Man Without a Name
A Te Aroha cowboy and his secret part in training the 1985 Melbourne Cup winner
Some men only end up as cowboys. Those yelling trackwork riders the racecourse trainers mock: “Cowboys!” It’s the way they flop ungainly on a horse’s back. Look at them kick vainly at the beasts’ sides to make them walk faster. Listen to their foul mouths, cursing the worthless creatures they ride as nothing but mongrels. They wear cowboy leg-chaps, Cuban-heeled boots and have spurs at the backs of their feet like parenthesis. Terry Barnett, though, gave himself airs like a real race-day jockey. As if he was a man of style, not another 4 a.m. cowboy. That polo-neck – I bet he bought it at an Op Shop. That anorak too. That polka-dot bandana. His skullcap doddled at an awkward slant, set at such an angle as to make him look raffish. How could he afford those Wee Willem cigars? He may have had a neatly scissored moustache but it just made him old-looking not distinguished. He never was distinguished and never would be all his life. He’d always walk with a worried-man’s stoop.
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A sweetheart should have made him stay in England, where he came from, should have said to him: “My darling, New Zealand is the other side of the world. I love you. Don’t break my heart and your heart too by going there and dying a failure.” You can tell them all you like, they never will listen. They get fixed in their minds about some place far and wonderful. They’ve read about it in books, in papers. They’ve imagined the seasons much more temperate. It’s the place where, for them, destiny lives. It’s their calling and their future.
I could understand Terry coming to Te Aroha. It may only have been a 3,000-people town but those mountains were something to behold, higgledy with forest and rockface. Deep in their marrow were steamy artesian springs that poured into public spas where signs read “don’t put your head under”. And dairy farms, green-lush pastures where cows were run two cows to the acre and the air had milk on its breath. It set a pulse in your ears, the slurping pulse of milking machines from five o’clock each morning. But farming wasn’t Terry’s line at all. He rode horses for a living, in that cowboy-trackwork style, if you call his five dollars a mount a living even if he got through ten horses a morning. For extra money he worked for my father. My father had the finest farm in all the district – 300 acres milking 500 cross-breds, with enough grass left over for two broodmares, two yearlings, two foals.
Here comes Terry now in my memory, up the driveway he’s chugging in his rusty blue Morris Minor. He’s here to break in yearlings and has no time to waste for he has also got a little team of his own now – four young horses he’s breaking in for locals, all under one roof, in a stable he’s rented as if he’s a real trainer. “One or two of them show a good turn of foot in the paddock,” he boasts. He says if he could keep them in his stable instead of seeing them sold to other people he could maybe get a few wins, get a name and reputation. There he is standing at the back door of our house, skullcap under his arm like a military gentleman. He clicks his heels together when he talks, and he talks in a toffy English way that’s got toffier the longer he’s lived here.
Terry’s never let inside the house – we’d never get rid of him. The one time he did come in he drank tea with his pinkie out and insulted us, as if him being English automatically made us the lesser. As if he, a man who broke horses, was in fact too clever for us. He said he was mystified and appalled that we obviously had more money than brains and could not see our way to entrust him as trainer of the few horses we had. My father politely said business was business. “I’d only have to take them off you once they were ready to race,” he said. “I sell all my horses on to Australia. Australia is where the real action and money is.” Australia was where we really lived, but we holidayed in Te Aroha every second school break to oversee the farm investment.
“Don’t you trust me?” Terry asked, holding out his arms.
“I trust you,” my father replied.
“I always show up on time. I’m a drinker but so is everyone in this game. Give me your horses.”
“You have to prove yourself first. Get a name.”
“How can I do that if people like you don’t give me your horses?”
My father said he’d think about it, which meant: “No.”
There’s Terry taking the cash from my father’s hand. Ten dollars. An hour and a half’s work. He’s saying Australians are peasants and the curse of New Zealand racing because the good horses all get sold to them. By all means race a horse in Australia, he’s saying, but do it as a New Zealander – don’t sell the animal to Australian millionaires when it could have made a local man. He’d say this the rest of his life. He said it when Arwon was sold from Te Aroha to Victoria and won the 1978 Melbourne Cup for a pack of Australians. Magistrate won the Perth Cup in 1981 and ’82, but that’s fine – he was trained from Te Aroha by a Te Arohan region man. Same for Battle Heights, who won the Cox Plate, the Sydney Cup.
