As the horses thundered to the turn their nostrils flared and their eyes glared. Their coats glistened in the late afternoon sunshine. Each pulled hard against its rider. They appeared to know there was a mere four hundred metres to go, the winning post was in sight. They also knew those metres would be the hardest of the race.
The jockeys, in their brightly coloured silks, were eyeing each other and their steeds. They released a little more rein, feeling the response through their fingers. Slowly the positions changed. The leaders appeared to slow whilst others made up ground. The field spread across the track. Whips were cracking, the excitement mounted, the race caller’s voice became more strident and the crowd more vocal. Just a hundred metres to go ...
The small dapper gentleman, wearing his trademark trilby hat, leaned against the rail of the parade ring at Sydney’s Royal Randwick Racecourse. His blue eyes twinkled and his smile broadened as he eyed the thoroughbreds strutting before him. As he watched, he wistfully thought back over the one hundred years of his memorable life. He recalled the many times he had entered similar enclosures to be legged aboard some of racing’s finest horses, in so many different places around the globe. This story is about a man who has experienced the world of racing longer than any other. A world that brings together the least fortunate in our community with aristocracy and royalty, in the one place at the one time – the racetrack. It is into this world that his amazing story is woven.
A few days before his actual birthday, the rich tapestry of his wonderful one-hundred-year life had been celebrated in the ornate boardroom of the venue where he now stood. Dignitaries of the racing world made their speeches and proposed their toasts. A race named in his honour had been run at the previous meeting.
On the anniversary of his birth – October 30, 2013 – the family gathered at his home in the beachside suburb of Avalon. The room was bedecked with red, black and white balloons representing the racing colours bequeathed to him many years ago. The Queen’s letter was on display with others from the nation’s dignitaries. Television crews arranged lighting for the interviews they were to conduct. It was a unique and special occasion, in that no other person involved in the horse racing world had previously reached this milestone.
Many of those present were unaware of his exploits for they occurred more than half a century ago, before most were born. To enlighten them, I, as the eldest of his sons-in-law, briefly spoke about his outstanding career. To enlighten you, I wrote this book. It traces the life of Edgar Britt, a gentleman of the turf, who has lived and experienced the world of horse racing for nearly a century.
CHAPTER ONE -
- part sample
The tall slender man took the hand of his new bride and said, ‘Let our adventure begin.’
It was 12 August 1909 when Sydney Britt married Edith Simmonds in the local church at Woking in southern England. Both were aged twenty-four years. As they walked down the aisle and out into the bright autumn sunshine, like all newlyweds they wondered what life had in store for them.
Their first two years of married life were uneventful. Sydney worked as a trained electrician. It was an interesting vocation because electricity was then a relatively recent invention that was lighting up the world and Sydney knew it had unlimited potential. As well as illumination it provided the power source for many new innovations, not the least of which was radio, an expanding and useful form of communication.
Sydney and Edith were an adventurous couple. Just how adventurous came to light when Sydney had an argument with his father. Little is known about that quarrel but it was serious enough for the young couple to pack up their belongings and leave England. The year was 1911. They journeyed to Liverpool and boarded a ship bound for Australia. The other end of the earth. Sydney wanted to get as far away from his father as possible.
During the voyage the ship called at various ports, each one providing the couple with a small insight into how others in the world lived. At times the seas were rough and like many others aboard, Syd and Edith experienced the woes of sea sickness. Whilst enduring that misery they wondered about the choice they had made. Would their destination be the utopia they sought?
Eventually, after six long weeks at sea, daybreak dawned as the ship passed through Sydney Heads and sailed into the magnificent harbour. As the young couple silently viewed the scene before them, their excitement mounted. A new life for the twenty-six year olds had begun.
Given his training as an electrician Syd had no trouble gaining employment with the Australian Gaslight Company in Balmain. He quickly developed a reputation as a clever, inventive and popular worker. He used his hands with great dexterity and constantly used his mind to generate new ideas. This latter trait is illustrated by one of his everyday inventions.
