Alan Thomas

published: 13 Nov 2012 in Personality profiles

Growing up as part of a sports mad gang of kids, inheriting a love of horses and the races from his Dad, and possessing a great memory for horse names and racing silks gave Alan Thomas a flying start in his career as a race caller and sports commentator and led to him becoming one of racing’s great assets in Queensland.

IT is not quite the same these days, but in years gone by the names of Australia’s race callers were legendary. Over more than 30 years through until his retirement in the 1970s Ken Howard managed to turn describing races into show business-type entertainment with phrases such as “it’s London to a brick on”, “coming through on the 18 pence” and “baring his molars to the breeze”.

 Around the same era Bert Bryant became known as the “prince of commentators” for his wonderfully colourful commentaries of 27 Melbourne Cups and innumerable other races. Then there was Bill Collins, who earned the title of ‘the accurate one” during his career which ran through from the mid-1950s until the late 1980s. Nowadays the best-known race broadcasters include Melbourne’s Greg Miles, a disciple of another luminary among callers in Joe Brown, Sydney’s Mark Shean and Brisbane’s Alan Thomas, who modelled his style on that of Bill Collins.

  “I had only been calling for a couple of years and was relatively new to the game when I went down to the Melbourne Cup Carnival in 1978,” Alan said. “I was invited to stand alongside Bill while he broadcast the Victoria Derby when Dulcify beat Karaman and Turf Ruler. Bill was an introverted sort of a guy but he was very good to me and watching him close up was something I will never forget.
  “I was amazed at just how cool he was . . . he was smoking a Willem II. He’d have a puff and say ‘Dulcify is moving into the gates’, then he’d have a puff and say ‘Roy Higgins brings Karaman up’ and he’d have another puff. Just as they were about to jump away he stubbed out the Willem II and picked up the commentary with ‘they’re off in the Derby’.
  “Besides being extremely accurate he had an incredible gift for being able to predict what was going to happen in a race, which made it unbelievable when he said on the home turn in the 1982 Cox Plate ‘Kingston Town can’t win’. I suppose we all make mistakes. Anyway, that day at Flemington had a big influence on me and the way I’ve called ever since.
  “I count myself very lucky because two other leading commentators, Keith Noud and Vince Curry, along with Don Seccombe who was a newsreader at Channel 9 when I was there later on, all helped guide me in the right direction.”
  Like Bill Collins and Vince Curry before him, Alan has been able to successfully cover a wide range of events. It is a skill he attributes to growing up in a “world of sports” in the inner Brisbane suburb of Milton. “I was born next to the XXXX Brewery, where my father Bill worked,” says Alan, who has two elder brothers Bob and Peter and an elder sister Patricia. “Our house was also near to the Suncorp Stadium, near to the Milton tennis courts and near to the Ithaca swimming pool. With that all around us, sport was my life as a youngster.
  “We had an old Queenslander with a big back yard and during the school holidays we’d play cricket matches, football matches and tennis matches. We use different positions around the house to put in a golf course and we had racetracks with a long straight for Eagle Farm and a short straight for Albion Park, which was still going in those days. The other kids would come around and in the holidays we’d just play sport all day, every day.”
  It was during that era when Alan started going along to the races with his father. “I remember sitting on his shoulders watching Tulloch win the O’Shea Stakes at Eagle Farm in 1961. Another top horse who rings a bell from the 60s is Winfreux. He won the Stradbroke Handicap and the Doomben 10,000 in 1965 and the Doomben Cup the following year. “He carried cerise and blue, which were the colours of the school, so he was a favourite of mine. Other horses I remember were sprinters like Rashlore and Ripa, who came up from Victoria, and Castanea who won the Stradbroke.”
  After becoming a regular at the races Alan found he had a talent for remembering the names of horses and their colours. So, as he was coming towards the latter part of his formal education at Marist Brothers College at Rosalie, he began to wonder about finding work in racing or as a sports commentator, which appealed to him as “a pretty good way to make a living”. With that, at the end of Year 10, he approached Keith Noud, the highly respected race caller who was also turf editor of the Brisbane Telegraph.
