Bob Charley

published: 10 Nov 2014 in Personality profiles

From being a member of the Legal Eagles punting syndicate, then media personality, to respected racing administrator, Bob Charley AO has had quite a career in the thoroughbred industry. Now he has combined that knowledge and his love of art to produce a limited edition book, Heroes & Champions, depicting the history of Australian Racing and told via essays on 140 paintings.

NOT one to ever relax in the comfort zone, racing aficionado Bob Charley was entering his retirement years when he embarked on the latest project of his busy life. Now 75 years-old, Bob decided nearly a decade ago to combine a lifelong adoration of the arts and of racing to produce a book of memorable quality.

Entitled Heroes & Champions, the book has just been released in a limited edition. Published by Bob, the book depicts the history of Australian racing in art from the first racecourse in Sydney’s Hyde Park in 1810 through until the year 2000. The paintings, about half of which are owned by the Victoria Racing Club and the now Australian Turf Club, number 140 and have been selected from a wide range discovered during extensive research. The book covers 272 pages and an essay accompanies each painting. This comment is on the horse as well as any person depicted in the work. It is a task Bob is eminently qualified to undertake. While his active involvement in racing which stretches back more than half a century is well known, not so many are aware of his artistic heritage.

A grandfather Sir Lionel Lindsay, a brother of the internationally- renowned artist Norman Lindsay, was, as Les Carlyon says in the foreword to Heroes & Champions, “one of the giants of Australian arts and letters”. Furthermore, Lionel’s wife Jean is a sister of Will Dyson, who was known in the early part of the 20th century for his originality as a cartoonist, illustrator and Australia’s best-known war artist. “I lived with my grandparents Lionel and Jean Lindsay for quite a while so I was surrounded by art,” Bob said. “It was ever present in my youth.” It was not until 1980, however, when Australian Colonial Sporting Artists by Colin Laverty was released, that the thoughts which resulted in Heroes & Champions, were first nurtured. Laverty’s book detailed the work of Frederick Woodhouse and sons, who were active and came to prominence in the second half of the 19th century.

However, another 25 years went by before Bob went into action. As his distinguished career as a racing administrator was winding down, he visited The Jockey Club Rooms at Newmarket and was captivated by the presence of the impressive collection of sporting art and racing memorabilia on display.

“I began thinking about producing a book of Australian paintings when David Oldrey’s history of the Jockey Club collection landed on my desk. 

I knew there were many great paintings in Australia because I had seen the collections at the VRC and the Australian Jockey Club offices. “During my research I came across around 700 paintings and once I decided which ones I would use I put them in chronological order, because it would have been too difficult to do it any other way. Heroes & Champions starts off with the first formal paintings of the Hyde Park racecourse and then goes to Flemington in the days when it was known as the Saltwater River course.

“It then progresses through the Woodhouse era and into the 1920s when Martin Stainforth was at his peak, followed by what I call the dark years of racing art in Australia. That was from the beginning of World War II through to about 1967 when the input was virtually non-existent, which was a tragedy because there were so many outstanding horses in that era. While paintings from that period no doubt exist, few came to my notice “The genre was revived in the 1960s by paintings commissioned by the VRC and AJC. It has taken me a long time to put the book together but it was a labour of love that I have really enjoyed and that I hope others will appreciate.”

While realizing that living with the Lindsays inspired his interest in the arts, Bob believes that Lionel’s wife, Jean, triggered his curiosity about racing. “I don’t quite remember, but I think grandmother must have liked listening to the races on Saturdays,” he said. “I was only about six at the time and I think she and I would have three penny bets between each other. However it happened, I know I was certainly hooked on the races from a very early age.”

Even though he was not much of a racegoer during his days at Barker College, at Hornsby, where his father Noel had been head prefect in 1914, Bob became an avid follower of what was happening at the track. He confesses to being the school bookie, taking bets on the Melbourne Cup from pupils and some staff.

It was soon after leaving Barker College in 1955 that his active involvement in racing began as a member, with lawyer Clive Evatt junior and the forward-thinking Don Scott of the Legal Eagles, betting syndicate.

On leaving the school he had begun working for a solicitor in Sydney and had started going to the races on a regular basis. As a youngster he had come to know Evatt, whose family were neighbours in Wahroonga, and he “teamed up” with Scott through going to the races. Evatt and Scott were about nine years older than Bob. Scott, who regarded punting as an intellectual challenge, had formulated guidelines which he believed would ensure the Legal Eagles could beat the bookmakers.

