By Matt Stewart for Inside Racing
If Bill Gibbins hadn’t read a book he initially “threw in a corner’’, a unique marathon race called the Jericho Cup would not be run for the first time at Warrnambool this December, nor would seven other races on the program inspired by that book.
The book had an enticing title – Bill The Bastard. So enticing, that Gibbins was eventually drawn to it.
A friend of Gibbins’ wife had often referred to the former trucking magnate as “Bill The Bastard”; an ironic nickname given Gibbins was quite the opposite.
The surviving Rats Of Tobruk would attest to Gibbins’ generous heart, given he forked out $1.72 million a decade ago to save the building they’d used in Albert Park for their annual reunion.
Gibbins remembers the “Rats” “crying into their tea cups” the day the building was put under the auctioneer’s hammer.
“I just told them “don’t worry, you’re not going anywhere,’’ he said.
Gibbins’ father had served in the Middle East in the Great War but until his wife’s friend tossed him the book about a rogue war horse about three years ago, Bill had never heard of Bill The Bastard.
“She threw me the book and said “they’ve written a book about you’’.
“I threw it in the corner but eventually thought I’d better read it,’’ he said.
The book wasn’t a biography of Bill Gibbins but the story of a magnificently-named brute whose Great War heroics make him, quite possibly, Australia’s “greatest’’ horse.
Phar Lap was our greatest racehorse but Phar Lap’s heroics were contained to the relative sanctuary of the racetrack.
It was in the desert, in Palestine, where the legend of Bill The Bastard was forged as bullets whistled and Light Horsemen fell around him.
Gibbins concluded “there’s something there, something in this story’’ as he read about Bill The Bastard winning an impromptu race dubbed the Jericho Cup, that was essentially a “ruse’’, and carting injured soldiers away from the firing line in scenes that, to the modern reader, seem almost mythical.
On one occasion, Bill The Bastard saved four Tasmanian Light Horsemen from an intense Turkish assault and delivered them to safety.
“I’m not sure if they were all on him or hanging off him but he got them out,’’ Gibbins said.
On another occasion Bill’s rider, Michael Shanahan, who was the only horseman who could handle the rogue and will have a race named in his honour at Warrnambool in December, was shot in the saddle and passed out. His rogue mate deposited Shanahan straight to the vet.
The Jericho Cup is not entirely consigned to history. The $300,000 Jericho Cup, one of eight “themed’’ races on the day, will be run over 4600 metres at Warrnambool on December 2. Other races on the program – like the Charge at Beersheba Sprint, the Midnight Madness, the Goodbye Albany, Farewell Australia and the Harry Bell – will honour other heroes of the Middle East battlefields of World War 1.
Bell was a baby-faced 16-year-old who perished on the battlefield after lying about his age and name, the “Farewell’’ race pays tribute to the role of Albany as the principal despatch point of war ships and “Midnight’’ was a thoroughbred whose battlefield heroics probably eclipsed even Bill The Bastard, winner of the “first’’ Jericho Cup.
Even though the war was coming to an end, the Australian Light Horse was planning a major attack – at midnight – against the Turks and a race meeting was created to distract the enemy from the planned assault.
The race was run over three miles (4800m).
Bill The Bastard was wild buck jumper but in the race across the desert, cheered on by a reported 10,000 soldiers, he wore down his rivals and won.
“I thought “what a fantastic story and then I thought “why not do it again 100 years later?’’ Gibbins said.
So, at the Bool this December, through the hills and paddocks of the Grand Annual circuit, rather than across a desert battlefield, the Jericho Cup will be run for the second time.
Find out more about The Jericho Cup here.