I deeply regret the fact that I met Les Carlyon only once, and the finest details of the encounter remain very clear in my memory.
It was Saturday February 12th, 2000 - easy to remember because it was Inter Dominion Grand Final night.
Easy to remember because it was also the night I shook hands, for the one and only time, with a man who given a pen and a sheet of paper could have made Phar Lap breathe again.
Sky Racing provided a comprehensive coverage of the Moonee Valley card and several other harness and greyhound meetings around the nation.
The open air studio was set up on a raised platform near the outside fence, just past the winning post.
We were easy targets for the ever circling school of larrikins trying to get their heads in front of a TV camera, and the inevitable interruptions from those with no understanding of the job we were trying to do.
Shortly before the Grand Final field left the parade yard, I was conscious of a well-dressed, older man patiently waiting for an opportunity to say something.
His face was so familiar that I thought I should jump off the dais and make contact while an interstate race was in progress. “Hi John I’m Les Carlyon”, said the softly spoken visitor, completely oblivious to the fact that his introduction had floored me. “I was watching the coverage at home and decided to come over and see these champion horses in the Grand Final”.
Our conversation lasted all of ninety seconds, but left an indelible impression on me. How many times I’ve reflected on that brief encounter.
How many times I’ve pondered the possibility of setting up an interview with the legendary man of words, or at the very least dinner and a bottle of wine. But suddenly it’s too late and I’m sad about that.
You only need to look at the distinguished roles he’s filled over the years to realise that his talents far exceeded his ability to simply put words together.
You only need to read the tributes posted by colleagues these past few days to realise that Les Carlyon was the journalist’s journalist - perhaps the most significant tribute of all.
I’ve had a copy of Gallipoli, his labour of love, on my bookshelf for some years now. I haven’t read it right through yet because I haven’t had the time to give it the attention it deserves. When you absorb yourself in a Les Carlyon masterpiece you don’t want any distractions.
I’ve read his 1996 classic “True Grit” several times. No writer has ever captured the character of champion racehorses in quite the same way. You can see them, smell them, hear them galloping straight off the pages at you.
Here’s a sample from True Grit. Les recalled Canberra’s most exciting race day ever. The day Queen Elizabeth insisted a visit to the local races should be included in her busy itinerary.
The feature event was named the Queen Elizabeth Stakes, to be run at WFA over 2000 metres, and the Canberra Racing Club committee couldn’t believe their luck when Bonecrusher, Beau Zam and Dandy Andy were among the acceptances.
The publicity machine went into overdrive and a massive crowd turned up. Most of them were there to get a squizz at her most regal Majesty Queen Elizabeth. Here are Les Carlyon’s last few sentences.
“The Queen Elizabeth, as good a race as you will see, was a rebuff to those who think the Crown has trained off, that the royalty bit, rather like straight-backed jockeys, is out of time and place. Consider what the royal presence did yesterday. Here we were in Canberra, which is to high class racing what Alice Springs is to international sculling. And on Sunday too. Here were three of the best horses in the land. Collectively they had won $4 million . They were going around for just $65,000 to the winner. What brought them? The Queen. Simple as that.”
I’ve stolen a few of Les Carlyon’s golden one liners over the years, always giving him the appropriate credit. In trying to find an apt description for the champion Vo Rogue in a Sky story a few years ago, we stole from the great writer. “He had steel in his legs and iron in his soul”, was the way Les described the gallant front runner.
That’s the way he talked about a racehorse. Imagine how he talks about the gallant men of Gallipoli. I can’t wait to get started on it.