“FORMER HAWK MAKES HIS MARK ON SYDNEY RACING SCENE……….”

Matthew Smith can almost sniff the smell of the liniment as he describes the pre-match ritual….He’d be nervously flipping the Sherrin around the rooms…..egging on his young team-mates with the usual jibberish………..visualising crashing through packs and booting near-impossible goals………..

He’s re-living his early football days……….It’s a long way from the W.J.Findlay Oval to the leafy surrounds and rustic ambience of Warwick Farm, where he now matches wits with the elite of Sydney racing.

I’ve caught up with him to share the roller-coaster ride of a fascinating sporting journey……..

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Like most sports-mad kids from country Victoria Matt was raised on a diet of Aussie Rules. He went to Galen College and played his early footy with Junior Magpies. Who better to guide him than one of the game’s characters, the late Ron Wales.

“ ‘Walesy’ was more than a coach; he was a father-figure; a terrific bloke…..I was really disappointed I couldn’t make it back to the re-union they held in his honour a couple of years ago,” he says.

One of Matt’s team-mates – and good friends – at Junior Magpies was Robbie Walker. They moved to the Rovers Thirds in the mid-eighties, just as an extraordinarily talented batch of youngsters were being blooded.

“Robbie, Matt Allen, Nick Goodear and Rick Marklew soon graduated to the seniors; then a few others, like Howard Yelland, the Wilson brothers, Paul Grenfell, Scott Williamson, ‘Chuck’ O’Connor and Robbie Hickmott began to make their mark……..”

“In fact, those kids formed the nucleus of the great Rovers teams of the late-80’s and early 90’s……..As you know, some of them became Club legends…….”

Matt was a member of Daryl Smith’s 1985 Thirds premiership team which rolled Wodonga. He took over the captaincy mid-way through the following year, as the Hawks reached another Grand Final, under the coaching of Rex Allen.

“Wodonga belted us early; we held ‘em in the last half, but couldn’t claw the lead back,” he says.

He was named the Rovers’ best player in the six-goal defeat……….It was to be his last game in Brown and Gold.

A healthy number of his team-mates graduated to senior ranks, but one of the more unique pieces of sporting trivia is that in Matthew Smith and Robbie Hickmott the side also produced two Group One-winning racehorse trainers…………

Wangaratta Rovers Thirds Grand Final side 1986. Robbie Hickmott is at left. Matthew Smith is holding the ball (at right)

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By now footy had begun to take a back seat in Matt’s sporting priorities.

His father Chris, a well-known local Fuel Distributor, raced a few horses with prominent trainer Dennis Gray, and was a committeeman and President of Wangaratta Turf Club for several years.

“I started going to meetings around the area with Dad; to places like Corowa, Benalla, Wodonga, Deniliquin……….I loved the atmosphere, and closely studied the horses…..It prompted me to dream of some sort of involvement in racing,” he says.

But firstly, he moved to the city to begin an apprenticeship with OPSM in Chadstone ( also playing a season of Amateur footy with Prahran), before being transferred back in Wangaratta.

“I knew by now though, that my heart was in the racing game, so I teed up a month or so’s work with John Sadler’s training enterprise in Flemington……..He wouldn’t have even known I was there, I reckon, but I loved the experience…….It made me want to pursue a career in the industry…..”

To satisfy his urge he decided to embark on a working holiday, to England and Ireland. Initially, he found a job with Specsavers, but he knew that, if he wanted to satisfy his ambition to become involved with any of the leading British trainers he needed to learn to ride trackwork.

“I had some friends who had eventing horses……Through my association with them I did a fair bit of riding……enough to enable me to ride my share of work……”

“That gave me the confidence to land a job with an Irish Trainer, Pat O’Donnell who was predominantly involved with Jumps horses…….I did a bit of everything for about eight months….In the Yard….. Road-Work…..Putting the horses over the Jumps….that sort of stuff.”

Matt first came across famous Irish Trainer Aidan O’Brien when he sought a job at Ballydoyle, in county Tipperary, regarded as the world’s finest horse-training complex, and owned by Irish magnate John Magnier.

Aidan had recently quit his career as a National Hunt trainer/ rider to become Coolmore’s head trainer.

“He was predominantly a Jumps Trainer at this stage, and shared a Yard at Piltown, in Kilkenny, with his Father-in-Law Joe Crowley. All of the horses were in Aidan’s name, even though he and Joe shared a training partnership.”

“So he sent me up there to assist with breaking-in and educating the young horses for a couple of months.

