JAMES BARTHOLOMEW CUMMINGS, AM
14-11-1927 — 30-8-2015
The King is dead. Long live the king. Bart Cummings, who by the court of popular opinion was rightly crowned king of Australia's greatest distance race, the Melbourne Cup, has died peacefully in his sleep aged 87.
His many triumphs beyond the Melbourne Cup were not without setbacks along the way, including suspensions, heartbreak, and near financial ruin as a result of poor investment advice with horseflesh.
Cummings' 12 Melbourne Cup victories — a feat unlikely to be matched — came with Light Fingers (1965), Galilee (1966), Red Handed (1967), Think Big (1974 and 1975), Gold and Black (1977), Hyperno (1979), Kingston Rule (1990), Let's Elope (1991), Saintly (1996), Rogan Josh (1999), and Viewed (2008).
Added to that impressive tally is the fact that in 1965, 1966, 1974, 1975, and 1991, he also trained the horses that finished second in the big race. However, Cummings had to endure a massive setback in 1969 when his horse, Big Philou, which had won the Caulfield Cup on protest and was favourite for the Melbourne Cup, was nobbled with a large dose of laxative on Cup eve. The gelding was sensationally scratched minutes before the running of the big race and Cummings was later severely reprimanded by stewards over security at his stables
He had his first run-in with racing authorities in 1961 when he was suspended for 12 months for form reversal when Cilldara won with blinkers — then only just made legal in South Australia — at Morphettville after performing poorly at its previous outing. His appeal was dismissed but the sentence was reduced by a month for good behaviour.
His annus horribilis was 1979, when he was suspended for three months after a painkiller was found in the urine of Lloyd Boy, which had won the Carlyon Cup. He was stripped of the cup and given 14 days to disperse his team of 120 horses for the duration.
But the shy master with deadpan humour, grey mane and upswept bushy eyebrows — described by author Les Carlyon as "vines in search of a trellis" — and wearing dark glasses with binoculars slung around his neck, overcame every hurdle to become a legend of the Australian turf.
Cummings befriended a chosen few, and largely preferred the company of horses and select horsemen. And yet the profession into which he was born was not as inviting as it could be. The "Cups King", an asthmatic, had a lifelong allergy to straw and chaff.
He was the third child — following brother Pat and sister Teresa — born to Jim and Annie (nee Whelton, from County Cork in Ireland) in the Adelaide suburb of Glenelg. His paternal grandfather, Thomas Cummings, a ploughman, had arrived in Australia from Ireland 100 years before the grandson got his trainers licence in 1953.
Cummings attended the Marist Brothers' Sacred Heart College in Adelaide and at age 11 had a near-death experience that had a profound effect on him. He was saved from drowning by another schoolboy after he had jumped off the Glenelg Pier and was swept out to sea. Friends said the scare made him more introspective.
Before he became a strapper for his father, Jim, at age 17, Cummings worked briefly at grape-picking and then in a menswear shop. He made a hurried departure from the latter when other sales staff discovered he had "pulled a swiftie" with the code system to siphon off some of their commission payments.
His first brush with the Melbourne Cup came as a strapper in 1950 when Comic Court, a horse trained by his father, won the big race. Eight years later the younger Cummings had his own runner in the Cup, Asian Court, which finished 12th.
After gaining his trainer's licence in 1953, he set up stables at Glenelg and in 1954 married his sweetheart, Valmae Baker, whom he met at a barn dance the year before.
His first big win came in 1958 when he won the South Australian Derby, but it wasn't until 1965 that he hit the big time with three runners in the Melbourne Cup: Light Fingers finished first, with Ziema second and The Dip 18th.
He won his first trainer's premiership in the 1965-1966 season, when he blitzed the Melbourne Cup as well as the Adelaide, Caulfield, Sandown, Sydney, Brisbane and Queen's cups.
In 1968, he opened stables, now called Saintly Place, at Flemington, and later that year again won the trainer's premiership in both Victoria and South Australia, which he repeated in the 1969 and 1970 seasons. In 1975, Cummings moved his operations to Leilani Lodge near Randwick Racecourse in Sydney.
