October 2007


The way of horse

By Craig Sherborne
Brian Mayfield-Smith with Maybe Better at Flemington, September 2007. © Eamon Gallagher
Brian Mayfield-Smith with Maybe Better at Flemington, September 2007. © Eamon Gallagher
At the track with Brian Mayfield-Smith

Racing is a place to read poems. A form guide consists of abstract poems of thoroughbreds’ fanciful names. Every day revised editions let down their skinny stanzas, numbered and priced. This edition I used to chant years ago:

Chance for Gold 
Tall Piper 
Rural Loch 
Duel Command 
Gentle to Me 
Give Me Silver 
Lunar Angel 
Heart ’n’ Mind ...

Racing people are the nicest people in the world, say the richer racing folk. They say that because they are winning. Losing will lose them those nice people, those fair-weather friends. Own a champion racehorse and you own friends for as long as that champion’s winning streak lasts.

Racing provides places for addict gamblers to exercise their desperate card shuffling: the white betting slips they fan out between their fingers, a fistful of them discarded to the bin like useless, counterfeit cash. Between races the TAB plays electronic gambling games. “Lost 30, one bet on the video-nags, but it was worth it. I now know my luck level for the fifth at Wyong,” says Mark, unemployed, professional gambler and loser.

“You can’t squander poverty,’’ laughs Pension Annie. She wears a felt hat with a Legacy badge stuck on the front. Beneath a blanket in her trolley she keeps her lunch of cask moselle.

Bored, happy starers at the TV screen. Thousands of them, who couldn’t care less about Spring Carnival fashion shows or Heath Ledger spotted in the mounting yard. They’ve got their losing to get on with. Each race breathes into them new sick, refreshing life. They care nothing for what a horse is. A horse has no fate or meaning other than race two, number five.

But animals are not numbers or performers on a garish, chattering screen. An animal is better to be with than you, and you, and you ...

Animal is peace. Human is war. Some humans cross over, back from the war side where the winning is to the peace side, to the deep, dirt soul of Horse. They belong on the Horse side, those humans, like a grafting of two species into one.

Even now Brian Mayfield-Smith goes to Horse to be at peace. He did so as a boy around his soldier father, who’d been so traumatised by his experiences in the World War II death machine there was “kickback” that his son was forced to endure. He did the enduring with horses instead of humans. “I went into my shell,” says Mayfield-Smith. “I’m a little bit of an oddball. If I want peace, my first reaction is to go to an animal I know, rather than go to a human being. If it wasn’t for animals, I would have gone nuts. I’d probably have ended up on the wrong side of the law or something. Animals have kept me in check.”

If the Melbourne Cup goes ahead this year, cheer for Mayfield-Smith. His horse is Maybe Better, third in last year’s race and one of the favourites this time. If horse flu stays away and the carnival goes ahead, cheer for Mayfield-Smith. Not because he’s an oddball with a shell he goes into or he needs the win. He doesn’t. He’s one of Australia’s most successful trainers ever. Don’t even think of the cheering as wishing him victory. It’s his greatest failure you should cheer. His greatest failure was his finest hour. As much as it hurts his soul that he failed, the failure was not his any more than it was the groaning Earth’s or the non-existent God’s. It was humanity’s. How do you take on humanity and do anything other than lose?

In 1995, Mayfield-Smith abandoned his training career and moved to Africa to save wild animals from cruelty, from extinction - in other words, from humanity. His was not some so-so career it took little thinking to walk away from. He was by then, at age 48, a fêted master horseman. He was based in Sydney and had topped the trainers’ premiership three times. He’d trained 21 Group 1 winners. He’d won two Sydney Cups, a Golden Slipper, Victorian and Queensland derbies, a Doncaster, a VRC Oaks.

You don’t walk out on that kind of success. Not in racing. You don’t turn your back on winning. For winning, wanting to win and win and win, is a racing man’s very identity. Yet not Mayfield-Smith’s: he walked out on racing. He truly is an oddball. Racing has not seen the likes of him.

“Racing is a pretty hard game. No one said what they probably thought - that I was a bloody idiot,” says Mayfield-Smith. Not that he cares much what people think of him. It’s what animals think of him that matters.

By 1995 he was wealthy, he was happily married, he couldn’t want for more in life. Oh, but he did. Since 1987 he and his wife, Maree, had holidayed in Africa. Nine trips in all. Such deep love welled in them for this terrible, wonderful land. Love and despair and anger.

Death has a home in every city and cranny of the world. But Africa is its mansion. There Death can sprawl out in a boneyard garden of disease, famine and warfare. There it can admire the rare beasts being slaughtered for the trinket body parts that humans trade. Ah yes, Africa is Death’s favourite address.

