The Ron Hutchinson story (and Aussies abroad)
This year marks the 60th anniversary of Hutchinson’s move to Ireland and his 2,000 Guineas win at his first ride in England.
From teaming with Paddy Prendergast to taking on Lester Piggott and riding Sheikh Mohammed’s first winner. Hutchinson is 93 today.
Ron Hutchinson is the kid from Yarraville, just eight kilometres from the city centre in Melbourne, who’d had no contact with horses before beginning a racing apprenticeship in 1942. He went on to achieve international acclaim amid the golden era of Australian jockeys riding in England, Ireland and across Europe.
Yarraville, in the decade after Hutchinson’s birth in 1927, was a heavily industrialised suburb struggling through the great depression. Now, according to one popular website, it is the fifth “coolest” neighbourhood in the world.
His decision to enter the racing world at nearby Ascot Vale with trainer Claude Goodfellow was, unsurprisingly, partly based on his size (just 157.5cm tall). However, it was also inspired by a young Hutchinson watching the 1938 movie Stablemates and the horseracing newsreels which then preceded many films.
Hutchinson was earning pocket money – selling sweets – at the Sun Theatre, which opened in Yarraville in 1938 and is still operating despite being derelict for some 20 years after the advent of television, where he saw the movie and newsreels featuring the great horses of the time.
The reopening of the theatre in the 1990s, it is said, marked the beginning of a local renaissance.
“The film starred Mickey Rooney and Wallace Beery. Mickey Rooney was a jockey and Wallace a broken down, drunken old vet. They got this horse that was also broken down but they got it going and it was that film that got me thinking about being a jockey. That influenced me a bit.
“I was tiny but all the same, looking back as far as I can remember I was interested in the horses. Ajax and High Caste were the famous horses running at the time and Harold Badger and Billy Duncan were the great jockeys and I was a fan, but that was just through reading the newspapers,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson, living in Mornington near Melbourne, is sharp and lucid and active. Still swims a kilometre most days. Drives to the races when he can – pending Covid-19 restrictions. His excellent recollection of events throughout his career is made all the more plausible and compelling by his occasional admission of “no, I don’t remember the exact details” of such and such.
He remembers much, though, of a career which took him from Australia to Ireland and England where he won the 2,000 Guineas at his first ride in that country. Then on to Asia, where was champion jockey on the Singapore (and then) Malaya circuit, before returning to Australia where he was one of the original investors in Colin Hayes’ Lindsay Park, trained horses and acted as racing manager for an American billionaire.
His life spans the great depression, the second world war, the new millennium and Covid-19. It was when his career began, of course, a very different time. An era of the apprentice jockey’s master vetting everything you did – including prospective girlfriends. International job offers came via telegrams and international flights departed from Essendon airport.
“My dad was a plumber and mum was a housewife,” Hutchinson said, “My father came from Portland and my mother from Yarraville but there was no racing connection at all. It was the furthest thing from their minds. They weren’t interested at all. In fact they thought everyone in racing were all crooks, Jack and Adeline.
“They didn’t want me to be involved in racing. Mum would say, ‘you’ll never be a jockey as long as you’ve got a hole in your backside’ which made me all the more determined.”
Eventually, it seems, his parents came around with the press later reporting that his father, with the help of an uncle, kept a scrapbook of his son’s success.
“When I was at school – the Powell Street State School in Yarraville – I had a woodwork teacher and he was a punter. His name was Arthur Oliver. I remember everyone had to write an essay about what they wanted to do when they grew up and I wrote that I wanted to be a jockey and he knew Claude Goodfellow and he introduced me to him,” Hutchinson said.
Goodfellow, who apparently came from Adelaide to Melbourne 40 years earlier on holiday and stayed, had previously tutored champion jump jockey Laurie Meenan; Ossie Phillips, who won a Melbourne Cup on Wotan (at 100–1 in 1936) and Peter Simonds who rode and trained in Victoria for more than 70 years.
“I’ve never been a gambler but old Claude didn’t mind a bet. He had a couple of big odds winners down the straight at Flemington. He wouldn’t win many races during the year but he had a couple of races he liked to target down the straight.
“The Lawn Handicap in June and the Standish Handicap, on New Year’s Day, were two he fancied and he won straight races with Phildoll, Aware and Dual Gift who were all 100–1 chances I reckon, and he’d back them,” he said.
