By Joanne Verikios
More than half a century ago, an eight year old girl had a date with destiny. Counting the seconds until school was over, she knew it would be one of the most important days of her life. If all went well, if she passed some kind of assessment, she knew her dreams would begin to come true. The girl was the sort who preferred jeans to dresses and would get into trouble for looking out the window in class, yearning to be outside. She loved animals and, more than anything else in the world, she loved horses.
This day was important - important enough for her father to take time off - because the man she was going to meet HAD HORSES! Not just any horses either. The man, Mr Les Watterson, was a distinguished ex-jockey and now a respected racehorse trainer. Every day at 4am, Mr Watterson would ride his steady skewbald lead pony to Clifford Park Racecourse in Toowoomba. On either side of the pony was a curvetting, prancing Thoroughbred, bursting out of its skin with energy and joie de vivre. The little girl would sometimes hear their hoofbeats as they passed her home en route to their track work and an electric thrill would run through her body at the sound. There was a chance that the little girl would be allowed the unimaginably joyful privilege of riding the lead pony after school.
That little girl was me. Much to my delight and eternal gratitude, Mr Watterson knew a real horsewoman when he saw one. "Joanne has a way with horses", he would tell my parents.
I spent as much time as possible at his stables over several years and learned the rhythm of horsemanship and of racing. I saw how the racehorses were housed, fed, groomed, exercised, monitored, doctored, spelled and turned out for their daily bout of freedom and green pick. They were treated like the kings and queens they were. Each was nurtured as an individual and there was an obvious bond between trainer and trainee. That was my introduction to the world of horseracing.
My parents were not punters but the Melbourne Cup, with its long and fascinating history, was special and they had a small bet each way every year. Dad would also place a bet for us kids. My younger brother chose his horse using an original system involving arcane indicators. For four years in a row he picked the winner: Light Fingers (1965), Galilee (1966), Red Handed (1967) and Rain Lover (1968). Rain Lover won The Cup again in 1969, but "the system" didn't anticipate lighting striking twice in the same place, thus ending the winning streak!
When we were kids and into my early adulthood, I don't recall anyone questioning the Melbourne Cup. The race that stops a nation was a revered and much anticipated annual event. Now, however, there is an increasing level of opposition to all horse racing by kind-hearted people who respond to the well-crafted media campaigns of anti-racing, anti-gambling activists.