While racing was a passion, Rob described footy as “an outlet”. He enjoyed the chance to spend time with his mates, including the three Wilson brothers, Mick, Joe and Andrew (Waldo), as they made their way through the thirds ranks to play senior football at Tarrawingee.
As Mick Wilson began to follow the path worn by his uncle Mick Nolan, from Tarrawingee to the Wangaratta Rovers, Rob was enticed to join his mate, who had been playing the occasional Sunday game for the Hawks after lining up with Tarra’s Bulldogs on a Saturday.
“Darryl Smith was coaching then; I came in in 1986 and played a couple of games, but we didn’t make the finals in my first year,” he said.
By 1987, word of Rob’s emerging ability had spread to talent scouts in Melbourne. He was invited to train with Hawthorn, but the day before he was due to report to Glenferrie Oval, persuasive Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy and Bombers team manager Kevin Egan knocked on the Hickmotts’ door.
“I can’t remember too much about it – he probably had a cup of tea with the old man out the back, and talked about a bit of money. I was a bit overawed, and I signed up with Essendon; Hawthorn wasn’t very happy,” he said.
But Rob found the world of senior AFL footy an uncomfortable fit: “I missed a lot of training because I was going to the races. I played the first two pre-season games at Essendon, then I got homesick and came straight home”.
“Change is a big thing in life, and it’s something that a lot of country kids don’t adjust to. There would be hundreds of stories like mine. I was talking to Kevin Sheedy one day about how he wanted to put it in the curriculum – dealing with change in all aspects of life,” Rob said.
“I went back and did a pre-season (with Essendon) in 1989, but I got de-listed because I wasn’t really putting in. Then Melbourne said if I continued to do everything right, they’d pick me up in the draft, so I went to Tasmania and played under an assumed name,” he said.
Rob was indeed drafted by the Demons, and played two senior games for the club in 1990, debuting against St Kilda in round 13, and playing the following week against North Melbourne.
“They were terrific at Melbourne, with blokes like Jim Stynes, Garry Lyon and Rod Grinter on the list. Then I busted my finger and it got infected, just as I was starting to get my head around things,” he said.
Though he remained on the Demons’ list in season 1991, Rob did not play another senior match. Footy on the big stage had not panned out as he may have hoped. However, Rob said some of his fondest sporting memories were borne from his Ovens and Murray career.
He describes the Rovers’ 1988 premiership win over Lavington as “probably my biggest thrill in football”. Coached by Laurie Burt, and known as ‘Burt’s Babes’, the ’88 Hawks had an average age of 21 and were in essence a bunch of local kids who just loved hanging around together.
“I will never forget the moment when that siren went, just the elation. You couldn’t move on the ground, and the after- party went on for the next two or three weeks,” Rob said.
He was named among the best players in the 26 point victory over the Blues, alongside a host of others who have become Rovers royalty – coach Burt, Robbie Walker, Mick Caruso, Scott Williamson, Mick and Joe Wilson, and Rick Marklew. After leaving Melbourne, Rob returned to the Rovers and played in a second premiership under Burt in 1991.
“It’s a great footy club. They were lucky with the blokes they got together in that era, including one of the best country footballers ever in Robbie Walker; it’s one of the best recruiting efforts you’ll ever see,” he said.
Time with Myrtleford and Wodonga, including playing in a grand final for the Bulldogs against his Rovers mates in ’94, was next on the agenda for Rob. He went back to the Rovers in 1996, before following his father to Murray Bridge in South Australia.
“I went to Dad’s and worked for him and played over there, but I broke my leg in an elimination final, then I went to Queensland and played four or five games at Southport, where there was this young forward coming up through the ranks named Nick Riewoldt,” he said.
Rob played his last game of footy at the age of 29, but after his stint at Murray Bridge, he realised his future lay in the racing game. He took up a role at Caulfield with Colin Little, where he met his future wife Michelle, a track rider, and also worked with Tony Vasil and Alan Bailey, before moving to Michelle’s native Queensland to work for John Wallace. The couple spent four years on the Gold Coast, and welcomed son Josh, now 15 (who was followed five years later by daughter Sharnia).