It was common practice for Syd and his workmates to enjoy a ‘smoko’ every morning. They gathered to chat about the events of the day over a cup of coffee. One day Syd offered to make coffee without boiling the water on a stove. ‘You can’t do that!’ was the unanimous cry.
‘Oh yes I can,’ said Syd. ‘Watch this!’
He produced a water jug into which he had installed an electric element he had made. He plugged the jug into a power point. The men sat still and stared at the container as steam began to rise and the water boiled. The coffee was successfully brewed. To the amazement of his colleagues Syd’s invention worked.
Unfortunately he had no business or marketing ability to match his inventiveness, but one of his workmates did. He immediately saw the potential of the new invention, took it to Hotpoint and sold them the manufacturing rights. So the electric jug was born.
Early in February 1913 there was great excitement when Sydney learned that he was to become a father for the first time. Edith was of small stature but she bore her pregnancy well and gave birth to a healthy boy at their Balmain home on October 30, 1913. The proud parents named him Edgar Clive Britt.
From their modest brick terrace house at 64 Rosser Street, Balmain, it was a pleasant stroll down to the grocer, or even the water’s edge, and Edith enjoyed taking the baby out in his pram. With his large, round eyes and happy smile, he drew admiring glances from strangers whenever his mother took him out for a walk.
Shortly after Edgar’s birth, notification came from their landlord that he wished to sell the property and the family had to vacate. Fortunately Syd found another suitable house in Five Dock into which the family moved, but before long they were off again, this time to Kogarah. They were there when two years later Edith bore her second child, a sister for Edgar called Enid.
Edgar was developing into a healthy and strong little boy but like his mother was of small build. As the early years progressed, it became apparent that he was noticeably shorter in height than other children of similar age. Little did his parents know then what a blessing that would be later in life.
At the age of five Edgar began his schooling at Carlton Street School. By his own admission, he was not academically inclined. He was easily distracted and found little to interest him in the classroom. Despite the best efforts of his teachers, his school reports frequently placed him in the lower section of the twenty-pupil class.
Being smaller than his classmates made him an easy target for bullies, but Edgar never hesitated to fight back. He did not like to lose. His boundless energy and fierce determination more than compensated for any lack of height. It made his parents shake their heads in despair. They asked themselves what the future would hold for this young boy, who was so much smaller than others his age, and who showed no interest in acquiring the knowledge needed for a meaningful career.
The answer came from Syd’s next door neighbour, a friendly man by the name of George Knisbell. One hot summer afternoon, over a cool ale, Syd lamented to George, ‘I don’t know what we are going to do with Edgar. He has no interest in learning and is too small to swing a pick.’
After a long silence, whilst he pondered the question, George replied, ‘Well, I think he would make a great jockey.’
And so the seed was sown.
The boy had already shown some horse-riding ability, so this suggestion had merit. Some months earlier, Edgar had begged his father to buy a horse he had seen tethered in a nearby paddock, and although times were tough – there were now two children in the family and another on the way – Syd paid the asking price of five pounds. So, full of excitement, Edgar rode him home. Home was now in the bayside suburb of Oatley. Near to the house, which was located right on the water’s edge, was a cave. Straight away Edgar knew that it would become the stable for the large gelding he called Old Bill.
There was no money to spare for riding lessons, but that wasn’t going to deter Edgar. He simply taught himself. He rode Old Bill around the streets of Oatley at every opportunity, even to school and home again. The little boy on the large horse was a regular sight for the residents. It was soon evident to his parents that their son had a natural ability for horse riding.Oatley was close to Moorfield racecourse where Syd often spent Saturday afternoons. One day he took Edgar, who was by then in his early teens. The young lad was mesmerised by the whole scene. The track, the horses, the jockeys in their brightly coloured silks, the bookmakers and the crowd. The whole atmosphere captivated Edgar. He made up his mind there and then that he was going to become a jockey.
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