They weren’t all 100–1 but Hutchinson’s recall is not too far from the mark.
Goodfellow indeed won the 1944 Standish Handicap with Phildoll at double figure odds and the Lawn Handicap in 1946 with Dual Gift who was backed from 100–1 to 20–1 and was the subject of a much publicised dispute after one punter claimed a bookmaker had initially bet 200–1, which the punter took, but was paid at 100–1.
He also won the Railway Highweight, on Melbourne Cup day in 1954, with first-up 50–1 chance Aware – a win which newspapers described as a great surprise and “Goodfellow’s first Flemington success for many years.”
“All the trainers during the war had other work and Claude worked for Angliss Meats in Footscray, tinning sausages for the soldiers. He worked overnight and then came to the track at 4am. They were doing their bit for the war. I started work in the stable on one of the days the Japanese bombed Darwin. I remember that clearly. It was 1942, I’d just turned 14,” he said.
Angliss, established by William Angliss who was later knighted and from 1912 to 1952 was a member of the Legislative Council of Victoria, indeed played a major role in provisioning Allied troops in the Pacific War, but that was after he’d sold to British firm Vesteys for a reported £1.5 million.
That was in 1934 with the Victorian division of Angliss acquired by the family of Lord Sam Vestey who would later become chairman of Cheltenham racecourse. The Vesteys introduced the ‘chain system’ of slaughtering which would invoke violent and bloody union resistance.
The family company also owned the Wave Hill Station in Australia at the time of the Gurindji strike, which ran for nine years from 1966, after 200 Aboriginal Australian workers staged a strike against poor working conditions and pay and land dispossession.
“I’d never ridden a horse when I went to Claude’s,” Hutchinson said, “never had anything to do with them but that wasn’t totally uncommon. I think Geoff Lane was another fella that hadn’t had anything to do with them (horses) before he started and he was very successful.”
Lane was indeed successful. He won the Melbourne jockeys’ premiership, as an apprentice, in 1958-59 and that followed Hutchinson claiming the title the previous season. “Dad didn’t even know how to ride a horse,” Lane’s son Sam said at his 2019 funeral, “but he made a success out of doing it after starting from scratch.”
Hutchinson too started from scratch, or behind scratch, given the circumstances of his start with a small trainer working a second job and operating with a limited number of horses.
“Claude didn’t have many horses in the stable at some stages during the war but I went to live in Ascot Vale in the stables. There were no sheets on the bed, just those old grey blankets, and to learn to ride he sent me up to Glenroy to Bobbie Lewis. I used to ride my bike from Ascot Vale to Glenroy in the morning.
“There wasn’t much there then. It was all paddocks, not many houses and not many cars. The only highlight was going past the old Napier Park dog track just outside Essendon.
“And I’d stay there, with old Bob, for the day. He had an agistment property there in Glenroy which is hard to believe now that it’s part of suburbia. I was there for a few months and he taught me how to ride. I’d work in the agistment place as well and feed the horses and it was like being on probation,” Hutchinson said.
Lewis, who rode four Melbourne Cup winners, had retired at the age of 60 in 1938. The Napier Park Coursing Track, on the site of Strathmore Secondary College on Pascoe Vale Road, operated from 1933 to 1955.
Melbourne’s population was then circa one million and about that number of Australian men and women served in World War II.
Opportunity did not come quickly for Hutchinson. It was not until December 1944 that he was allowed his first race ride. His first winner was Busybody (carrying Carbine’s colours which later adorned Super Impose) – at his 12th ride – at the now defunct Mentone racecourse, about 800 metres from the present Mentone railway station in Melbourne.
The final meeting at Mentone was held in 1948 but it continued to be used for training until 1972, before the land was sold and redeveloped as the Mentone Racecourse housing estate.
During the first eight months of Hutchinson’s career he rode 12 winners and 26 place-getters from 160 mounts which was then described as a “very busy” schedule. By way of contrast, apprentice Will Price had 795 rides in the 2019-20 season.
Success, however, came much quicker. He had only been riding three months when he won the Australian Cup on the grey mare Spectre – trained by Cecil Godby – who was a maiden and didn’t win again. She carried the equivalent of 44.5 kilograms.
