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Tommy Corrigan jumps jockey legend

The Tommy Corrigan medal is awarded each year to the top jumps jockey in Victoria but who was Tommy Corrigan?

Without doubt it is hard to imagine how "big" he was in the latter part of the 19th century racing scene in Australia. In his career he rode 238 jumps winners which included 3 VRC Grand National Steeplechases, 7 Grand Nationals and one Grand National Hurdle, 135 seconds and 95 thirds.

He tragically died in a jumps race after a fall and his funeral through the streets of Melbourne was the biggest the colony of Victoria had ever seen with most of the businesses in the city of Melbourne closing in his honour. He was born in Ireland in County Meath in what most agree was 1851. In 1864 the Corrigan family migrated to Victoria where he worked for his father on a dairy farm near Woodford.

He was described as a strong and game horseman courteous, devoted to his Church and family, generous, unfailing in good temper, and superstitious though pretending not to be and someone who always rode to win. In the great depression of the 1890s, betting on the horses provided a faint glimmer of hope to those who were doing it tough that one day they might just 'win up big' on the horses.

It was in this atmosphere that Tom Corrigan was to become a hero of the little folk in the same way that Phar Lap became a legend in later tough times of the 1930s. However in the depressed 1890s many hungry-eyed men at racecourses saw Corrigan as a man they could trust, a cross-class phenomenon who brought colour into the darkness and misery of many of their everyday lives.

Even by jockeys' standards Corrigan was quite small and proudly sported a huge moustache. At 14 Tom rode his own mare, Juliet, to victory in the hack steeplechase at the Woodford publicans' picnic race meeting, won a saddle, and persuaded his father to allow him to leave the family home and join the successful stable of Tozer & Moran at Warrnambool.

He served his apprenticeship in the bush circuit of the Western District, had his first mount at Flemington in 1867 and rode in the Melbourne Cup in 1872. His funeral was a large public occasion and the newspapers of the day tell us that the procession was two miles long and was led by 100 jockeys and trainers. Among the cartloads of wreaths one was from Governor and Lady Hopetoun, another shaped as a horseshoe from some urchin newsboys. 'A stranger would have imagined that the remains of some great warrior or statesman were being conveyed to the grave'.

Before the cortège left his home, the route from Caulfield to the Melbourne general cemetery was lined with thousands and by 2 p.m. Swanston Street was 'one mass of humanity'. Road traffic was suspended for two hours, flags flew at half-mast.

A few days after his tragic accident, the Australian Town & Country Journal published this account of his life and death on August 18,1894:

Without a doubt Tommy Corrigan was the most popular jockey that ever rode over a jump in Australia, and the news of his death, which occurred on Monday morning last which occurred on Monday morning last through injuries received while riding Waiter in the Grand National Steeplechase at Caulfield, on Saturday last, will be read with regret throughout the Australian colonies.

From our Melbourne correspondent I learn that Waiter, the horse which Corrigan was riding at the time of the fatal accident last Saturday, is generally considered a good jumper, but he was noticed to be a little fractious as if sore just before starting in the fatal race, and his rider had some difficulty in mounting him.

The fence at which he fell was the post and rail one, about 4ft high, 100yd out of the straight running, and was the fourth obstacle. Waiter took the first three fences without accident, but those near the jump which brought him to grief do not agree, as to the cause of the fall. Some say that the horse could not have seen the obstacle at all, as another horse took off directly in front of him, and that he crashed into it; while again it is asserted that he fell in consequence of being cannoned against when in the air.

The injuries Corrigan received were on the head, laceration of the brain being caused. Mr. Fitzgerald is of opinion that Corrigan was not kicked, but that his injuries were received owing to his head coming violently into contact with the ground.

It was not thought that Corrigan could live through the night, and a report was circulated on Saturday evening that he had expired, prayers for the repose of his soul being offered up at St. Francis's Roman Catholic Church. Lord and Lady Hopetoun made anxious inquiries on Sunday as to Corrigan's condition.

Corrigan was to have ridden Daimio, but that horse having been scratched, he decided to ride Waiter, whom he owned. Waiter was in no way injured. Corrigan, however, died early in the morning of Monday last, and leaves a wife and two children. He never recovered consciousness from the time of the accident.

