On Super Saturday, not long after Fiorente and Lankan Rupee had joined the greats of Australian turf by winning the Australian Cup and Newmarket Handicap respectively at Flemington, we heard that another racing great - Roy Higgins had died.
Born in 1938 at Koondrook in Victoria near the Murray River, Higgins commenced his riding career in 1953. He finished last on his first ride in the bush but went on to become a legend of Australian racing chalking up over 2300 victories and winning virtually every major event on the racing calendar. Higgins was known as ‘The Professor’ after Professor Henry Higgins in the musical My Fair Lady (his second name was Henry). In his post riding career giving mounting yard comments for radio listeners, he actually became to resemble a professor - with his glasses perched on the end of his nose Higgins would give insights to punters as the horses paraded about.
Higgins was an early hero of mine. As a 10 year old I kid I named my red Super Elliott bicycle ‘Red Handed’ and I ‘was Roy’ as on the way home from school I hurtled down the newly asphalted, long and straight Bells Road in Glengowrie in Adelaide racing neck and neck with my friends Dicky Parker (riding Galilee) and Paul O’Connor (on Light Fingers). We would tear down the street leaving cars in our wake and be chased by barking, nipping dogs - but wouldn’t stop until one of us had gotten a clear advantage and could be declared the winner. Of course all three of those horses were Melbourne Cup winners and were trained by Bart Cummings who had a long and successful partnership with Higgins.
Higgins won two Melbourne Cups (Light Fingers 1965 and Red Handed 1967) but one of his most memorable associations was with the wayward galloper Hyperno. Higgins caused a furore and was ‘rubbed out’ by stewards for controversially dropping his hands on Hyperno just before the post in the 1978 Moonee Valley Cup. Only a year later Higgins turned down the ride on Hyperno in the 1979 Melbourne Cup to ride Salamander and those two horses had a great tussle in the event and were locked together as they crossed the finishing line. I can still remember grasping my betting ticket and the long, anxious wait as the judge looked over the photo and tried to separate the two. Hyperno with Harry White aboard eventually got the nod and I got to collect.
In My Fair Lady Professor Henry Higgins says “You see, the great secret Eliza, is not a question of good manners or bad manners, or any particular sort of manners, but having the same manner for all human souls”. Roy Higgins was renowned for not only his great riding ability, but also his ability to speak to and relate to people from all walks of life. He will be remembered as being a true champion of the Australian turf and a champion bloke.
By Mark Hall Aussieraces.com March 2014