A Saintly Affair

On the day the striking chestnut with a giant stride was beaten a neck by Octagonal in the AJC Derby, I stood in the crowded Ballarat TAB and loudly proclaimed, ‘Octagonal will never beat Saintly again.’

TABs are full of unhappy gamblers swearing and moaning through their wallets. In the main, they are not women. Losers easily outnumber winners. As each race broadcast on the screens comes to an end, blame is apportioned, on the jockey/the trainer/track bias/the slow fuckin’ horse. On that day in 1996 my Saintly prophesy shared the same fate as most post-race interjections: it was completely ignored.

As the two horses duelled up the long, undulating Randwick straight with Saintly craning his neck out in front of his gangly body, I was reminded of the cruelty of adolescence. To be precise, playing football, aged 13, against Xavier College. By and large, we were still boys. By a cruel dint of nature, our opponents had already encountered puberty. When we tried to tackle them, we made no impression. We bounced off them. They crushed us.

At three years old, Saintly was a blur of ribs and legs. He still looked and galloped like a large uncoordinated adolescent, like the kid at school with a ridiculous talent who had no idea what to do with it. On that day in 1996 Octagonal was the same age but already an accomplished racehorse, having raced successfully as a precocious two-year-old. He cut an imposing figure and raced like a veteran: muscled, compact, powerful. For all of that, Saintly wasn’t crushed in the Derby, he was beaten by a neck.

My new girlfriend was from Ballarat and we were there to visit her family, a tad soon in the relationship I thought, but I didn’t object. After the Derby was run, I decided that the relationship was a mistake. She and I worked together so ending it would be awkward. Then again, when isn’t breaking up messy? I told her of my decision and returned to Melbourne the following day. I’m still in love with Saintly.

When I first clapped eyes on Saintly, he was galloping at the back of a large field at Flemington on the first day of the spring carnival. For most of the race he was last, four horses wide and bobbing around erratically. In the dialect of racing stewards, Saintly was ‘racing intractably’.

His jockey, Darren Beadman, maintained a tight hold to keep the horse from lugging in and bumping the horses to his inside. As the capacity field rounded into the straight, Beadman subtly shifted his hands forward, allowing the big chestnut some rein. The effect was like releasing a handbrake on a souped-up car. Saintly’s long legs lengthened stride and he accelerated up the long, broad Flemington straight, passing every other horse in the field to win the race easily. Brakes on. Brakes off. A breathtaking whoosh.

Minutes before that race, an almighty betting plunge had been executed with military precision. Saintly was backed into favouritism, or as one colourful punter put it, ‘from 7-1 to go and get fucked’. In the pre-internet era, the plunge was invisible to all except those in the Flemington betting ring. There was no warning and the bookies took the hit just minutes before the race. It wasn’t until after the race that the news of the betting plunge emerged.

An overexcited television journalist approached Bart Cummings, Saintly’s wily trainer, in the mounting yard. At the time, Cummings was emerging from a humiliating bankruptcy, the fall guy for a failed joint venture with the gentlemen of the financial services sector, a scheme hatched in the heady atmosphere of the late 1980s. The journalist asked Cummings how much of the plunge he had been responsible for. Cummings’ retort was a tribute to both his quick wit and his delicate, continuing relationship with his trustee in bankruptcy. ‘Not enough to make a difference,’ he deadpanned.

Along with Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela, Cummings was a hero of mine. He had learnt his craft from his father, Jim. As a young horse breaker, Jim Cummings eschewed the harsh methods with which horses were customarily broken in. Bart Cummings learnt his art by watching his father and then he improved on it, evolving into a horse whisperer without parallel, relying on intuition and observation to ensure his horses were fit and happy. When Cummings’ horses were fit and happy, they tended to win races.

Bart Cummings would not have appreciated the narcissism of social media. His public-relations strategy was understatement. He was the antithesis of rival trainer Tommy Smith, who routinely predicted glory for his steeds, a trait passed onto his daughter, the flamboyant Gai Waterhouse. In the lead up to feature Saturday races, the Smith–Waterhouse camp often pronounced their horses ‘outstanding’, ‘champions’ or ‘unbeatable’.

The more extravagant the claims of his rivals, the more Cummings reached for minimalism. When the volume was ratcheted up to Donald Trump, Cummings resorted to the Oxford dictionary of laconic.

But in the wake of Saintly’s win at Flemington that day, Cummings let his guard down. Unprompted, he offered his interlocutor on the live television broadcast an extraordinary observation: ‘I’ve got a bit of an opinion of this horse.’ The statement may seem unremarkable, or even ungrammatical, to the uninitiated. But a student of Cummings’ career could translate that short sentence into plain English: ‘Close to the best horse I have trained in my extraordinary and illustrious career.’

As Saintly’s racing career developed, there was one other behavioural change discernible in his trainer. Saintly was the only horse that made Bart Cummings cry. When it won another big race in breathtaking circumstances, Cummings blamed hay fever for the evident tears. It’s true that Cummings suffered from hay fever, but there was only one horse winning races that brought it on.

I had a theory. Cummings wept because he had been deeply humiliated by being declared bankrupt. Saintly was the champion racehorse that rescued him from his bankruptcy, and in his estimation helped restore his dignity and respect.