“We were there when the brutal poaching of elephants was at its worst. It just seemed like an outrage. When you’ve seen elephants with their faces cut out for their ivory, their bodies left to rot, to die ... Poachers just chop the faces out, pull out the ivory. They kill whole families of elephants. They kill the babies for just three or four inches of the stuff.” Rhinos suffer the same fate for their horn. “The horrific snares they have. You can just imagine the pain when animals are trapped and getting choked to death. Brutal.”

When he says ”brutal”, his left eye bites down hard at the corner in emphasis. Silence is Mayfield-Smith’s first language. English is merely what he speaks to transact quietly the daily business of living. But “brutal” and “chop” and “outrage” are words he seethes more than speaks. He sits on a chair in his Flemington stables and curls his grainy fists and declares that he hates injustice. Where there is injustice there must be great effort to “right the balance”.

Is that why he went to Africa - to right the balance? Yes. To right the balance. To do something. Not just sit and fret, but do. But can one man and one woman right the balance in Death’s sadistic kingdom?

It was naïve. It was foolish. But it felt real, and decent and right. “You’re only checking the tide a bit. Sooner or later the human tide just overcomes all of it,” he says. “It’s like human beings are a mob of locusts going to consume the rest of the animals one way or the other anyway. The only places those wild animals will survive eventually will be in zoos.”

Checking the tide a bit: a sick feeling that your cause is hopeless before you start. Why go ahead? “We knew we wouldn’t have any impact in the overall scheme of things. But we felt that we needed to be involved. We just had to try and do something for these animals. It became an emotional thing that had been building and building. You’ve only got one life.”

He and Maree wound up their Sydney training operation. They sold their home, their fancy Jaguar. Everything. And set out for Death’s play land of suffering.

In his shell-skin childhood in northern Queensland, all Mayfield-Smith had hoped to be was a stockman riding the Gulf Country’s isolated cattle trails. When, through the ‘60s, helicopter mustering forced many horsemen from the outback plains and road trains moved in to take cattle herds to market, Mayfield-Smith realised he was an anachronism, even though still in his twenties. He quit that life and moved back to his home town, Cairns. While salting hides in the local abattoir he overheard two workmates discussing horse racing. Horse racing: why hadn’t he thought of it before? Horse racing would be the perfect way in a modernised world to be a horseman for a living, back among his peace-giving kin of Horse.

He took stablehand jobs in Sydney, Brisbane, Cairns, until a stroke of good luck and goodwill: a family friend gave him a clapped out horse to train. Global Bid would win five from nine for Mayfield-Smith. Word slowly got around that this young man had uncanny horse smarts. He had a way of encouraging the animal to run, not from fear, not from hate of the whip’s threatening leather, but for the simple pleasure of feeling well, of wanting to go fasterfaster. Of wanting to do its best.

All thoroughbreds descend from the Byerley Turk, the fearless Balkans charger born in 1678. He was ridden into battle by Ottoman warlords and King William’s ruthless army at the Boyne before being retired to stud to sire racers. Byerley’s line became the fastest of all horses, but also the most sensitive - physically so fine that one mishap can crack them like china. One outburst of temper from you and they can flinch from human contact for life. The Mayfield-Smith way was the gentle way, the peace way. A way similar to famous American horse handler Monty Roberts: human and horse join up, as if in the same tribe; not dominance of the creature by the human, but leadership of it.

In 1976, another lucky break. A good horse had lobbed into Mayfield-Smith’s stables. Tiger Town was the type racing people call ‘a bit of class’ for his style, manners, better breeding. The horse equivalent of upper-crust. This was a horse Mayfield-Smith could take to the big time: Sydney. This horse would win there. He did, and then ran second in Randwick’s Group 1 mile, the Epsom Handicap.

There was no going home to Queensland now. Mayfield-Smith decided to stay and compete in Australia’s richest, most ruthless racing scene. A city of shiny-suited gangsters, sports-jacketed touts, bludgers and thugs. To get ahead as a trainer in Sydney, knowing one end of a horse from the other was preferred, though plenty relied more on their socialising skills, charming powerful owners into giving them a class animal. Mayfield-Smith was not a charmer. With a dark pork-pie hat always perched on his head and his shy country slow-talk, he appeared a generation older than his own age group, a backwater nice guy. But the horses ran for him. Through the late ‘70s, with a tiny team of ten thoroughbreds, he won more races than a small-timer usually did.

A rich widow, Millie Fox, and her advisors noticed this. The Fox stable, Nebo Lodge, housed 60 thoroughbreds needing a new trainer. Mayfield-Smith was given the job. Over the next six years he trained 300 winners for Nebo with horses of no exceptional breeding. Then, in 1984, the British tycoon Robert Sangster bought the stable and introduced superior bloodlines.

The legendary Tommy Smith had topped the trainer’s premiership for as long as anyone could remember - 33 years, in fact. He’d not looked like being seriously challenged. But in 1985, Mayfield-Smith knocked him off the top of the ladder. He stayed at the top for two years. By then Africa was in him, the beautiful futility of his cause.

