As the Sport of Kings continues to mourn its legendary trainer Bart Cummings, AOM this Melbourne Spring Carnival, on the edge of Normanville a local trainer is planning his own special tribute.
Dennis O’Leary, who battles to get his small team of 20 on to the track, owns the historic Beau Neire Stud, and will revert the name to Comic Court Stud in a moving tribute to the Melbourne Cup genius.
This was where brothers Hiram and Melwyn Bowyer bred Comic Court, which was trained by Jim Cummings with his son Bart as the strapper, and went on to win the 1950 Melbourne Cup carrying 9st 5lb (59.5kg) in Australasian two mile record time of 3min 19 1/2 seconds. Comic Court is still regarded as one of Australia’s most versatile racehorses having also set a six furlong record on his way to winning 28 of his 54 starts, plus 15 placings.
There was a touch of romance about this striking five-year-old bay horse – Jim and James working him through the Normanville dunes and along the beach, and at 25/1 striding down the Flemington straight five lengths clear before 81,023 racegoers. It was the beginning of the James Bartholomew Cummings legend, ending with an astonishing 12 Melbourne Cup winners in his own right.
The original small red-tiled roof hut that stabled Comic Court remains, and upon the passing of Bart, Dennis has this vision of restoring it plus renovating the main stone building on the property – originally a steam flour mill built in 1856 – and turning it into a racing museum to honour the revered trainer.
As ambitious as it may seem, the renaming to Comic Court Stud, and the renovation of the champion’s stable and the museum, can be a major drawcard to Normanville, indeed the Fleurieu Peninsula.
Amidst all the tributes and story telling about Bart when he died on August 30, comparatively little was made of the significance of this beautiful coastal town. Dennis thinks it is about time we did.
Adding to this magic is the fact the former stud and training complex is now the registered name and place of High Country Trails, a horse riding experience trotting holidaymakers through the sandhills and the shallows of Normanville Beach. It is amazing in its own right because talk to people who have ridden a horse and many say they had their first ride on a horse here. Making the sporting history and the Cummings connection far more obvious will only enhance tourism in this region.
“It would be good to set up some kind of a racing or horse museum in the old stone stables, and I like to think with a lot of support, including people within the area providing memorabilia on loan, it can be successful,” Dennis said.
“The Bart Cummings link – and with Comic Court, a Melbourne Cup winner 65 years ago – is something unique to this area.”
However, amidst all this romanticising and vision of honouring a great man and a wonderful horse, a project that deserves major support, lay the other side to this racing game. It’s still tough to get a horse on the training track, let alone a starter at Flemington come the Spring Carnival. There are the Kings and the Battlers, and O’Leary smiles and puts himself in the latter bracket.
There was a time some years ago when Dennis and his business partner and brother, John, changed the name to Comic Court Stud, but were forced to sell up and the original thoroughbred stud, established by Melville and Albert Bowyer continued to be known as Beau Neire Stud. Eventually, Dennis bought the property back.
Racing has always been challenging, as they were for Dennis’ grandfather, who was a racehorse trainer, and each of his eight sons, among them Dennis’ father, Cecil, who became jockeys and trainers.
Dennis, 65, is no longer able to train his team on the beaches of Normanville because seaweed has continued to mount along the dunes and has become dangerous. In the summer time it’s fine, but with a development behind the horse complex and the caravan park building up there are a lot of people walking increasing the safety risk.
Most mornings Dennis spends an hour and 10 minutes relocating a few horses recovering or in early work at Normanville to his main stables in Goolwa North, and taking his team on Goolwa Beach.
However, Goolwa Beach is becoming more difficult for horse trainers because of increasing 4WD vehicles, also increasing the insurance premiums. Adding to the frustration is the fact the only thing running in his team the past six or eight weeks has been the horses’ dirty noses.
And the list of training and fitness issues go on and on. The financial commitments, including a staff of three and with Croatian-born Allan Majetic doing his time under the supervision of Dennis as he goes for his trainer’s licence, soar. It is therefore no wonder Dennis thinks the world of his favourite horse, a real old-timer Magical Pearl, now a 12-year-old gelding from Broken Hill that he bought in Melbourne for $3000 and has won more than $400,000 with him. It shows there are rags to riches stories in racing after all.
Dennis likes to believe the ability to spell racehorses at Normanville and work them on the beach gives him an edge over some city trainers.
“Horses can get sick of going to the track, particularly those from the city and Morphettville, and this is where I can improve them, freshening them up with work on the beach and in the sea,” Dennis said.
“It’s about keeping their mindset right. We use Normanville as recovery, even after a race by putting them in a paddock, and walking them for an hour. Walking stimulates the same muscle group as galloping does.
“I remember in 2006 when the Japanese came out here and Katsuhiko Sumii, the trainer of Delta Blues and Pop Rock, had them walking and walking for three hours and no galloping until they went flat out over 2200 metres a few days before the Melbourne Cup. He was the laughing stock of Australian horse trainers until Delta Blues and Pop Rock finished first and second in the Cup.
“It taught me the value of walking a horse, and that you can always learn something. In this game, you’re never too old to learn.”
There are other trainers learning from Dennis in terms of diversifying to help your business grow. The growing success of High Country Trails, where people of all ages can ride a horse through the dunes and along the beaches, is run by his wife, Karen, and plays a big part in the overall picture.
Dennis is one of a very few racehorse trainers throughout Australia who also has a riding school, but again it presents it challenges. “We have always felt good about the fact people have had their first ride on a horse here, but unfortunately it is not as big now,” he said.
“We started just before I got my trainer’s licence in 1978, and we used to do 2-3 day pack horse rides, but the insurance premiums changed that. We had to have special covering for everything, so we cut the team down and changed the routine.
“Mind you, we were like the Man from Snowy River at one stage for the serious riders. Those rides were famous, but you would dare not have them now.
“We do a quiet one hour ride down the back of the sandhills toward Lady Bay, across the sand dunes and along the beach and in the water. We do a walk-trot ride – we don’t canter like we did once. Karen has 20 horses, and works with groups of people of all ages of about 12. There are also pony rides for the really young kids.”
Before long, someone will be riding Magical Pearl as a trail horse into the sunset toward the sand dunes, where the legend goes, Comic Court’s sire and dam are buried side-by-side.
And, for the record, Comic Court beat Chicquita home in the 1950 Melbourne Cup, and later the positions were reversed when they produced Comicquita, which ran second in the 1962 Melbourne Cup. Who said there was no romance in thoroughbred racing?