Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Gunsynd - the horse who stole a nation's heart (and mine)

I was ten years old, and furious that Mum was making me wear a dress. I was a tomboy and while I owned two dresses I rarely wore them. And this was such a special occasion for me: Mum was taking me to the races for the first time, something I'd been begging for for ages. Horses and dresses don't mix, I argued, and Mum stated that women didn't wear trousers to the races. They hadn't in the 50s, anyway!

I could wear the dress or we wouldn't go at all.

Reluctantly I put the dress on. It had a patterned purply top and hot pink skirt. Very 1973. No way was I going to miss the races as my hero would be racing: Gunsynd, the Goondiwindi Grey.

Gunsynd had taken the public's imagination by storm. He was a dappled grey, and a character as well as a winner.

We watched him head onto the track, with the number 1 saddlecloth. It was 31 March, 1973 and he was entered as top weight in the Rawson Stakes at Rosehill. We sat in the stand as Kevin Langby took him onto the straight and turned him for a warmup on the way to the barrier gates. The horse stopped, and Langby gave him a nudge; but it was a game between them. Langby knew Gunsynd wouldn't budge until he was ready. The grey turned and looked up at the grandstand, and the crowd went wild. It was only when it seemed the horse was satisfied with the reception he'd got did he respond to Langby, turn and canter away. And that was part of the Gunsynd legend, the Gunsynd character which so endeared him to racegoers.

I have the race book beside me as I write this, and note that I'd got Mum to back him for me and won $2 on him. He carried 58kg and won easily.

He would only have three more starts before heading for retirement. His last run was in the Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Randwick almost a month later, and I remember watching on the black and white telly at Narrabeen with my grandfather. Pop had put 25c on him for me at the TAB, and we were breathlessly watching the race. So close… so close… but Apollo Eleven, carrying less weight, pulled away to win and the mighty Gunsynd finished his career in second place. The entire country wanted him to win. The roars from the crowd were as much disbelief as cheers for the handsome grey who'd tried so hard. Poor old Apollo Eleven may have thought the cheers were for him, but the grey knew better.

Apollo Eleven may have won, but Gunsynd had the last word. In the saddling paddock, he bowed to the crowd like a circus horse, one foreleg bent and his head near his knees. The crowd went ballistic. I have a newspaper clipping still of the photo of Gunsynd bowing. It's never been mentioned who taught him to do it, or whether Langby gave him a signal, but it was pure showmanship.

Photo from barnesphotography.com.au

It wasn't just Gunsynd's character and track record which caught the public's imagination. The horse was the story of four small town blokes from Goondiwindi (pronounced GUNdawindy) in Queensland, who pooled their money and bought a colt and called him Gunsynd, for GUNdawindi SYNDicate. Gunsynd only cost them $1300 but earned them more than $280,000 and was the highest stakes winner to date. He put the little town of Goondiwindi on the map and fulfilled the great Australian dream of buying a bargain horse who turned out to be a champion. It's a story mug punters dream of emulating.

His owners were Jim Coorey, Bill Bishop, George Pippos and Winks McMicking; ordinary blokes with jobs, farms or their own small businesses. Bill Bishop is the only surviving member of the syndicate, and he was - and I love this - an SP bookie on the side. Read Bill's story here.

At the height of his fame Gunsynd inspired a song by country singer Tex Morton. No, not the Tex Morton who sings rock-blues, but a former cowboy-hatted version. I have a copy of the single. It has a photo of Gunsynd in full flight printed on the record. Here 'tis:

Gunsynd never won the Melbourne Cup. He won just about every major mile race on the calendar, however. And he won hearts Australia-wide.

As a sire he didn't throw any real champions; he had a few useful sons and daughters but none of his own calibre. My aunt and her family were lucky enough to visit him at Kia-Ora Stud near Scone - visiting Gunsynd was invitation-only as even in retirement he was still wildly popular - and sent me a photo they'd taken of him rearing up for the crowds on an open day at the stud. I still have that, in its frame.

Sadly Gunsynd was put down in 1983; he had been operated on for polyps in his nasal system a couple of years before, but the polyps returned and were affecting his breathing to a point where letting him go was the kindest and most sensible option. I cried when I heard the news; so many memories from my racing-made childhood were tied up in Gunsynd.

There's an in-depth and excellent history on Gunsynd here at the Barnes Photography website.

(And you know what? At the races on Rawson Stakes Day in 1973, plenty of women and girls were wearing trouser suits. Boy, did I ever feel stupid in my dress!)


  1. Great blog... I loved him too and yet when I think of him I always think of you simultaneously. :) I never saw him in person and it's great to hear your story of your trip to the races.

    I still back grey horses for no reason other than that they are grey and while I know I am wasting my money I am still watching, heart in mouth, when the field turns the home turn, just waiting for another Gunsynd to burst from the pack and bring them all home!

    1. I still back greys for the same reason, Displaced. I've always had a soft spot for them. Thanks for thinking of me when you think of great old Gunsynd!

  2. A few tears welling up in my eyes thinking about this truly wonderful racehorse, who i witnessed race several times. An out & out champion. As good as they get, winning the hearts of many Australians of the time. Tex's song is great!