MOST of us remember where we were at a time in our lives when something that shocked the world occurred. Older ones will never forget the day that Man Landed on the Moon or the assassination of President John F Kennedy in Dallas.

For others it might be the tragic car cash in Paris that claimed the life of Princess Diana. Very few – old or young – will ever forget those horrifying images of terrorists flying passenger jets into the Twin Towers in New York.

For those of us who love horse racing have you ever stopped to think how and when you got involved and the circumstances surrounding that first time you had a bet or the first Melbourne Cup you can remember?

For some an experiment with the punt might have been at an early age like that first cigarette in the toilet cubicle at school. For those who enjoyed the exhilaration of watching a winner they had backed charge across the line for the first time it was probably a defining moment.

It set the scene for them to chase that elusive winner for the rest of their lives. For many of us punting on the horses has become a weekly ritual. For others it might just be an event restricted to special occasions, like the Melbourne Cup.

Whatever your choice I sincerely hope that the punt is a leisure pursuit you have grown to enjoy over the years – like I have – and not an addictive habit that has affected the way you and your family live. Having said that you would arguably have to be very un-Australian not to have a bet next Tuesday.

For me that first punting experience was unforgettable. It occurred while I was at boarding school. My best mate’s older brother was a no-nonsense prefect and a champion athlete but he also secretly doubled as the SP bookie at Melbourne Cup time. Not that it was a great secret to some of the teachers who were known to have a bet with him.

I grew up in a family that frowned on gambling. I would tell my friends that my dad was a Captain in the Army. I bent the truth a bit – as he was actually in the Salvation Army. While I was at boarding school he and mum were overseas fighting the war against hunger and poverty in Third World countries. The closest they ever got to punting or punters was distributing copies of The War Cry in the local pub of a Friday night or standing outside the track after the last on a Saturday with a collection box in hand. To think that I would actually be betting on a horse, while still at school, would have horrified them.

On leaving school I pursued a career in newspaper journalism. Don’t ask me why but I blame it on watching too many Superman episodes as a kid – Clark Kent in the telephone box then flying around with Lois Lane under his arm really got to me. Pity I hadn't read the rules of sexual harassment as I got further down the track. No longer was it fair to put the hard word on the barmaid after footy training or try to up end the young female cadet on the carpet in the editor's office after he had retired for the day. Political correctness is such it pays not to even have a good perve these days. 

During my cadetship the ageing editor and owner of the newspaper where I worked in a large country town turned out to be a passionate follower of racing. He was a former war-time correspondent who loved nothing more these many years later than to take his old typewriter to the track every Saturday and cover the local races. We hadn't heard of computers or mobile phones in those days - not to mention race replays or SKY.

I was soon seconded to tag along and chase up the results and betting details for him. I met a lot of wonderful racing characters and it wasn’t long before his passion for a small punt soon rubbed off on me. My love affair with horse racing and the punt had begun.

Unfortunately, it was not greeted too warmly on the home front where my folks had grandiose ideas of me becoming a communications officer for the Salvation Army or the Freedom from Hunger campaign. I remember when Uncle Marty – a big jovial man who played in the Army band – came to join us for Christmas dinner one year. What he didn’t know is that I used to watch him every Sunday night – from the second floor window of the newspaper office where I worked. We would look down on the main street as the Salvation Army band marched proudly along. There was Uncle Marty in the back row beating the big drum with a greyhound bus right up his clacker and the driver high in the irons, slowed to a walk, as he waited impatiently to get back off the main street which led onto the Highway.

That Christmas dinner the topic somehow turned to the evils of gambling and mother – God bless her soul – mentioned how I was now writing stories on horse racing. After a dressing down on the evils of gambling I made the mistake of suggesting that the Salvos didn’t mind taking the last few coins from down on their luck punters as they left the track. It was the last time Uncle Marty ever came to Christmas dinner. Don’t get me wrong I will always admire the great work the Salvos do. They are absolute Saints to a lot of down and out families.

