Happy 80th Birthday Lettsy

29 July 2023 Written by VRC

When Racing Hall of Famer and dual Melbourne Cup winning jockey, John Letts enters the room you know he’s arrived. Plenty of noise; laughter ………accompanied with a warm smile to greet whoever comes his way. It’s what you call ‘presence’.

A stalwart of the Lexus Melbourne Cup Tour, Lettsy is a key pin in a program which enters its 21st year in 2023. It’s also a year he celebrates his 80th birthday.

But it all hasn’t been a bed of roses as just on ten years ago the amiable jockey was struck down by prostrate cancer and seriously didn’t think he would be facing too many more Melbourne Cup Tours. His mental health played havoc on the otherwise jovial jock and if not for his wife Annie, some close friends and an Adelaide based surgeon named Dr Andrew Fuller from South Terrace Urology, things could have been a lot different.

"He’s a genius Andrew. Without him I wouldn’t be here today," Lettsy said.

"He helped me enormously and as a result I am now an ambassador for prostate cancer in South Australia. It’s very humbling to say the least to be able assist in spreading the word about one of the biggest killers in our community. Getting checked out is relatively painless and quick in terms of timing,” Lettsy added with a familiar passion reserved normally for the Melbourne Cup. Such is his appreciation of modern medicine; people like Dr Andrew Fuller and technology which is crucial for making in-roads into an area so common in today’s society."

Along with another Adelaide based surgeon, Dr Peter Sutherland OAM, Lettsy and Dr Andrew Fuller have developed a full-on road show spreading the word which makes grown men think quickly about their futures.

‘I’ve seen dozens of men benefit from the program and I can only say to any male….’get checked out’.

But while the last ten years has been all consuming for Lettsy in the medical arena, it was on the racecourse where he secured his most noted triumphs. His first connection with racing’s holy grail was back in 1972 in something not dissimilar to a fictitious boys own annual. 

1972 Melbourne Cup winning jockey John Letts and Piping Lane. (VRC Collection)

Never ridden in a Melbourne Cup before. Never been to Flemington. Never seen Piping Lane which he was about to ride. And fair to say, he never knew what impact the Melbourne Cup was about to have on his life. He was soon to find out.

As Cup Day approached so too the realisation that he was going to fulfil a lifelong dream.

‘I was just happy to have a ride, to be honest,’ explained the dual Cup winning jockey who never loses enthusiasm talking of his key moments at Flemington.

‘I remember being legged up by the strapper and I asked how does this horse like to run? Forward, back, mid-field?....where is he best suited in the run? The girl handling him said, ‘I don’t know... but you better ride him properly’!’ When I won I couldn’t believe I’d won a race at Flemington....let alone the Melbourne Cup. It was quite surreal."

‘Directly after the race, I didn't know I would have so many friends!’ he says with a wry smile suggesting he loves telling his story.

By winning the Cup Piping Lane became the fifth Tasmanian bred horse to win the Cup. Nimblefoot (1870), The Quack (1972), Malua (1884) and Sheet Anchor (1885) the other Tasmanian bred Cup winners. Piping Lane is the only Tasmanian owned and bred winner of the Cup.

As for Lettsy, his enthusiasm for sharing his story is contagious. People never tire of hearing how a young man from Adelaide from a non-racing background won Australia’s greatest race. And Lettsy never tires telling it.

He of course later went on to add to Piping Lane’s conquest by securing the 1980 Melbourne Cup for Robert Sangster, the biggest owner in the world at the time. This time it was a little more predicted.

"Three days out from the Melbourne Cup, I said to Robert (Sangster) he would win the Cup that year," Lettsy stated.

"It wasn’t quite the one Robert was expecting me to say as Bohemian Grove was the better fancied runner. I suggested Beldale Ball will run really well."

"He was a bit bemused at the thought of winning the Cup at the time suggesting he had won all the big races in the world and this was just another race to him. That was before the race…..two days after we’d won I asked him on Oaks Day what it was like to win the Melbourne Cup. He said…it’s the greatest race in the world," Lettsy adds with a grin.