Jack Ross aged 81 and his 76-year-old wife Joan were photographed at the City Golf Club in Toowoomba in March 2011.
Jack Ross first saw the light of day on 8 March 1930 – one year into the Great Depression, noting: “I was born in the depression, but my father Bill couldn’t hack the depression, so he gave us the a(rse) when I was about three years of age. Everyone was battling, including my mother and she used to get part-time work at a pub or a station, so I had no Dad. The depression eventually ended but the country didn’t get back on its feet until just before the war (World War II), so my grandparents raised me and during the war when I was about 13 or 14 I got a job selling papers in Sydney. Mum in the meantime met my (new) Dad, Keith Ross, when I was six or seven. He ended up serving in the war – in the Air Force.”
Jack learnt from a very young age that he had to go and work to try to get some money, recalling: “I sold papers for about two years on the corner of Castlereagh and Cleveland Streets in the slums – Redfern and Surry Hills – and that was next to the (Kings) Cross”, so with his tongue firmly entrenched in his cheek he added, “so I had a good upbringing I can assure you.”
However, Jack owes his entry into the racing industry from the exposure he got when selling papers, commenting, “One day when selling papers as a 14-year-old, a chap picked me up and he said ‘You’re a light fella, do you like horses?’ I said, ‘Yeah I love horses’ and he said ‘I can get you a job out at the stables.’ So I went out to Randwick and worked as a strapper for two years, working for a chap named Jack King. He had two apprentices and they were getting heavy and so he said to me ‘There’s not much future here for you’ and I said ‘Well I’d better give it away’ and he said ‘No don’t give it away, go and see this bloke, Fred Russell.’ So I went and spoke to Fred Russell and he said he’d need to talk to my Mum and Dad. So they went and saw him and he said to them ‘I’ve got an idea this fella is going to get pretty heavy. He’s got big hands and big feet, but if he shows enough potential I’ll apprentice him.’ And that’s how I came to get apprenticed at age 15 to Fred Russell.”
Asked how he got on with his new boss Fred Russell, Jack said: “He taught me everything I knew about riding. There were no videos or Sky Channel back then, so he’d sit down with me and tell me what I did wrong. Now I rode about 50 horses for him, and I’m not going to say they were all dead, but I’m going to say they had no hope as he’d put me on things that were no good, or ready for a spell, or horses that were just returning from a spell and clearly needed the run. But he always said to me, ‘Never mind about trying to win, look at what you are going to do on your horse through the race. All these champion jockeys are terrific riders so follow them and learn from them.’ And that’s how I learnt to be a jockey as I’m talking about following the greatest riders you’d ever see – Cook, Munro, Mulley, Bartle, O’Sullivan and then the boys would come over from Melbourne, you know, Williamson, Hutchinson, Badger, Breasley and I used to sit opposite Darby Munro in the jockeys’ room at Randwick and I’d watch him and we got quite friendly.”
Jack explained how as a green apprentice riding in Sydney he lost the plot when asked to ride one of his boss’s horses that could win. He takes up the story by saying: “Fred Russell’s stable runners would only win five or six races all year, but SP was rife back then, so they’d win at big odds with their horses. He said to me during the week that ‘you’ve learnt enough for now. You are riding confidently. You can ride this mare Lady Charming on Saturday in a Welter at Randwick.’ On race day when we were walking around the enclosure he said to me ‘this can win’ and she was about 33/1. Well you’ve never seen anyone mess a race up like I did. I missed the kick, I went around them about four deep, took off at the half mile (800m), raced around them five deep on the home turn and the mare ran fourth. I didn’t want to return to the enclosure, I knew what I’d done. Anyway when I got back to the enclosure he walked over to me and said ‘Just get your gear and I’ll meet you out at the truck’. Never said any more. He walked up to me the next morning and said ‘You didn’t have a real good day yesterday, did you? Unfortunately we can’t put you back on the mare. The owners don’t want you on her again.’ At her next start a couple of weeks later, they put (Athol) Mulley on her and she won a big race.”
Fred Russell, to whom Jack Ross was apprenticed, had a son, Harry Russell, who trained up at Ballina and Jack Ross would travel up to the Northern Rivers now and again and eventually Fred asked Jack if he’d like to go up there and stay and Jack recalls “I jumped at the chance, then rode at the Northern Rivers for the next three-and-a-half years and that completed my apprenticeship in New South Wales.”
