George Hope is 97. Alan Simpson is 91. They live independently but nearby in Melbourne’s south-east and both had many a story to tell when I was privileged to catch up with them for a chat last month.
We were joined by Ron Hutchinson, 93, who admirably (and happily) spent most of the afternoon deferring to his former riding colleagues, although neither could match his deeds locally and internationally.
Nonetheless both Hope and Simpson have their place in racing’s great history. Hope, the patriarch of a successful racing family and World War II veteran, rode with distinction against many of the men who joined Hutchinson in conquering the world and enjoyed some international success of his own.
Simpson, despite never challenging for any jockey’s premiership in his home state Victoria, won a Classic in Ireland and – at one stage – had the likes of Paddy Pendergast and John Oxx senior clamouring for his services. He rode successfully in Singapore, rode winners over the jumps and forged a good career despite a difficult upbringing after his father never quite recovered from his war service.
Simpson rode for Hope when the latter turned to training and both had ridden for trainer Charlie Waymouth and larger-than-life owner Felipe Ysmael who was variously dubbed the Filipino Fireball, the Filipino Flash or simply “The Babe” and he was undoubtedly one of the biggest punters ever to attack betting rings in Australia.
This story is not intended to focus on Ysmael but his part in the lives of Hope, especially, and Simpson.
Ian Ibbett, at kingsoftheturf.com, ably details much of the Ysmael story. “Ysmael was born into one of the wealthiest, elite families in the Philippines and a crony of the corrupt Philippino President, Ferdinand Marcos.
“In the 1965 presidential elections in the Philippines, Felipe Ysmael was said to have donated millions of pesos to the Marcos’ campaign, and, as a reward, was given huge forest concessions in the provinces, 50,000 hectares in Quirino and close to 100,000 hectares in Palawan. Nor did the favours from the Malacanang Palace end there, for Ysmael was able to borrow US$13.5 million from foreign banks by using as collateral the vast concessions he had received from Marcos that were guaranteed by the Development Bank of the Philippines”.
Ysmael, well armed with cash and well disposed to orchestrating gambling plunges, came to Melbourne in 1965 ostensibly to expand his businesses but also to survey the racing and betting landscape.
He appointed bloodstock agent Frank Ford as his Australian racing manager and it was on Ford’s recommendation that Charlie Waymouth and Grahame Heagney became his principal trainers after Ysmael began to buy yearlings in Australia in 1967.
At the Sydney Easter sales they bought Lot 104, a colt by Pipe Of Peace (Supreme Court) from April Wonder (Newtown Wonder), for $13,650. A then emerging Les Bridge had trained April Wonder to multiple stakes wins at two. The colt would be named Always There and would win the 1968 Victoria Derby soon after being arguably a good-thing-beaten in the AJC Derby (then run in the spring).
Earlier that year, Ysmael and Waymouth landed a huge plunge, estimated at $250,000 (which would then have bought at least ten houses), when Red Diver (Red Gauntlet), under Kevin Mitchell, won the Matthew Flinders Handicap at Moonee Valley. Waymouth would later say Red Diver had more ability than his champion Blue Diamond Stakes-winning two-year-old Rancher (Brave Lad), but wasn’t sound.
At the same track, in December, and just seven weeks after the Derby win the Fireball was extinguished. Ysmael, Waymouth and jockey Hope (and commission agent Harry Howse) were outed for two years after being charged with not allowing the favourite Follow Me (Coronation Boy) to run on its merits.
Ibbett wrote that “Victorian racing authorities had been monitoring Ysmael’s betting and racing activities with increasing misgivings”. Fifty years on, Hope maintains his innocence and says that authorities “were out to get him (Ysmael). They just didn’t like him”.
Many in the racing industry felt the penalties were unjust. At the time, Sydney racing journalist Pat Farrell, wrote in the Daily Mirror “… we’ve reached a notable milestone in racing administration when a man can offer uncontested proof that he bet $13,000 on his own horse and still be charged as a party to the horse being pulled up.”
