Energetic Jack always on track
By MAX GODBEE
OWNING and training a pacer ? and a good one at that ? for the show harness racing circuit could hardly have given a young Jack Mills greater joy, particularly as he was still a schoolboy and wildly interested in the racing industry.
That pacer, Bouncing Bell, had won a number of races, before being brought to the Taree Show by his Sydney owner and trainer to compete in events.
Bouncing Bell was hurt in a race fall at Taree and the owner was not keen on having to wait until the horse had recovered before taking him back home, so made a good offer to the locals.
"Give me 40 pounds ($80) and the horse is yours," he said.
Wingham drover Mick Green took up the offer and then told the youthful Jack Mills: "If you train him he is half yours."
Jack readily agreed to the proposal. He had previously ridden track work for Green and knew he was a reliable man.
Standardbred horses, for trotting or pacing, are a different proposition to thoroughbred racehorses but just the same both breeds need hard work to set them for racing, along with the right food, understanding and affection. Green knew that Jack could give the horse all that.
In those days of the early 1940s in harness racing there were two styles, either the horse could be harnessed to a racing gig or could be ridden with a jockey on top but still wearing the harness hobbles he would have when pulling a gig. Being agile and already a competent horseman Jack was the jockey for Bouncing Bell. But there was one giant drawback. Racing rules stated that the weight of the jockey, saddle and saddle rug had to be a minimum 11 stone, or 70.3kg in modern talk. Fair enough if you're heavy but Jack, still a schoolboy, was pint-sized, at that time weighing around five stone or just under 32kg.
So whether in imperial measurement or by today's metric system Jack was well underweight.
He had to ride with an extra heavy saddle, water-saturated rugs, a leadweighted vest and further lead in the bags either side of the saddle.
Jack is pictured, wearing the stable's colours of all blue, on top of Bouncing Bell and clearly displaying the big buckjump saddle. The photo was taken shortly after horse and rider were able to come from the back mark of 130 yards (119m) behind to win the Gloucester Pacers' Cup back in the 1940s.
Jack remembers that one other day at the Gloucester Showground he rode Bouncing Bell in six races, winning four and was runner-up by mere head mar- gins in each of the other two.
With Bouncing Bell and other pacers and trotters Jack competed at every show possible in harness racing as well as on other horses contesting hurdles, brush hurdles, racing, high jumps and virtually every event on the small tracks. No need for a trainer's licence or such in those times.
He was also an enthusiastic jockey, just 14 when he had his first race ride at the gallops. No licence required either in those days before registration, and he rode on every Lower North Coast track ? tracks which abounded such as at Taree, Wingham, Krambach, Kendall, Laurieton, Coopernook and nearby Tionee, and landed his share of winners.
He was freelance but riding mainly for Mick Green and Bill House, each with a string of horses.
When registration came in a few years later, Jack was automatically issued with a jockey's licence as an already proven rider.
Jack was still a teenager, just 17 when in 1945 he moved to Grafton for what was to be a short stint riding work and races for his uncle Baden (Bartie) Mills, who had stables based in Appleby Lane (now Appleby St) adjacent to the southern side of the Grafton racecourse.
"That appointment was supposed to be for three months but I have lived in Grafton ever since, 60 years, except for six months term working at Ballina," Jack said.
"Among the better horses 'Bartie' had in the stable were Portray, The Gambler and Grey Veil and one called Excursion that Bartie bought for just eight quid ($16).
"Excursion had been a good two- and three-year-old but had been idling in a bush paddock for a couple of years before we received him and, like the others, he won a heap of races for us around the Northern Rivers area," Jack said.
Another frontline jockey Ernie Walmsley married Jack's cousin, Bartie's daughter, Ann, and he too was also a prominent rider for the Bartie Mills stable.
Jack rode his share of winners but surprisingly it was increasing weight which forced him out of race riding when just 28 years of age around 1956.
