‘….A SPORTING FANATIC ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE FENCE…….’

When the lights are dimmed, the last race has been run, and the crowd has dispersed at the Norm Minns Oval on Saturday night, no-one will be more relieved than Graeme Taylor.

The esteemed, storied Wangaratta Carnival; the pride and joy of the town since it’s official birth in 1919, will have been nursed over the line for its long-awaited Centenary staging.

Just as a gnarled veteran stumbles on the last leg of a marathon distance run, the Carnival has survived seemingly mortal wounds which would have put paid to lesser rivals, has risen from the deck, shaken the dust from its ‘silks’, and battled on.

With the reminder of countless former glories coursing through its veins, and the tape within sight, it has, like a true ‘pro’, gathered its equilibrium and dashed to the finish line……..to the acclaim of all concerned……….

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Graeme Taylor’s a local, born and bred. He can re-count the deeds of ‘Patto’, Toleman, Oliver, De Coite, Pate, O’Toole, Dunbar, Waddell, Foster …….and the locals: Clarke, Woods, Grealy, O’Keeffe, Pasquali, Harding, Vincent, Boulton, Petts, Guerin, and countless others.

He can remember clambering to gain a vantage spot, and pushing his way through crowds, which sometimes numbered close to 10,000 on the Monday night of Australia Day week-end. As excitement peaked for the staging of the plum cycling and athletic Finals, he couldn’t help feeling, with a sense of pride, that few other events on the sporting calendar could generate this atmosphere.

As an all-round sporting fanatic he felt drawn to ensure that the Carnival should prosper; and that he might be able to play his part.

That’s how he came to be involved with the Athletic Club in 1973……..

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In his childhood dreams Graeme was Bob Rose, Les Gregory and Sid Patterson all rolled into one.

He visualised having the football on a string, threading bullet-like passes onto the chests of leading team-mates …….Dodging and weaving, and executing feats of brilliance with the dexterity of a ballet-dancer…….And imagining the roar of the crowd rising to a crescendo, as he stormed past a pack of riders in the race for the line…….

In reality, he was destined to be, like most of us, a battler, who was to make his substantial contribution to sport from the other side of the fence……..

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He was a wee tacker when he was caught up in the razzmatazz surrounding Bobby Rose’s arrival in Wangaratta.

He was one of the 20-plus mascots – all wearing the No.1 Brown and Gold guernsey – who used to lead the Rovers onto the ground. He’d sit inside the boundary fence at each game, enthralled, as the Hawks’ will o’ the wisp winger Les ‘Nipper’ Gregory ( his favourite player ), who could turn on a three-penny bit, weaved his magic.

When he was old enough for Junior League footy he stripped with Tigers, and was lucky enough to participate in their 1968 flag, thanks to the presence of a handful of future stars – Steve Norman, Geoff Schwind and Richie Allen.

He recalls playing alongside the Lipshut boys – Philip and Geoff. “They were the sons of the local doctor, Keith, and really talented players. ” I’m not sure how much footy they went on to play, but I know they made their mark in prominent careers as country solicitors,” Graeme says.

“The other memory I have of my Junior League days was our coach, Bob Rowlands. Our eyes were always fixed on ‘Bluey’ when he was delivering his address…….He was a hot-gospellor in the fashion of Barassi and Alan Killigrew……….

Graeme thought of heading out to the Ovens and King League: “But I wasn’t much chop as a player, so I took up umpiring for four years or so, and did a bit of coaching in the Midget League.”

“My full forward was tiny Darren Petersen – who was the Gary Ablett of Midget footy. He came to me one day and said: ‘I can’t play anymore…..I’ve lost my footy boots.’”

“That was disastrous news for the kids. They knew we wouldn’t win if he wasn’t in the side. I then performed my greatest coaching feat. I said: ‘Don’t worry, I guarantee I’ll round up a pair for you……….”

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Cycling has always entranced him.

“I can just sit and watch bike-racing for hours on end……..When we lived in Ryan Avenue I’d jump on the bike and tear down Perry Street…….with the old man following me with a stop-watch.”

“Again, when it came to competing, my enthusiasm far outweighed my ability……..”

