Roy Higgins remembered, ten years on

18 March 2024 Written by VRC

Roy Higgins was undoubtedly one of the finest jockeys to ever ride in Australia. His passing in March 2014 left a hole in the fabric of Australian racing, as a true gentleman of the sport was lost. But his champion feats on the track, his dedication to his beloved sport and his kind and generous spirit will forever live on. To mark ten years since his passing, we share the moving eulogy given by his friend the late Les Carlyon – himself a treasured icon of the sport – at Flemington Racecourse.

“This racecourse, beautiful as it is, is not consecrated ground – not in the accepted religious sense anyway. But for many of us it comes close. For 174 years it has been a place dedicated to a divine purpose, a divine purpose we all love. It is alive with the ghosts of jockeys past; it still hums with the distant music of their heroics. We think of Tommy Hales and his seven Victoria Derbies, of Adam Lindsay Gordon riding a treble over the jumps. We think of Scobie Breasley and George Moore, Darby Munro and Jim Pike.

And this afternoon we celebrate the life of Roy Higgins, who stands equal to them all, and who also had a quality all of his own, a quality that is rare in racing and sport. Roy came about as close as anyone ever comes to being universally loved. So what an exquisite piece of poetry that we farewell him at the very spot where he left us with so many memories.

No one could ride a finish like Roy. No one could bring so much art to desperation. All you need to do is to think of those two Melbourne Cups – Light Fingers and Red Handed.

Roy was an extraordinary person. One reason for this was the obvious one. He wasn't like anyone else. He made his own world. He confounded the stereotypes.

When I first met him in 1974 he had a lurid red gash that started low in his forehead and ran down his nose. Leilani had thrown her head back at trackwork and the buckle on the bridle head had done the rest.

I saw Roy go over the outside rail after the filly Via ran off the track at Caulfield just past the finish post. Roy said it was the only time he had been in the betting ring. Another account has him saying it was the only time he was in the Members. Both accounts would have been accurate.

There was that terrible fall from Stainvita at Sandown. And there were other incidents, such as Van der Hum’s Melbourne Cup, where Roy was blinded by mud for the whole circuit and had no idea where he was or what he was doing.

As I said, Roy wasn’t like anyone else. All those encounters with danger – and every time any jockey goes out he risks his life – yet Roy, in 30 years in the saddle, never spent a night in hospital because of a race injury. I think that rather proves he could sit on pretty well.

And he wasn’t like anyone else because of his sunny disposition. He went against the 1950s stereotype of a jockey as someone who mumbles while staring at his boots. He was outgoing and helpful. He was naturally articulate, so much so that he became a trailblazer. He not only talked to the media in an era when most jockeys didn’t, he talked so eloquently that he changed the game.

After Roy, jockeys started to become TV performers and personalities in their own right. He, almost alone, gave jockeys a human face, a larger place in the pageant.

One reason he was so good as a jockey was because of that brain of his, that brain that was always ticking over. He could analyse things, explain things, shine light into dark places, astonish you with his recall of small details.

Statistics alone don’t always explain a sportsman’s greatness. They don’t explain Roy’s freakish reflexes. No one could read a race the way he could. He saw trouble coming before it came. Roy is a reminder that jockeying is a thing of the mind as well as the body. To him every race was a chess game to be thought out and won. The phrase ‘elite sportsman’ wasn’t around when he was riding. If it had been, he would have given it the good name it doesn’t always enjoy today.

And in retirement from riding he gave it an even better name. It was simple: everyone liked Roy. They liked him because he was so easy to like. He was the benign presence. He was humble. He was generous. He was courteous. He didn’t carry grudges. He wasn’t sour or cynical. He didn’t look back. He had time for everyone, be they a prime minister or a down-at-heel punter cadging a tip.

I can still see him doing the mounting yard report for radio here. He’d head down to the tie-up stalls along the red-gravel race, a pen in one hand, a clipboard in the other. And, as he hurried into the distance, you’d see his head nodding and nodding as he acknowledged stranger after stranger. And you knew he would be giving them all a smile, leaving each one feeling they were special.

In the end Roy put more into racing than he ever took out. Right to the end, part of him was still the battling kid from the bush who thought he owed racing for all the fame it had brought him. The truth, I’d suggest, was the other way around. Racing owed him.

Roy wasn’t just a great jockey and a fine ambassador for racing – that’s only half the story. He was a great human being, and that might be the bigger story … because it’s harder to be a great human being.

I think it is a truly inspired touch that at the end of this service the hearse carrying Roy will complete a circuit of the track. And I’m sure the driver will know to move off the rail a good furlong before the home turn. The last thing Roy would want would be tired horses coming back on him.

They didn’t call him The Professor for nothing.”