RACING writer, TERRY Butts, this week paid tribute to legendary bush jockey KEITH BALLARD is his column ‘Silks and Saddles’ in the North Queensland Register. They have kindly agreed to allow this website to reproduce the story.


WHEN Mt Isa jockey Keith Ballard turned 50 he vowed he would not retire from race riding until he had won the Birdsville Cup or had ridden 1500 winners. That was August six years ago.

Two weeks ago at Richmond, on an unfancied reject named Catbird Khan, the doyen of jockeys in the Central West notched his 1500 milestone. And just a few weeks earlier he snared his first Birdsville Cup.

But there’s still no commitment to retire. “It’s on the agenda – but I am enjoying it too much to give it away just yet,” he says with that mildly wicked grin.

Keith Ballard is not only a legend out west, he probably commands more respect than any other in the racing game. Big statement but I doubt if you will find anyone to disagree.

The story of Keith Ballard begins in hometown Longreach. He rode his first winner at age 16 and at the time weighed 5 stone 7lbs in an era when the minimum weight in the bush was 7st.7lbs.

“I was a little fella,’’ he conceded but he soon showed that not only dynamite and diamonds come in small parcels. He outrode his apprentice claim in 20 months and moved to Rockhampton, then a principal club, where his 7lb claim was reinstalled and he became indentured to the great John Kelly after a stint with the other famous trainer of that era Richie Mannion.

Success continued and he caught the notice of the astute Brisbane trainer Bert Cook, uncle of the legendary jockey Graeme Cook, who dearly wanted to take the Longreach kid to the big smoke.

The trainer wrote a six page letter to Keith’s parents begging they allow their boy to continue his riding career in Brisbane, but the parents stuck fast and refused.

“Everyone in those days had a trade and mum and dad wanted me to follow in the footsteps of my brothers who were carpenters,’’ recalls Keith. “I never went, and I often wished I had. And I never took up a trade either. ‘But that’s life– and overall I have very few regrets really.’’

Keith arrived in Mt Isa for a carnival and they were big in those days – 33 years ago. And apart from annual treks to the Gold Coast for holidays, has never left. He started as an assistant at Hastings Deering 33 years ago and he’s still there with the rank of warehouse manager.

He remembers the early days well, and while conceding there has been a rebirth in interest in racing in the mining town of late, it will never relive “the good old days of the 1970s.”

“There were 12 bookies in the front and another four out the back. You could honestly back a horse to win any amount of money.

“It was huge betting with some of the biggest bookies in the state like Bob Howie (he invented the stubby holder), Marshall Boyd (the publican) and others including Stan Price who still swings a satchel at Cairns.

There were many big wins in those years but none to equal the win of Mr Zeisel in the Cleveland Bay at Townsville. Keith remembers as if it was yesterday.

“I don’t know how much money was won but it was enormous. Danny Callaghan, the trainer and a relative of the famous Hall family was a noted punter. And he had a number of stable followers who plastered anything that Danny declared.

Mr Zeisel, a former Robert Sangster owned horse had come across from Alice Springs for the Mt Isa carnival in the early 1980s. He won the major sprint in a walk and it was then decided to head for the coast.

“We really thought he was unbeatable. Our only surprise was the price and the generosity of Townsville bookies who discarded Mt Isa form completely and set their book around the Brisbane visitors that year including Forever Noble and Balkan Secret.

“I was talking to (jockey) Terry Allan on the Friday night and he said his mount Forever Noble was virtually unbeatable. The only doubt was the last 50m,” he said of the horse that had streaked away in the Lightning the week before.

“My only problem was a clean getaway and Mr Zeisel was a giant of a horse who could get very uncomfortable in the stalls.”

The trainer’s instruction was to jump and not to move until the turn – and not to come inside horses. Keith can still see the look on Terry Allen’s face when he loomed alongside his “pony” on the horse he described as a mountain – at the 400m. “I was going fair dinkum half pace”.

And of course he bolted in and a month later took the Darwin Palmerston Sprint in the very same manner. He then went on to win good races in Adelaide and Melbourne. But nothing compares to his Cleveland Bay win. Neither in style nor fortune. They were counting their winnings for weeks.

Keith was on board of course when he won the coveted Palmerston and rates Darwin’s Fannie Bay as one of his favorite tracks.

“My biggest day in 35 years riding is winning the Darwin Cup and the Invitation Stakes on the same day.”

Kerr Street, trained at Mt Isa by Eddie Campbell won the cup after what was one of Ballard’s most memorable wins. It wasn’t the horse, an outsider named Allgar that was responsible for the adrenaline rush. It was who he beat. Brent Thomson, the Melbourne Cup winning jockey who was at that time (mid eighties) riding at his peak.

When Keith went out to ride Allgar (his mount was drawn from a hat), he said to himself: how am I going to be with all these blokes – the cream of Australia’s top jockeys? So he decided on the spot to follow his idol Thompson. “Wherever Brent went I would go too.”

So forgetting (or ignoring) the trainer’s instructions, Keith decided to do just that. And away they went. “I was behind Brent running third. He elected to go up on the outside of the leader in the straight and I decided to wait for a run. I got it and beat him a head. And then I came out in the very next race and won the cup for Eddie and Mt Isa. What a day.”

He admits that claiming the 1500th win was, in the end, a relief. He was on 1499 for quite a while and didn’t have a good spring carnival this year at the Isa.

“Worse, my son Danny kept knocking me off. And usually on a horse trained by my wife Denise. “It was tough at the dinner table at times,” he laughs.

Riding 1500 winners is something not attained by most of his colleagues anywhere. What makes this achievement decidedly more meritorious and noteworthy is that fact that he rides only once a week and in a nine month season.

Jockeys, who ride far fewer winners in their careers, have the choice of riding seven days and 12 months of the year.

Keith Ballard’s achievement is rightfully worthy of much more recognition than he has so far received. But typically, the one less concerned about accolades is the jockey himself. His only concern is getting to the track on time. And another 100 winners.

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