They settled for two months in Nanyuki, north of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. The plan was to set out in a four-wheel drive and travel the continent. Somewhere in Death’s vast estate there’d be a little corner they could buy and set aside for nurturing Life, for wildlife. Somewhere on the edge of a national park or reserve where elephants, rhinos, big cats, could roam under Mayfield-Smith’s protection and tourists could observe them with Mayfield-Smith as guide.

He and Maree drove 40,000 kilometres around Africa. For 18 months they searched for a location. The Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe had good land beside it. But Robert Mugabe’s tyrannical regime scared them off.

Kenya would have been perfect. But bureaucratic red tape tripped them up. “You needed about 40 licenses to start up a six-tent tourist camp. It was ridiculous; it wasn’t financially viable. We would have gone bust in no time,” he says. “People like us who were not part of a research team sanctioned by government, there was not a lot we could do but give money as donations.”

Which is what he did. And still does. Frustrated, defeated, he and Maree returned home. “The thing about Africa is that it chews you up, and you eventually come back to where you came from,” he says. “Or else it just burns and wastes you.”

Horses are his bridge to the world. “They’re my bridge out of isolation,” Mayfield says, opening out his arms as if to welcome all the horses of the Earth. “I’m not a gregarious person. I don’t go to people. I stand back from people. I’ve always been like that. Horses have been able to take me from that self-imposed isolation and be an active and contributing person in the community.”

When in 1997 Mayfield-Smith returned to Australia, he decided to train horses again. He chose Flemington as his base: the track known as Headquarters. Sydney racing had faded by 1997. Melbourne had become the centre of the nation’s racing scene: best trainers, horses, riders; biggest prize money. A lower level of corruption too, or so it is perceived.

His dun pony, Hank, takes him into the pre-dawn dark each morning to walk, trot or canter among his small horse tribe of 20. When dawn light appears, Mayfield-Smith can study them with his Horse eye, his naturally evolved scientific instrument for reading their good health or their bad, their happiness or any sourness. He has no interest in stopwatches to measure the speed of their galloping. It’s how they look that matters. How they feel to be around.

Mayfield-Smith believes in “new way” training, the “co-operation method”. That “joining up” ethic alien to the sport, the business of racing, in which ethics and animal rights have traditionally been slapped away as interfering with making a dollar. Owners want a quick return on their investment. If a horse is near fit, race it. If it’s injured, patch it up, race it. Until a decade ago, steroid injections were a legal method for keeping horses artificially strong and sound. Ethics and horse racing are no longer such strangers. But nor are they bosom pals. Mayfield-Smith admits, “There is a solid percentage of unethical treatment of horses.”

Whipping, for instance. Mayfield-Smith can’t stand horses being whipped. In Australia jockeys can belt a horse all they like in races. In the northern hemisphere, the whip can only be used every few strides. “It’s a pet hate of mine. We use the whip too much here. I have spoken to Des Gleeson [Victoria’s chief racing steward] and he’s sympathetic to my views, though it seems hard to get agreement on. But I’ve seen a horse, just last Saturday, and it’s dropped back to second-last inside the last 200 metres and the jockey’s still whipping it. It really makes me sick. And it’s counter-productive anyway, because the horse curls up with the pain of it. Their muscles spasm and they can’t stretch out.”

Death and its angels, the Miseries, continue to party in their African residence. Slaughter of wildlife is the daily entertainment. There are 400,000 elephants in the wild there. Some 20,000 were killed illegally last year. According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, 29 tons of elephant ivory were seized between August 2005 and August 2006. In a perverse encore, elephants have over-bred where protected, destroying the habitat. Earlier this year in South Africa, 5000 were culled to curb their numbers. Entire elephant families were shot, outraging conservation groups, who accused authorities of incompetent management of animal populations.

Only 3600 black rhinos are left in the wild. The World Wildlife Fund reports a massive increase in rhino poaching since 2000. Between 2003 and 2005, 60% of rhinos in Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo were killed illegally.

Poverty is so extreme in central Africa that 1.1 metric tons of wildlife is slaughtered for food each year, the equivalent of 4 million cattle.

Africa. He wants to go back. Maybe he will. Maybe he can succeed next time with a better plan. “Maybe,” Mayfield-Smith says dreamily, as if speaking of a true love he yearns to be with and will never get out of his system.

His stable crest is the Kenyan flag and three Swahili words: Hodari, Upezi, Nguvu. Speed, Strength, Endurance.

Craig Sherborne

Craig Sherborne is the author of the highly acclaimed memoir Hoi Polloi, and its sequel Muck, which won the Queensland Literary Award for Non-Fiction. He has written two volumes of poetry, Bullion and Necessary Evil, and two novels, The Amateur Science of Love and Tree Palace.

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