Later, other journalists called for Ysmael to be welcomed back to racing – and indeed he did return in 1971 after his disqualification ended and after he secured a diplomatic posting – of sorts – to Australia which was not happily endorsed by the Australian government. He had good success, second time around, with Grahame Heagney but kept a lower profile.
In 1969 Ysmael’s horses – well, a handful of them – were dispersed at Wright Stephenson’s in Melbourne. Most, given high reserves, were passed in but those sold included the AJC Derby winner Divide And Rule (Alcimedes) for $35,000, knocked down to trainer Dick Roden who’d also trained for Ysmael. Always There, passed-in, raced on in America but won only one of his 14 starts in that country.
Hope, as it turned out, was caught in the crossfire of those taking aim at Ysmael but took to in his stride as more resilient men of that time tended to do. “I had ridden plenty of winners for him and Charlie (Waymouth) so it wasn’t all bad but I should never have been rubbed out. I’d been riding for 30 years and never before been questioned over a ride.
“They had a wrap on that horse Follow Me but I told them he wasn’t much good and he could be a bugger in the barriers. Afterwards there were news crews parked outside the house. My wife Peggy went out and told them to nick off. After the ban, I just did whatever I could to survive,” he said.
Simpson was effectively Ysmael’s number two jockey in Victoria. “I rode 18 winners for him in the bush. He wasn’t around for a long time but he was a very big deal for a while,” Simpson said.
Hope says he got Simpson the job. “Charlie, at first, said don’t get him (Simpson), he’s a member of the black hand gang,” Hope said. “Only a junior member,” Simpson quipped, with a smile, but without elaboration, as is his wont.
Some mystery surrounds references to the black hand gang in Melbourne. It almost certainly had nothing to do with the world-wide groups, of the same handle, which specialised in kidnapping and smuggling but may have referred to the exploits of a small group of Epsom jockeys and trainers in betting coups led by punter Harry Slamen.
Hope and Simpson, who endured a few “unjust holidays” of his own, rolled with the punches. They’d done so right from the start. During enforced absences from the track, Simpson variously laboured or worked in furniture making and printing factories. Hope found work at the nearby Kingston Heath and Woodlands Golf Clubs.
Add in a few controversial protest decisions and it’s fair to say that neither Simpson nor Hope exchanged Christmas cards with the chief stewards of their time.
Simpson still gets emotional recalling his father’s battle with alcoholism after the War; harrowing visits to the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital and his time in an orphanage before he and his siblings were adopted by the one family. Hope was raised by his grandparents and, even now, wonders why. “I honestly don’t know why that was the case,” he said.
Hope’s talents in the saddle were apparent early and, by the age of 18, had won at each of Melbourne’s metropolitan courses. He also had dancing and musical talent, perhaps via his grandmother, and performed at Melbourne’s iconic Tivoli theatre in Bourke Street.
“Nana was a tap-dancer. Grandpa was a jockey for a time and stabled all the horses which pulled the days and carriages around Melbourne at the time so I was around horses very young,” he said.
His riding career began with Fred Hoysted in Mentone after an approach to Lou Roberton was rejected. “I sat in the gutter all day outside Roberton’s house, waiting for him to come. I got a polite “no” with Mr Robertson telling me “he had enough apprentices’. I stayed, that night, with an aunty in Mentone and then contacted old Father (Fred) Hoysted who gave me a chance,” Hope said.
Robertson and Hoysted were the powerhouse trainers of the time. Hoysted was champion trainer in Victoria 15 times, including two ties. Robertson claimed the title three times.
“Old Father Hoysted was the best trainer in Melbourne. He told me “if you want to learn something, just watch me”. He could do anything. When the vet S. R. Woods got crook, old Father took time off and did all his veterinary work.
“I started there with Meggsy Elkington and Barney Dowie and old Father’s sons Bonnie and Bobby. We used to give Bonnie our money and he’d bet which didn’t always work out that well,” Hope said.