But that little discussion got me to thinking how could the son of two people so hugely religious and so strongly against horse racing and gambling grow to love the punt so much. It wasn’t as though I was falling over drunk and gambling away my pay packet every week or didn’t have any other leisure pursuits. In fact the majority of my spare time in my teenage and early working years was taken up playing sport. Unfortunately that suffered a major setback when I started working in a newspaper as it involved a lot of night and weekend work and I couldn’t train or participate in team sport as often as I wanted.

WELL the mystery of my love affair with horse racing was finally solved early one fateful Sunday morning when I was in my early 20s, half asleep and hungover. I was awoken by a telephone call and the woman on the other end of the line said: “Is that you Godfrey? It’s your mum calling.”

Now I knew it wasn’t mum – she and dad were off on some mission in Africa. My first thought was that this was a practical joke from one of my mates. “I didn’t know they had phone boxes in the jungle,” I replied. She missed the point and went on to ask if I had been to church that morning and if I had been raised a Catholic. “Woo there, hold the phone old girl, what are you talking about?” Minutes later I was to realize that the folks who brought me up and I called ‘mum and dad’ had actually adopted me. Pity they forgot to mention it. On the other end of the telephone line was in fact the person who had given birth to me. She went on to explain that there hadn’t been a day in the 20 years since that she had not thought of me but legislation had only recently been introduced that allowed her to track me down. Pity those same legislators in their wisdom didn’t think to give me a bit of warning of the bombshell that lay ahead.

FROM the half hour conversation that followed – and the numerous intimate chats we subsequently had – I came to believe that I wasn’t the ‘born loser’ that the Salvationists were ready to suggest but in fact I had been born to punt. It turned out my conception was the result of a roll in the hay in a barn behind a bush dance held after a picnic race meeting that my mother had attended with her parents when she was home on holidays from finishing school. She was the daughter of a high profile sheep cocky and prominent member of that political party that I wouldn’t vote for to this day if my life depended on it. Back then, an almost 16-year-old daughter having a baby was frowned upon. But being Catholic, an abortion was out of the question – thank the Lord for that – and I was adopted out to a family that I have to say gave me everything a child could ever want and more love than one could ever imagine. They also - when finally confronted - had an understandable explanation for not telling me about my past.

BUT back to why I feel I was born to be a punter. It turned out that my mum’s parents raced horses – the reason for their attendance at the picnic meeting that fateful weekend. The guy who did the deed was in fact a cowboy and amateur jockey who had come to town to ride at both the rodeo and the races. Her parents no doubt felt it was a pity he didn’t refrain from completing a ‘riding hat-trick’ at least on that occasion. But from my point of view, whatever success that cowboy-cum-jockey enjoyed, I am forever grateful that he at least rode one winner – with all due respects to the problems it created for my mother’s pristine family. For me the phone call on that Sunday morning provided more answers than questions. At last I knew why I loved the races – or convinced myself that I did – a pleasure that I have pursued for my entire life and will continue to do until the day I die.

IT also explains why MELBOURNE CUP week has become my favorite - a never ending puntathon where the primary aim is to back the winner of the big two-miler but generally enjoy the four big meetings at Flemington which for any racing lover has no rival anywhere in the world from Ascot to the Everest and Championships which Sydney has tried so unsuccessfully to upstage it.   

WELL that’s the first part of the introduction to the Godfrey Smith story. Please take the time to read on tomorrow when the Cup and gambling theme will be stepped up a notch. Forgive this self-indulgent start to the series but I thought it was important for you to know something about my past – warts and all – before we get into the business of taking a light-hearted look at the Sport of Kings we love through these columns on letsgohorseracing. In case any of my columns offend anyone, the message is simple: 'If you don't like it, then don't read it!'

Until tomorrow this is GODFREY SMITH saying Good Luck, Good Health, Good Punting and God Bless.


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