Bart takes centre stage

The front page headlines about the health concerns of an 82-year-old horse trainer are testament to the high regard in which Bart Cummings is held.

A lifetime asthma sufferer, Cummings has been battling to overcome a respiratory condition for the past six months. Just when he was getting on top of it, he fell over and fractured his pelvis and ended up in hospital again.

He recovered from that incident in quick time, vowing to be on hand to watch his horses race in Melbourne during the spring carnival. The weather has conspired against him and he has had to issue all the instructions for his team, which includes the country’s best horse So You Think, from a hospital bed.

But after being released on Sunday, he says he will be at Flemington for the 150th running of the Melbourne Cup, the race for which he is famous to all Australians having won it a remarkable 12 times.

But there is more to Cummings than 12 Melbourne Cups. He has won another 252 Group One races with the late TJ Smith the only trainer to better that.

The two were fierce rivals and very different in their methods. The Smith way has been passed on to his daughter Gai Waterhouse with great success. She recently passed the century of Group One winners in a career of less than two decades. The famous TJ “bone and muscle” holds true and 95 per cent of Waterhouse horses race on the speed. Her father taught her the horses should be up close and out of trouble and no matter how much work they have to do, if they are fit enough they win.

Fitness holds true for Cummings but his approach is one of patience and a lot of long, slow work to get ready for the big races.

Cummings also remains true to the methods he has used for more than 50 years. Throughout his recent absences from the track his loyal staff have adhered to the routine much of which involves feeding. Cummings was once asked how much horses should be fed. “As much as they will eat” was the reply.

Cummings is known for his sense of humour and ability with a one-liner. Those one-liners may not be original, but it’s all in the delivery and people remember them because Bart says them.

“Patience is the cheapest thing in racing – and the least used,” is one of his favourites and the maxim by which he lives.

In the spring of 2009 and after years of reading what other people said about him, Cummings finally published his memoir which became an instant best seller. But by the end of the carnival the book was out of date. At the time of its release, So You Think had not won the Cox Plate. A year on, and he has won another as well as the Underwood, Yalumba and Mackinnon Stakes and is favourite for the Melbourne Cup.

He has been described as the next Phar Lap but Cummings has not yet even elevated him to the best he has trained, let alone the best in the past 80 years. He is reluctant to compare horses from different eras and puts him in the top “four or five”.

Of course a major part of his success comes from choosing the right horses. And no-one does it better. Underneath the famous eyebrows is a pair of eyes that see things others don’t. Cummings selects yearlings based on his perception of what they will be like two or three years later. It’s an art.

So You Think is owned by Malaysian businessman Dato Tan Chin Nam who with four Melbourne Cup trophies is the most successful owner in the race. All four – Think Big (1974, 1975) Saintly (2996) and Viewed (2008) have come through his association with Cummings.

As well as being there for the good times, Dato Tan was there for the bad. Cummings went to the wall in 20 years ago when his backers who had formed the Cups King syndicate, reneged on a multi million dollar collection of yearlings which were then resold at a reduced price.

The two octogenarians toughed it out with great horses like Melbourne Cup winners Saintly and Viewed and now find themselves going to the races on Tuesday with a horse valued at upwards of $50 million.

But you get the feeling it’s more about the thrill of the game.