“But I’ve been a regular at the Tour Down Under, the Bendigo Madisons, a few Sun Tours and several Austral Wheel Races.”

He was also imbued with a passion for horse-racing at a young age: “I felt no qualms about wagging School whenever the Wangaratta Cup Meeting came around,” he says.”I had to be there.”

He wrote a Racing column in the Chronicle for many years, and originally became involved in horse ownership roughly thirty years ago, with shares in a handy galloper called Arctic Crown. He was also involved in a couple with a good mate, Pat Heffernan.

The buzz of racing has taken Graeme to every State, and both islands of New Zealand; to 10 Darwin Cups, and to outlying places such as Kalgoorlie’s Boulder course.

“It’s a great social thing. For instance, I originally headed over to the Warrnambool Autumn Carnival with Barry and Jeff Clarke and the late Les Brown. There’s now a contingent of 20-odd Wang fellahs who enjoy the experience . It’ll be my 50th Warrnambool trip this year.”

“I think the biggest thrill I’ve had, personally, was when a horse that Barry Clarke and I owned, called King of Dudes, won the Grand National in 2015.”

A fascination for Jumps Racing led Graeme to get to make the acquaintance of Warrnambool trainer Aaron Purcell.

“We’ve had about 20 horses with Aaron, I suppose – mainly from England, France and Germany. It’s been a fantastic run; we must have had 30-odd winners, and 18 have been on Metropolitan tracks….. Our last winner was on Boxing Day…. Takumi, in the last race at Caulfield.”

“Some of those involved in the syndicates we’ve had include Shane Flynn, Bernie McBain, Andy Hamilton, Wendy and Pete Lester, and Rovers footballers Shane Gaston and Luke Peters. Our most recent purchase was an import called Fiji, which is yet to race in Australia .”

Graeme admits that Golf was probably the sport that he adapted to most easily. He took it up in his late teens and has been a regular at Corowa, Howlong, Yarrawonga and Wangaratta over the years, reducing his handicap to single figures. He still plays whenever the opportunity permits………”

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But recently, his principal focus has been on ensuring that the Centenary Carnival runs without a hitch.

47 years have elapsed since he joined the Athletic Club and discovered that his forte’ was Sports Administration.

“Ken Jasper once told me that, in the good old days, there was a waiting list of people seeking to be drafted onto the 20-person Carnival Committee . Ken was nominated by Keith Bradbury OBE, a fellow state National Party politician, who was President at the time. Distinguished local Accountant Frank Ballantine, his off-sider, had been Secretary for 14 years.”

Long-serving officials have been the hallmark of the Club. The inaugural President, Arthur Callander, held office for 26 years. For a good deal of that period ( 21 years ) his Secretary was Matt O’Donohue, a former League footballer who was enticed to the town and stayed.

So solidity has been the name of the game.

When Graeme became involved, he spent countless hours assisting the late, great Norm Minns.

“Norm really taught me all about Ground preparation,” he says. “We were always down there, changing the sprays at all hours of the night, and rolling the Gift track. He was my biggest influence – or inspiration – if you put it that way.”

Graeme was employed as a Draftsman with the old Shire of Oxley ( he was there for 22 years, until it was absorbed by the Wangaratta Rural City), and proved to be the right man for the job when the decision was made to seal the Bike Track.

He did all the design work, drafted the plans, specifications and Contracts with Wilkinson & Brock.

“The total cost of the project was $40,000. We had a interest-free loan from the City Council, but really, the Club was financially sound at that time, because were were attracting crowds of around 20,000 for the three days of the Carnival.”

“Wangaratta’s was the only major dirt track left in Australia. We could see that the only way for the future was to get it sealed. It stood the test of time.”

The pre-cursor to the sealing of the bike track provided one of Graeme’s most vivid memories. It came a year earlier, in the Wheelrace Final when five riders were involved in a spectacular crash. The referee blew the whistle and declared a ‘No-Race. He ordered a re-run without the fallen riders.

Three of them protested. A bitter dispute followed, before they were re-instated and the Wheelrace, was taken out by Lavington’s Greg Featonby almost an hour later …………

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Highlights such as this got Graeme thinking……. “There have been 1,001 incidents over the years, which have involved many of Australia’s sporting greats. Surely it’s worth documenting this rich tapestry of events before they get lost in the passages of time.”

