Money comes and goes, much like good and bad horses. It’s the moments that define a man’s life.
Like the rings of a tree trunk, the lines on the weathered face of 65-year-old horse trainer Mick Burles reveal he’s lived a life; not all of it happily and most of it tough.
We sit outside his ramshackle stables on the edge of Longford, a small village on the edge of Launceston, and morning sun helps to contradict the bite in the air.
[Hope of Tasmania: The Cleaner with trackwork rider Karl Rhodes.]
Hope of Tasmania: The Cleaner with trackwork rider Karl Rhodes.Photo: Mark Jesser
With his $10,000 horse picking at grass in the paddock out the back, he begins to tell me the story of his life.
“Big family. I was one of eight,” he croaks. “We had a little farm on the [Tasman] peninsula. The old man left home when I was born. And nan and mum raised us …”
He chokes back tears and drops his head. For all the gruffness and razor-sharp one-liners heard so far on this morning, there are two topics that cause the toughened horseman to melt.
[The Cleaner’s owners Jimmy Lowish, Paul Burt and Bill Fawdry.]
The Cleaner’s owners Jimmy Lowish, Paul Burt and Bill Fawdry.Photo: Mark Jesser
The first is his upbringing. “That shit gets me sometimes,” he confides.
He reaches for the packet of cigarettes he shouldn’t be smoking.
He suffers from emphysema, which has claimed the lives of most of his family and led to the death of his wife, Lynette, eight years ago. One of Burles’ lungs collapsed about a year ago.
Suggest to him he deserves happiness late in his life, and he shoots back: “Too late, mate. Anyway … it’s all good now.”
The good in his life is the $10,000 horse in the paddock. And that’s the second thing that makes Burles melt.
“I don’t know why,” Burles says of the emotion that grasps him each time he starts talking about The Cleaner. “He’s my best mate.”
The Cleaner won’t start as favourite with the bookmakers in the $3 million WS Cox Plate at Moonee Valley late on Saturday, but he will be in the hearts of thousands.
Partly, it’s because the Moonee Valley clubhas recently been offering half-priced beers if the horse wins.
Mostly, it’s because Burles’ seven-year-old is arguably the toughest horse in the country, always leading from the front, taking on million-dollar horses bred by affluent families and well-heeled owners.
Their thoroughbreds are prepared by mega-stables. This horse is prepared by a pensioner who is also a widower who lives in a demountable shed adjacent to his stables.
Racing is a billion-dollar industry, but the battling Longford trainer reminds us it’s a sport held together at the bottom by the little people.
“It’s not about money,” Burles says. “I’ve never had money my whole friggin’ life so why worry about it now? Money doesn’t worry me at all. I have enough to live on, that’s enough for me. I’ve got my pension. I don’t give a shit.”
Those familiar with The Cleaner fairytale will know what Burles is talking about: how he bought the horse for $10,000 at the Launceston yearling sales; how he couldn’t afford to pay the bill at the end of the month; how he offered the horse to three mates he plays golf with twice a week; and how he’s subsequently missed out on the $850,000 in prizemoney that’s since been won when he could have had every zac of it to himself.
Looking for a retirement horse at the sales, he looked at the bay colt and knew he was The One. Better than that, Burles thought he had a bargain.
“I just liked the stance of this fella,” he says. “A real upstart smart-arse. When I stand at the back of the horse, I like it if I can see their eyes. It means he can see 360 degrees. When he walked, his tail swung like a pendulum. That means he had good balance. I thought I’d have to pay 25 [thousand] for him. I got him for 10. I thought I’d pinched him.”
Then one of his owners took a dozen horses away from Burles, and his cash flow stalled. He couldn’t pay for the yearling, but he’d already broken him in and had him gelded.
After a round of golf, he threw out a line when they were back in the clubhouse. “Does anyone want a share in a galloper?” he said.
Burles says now: “They all jumped at it. Like a dickhead, I didn’t keep any share in it for myself.”
Golf is the only thing Burles does a few hours a week that doesn’t involve his horses. He plays off a handicap of 23.
“Rough – and often,” he cackles when asked how he strikes them. “I can still beat these bastards. At least it gets me away from the horses for a few hours.”
The trio of mates is an eclectic mix.
Bill Fawdry, 73, is a retired businessman whose company makes bricks. He picked me up from Launceston Airport on Monday morning and drove me to Burles’ stables. Would the connections of any other Cox Plate runner do the same?