His theory evolved around rating horses, which revealed the horses with genuine winning chances; expressing these chances in percentages or odds; and then backing the horses when the bookmakers’ odds were right. By backing three, four or even five horses in a race the syndicate was able to consistently reap rich rewards until the mid-1970s, when Scott started to feel the pressure was overwhelming. “Scott, who was a brilliant man, was way ahead of his time,” Bob said. “He was probably the first person to employ a rating method which was the forerunner of the ratings systems that are around today. What also made him different was that he developed a pricing system that was way ahead of his time.

“When I came into the game it was considered highly unusual for punters to be able to beat the bookmakers, but we proved that to be wrong with what was a very clever staking plan. He taught me all about that and I would go to the provincial meetings while Scott concentrated on the city meetings. There were days when we backed every winner, but of course we were backing more than one horse in a race.”

It was in 1967, about half-way through his Legal Eagle days, when Bob and his wife Nina were married. They have a son Jason, who is 46, and daughters Victoria, 44, and Christina, 36, who between them have presented Bob and Nina with seven grandchildren “Even though I was betting the value of our house each day I used to pride myself that when I came home from the races Nina wasn’t able to tell whether I’d won or lost. I never regarded it as a great day or a shocking day, it was just one day after another . . . if you lost one day you would win the next. There was no last race, just a progression from one meeting to another. Because of that I never allowed my emotions to get the better of me when I was punting, but it could be nerve-wracking.”

Then, following the disbanding of the Legal Eagles, Bob started what he describes as his “media career”. That centred on radio and television appearances and the publication of The Midweeker, which covered the barrier trials in Sydney and at the provincials. 

“I also started a publication called Bob Charley’s Racing Week, which was mainly a form paper and sold at newsagents,” he said. “In those years I was making guest appearances on what was called Turf Time on radio station 2KY on Saturday mornings. The hosts on that program were Ian Craig and Max Presnell.

“I did television at one stage with Johnny Tapp and Ken Callander on a program called Grandstand on Channel Nine when we were doing a live coverage of Sydney races on Saturday afternoons. At the same time I had my own radio program on 2GB in which I had two hours of interviews and open line. This was the most enjoyable aspect of my time in media as I was able to interview many outstanding racing characters.”

It was in 1977, not long after the Legal Eagles had shut down operations, when the foundations for Bob’s extraordinary record as a racing administrator were laid down. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Bert Lillye, who Bob describes as “one of the doyens of race writing history”, told him that the Hawkesbury Race Club was in very ordinary financial shape.

“He suggested that as many of my family came from the area, that I should stand for the committee, which I did, and I was elected,” says Bob, who decided to give away punting at that stage. “I was on the Hawkesbury committee until I sought election to the committee of the Australian Jockey Club, which came about in February, 1984.”

He remained on the AJC committee, he was elevated to chairman in 1992, until 1996 when he became inaugural chairman of the New South Wales Thoroughbred Racing Board and New South Wales Racing Pty Ltd. This led to his election as inaugural chairman of the Australian Racing Board in June 1998, a position he occupied until 2004. Bob has also been a vice-chairman of the Asian Racing Federation and a member of the governing council of the International Conference of Horse Racing Authorities and a member of its wagering sub-committee.

All that led to him being appointed in 2001 as an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for his services to the thoroughbred racing industry. At the time he said, “While I am honoured and greatly proud to receive this award it has been a team effort, and if I have achieved anything it is because of the backing of many others”.

Although easing back on his commitments from the mid-2000s he has, since 2011, been chairman of the Australian Racing Hall of Fame and in 2012 he was appointed as a Trustee of Randwick racecourse. As Bob says, “racing administration at the highest level consumes an enormous amount of your time. 

As chairman of the AJC, and the same would apply to the Victoria Racing Club, it is virtually a full-time job. “It is full on and there is some part of every day when you are involved in meetings, negotiations or some other business. These can be such things as licensing and disciplinary matters, to taxation, dealing with government, problems with the tracks and racecourse infrastructure, marketing, catering . . . the list goes on. Innumerable challenges arise, almost on a weekly basis, and you don’t know what’s just around the corner . . . it is almost never ending.” During the past 50 years, as would be expected, Bob has been active as a racehorse owner, enjoying his initial success as an owner-trainer with a horse named Alary at Newcastle in 1964. “I only ever wanted to train a horse to prove to myself I could do it,” he said. “Alary was the only horse I ever trained but I hav e continued racing horses. As part of the Legal Eagles we always had a horse or two without going into it in a big way. I had six broodmares at one time, although I didn’t ever breed a good horse. I’ve had a certain amount of luck with horses I purchased and I’ve won seven or eight country cups.”

