TRACK WORK RIDER
My Life With Bart
Few have captured Australia’s imagination as vividly as racehorse trainer Bart Cummings. Winning an unprecedented dozen Melbourne Cups in a career that spanned seven decades, his was a household name unequalled in racing.
But few know the name of Bart’s secret weapon — the man he entrusted to ride his best thoroughbreds every morning before dawn, as they worked towards the biggest races on the Australian turf.
For more than thirty years, Joe Agresta was the track work rider who told the trainer how his horses were feeling, physically and mentally. Saintly, Let’s Elope, So You Think, Shaftsbury Avenue, he knew them all. He rode them all. He might have failed in a short, 15-race career as a professional jockey, yet his innate horsemanship helped shape one of the world’s most influential stables. Without him, even the Cummings’ genius could not have trained the horses that shone through decades of Spring Carnivals.
This is the story of an ordinary man who started life in the country, then moved to Melbourne to grow up between two racetracks and years later, worked the long-gone, national quarter-horse circuit. Eventually, he settled back in Melbourne — and almost didn’t take the job with the man he would refer to as ‘Boss’ for the next three decades. Joe Agresta: Track Work Rider: My Life With Bart is not just the inside story of Australian racing’s iconic trainer. It’s also an ode to one of the enduring partnerships in Australian sport.
THE MARE IN THE WRONG RACE
Nigel Blackiston was foreman at the time and Bart told him to make sure she could gallop on the course proper, the main part of the track, at least three times before the race. His theory was that the Moonee Valley track would suit Dane Ripper, because she had bad joints and it was a soft surface.
From the start, Joe saw something in Dane Ripper. He always had a great sense of a horse and this was long before he became foreman at the Melbourne stable.
Finally, it came time for the mare’s all-important third gallop, when it was hoped she would put it all together and prove she was ready to race a few days later. But this wasn’t the same quiet, almost private affair. It took place in the middle of the Breakfast With the Best track work session, part of the build up to that year’s Cox Plate Day. Thousands of people were there that morning, watching some of the best horses in the Southern Hemisphere complete their final preparations ahead of one of the country’s major race days.
It was a big deal and I wasn’t even supposed to be on Dane Ripper that morning. Jockey Darren Beadman was slotted to ride her, but Bart told him to leave her to me. He must have trusted my judgement with regards to this mare, which is very reassuring, if a little intimidating. Then again, I trusted my judgement, and I was confident the mare was going well, without being a champion.
But my opinion was about to alter.
At the 600m on the outside of the Moonee Valley track, I gave Dane Ripper a little ‘squeeze’, urging her forward. She was cruising through her work, so I gave her just a little encouragement. Well, didn’t she take off! She accelerated as fast as almost any horse I have ever sat on. I remember thinking to myself ‘Shit, Joe. Hold on!’
Then I got to the 400m, and I gave her another little ‘squeeze’. Well, she just went faster again. She found another gear, and this is after I thought she was well and truly at full speed. When I got to the 200m, I thought that there was no way she could kick again, but sure enough she did.
She had sped up at the 600m like a good horse could, and then accelerated again at the 400m like a top horse. But only champions can find a third burst of speed like she did at the 200m this particular morning. Dane Ripper might not have been quite up to that grade, but this was the work of a gun who was at the top of her game. She’d certainly surprised me!
From the moment I came in from this work, I was raving to anyone who would listen about this mare and how well she had just galloped. From Reg, to blokes I didn’t really know, I was telling them what had just happened. It wasn’t really like me, or anyone in the stable to be so forthcoming about a horse, but I was just so excited. I’d just received a front row seat to something pretty amazing.
Naturally, Bart was there on such an important Spring morning and came downstairs to talk to me when I came back to the mounting yard. The following 45 seconds went something like this…
Me – Yeah, Bart, she went unbelievably well. What race are you running her in?
Bart – The 1600m race on Saturday — the Waterford Crystal Mile.
Me – What! No Boss, she will win that by 100 yards, you have got her in the wrong race. Bart, she should be in the Cox Plate.
Bart – The wrong race, hey? Well, that’s easily fixed!
Then he yelled out to a bloke who worked with us, who wasn’t far away.
‘Hey Doc, get in the ute and go home and get me the cheque book. But hurry, we only have three-quarters of an hour before the acceptances close.’
It sounds like a modern day Banjo Paterson yarn. But Doc didn’t have to get on the back of his horse and travel across Queensland. He just had to ‘jump in the ute’ and go and find Bart’s cheque book. Now, it costs many tens of thousands of dollars to accept for the Cox Plate, and based almost solely on my assessment, Bart was willing to do it. At least, I think it was on my assessment. You never know. Bart might have just as easily been having a lend of me and known exactly how good this mare was all along.
But this time, I think he had underestimated her and I was right.
While we waited for the cheque book to arrive, I gave my mate Greg Childs the thumbs up to go and try and get the ride on the mare for the Cox Plate. A top jockey’s always keen for a chance in such a big race, and he ran over and asked Bart if the mare was running. As he made his case to be considered for the ride, Bart just kept nodding along and saying things like ‘That’s good’ or ‘Yep, no worries.’ After he left, Bart turned to Nigel Blackiston, and half whispered ‘Give Damien Oliver’s manager a call, will you?’ Bart wanted Damien to take the mount.
To this day, I have no idea what he had against Greg Childs, if anything at all. Luckily, Greg would only have to wait two years before he won back-to-back Cox Plate’s aboard that mighty mare Sunline.
Happily, the cheque book arrived in time and Dane Ripper was ‘paid up’ as an official acceptor in the 1997 Cox Plate. Still, not many thought she was up to the task, despite her trainer’s record — and four days later, she took her place in the field as a forty-to-one chance. That year, the Cox Plate was worth $1.5 million in prize money to the winner, the Waterford Crystal Mile – the race the mare was originally aimed at – was worth a measly $125,000.