Ad A young "Patto" with 1973 Melbourne Cup winner Gala Supreme and jockey Frank Reys (VRC Collection)

Patto: a living legend

31 October 2023 Written by Brad Bishop

In 2013, Gai Waterhouse celebrated her first Melbourne Cup win with Fiorente. It was also a significant day for another reason – it was the final time that the iconic John ‘Patto’ Patterson led in his 44th and final Cup winner as clerk of the course.

Melbourne Cup Day 2013 unfolded in familiar fashion, with longtime clerk of the course Patto arriving in his trusty horse-drawn cart, mounting his horse, leading the Cup contenders onto the track, and guiding Fiorente back to the scales after triumph. While it was business as usual for many, this day held special significance for the Victorian and Australian racing community as the day marked Patto’s retirement..

His long-standing association with the Melbourne Cup was remarkable. He had officiated at this prestigious event for almost a third of its 153-year history, and before that, he had been a fixture at Flemington for a solid decade.

As Gai and connections celebrated at a city restaurant that night, Patto, surrounded by his family and friends, gathered in his humble kitchen just across from Flemington at his stables in Crown Street. There, they shared a simple but heartfelt moment over cups of tea and a few beers, celebrating this chapter in the career of Patto.

He had always been a horseman, and was even recognised in June 2021 in the general division of the Order of Australia awards for services to horse racing. Patto had a unique and specialist skill that requires patience and horsemanship to read a horse and its body language. 

He started professionally breaking in racehorses when television had only just come to Australia, computers were still a couple of decades off being part of everyday use and the Melbourne Football Club was the AFL, or VFL as it was then, powerhouse.

Yet, despite technological enhancements, not a lot changed when it comes to breaking in a racehorse according to one of Australia’s most revered educators of young horses. “I used the same basics from when I started about 60 years ago until when I finished,” Patterson said.

Patto, who gave up his career as an apprentice jockey at the age of 21 to concentrate on breaking, said the most important thing to understand was that there is no set system when it comes to breaking in a horse.

“I was still learning towards the end of my career. Every horse is different. Every horse has its own personality. They’re no different to humans in that regard.

“What you can do with one in 10 minutes might take you several days to get the same result from another one. Some pick it up quicker than others, and some don’t pick up a lot of things at all. There’s no set rulebook on it.” 

Melbourne Cup winners Gala Supreme (1973) and Reset, who won each of their five starts including an Australian Guineas and Futurity Stakes, are among those that were subject to the educational talents of Patto, who spent an incredible 45 years as clerk of the course at Flemington.

The first Melbourne Cup winner he led in was Rain Lover in 1969. He then accompanied every winner after that back to scale until 2013, except for Gold and Black in 1977, when he was sidelined with knee surgery.

Although widely known for this role, Patto’s resume is extensive and he has been an instrumental figure within the racing and wider equestrian world. He taught apprentice jockeys at apprentice school; had almost every track rider at Flemington sent to him to learn in his sand roll; was a highly respected and sort-after breaker for all disciplines including horse-and-cart; he was a participant and judge at the Royal Melbourne Show; he was an equine re-trainer; he was commissioned to design a range of horse-bits called JP Horse Bits that are still for sale now in most equine stores.

Although he has retired, the Patterson family lives on in Australian racing, with both of Patto’s sons (Shane and Pete) taking the reins literally and figuratively as clerks of the course. Shane’s daughter, Ellen, and son, Matty, are also both avid riders and dream of one day taking over the role of leading the Cup winner back to scale.

It is an incredible legacy and following this year’s race, a Patterson will have led in the Cup winner for 56 of the last 57 years. With a third generation coming through, it looks like the tradition will be kept alive for some time yet.

As Patto said: “Our job as clerk of the course takes common sense, horse sense and a pretty handy horse under you.”