THEY DON’T COME ANY MORE PATIENT THAN
Les Bridge was in Melbourne when he received the news that Tip Top had got away during afternoon exercise, sustaining a nasty injury to a front superficial flexor tendon. It was mid October 2015, and the horse had finished third in a Kembla Maiden at his initial start, only a few days before.
Les instructed staff to get him to the Randwick Equine Veterinary Centre immediately, fully aware that every minute counts with a fresh tendon injury of this nature. Thankfully the impact hadn’t completely penetrated the tendon, and the appropriate sutures were put in place.
Les decided to give the horse a full year in which to get over the trauma, and had him gelded during that period. “In hindsight the year off probably made this horse”, said Les over the weekend. “He was a big, spooky bugger and needed the extra time”.
All up it was nineteen months between his first and second starts. He ran third first up in a Gosford Maiden, before breaking through on the same track three weeks later. Les gave him short breaks every so often, and it was seven months before he won his second race - a Benchmark 79 at Randwick in January of this year. He won again at Warwick Farm in March, and then it was off to the paddock again.
Les Bridge is a product of the era when trainers gave horses whatever time they needed to realise their full potential. Patient trainers are still around, but big juvenile prize money, tests the patience of many modern day owners.
Tip Top is now a fully grown, fully seasoned six year old, and has won both starts back from a spell, looking the real deal on both occasions.
He travelled three wide with 60kgs to win on the Kenso track Sept 5th, and followed up with a strong win over 1400 metres at Rosehill Gardens last Saturday(Sept 22nd), beating the talented Fierce Impact. In both races he travelled kindly for Tim Clark, and quickened when asked. “I don’t know how far he’ll go, but we’ve done our bit”, said Les. “It’s up to him now”.
Les Bridge has changed little in the fifty years I’ve known him. He’s a laid back character, and likes his horses to be the same. He shows little emotion, almost to the point of indifference, but he’s a deep thinker, and when he’s got something to say it’s worth listening to.
His reluctance to talk about his own history has all but erased the fact that he was an apprentice jockey. He was indentured to the old time Randwick trainer Clyde Cook, whose sister Iris was the wife of legendary broadcaster Ken Howard.
When prodded about his achievements in the saddle, Les had only a few points to make. He had no idea how many winners he’d ridden, but recalled that he still had a claim when he came out of his time. He does remember riding two very notable horses of the era.
One of them was Prince Darius, the most famous “bridesmaid” of the 1950’s. In any other era he would have found fame, but had to be content to finish second to the great Tulloch eight times, and third on three occasions. He beat all but Straight Draw in the 1957 Melbourne Cup, and many willed him to win that day.
Les Bridge had one ride on the gallant horse late in his career. “It was a thrill to sit on his back”, reflected Les. “He was in an unsuitable race and never got sighted, but felt like the good horse we knew him to be”.
He also had one unplaced ride on a horse called Gregory John, who later earned a place in history by winning two races in one day at Warwick Farm.
Clyde Cook suffered ill health in the final years of his training career, and his young apprentice had to shoulder increasing responsibility. “I was more a trainer than a jockey in that period, and it seemed a natural progression to take out my own trainer’s licence”, recalled Les.
Young Bridge quickly established his identity as a professional trainer, and the winners came at a steady rate. He had some owners at the time who were buying tried NZ horses with staying potential, and he won many second tier races, particularly in the off season. So many in fact, that he despaired of ever getting a decent two year old to train.
He’d had success with Future Shock for prominent owner Peter Horwitz, who rewarded him with a very attractive Vain colt destined to take the trainer to another level. “Sir Dapper was easily the best horse I ever trained, and I still look at his record in disbelief”, said Bridge.
The super colt won 13 times from only 18 starts including the 1983 Golden Slipper. He’s best remembered for a blazing sequence of wins as a spring three year old. He won the
San Domenico, the Up And Coming, the Peter Pan, the Gloaming and the Spring Champion Stakes before Beechcraft halted his run in the Caulfield Guineas. Next prep he added the Expressway Stakes, the Hobartville and the Canterbury Stakes to his brilliant record, before retiring to stud at the end of his three year old campaign.
Les easily reverted to the art of training stayers when Kensei arrived at his stables. The son of Blarney Kiss never won under 1800 metres, and was absolutely flying when the 1987 Melbourne Cup rolled around. With only 51.5 kgs, he dropped 3 kgs on the weight he carried when an unlucky second to Balciano in the Metropolitan a month earlier.
All he needed was a “gun” ride from Larry Olsen, and that’s exactly what he got. Saving ground everywhere he went, Larry secured a rails run to hit the front 100 metres out, before going on to beat Empire Rose and Rosedale. The gentle, lovable gelding had taken jockey and trainer to racing’s most hallowed place.
Les won three Group 1 races with that skinny little dynamo Drawn, a Doncaster with Row Of Waves, and later Utzon and Avoid Lightning won a swag of races between them. Utzon ran fourth in a Doncaster, on a soft track and to this day Jim Cassidy declares, that was the one that got away. “He drew barrier 1, and couldn’t get off the fence which was the worst place to be on the day”, said Les. “Jim was adamant he would have won drawn five or six”.
But of all his favourites, none tugged his heart strings more than the brilliant but ill-fated Hot Danish. “She ticked every box but one”, recalled the trainer. “She was a beautiful looking mare, with a faultless attitude, and a magical turn of speed, but she could not go on a rain affected track. She simply couldn’t let down the way she did on firm ground. She looked a big hope coming over the rise in two Doncasters, but scrambled when asked to extend on soft ground”.
Despite her aversion to wet tracks, the wonderful mare had a record of 31 (16-7-2) for over $2.3 million). She won a Gr 1 All Aged Stakes and a Gr 1 Doomben $10,000, even though the Doomben track was “off” on the day.
Les, and the mare’s many owners were devastated when she was unable to get over a massive leg infection which took her life in 2011. “An unforgettable mare whose record should be better than it was .She was very special”, mused the trainer.
Hot Danish was ridden in fourteen of her sixteen wins by Tim Clark, almost certainly Les Bridge’s favourite jockey of the current era. “He’s totally unflappable, and is just as relaxed in a Group 1 as he is in a Gosford Maiden”, said Les.
The trainer has had great working relationships with several jockeys over the years. Way back to riders like Ray Selkrig and Jack Thompson, and in more recent history Ron Quinton, Larry Olsen, Mark De Montfort, Craig Carmody, Jim Cassidy and Gavan Duffy.
Les suffered the most devastating blow of his life four years ago, when he lost his much loved wife Peggy to cancer. He has had loving support from daughter Lesley, son Jason and two grandchildren.
Despite his 73 years, Les has never contemplated retirement. His precious South Sydney Rabbitohs have given him a few thrills this season, and his golf game is respectable, although he says it takes him a few holes to warm up.
Les lost both his parents in recent years at remarkable ages. Les Snr at 93, and Lena at 94. “Young” Les is hoping for similar longevity, and the physical capacity to keep doing what he’s been doing for more than sixty years. “As long as I can keep getting out of the cot, and turning up at the stables, I’ll be content”, says the respected trainer. “I’ve got room for eighteen horses at Randwick, and that’s the perfect number for a bloke of my vintage”.
When asked to nominate a couple of others among his eighteen horses that might win a race or two, he quickly mentioned the mares Slow Burn and Seasons.
But Tip Top’s the one he expects to improve beyond normal range. Les has been studying the Choisir gelding’s every move for a long time now, probably seeing something that others don’t. I’m reminded of the marvellous adage credited to Benjamin Franklin. “The eye of the master will do more work than both his hands”.