There’s a Martin Scorsese movie hiding in here somewhere with an incredible script, soundtrack and some truly absorbing characters: When Nash Rawiller, below, won on Harmony Hero at Sha Tin on Sunday, what some might not have realised or had forgotten was that fourteen years earlier, the jockey won his first big race aboard Elvstroem, the sire of this now Hong Kong owned galloper who had won both of his races in Australia before being sold to Hong Kong connections for a reported AUS$1.3 million.
Forget Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon. These two wins completed a circle for Nash Rawiller. It also brought back memories of those times when an often underrated galloper in “Elvis”- Elvstroem made his mark. With his rider, they’ve both travelled under the radar. They’ve let the results speak for themselves. Sometimes, others have to speak on their behalf for the words to resonate.
At least for myself, the win of Harmony Hero sparked off a sense of déjà vu and being transported to another time and space when horse racing was very different- a different atmosphere, very different characters and, in many ways, the sport’s very own Wolf Of Wall Street days, at least in Melbourne during Spring Carnival time.
Unlike today, no one mentioned any of the racing clubs, its executives and “disruptive” politics. It was only about the horses- the champion horses, especially- and those privileged enough to ride them.
Everyone seemed to know each other despite there being no social media- and probably BECAUSE there was no social media. The focus was on the real world. We didn’t know nor need any other. There were no inane “competitions” to gain “followers” and graduate to being a VIB- Very Important Bluetick. There was no need to work at being known. You either were or you weren’t. It really didn’t matter either way.
Instead, the early 2000s were still going through what had come before- an explosion of creativity- brilliant movies, music, books, game changers. Horse racing was a bit player in all of this, but all of “this” rubbed off on all of that.
Everyone had their own cliques with the favourite meeting place being either one of the restaurants at Crown Casino or JJ’s where Lloyd Williams had his table and jockeys would show up to give respect. It was like a scene from The Godfather with Lloyd Williams being the Don. They might have even kissed his ring.
There was both a need to belong and a sense of belonging with a certain pride in knowing the big name jockeys, “The Collector” and even the enablers who inhabited that space- the good, the bad and the ugly. There really were “colourful characters” with the dangerous being the most interesting.
Like a movie that was “Goodfellas” and complex characters from the “Godfather” Trilogy, especially the intense Michael Corleone and his trust in the consigliere and lawyer Tom Hagen plus real life gangsters Al Capone, Jack “Legs” Diamond, and going even further back to Jesse James, many of us have always been drawn to these outsiders living on the edge and those who were invited to sit at their table. People like Frank Sinatra who brought Vegas, Hollywood and the Rat Pack to American politics. It was about power and influence and style.
As James Brown sang, it was a man’s man’s man’s world on the surface, but the women always held the best cards and knew when to play them. #MeToo would have just been a diversion from the bigger stakes up for grabs.
As for horse racing, after weight took its toll on his riding career, Tony Vasil was an up and coming trainer- probably THE up and coming trainer at the time.
Through a mutual friend I got to know him- at that time a happy, confident, approachable and very good horseman who loved his karaoke sessions and had a promising young galloper named Elvstroem. The promising young galloper progressed far enough to start favourite for the 2004 Caulfield Cup.
With my parents living in Melbourne, I would visit them quite regularly together with Norman Cheng, my friend and business partner at PolyGram Music Australasia which eventually became Universal Music Asia Pacific.
Norman was the expert on horses- an urbane Chinese gentleman who owned horses in Europe and the States, dealt only with British bloodstock agent Andy Smith who was at the top of his game at that time, and seemed to know all there needed to know about pedigrees and the entire racing caper- not in Australia, but mainly in Europe and America.
Me, I just went along for the ride and was far more interested in nights out at Crown and karaoke sessions at Fidel’s cigar diva in the basement where there was always some kind of action and various distractions going on to keep one interested…
They were exciting times bordering on flirting with danger. There was a Seize The Day mentality. Life was for living and being in horse racing, especially around horse racing royalty, was aspirational. To a music guy who had only recently left the world of advertising, here was a fascinating world totally different to any inhabited before.
Sure, there were those who skated on thin ice, but they never hid the fact just as there were the hangers on and freeloaders who were somehow tolerated. There wasn’t the angst and handwringing and pontificating that exist today on Planet Twitter where one can drown in opinions and false bluster.