Thus, they have provided the fodder for the excellent booklet, which he’s almost completed : ‘A History of the Wangaratta Sports Carnival – 1919 to 2021’.

It’s been a labour of love, he says, particularly when his research brought up memories such as 1974, when the lights went out in the final lap of the Aces scratch race.

“Bob Whetters, one of the fallen riders, recovered to win the Wheelrace on the Monday night, but not before nine of the 16 riders had been fined for collusive riding.”

“And even though it was before my time, the 1954 Gift Final was one of the most exciting . Chiltern’s Des Shelley dead-heated with Olympic Gold-Medallist, the Jamaican Herb McKenley. Herb was all for splitting the prize-money, but Des opted for a re-run, which he won. And, incidentally, he took out the Wodonga Gift the following week, just pipping McKenley on the line.

“It was always fantastic when a local boy got up in the Gift, or Wheelrace Final. The crowd loved it.”

“Of course, many of Australia’s greatest Wood-Choppers have been attracted to the Carnival, and proved great crowd-pleasers. The Tug-o-War events also provided plenty of highlights back in their heyday.”

It has been an exercise in nostalgia for Graeme, who has decided to bow out at the completion of this Carnival.

He still works part-time with the Murrindindee Shire ( he’s been there since he was with the North East Catchment Authority). And besides, there’s plenty to do in his role as Secretary of the Wangaratta Rovers Football Club.

But at the moment he’s putting the finishing touches to the Carnival booklet, which is expected to be available in early- February.

It’s well worth the read……..

” ‘PUD’, ‘PATTO’, ‘PETTSY’ & PATE………”

Allan James Vincent lives the sedate life these days; nestled in the Swan Street abode that he and Betty have called home for 50 of their 52 years of marriage.

‘Pud’ survived a vigorous bout of prostate cancer five years ago, but thankfully there’ve been no further recurrences. He’s quietly confident – fingers crossed – that he’ll wear out a few more shirts before he heads off to his mortal coil.

He’s a bit of a local legend; likeable and always on for a natter. He’s tickled when I touch on our old Junior League footy days; I was an easily-impressionable 13 year-old and he was one of the South Wanderers’ senior players – fully 16 and a ‘man of the world’.

Us school-kids used to rush down to training at Avian Park, so we wouldn’t miss out on ‘Pud’ regaling us with the latest ribald tales he’d overheard during the morning and afternoon-tea breaks at the Abbattoirs, where he worked as a Slaughterman.

He became a more than handy left-foot winger when he headed out to North Wangaratta; reckons he must have played between 150-200 games during some lean times with the Hawks.

His sporting diet was footy in winter and track cycling in summer. He was fit and fanatical and it’s true to say that, after years of circling the dirt track at the Showgrounds, he knew it like the back of his hand.

It was there, on a magical January night in 1975, that he achieved his finest sporting moment………..

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But hang on, I’m getting ahead of myself here……It’s the Centenary of the Wangaratta Carnival later this month, and ‘Pud’s’ got a bag full of cycling memories. He can recall the myriad of riders who took out the Wheelrace over the decades .

It was the plum cycling event on a program which, for a late-January week-end every year, made Wang the State’s temporary sporting capital.

There was no-one more entertaining, he says, than Sid Patterson, who captivated local crowds for just on 15 years.

’Patto’ had been crowned a dual World champion as both Amateur and Professional, in the years leading up to his first appearance at Wang. His clashes with the brilliant all-rounder Russell Mockridge, whom he also partnered in Madisons, were the stuff of legend.

When ‘Patto’s’ career was winding down in the late sixties, he was asked to reflect on its highlights. He nominated the two ‘Austral’s’ he took out in 1962 and ‘64. But he retained a soft spot for what he rated one of his best rides ever – from scratch – in the Wangaratta Wheelrace of 1954, when he overtook Hec Sutherland in a dramatic finish.

He repeated the dose in 1965, aged 37, having earlier produced a tremendous effort to win the 2-miler. The huge crowd breathed a collective sigh of relief when he qualified for the Wheelrace Final despite blowing a front tyre in the ride to the line in the Semi.

