Australian Cup’s greatest sportsman

t712Windbag1925MelbourneCupLucky Tom won at Doomben today. It was always going to be his race, despite this morning my cousin saying she might have named her son Egbert instead of Tom. At Flemington it was also the 156th running of the Australian Cup, one of the oldest horse races in the country, and one forever linked in our family to another famous Tom.

Tom Marney was one of the biggest bookmakers in Australia. He began his career in the 1920s and today is still remembered as one of the great characters of the turf. He was born Thomas Mawhinney in 1900 and was living in Footscray at the home of my grandad, who was his cousin, when he enlisted for the First World War at the start of 1917. That event heralded the first of many that would earn him his vibrant ‘character’ status.

Tom was one of four brothers to serve, three of them lying about their age. Tom was just 16 when he said he was 21. He was training in England when his brother Alex found out. Alex was in France and informed the army. They queried Tom, and he insisted he was 21. Alex wrote again, this time underlining 16 ½ and Tom was sent home. But he enlisted again, saying he was 23 and had been “sent home to Australia with shell shock after Passchendaele”. He went undiscovered and served in the Rabaul Garrison for the remainder of the war.

After a bit of trouble in the early 1920s, Tom started going by the name Tom Marney, which was one of the pseudonyms that his brother Bill used during the war. Tom commenced bookmaking and enjoyed early success. “We had so much money that I couldn’t close the bag,” he recalled years later of his biggest win, when Windbag (pictured) won the 1925 Melbourne Cup.

Come 1956, Tom felt invincible. That’s the first time he got into trouble over the Australian Cup. He was banned by the Victoria Racing Club after the favourite Cambridge was found to run slow. In subsequent court action, he was represented by future high court justice Lionel Murphy.  Tom wasn’t back long when the Australian Cup was again in his sights. This time it was Dream King the surprise winner of the 1961 cup. The horse was unplaced in its previous 10 starts, but won by five lengths in record time.

Tom’s career finished as he approached his 80th year, one windy day in Brisbane while he was setting up at Eagle Farm. A track official came up to him and said there were a couple of men in suits he had to meet. One was from the Australian Tax Office, and the other from the Office of Stamp Duties. Tom asked if he could have one last day on the rails, and he did.

His brother Alex, who also lied about his age to enlist, played in the VFL with Melbourne. His cousin Harold, with whom he lived in Footscray, played two seasons with St Kilda, the first without a clearance under an assumed name. Tom’s nephew Ken Feltscheer played with both Melbourne and Hawthorn, and at 101-years-old is today the oldest living former professional footballer in the world. But old Tom is the most colourful sportsman of them all.

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