‘This kid will be mixing it with the game’s best’ Roy Higgins enjoys his first big city win on Tauri in the 1958 Provincial Plate. He is pictured with Tauri’s owner Claude Ruwolt, Corowa trainer Jack Freyer and then Victorian premier Henry Bolte.
Richard Freyer holding up a photo which has his father and jockey Roy Higgins in it.
TweetFacebookTHE late great jockey Roy Higgins was a champion in the saddle, winning two Melbourne Cups and countless other top races. His rise to glory started inDeniliquin, where his love of horses was born when he was a boy. In a new biography, Patrick Bartley tells of the hoop’s formative years.
FOR most of his adult life Roy Higgins was known as “the Professor”, partly because of his perfection in the saddle, but mostly due to the legendary character of Professor Henry Higgins in the film My Fair Lady, which was released as (Roy) Higgins was reaching his professional prime in 1964.
But in his school days, Higgins was known as “the Hombre”.
“I got that nickname when I was eight,” recalled Higgins later in life.
“It was given to me by a Deniliquin farmer, Frank Barnes, whose property I used to spend every weekend at.
“I used to help him round up the cows by running on foot, but I finally pestered him into letting me ride a horse to round up the cattle.
“He put me on the biggest horse he had, a 17-hands giant.
“Frank gave it a hit on the rump and the horse took off at 100 miles an hour.
“It jumped several fences and we both ended up in the dam.
“Barnes appeared and said, ‘There’s no doubt about you: you’re a little hombre’.”
For some time Barnes watched Higgins fall off horses and get back on.
Each time he remounted, he would do so a better rider, but it was the way he would shrug off a tumble and then continue to pursue a rabbit or kangaroo that would prompt Barnes to say: “He’s the toughest hombre I’ve ever seen.”
The nickname stuck, and Higgins was soon Hombre at school as well.
It remained his hometown nickname for the next six decades.
In fact, whenever Higgins was riding in Melbourne or later working as a broadcaster at the major races, he would still hear the call ‘Hey, Hombre!’ over the fence and know immediately that it was a friend from home.
Next door to the Higgins’ house were the stables of thoroughbred trainer Jim Watters.
Higgins and his brother had often crept onto his property via a few broken fence panels to retrieve lost footballs, and it was on one of these occasions, when Higgins was around 11 years of age, that he was spotted by the trainer.
Watters offered him somework with horses and the chanceto earn 2 shillings per week by picking up manure and watering the horses.
Higgins was overjoyed at the prospect of being offered a job paying real money.
“During the time (Dad) was away, we used to find it pretty hard to get any pocket money off Mum,” Higgins said.
“I began working in the stables, cleaning out the yards and boxes of a morning to earn pocket money so that I could take my brother to the pictures on a Friday night.
“I think I began working for about 25 or 40 cents a week.”
The small amount of money Roy earned at the stable was useful for his family and for pocket money, but he would have worked for nothing just to be in company with the refined horses he was around.
After a lifetime with thick-boned and shaggy Clydesdales, he was now working with horses that were bred purely for speed.
He was besotted.
As to his first memory of working with a thoroughbred, Higgins affectionately summed it up as: “Magic, magnificent.”
John Higgins thought his son was not up to the challenge of the cut-throat business of horseracing and would be forever a victim of gambling.
With his son’s reputation as a troublemaker as well as his disinterest in schoolwork in mind, he told Watters that Roy was “a waste of time and a bum” and had “no hope of doing anything requiring concentration” when the trainer asked if he would allow the youngster to become an apprentice.
Despite this, Higgins never resented or held ill will towards his father.
In fact, the two appeared to have put any differences aside by the time of an interview in the late ’60s, after Higgins had won yet another jockeys’ premiership.
He said of his father: “Dad and I were always very close.
“He always followed the races on the radio and he was proud of my success.
“Dad rode in a few amateur races as a kid around the Wimmera then switched to draught horses, irrigation work and dams.”
With his father not budging on the matter of consent for Higgins to become a jockey, he and Watters decided to wait until John Higgins was away for work before pleading with his mother to sign the papers for him to be apprenticed to Watters.
She gave in, and Roy always believed, “If it hadn’t been for that weak moment with my mum, I probably would never have become a jockey”.
Jack Styring is a racing legend in Australia, especially around southern NSW and Victoria, for his distinctive race calls and his know-ledge of all things racing.
