Illustration: Edd Aragon
WE NOW spend more time down here in the shallow end of the newspaper wading through drug codes than team sheets. But you still get to experience some uplifting moments. Roger Federer turning a backhand into a symphony. Tiger Woods simultaneously winning the US Masters and choreographing a Nike commercial.
But, for all the privileged ringside seats, two of the most entertaining hours I've spent were in the breakfast room of a boutique hotel talking to John Singleton. Well, just listening to Singleton; hearing the tall tales of a man who has lived more "life" – to lend some of his stories a polite euphemism – than most.
There were Singleton's travels with Strawberry Road, which should have won the 1984 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe with Singleton calling the race for the radio stations he owned. But fellow owner Kerry Packer had backed Strawberry Road heavily. Accordingly, Singleton will go to his grave believing European bookmakers with too much to lose got to the jockey.
There was the tale of Rising Fear, the stayer Singleton thought had won the 1986 Melbourne Cup, only to be cut down near the line by At Talaq – the consequence, Singleton swears, of trainer Larry Pickering spending his time teaching the horse to bow to the crow, an extravagant flourish he wanted to produce at the presentation. Singleton admits he loves to exaggerate his stories of misfortune. Like how he turned down a share in dual Melbourne Cup winner Think Big. Tales that make a born winner seem like a mug.
But Singleton knows better than most racing's vicissitudes. He has won vast fortunes, and lost great races. He is, therefore, well aware the only certainty on a big race day is several hundred women will leave the track with stilettos in their hands.
After his spat with Gai Waterhouse last Saturday, some accused Singleton of grandstanding. Others suggested his behaviour was influenced by the product sold at one of his many hotels. But having heard Singleton reflect on racing triumphs and tragedies, it is difficult to believe he would have remonstrated so forcefully with Waterhouse without harbouring, at the very least, a strong suspicion he had been wronged. Accordingly, another Singleton anecdote came to mind. The great trainer Tommy Smith wasn't happy his daughter was prancing around the West End of London pursuing an acting career. So he got on the blower to Singo and asked him to get Gai a job back home. Later, Singleton would vouch for Waterhouse when she gained her trainer's licence.
Smith was also standing beside Singleton when Rising Fear led that Melbourne Cup. With 200 metres to go, the great trainer told Singleton his horse had won, prompting a mad "victory" dash that left Singo red-faced when his horse was overtaken.
When people say Singleton and the Waterhouse family have history, they are not exaggerating. It is the kind of bond forged by those who have ridden the crest of waves together and, sometimes, been dumped. Which makes the current bust-up both unfortunate and, from the outside, compelling. As compelling as the characters themselves.
Waterhouse is, at once, the most accessible and most enigmatic figure. She promotes herself and her sport relentlessly. Yet, you can't help but wonder if the eternally upbeat millinery model who spans the racing guide and the fashion pages, is the same fiercely determined character who has not merely smashed racing's glass ceiling, but enjoyed success few trainers can hope to emulate.
You wonder, particularly, about the dynamics between the win-at-all-costs mentality inherited from her father, and the relationship with the Waterhouse clan. The uneasy trainer-bookmaker union that, unfairly, stalled her career. One that has now cast a shadow over her relationship with Singleton.
I once asked Waterhouse for an interview, hoping to get some insight into her nature, and was, very robustly, turned down. She did not like something I had written about her – although she didn't say what it was. It provided a couple of clues. Waterhouse is sensitive about the way she is portrayed, and does not suffer fools like me gladly.
At the same time, despite the high-profile protagonists and moral dilemmas – most pertinently, the alleged conflict of interest between trainer mother and bookmaker son – there is a touch of professional wrestling about this tale. The great characters; blokey squillionaire owner, larger-than-life trainer, celebrity bookmaker son and legendary NRL star. The "racetrack morals" in application, if not legislation, are an oxymoron.
Boil it down, and there is one thing everyone will agree on. Much better that Tom Waterhouse was at the track when the confrontation took place. Not giving his thoughts on his beloved Broncos.