Hope’s fledgling career was cut short at 18 when he received a letter demanding that he report for military service at the Parkdale Football Club oval.
“Old Father said “don’t worry about it Georgie, they won’t take you” but they did. They measured you and grabbed you by the testicles and made you cough. “You’re ok,” they said. I then had to report to Caulfield racecourse and slept in the grandstand that night.
“I’d ridden winners for a man named Sir Harold Luxton and old Father said he’ll get you out but I never saw Father or Luxton for four years,” Hope said. The Luxtons would later sell their Dandenong stud farm The Lodge to Ysmael.
Hope served in New Guinea for 23 months without leave. “I was lucky that I didn’t see a lot of action. Some but not a lot. We were in a watercraft unit which ferried troops and provisions. If the Japs (Japanese) heard you, you’d come under tracer fire. I can tell you there were plenty of blokes wanting to get below to check the engine.
“I finished up at Jacquinot Bay where we had charge of 4000 Japanese prisoners and soon after we arrived there, I remember a Lieutenant-Colonel arriving to tell us that the War was over. Often, I’d thought I’d never see Australia again. I met a lot of good blokes over there. Some got back, some didn’t,” he said.
Post-War, he spent a good part of his career in Adelaide where he rode numerous winners for Jim Cummings, father of Bart; rode the mighty Matrice (Masthead) who later sired Manihi who, in turn, sired Manikato and notched a string of wins aboard Bonny Dash whose victories included the 1953 Christmas Handicap.
On that occasion, Bonny Dash had only 43.5 kilograms and Tommy Unkovitch picked up the ride. Unkovitch, like Ron Hutchinson, had sold lollies at Yarraville’s Sun Theatre as a kid.
Hope rode the unplaced St Comedy in a race which saw South Australia’s international superstars Pat Glennon, Billy Pyers and Des Coleman also compete. Newspaper reports, at the time, credited Hope with “making Bonny Dash the good horse he’s become”.
Hope later rode in Singapore. “Bill Williamson got a job there but didn’t want to take it because he was going to Ireland. I was going OK at home but Bill insisted I should take the job and I did when they offered me the same retainer,” he said.
Hope’s family has maintained the racing tradition. His son Lee has trained with great success, individually and later in partnership with his son Shannon while the exploits of George’s great grand-daughter Tahlia (daughter of Shannon) and Lee’s step-son Blake Shinn have given him good reason to continue to tune into the races.
Lee was champion apprentice in Melbourne in 1967-68 while his brother Billy was also a talented rider. Lee’s uncle (his mother Peggy’s brother) was Billy Lee, a jumps jockey who was killed in a fall at Moonee Valley and who’d worked for Harry Telford and ridden Phar Lap (Night Raid). George also has a daughter Sherry.
On 1 November, 2015, George was on-course with Lee and Shannon to see Tahlia ride her first winner – Danvito at Kilmore.
He is able to fondly recall a career which saw him ride work with Scobie Breasley and Harold Badger. “Both great judges,” he said. He remembers well riding against other greats including Ashley Reed, Ted Bartle, Billy Cook and Darby Munro. “Munro would only hit them two or three times but, by gees, they moved when he did,” he said.
Simpson’s career was undoubtedly highlighted by his win in the 1971 Irish St Leger aboard Parnell. “I was never a great jockey but I did OK,” he says. Better than OK for a time in Ireland where he was far greater feted than he’d ever been in Australia.
He ventured there – on his first trip outside Australia – at the instigation of a prominent Melbourne owner who had horses with Jack Besanko. The owner’s name escaped Simpson the day we chatted but Besanko’s son and current trainer Ray told me “it almost certainly would have been Lee McKeen who had contacts everywhere”.
His contract was with Parnell’s trainer Stephen Quirke and he also rode for Paddy Prendergast and his Australian born son Kevin whom Simpson says “took a shine to me”.
