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