Jimmy Lowish, 76, is a heavy-set New Zealander who used to play rugby, still adores the All Blacks and was the one connection dispatched to Moonee Valley on Tuesday morning for the barrier draw. They punched the preferred alleys into his fancy new Samsung mobile phone because they knew how nervous he would be when he was called on stage.
The outside gate of 14 was their fourth choice – not the end of the world as others have predicted.
Paul Burt, 51, is a pump engineer who works in the mines. He lost his wife to brain cancer around the same time as Burles lost his partner. Burt’s wife was only 35, and he now looks after their twodaughters.
The night before I met them, Burt and Burles had been at one of Longford’s three pubs, which service a population of about 400.
Burt – distinguished by his neck tattoo and Harley-Davidson belt buckle – was betting $10,000 a hand. On Keno. A week or so earlier, he’d won $300,000. On Keno.
“I broke even last night,” he reports, before adding: “I reach for the stars and if I don’t reach them I grab the moon on the way back down.”
Then Burles pulls out a wad of green $100 notes. “I won $3000,” he grins.
Money goes, but last night it came.
In the past fortnight, Fawdry has seized control of Burles’ mobile phone on the advice of Channel Seven and Longford local Neil Kearney, who could forecast the impending media storm.
There was a fear the runaway interest was going to wear Burles into the dust. This week, the phone has lit up about every five minutes. It’s usually a radio station wanting an interview, or a long-lost friend wanting to wish Burles good luck.
Last week, the buzz wore the trainer down so much he spent a few nights in hospital as he battled a cold.
“Every one of my siblings has died of emphysema or asthma, and only two of them smoked,” he says. “They’ve always told me I’ll get it. I’ve had it for 10 years. The last 12 months have been the worst since one lung shut down. I know what’s coming.”
An electronic vapour cigarette is tucked into the sleeve of his faded blue bomber jacket.
“I’m supposed to smoke this,” he grunts, pointing to it. “But it makes me sick.”
He adds: “But I don’t drink. I was a pisspot when I was young, chasing sheilas.”
When did you last have a drink?
“Well, I did have half a scotch last night.”
# # #
What about the name? Why “The Cleaner”?
Soon after buying the horse, the three owners had to come up with two options each.
“Burty’s got a beautiful young cleaner,” Burles explains. “She was 22 then. He’s got a stairwell, and his office desk is at the bottom of it. He was trying to think of names for this horse. He looked up, and there she was vacuuming the stairs in a mini-skirt. He wasn’t looking at the vacuum cleaner, I can tell you. He wrote down, ‘The Cleaner’.”
Burt refuses to let me publish her name, let alone interview her. “She’s an enigma,” he says. “She’ll be cleaning my place this Saturday, when I’m at the Cox Plate.”
The horse has many names. Burles calls him “Bill”. The racing media has dubbed him “The Longford Lion”, but those who tend to him everyday think he’s a pussycat. He nuzzles up to the trainer like one, not the ironhorse many consider to be the bravest in the country.
The Cleaner showed very little promise in his first five starts, sitting back in the field. Then leading Tasmanian jockey Steve Maskiell pulled Burles aside.
“That horse of yours doesn’t like others being around him,” Maskiell told him. “Get him out there leading on his own. He’ll be a better horse.”
He led at his next start, romped home by more than three lengths at Launceston, and then he was away, dominating the Tasmanian scene.
Burles started loading the horse onto the Spirit of Tasmania, making the 10-hour trip by boat across the Tasman, and he started to win in Melbourne, too.
Last year, the owners decided to take a different tack. If they were to going to keep racing in Melbourne, they should use a Melbourne trainer. Burles admits the decision broke his heart.
The choice was narrowed down to two: the stable of Peter Moody, who prepared Black Caviar, or Robert Smerdon at Caulfield.
“You’ve got an opinion of him higher than what he is,” Moody said, according to Fawdry. “If he comes here it could be two or three weeks and he’ll be heading back to Tasmania.”
And now? Moody is on record saying he wouldn’t race his horse Brambles against The Cleaner, fearing the effect the tough run could have on his horse.
The Cleaner went to Smerdon. He lasted four starts before the horse from the bush missed the country life as much as his old trainer.
There was also a belief Smerdon had worked the horse too hard. He’d lost weight, and didn’t like living in a box when he’d only ever known a paddock, eating the Longford grass.