“Stephen Quirke was a terrific bloke, couldn’t get a nicer bloke and Kevin was a good fella. Kevin said to me, “I hear you’re a good golfer, what credentials have you got?”. I said I’ve beaten every Irishman I’ve ever played.
“After Stephen got crook and gave up training, Kevin told me that his old man Paddy wanted to give me a job but he said “I can’t guarantee you’ll get everything he promises you,” Simpson said.
After two years he returned to Melbourne but then ventured back to Ireland after he was approached by John Oxx senior to ride for him but that fizzled out after a virus ripped through the stable and Simpson headed home again. Who knows what might have been had he stayed although that’s not something he dwells upon?
By his own admission, the classic win aboard Parnell was remarkably fortuitous but, nevertheless, he’s recorded as an Irish St Leger winning jockey alongside illustrious compatriots Togo Johnstone, Bill Williamson, Bill Elliott and Garnet Bougoure. Two years later his mate from Melbourne, Paul Jarman added his name as did Ron Quinton in 1989.
“Parnell was a very good horse who could stay all day. He bolted in the St Leger. That was after the favourite, who was threes-on (1/3) and trained by Vincent O’Brien and ridden by Johnny Roe, kept rearing up at the start and finally banged his head and dropped dead. I couldn’t believe it,” Simpson said.
Jarman won on Conor Pass for Kevin Pendergast while Quinton scored aboard Petite Ille for John Oxx whose father had trained Bill Williamson’s 1960 and 1964 winners.
Simpson ventured to Singapore after his trek to Ireland. “Garnie Bougoure teed it up. Jimmy Johnson was riding there but wanted to come home and I picked up some rides for the leading local trainer Teh Choon Beng. The first two I rode for him, at Penang, both won. I kept riding winners and stayed there for about three years,” he said. (Three times Melbourne Cup winner Johnson died on 25 February).
“Did you make money there?,” I asked. “Oh, we can’t talk about that, can we George?,” said Simpson. And that was a recurring theme of the afternoon’s chat. Simpson is staunch. He wasn’t giving anything or anyone up even after 50 or more years which, in part, probably explains why he is so well liked.
He did concede he may have given the odd horse a quiet ride. “That was just the way it worked especially for jockeys like me. If you didn’t do as you were told, you just didn’t get any rides,” he said. As rides dried up and his weight increased, Simpson turned to the jumps and rode plenty of winners – initially in Tasmania which he’d travel to by boat.
Simpson and Hope rode at a time when prize money was poor – hence the lure to ride overseas – and when the punt was the means of survival for so many.
An apprenticeship then was in a tough school. “I started with Hughie Guilfoyle in Mentone and he was the hardest boss in the world. After I’d had 150 rides, I discovered there was nothing in the bank; he’d taken the lot,” Simpson said.
Simpson bowed out a winner, retiring after his last ride was successful. “John Meagher trained it, Pat Carey saddled it up. Johnny said to me “I don’t want you to retire unless you go out on a winner and I’ve got a couple ready to go”. It won and I had a good bet on it,” Simpson.
Carey recalls the horse’s name was Prince Of Crete and the venue Stony Creek. “Yes, I saddled it up; ably assisted by David Charles. It was great for “Simmo” who must have been in his 50’s then. He’s a terrific bloke and he was very much an underrated rider,” Carey said.
That followed a stint riding work for Jim Moloney after Pat Hyland was badly injured in a fall in Adelaide in 1984.
Simpson’s stories could fill a book and are too numerous to detail here. They include hiding a very generous “sling” between the roof and ceiling of his house and then being unable to find it; and being scared stiff when hearing an explosion while at the gates riding in the Ulster Derby.
That bet, on his last winner, was at least one thing Simpson, who has two children Shane and Tracey, happily revealed. Although he didn’t say how much!
POSTSCRIPT: My thanks to John Dow for arranging the meeting with Simpson and Hope at Hope’s home in Dingley where he’s lived for “about” 50 years. “Don’t ask me about dates. I know how old I am because I get told every day but I can’t remember a lot of dates,” Hope said.