“Apprentice R. Hutchinson handled Spectre with excellent judgment, but the same cannot be said of some of the more experienced jockeys who rode in the race,” was the day’s race report.
It was the first of his four Australian Cup (then run at 3500m) wins and first of a multitude of Cup winners (variously reported between 49 and 60) he would ride in Australia.
His 1953 Australian Cup winner Arbroath was a remarkable three-year-old who’d won the St Leger on the Saturday, the Cup on Monday and the Carbine Stakes the following Saturday.
However, in 1945, when Spectre won, Hutchinson – even though he would soon be leading apprentice – remained firmly under Goodfellow’s control.
“I was excited to have won that race and asked Claude if I could go home and see my parents and celebrate. He gave me tuppence and said, ‘go down to the shop and buy the Sporting Globe, go to bed and read about yourself’.
“I remember early on, I forgot to bring some gear to the track one morning and my punishment was being banned from riding at the next meeting. He told me to ring the trainers who’d already booked me and tell them I wouldn’t be riding. He was a good man Claude, but he was very strict.
“Even when I was leading apprentice and doing OK, Claude was the boss. If I was taking a girl out, old Claude would find out where she lived and take her out for a coffee or a tea and come back and tell me what he thought, usually saying ‘she’s no good’.
“He took my wife out and this was all unbeknown to me. He had a property out at Rockbank and Norma lived in Sunshine. He went and picked her up, took her for a drive and came back and told me ‘she’s a good girl.’”
Hutchinson married Norma Gum, of Sunshine, at the Sunshine Presbyterian Church on 23 April 1953. “She had no interest in racing either and nor did her family,” Hutchinson recalled.
Newspapers, at the time, remarkably even ran the story under the headline of “Ron marries a non-bettor”.
It was reported that Miss Gum has “never been on a racecourse or bet on a horse”. She, delightfully, said: “I met Ron at a social gathering – but I will show more interest in his work in future.”
Groomsman was Bill Williamson who held a two win lead over Hutchinson, at the time, in the jockeys’ premiership. Williamson went on to take the title, the second of six premierships over seven seasons – a run interrupted by Jack Purtell in 1954-55 and ended by Hutchinson in 1958-59.
At the time, one racing writer described Hutchinson’s style. “You will notice his style, vigorous, well balanced and close to the horse’s neck and withers to save wind resistance.
“During the past year or two Hutchinson has developed more of a hump in his back while riding. When he was a youngster, his mentor, Claude Goodfellow used to tell him to keep a “Jim Pike” hollow in his back and one day he would be at the top of the tree”.
Soon he was atop that proverbial tree as he and Williamson (and later Purtell) would venture overseas and gain international acclaim, as did so many Australian jockeys, including the great Scobie Breasley who, like Williamson, would become rival but friend.
“At the start, I didn’t have any relationship with Scobie. He was already a famous jockey when I started. When I was an apprentice with old Claude, he used to tell me to go to the races when they were at Flemington and watch the jockeys down the straight six. I’d ride a bike down there and I’d watch old Scobe.
“He was my idol. He was winning all the races and when I decided I wanted to be a jockey I’d watch him even more closely. If he came to the races with a certain tie, I’d try to get the same sort of tie and all that sort of jazz.
“I worshipped old Scobe. I thought he was the greatest and somehow we ended up meeting and he nurtured me along. And as I got older, he’d ask me along to barbecues with his mates and I got pretty friendly with (trainer) Theo Lewis too as I used to ride work for him and finished up riding a lot of winners for Theo,” Hutchinson said.
Lewis won the Victorian trainers’ premiership in 1952-53 and shared it with Fred Hoysted in 1955-56. He died of a heart attack in 1962 at the age of 52. Lewis was inducted into the Australian Racing Hall of Fame in 2012.
Hutchinson also had a strong association with three times Victorian champion trainer Lou Roberton and, by the late 1950s, the young jockey had won most of the major races in Australia but – chiefly inspired by Breasley – travel beckoned.
“Scobie first went over there (England) in 1950 I think but he was back in 1952 and I think he won the Caulfield Cup. But then he returned to England as he preferred the racing and the life there,” Hutchinson said of the man who, indeed, won the Caulfield for a fifth time that year and who would later win four British jockeys’ championships.