Sympathy for the devil: Higgins knows how Nolen feels

Sympathy for the devil: Higgins knows how Nolen feels

Handbrake Harry … wayward galloper Hyperno, under Harry White, pips Salamander (Roy Higgins) in the 1979 Melbourne Cup.Two eye-lash margins haunt Roy Higgins regarding Hyperno, his Black Caviar. Hyperno was ”a villain of the worst possible kind”, says the former jockey, but Black Caviar is a champion.

Under normal circumstances, Luke Nolen could be forgiven for allowing Black Caviar to cruise to the line as he has in so many races, but in the Diamond Jubilee at Royal Ascot it has taken a new dimension. Early indications are Nolen is not only going to be in the same boat as Higgins on Hyperno but set for an even rockier ride. And Black Caviar won.

Jockeys dropping their hands, easing up in a finish, is a lapse in concentration or judgment that inflicts the best just as much as the worst. Higgins is rated by John Schreck, the former Australian Jockey Club and Hong Kong Jockey Club chief steward, as the best jockey he’s seen, which entails not only Australia over the past half century but a cross section of the world’s classiest who rode in Honkers.

Still, Hyperno gives him nightmares and he makes no excuses for the debacle in the 1978 Moonee Valley Cup. ”At the Valley you can often hear the course broadcaster and this day I could hear Frank O’Brien calling over the loudspeakers: ‘Hyperno [the 6/4 favourite] has shot a length in front, no he’s two in front, he’s streaking away from them.’ And this is when the blackout hit me. I forgot about the race completely. I was so busy patting myself on the back it wasn’t funny.

”Hyperno was the sort of horse that knew more ways of getting beaten than any punter ever heard of … Yet I was daydreaming, I’d even lost the rhythm of my riding. The mongrel put in a couple of short ones and took advantage of my mental blackout. Suddenly I saw another horse’s head, a rude intrusion to my thoughts … My body froze.

”Midge Didham was snapping his whip on [the challenger] Clear Day’s big, broad bum and coming over the top of me. We went across the line and Midge called across: ‘By Gawd mate, you don’t know how lucky you are. If I had beaten you, fair dinkum you’d copped 12 months … I’ve just failed by a short half-head.’ I was frightened to look at the semaphore board.”

The result was an ”eye lash”, the Higgins margin, the wrong way for him. Trainer Geoff Murphy was never short to blast a beaten jockey and when a sheepish Higgins returned, he said: ”Don’t waste your breath on me, save it for the stewards.” The usual honey-tongue of Higgins, generally as effective with stewards as his power on horseback, sweetened the penalty to a suspension of 10 metropolitan meetings.

Going down by pilot error wasn’t unique to Higgins. Take Tom McGinley in a steeplechase at Warrnambool. McGinley was riding Falsetto, the favourite.

”That year the horses ended the Sydney way in the steeplechases, which was the opposite to every other race in Victoria, where they go anti-clockwise,” Racing NSW chief steward Ray Murrihy recalled. ”Tom was leading by 20 lengths from a horse called Regalo, [which] had no hope. When they passed the winning post for the flat races, Tom started to ease his mount down. The crowd started to roar and scream. By the time the other winning post, in front of the public stand a 100 metres further up the straight, came up, the horse was down to a walk. The slower he went, the louder the punters screamed. Regalo was given the race by a short half-head.”

Higgins was more in the Nolen vein on Black Caviar.

”I can relate to it,” Higgins said on News Radio’s Hoof On The Till last week. ”Luke didn’t have it well won, though. I could see him take a deep breath and think ‘thank goodness’ near the end because he was home. But she was completely out of petrol, hadn’t raced well throughout, her legs were like lead, she was going uphill, it’s pretty steep, too. He didn’t ease her down, just let her float to the line, the tiredness exaggerated the way she stopped. She was going to beat them three-quarters of a length. She basically said ‘I’m tired’ and stopped.

”Everyone, the racing world, had eyes on Black Caviar. I feel for Luke, love to be patting him on the back. But this will be the stigma that will hang around. They still remember mine after 34 years.”

However, Higgins and Hyperno didn’t end in the Moonee Valley Cup.

The gelding was taken over before the 1979 Melbourne Cup by Bart Cummings, who wanted Higgins on him. After track gallops, the jockey felt Hyperno was best suited by blinkers but the master disagreed, thus Higgins rode Salamander.

Over the last 200 metres in the Big One, Salamander engaged in savage duel with Hyperno, handled by Harry White. ”I could see this big blinkered head alongside me as we went nose and nose,” Higgins recalled. Cummings had changed his mind about the gear change. The result? Hyperno’s eye lash had grown since the Moonee Valley Cup.

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