Billy Camer
Billy Camer

How Cox Plate winner ruled when racing and Hollywood mixed

Acclaimed as the smallest jockey in the world, Billy Camer soon learned to walk among giants.

As an accomplished rider in an era of champions, Camer competed at a time when Hollywood's biggest stars regularly frequented Australian racetracks.

In 1959, Camer accepted a bouquet of flowers from Tinsel Town's most famous dancer, Fred Astaire.

In Melbourne for the filming of On The Beach with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner, Astaire presented Camer with a floral memento for winning the Alister Clark Stakes.

Soon after, Camer and Mickey Rooney chatted in the mounting yard of a Sydney racecourse.

At 89, Camer is the oldest living jockey to have won the Cox Plate - on Kingster in 1955.

Stricken with advanced dementia, Camer has little or no memory of that celebrated triumph, nor brief dalliances with global superstars.

But the family's scrapbooks serve as a flickering movie reel to a career of racetrack heroism and fleeting brushes with fame.

 

 

Billy Camer won the Cox Plate in 1955. Picture: Phil Hillyard
Billy Camer won the Cox Plate in 1955. Picture: Phil Hillyard

 

Cox Plate winning jockey Billy Camer in 1955.
Cox Plate winning jockey Billy Camer in 1955.

 

Camer's wife of 63 years, Barbara, has photos of both meetings.

And a crystal clear recollection of the flowers her husband accepted from Astaire.

"Alister Clark loved roses and that was one of the trophies for winning the Alister Clark Stakes," Mrs Camer said. "Bill brought them home to Sydney for me."

Like Astaire, Rooney was another enthusiastic racegoer and, on turning up announced at Canterbury, was invited into the mounting yard to meet Billy.

Both, reportedly, were taken aback by the jockey's frail build - as was his future wife.

On meeting Billy for the first time in 1955, Barbara Wilson marvelled at the jockey's elfish physique.

"When he first rode as a 14-year-old in 1945, he was reputedly the smallest jockey in the world," she said.

 

 

"He weighed four stone, two pounds (26 kilograms) and he was only four foot, one inch high (1.24m).

"He hasn't changed much since - he's now five foot, three (1.60m) and seven stone, 10 pounds (48kgs)."

Mrs Camer says the second thing she noticed about the diminutive horseman was iron-willed persistence, a quality which affords him an enduring place in racing history.

The pair met not long after Kingster's WS Cox Plate victory.

Billy arrived at the booming Arthur Murray studios in Sydney in late 1955, having snaffled tickets for three ballroom dancing lessons from his landlady.

 

Billy Camer with Mickey Rooney.
Billy Camer with Mickey Rooney.

 

 

 

Immediately smitten by the instructor - his future wife - Camer ran into a significant obstacle.

"I had a boyfriend at the time and I had no interest in Bill," Mrs Camer said.

"But that didn't stop Bill. He was very persistent and that didn't go down very well with my then boyfriend, Mr Tall, Dark and Handsome.

"Tall, Dark and Handsome punched out Billy, so that was the end of Tall, Dark and Handsome. I started going out with Billy and we married in 1957."

Mrs Camer says her still supremely fit and debonair husband, a man who castigated other fellow retired jockeys for getting "big, fat guts", followed trainer Jack Green's instructions to the letter on Kingster at The Valley 65 years ago.

In a finish featuring a trio of three-year-olds, Camer expertly led all the way to prevail over a field containing champions Rising Fast, Caranna, Sailors Guide and Cromis.

"Billy's memory is shot now, but he did talk about doing exactly what Jack Green had asked," Mrs Camer said. "He was told to try and lead all the way. He is very proud of what he achieved."

A newspaper clipping of Billy Camer — the oldest-living Cox Plate-winning jockey.
A newspaper clipping of Billy Camer — the oldest-living Cox Plate-winning jockey.

Internationally successful, Camer's rise to fame was founded in unlikely origins.

His father Tranquillo Camera was born in Italy of Swiss parents. The family resettled in Ayr, Queensland where Billy got a job delivering papers on horseback.

"Being so tiny, I delivered my papers on a pony," he said in a 2010 interview.

"I had a split bag over the front of the horse, and carried the papers in that.

"The son of a trainer in Townsville, Johnny Hughes, saw me riding past and asked if I would like to be a jockey.

"I said, 'What the hell is a jockey?'. I'd never heard of it. Wasn't into racing.

"We basically lived off a farm, grew vegetables and things like that. I went home and spoke to Mum and Dad and they were agreeable so I moved to Townsville."

From there, Camer engineered a long, productive career, notching a string of major wins, including three Stradbroke Handicap victories.

 

Billy Camer in 1955.
Billy Camer in 1955.

 

Camer's tiny frame meant he used a modified saddle on horses carrying big weights.

"It was made so the lead was built into it and you didn't have a lead bag rolling over the horse," he said.

Until recently, Camer had tended the family home's garden in south-western Sydney, growing vegetables, also cleaning the pool until his balance issues intervened.

"I do all those things now," Mrs Camer said. "But Bill still enjoys a glass of wine and watching the races.

"He'll be watching the Cox Plate, too."

And, as for those long-distant dancing lessons?

"They didn't do him much good," Mrs Camer laughed, "He still can't dance.

"But he's still relatively healthy and in good spirits."

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leo.schlink@news.com.au

 

Originally published as How Cox Plate winner ruled when racing and Hollywood mixed



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