What Graham Salisbury still remembers about his old mate Subbie, is that even during his racing career, he was a kind and gentle horse.
Says Graham, who worked at Flemington as a Clerk of the Course: “When I first saw him at the races, I would get up alongside him on the way to the barrier and I would pat his head, around his legs and on the rump and there was absolutely no dirt in him. He was a beautiful horse with a nice big eye.”
The Clerk of the Course horses that accompany the racehorses to the barriers are traditionally grey, and Graham kept his eye on the kind grey. When Subbie retired, after a stellar career of 48 starts and six wins including three Group 1s and winning just over $2 million – Graham’s long held dream of snaring him as a Clerk of the Course mount finally came true.
With Subbie’s racing career over and after receiving permission from Subbie’s owners, his trainer Lee Freedman agreed to rehome the horse with Graham. To ‘formalise’ the arrangement the group asked Graham to pay them a dollar for the horse and sign a piece of paper. That agreement still sits in pride of place in a frame on his wall at home.
27 years on, and I can still remember that wet, muddy day when Subbie won the 3,200metre race. He’s fascinated not just me but multitudes of others ever since. Not because of those racetrack heroics long ago – exciting as they were – but for the extraordinary life he’s led since, contributing to and connecting with the community in his unique fashion.
Former champion jockey Greg Hall, who was his regular partner in the saddle and rode him to victory in Australia’s greatest race, lights up whenever he’s invited to talk about this equine hero.
“He’s my favourite horse,” says Greg, “and he gave me my greatest gift, a Melbourne Cup. But it’s quite extraordinary what he’s gone on to do since. He just loves people. Someone said to me once, I wonder if you could replace him and I said you could never replace him. They’ll never find another horse like him in the world.”
Subbie’s service to humankind – visiting hospitals, nursing homes and all manner of public places, has made him one of the world’s most loved Thoroughbreds. The incredible popularity he enjoys was evident in the depths of winter this year when he was suddenly fighting for his life at the Bendigo Equine Hospital after a bout of colic.
Social media went into meltdown with updates and well wishes shared. Nobody could bear the thought of losing him. The vet clinic received get well cards and phone calls from people all over the world wanting to know if he was okay.
Miraculously, and thanks to the unwavering dedication of veterinarian Dr Sarah Jalim, he survived the episode to see in his 31st birthday on August 1.
“For a thoroughbred to get to 31 is absolutely outstanding and I think that’s because he’s a tough horse who has been looked after spectacularly well,” says Sarah, who thoroughly enjoyed nursing the gentle Subbie back to health.
As I write this, Subbie is enjoying the peak of spring back at Graham’s home in Central Victoria where Graham is enduring his own set of serious health challenges with cancer.
“I reckon if he could talk, he would say it’s great to be home. The old bloke is going better than me. He’ll outdo me at this rate,” he jokes, although it’s not a joke that sits well with me. Because this pair – horse and human – are inseparable, and they’ve been that way since Subbie’s retirement in 1993. It’s impossible to imagine one without the other.
For the next 17 years after Subbie’s retirement from racing, Graham’s partner as a Clerk of the Course horse went on to work at race meetings all over the state of Victoria, ensuring that the competing racehorses were safely guided to and from the starting barriers.
And it was during that period Subbie’s special bond with the public started to build. Between races he would be regularly seen with his head over the running rail being petted by an adoring audience of all ages.
“They just couldn’t get enough of him,” recalls Graham. “They would chant ‘Subbie, Subbie’. When I was taking him to the races or we would go anywhere with him and we’d pull up at a set of lights with the float that had his name written on it everybody nearby would yell out ‘Subbie, you’re the best!’ I made the decision not to stop people wanting to pat him and take photos.”
Graham remembers one particular day at Caulfield races when Subbie decided to take advantage of some attention being shown by a member of the younger generation.
“He put his head in a kid’s pram and the kid started crying. The lady said to me in a worried fashion, ‘he hasn’t bitten him has he?’ and I said ‘no way’. But when he pulled his head out of the pram he had the kid’s apple in his mouth – that cheeky horse had pinched the apple!”
