When The Whips Cracked, Johnson Got Cracking To Claim Three Melbourne Cups

The Age

Monday November 3, 2008

Peter Hanlon

Peter Hanlon meets a riding great whose style did not please everyone.

JIMMY JOHNSON is on the edge of his armchair, eyes twinkling as he watches the field round the turn. The vision is black and white, but his recall brings the 1968 Melbourne Cup to life in vivid colour.

"Here he goes, look at that," Johnson says, his sprightly frame hunched forward as if he's back in the saddle. "He was just phenomenal when we straightened up, like a sprinter. Oooh, it was a good feeling, I can tell ya."

"He", of course, was Rain Lover, and this was the first of back-to-back triumphs for the South Australian trio of horse, jockey and trainer Mick Robins. Not since Archer more than a century before had the Cup been won so easily - by a massive eight lengths.

As they motored away from Fileur, gobbling up the Flemington straight, Johnson gave a full airing of what was quaintly referred to as his "vigorous" style, urging Rain Lover all the way to the post.

Did he know how far in front they were? "Nup, I just kept riding. It's a Melbourne Cup - you don't stop. I got in trouble for that, too."

Johnson often courted danger with the stewards, a footnote to a great and much-travelled career that he says he simply has to carry, even through his 80th year. He makes no excuses, but says he did no more than flick his whip across the ears of horses whose minds strayed.

"When I was a kid, if I got me ears boxed I used to do what I was told. Hitting 'em across the ears became hitting 'em on the head. I didn't do that. But it didn't look good."

Craig Newitt is the latest jockey to be scrutinised in this timeless racing conundrum of hoops, whips and their appropriate use, and Johnson has watched with interest. "The other day he said he wasn't going to ride any different. Keep on ridin' as vigorous as you can - as far as they'll let you. The stewards have got the last say."

Johnson leads a quite life nowadays, in his immaculate home in a western suburbs retirement village. A neighbour mans the driver's room door at Moonee Valley trots every Friday night, and he is a regular attendee and member of a mini-South Australian expats club. "There's seven of us in there most weeks!"

The sadness of loss lingers, first his wife, and years later a second "lovely lady", both to cancer. Reminders of happy racing days are a welcome distraction; a new DVD of his Cup triumphs - on Gatum Gatum in 1963 and Rain Lover's double - capped a lovely visit to Taylors Lakes Primary School last week.

Mementoes of a life in the saddle well lived are everywhere - the replica Melbourne Cup gleaming on a table in the corner, three whips in a glass cabinet, pictures and paintings - aboard Gatum Gatum and his beloved Tobin Bronze, and meeting Her Majesty after winning the Queen's Cup in 1963. "I might come over this year and have a look at the Derby," he told ElizabethII, and so he did, riding one of her horses in trackwork while there.

His success was far-reaching, from premierships in Adelaide and Melbourne to twice leading jockey in Singapore in the '70s, when he also rode in Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Penang. Being a natural lightweight helped. The twinkle is back as he recalls tucking into a steak as a brooding Roy Higgins sat opposite him, dining on Scotch and a cigar.

He reckons he struggles with names these days, but his recollection of Cup nights is sharp, from a visit to the Tivoli in 1963 - "everyone went in those days, to see the show" - to a party with racecaller Bill Collins at a Queen's Road nightclub

in '68.

Johnson and wife Nancy had to abandon the Tivoli during the interval; back then, the Cup-winning jockey was presented with a commemorative whip at Wirth's Circus, in the big top on the site now occupied by the Arts Centre.

That year, he was also given a Shetland pony, which he christened Gatum Gatum. As luck would have it, former jockey Les Coles had a daughter who was pleading for a pony. "I said, 'I've got just the thing for you!"'

After Rain Lover's first Cup win, he was back in the saddle the next day, with three rides at Kyneton. Meticulously kept journals log his every ride - "you had to do it for your tax" - but while Demon Saint managed a second on that first Wednesday in November, the others were unplaced.

Perhaps Jimmy was a bit tired? "Nah, the horses just weren't good enough."

Rain Lover's journal entries amount to 19 rides for 10 wins, two seconds and three thirds. He remembers him as "a nice old horse", but his favourite was Tobin Bronze, whom Johnson rode to a luckless third in the International in Washington. It remains his greatest career disappointment.

"He was a beautiful chestnut with a very fine coat. You didn't have to know about horses, when you saw him you'd say, 'Jeez, look at that!"'

Johnson hasn't been to the Cup for years, but will be there tomorrow, a guest in the committee room with his son and daughter and their spouses.

The money followed him on Cox Plate day when, having stuck with "the Adelaide horse, Maldivian", he went for a stroll after dinner, nipped into the pokies and turned $10 into $250.

He thinks the internationals will dominate, but his view on hoops hasn't changed since his visit to England, returning convinced "they can't teach the Australian jockeys anything". He doesn't have a favourite. "I cheer for all of them."

© 2008 The Age

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