Bob, whose renditions of Banjo Paterson’s poems have delighted audiences around the racing world, says it was not until the Banjo Club was formed that he “tasted success at a higher level”. Foremost of these successes was with the Danzero three year-old Jymcarew in the STC Canterbury Guineas-Gr.1 (1900m) in 2005.

“Another good horse we had was On Kiley’s Run, who won races in Sydney and Melbourne as well as a South Grafton Cup. After we formed the Banjo Club the horses we had were all named after poems by Banjo Paterson. He was a good friend of Lionel Lindsay’s and was best man at his wedding. “The club came about through my friendship with Simon Nivison and Dr. Treve Williams. We decided that when the country blokes come down to Sydney at Easter or for the spring carnival, we should have a lunch together. We had our first lunch at Ray Stehr’s pub at Paddington and I recited some of Banjo Paterson’s verses. With that one of our number, Tex Cody, said let’s call it the Banjo Club.

“We ask guests, but we never have more than 16 members. We have two lunches a year and we go away to a country race meeting once a year and present a trophy. It’s been going for nearly 30 years now, and it has been great fun.” Then, as he was stepping back from his administrative roles, Bob was introduced to jumps racing by New Zealand trainer John Wheeler and in the time since has invested in a few steeplechasers. With others, he has purchased and raced a number of jumpers including Man of Class winner of the Great Eastern at Oakbank and Grand National at Sandown in 2011, and Chaparro, who won this year’s Grand Annual at Warrnambool. “I rate the Grand Annual as the No.1 steeplechase event and now I’ve won the three and I regard Chaparro’s win in the Grand Annual as the crowning achievement of my involvement in racing horses.”

A visitor to Warrnambool for the Grand Annual for the last dozen years Bob, a self-confessed “clubaholic”, last year combined with TVN personality Sam Hyland and jockey Steve Pateman to form the Corrigan Club. This commemorates the name of the great rider of the late 1800s Tommy Corrigan and is used to publicize jumps racing.

“I was concerned about the lack of positive publicity jumps racing was receiving so we formed a website which features the poem “Tommy Corrigan” by Banjo Paterson on the home page,” Bob says.” “It’s a one-stop shop for information on jumps racing which is a fabulous sport.”

In another significant development, Bob’s retirement has also enabled Bob and Nina to move from the city to a family property at Port Macquarie, a coastal resort 400km north of Sydney. “The property was bought more than 100 years ago by my grandfather Philip Charley, who discovered silver at Broken Hill. Later my father built a timber mill and logged the property as well as growing pineapples, bananas and lemons there.

“My sister Helen, who is an actress, moved to London in 1947 and has enjoyed a successful career on the stage. She is still active to this day. My brother James, an agricultural scientist, and I assumed control of the property from our father. We planted a vineyard and pursued land development objectives. “During my racing administration years I couldn’t live on the property because so much was happening in Sydney, but I was able to move to Port Macquarie after I retired. We grow all manner of things including grapes, olives, avocadoes, mangoes and citrus fruits.

“We have a restaurant named Little Fish Café and produce Inneslake wines for sale at the cellar door. It is a beautiful climate and it is a pleasure to live in Port Macquarie . . . and it’s an ideal place to work on a book like Heroes & Champions.”

Heroes & Champions

​If racing is your passion, this is the perfect Christmas gift. Illustrated with the finest examples of Australian equine art. Painstakingly researched by Bob Charley this magnificent publication is a large folio work of just under 280 pages, with high quality illustrations including two superb fold outs. It has been printed on art quality paper and the print run is strictly limited to 1000 copies.

In his Foreword, legendary journalist Les Carlyon AC writes, " Few have tasted racing at so many levels as Bob Charley. This book of his is a journey in time. Bob has reminded us that context matters, that racing is a tapestry, a culture as well as a sport. For that we are in his debt " Archer, Carbine, Phar Lap, Tulloch, Kingston Town, Bart's many champions, Tommy Corrigan, Banjo Paterson and all your heroes are featured. 

Available now from the Bluebloods online bookshop for just $165

Purchase here