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Shelley Reys: Living her father's legacy

11 July 2023 Written by Sarah Marinos

Fifty years after Frank Reys rode to victory in the Melbourne Cup, his daughter, Shelley Reys, remembers a gentle and devoted family man who inspired her to become what she is today.

 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers, listeners and readers are advised that the following video and article contains images, voices and the name of an Indigenous Australian who has since passed.  


Shelley Reys remembers being very excited on Melbourne Cup Day 1973 because she was spending the day at her friend’s house.

“As a six-year-old, I wasn’t allowed to go to the races that day – I imagine my mum thought that it was too busy and noisy and not somewhere my family thought I should be. Dad’s brothers had flown down from Cairns to watch him race though and that was a big deal that year. For Dad to celebrate that win with
his brothers was beautiful and there are photos of them hugging across the tall wire fences at Flemington after he won,” recalled Shelley.

“At that time, the race wasn’t on TV so everyone would listen to it on the radio. I heard it in the background while I played that day and then my friend’s mum yelled out, ‘Shelley, your dad’s just won the Melbourne Cup’. I didn’t know how big a deal that was then but everyone was incredibly excited and picking me up and throwing me in the air.

“Later, Dad came to a school assembly and I had to stand on a chair, in front of everyone, holding the Melbourne Cup and I was so embarrassed to be the centre of attention.”

Frank Reys won the race that stops a nation™ on Gala Supreme. The quietly spoken gentleman of the racetrack became the first Aboriginal jockey to win the Melbourne Cup. During a 27-year racing career, Frank notched up 1,329 wins and was renowned for his professionalism and unassuming nature.

Shelley said her father’s lifelong love and respect for horses was an important part of family life. Frank was from far north Queensland but by the time Shelley was born, he, his wife Noeline and Shelley’s older brother and sister were living in Melbourne as Frank continued his career as a jockey.

“We had a farm in the Yarra Valley and we spent weekends there with our ponies. I thought everyone’s father rode a horse and that everyone had a pony and I wondered why other kids didn’t have pony rides at their birthday parties, too! When I grew older, I realised that everyone wasn’t as lucky as I
was” said Shelley.

“Being born into a racing family and a horse-loving family was special. Dad’s values around respecting and caring for horses shone through to us and we grew up with those values, too.”

While Shelley is still a racing fan and always puts time aside to watch the Melbourne Cup in honour of her father, she didn’t follow him into the racing industry.

Instead, Shelley, a Djiribul woman, has spent the past 30 years as a leader in the corporate, Indigenous and reconciliation spaces. She is the CEO of Arrilla Indigenous Consulting, a Partner and Board member of KPMG, Vice Chairman of The Fred Hollows Foundation, and she was the inaugural Co Chair of Reconciliation Australia. Shelley was awarded the Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for her ‘distinguished service to the Indigenous community and reconciliation.’

Frank Reys rode Gala Supreme to win the Melbourne Cup in 1973 (Newspix Limited)

Arrilla helps to demystify the First Nations space for leaders and workplaces, making them more effective in working with them, or on projects involving them. Wherever First Nations peoples are involved, they’re generally involved.

Her role in promoting cultural competency in workplaces across the country (clients include Microsoft, Google, LinkedIn, Westpac, Future Super and AFL) is especially close to Shelley’s heart. The organisation was founded by Shelley’s cousin, Darren Auyeung, and when he passed away at an early age, Shelley carried forward the business with her cousin’s lessons and a new vision.

“Darren gave me the first opportunity to work within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander space and I learned so much from him. I will always be grateful for the opportunities he gave me,” she said.

“I was incredibly impassioned by Darren’s passion and when he passed away, I had to pause because I wasn’t sure that I could carry on the work without him. But I did find the courage to step back into it and I’m glad I did because this work is the place where I feel I fit. Giving voice to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples gives me a great deal of personal, professional and cultural satisfaction.”

Shelley Reys is the CEO of Arrilla Indigenous Consulting, and has been awarded and Officer of the Order of Australia (AO)

“Initially, the corporate sector was silent but I was convinced they had a role to play and I started door-knocking and talking to major corporates about being involved in this space,” said Shelley.

“It gives me a great deal of joy to see that we are in a very different situation today — there is extraordinary interest in working with First Nations peoples across the Australian workforce. Most organisations are interested in doing better and being better in the reconciliation space. They just need to know how and they need the confidence to apply the how, otherwise they walk on eggshells, afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. I describe my work as removing the eggshells so people can play their part.”

Guiding her through her career have been the values she learned from both her parents – being your best, doing your best, being proud of who you are and being kind and humble.

“Dad demonstrated, and Mum continues to demonstrate, those values every day. Lots of people still talk about my father and they always refer to his kindness and that’s a beautiful quality to remember someone by,” said Shelley.

“At the same time, I know Dad was tenacious, resilient and courageous to be successful in a tough industry. His achievements gave me the clear message that you can do and be anything if you work hard enough , try hard enough , and if you are kind to people along the way.

On Melbourne Cup Day, Shelley and her family will be at Flemington to honour Frank Reys and the person he was on and off the track.

“It’s an important day for us and I’m thrilled that we’ll all be together,” she said.

“As I watch the jockeys cross the finishing line and then slowly turn around and make their way through the crowd into the winner’s circle, I often wonder what that moment was like for Dad. All these years later, it still makes me very emotional to think about that.”