But what about What A Nuisance! What A Nuisance won the Melbourne Cup in 1985. If truth be known, he won the race well before then. Won it many times over and over, at least in Terry’s head. What A Nuisance belonged to a Te Aroha owner-trainer, a dairy-farming man with a farming name, Lloyd Farmer. He won first up with What A Nuisance at odds of 48-1. After that the horse kept finishing fourth and fifth and ended up in Australia, owned by millionaire Lloyd Williams. But before that happened, Farmer sold him for $20,000 to Auckland connections who wanted a hurdler. Somewhere between Farmer owning him and Williams, What A Nuisance was in Terry’s care. It might have only been for a handful of days, but Terry recalled the event for anyone who’d listen, and those days became weeks, and weeks became months, with each new telling. “They sent him to Australia on me. The rest is history,” he’d say and swig his beer. “That was the one that got away. That was the one that would have made me.”
Terry Barnett never did train many winners. The few he had were at small-town New Zealand courses. He had to settle for them as his Melbourne Cup, his Golden Slipper, his Derby. How he cheered them down the straight, fists punching the air. How he told reporters each winner would be a champion. “The best horse I’ve ever had,” he’d announce. “This will be the horse that will make me.” He predicted he’d be there one day at Flemington or Randwick among the fat-faced spivs and feather-hatted tarts. One day he’d kiss a gold cup or silver tray. But every good horse he had was soon moved on to a better-known trainer.
He was a “Gunna”, my father said. “Gunna be a great trainer one day. Gunna train a champion.” Even back in those farm holidays, I, a mere boy, could tell for myself he was a Gunna who was never gunna. I said as much to him one day. Right to his face, I said: “Terry, you’re a Gunna. Gunna go nowhere.”
I said it during one of those breaking-in sessions. I’d noticed the signs of a disappointed man about him, a man who’d fallen well short of his ambitions. Such men might take their disappointment out on others, on wives, on children. Racing men also have horses. Racing men know that to a horse, a yelling, angry, disappointed man can become king of all its world. Such a king rules by forcing steel in its mouth, a whip to punish its hide. He has straps that squeeze around its belly, ropes to tie its legs up, helpless. If still the creature won’t bend to his rule he’ll fetch the baton with a loop of rope in it that’s called a twitch. He’ll grab the horse’s top lip and twist the rope-loop around it and screw and screw until the lip turns white and the pain has spread deep into the horse and locked it in paralysed defeat. If still there’s fight in it, another twitch will do the job, screwed onto its ear. “I’m the boss here,” Terry cursed to the yearling he’d twitched to stop prancing. “Come on you bastard,” he growled, slapping it with a halter lead because it had reared its head and struck out at him with its front hoof. “I’ll show you who’s boss.”
He asked me if I was watching. He called me “boy”. He told me to look and learn how to show a horse who’s boss. During a rest he asked me what I was going to do when I grew up. I said I didn’t know. It worried me that this was the case. Here I was in the presence of a disappointed man and even he knew what he wanted. He wanted a name. I, aged 16, wondered if I was a disappointed man in the early stages. Would I grow up to be a Gunna like him? I hoped I didn’t ever want a name. Terry told me to hold the yearling’s head’s while he flung the saddle on. He said: “You’re set up anyway. Won’t have to work. Be a fucking gentleman farmer.” Then he cocked his leg for me to help him mount the horse and said: “Come on, don’t take all day.”
I didn’t like being spoken to by a Gunna in this way, because if he can do that as a Gunna, what does that make me? That’s when I said it: “Terry, you’re a Gunna.” I hoisted him high on his cocked leg, up and over the horse’s back. He landed on the other side, in the dirt. He scrambled to his feet, away from the horse’s kicking back legs, and rushed at me, waving his whip to let me know I was in for a thrashing. I hit him first, fist against bony flesh, low on the side of his face. He fell backwards, blinking to regain his vision, a trickle of red from his mouth.
He swore to my father that he wouldn’t be back. “Your son’s mad.” He cried out that we could break our horses ourselves from now on. As he drove off he called me a useless good-for-nothing. I was certain what I was in for. My father would demand an explanation. He’d think about giving me a belting of his own. But he grinned and said he didn’t know I had it in me, and I might be made of something after all.
Terry came back the very next day. He needed the work, needed the pay. My father asked me: “Terry giving you any trouble?”
Terry was a horse in my twitch now. But I didn’t want that. I was already in my own twitch by then, already becoming a horse to myself: those cigarette burns with their fizz and sting to punish my forearms, such horrible skinny forearms, formless, hairless, feminine, no muscle or veins. Those cuts and bruises in my hair from my punching to remember the chemistry symbols that caused me to fail throughout the year. But that’s another story.
When a few years ago Terry noticed blood on his saddle, he would have thought it was from the horse not his anus, not cancer. Weeks later, dying, he would have thought life owed him more for his efforts. He was dying the death of a disappointed man, the death of most racing men. Then like all men, racing or not, he would have seen his fortune in it, the wealth of no more need of money, the relief of no more hope or pride, no little emergencies of getting older, of continuing on alive.
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.