Written October 2005
Leica Falcon was picking grass outside his Corowa stable on Wednesday afternoon when a Sydney radio station rang trainer Richard Freyer about rumours of a two million dollar offer for the galloper.
With horse lead in one hand and portable phone in the other, the horseman tried to hose down the speculation, while the four year-old moseyed into a patch of Paterson’s curse.
The curse is Australia’s most invasive weed, but Freyer is happy for his horses to pick at it. He says the ‘Riverina bluebell’ has almost as much protein as oats and corn.
This week Freyer has been doing his utmost to maintain Leica Falcon’s routine – gallop alone at 4.30am on the Corowa racecourse, rest in his box until mid-afternoon, a lazy pick around the yard before dark.
“I’ve never had a week like it,” Freyer, 57, said in his laconic drawl. “Fortunately, the horse doesn’t know what is going on.”
In Albury, 60km away, Leica Falcon’s breeders and managing owners Alan and Margaret Eaton are shaking their heads about the heightened speculation and the offers which started at $40,000 following his first win and topped a half million when a syndicate involving Kerry Packer bid for the horse before the Caulfield Cup.
Following his withering dash from last on the turn to fifth in the Caulfield Cup, long-striding Leica Falcon is all the rage for next Tuesday’s Melbourne Cup.
As for the speculators, Margaret Eaton says they are wasting their time.
Sure, money is tight for the Eatons and a few months ago they were thinking of selling their farmlet because of their financial situation.
Alan is a retired wharfie who underwent arthroscopic surgery two days ago on his wretched knee. The couple feed themselves and their half dozen horses on what Margaret earns as principal of a school for 14 children with behavioural difficulties.
“I’d love to be able to retire with a few spare dollars, but having a horse in the Melbourne Cup is worth more than money,” Margaret said.
“My mother is 94, in a nursing home in Bendigo, and for us to have a runner would mean everything to her.
“Besides, he’s a nice horse and when his racing days over he is going to be my next hack.”
The Eatons bred Leica Falcon on the farm from Lady Peregrine, the mare they bought for $3,000.
Just before sunset one evening two years ago, Margaret was watching out the kitchen window as Leica Falcon, then a two year-old, and his full brother Leica Hawk playfully romped around the paddock.
Suddenly, the yearling Leica Hawk crashed to the ground. Margaret urgently summoned the next door neighbour, a veterinary surgeon, who needed to tranquilise Leica Falcon before she could attend to Leica Hawk.
“They were paddock mates, and Leica Falcon was so distressed when it happened,” says Margaret.
Leica Hawk suffered a broken leg and had to be destroyed. Alan Eaton was so upset that he walked the paddock for hours, searching in vain for what might have caused the yearling to stumble.
“We know how fickle the horse industry is,” says Alan. “Horses are a heart-breaking commodity.”
Even so, Alan once drove thousands of kilometres from Gove on the Gulf of Carpentaria, where Margaret was teaching, to the Riverina just to see Lady Peregrine win a Berrigan Cup.
Margaret was raised in Northcote, and is eternally grateful to her parents for making sacrifices to buy her first horse at 13.
She rides an Arab around the Eatons’ property 10km north of Albury – and she also has the battle scars from a disastrous fall four years ago.
She broke both arms, fractured her sternum and knocked out a tooth.
If Leica Falcon wins the Melbourne Cup, Margaret intends to get a replacement tooth. She’d like to stay home and breed more horses, too.
Alan says he would spend his share of the winnings on a unit up north, where the weather is always warm.
These are heady times for the Eatons, who are so wound up they are having difficulty sleeping.
When you’ve been racing battlers – as the connections of Leica Falcon have been most of their lives – it’s quite a shock to find your farm-bred horse is sharing the headlines with the champion mare Makybe Diva.
The Eatons own the four year-old gelding with eight family members, who they involved in the horse because they realised they alone wouldn’t be able to afford the running costs.
They sent the horse to Richard Freyer, who charges them a little less than his daily rate because they are long-time clients. Loyalty counts a lot in the Freyer family, where relationships go back decades, and sometimes generations.
Richard is the sixth generation to be named Richard Allan Freyer. His son Ric is the seventh.
All the Freyers have been renowned horsemen. Richard’s grandfather was a teamster whose draught horses hauled wheat, wool and timber over long distances to railway heads in the years between the wars.
Richard’s father, “Jack”, won his first Corowa Cup in 1935 and is a revered character in the Riverina.
“Dad used to say that if he hadn’t won that Corowa Cup in the depression, he wouldn’t have continued in racing. We owe him everything.”
Jack was still getting up at 5am to help Richard and Rick in the stables and on the farm a few months before he died in September 2004, aged 94.