I developed an obsession with Saintly. He could sprint or stay and was unbeatable at Flemington because its vast expanse, the product of a complete disregard for property prices in Melbourne’s inner north-west, comfortably accommodated his giant stride. I told all and sundry to back him at every start and that he would win the Melbourne Cup.

On one occasion I strayed. In the 1998 Cox Plate, I backed Juggler, trained by Gai Waterhouse. I reasoned that with his giant stride, Saintly would not navigate the tight-turning Moonee Valley circuit. I was right. Saintly raced around the sweaty amphitheater that is Moonee Valley on Cox Plate day like an inebriated crab, legs splayed in all directions. Then he straightened up, reconfigured his gait into orthodoxy and unleashed a short, explosive sprint to win the best race in the Australian calendar. Juggler ran fourth and logic was my downfall. I was ashamed of myself for ever doubting Saintly. After the 1996 AJC Derby, Saintly and Octagonal raced against each other three more times. Saintly won them all.

The odds were against Ruth and me. The majority of the population do not warm to horseracing and Ruth was in that majority. She was only the second Jewish girlfriend I had dated. Up until then, the Catholics had the numbers. Jews constitute less than 0.5 per cent of the population and in the main they don’t go to the races. Ruth wasn’t remotely interested in horseracing and came to resent my obsession with Saintly.

Like most other Jews in Melbourne, Ruth lived south of the river—on the other side of town—and was annoyed at my lack of interest in living over there. This modest geographical divide loomed large. I proudly lived in the inner north, in an area once the preserve of Polish and Russian Jews until the Italians moved in. I grew up there, playing football and soccer with the United Nations of our neighbourhood and had no intention of moving.

Ruth challenged my identity: a secular Jewish atheist who had grown up in a family whose religion was socialism. Admittedly, it wasn’t straightforward. I spoke yiddish until I was five, but lost the language when my grandmother died.

I shared a family secret with Ruth. When my father, a socialist politician, appeared at the synagogue to discuss my bar mitzvah with the rabbi, the reception was not warm. ‘Well, well, well. We haven’t seen you around these parts for years and now you want that I should bar mitzvah your boy?’ My father’s response, intensified by guilt, was volcanic rage. It didn’t work. The rabbi gave as good as he got. The dispute was loud and sweary before my father stormed out. The bar mitzvah was off.

Ruth was horrified at this tale and by my bar mitzvah deficit. Yes it was messy, I admitted, but it could have been worse. I might have been one of those Jewish infant boys, I reasoned, whose mothers intervene to prevent the cruelty of circumcision on the eighth day of life. In some cases they grow up and face the procedure as adults. If not, they tend to go through life quietly uncircumcised.

Undeterred, I maintained my insistence on living north of the river and fraternising with many non-Jews. In fact I relished it. Ruth countered that I was a ‘self-hating Jew’. On Melbourne Cup day I persuaded her to come with me and place a bet on Saintly at the TAB. She insisted that I spend the afternoon at a house-warming party in Caulfield. A housewarming party on Cup day? Who does that? Still, I compromised and accompanied her to the party.

It wasn’t much of a party and it wasn’t in a house. It was in a flat. A nana flat, to be precise, and one that bore the aroma of an apartment your nana might have lived in for a long time. Hairy beige carpet, beige curtains, beige cupboards. The host had moved into his grandmother’s old flat. He was living in his nana’s flat and we were there to celebrate with him.

It was quickly apparent that most of the guests had no interest in Saintly or the Melbourne Cup. I exchanged pleasantries briefly before finding a room with a television and settled in for the afternoon. After a time I was joined by one other dissident who professed an interest in racing and eschewed the prune juice being consumed in the nana flat that day. We got on well. We had a shared disdain, if not a common enemy.

As my excitement grew in the lead up to the running of the Cup, I confessed my Saintly obsession. When the inevitable happened and Saintly obtained clear galloping room in the Flemington straight, I was beside myself. I assumed the jockey position astride the couch and rode the last furlong with ailing hands and heels. As Saintly won the Cup by two lengths, I made a hullabaloo, whooping and dancing a victory dance.

At this point Ruth entered the room and hissed that my Saintly spectacle was embarrassing her. Several of her friends tentatively peered in, radiating concern for her welfare and distaste for her choice of partner. She took the scene in and looked at me quizzically. I was trembling with the pleasure of watching Saintly romp home in the Melbourne Cup and there were tears in my eyes.

This was the moment of Ruth’s epiphany. She was confronted by the sight of a weeping, secular Jewish atheist from the wrong side of town who gambled on horses. There I stood with my body trembling because Saintly had won the Melbourne Cup. We looked at each other with a shared melancholy. It was as if Ruth knew that I would never tremble like that for her.

After the Melbourne Cup, Saintly raced one more time, registering a breathtaking victory in a Caulfield sprint. The tendons in his legs then succumbed to the repeated concussion of his giant stride. Despite several attempts to rehabilitate him, Cummings opted to retire him in the winter of 1998. In the trainer’s estimation, Saintly was yet to reach the peak of his powers.

Ruth and I soldiered on past Melbourne Cup day for a time. When we couldn’t agree on where to view The Big Lebowski—in a cinema in Carlton or Elsternwick—I hoisted the white flag.

This article originally appeared in Meanjin Quarterly.