  “Keith told me I would have to complete Grade 12 before he could do anything for me. I was more interested in sport at school and was basically a tennis player, but I also played football and swam. Although I virtually had no interest in school work and wasn’t very good scholastically I somehow passed my exams… don’t ask me how I did.”
  However, at that stage there were no openings on radio or at the newspaper and that resulted in him joining Queensland Primary Producers, a wool broking company based in Creek Street in the city. At that stage the chairman of Queensland Primary Producers was well known breeder Jim Clark who was also on the committee of the Queensland Turf Club, and he helped nurture Alan’s desire to become involved in the racing industry. Then, fortuitously, an opportunity opened up when the Gold Coast Turf Club began racing of a Saturday.
  “I drove down to the Gold Coast and did a trial broadcast. I was chosen as the on-course commentator and I officially began calling on January 1, 1971. It was only a part-time position but that’s when it all began.” In 1976 Alan moved on from Queensland Primary Producers to join Brisbane 4BC before transferring to 4KQ the following year, when the station started broadcasting racing. The arrangement with 4KQ lasted for a little more than two years. 
  “At the same time as racing was dropping out at 4KQ I was approached by Channel 9,” he said. “I was doing some part-time work on the horses for Channel 9 but at that point the channel didn’t have a sports department. With the Commonwealth Games coming up in Brisbane in 1982 the people at Nine wanted to establish a sports section, within the news department, and helping put that together became my role.”
  During the next 12 years, although continuing to call races on a casual basis, racing took a back seat while Alan’s career was centred on covering general sport. Capitalising on the knowledge he began developing in those early years in the backyard at Milton, he demonstrated his capabilities and versatility by covering a number of major sporting events. As well as describing Sheffield Shield cricket, international golf tournaments, world title fights and swimming championships he also broadcast rugby league, rugby union and Australian Football League matches.
  “Putting everything together for the Commonwealth Games was a demanding project, but one I really enjoyed. I did the boxing at the Commonwealth Games with Johnny Famechon, who had won the world featherweight championship. He was a great guy to work with . . . he was great company, a great storyteller, just an all-round great guy.
  “Being at Channel 9 had also presented me with the chance to cover sports that I was interested in. I did 15 State of Origin matches, Jeff Fenech’s first two world title fights, a Sheffield Shield final at the Sydney Cricket Ground, and golf tournaments where I interviewed great players such as Arnold Palmer, Greg Norman and Nick Faldo.
  “I also covered the lawn bowls and ten pin bowling, which was shown at lunchtime in the cricket. I remember I did 23 half-hour programs on ten pin bowling one weekend . . . with all the banging and crashing of the pins I remember I went home with a terrible migraine.”
  Besides enabling him to broaden his horizons, Alan had the benefit of advice from internationally renowned producer David Hill who was responsible for organising the introduction of World Series Cricket for Kerry Packer. “David, along with Bill Collins, had the biggest influence on my career. He told me that the philosophy of my job was to call races or sport or whatever, the way people wanted to hear, which was not necessarily the way I wanted to present it.
  “I went away after the meeting with David, and taught myself to become more aware of what listeners wanted, and I have translated that into my race calling since I’ve come back. As part of that aim I’ve had two rules. One is to not bet, and the other is to give the punter the information he wants . . . how the horse is travelling, whether it’s wide or not, how far it is from the leader and that sort of thing. After all, when it is all boiled down, I am an employee of the punter.”
  It is nearly 20 years ago now that Alan returned to the eyrie that is the habitat of racing commentators around the globe. The transition came about when Channel 9, which had commentary teams in Brisbane and Sydney, decided towards the end of 1992, to centre its sports operation in the Harbour City. That would have meant Alan transferring to Sydney, which did not appeal, so he decided to return to race calling on a full-time basis. An opening to work for Sky Channel presented itself and he began his duties with the network at the meeting at the Gold Coast on Prime Minister’s Cup Day in May, 1993.
