Roy Higgins and ‘Mother’ capture hearts with Melbourne Cup win

Iconic image: Roy Higgins and Light Fingers after their 1965 Cup win. Photo: Supplied

Iconic image: Roy Higgins and Light Fingers after their 1965 Cup win. Photo: Supplied

Iconic image: Roy Higgins and Light Fingers after their 1965 Cup win. Photo: Supplied

Wizard of Odds: Live Odds, Form and Alerts for all RacingFull coverage: Melbourne Cup 2014

The pair of Bart Cummings and Roy Higgins won more than 100 stakes races, and they unearthed many a star of the turf. Their partnership dates back to not long after the young rider first moved to Melbourne.

The combination of Higgins’ lightning-fast instincts and Cummings’ brilliance as a trainer would reap many unforgettable wins on the track. One of the most memorable, of course, would be with the legendary thoroughbred Light Fingers.

According to Higgins, Light Fingers “felt more like a six-year-old mare than a three-year-old filly”. He nicknamed her “Mother” because she had that nature that allowed her to work as a lead pony for other horses, as well as nurturing or mothering some of the younger horses in the stable.

In the spring of 1965, Cummings not only had Light Fingers, but he had a handful of others, including his quality colt Ziema, to bolster his carnival team.

Where Light Fingers was as calm as a thoroughbred could be, Ziema was muscular and a bit wild. He would carry on, and buck, and throw his rider at trackwork. He would often only settle down when Light Fingers was brought along to lead him to the track. Higgins was aboard her when she was sent out favourite in the Caulfield Stakes, the week before the Caulfield Cup. However, 800 metres from home she clipped the champion Winfreux’s heels and almost toppled over. As her nose came dangerously close to the ground, she miraculously regained her feet and somehow managed to get herself back into rhythm in time to finish in third place.

It was a huge run, but it came at a cost. Given her great will to win, Light Fingers came out of the Caulfield Stakes stiff and sore with a ricked muscle in her neck and shoulder. She whinnied in pain one morning when a track jockey tried to get on her back to take her for a walk.

With her campaign in disarray, and battling a muscle injury, Light Fingers was only allowed to be slowly walked or swum in the Maribyrnong River, which runs adjacent to the Flemington Racecourse. Higgins wasn’t allowed to sit on her back until she got over her pain.

Her stablemate Ziema continued in his campaign towards the Melbourne Cup. He was unlucky in the Caulfield Cup, being severely interfered with before running second to Bore Head, before also being runner-up the following week in the Moonee Valley Cup. Meanwhile, with so much doubt over Light Fingers’ place in the Cup, Higgins was offered the ride on Matlock, who had shortened into Cup favourite. After a quick think, Higgins refused the offer, claiming that he couldn’t bear the thought of Light Fingers running and someone else on her. “My filly’s so good that if she gets to the post she just might win, and if she does it would break my heart not to be her rider,” he reiterated to the press a few days later.

A Melbourne Cup start was still up in the air and this remained so right up to the race, as Cummings was desperate to see more improvement. At dawn on Melbourne Cup morning, Higgins gave her another light jog over a furlong. Higgins said he felt that Light Fingers was two to three days off her best, but was still adamant that Light Fingers was well enough, and fit enough, to run in the Cup.

“It was that close,” Higgins recalled in a later interview. “She still needed a few more days to be 100 per cent, but Bart took the punt and ran her and I’m forever thankful that he did.”

Like most Melbourne Cups, that year’s race was two miles of incessant jostling and bumping. Higgins was wary of over- taxing Light Fingers by forcing her into unnecessary bumping duels. He had her in the front half of the field, with the plan of following Ziema, who was ridden by the then Adelaide-based jockey John J.J. Miller. Because Higgins knew how fit Ziema was, he was certain it was a winning strategy to trail Ziema and then have a late run at him and hope Light Fingers could outstay him. For Miller, his plan was to go ahead and wear Light Fingers down.

As the field straightened for home, three of the fancied runners, Yangtze, Ziema and Tobin Bronze, were sharing the lead until about a furlong and a half out from the post when Miller took Ziema past Yangtze, as that horse and Tobin Bronze both began to fade. As Ziema was going for home, there was only one horse emerging from the pack. It was Light Fingers.

With half a furlong to go, Ziema was still leading Light Fingers by three-quarters of a length, but Higgins suspected he had an ace up his sleeve. Ziema was bigger and no doubt fitter, but he felt that Light Fingers enjoyed a class and psychological edge over her rival.

Light Fingers moved up to Ziema’s girth, before moving up to his neck. The filly knew who she was chasing; after years of working as the lead pony for Ziema to calm him down and allow him to run past her in trackwork, here she was chasing him down, but the post was going to come too soon. However, Higgins felt that when Light Fingers got closer to Ziema, the colt became aware of her presence, and the jockey then knew he’d get to the post first.

“I realised I had it won about 30 yards from the winning post,” Higgins said later. “When suddenly Ziema changed stride, as a tired horse will do, and his tail sort of started to wave. I thought, ‘Well he has got nothing left and I am going strong’.

Miller, who had been riding for Cummings and for the emerging Colin Hayes in South Australia, said he thought he might have won but was happy to save on the result with Higgins after the line. “A stride past the post, Roy turned to me, he says, ‘What do you reckon?’ ” he recalled. “And I say, ‘I think I beat you, but I’ll save the monkey’. And he said, ‘No, no, no’. He relates the story later on and he said he knew he had got the money when I went to save the monkey.’

Cummings later said that he wouldn’t have minded a dead heat. But the developed print came up, and the course announcer said Light Fingers had won by a half-head. Higgins came in and he looked at Cummings and grinned, “Sorry I pipped you, Bart.” The picture of Higgins cradling Light Fingers’ head on their return to scale has become an iconic image of Australian racing. Australians quickly warmed to the country jockey made good and the little mare that beat them all with limited preparation.

As for Higgins’ connection to his horse, it is telling that in later years he refused to have any more than a few modest pictures in his house of any of the horses he rode, but he proudly displayed a large one of Light Fingers.

Edited extract from Roy Higgins: Australia’s Favourite Jockey by Patrick Bartley, Penguin, $39.99.

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