Despite the issues of their lesser-enlightened human counterparts, it is doubtful that any racehorse ever questioned the racial ancestry of its jockey.
So, when we propose to chronicle the career of Frank Reys, we will mention just this once that he was of mixed aboriginal descent, and then leave the issue for the sociologists.
Born in approximately 1931 in the area of Northern Queensland, Reys was one of a group of riders and trainers who learned their trade in Cairns at the racecourse known as Cannon Park. Queensland Racing Hall of Fame member Fred Best, one-time leading Cairns jockey and later trainer Vic Thomspson, Caulfield Cup winner Ron Dillon and the winner of nearly 5,000 races, Jack Wilson, all trace their origins to the region. Reys was one of 14 children. He had seven brothers and six sisters. Frank Reys was the first child of his father’s second union.
His introduction to horses came at a young age when he and his brothers would round up strays from the bush and break them. He and his brothers, as brothers are wont to do, would race each other, and Frank, both by being older and talented, would win most of the time.
That training led him to ride in gymkhanas and pony races until he reached the age of 16. That would put the year at 1949, which would make Reys about 18, but there is no actual record, so the year of his birth is uncertain. At any rate, he took out a jockey apprenticeship in North Queensland and was making a good show there before progressing to Brisbane, then Sydney, and eventually Melbourne, where he finally settled. He rode for Alfred Baker’s operation at Cairns initially, and then moved on to work under Gordon Shelley.
His career as an apprentice provided him with over 40 wins at Cannon Park and some of the other local tracks. His first win came at Gordonvale atop Cruedon. Autumn of 1950 produced his first win in Brisbane with Baysure beneath him.
One afternoon meeting at Kembla Grange produced three victories for Reys and served notice to trainers that here was a hoop who could switch horses without missing a stride. The Cunnamulla racecourse would also see him capturing the post on many occasions, including one meeting where he won four times. He also won the Cunnamulla Cup no fewer than three times.
By 1955, his accomplishments earned him a spot at Warwick Farm, where he won the Autumn Handicap on Beaupa. That pair combined for a third place performance in that year’s Sydney Cup.
After six productive years at Sydney, Reys moved on to Melbourne sometime around 1961. He made a name for himself at the metro tracks and also at Victorian provincial meetings. That first year, on 25 November, he was to have a career day at Moe, where he rode five winners.
Big wins started to fall between 1961 and 1969. In 1962, he was working for Ray Hutchins when he won the Oaks Stakes at Flemington aboard Artic Star. The next year saw him producing another multiple win day, this one a four-peat at Moonee Valley. He would match that feat back in Sydney at Caulfield and Ballarat, including significant wins of the Bendigo Cup and the Ballarat Cup. The pairing of Reys and Crewman took the post in the William Reid Stakes at Moonee Valley in January of 1969.
Several days later, Reys’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. Geelong was where he took part in a four-horse crash that left him in the hospital for three months with a smashed pelvis.
He returned from that injury and resumed his winning, enjoying success at the mid-week provincial meetings around Victoria. He was making up for lost time, an urgent necessity since his family’s finances had suffered during his layup. Three years aboard Dual Choice righted the ship, and between 1970 and 1972, Reys was back in his accustomed position at the head of the field.
Another injury, this one less severe than the first, again forced him out of the saddle, which to many, would have been an omen to consider another occupation, but Reys was undaunted. That persistence was to provide the famous anecdote that followed Reys for the rest of his life.
In August of 1973, first up after returning from his second injury, he was in a car crash on his way to the track. It would seem as though no mode of conveyance, animal or mechanical, was safe for him. His legend was cemented, although it would not have seemed so at the time, when he climbed out of the demolished auto and went to his job at Moonee Valley, where he rode Tauto and produced a win. His affinity for hitting the ground in one manner or another resulted in his mates naming him Autumn Leaves.
The three-plus years beginning with the big crash at Geelong produced a medical history that for most people, would be considered more than adequate for a lifetime. Broken bones all over his body kept orthopedists living quite comfortably.
What took place about two months later, however, ensured Frank Reys’s place in horse racing history beyond the shadow of a doubt.
No longer a young man, and banged up to the degree that some would have questioned the decision, Reys was given Gala Supreme to pilot in the 1973 Caulfield Cup, where the pair went off at 11-2 and finished second by ¾ of a length to the New Zealand galloper Swell Time, that produced a 16-1 dividend for its backers. That race saw Reys and Gala Supreme well in front of horses trained by Bart Cummings, Tommy Smith and John Hawkes. One of Smith’s three horses in the race, Imagele, went off as a 4-1 favourite, but could do no better than 12th in an 18-horse field.
The good showing in the Caulfield Cup resulted in Gala Supreme earning entrance into the 1973 Melbourne Cup.
It might have been an anomaly, but only Bart Cummings, of the triumvirate of Cummings, Smith and Hawkes, had a runner in that year’s edition. He fielded Dayana with Roy Higgins atop and went into the race with enough by way of credentials to warrant 7-1 odds, compared to the 9-1 on Gala Supreme.
Twenty-four horses and riders comprised that field, and Reys and Gala Supreme had drawn the far outside lane, post 24. Reys and Hutchins had spent considerable energy devising the best strategy for making up for the wide start, but in the end, Hutchins expressed his trust in his jockey and gave him the green light to ride the race as he saw fit. Reys was so confident in his horse that he predicted the win in advance.
The strategy Reys decided upon was to get to the inside at the outset. That is precisely what he did, maneuvering Gala Supreme to a spot one off the fence and into fifth or sixth place going out of the opening straight as the field passed the post for the first time.
He held that spot into the home turn, but appeared buried behind the leaders. With 200 metres to go, Reys and Gala Supreme squeezed through an opening left by the pre-race favourite, naturally a New Zealander stayer, named Glengowan.
The pair won by a long head, and Reys had run the race of his life in the race of his life. Two of Gala Supreme’s half-brothers, Gala Red and Australasia, all by sire Gala Crest, were in the field, running 6th and 8th respectively.
Three of Frank Reys’s brothers, Tony, Eric and Fred, against who Frank had raced brumbies as a lad, were in the audience that day to watch their big brother take the country’s biggest racing prize.
His return from adversity that could have left him dead has been called, “One of the most stunning comebacks from adversity in Australian sporting history,” but frankly, Australian and sporting were unnecessary modifiers.
Reys continued on until 1976. After winning one final race at Flemington, he retired from the saddle. By winning his first race and his last, he started and concluded on a high note. Twenty-eight years in the saddle had produced 1329 wins.
He was just 53 when he died of cancer in 1984.