Despite winning three consecutive apprentice titles at his first three years of riding in the Northern Rivers, Jack had had a gutful. “I’d been riding all these winners and yet I never had a zac,” he explained, continuing: “When I told Harry Russell I was going to give it all away there was another trainer named George Watson standing there and he said ‘Son, whatever you do don’t give it away, you’ve only got eight months to go (of your apprenticeship) and if you abscond with these fellas you’ll never get another licence. Stick it out, you’ve got ability.’ They were supposed to give me ten shillings a week ($1) and that and hadn’t been, so I complained to the Chief Steward that I wasn’t getting paid and had to do other duties like milk cows. They held a meeting of all parties at a pub in Casino and it got resolved that both my master and I would have to sign a book each week for my pay and so I saw out my apprenticeship at Ballina at age 20, even though the stewards brought it to my attention that it stated in the fine print that the master didn’t have to pay his apprentice to ride one of his horses, which I never knew.”
A mate of Jack’s, a fellow jockey named Skeeter Sanders, was responsible for getting Jack to move from Ballina to Toowoomba at the expiration of his apprenticeship. “He got in touch with a few fellas on the Northern Rivers and said I should go to Toowoomba, so that’s where I finished up,” Jack said.
When Jack got to Toowoomba he recalls he “had no money” even though he finished his five-year apprenticeship in New South Wales. However there were no national rules about apprentices and under Queensland racing rules an apprentice had to be 21 years old before they could become a fully fledged rider, so Jack linked up with a Toowoomba trainer named Fred Brown, who let him be apprenticed to him for the remaining 12 months. Jim Atkins and trainers like that wanted Jack to go to Brisbane and ride their horses for them, but to allow that to happen he had to get another licence from the QTC (Queensland Turf Club). About a fortnight after Jack had travelled to Brisbane with Fred Brown to front the committee, a letter turned up granting Jack that Brisbane licence.
Soon after being granted his licence to ride in Brisbane Jack rode a mare called Thuwise for a chap named Les Naskey. “She didn’t get beaten in Toowoomba. She went right through from Maiden class to Open company and I became very friendly with the Naskeys and it was at their house I met their daughter Joan, who I married some years later (on 23/7/55). Les Naskey won a Toowoomba trainers’ premiership even though he only had two horses in work.”
Even though Jack Ross was “a heavy jockey riding around 8 stone 2 pounds (51.5 kgs) or 8 stone 3 pounds (52.0 kgs) and I used to have to waste to ride that,” he rode successfully in Toowoomba, the Darling Downs and Brisbane for the next 28 years and in that time he clocked up over 1700 winners. In his wonderful career he won cumulatively 22 jockey premierships, those three apprentice’s titles on the Northern Rivers and the rest in Queensland. At Clifford Park in Toowoomba where he was based, he won 13 senior jockey premierships, including one stint when he won nine premierships in a row.
Upon his retirement Jack Ross was asked to – and accepted – the role of a steward, a job he performed for the next 26 years on the Downs and South West region panel, reaching the rank of Deputy Chief Steward to such respected Chief Stewards as Jack Penhaligan and Clem Halcroft.
It was in 1992 at the age of 62 that Jack retired from the racing industry. Along the way he and Joan had four sons, in descending order of age – Colin (aged 55), Allan (52), Garry (50) and Craig (40) and those four sons and their wives have cumulatively given Jack and Joan six grandchildren. Allan is directly involved in the racing industry as he is both a licensed thoroughbred trainer and part owner of Biram Stud outside of Toowoomba, whilst Garry owns one or two racehorses.
These days, 81-year-old Jack Ross and his 76-year-old bride Joan still live in Toowoomba, enjoying the fruits of their labours and both are in seemingly good health. Jack, a former smoker, puts his longevity and good health down to “being so fit for all those years I was a jockey. There may have been a better jockey around, but I’ll bet you there wasn’t a fitter one. Apart from being a jockey I’d play cricket, tennis, golf and I’d run.”