Corrigan arrived in Australia when about 12 years old, in a ship named the True Briton, and when 16 he rode a mare named Juliet in a steeplechase in the Warrnambool district, which he won. He then went into the service of the late Mr. Tozer, and afterwards with Mr. Gallagher, and for them won on horses named Black Bess, Touchit, Chester etc. He had then made a name for himself, and riding Cronstradt and Hotspur to victory a little later on over Randwick established him as a rider.

These successes he followed up by winning on Blue Jacket, Lord Harry, Lone Hand (on which he won five successive races), Left Bower, P. G., Sussex, Twilight, Adonis, Great Western, Handy Andy, Sir Peter, and others, winning all the important events both over hurdles and fences in the colony. Many of those he scored in the colors of Mr. M. Loughlin, who, strange to say, is at the present time laying very ill at Ballarat.

At one time Corrigan was a wealthy man, but of late years lost it, so that he left his family none too well off. Despite the bad times, however, they have many friends, as witness the subscription list to which was subscribed £350 at Caulfield on the day the accident happened.

In view of the lamentable accident to Corrigan, the following extract from the report of an interview with the famous jockey, which appeared in the ARGUS of July 15 last year, will be read with interest :

What do you consider the worst part of a steeplechase?

"The first few fences, when everyone is riding for position. When the field has settled down and you've picked your panel you are expected- if riding fair -to keep it; but when the flag goes down it's everyone for himself and a rush to be one of the first half dozen, for, as a rule, you will find the winner amongst the leaders over the first few fences.
There's a good deal of singing out then - a good deal of 'Look out there!' and Where the ---- are you going ?' and a muttered malediction as you land; but no one takes much notice of that, and there's very little said afterwards. I don't believe in racing at the last jumps, and never do if I'm leading; but if there's someone alongside and it's you or he for it, well, you've got to go.
If you are on a real good one, there's nothing like going to the front until you've left the rubbish behind and there's nothing to fall in front of you."

Isn't there a big risk of getting packed too close when going for position at the first fence?

"Oh, you can't pack horses on to a big fence as you would with hurdles. Provided your horse gets the least glimpse of a hurdle it's enough, for what with lifting him yourself and the horses rising in front he goes up at the right instant almost without seeing it, but you must have a clear view of the big ones."

Banjo Paterson, perhaps Australia's most famous poet, even wrote a poem about Tommy Corrigan:

YOU talk of riders on the flat, of nerve and pluck and pace—
Not one in fifty has the nerve to ride a steeplechase.
It’s right enough, while horses pull and take their fences strong,
To rush a flier to the front and bring the field along;
But what about the last half-mile, with horses blown and beat—
When every jump means all you know to keep him on his feet.

When any slip means sudden death—with wife and child to keep—
It needs some nerve to draw the whip and flog him at the leap—
But Corrigan would ride them out, by danger undismayed,
He never flinched at fence or wall, he never was afraid;
With easy seat and nerve of steel, light hand and smiling face,
He held the rushing horses back, and made the sluggards race.

He gave the shirkers extra heart, he steadied down the rash,
He rode great clumsy boring brutes, and chanced a fatal smash;
He got the rushing Wymlet home that never jumped at all—
But clambered over every fence and clouted every wall.
You should have heard the cheers, my boys, that shook the members’ stand
Whenever Tommy Corrigan weighed out to ride Lone Hand.

They were, indeed, a glorious pair—the great upstanding horse,
The gamest jockey on his back that ever faced a course.
Though weight was big and pace was hot and fences stiff and tall,
“You follow Tommy Corrigan” was passed to one and all.
And every man on Ballarat raised all he could command
To put on Tommy Corrigan when riding old Lone Hand.

But now we’ll keep his memory green while horsemen come and go;
We may not see his like again where silks and satins glow.
We’ll drink to him in silence, boys—he’s followed down the track
Where many a good man went before, but never one came back.
And, let us hope, in that far land where the shades of brave men reign,
The gallant Tommy Corrigan will ride Lone Hand again

*********** “The Corrigan Club” has a website which covers all aspects of jumps racing and is free to join.

© 2012