“But I was grateful to get back to Ballymore. Even though I enjoyed working with the Jumpers at Piltown, I was really more interested in flat racing…..I spent the next two years there. ”

“It was a great experience……Aidan’s a similar age to me; a brilliant operator and couldn’t have been more supportive. I really enjoyed my time in Ireland and he and his wife Anne-Marie were unbelievable……In fact, their daughter Sarah is now doing my Veterinary work at Warwick Farm…..”

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Word-of-mouth had got around that Matt was ready to spread his wings and was keen to study the American racing scene.

“I wanted to take the opportunity to see what they do over there whilst I was overseas…Just to gain some more experience, basically,” he says.

He received a good reference from Ballydoyle and was lucky enough to land a job with Irish-born trainer Niall O’Callaghan who ran a large operation at Churchill Downs, Kentucky.

“Again, I was so fortunate to learn from such a professional as Niall. It was completely different to the Irish and English systems…….”

Matt says he intended to return to Australia at some stage in the near future, but the timing of a phone call he received worked out perfectly:

“Bart Cummings was attending a Yearling Parade at Coolmore’s Home of Racing, at Jerry’s Plains,” he says.

“He just happened to mention to a few people: ‘I’m looking for a Stable Foreman….Do you know anyone who might be appropriate for the job ?’ “

“The boys at Coolmore said: ‘Oh, Matt Smith’s one bloke who could be interested. He’s worked for Ballydoyle and he’s been in America for a couple of years…..You should give him a call….”

“One of his office-staff rang out of the blue one day…I thought it was a mate taking the piss out of me. Then Bart gave me a follow-up call and I accepted the job……It couldn’t have worked out better…”

He spent five years with Bart and says that, like Aidan O’Brien, he couldn’t have found a better boss:

“Hard but fair…….You weren’t there to muck around…..He didn’t readily dish out advice……unless you asked…….He had a great work ethic and a methodical approach……”

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Matt was working with Bart Cummings when he met his now-wife Melissa, who was employed by Wm. Inglis & Sons. They’ve proved a formidable combination.

“She’s amazing…. She’s an experienced horse person and was riding at a very early age……I probably wouldn’t be training if it wasn’t for her….Melissa’s a great support to me in training, as well as being a terrific mum to our two kids…..”

His first winner, after taking the plunge, and obtaining his Trainer’s licence, was Adventurous Rose, which saluted in February 2003.

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The maiden Group 2 win came in 2008, when Krupt won the Todman Stakes. High hopes were held for the colt, but he went amiss shortly after and had to be retired.

He’ll always remember his first Group 1 winner in 2011, when Hurtle Myrtle swept down the middle of the track to win the Myer Classic at Flemington.

But undoubtedly the stable star has been Japanese-bred Fierce Impact, which won five races, for a total of $3.3 million.

His wins included three Group 1’s over 1600 metres – the 2019 Toorak Handicap; the Kennedy Cantala Stakes of 2019; and the 2020 Makybe Diva Stakes…….He was retired to stud in March last year.

Matt says the last two seasons have produced the stable’s best results. Stake-money has totalled $3.9 and $3.5 million respectively.

“We were struggling slightly, prior to 2015/16…….maybe we didn’t have the horses, but when you analyse it the results were slowly improving…..”

“Then we picked up $1 million in prize-money in 15/16 ; and it’s gone up every year since then……… the number of runners has increased in five years, from 155 , to 540 runners last season.”

“Accordingly, it’s only in the last five or so years that I’ve become well-established as a metropolitan trainer,” he explains………“It’s a really tough game, to be honest with you, and you’ve got to stick at it. It doesn’t take much to drop off the perch…..”

His stats, prior to Christmas, showed that the stable had produced 496 winners and 999 placings from 4,208 starts.

“Matt and Melissa bought a property at Luskin Park, in the Lower Hunter Valley, in 2021. It was already set up for spelling and they’ve just started to convert it into a Pre-Training Centre.

As a reminder of his experience with jumps horses in Ireland all those years ago, he had his first runner over Hurdles at Warrnambool last year.

“With a bit of luck I might have a few more jumpers in 2022,” he says.

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One of Matt’s footy contemporaries recently pointed out what a unique achievement it’d be if he happened to emulate the feat of his old Rovers Thirds team-mate ‘Hicky’, and train a Melbourne Cup winner……

“I tell you what” he says “……….If it happens, the first thing I’ll do is bring the Cup back to Wang, plant it on the Bar of the Pinno and celebrate like there’s no tomorrow………”

‘LIFE – WHAT A RIDE……..’

(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.IMG_3587

“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.IMG_3588

“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.IMG_3583

“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.IMG_3585

“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.IMG_3586

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.)IMG_3584