THERE aren’t many priests who can say a horse race helped dictate their vocational journey.
But Fr Dave O’Connor counts the 1989 Melbourne Cup as one of those moments that steered his priestly life in a new direction.
Fr Dave was then based in Perth as the Navy chaplain, continuing a journey that had bounced from regional Queensland through Sydney and Melbourne.
One of those stops was Nanango, where Fr Dave was the assistant parish priest in the mid-1970s spending three happy years with parish priest Fr Bill McKeown.
He also played for the local footy team, he was the clerk of the course at Nanango races and he helped muster on parishioners’ properties.
When slow horses raced at Nanango, they were sometimes left behind by their owners. Those horses would end up at Fr Dave’s place.
The tall, laconic priest had a love of horses handed on from his father Ned, who grew up on a farm.
Fr Dave loved the animal and its habits – not so much the gambling that will draw hundreds of millions of dollars in bets for the Cup at Flemington on Tuesday.
But one small wager on that 1989 Cup would send Fr Dave back to his home diocese.
He was successful with a small trifecta bet and collected several thousand dollars all those years ago.
Like any punter, Fr Dave remembers the horses’ names like the race was yesterday.
“It was Tawriffic, Super Impose and Kutz. They ran the trifecta that year,” he recalls. “I picked out five horses and put them in the trifecta and home they came.
“I had been a Navy chaplain for about a dozen years and I told myself that I would go back to the diocese once I paid my car loan off.
“That trifecta paid off the car loan so it was back to the diocese.”
Fr Dave would return to Brisbane, beginning his tenure as Ipswich’s parish priest.
For the past 15 years, Fr Dave has been the director of Clergy Life and Ministry. But he recalls with clarity his early days as a priest, when he became a well-known face in Sydney’s competitive racing scene.
When Fr Dave left Nanango to move to Sydney as Navy chaplain, he was asked by his captain to start a horse club for hundreds of apprentices in the navy.
That task sparked a lifelong friendship with saddler Graeme Murphy and three of the most successful jockeys of the 1980s – Grant Cooksley, Brian York, Malcolm Johnston and Chris Munce.
“They used to say ‘here comes the priest so watch your language’,” Fr Dave recalls. “They were a really interesting group of people and racing does expose you to many different things.
“With Graeme being a saddler, I learnt how to stitch so I was stitching bridles, repairing rugs and a few other things.
“That helped me to further grow my interest in the sport.
“I can go to the races and easily not have a bet because I enjoy watching the horses and comparing their breeding.
“Sometimes I think if I had my life over again I would be a rich man if I hadn’t spent my money looking after so many horses.”
Fr Dave says that last line with a chuckle as he recounts some of the tales that have involved horses, from meeting for mustering at 5am on properties at Nanango to his duties as a clerk of the course – jumping on a horse and helping jockeys get their mounts to the starting gates.
The banter between jockeys behind the barrier stalls is not a place you would expect to find a priest playing a prominent role.
But the racecourses of the archdiocese have long been frequented by clergy.
“There have been a number of Catholic priests involved in the racing world in these parts. Archbishop Bathersby is one that comes to mind very quickly,” Fr Dave says.
Emeritus Archbishop John Bathersby and Fr Dave have swapped many stories of the highs and lows of an industry that has featured many Catholics.
“There is an earthy but deeply spiritual dimension in many racing people and as a priest you are privileged to be sometimes invited into the sacred areas of their lives – Archbishop John and Fr Peter Gillam know that very well,” Fr Daver said.
“On the other hand, I remember saying to John Bathersby on one occasion when he was struggling with a complex pastoral issue, ‘that the Church can be like the racing game … the more you know, the less you want to know’.”
Bart Cummings was one one of the well known Catholics that came to mind – the legendary trainer mingled with Fr Dave during his days in Sydney.
His recent death will be felt at this year’s Cup as racegoers feel the loss of a man who won the Cup on 12 occasions .
“Bart never hid the fact that he was a Catholic. He was proud of that,” Fr Dave said. “He championed the racing Mass in Sydney. He always had this humility in the face of his accolades.
“There will be a cloud over the Cup this year because of the fact Bart won’t be there.”
The absence of a Cummings-trained runner will make the job more difficult for the once-a-year punters who look forward to the Cup.
Surely, Fr Dave has some tips that may help those looking for a Cup winner?
After all, he times his annual holidays to coincide with the race that stops a nation.
“I’m a prolific reader so I like to make sure I have enough information to make my choices,” Fr Dave said.
While he can’t guarantee a return to match the 1989 windfall, Fr Dave does have the following rules to help him settle on the best Cup chances:
The distance: “I’m looking for a horse that has run two miles. It really does help if you go back and look at the history of the race. It’s important down that long Flemington straight.”
The internationals: “It’s definitely tougher now because you have to compare the overseas horses versus the local horses. The Cup isn’t a race for broken-down old geldings anymore. It’s now a multi-million-dollar race with prestige. So you have to make sure you can line up the form of the international runners as best you can.”
Weight: “This is very important. Since 1983, only three horses have carried more than 56kg to win a Cup – Jeune, Makybe Diva and Protectionist. If a horse has to carry a lot of weight, they’re going to feel it a lot more over two miles than they will over a shorter race.”
Jockeys: “It’s hard to go past the likes of Damien Oliver. He’s done it before. He’s a master. But the likes of Hugh Bowman and Blake Shinn are also impressive.”
The X-factor: “The traditional Irish approach is to always back number 12. Keep that in mind.”
– Michael Crutcher