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Aboriginal History, Volume 38, 2014

Aborigines and the ‘Sport of Kings’: Aboriginal Jockeys in Australian Racing History by John Maynard, 149 pp, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2013, ISBN 9781922059543 (pbk), $24.95.

Aborigines and the ‘Sport of Kings’ is an enlarged version of John Maynard’s Aboriginal Stars of the Turf: Jockeys of Australian Racing History, first published in 2002. The book includes information on 35 Aboriginal jockeys, 32 male and three female, and the book is dedicated to the late Leigh-Anne Gordon, who died as a result of a race fall. She was Australia’s first female Aboriginal jockey to ride a winner on a metropolitan track. The number of Aboriginal jockeys is surprisingly small given the prominence of Aboriginal people in the cattle industry and not many of them are well known. The majority of them did most of their riding in country areas of New South Wales and Queensland, but a few achieved national and international fame.

The first Aboriginal jockey to become famous was Rae ‘Togo’ Johnstone who rose to prominence in Sydney in the 1920s. In 1931 he went overseas. He was refused a licence to ride by the British racing authorities, but was granted a licence in France. In 1933 he won the French Jockeys’ Premiership and the French licence enabled him to ride in England where he won a number of major races. He spent the war in Vichy France and Monte Carlo. He was imprisoned first by Italian authorities and later by the Gestapo, but he managed to escape. After the war he won major races in France and Britain including three English Derbies. Maynard estimates that during the 1950s he was probably the highest paid sportsman in Europe.

The other Aboriginal jockey to achieve international fame was Richard Lawrence ‘Darby’ McCarthy. He rose to prominence in Brisbane and Sydney in the early 1960s and then went to France where he rode with great success and became quite wealthy. Returning to Australia he continued to win big races. I remember seeing him win the AJC Derby and Epsom on the same day in the spring of 1969. After that his career began to taper off and in 1976 he was disqualified for seven years for allegedly conspiring to fix a minor race at Hamilton in western Victoria. The suspension was later reduced to two years following an appeal in which he was supported by John Cain, later Premier of Victoria, and Sir John Dillon, Victorian State Ombudsman. Following further appeals the charge was expunged from his record, but the damage was done. He was not getting rides and his health deteriorated from a mixture of alcohol and prescribed weight-reducing drugs. However, he recovered from this low period in his life and recently he established the Darby McCarthy Aboriginal Employment and Training program to support Indigenous youth find employment.

One chapter is devoted to David Hugh ‘Darby’ Munro, a household name in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, perhaps the most famous Australian jockey of all. Maynard is rather apologetic about including him since his investigation of Munro’s family history fails to reveal any Aboriginal ancestry. Munro was rather dark skinned and punters recognised it. When he was beaten on a favourite he was called a ‘black bastard’ or a ‘black bludger’. Many considered him to be Aboriginal, including Darby McCarthy, who took the name ‘Darby’ from the famous jockey. If he was not Aboriginal, one wonders how he came to be so dark skinned in the days of White Australia.

The author’s father, Merv Maynard was a prominent jockey in the 1950s. In October 1952 he rode the winner of what had been for some years the King’s Cup, but with the death of King George VI in February of that year the race became the Queen’s Cup. Forty years later when Queen Elizabeth was coming to Australia, Buckingham Palace contacted the Maynard family to tell them that the Queen wanted to meet the jockey who had ridden the winner of the first Queen’s Cup. On 22 February 1992 60-year-old Merv Maynard, still riding at the time, met the Queen at Royal Randwick.

A chapter is devoted to Peter St Albans. In 1876 he rode the filly Briseis to victory in the Melbourne Cup. He was only 13 at the time and had to wag school to ride in the race. He gained the mount partly because he could make the light weight, namely 6 stone 4 pounds (39.9 kilograms), though he did develop into a leading rider until a serious fall ended his career in 1882. He was perhaps the first successful Aboriginal jockey. Maynard devotes 11 pages to the question of whether he was Aboriginal without being able to come to a definite conclusion.

One theme that runs through the book is that people who were of Aboriginal descent but not obviously Aboriginal in appearance tended not to admit to being Aboriginal and this included Rae Togo Johnstone. This began to change in the late 1960s, and nowadays people with some Aboriginal ‘blood’ are proud of that part of their ancestry. Frank Reys, a prominent jockey in the 1960s and 1970s who rode Gala Supreme to victory in the 1973 Melbourne Cup, was of mixed Filipino and Aboriginal descent. Unfortunately the press always referred to him as Filipino and his Aboriginal ancestry went unrecognised.

Barry Blake

La Trobe University

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