A DISEASE cured only by death”— that was the way my great-grandmother described racing.

She was known for her acerbic sense of humour but, in this case, she was near the mark. Racing is a passion for some people and a job for others. No prizes for guessing which of these two groups has the more enduring success.

But with passion for anything there comes a price.

The total commitment in any sport requires single-minded application often called “the hunger” and, in the process, it can lead to bewilderment and isolation from those outside this small circle.

I started on my journey as a child of eight or 10 years of age. My father would take me on Sunday morning visits to trainers such as Jack Green and Tommy Hill, where his relaxation would take the shape of 16-hand thoroughbreds.

I was interested and my interest was heightened by actually touching these animals, a small bonus for a child born in the Sydney suburbs. My grandfather would often come, as well.

I suspect his only interest was that he was married to the daughter of the legendary W.H. (“Midget”) McLachlan, courtesy of a shipboard romance for the Connecticut-born Yale graduate.

From there it was a case of frequent visits to the races with my father, which was a Saturday afternoon staple.

And when school sport interfered with that, my obliging mother would make sure my 50c daily double was duly placed, the result known only by watching the replays on the Saturday evening news. How times have changed.


On school holidays, I would make the trip to Cootamundra for a job at Joe Manning’s Woodburn Farm, where he spelled and pre-trained horses for T.J. Smith.

I learnt to ride, in a fashion, on a grey gelding named Zeb and mixed up the horse duties with some lamb marking and fox hunting for my keep. But it wasn’t until I left school that the “disease” developed.

My parents had bought a farm at Yass and, apart from a reasonably sized stud operation of two or three stallions, we kept quite a few horses in training for the local racing circuit.

Riding trackwork was mandatory each day before I’d drive to the Australian National University in the ACT to try to complete a science degree.

I lasted only a year, a time mostly filled with plenty of pool and beers in the union bar. The “disease” made sure university would be a brief interlude in my life.

Next came a stint as a rookie trainer in Sydney, accompanied by my trusty sidekick and brother Anthony.

A year of living in a council flat in Liverpool and training out of a stable-come-chicken yard didn’t do much for our careers. Not many winners, but a lot of fun and learning the caper all the time, mainly wasting other people’s money.

We soon decided to move our modest stable to Melbourne. My feelings about this would be somewhat akin to Neil Armstrong’s thoughts about walking to the moon.

The Flemington track manager, Ron King, made our path a bit easier. A gifted and understanding man, perhaps he saw a glimmer of hope in the four country boys — Anthony, Richard, Michael and me — who had no idea what to expect, but were willing to give it a go.

And so to abbreviate 21-odd years in Melbourne — marriage, children and mortgages tend to concentrate the mind wonderfully and the four of us worked away at making a success of a business that is legendary for its failures and ultimate despair.

Moves from Flemington to Caulfield and eventually to Rye came and went. I once joked that my daughters had moved school so often that they never got two uniforms from the same one.

Life was punctuated by increasing successes on the track, all the time dealing with myriad owners good and bad, expectation and more success and generally taking the disappointments on the chin in public, but privately seething and wishing to right the perceived wrong.

Pressure, I’ve always felt, is something you bring on yourself, but the pressure of such a big operation was ever present and inescapable. And when the successes of Makybe Diva and Miss Andretti came along, I felt we had probably scaled Everest.

The view from those lofty heights is beautiful and intoxicating but it doesn’t last long and the descent is arduous. I felt the pain of training poor horses after that era — the early starts, the long days, all the problems and yet no joy.

It affected me more than I thought it would. It’s all right saying: “Oh well just suck it up”, but I did a lot of that day-in and day-out, month after month, even year after year.

Still, a steady stream of winners but apart from Speed Gifted’s Metropolitan win in that time, the Group1 horses just weren’t there. My marriage was over and that bought on bouts of severe depression. I turned to the bottle for some kind of answer.

As we all know, both of these are serious matters and needed to be dealt with, and I worked away at trying to fix both.

The decision to hand over the reins to Anthony seemed like the right move. He had always been in a support role and was showing genuine signs of wanting to step up to the plate.

He is a good horseman in his own right, if a bit hard to relate to most of the time. I helped out at Markdel for a while, trying to sort out a life that had clearly reached a fork in the road.

The Greeks have a term for it — “hubris” — but it doesn’t adequately explain how every individual thinks or feels. The fall from great heights is always accompanied by great lows.

I feel, sometimes, it is a natural progression of one’s life, a turn in the course of events. The river never runs in a straight line all the time and the snags are often hidden under the water. So my boat sailed on.

I did a stint in the UK preparing Lucas Cranach for both cups and it is a piece of work I count among some of my best. If a hoof injury hadn’t seriously affected his preparation, I feel he would have won one or both of the big races.

Then came my partnership with Graeme Rogerson. The long and the short of it is we were short on horses and long on promises from a lot of owners, yet grateful to the ones who did support us.

I just put it down to experience and I’ve moved on. You will never fail if you never have a go, so back to Rye it was. Markdel was closing, Anthony was moving his string to Flemington and I had time on my hands to do a lot of thinking.

My life could have been very different if Lloyd Williams hadn’t been a big part of it during the 1990s, and so it was that a text message and a meeting with him opened the way for me to be a small part of the powerhouse that is Macedon Lodge.

Lloyd is also affected with the “disease”. He often berates himself, good humouredly, for ever buying his first racehorse, but it’s a facade that cannot hide his passion and determination to win Australia’s greatest race.

Lloyd is a very private man who wouldn’t like me to extol the virtues of Macedon Lodge, nor would he like me to mention the scores of young people to whom he has given opportunities in his many lifetime endeavours, so I won’t.

His son Nick also is showing distinct symptoms of the “disease”, which perhaps adds weight to the theory that it could well be genetic.

I now approach the days with a lot more joy. I am no longer a horse trainer but I get to see very good horses every day. I get to learn their various traits and see them getting fitter week by week and heading towards their goals.

I also have the unique opportunity to observe and offer advice to an impressive group of young men and women, some of whom will make decent trainers one day.

I still like to move among racing people, from captains of industry and battlers from every walk of life. I still love to chat with the old, hardened men of racing.

Their uncompromising view of the world of the horse in black and white. There is no better education than from the men and women who have graduated from the School of Hard Knocks.

I’d be less than truthful if I said it wasn’t nice to be recognised in a pub or a restaurant by a random racegoer and reminded of past victories, but I keep it all in perspective. That’s the past and I’m all about the future now.

The spring of 2013 will, inevitably, be exciting. The highs and lows, the great horses, parties and the fashion.

But whatever happens I am resigned to the fact that my version of the “disease” will endure. I’m seeing it more as a lovely disease these days.