His greatest challenge arose in 1989 when, on the advice of big accounting firms in a bullish market, he spent $22 million on yearlings for his Cups King Syndicate. However, recession and rising interest rates meant he could not get punters to buy into the syndicate. He believed losses would be shared with his accountant backers, but found that he was left to carry the load. A fire sale of 64 yearlings at Newmarket in Sydney returned only $9 million.
Facing a debt of $11 million to bloodstock agents, compounded by legal fees when the Federal Court rejected his claim against the accounting firms, he was forced to sell other assets. But he backed himself and negotiated an arrangement to pay 75 per cent of his income to creditors.
History shows he kept training winners, including his ninth and 10th Melbourne Cup winners, Kingston Rule and Let's Elope.
The strain would have destroyed a lesser person, but Cummings, then in his early 60s, stayed true to his philosophy of looking ahead, never back, and prospered again. He was forever grateful to the Malaysian tycoon, Dato Tan Chin Nam, who owned dual Melbourne Cup winner Think Big, for maintaining his support throughout. Mr Tan went on to own two more Cup winners trained by Cummings, Saintly and Viewed.
Cummings was hospitalised three times in six months in 2010: first in Sydney with pneumonia in April; again after fracturing his pelvis in a fall when he tripped on a step in September; and with a temperature and a respiratory condition in Melbourne's Epworth Hospital on October 27.
Latterly Cummings could have been dubbed "Silver Fox", given his coiffured grey hair and commitment to give as little away as possible. His frequent rejoinders to staff were "loose lips sink ships", and "keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut".
His faithful trackwork rider at Flemington, Joe Agresta, summed up his enigmatic boss: "If you think you know Bart, you don't know Bart".
With droll one-liners acting as a shield to ward off inquisitive reporters, Cummings let his work speak for itself — and what a record it was. He trained 268 Group 1 winners, including 32 Derbys, 24 Oaks, seven Caulfield Cups, five Cox Plates, 13 Australian Cups, 11 Mackinnon Stakes, eight Newmarket Handicaps, four Golden Slipper Stakes and, of course, 12 Melbourne Cups.
He and his grandson James formed a training partnership in 2013 and won their first Group 1 race with Hallowed Crown, which became the first unbeaten winner of the Golden Rose, in 2014. Hallowed Crown also won this year's Randwick Guineas and was sold as a stallion to Darley.
Cummings' success can be put down to the simple fact that he put his horses first. He was patient with them, fed them well and trained them to be comfortable in their races — to finish off, and to finish off the opposition.
The 2009 Cox Plate aside, when So You Think led all the way, Cummings' horses rarely went for broke; they raced to break through.
He possessed an innate ability to spot champion racehorses in the sales yard. In 2009, at the Australian Racing Museum in Melbourne he recalled how he bought Galilee — winner of the 1966 Melbourne Cup — cheaply (3200 guineas) as a yearling because the young horse's front legs were turned in.
"(Rival trainer) Tommy Smith told me, 'Bart, you bought a bloody cripple'," Cummings said, mimicking Smith's squeaky voice. "After it won the Sydney Cup, I said, 'That bloody cripple's going all right, Tommy'." Galilee had carried 9st 7lb (60.5kg) to win the Sydney two-miler in the autumn after his Melbourne Cup win with 8st 13lb (56.7kg).
In his ghosted autobiography, Bart, My Life, he nominates Galilee as the best stayer he ever trained.
In 1982, Cummings was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for his services to the racing industry, and in 1991 he was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame. In 1997 the National Trust named him a Living Treasure, in 2001 he was inducted into the Australian Racing Hall of Fame, and in 2007 his image was placed on an Australia Post stamp as part of its Australian Legends series.
He and wife Valmae celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary last Friday. They had five children: Margaret, Sharon, Anthony, also a trainer, John, and Anne Marie, and more than a dozen grandchildren.
Stephen Howell edited The Story of the Melbourne Cup, Australia's Greatest Race, published by The Slattery Media Group, 2010; Gerry Carman is a former Age obituaries editor.