Ad Tony Bourke (left) holding the Melbourne Cup in Noosa as part of his role as a Melbourne Cup Tour Ambassador.

Tony Bourke: farewell to The King

8 February 2023 Written by Patrick Bartley

Legendary racing journalist and long-time Melbourne Cup Tour ambassador Tony Bourke passed away peacefully on 7 February at the age of 81.

Born in the 1940s into humble beginnings in the working-class suburb of Richmond, Tony Bourke achieved a distinguished career as a racing writer for The Age newspaper, working there for 42 years before retiring in 2008.

Educated at Richmond Technical College, Bourke showed little talent for welding, plumbing or carpentry, but his small wage on the weekend from working with the local SP bookmaker gave the young man an insight into the thrill of horse racing.

As well as racing, his love of the Richmond Football Club was well-known, becoming long-time friends with premiership-winning back pocket Roger Dean at school. Then followed Kevin Sheedy, Kevin Bartlett, Tony Jewell and many others who shared the passion for the yellow and black.

In 1955 Bourke gained a cadetship with The Truth. At the time, The Truth was a powerful player in the Australian media landscape, but more importantly their racing coverage was the most revered in Australia.

Bourke was soon joined by John Greensill, who later became editor of the paper, and Ray Huxley who was appointed Herald Chief Racing Writer decades later. Here, Bourke was taught the great necessity of accuracy. No mistakes could get through. They were publishing to an audience that expected every ‘i’ to be dotted, and they were.

In the 1960s, Bourke joined The Sydney Telegraph for a short time, before returning to Melbourne to work on The Sun News-Pictorial. He was lured to The Age in 1966, where he was Deputy Racing Editor. After a short stint at the ill-fated Newsday, Bourke returned to The Age and soon became their Chief Racing Writer.

It was a dream job for such a racing fan. He idolised some of the great stayers such as Light Fingers and maintained that Tulloch’s mantle as the best ever would have been genuinely challenged had Kingston Town won a Melbourne Cup. He spoke glowingly of Tulloch, recalling one day at Flemington when the champion grabbed a narrow victory and “the crowd literally threw their hats into the air.”

His long relationships with Bart Cummings and Roy Higgins were based on trust. Bourke would never do the wrong thing, but would also never shirk his job of breaking the news. 

He was renowned for his kindness, and willingness to help others. In the early 1970s, his long-time friend, Darby McCarthy, an aboriginal jockey from Queensland had given a Melbourne journalist his exclusive story on the hardships that he encountered with his colour. The journalist won a number of awards, some of them with financial rewards attached. When McCarthy came to Melbourne after falling on hard times, he contacted the journalist and asked if he had some money for a meal. He was told to “ring the Red Cross”. McCarthy had enough money to ring Tony Bourke who drove straight to town, picked up the champion jockey and had him stay at his home until he was back on his feet. 

In the late 1970s, Bourke and former Herald Chief Racing Writer, Jack Elliott, lobbied for the Victorian Racing Writers Association to be granted a badge.  Bourke and Elliott met with then VRC Chairman, Sir Rupert Steele, and three other board members who after two years finally allowed the Association to have their own badge. It had never happened to any other media group in the world. 

Bourke accepted the undertakings and the rules surrounding the badge, but essentially brokered a deal that every fulltime racing writer had a badge that allowed them into the members’ stand in this State.

Through the decades, Bourke was a part of an ever-evolving industry. He watched while the TAB came in the mid-1960s and then saw trainers such as Colin Hayes, Bart Cummings and Tommy Smith do what no other trainers had ever done. They were breaking records that most never thought would be broken. 

In the 1990s when the VRC opened the gates for international competitors, Bourke, unlike his friend Bart Cummings, embraced this change. 

He saw that the overseas horses would add another dimension to a race that had been so important to so many Australians for so long. He was enthralled by their different training methods, and was taken by their horses not having to race every fortnight.

Bourke was well-known by his nickname, “The King”. Crowned with this moniker in the 1970s, the name came from him being the king of quadrellas that he appeared to master when they first came out from the TAB.

In 2008, The King retired from The Age after a stunning career that spanned nearly half a century. He garnered the respect of the racing industry and his media colleagues.

Bourke’s partner Annie Mitchell was by his side since the mid-1980s, and her bravery in the face of The King’s ill health of recent years is a testament to her love for the man.

His humble spirit always shone through, and can be summed up by a comment he made once at a sportsmen’s night, when one of the audience asked the question: if he could have his life over what would he change?

The King responded: “Nothing, I’m paid to do what I love and in my life I have met people and visited places that I would never have dreamt I could achieve before.”