“I think about him every day,” Richard says. “We Freyers have gone several lifetimes searching for one special horse.
“Now, when it looks like we’ve got one, I just hope he and mum are up there enjoying this.”
The Freyers train 30 horses from the stables that Jack built out of Murray gum.
They rise at 3.30 every morning, and Leica Falcon is on the track by first light. They work their team, feed and clean up, and leave at 10am to go to their second job – farming sheep and cattle on their 600ha property north of Albury.
Father and son are prodigious workers – they’re among the horses or stock 14 hours a day, six days a week, and on Sundays they catch up on whatever farm jobs they’ve missed.
They’ve been shearing for the past two days and Richard pens sheep before he knocks off to give Leica Falcon his afternoon pick.
The bleating sheep have been giving him respite from the telephone.
In his peaked cap and vest, the trainer looks the quintessential bushie.
He describes the connections of Leica Falcon as “battling people” and flashes one of his broken grins when reminded that over the next three weeks he will be compared to some of the most fashionable and expensive trainers in the world.
“I’d like to think we are striking a blow for bush people,” he says.
“A lot of owners tend to think that training in the city is the only way, but we like to believe us country people have learnt a thing or two over the years.”
He doesn’t look it now, but when he was a teenager Richard rode as an amateur jockey, winning 23 of his 60 races.
In August 1965 he rode his father’s horse Swift Chief to victory in an amateur race at Randwick. The third placegetter was trained by TJ Smith.
Sydney newspapers next day wrote Richard up as the tallest jockey in the world (he’s 6 ft 2 and a half).
He has put on five stone since, and his back is so sore he can’t stand for any length of time.
A Melbourne surgeon told him six weeks ago that there isn’t much they can do for his back.
It was giving him so much pain he couldn’t attend the races on the day in August 2003 when Leica Falcon made his racetrack debut.
The Eatons were there, but they thought he was a no-hoper when he came out of the barrier 15 lengths behind the second last horse.
Alan Eaton couldn’t even see him on the course monitor, and gave up – until he flashed home in the final strides to run fifth.
The horse scored his first win in a maiden plate at Wagga Wagga four months ago. A preparation that began with a Wagga maiden is about to climax in Australia’s greatest race.
When Richard Freyer telephoned the Eatons on August 2 to say that he had nominated Leica Falcon for the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups, Alan was aghast.
“Shock. Horror. My God, what are we doing?” was his response. he owners paid up $800 on a seemingly impossible dream, and have forked out a total of $47,325 through each stage of the declarations.
Margaret put 10 dollars each way on him at 500 to 1 for the Caulfield Cup, but even she didn’t bother taking the 500 to 1 for the Melbourne Cup.
Margaret’s twin loves are horses and kids. At Kandeer school for children with behavioural difficulties, she has steered one 14 year-old boy into a career in racing.
Through her wangling, the boy has begun with work experience with Albury trainer Robbie Wellington, and she is trying to get him into a government assisted jockeys’ course in Sydney.
What she knows about children, Richard knows about horses.
His incredible belief in Leica Falcon came from a lifetime of understanding what makes horses tick. He’s never seen a horse relax the way Leica Falcon does.
“There’ll be 10 or 12 overseas horses in the Cup and, if ours gets a run, I dunno how a plain home-bred horse will go against all those good ‘uns,” Richard says, modestly.
While his peaked cap and country clobber will stand out amongst the Italian suits at Flemington, the owners will be both edgy and prominent.
Margaret Eaton’s hair has streaks of red and white, and she intends to get it dyed red and blue in Leica Falcon’s racing colours for the Melbourne Cup carnival.
Alan has a plaited “rat’s tail”, which could well compete with Makybe Diva owner Tony Santic’s mullet for media attention in the mounting yard.
Richard Freyer would like the horse’s next run to be in the Melbourne Cup, but – to make certain he gets in the field – he will probably run in the Saab Quality next Saturday. It’s a hard ask on a horse who has had only nine starts, but Richard knows he is exceptional.
When the Freyers’ well-worn truck left Corowa to go to Caulfield a fortnight ago, locals stood on the roadside to wish them well.
When the same truck makes the three hour journey to Flemington on the first Tuesday, the Freyers know they will be representing several generations of their family, the people of the Riverina, and every Australian who enjoys a Melbourne Cup fairytale.
Postscript: Leica Falcon finished a gallant fourth behind Makybe Diva in the 2005 Melbourne Cup.
Sadly, the horse became one of racing’s hard luck stories. In 2006 he was the early favourite for the Melbourne Cup, but was ruled out with an injury that required stem cell surgery.
In 2007 his Cup hopes were thwarted when he was stranded by the equine influenza outbreak. Unfortunately we never saw the best of Leica Falcon.