Who could replace this man of the turf – shrewd, affable sometimes, cryptic to a fault, masterful, calculating, instinctive?
Bart Cummings is racing’s Bradman – even in his lifetime a legend and an enigma.
We knew it would have to come, but we weren’t ready for it. We knew in recent months that he was fading. We were never really going to be ready to let him go because this would be the end of the story. Twelve Melbourne Cups. There will never be a 13th.
In writing a few years ago now about Australia’s modern racing history, I observed that if the sport had ceased at the end of the 1970s, Bart Cummings would already have earned his place as one of the greats. He had outperformed the big names of the past: Scobie, de Mestre, Hickenbotham.
At the time of writing I was inclined to judge his contemporaries Colin Hayes and T.J. Smith his equals. Since then, Bart, by longevity, versatility and the sheer weight of success has outranked them all.
After the First World War, only two trainers had managed to win the Melbourne Cup even twice.
Then Cummings arrived from Adelaide with Light Fingers in 1965, Galilee in 1966 and Red Handed in 1967. In two of these wins he trained the quinella. The press called him ‘The Cups King’. By the end of the 1970s he had added four more – Think Big (twice), Gold and Black, and Hyperno.
It was the personality that drew attention as much as success on the track.
The press loved Cummings, even though he threw them only scraps. He was always surprised when one of his outsiders beat a more fancied stablemate. His quips became legend.
“Too many flies in your stable,” says the health inspector. “How many am I allowed?”
Cummings combined a knockabout outdoors individuality – no airs and graces – with slick grooming and dark good looks. There was dignity and self belief. In time the eyebrows bushed, the nose sharpened. There was the eye of the eagle.
His father Jim Cummings had entered the racing game in 1910 at Jamestown in rural South Australia and hit the big time 40 years later when he trained Comic Court to win the Melbourne Cup.
Bart in his early 20s had the job of leading the champion around Flemington’s mounting yard that day.
“How good is this!” he thought to himself. “It was then I had the visions and dreams to one day train my own Cup winner.”
He took over his dad’s stable temporarily, then set up on his own near Morphettville racecourse, galloping his horses on the beach at North Glenelg.
When winners kept coming he branched out to Melbourne, then Sydney. He was as astute at selecting clients as he was horses, and bought strategically at yearling sales, especially in New Zealand. In 1969 he was the premier trainer in Adelaide and in Melbourne. It only got better.
Although his catchword for success was ‘Never look back’, Bart Cummings conceded it was history that put perspective on his achievements. If you got his statistics wrong he would let you know.
He wrote a foreword to my book early in 2008. He recorded then that: “After 249 Group 1 victories including 11 Melbourne Cups, six Caulfield Cups, three Cox Plates, four Golden Slippers, 31 Derbys and 23 Oaks, I am still striving for success.”
Soon after writing those words, Viewed won him his 12th Melbourne Cup. So You Think won him two more Cox Plates, Faint Perfume won him his ninth VRC Oaks. The Group 1 tally kept rising.
He could never bear to retire, which propelled him into a formal training partnership with his grandson James.
Ben Jones trained a record six Kentucky Derby winners.
Fred Darling equalled the record for Epsom Derby wins with seven, as long ago as 1941.
The biggest tally for Grand Nationals at Aintree is four.
Against this stands Bart Cummings with his 12 Melbourne Cup victories. These are the races that even non-racing people dream of winning. His achievement is appreciated around the racetracks of the world.
Cummings could cause offence. He made mistakes, most spectacularly in the greed decade of the 1980s when, like T.J. Smith in Sydney, he thought he could convert his individual brilliance into a business machine.
A syndicating scheme spectactularly collapsed in 1990 and he was forced to sell many of his rising stars at fire sale prices. He refused to quit. He then came good with his eighth Melbourne Cup winner, Kingston Rule, followed immediately by Let’s Elope.
This, he said, was his response to his critics.
“I’ve found that the best – the only way really – to silence them is to keep on winning. Training racehorses is what I do best.”
Redemption fully came with his 10th Cup winner, Saintly, in 1996 with Darren Beadman in the saddle. When Beadman later told Cummings that God had called him to forsake the saddle for Christian ministry, Bart suggested he get a second opinion.
Cummings bred Saintly himself and was part owner. Perth horse Rogan Josh gave him his 11th Cup in 1999.
His story has been often told, most brilliantly of course by Les Carlyon in The Master. But even Carlyon says that anyone who thinks he fully understands Bart Cummings clearly doesn’t.
Bart went on the last weekend of our Australian winter.
How are we are supposed to have spring without Bart Cummings?
Andrew Lemon is the author of the three-volume History of Australian Thoroughbred Racing.