He well remembers his final ride was on a horse called Green and Gold for Percy Eggins and it finished second to another good one, Stroud, ridden by Walmsley.
Jack then became an eager and successful trainer of greyhounds.
Jack Carlyle Mills was born at Taree in April 1928, the son of Keith and Gladys (nee Cyler) Mills.
Like his brother, Tom, he went to Taree public and Taree high schools and gained the school Intermediate Certificate when he was 15.
Similar to Tom he played rugby league on the wing at school but later was halfback for the Taree Old Bar Club, with Wally Sneddon a prop forward.
Later Wally played centre alongside Eric (Flip) Lawrence for South Grafton and later still proved to be a top class referee.
On leaving school Jack took up an apprenticeship as an upholsterer and transport bodybuilder ? bodybuilder working on cars, trucks and carts that is ? for 12 months earning 17/6 ($1.75) a week until deciding to give that away to concentrate on horses.
"I had trained the harness horses, rode in every type of event at shows and gymkhanas and rode early morning trackwork at the Taree racecourse," he said.
When he made Grafton his home to ride as a jockey Jack also became involved in the local rugby league scene playing wing for the Waratahs club
"I remember some of my team-mates were Charlie Triggs and the Gleeson brothers Bill and Bruce," Jack said.
"We might not have been the greatest team in the world but they were all good blokes and we enjoyed our football."
It was in December of 1951 that Jack Mills married Josie Walker at St Mary's Church in Grafton.
"Not surprisingly we had first met at a Grafton race meeting, on a day when I had won on Portray," Jack said.
There are two daughters, Denise and Jennifer and two sons, Glenn (Benny) and Peter. Both sons played soccer and rugby league at school but an injury in a car accident prevented Glenn from taking football any further but Peter proved a speedy and capable footballer and goal kicker for Grafton Ghosts.
Tragically Josie, who had a fine voice and often was guest vocalist at local weddings and who helped Jack a lot with care and training of the greyhounds, died some years ago.
Jack had quickly shown his aptitude for training greyhounds and it wasn't long before he had a number of clients bringing dogs to him to train and one of these was Henry (Pop) Smith. He had early good fortune for Smith, winning the Jacaranda Cup (437 yards) in 1957 with Night Breeze. That was probably Night Breeze's biggest win but wherever Jack placed him he generally finished among the top three in good fields.
"Night Breeze is what we call a money dog and every trainer loves to have at least at one like him in their kennels," Jack said.
"Among other good dogs that Pop gave to me to train were Moalee, Blonde Hussar and Speedy Jan. Speedy Jan was older than most, a four-year-old, when we received her but she certainly knew how to chase.
"Bevan Ellem, who was affectionately known as the One-Armed Bandit, not because he was any sort of a bandit but because he had only one complete arm, provided me with a good racer, Secret Progress, which won six races for me.
"Perhaps the best greyhound I ever trained was Mum's Top, owned by Bert Hilliard, of Eungai rail.
"I had Mum's Top in outstanding form in 1959, ready to win my second Jacaranda Cup. The public had backed him deep into the red at 1/4 but he ran last and I reckon he had been 'got at'."
Although a gifted greyhound trainer Jack still found time for other work and for 39 years was employed by the Clarence River County Council which later was to become Northern Rivers Electricity, among other names since.
As many as 25 of those 39 years were spent at the Koolkhan Power Station, most of them as storeman, and there was six months working for NRE at Ballina. He later transferred back to Grafton.
Jack has worked in various jobs with bookmakers, such as a boardman or bagman and even as a penciller, and was taught the business by popular bookmaker Darcy McDonald.
Since Darcy's retirement Jack has filled in with other bookmakers whenever they have been short of an assistant. He had actually retired from training until good friend and well-known former South Grafton and representative rugby league player Phillip (JB) Walsh asked him to prepare a black and white greyhound bitch for racing.
"She is the only one I have at the moment and I will probably leave it at that ? just keeping my hand in," Jack said.