He called Higgins’ first ever winner as a jockey, and the pair became quite close when Styring was based around the district.
He remembered well Higgins’ rise through the country ranks.
“Higgins was indoctrinated into a tough world, but it was very obvious from the time that he got his licence that he was a jockey of great talent,” Styring said after Higgins’ funeral in 2014.
“He was a very tall jockey but one who compensated for it with his enormous ability when on the horse.
“But most of all, he was a most polite man and terrific company to be with.”
Styring also recalled that racing was very rough in the early 1950s.
In 1957 there was a famous three-horse fall at Albury that claimed the lives of jockeys Doug Barclay and Maurice Gray – contemporaries of Higgins’ whom he admired for their horsemanship and toughness – and also caused injuries to a veteran Melbourne rider called Ivan Spalding.
It was the first time two jockeys had died in one fall in Australia.
They were just two of more than 100 Australian jockeys who died on the track between 1930 and 1960; while through the history of racing in the nation, more than 300 riders have lost their lives due to falls.
Along with Watters, Higgins’ biggest supporter in those days was Corowa trainer Jack Freyer, who was noted as one of the best horsemen in the Riverina.
His son Richard spoke to The Daily Advertiser’s Les Muir after Higgins’ death of the bond between his father and the young rider who would turn out to be the best of them all.
“Dad and Roy were great mates,” Freyer said.
“Roy would have ridden a couple of hundred winners for Dad and twice won the Albury Cup for him on a horse called Glo Whirl in 1965 and then in 1966.”
Freyer said his father saw the ability in Higgins from an early age.
“Roy rode a mare called Tauri to win the Provincial Plate for Dad in Melbourne in 1958,” he said.
“Before the race there had been a lot of press about a claiming apprentice (Higgins) riding the favourite in the Provincial Plate.
“When it came to Dad’s turn at the presentation he shot back (at the critics): ‘Don’t worry about this young fellow because within two years he’ll be mixing it with Scobie Breasley, Ron Hutchinson and George Moore.’
“That’s exactly what happened. Tauri was one of Roy’s earliest winners in Melbourne.”
Jack Freyer had actually also included the great Lester Piggott among the jockeys that Higgins would soon emulate in his speech.
Richard Freyer said Higgins never forgot where he came from.
“Even when he was a top jockey, Roy always remembered people.
“Roy always had a saying: ‘Be nice to people on your way up because you’ll meet the same people on the way down.’
“And that was how Roy was.”
Every Sunday morning around that time, and for many years into the future, Jack Freyer would ring and talk to Higgins, often for an hour or more, about his rides the previous day and what had happened, and what was coming up.
Higgins found he could talk to Freyer about anything to do with racing.
“Dad was just so sure that this kid was going to make it right to the top,” Richard Freyer said.
“He would tell anyone that would listen that Higgins would soon not only get to the top of the tree in Melbourne but would rewrite the record books.
“I don’t think too many people took him too seriously, but they would soon enough.”
Freyer’s father may also have changed history, as it was he who found Higgins hiding away in a boarding house, rethinking his career choices after he was beaten on a well-supported horse in Melbourne during the 1960s.
Jack Styring remembered that one day fellow racecaller Bert Bryant, who enjoyed a massive radio audience at the time, blasted Higgins for his poor ride on a well-fancied horse.
It turned out Bryant had a massive bet on the horse and could not resist the opportunity to publicly blame Higgins for the loss.
Higgins was shattered when he heard what Bryant had said about him and retreated to a nondescript boarding house in the Riverina.
Jack Freyer went looking for him and eventually found him.
Higgins’ confidence was shot and he initially refused to return to race riding.
But Freyer told Higgins that he thought he was as good asany jockey – even the much-renowned and loved rider Scobie Breasley.
He eventually convincedHiggins to return to the track and to prove his critics wrong.
Freyer then provided the jockey with a stream of Melbourne winners out of his own stable.
Other notable racing families around the district soon caught on that Jack Freyer had been right all along about this young jockey, and soon Higgins was riding for all the biggest country stables, including those of the wide-ranging Hoysted family.
Higgins remained forever loyal to Freyer and his family.
He said on his retirement from the saddle that Freyer’s claim to the press that the young Higgins was as good as any senior rider going around gave him a great amount of confidence.
“I was only 16 or 17 at the time and a lot of people laughed.
“But it gave me tremendous encouragement.”
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.