Then Rob’s mate, Lincoln Curr, helped him secure a role with Team Williams, working under Graeme Rogerson at Flemington, until operations shifted to Macedon Lodge at Mount Macedon five years later. He is full of praise for Lloyd Williams, the high- profile boss he helped to win two Melbourne Cups, with Green Moon in 2012, and Almandin in 2016.
“His passion for racing is amazing. Obviously as the casinos were up and running and he was starting to get out of that, he had a more hands-on approach, and contact with him went from almost daily to two or three times a day,” he said.
“When we moved out to Macedon, it was different again, because he had a property across the road, so we’d speak five or six times a day. Over the years, you build up a rapport with someone, you understand them and vice versa; we got on well.
“His attention to detail is second to none; his approach was always, ‘you won’t trip over a boulder, but you might trip over a stone’. It’s taking care of the little things that he prides himself on, things we wouldn’t think of, he points out to you. He’s a very generous man, and really cares for people.”
Rob said he struggled to understand the fuss that was often made of the fact that while he was credited with training the Cup winners, Lloyd Williams and his son Nick were spokesmen for the team.
“It’s Lloyd’s business, so the spokesperson was always Nick or Lloyd – that’s their model. The press used to get their noses out of joint because they couldn’t talk to me, but I was happy with it that way. It’s obviously a by-product of the racing game, but I’ve never been a person who thrives on that sort of stuff,” he said.
Rather, Rob enjoyed seeing the smiles on the faces of his family as Team Williams enjoyed the success they knew he had helped achieve.
“That’s the most gratifying thing out of it – it’s more for the families, the chance for the kids to take the cup to school and get bragging rights,” he said.
“Because I was working solely for Macedon Lodge, it was like a team environment, so it was a bit like a footy team; the only difference is you are back to work the next day with racing. Lloyd is a big one for planning, so there wasn’t as much time to soak it in.”
He does have some great memories to add to his collection, though.
“Green Moon was the first one. He’d been bumped around in the Cox Plate and came out of that battered and bruised, so he had a very light 10 days leading into the Cup. That was the key to winning. The way the race was run suited him to a tee – he had a slow start, but came home strong. When he hit the front, it was amazing, just a great feeling,” he said.
“With Almandin, a lot of work and time went into him off a tendon rehab, so it was probably more gratifying in that regard. To get him back into form was a feather in everyone’s cap.”
Rob is hoping for more of those feelings in the years ahead, as he branches out on his own after departing the Williams stable late in 2017.
“Towards the end, I was getting a bit stale, and my passion started to waver. I needed some diversity to develop my own style. I thought it was the right time to leave. I’m looking forward to the next chapter,” he said.
Though his plans for the future are “still up in the air”, Rob is keen to secure boxes at Flemington for his stable, and continue with the success he experienced with the Williams family.
“I know how to produce a winner, as long as I get the right quality of horses. We’re going through that process now, and it’s exciting. It would be nice to secure a few from overseas, and target the Melbourne and Caulfield Cups this year,” he said.
There will also be plenty of time for family. Josh, a rising star in the Calder Cannons’ under 16 Barry Davis squad, is showing interest in the family business, though Rob jokes, “I told him he’ll be picking up sh.. to start with.” In fact, Josh’s studies at Salesian College may be developing a homegrown media manager, so Rob can avoid the part of the racing game he doesn’t enjoy.
While Sharnia enjoys the race day aspect, taking her friends along for a day out, she is exhibiting talent as a soccer and netball player, singer and guitarist. And Rob said the benefits of having Michelle at his side are huge.
“It’s handy to have someone who understands the rigmarole, and how demanding the job can be,” he said.
“She stopped riding when she was pregnant with Josh – she was passionate about riding, but it just wasn’t worth (the risk of injury to continue). She has a dog- grooming business now, and has also trained to be a shiatsu massage therapist; to get her head around what she has to do that has been amazing. It’s amazing how people evolve.”
Indeed. And the evolution of Robert Hickmott has been a fascinating journey, still no doubt with plenty of twists and turns ahead………..
( ‘Life – What a Ride’ appeared in the Autumn Edition on North-East Living. The Spring Edition is on the bookshelves next week.)