In one of the most spectacular of all Finals, he narrowly defeated Tasmanian ‘wonder-boy’ Graeme Gilmour, then went on to win the Aces 5-Mile scratch race.

It was said that trying to pass the burly 5’11”, 90kg ‘Patto’ was “like coming out from behind a furniture truck into a head wind”.

The crowd idolised him. After the program had been completed of a Saturday night, and most people had wended their way home, he would hold court, beer in hand, under the peppercorn trees, purportedly until the wee hours of the morning.

‘Pud’ Vincent was 14 when he first came across Patterson. He was lining up in a Junior Wheelrace, which the Carnival committee had sanctioned, to promote local talent.

“We were nervously making our way onto the track after a big race had just been completed. Most of the riders were preoccupied with ‘warming’ down, but ‘Patto’ rode over and showed a genuine interest in us.”

“He asked how much air we had in our tyres. ‘About 90 pounds’, I replied. “Nah, that’s a bit dangerous on the sharp corners of this dirt track. I’d take a bit out if I was you……..”

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‘Pud’ recounts some of the other members of the ‘Who’s-Who’ of cycling who converged on the Wangaratta Carnival; like the former Austral winner, Tasmanian Ron Murray, who was just 21 when he outpointed a class field to win the Wheelrace from scratch in 1958.

And champs such as the ex- Sandgroper Barrie Waddell, another great all-rounder, who won five successive Herald-Sun Tours. Waddell had been travelling to Wangaratta since 1955, and finished runner-up to Ramon Russell in 1970, before finally greeting the judge in the ‘71 ‘Blue-Ribbon’ event.

Every Carnival produced its story; like that of Keith Oliver, who blitzed the field throughout the 1969 Carnival, then rode 3 minutes 37.4 , in an outstanding Wheelrace performance. It was believed to be a world-record on a dirt track.

‘Pud’ had a lot of time for local boy Glenn Clarke. “His mate Dean Woods had tremendous natural talent, but ‘Clarkey’ had to work hard for the success he achieved. It was terrific when he won the Wheelrace in front of his home crowd in 1990. He got up by half a wheel from Stephen Pate………..”

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Speaking of Pate, the rough-nut from Kyabram was another great crowd-pleaser, who was adopted by the public, possibly because of his larrikin reputation.

Rik Patterson, Sid’s son, who was once the firebrand’s manager, described one of the many eventful episodes of his career:

“……Stephen Pate had the last of many beers at 3.30 yesterday morning, in the central Japanese city of Maebashi….Later in the day he was the first rider across the line in the world Keiren championship.”

“Most who saw it agreed the Australian’s ride, a 500 metre lead-out against possibly the strongest field ever in a keiren final, was the ride of the championships. Some old-timers from the Australian camp went so far as to say it was the greatest ride they had ever seen.”

It is history now that Pate was the World Champion for only minutes…….First across the line, but disqualified for causing Patrick Da Rocha, the Frenchman, to fall……..”

<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80"><em>“It is history now that Pate was the World Champion for only minutes…..First across the line, but disqualified for causing Patrick Da Rocha, the Frenchman, to fall……..”</em>“It is history now that Pate was the World Champion for only minutes…..First across the line, but disqualified for causing Patrick Da Rocha, the Frenchman, to fall……..”

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Pate had turned pro in 1986, and won his first world sprint title in 1988. Earlier that year he was one of the star attractions at Wangaratta. Riding from 5 metres behind scratch, he turned in a slashing performance to hold off Glenn Clarke in a Wheelrace Final that had everything. It was Clarke’s first Carnival since turning pro.

So began Pate’s love affair with Wangaratta – and its crowds. He finished as the ‘Bridesmaid’ in four Wheelraces…….To Clarke in 1990; to Rick Ploog in ‘91; to the brilliant Shane Kelly in 1998, when he was held out by centimetres in a dramatic finish; whilst Baden Cook staved off his whithering finishing burst to win the 2000 Wheelrace.

He won all four Carnival scratch races in 1993 and ‘96, and cleaned up five in 1998.

