JOHN Mahony had only a brief career as a jockey.
He lasted just three years in the saddle before weight forced him into early retirement.
However, it was long enough – just – to enable Mahony to do what most jockeys can only dream of – ride in a Melbourne Cup.
Mahony had the reins on Camperdown galloper Dignify in the 1968 edition of the 3200m race (or 16 furlongs, as it was then).
The then 18-year-old apprentice guided Dignify to 18th behind Rain Lover, which won a second Melbourne Cup a year later.
Mahony, who grew up in Camperdown, says about a month later, mounting weight forced him to call it quits.
But that day at Flemington remains almost as vivid now for the Learmonth resident as it was then.
He said each time he goes to Flemington on the first Tuesday in November the memories come flooding back.
Mahony, 63, is again going to the Melbourne Cup on Tuesday, but this time it’s not just as a former jockey or passionate racegoer, as he has done before.
The difference now is that he will be there as a part-owner of a major contender, Australian Bloodstock Thoroughbred-syndicated English stayer and Caulfield Cup runner-up Dandino.
While his share is small, as one of 10 members of a largely Learmonth-favoured syndicate set up by friend Graham Biggs, it makes no difference to Mahony.
“It’s great to be just part of it – to have a live chance in the Cup.”
Mahony began his apprenticeship in 1965, indentured to Camperdown trainer Vin Moloney.
He did most of his race riding on country tracks, and the opportunity to ride Dignify in the Melbourne Cup came out of the blue, given he was not his regular jockey.
It was not Dignify’s first start in a Melbourne Cup.
He finished 13th to Galilee in 1966 when ridden by W.A. Smith at the big odds of 125-1.
Mahony said even when he was booked for the ride he was not convinced that he would be aboard.
“I thought they might have second thoughts.”
He said the booking had been conditional on him taking his maximum claim of seven pounds and with Dignify having just seven stone, two pounds, it was going to be tight.
“I couldn’t eat or drink. I couldn’t afford to put on an ounce.
“I rode at Mortlake on the Saturday – Derby Day. It was a big day.
“I had nine rides, and that became 10 when they re-ran the first race.”
Mahony said at that stage it looked like Dignify might not get a run, so after such a big day he had a feed.
He said when he found out Dignify was in the field he knew he was in trouble weight-wise.
“I had to sweat and run to get it off.”
He made it though, and with a handful of city rides behind him, took Dignify to the barriers in front of 82,000 people.
Mahony said drawing the outside and being last into the barrier enabled him to take in as much of the atmosphere as possible.
But once the field jumped, he did not have time to think about anything other than what was happening on the track.
As Mahony described, “all hell broke loss” after just 600 metres.
Wilton Park fell.
That was not the end of the drama for Mahony. He said Dignify was travelling well when he almost went down 800m from home.
“He was lucky to stay on his feet, but the race was virtually over by the time we got going again.”
Dignify, which was the rank outsider at 330-1, battled on to finish 18th.
Mahony finished his time as a jockey with 34 wins, including 10 doubles and three trebles.
So how did he end up in Learmonth?
After finishing as a jockey he did not have a lot to do with racing for some time, but after moving to Queensland in 1990 he bred and raced thoroughbreds.
He and his wife Linda chose to make the move to the Ballarat district four years ago, to be close to four children and grandchildren, who live in Ballarat, Camperdown and Melbourne.
Earlier this year he gave away truck driving after 30 years behind the wheel and returned to the racing industry full-time – working at Darren Weir’s Forest Lodge, feeding up about 90 horses six mornings a week.
And he is loving it. Just as he will on Tuesday as he watches Dandino attempt to do what Dignify found beyond it in 1968 – win the Melbourne Cup.