“He thought he was in jail,” Fawdry says.
He was rushed back to Burles and the paddock at Longford. He put on weight again. He won again. In his last two starts, at the Valley, the toughness was back and it was there for all to see.
The Spirit of Tasmania crashed through seven-metre seas on the way to Melbourne before the Dato Tan Chin Nam Stakes on September 6, so much so it threw Burles out of his bed as he slept.
The Cleaner led from start to finish to win.
In the JRA Cup a month ago, he led again, they took him on when they straightened, but held on to win. That result confirmed the Cox Plate start.
It’s a familiar story. GPS technology reveals why the horse is rarely run down: he’s capable of running the same time in the last 400m of his race as the first.
When the horse returns to the mounting yard, his jockey is usually breathing heavier than a footballer at the fulltime siren. It’s usually taken them a quarter of a lap past the post to pull him up.
“He’s a tough horse, but you have to keep at him,” says Burles. “He expects it. If you stop, he’ll stop.”
Steve Arnold rode So You Think to victory in the 2010 Cox Plate for Bart Cummings, who called that champion horse “perfection on four legs”.
Arnold has ridden The Cleaner in his last two starts, and will ride him again on Saturday. This horse is not perfection, but he’s tough.
“I don’t think I’ve ridden a horse as tough as he is,” Arnold told Burles after winning the Dato Chin Nam. “He won’t give in. From the 800 metres, it’s a brutal gallop.”
“If you get a better ride in the Cox Plate, take it,” Burles told the jockey.
Arnold shook his head.
“I won’t get a better ride than this.”
# # #
The Cleaner will be out to create history in today’s Cox Plate.
It’s just after dawn on Tuesday, and Burles is parked in front of the heater in his tiny demountable home, a cigarette already smoked down to the butt.
“Haven’t slept a wink,” he says.
The breaking news of the day is that The Cleaner has been backed into $10. The suspicion is Burt has unloaded on him, although he later denies leading any massive plunge.
Longford might be a speck on the map, but the locals are proud about punching above their weight.
They will tell you this year’s Inter Dominion winner, Beautide, comes from just up the road. Richard Flanagan, who earlier this month won the Man Booker literary prize in London, is a local boy done good. Cricketer George Bailey grew up on a sheep farm here, too.
The Longford racetrack is the oldest racecourse still in operation in the country, with one meeting a year on New Year’s Day. The Cleaner won the Longford Cup here in 2012, but not even the drunkest man on the front lawn that day could have forecast a Cox Plate start.
By the time The Cleaner steps onto the track for his morning gallop on Tuesday, Burles has drained four cigarettes. The electronic one is nowhere to be seen. He plonks down on the wooden bench seat in the tiny grandstand with stopwatch in hand and starts to cough uncontrollably.
In the early morning light, the horse scorches through its 400 metres in 21.7secs. One of the local trainers quietly says a sectional like that has never been clocked on this track before.
Burles stops coughing and rises to his feet. “If he can’t win the Cox Plate with that, he’ll never win it.”
Should The Cleaner win the Cox Plate, Burles will receive about $180,000 and loose change for his trainer’s cut of the prizemoney. You sense, though, the trainer truly doesn’t care for money, as he claims.
Tasmania’s greatest horse will always be Piping Lane, who won the 1972 Melbourne Cup for George Hanlon in 1972. Sydeston (trained by Bob Hoysted) and Alpha (Cummings) are the only Tasmanian-owned horses to contest the Cox Plate.
Burles has never been to Moonee Valley on Cox Plate day. On Saturday, he becomes the first trainer from the island state to have a starter in the weight-for-age championship coveted by every horseman and woman in the country.
“And that makes me pretty proud,” he says, the emotion coming back into his voice.
Because it’s not about the money. It’s not about being the pensioner trainer taking on the giants of racing.
That shit gets to him sometimes, too.
“They asked me the other day about racing against [Irish trainer] Aidan O’Brien and Gai Waterhouse. I ain’t racin’ them. The f—ing horse is. He’s no better than me because he’s Aidan O’Brien and races horses for the friggin’ queen. I train for these three queens.”
That makes him laugh, and he reaches for another cigarette. Not the electronic one.
“Horses come and go,” he says. “This one just makes it easier to get out of bed in the morning. That’s the story of my life.”
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.