No visit to an 81-year-old person from Toowoomba would be complete without asking that person to share their memories of the greatest horse that ever raced there – Bernborough. Asked for his opinion of the great horse, Jack said “Bernborough had left Toowoomba when I arrived here as a 20-year-old, but I did get to ride him trackwork one day when I was an apprentice in Sydney. (Trainer Harry) Plant wanted to work him and (Athol) Mulley hadn’t turned up, which could happen with Mulley, so my boss said I’d ride him work. Plant was worried the horse would be too strong for me, but I just trotted him around then let him run home his last five furlongs (1000 metres).”
Asked the best horses, jockeys and trainers, he’d seen in his long life, Jack wasted no time in naming Darby Munro as “the best rider I’ve ever seen. He was a very strong rider and he was very vigorous and well balanced but he suffered badly with sugar and sugar in people is bad enough today but it was hard on people in those days and of course Darby used to drink a fair bit, so that didn’t help. The other two who were nearly on a par with Munro would be George Moore and Neville Sellwood. As far as country riders were concerned I think Ned Dokerty and Ben Tebb were the best. We had some really good riders here in Toowoomba though you know, blokes like Kenny Waller and Ronnie Doyle, and Goltzie (Ronnie Goltz) is still riding well, but overall I don’t think the current jockeys are quite up to the standard of a Doyle or a Waller.”
When the topic changed to racehorses, it was simply a one-horse race in Jack’s eyes. “Fair dinkum I reckon Tulloch is the best horse I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to say he’s better than a mare that won three Melbourne Cups, but he nearly died over a two-year period, then he came out after two years and won a 10 furlong (2000 metres) race at Caulfield first up, first up bear in mind and beat one of the best weight-for-age horses we’ve ever seen – Lord.”
On the subject of trainers Jack Ross thought three stood out from the crowd, in order, “Bayley Payten, Maurice McCarten and Bart Cummings.”
Asked his thoughts on the future of racing, Jack pondered for a while and said he thought the biggest problem today was that apprentices that show ability can just keep switching stables “and need never become a horseman. When we were apprenticed in my day, you learnt not only how to ride; you learnt to do everything with the horse, you know, to feed him, to do their teeth, to clip them and things like that. There’s a lot of trainers today even who wouldn’t know how to do a horse’s teeth. In fact I’ll guarantee they can’t.”
I asked Jack if he’d tell me about his time as stable rider for legendary western Queensland trainer C.W. (Cocky) Easton, who Miller’s Guide credits as being the only trainer in Australian thoroughbred history to train all seven winners at a race meeting – and he didn’t do it once, he did it twice (Eulo in 1956 and Cunnamulla in 1961). Cocky Easton, taken prisoner of war by the Japanese and locked up in the notorious Changi camp, earned notoriety in that camp for his brave efforts. Jack said he got to know Cocky Easton when his normal stable rider “Bruce McLean broke his leg at one time and Bruce along with one of his managers, Con Sullivan, came and saw me to see if I’d ride horses for Cocky out there. I think we won seven races over two days and from then on I was his number one rider”. Asked what sort of a bloke Cocky Easton was, Jack smiled broadly, had a laugh, thought for a minute, then said, “He was a good bloke, but honest to God he was a villain of a man. He used to drink a bit and that. All the graziers out there (west) respected him. You see all those graziers from out there at Bourke, Cunnamulla, Charleville and right down to Roma, they all went away, more or less, to the war together. And they were all in (prisoner of war) camps together and Cocky Easton looked after them. He’d kill the camp dogs and feed them to those people. They’ll tell you that, those graziers, they swore by him. When they came back from the war he could do anything. They bought him horses and after the war, racing just took off out in the back country, due to the wheat, cattle and sheep. Cocky was very, very cross-eyed and so was his father Bill and I think the Japanese went a bit easy on him because of that.”In the school of hard knocks called life, Jack Ross to this point in time could be considered a very lucky man. After all he has sat astride the mighty racehorse Bernborough, returned triumphant to the winners circle over 1700 times, won 22 jockeys premierships, worked as a respected steward for over quarter of a century, remains happily married to the same woman that first made his heart skip a beat over 55 years ago, fathered four children and is a devoted grandfather to six grandchildren. In any fair person’s assessment – and in the general score of things – he’s led a full and fruitful life.