During one of these visits to Melbourne much of the talk was around Elvstroem and who would ride him in the upcoming Caulfield Cup. Though Nash Rawiller had won on the horse’s recent races, there were some who felt he wasn’t a Big Race jockey. Brett Prebble who had done a lot of riding for Tony Vasil was mentioned as the right man for the job, but so were Patrick Payne and Damien Oliver who had won the 2003 Victoria Derby on the galloper.
In the end, Tony Vasil and the connections made the decision that the ride go to the up and coming Nash Rawiller. The rest as they say is history and Elvstroem won the Caulfield Cup beating the great Makybe Diva by a nose. “Elvis” had entered the building.
Overnight, the name Nash Rawiller became much more than it was whereas he and “Elvis” went on to take out the 2005 Duty Free Stakes. And so when Harmony Hero aka Lina’s Hero won his first race in Hong Kong on Sunday with Nash aboard, it was of course an emotional moment for the soft spoken jockey. The Gnasher, always the quiet achiever.
To those who were there to see the successes of Elvstroem- and privy to those times- to take that quantum leap from 2004 in Melbourne to 2018 at Sha Tin, took some of us back in time to fill in the blanks between then and now which we might have subconsciously blocked to forget the hurt caused. The domino effect.
Lives have changed, there have been huge red flags, some reversals of fortune and horse racing has changed forever. Was horse racing in Australia better in those days? “Better” is relative, but the sport seemed more of respected when smaller. Small was better. It wasn’t all about the prize money. Prestige was far more an expensive commodity to own.
To someone like myself in the music industry, it was something new and exciting. Winning was a buzz. Losing meant waiting for tomorrow to get back into the black. And if tomorrow didn’t work out, there was always another tomorrow while sitting at the bar at Crown Casino where we would meet to watch the races on the big screen the whole day and go through bottles of champagne.
It was about betting and winning and losing and then chasing with enough distractions to get past today- alcohol, dope, women, uppers, downers and a cocktail of them all. Was it all becoming addictive? It didn’t seem so at the time.
Everyone had “mail” and us two visitors from Hong Kong believed them all. We laid down huge money as, depending on who one knew, there was no credit limit. All the time meanwhile, we were paying for lunches and dinners for constantly expanding tables comprising complete strangers who tagged along for the free ride. The music industry was booming and what was a few thousand dollars for a long lunch? It bought us bragging rights. It also bought us many false friends. It taught us many hard life lessons.
It’s why these days we trust very very few in horse racing. Extremely few. No longer do we attend the Melbourne Spring Carnival every year. We want to remember everything as it was. Like the Blues of Robert Johnson, the reggae of Bob Marley and the acoustic Bob Dylan, there was soul, honesty and purity in the impurity of it all. It somehow worked.
Some we knew then have fallen on hard times. Some fell on their own swords. It was karma calling. Others left this world forever whereas one-time friendships and relationships have crumbled without forgiveness.
Racing in Hong Kong that we saw starting to grow twenty years earlier with the arrival of a trainer the calibre of Ivan Allen, South African jockeys Basil Marcus, Felix Coetzee and an unknown named Douglas Whyte plus the brilliance of the enigmatic Frenchman Eric Saint Martin, the great Gerald Mosse, and legends of the turf like Michael Kinane were taking the former British colony into far more international racing waters.
All this was neatly interwoven into the very fabric that makes Hong Kong what it is: Its ability to be local and cosmopolitan and international and be all things to all people.
And then there’s Nash Rawiller. After moving there and being the most successful rider in Sydney along with Hugh Bowman, he surprised many by deciding he was going to make Hong Kong the next stop in his career plan.
Like Sinatra singing “My Way”, through it all, he’s done it his way. He’s taken the blows- the many suspensions for careless riding, a horrific fall, fighting for rides, fighting to survive, adapting to the Hong Kong style of riding, taking on the critics and winning by making the results count and always having the unwavering support of family.
We saw that on International Day when he won the Group 1 International Sprint aboard Mr Stunning.
“Elvis” aka Elvstroem would be proud of his old mate and happy that his son- Harmony Hero, formerly trained by another old friend in Tony Vasil- is in Hong Kong today with the kid’s future looking more than promising.
The circle has been completed. It’s been quite a ride. Fourteen years later, there’s now a new chapter to be written.
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