Keeping racing on the road

6 December 2021 Written by Patrick Bartley

While the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t shut down racing, it did restrict the movements of horses and their teams across borders and around the states. That’s where the horse transportation industry came to the rescue, with businesses granted permission to transport the precious equine cargo under strict government and Racing Victoria protocols. The people who work in this industry are just another example of a vital piece of the puzzle that is Australian racing.

Midway through 1959, Allen Reeves, now 84, secured a full-time job with one of the oldest horse transport firms in Australia, Garrett & Griffiths. More than 60 years later, Reeves is still driving. Five decades ago he bought the business and renamed it Alternative Horse Transport. He established a syndicate, made up of former VRC Chairman Andrew Ramsden and leading trainer Geoff Murphy, to run it.

Transporting million-dollar cargo is a job that comes with an immense amount of planning. Staying organised and communicating well is vital, as the trucks are non-stop on race days, their clients depending on them to deliver their horses on time and in perfect shape. A typical day on the road may see three round trips with several stops, depending on the number of runners their clients have.

“We pick up the furthest away first. Let’s say, with the races at Moonee Valley, we would go to Pakenham and then Caulfield, Flemington and then drop them off at the Valley for their early engagements. Then we would repeat the trip for those horses in the middle of the program, travel the same route, drop them off and pick up the horses that have already raced, take them home and then finally grab a few that are in the last race and bring them back. Then we transport the horses that ran in the late races home, after the last,” said Reeves.

Reeves has encountered setbacks and problems over the years like all businesses, but with the outbreak of COVID-19 last year, it produced a dilemma like he’d never faced.

The government rightfully imposed strict protocols on all competitors in racing, even devising an A and B team of jockeys in case one rider was exposed to the virus, so that there was another group to take their place.

Reeves, along with the staff and drivers, had to be counseled on protocols and what not to do when confronted by this deadly disease.

“I think firstly all of us, not only in the transport industry but owners, trainers, breeders, veterinary surgeons, look, just about every section of the industry had their fingers crossed that racing would continue.

“All our drivers were educated on the basics of how to keep the disease out. I know wearing masks was a nuisance when you’re driving such huge trucks, but it had to be done and we couldn’t afford for anything to go wrong,” Reeves said. 

“The transport company trucks dissect city and country roads every day taking racehorses to and from meetings, mares and foals to studs, and just about everything to do with horses and being moved affects us.”

Another problem that the pandemic threw up for transport operators, Reeves explained, was that passengers were severely limited.

“We would usually take four and sometimes six strappers in the truck, but this time it was different. The rules were there in black and white for everyone to see, one strapper in the front, one strapper in the back and all the others that would normally travel with us had to find other means to get to the races.

“It was hard telling trainers that they can only have a maximum of two strappers, but if we look at the other side of the equation it meant that we still had racing and that meant we had employment,” he said.

Fortunately, the drivers and others employed by Reeves are all experts with horses.

“It is a necessity that all drivers can handle horses, and know things like how to change their gear. You’re on the road, especially interstate trips, for hour upon hour and, if the slightest thing went wrong, like a puncture or a horse in distress, our drivers know what to do immediately,” he said.

Reeves reflects on the thousands of horses he’s transported all over Australia in his 60 years behind the wheel.

He serviced some of the biggest names: Angus Armanasco, Ken Hilton, Geoff Murphy, Bob Hoysted and a long list of trainers whose names are etched in history.

Having access to these people meant that Reeves learned firsthand why some trainers worked tirelessly and achieved great results.

“One day I called in at Angus Armanasco’s stables in Caulfield to drop a filly off and there was Angus, one of the leading trainers of Australia, with a white glove brushing down a horse with its coat gleaming in the midday sun.

“Armanasco had vast resources of staff, but still did the leg work and remained professional,” he said.

While many of the major stables now have their own transport fleets, Reeves is privileged to say that he transported, on many occasions, three of Australia’s greatest racehorses: Tobin Bronze, Surround and Manikato. 

The transport system in Australia has altered considerably since the Second World War. Companies have had to concentrate on the national transportation system, whereas for many decades, float services would only do domestic jobs. But, as racing became more national, the demand for interstate trucks was considerable.

“It wasn’t just going to Bendigo or Wodonga or Ballarat races, and it was even more than dropping off breeding stock to stud farms in the state. The industry was expanding and it was amazing to watch it grow on a national level. We had horses crossing the border on a regular basis to South Australia, or mares with their foals being served in New South Wales and Queensland, so it became a robust means of transport,” he said.

While the pandemic delivered a massive problem for the likes of Allen Reeves, it also showed the camaraderie of the industry to galvanise together in a bid to thwart this killer virus. The industry fortunately followed the protocols to the letter of the law and the sport continued. And in their way, the likes of Reeves, his co-drivers and workers, all played their part at keeping racing on the road.