Harry White: Four-time Melbourne Cup winner a gentleman
When the Melbourne Cup came around on Tuesday, the only living jockey to have won four of them watched the race from his Kyneton hospital bed with a staunch friend to keep him company.
The betting suggested that either Kerrin McEvoy or Damien Oliver could win and match the 40-year-old record of the quiet man with the gentle hands.
His name is Harry White, known as “Aitch”.
His most famous contemporary Roy “the Professor” Higgins once quipped “Harry is a genius on a horse … and just Harry White off it.”
A genius who didn’t much like hitting horses with the thin, unpadded whips of his era.
A genius who knew as much about riding in distance races as maybe anyone in the world during 35 years in the saddle, but who also won every big sprint race in Australia.
A genius widely suspected of dozing off in the middle stages of staying races, only to wake up when the (other jockeys’) whips were cracking to ride out his horse hands and heels.
It is ironic, in fact, that the winning Cup jockey, apart from pocketing a cash bonanza, receives the “Harry White whip”.
The whip was the one bit of jockey kit that Harry didn’t much worry about.
Whereas most big names of the 1970s and 1980s took their cue from that fearsome whip rider Mick “The Enforcer” Dittman, Harry stood apart.
If his coolness in the saddle and kindness to his mounts didn’t always please owners and punters, he didn’t care.
He rode that beautiful horse Rubiton in the spring of 1987 for Mike Willesee, television king and a prominent owner.
After a brilliant Cox Plate win, Rubiton started in the Mackinnon Stakes.
He won on courage and brilliant hands-and-heels riding.
As other riders took him on, whips flailing, White refused to draw the stick.
“I just wanted to show ’em I could do it without hitting him,” he said later.
It was the sort of display that stewards filmed to show apprentices another way.
That’s one film clip the animal rights lobby ought to promote.
But there’s another one: White’s 1972 Caulfield Cup win on Sobar, perhaps the best horse he ever rode.
It rankled him that the colt ran in the Derby despite being sore and that he was savagely criticised when he ran second to the brilliant Dayana.
White wouldn’t hit Sobar with the whip because he thought the colt was in pain.
He was right. Sobar was never quite the same afterwards.
White was bred to be a jockey.
His father won a Caulfield Cup but later hit the bottle.
The young Harry spent time in the jerry-built slum of post-war Melbourne, Camp Pell, temporary accommodation in Royal Park thrown together for troops in the 1940s.
He was raised by his battling grandparents and learned to ride very young.
At 13 he rode work at Flemington.
At 15 he rode in races.
At 18 he was suspended with other rogue apprentices for drunken misbehaviour, but after eight months persuaded the stewards to give him another chance, saying he had “got engaged to a nice girl”.
Her name was Lauris and she turned his life around.
The wild kid became the wise jockey. So laid back, as the saying went, he was sometimes horizontal.
Such as with his second Cup in 1975.
Jockeys are tough, nearly nerveless, but the jockeys’ room in the countdown to the Cup is one of the tensest places in sport.
Back then, when crowds genuinely nudged 100,000, the course was jammed on Cup Day and tension was high.
As the minutes ticked towards race time, jockeys were a picture of attempted nonchalance and nervous tics.
They might hum or chatter or skylark or smoke as they waited, visualising how the field might take shape in the first charge past the post that so often determines the outcome two minutes and 2000m later.
What they don’t do is sleep.
Except for H. White, booked for Think Big after the winning on him the year before.
White thought he was a chance until the rain came.
Think Big wasn’t seen as a mudlark.
According to Roy Higgins, Harry said: “That’s the end of Think Big. I’ll be having a social ride in the Cup.”
Half an hour later, the horses were circling the mounting yard with riders up.
All except Think Big, which was still riderless. In the room, the club doctor looked behind a screen and found White asleep.
The race that stops a nation didn’t stop “Aitch” snatching a nap.
The worried doctor woke him up.
White muttered sleepily: “I’m in this.”
Some swear that the doc heard this as “I’ll win this” and, as White wandered out into the yard to be legged up, rushed to the betting ring to take advantage of his “tip”, which had drifted to 33/1.
Think Big won. The doc won. Harry bought a Mercedes-Benz.
Twenty years later, he still had it.
And a later model, exactly the same colour, in the garage of the new house he and Lauris built on their farm at Gisborne.
The story goes that Harry wanted the second Mercedes to look like the other one so the other jocks wouldn’t notice the difference and think he was big-noting.
It is history that he rode back-to-back Cup winners twice — the other two being Arwon in 1978 and the rogue Hyperno the following year, when he had the quiet pleasure of besting his popular rival Higgins in a tight finish.
Think Big and Hyperno lived out long lives with the cows on the showpiece property at Gisborne.
When the time came, Harry buried them there, with headstones and flower beds and all.
Think Big’s name was etched in wrought iron on the gate.
Fair enough, too. The old horse pretty well paid for the place.
Harry White didn’t so much retire as go out of fashion.
When a new breed of jockeys with managers and mobile phones arrived in the 1990s, Harry still waited for trainers to call him at home.
He refused to chase rides the way the youngsters did.
He came home one day in 1995 after riding in a maiden at Geelong and said it was over. He didn’t get heavy, hurt or frightened.
He had hung on until he was 51 in the unspoken hope of riding a fifth Cup winner. Times changed and Harry didn’t.
But, a generation later, the best jockeys in the world still haven’t equalled his four Cups.
His devoted Lauris died and he sold the farm for more money than a Cup-winning owner gets.
He has battled multiple sclerosis for years, but doesn’t complain.
Instead, he thinks of others.
Few people know he quietly invested a huge sum on behalf of injured jockeys. Each year the dividend helps support the growing list of crippled riders.
It’s hard to think of another wealthy trainer or jockey who might do that.
But that’s Harry White. He runs his own race.
Originally published as Harry a gentleman in every way