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Vale Les Carlyon, a true champion of the turf

Young colt: Les Carlyon in his early days as a reporter at The Age.

Young colt: Les Carlyon in his early days as a reporter at The Age.Credit:Fairfax

Of course he was hardly limited: his versatility ranged from Gallipoli, The Great War, Hiroshima, Bob Santamaria, Muhammad Ali, and Bob Hawke, plus newspaper credits including leader writer at 21, editor of The Age at 33, and editor in chief of The Herald and Weekly Times in the
1980s.
However, the turf was a passion.

“Horses and the people around them – these are what we remember, not the corporate stuff,” Carlyon in  True Grit. “Racing is an affair of the heart, not the head. It defies good sense. Racing is a way of living, a way of thinking. It has its own language and its own humour. It is loaded with danger, physical and financial, and comes with the hint of conspiracy. It doesn’t necessarily build character but it throws up some great characters, and they are good to write about.”

Alas some of us, guilty as charged, linger too long with the betting ring and scandals, the underbelly, which currently has me intrigued regarding Sally Snow, the modern face of the NSW TAB, being warned off by Racing NSW stewards.

However, Carlyon lent his pen more to the heroes, identifying and describing greatness so well. From  The Master: “Cummings seemed so casual and carefree at times, almost disengaged from the world of other people, never in a hurry, never fluttery. On the outside he was nothing like his gifted rival Tommy Smith, who was on the training tracks at dawn getting on with it as fast as possible . . .
“What people didn’t see was that Cummings’ competitive spirit was as ruthless as Tommy Smith’s . . .  they couldn’t see the steel behind the facade that made him different to most.”

But the enthusiasm for horses, young and old, oozed from Carlyon’s fingers.

The enthusiasm for horses, young and old, oozed from Carlyon’s fingers.

“We could see So You Think’s eye: big, black and blazing with intent and so close you felt you could reach out and touch it and be energized by it. An American novelist once described a stallion’s eye as being like a hot globe where the world burned . . .

“Inside [So You Think] there was something hard, brutal even, which was right enough . . . winners or at least the people and horses who keep winning seem to own something hard inside.”

Obviously, Carlyon could take racing away from the glitz of the track, the helter skelter of the course proper, the betting ring buzz, and the champagne bars.

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“Under the mud the old horse’s coat is like velvet and he has a crest in his neck like a stallion. He likes to talk to fillies in the next paddock and still wind sucks on the
fence rail.

“Here caked in mud is the brightest light of the 1980s on Australian racecourses. Here is the horse who took the sameness out of racing. Here is the horse that gave us, not one but maybe half a dozen undying moments.”

Carlyon produced even more memories than the subject, Kingston Town, albeit with words. And there they were, on sale for $2.

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