This ‘madman on a bike’, was once described as a ‘squat, little, short-legged, freckled guy with unruly ginger hair and quadriceps that were like bags of cement hanging over his knees’.

Surely no-one could match his record for consistency at Wangaratta over such a prolonged period……..

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Ten years before Pate’s Wheelrace success, a young, unheralded local upset some much-vaunted stars to win the 1978 event.

Ian Petts was 21, and had been a pro for just 8 months, following a five-year amateur career.

He came to cycling quite by accident:

“I’d left my old bike lying in the driveway of our Brash Avenue house, and it got mangled when it was run-over. A really keen rider, Terry Sumner, who lived over the road, offered to fix it for me…..Then I had the temerity to ask if he happened to have an old racing frame.”

“He said: ‘I have, and I’ll give it to you if you come down and have a ride with us.’ That got me going…….Terry mentioned that if I kept training, and got into the swing of things, I might make a fair rider.”

Petts enjoyed immediate success as a pro, and hit a good vein of form leading up to the Carnival. He performed solidly at the highly-rated Tasmanian events ( Latrobe and Burnie) over the 1977 Christmas/New Year period, and was confident of his chances at Wangaratta – even though most experts overlooked him.

It was one of the wettest Carnivals in memory and the program had to be delayed at times, to allow the track to dry out.

Despite being handicapped to a mid-to-back mark because of his strong rides in Tassie, Petts won his heat easily enough. He then lined up in a star-studded Final, which included Laurie Venn, Chris Salisbury and Malcolm Hill.

“Local lad Ian Petts stormed home in one of the most sensational wins in Wangaratta Wheelrace, history to defeat the fast-finishing Chris Salisbury……..”, reported the Wangaratta Chronicle.

‘Pettsy’ rode competitively for another nine years, chalking up an impressive list of wins, including the Wagga and Dubbo Wheelraces, a Victorian 1600m Handicap title, and several other country successes. He rates his second placing in Bendigo’s Golden Mile among his favourite memories…..

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‘Pettsy’ says he was inspired by the outstanding performance of ‘Pud’ Vincent three years earlier.

For any local rider, there was a touch of romanticism attached to taking out the Premier event at their home-town Carnival.

‘Pud’ should have been reasonably upbeat about his chances, as he was in the middle of a hot streak of form which lasted for six weeks or more.

He’d won the Echuca Wheelrace on Boxing Day 1974, then two days later saluted in the Hamilton Wheelrace……And with three other 1600m victories in minor events at the Carnival, some good judges were bold enough to suggest that he might cause a major upset.

But his confidence took a battering when he could only finish fifth in his Wheelrace heat. Despite his disappointment, that had enabled him to squeeze into the semi-finals.

“I went home for tea that night, and told Betty I didn’t think I’d bother going back for the evening program. She gave me an old-fashioned serve and told me I’d be letting the people of Wangaratta down; that I should head back and have a decent ‘go’.”

A win in the Semi restored his sagging morale, as did two other rides he had in the lead-up to the Final. “I didn’t have a chance to get nervous,” he says.

Riding from 70m, he positioned himself well, teamed up with the other middle-markers, and set sail for home.

“I heard the commentator, Eddie Bush, say that ex-world champ Gordon Johnson had tacked onto the main bunch, so I made my break with about three-quarters of a lap to go.”

He held on desperately, to go to the line ahead of John Holgate and Paul Swatton, with Johnson finishing in fifth place.

The celebrations at the Vincent home lasted until the wee hours of the morning. His great season was rounded out in the following weeks, with victories in the Burramine and Yarroweyah Wheelraces………….

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POST-SCRIPT:

Forty-five years on, ‘Pud’ occasionally climbs aboard the bike, but says it only for a jaunt around the streets of Wangaratta. His keenest sporting interest these days is in following his grand-daughter Hannah Grady, who has been a key member of the last two Wangaratta Netball Premierships, and has won five Club B & F’s.

Ian Petts, still looking lean and fit, says his day isn’t complete if he doesn’t head off on a solid 30km ride around the back roads. He has combined overseas holidays with following the Tours of France and Italy, and says the Tour of Spain is also on the agenda – if ever Covid-19 permits………..