Together Subbie and Graham served in the Clerk of the Course role until 2008 when arthritis took hold of the by-then ageing thoroughbred.
But little did Graham know there was a whole new life out there waiting for them, because as he was retired from the Clerk of the Course duties another journey began. Well known in racing circles for his quiet temperament, event organisers all over the country invited him along as a special guest to everything from black-tie awards’ dinners at Crown Casino to Spring Racing Carnival launches. He became so popular that on occasions he commanded more attention than rock stars.
“Three years in a row I took him to the Adelaide Cup and the third year I went Kylie Minogue was there,” Graham recalls. “After she had done her show at the racecourse, she walked right past me and gave him a pat and told him, ‘Subbie I’ve been outdone by you!’”
But despite the public adulation, the place where Subbie has had his deepest impact on people and has done his most important work, has been in much quieter places – at homes for the sick and elderly.
“One of the homes which was only small with about 30 people, rang me and asked if we could come to visit,” says Graham. “I told them it would be a month before we could get there but they insisted and said there were a couple of people there without long to go and could we please come earlier.”
When they arrived at the home there was a man standing at the gate. “They told me old Tom hadn’t mixed with anyone and he’d been there for three weeks so I said let’s start with him first. I said ‘g’day Tom’. He said nothing. I said ‘Tom, you been here long?’ Nothing. Then I said: ‘This is Subbie. Do you want to meet him? He said ‘yes’…and started patting and kissing him.”
That moment caused a complete turnaround in Tom’s life. “The woman that ran the place said it was unbelievable,” recalls Graham. “A month or two later she rings me and she says: ‘Do you remember old Tom? Monday night they play bingo, Tuesday cards, Wednesday they dance, Thursday is picture-night and Friday night they sit down for two hours with three or four form guides for the races on Saturday. Tom’s got this place rocking and rolling!”
But it’s not just in Australia where Graham and Subbie have worked their magic. They’ve also brought joy to people overseas, traveling as far as Dubai to attend the World Cup meeting there as special guests. In fact, if the hosts had managed to have their way, Subbie wouldn’t have returned home!
It wasn’t long before someone tried to buy him. “A man came up to us and said, ‘That’s a very nice horse.’ I told him: ‘This very nice horse is going back to Australia,’ and he said, ‘What if I give you $US200,000 for him?’”
But Subbie, Graham told the man, was not for sale at any price. “Brian said to me, ‘Jeez, you’re pretty strong.’ I told him Subbie’s part of my family. You don’t sell your family. He wasn’t going anywhere but back home with me.”
Being part of the Salisbury family has also meant Subbie playing a particularly important role there as well. He means the world to Graham’s daughter Nicole, who, after a series of operations that saw her contract a blood disease, has lost the use of her legs from the knees down.
“He’s everything,” she says. “I don’t know life without him. He’s like a big four-legged brother. I’m very lucky. As far as I’m concerned there will never be another horse who will come close to him.”
One of Subbie’s original owners, David Kobritz, is immensely proud of the positive impact on people’s lives the ex-racehorse has had – and is still having to this very day.
“We should celebrate his life and all the good things he’s done. We are so proud in terms of what he has contributed to racing and all walks of life,” says David. “He’s connected with school kids right through to people in aged care and retirement. To make that connection is very, very special. It’s a wonderful message about what horses are and can be. If you treat them well, horses will give it back to you in spades. He’s also been a fantastic bridge between the community and the racing industry, and we should thank him for that.
And the greatest part of this whole story is that Subbie, after his health scare, is currently in good health and doing well in his paddock at home. He’s not ready to leave this world just yet.
Perhaps one of the highest compliments of all is that he’s even had his own race, The Subzero, named after him. The race, exclusively for grey horses, has become a regular feature of the Melbourne Cup carnival, and is one of the highlights of Thursday’s Oaks Day program. There’s nothing quite like a bit of grey power.