  “Royal Magic won that year,” Alan said. “He beat Dark Ksar who went on to win the O’Shea Stakes at Eagle Farm. It was a good year to make a return to calling full-time because Rough Habit won the third of his three successive Doomben Cups. I remember there was thunderous applause as Rough Habit walked on to the track and it was even louder when Jim Cassidy brought him back to scale after beating Kiwi Golfer by a neck.
  “Another favourite around that era was Chief de Beers who was a Doomben specialist and won 19 races there. He won the Doomben 10,000 in 1995 and went on to win the race again in 1998, which was a great feat. Of course that year Might and Power won the Hollindale Cup, at the Gold Coast, and then continued on to win the Doomben Cup, and that was huge.”
  At the time Alan joined the company, Sky Channel which had originally begun operating as Club Super Station in the mid-1980s, had the rights to screen the fights. “While I was doing the races I was also calling the fights. I did Kostya Tszyu’s last world title bout and I covered a couple of his earlier ones. I also did some of Anthony Mundine’s earlier fights, but we lost the rights so that was that.”
  By then Sky Channel had formed what was to become a winning combination by putting Alan on air with Larry Olsen, whose achievements as a jockey had featured victories on Kensei in the Melbourne Cup in 1987 and the Golden Slipper Stakes on Star Watch the following year.
  “It’s just like Laurel and Hardy these days, but when we started off we weren’t very good together. Having come from a commercial television background I knew we weren’t working that well as a team when we started out. I felt we needed a format where it was like two blokes discussing the chances in a pub on a Friday night, rather than us telling the punters what they should be backing.
  “Larry and I sat down and had a talk about it and we came up with what has since proved to be a successful formula. I think, too, that what we are doing is a perfect example of what David Hill told me at Channel 9 all those years ago.”
  Along the way Alan added another dimension to his CV when, soon after signing on with 4KQ, he began hosting racing tours to major meetings in Australia and overseas. Often, in later times, he has been accompanied by his partner of 19 years Carolyn Frost.
  “Like me Carolyn is a horse lover. She worked with Alan Bailey for a long time and she worked with Colin Alderson when he brought Sky Heights to Queensland. That’s probably her favourite horse. When she has holidays she’ll go to Sydney and work in the stables of Clarry Conners. She goes to the races, to the track in the mornings and that sort of thing. She also enjoys going overseas. We both loved the racing in England because there it is all about the animal, it’s more orientated towards the horse than gambling. Royal Ascot is Royal Ascot and Goodwood is just beautiful. Then there are racecourses like Longchamp and Chantilly which are absolutely magnificent.
 “I took my first tour overseas to the opening of Sha Tin, I think that was in 1978, and I’ve been back quite a few times since. A highlight for both Carolyn and myself was seeing Silent Witness at his peak winning the Hong Kong Sprint. He was an exceptional sprinter, and I’ve found the highlights in sport come when you get to call or are simply watching the best, whether they be human athletes or horses.
  “I vividly remember Kingston Town winning the Queensland Derby in 1980, and going back over the years we’ve had a lot of top liners at the Brisbane Winter Carnival and at the Gold Coast. In more recent years we’ve been fortunate to see the likes of Apache Cat, Takeover Target and those sorts of horses in Brisbane, but Black Caviar topped them all “Black Caviar was the biggest of them all when she came up and won the BTC Cup. It would have been even bigger if she’d gone on and run in the Doomben 10,000. It was just great to see her get racing news on the front pages and creating all the hype that there was when I was a kid going to the races. Over the years racing has tended to fade from its heights, but Black Caviar almost single-handedly got it back to where we’d like to think it belongs.
  “She captured the imagination of people who had no interest in racing in any shape or form. That phenomenon was never more evident than when Black Caviar went to Royal Ascot for the Diamond Jubilee Stakes, and it was a great booster for the industry at a time when it was needed. I’d like to think that for years to come we will continue to see the benefit of the way she has got people interested in racing again.”