Justracing caught up with Lester Grimmett (pictured) on his day off, at one of his favourite Gold Coast spots - the Coolangatta Tweed Heads Golf Club. Since way back in February 1969 Lester has been employed full time in the racing industry.
Of all the people in full time employment in the racing industry the one who is regularly used the most as a punching bag is the handicapper. He cops a spray at almost every turn, which is strange, given handicappers are, in my humble opinion, about the best judge in the business. If he’s not, why is it that more number one’s win races than any other number, which thus infers they must have a reasonably accurate handle on their chosen profession.
The “Senior Handicapper” in Queensland is Lester Grimmett and the couple of times I’ve run something past him I’ve been taken aback by his knowledge on thoroughbred racing, so I recently spent an hour with him, far from the madding crowd on his day off - and being generous with his time allowed me to get a wonderful insight into the man.
Lester entered the world in Brisbane on 17 July 1946 growing up in suburban Annerley as the only son of Joe and Lillian Grimmett. Sadly Lester’s father Joe passed away in 1949 “from war causes, as a result of being in a World War 2 prisoner of war camp for three years”, when Lester was only two-and-a half years old.
Educated to senior level, Lester left school in 1963 and got a job as a court reporter when he was 18 years old. Lester explained, “I worked there for two or three years but I found it very demanding and felt like I was thrown to the wolves, so to speak, so I went and worked for a steel firm in South Brisbane and I worked there for some time before I headed towards employment in the racing game”. Asked how he got a start in the racing industry, Lester advised “I had a call from someone I knew in the court system and the late Sir Edward Williams was on the committee at Eagle Farm at the time and I knew him from the courts and I think he mentioned my name when they wanted a casual shorthand writer at the races, to compile the stewards’ reports and take notes. So the first day I worked at the races was Tattersalls Recognition Stakes day 1968 and I went to the Secretary’s office. Mr Hughes his name was and he took me into the stewards’ room and I’ll never forget it as long as I live. I was in awe. There was Clive Morgan whom I heard of, Andy Tindall, Fred Brown, Syd Fisher and others and they welcomed me into the stewards’ room. And that day was the famous Rye’s Hope enquiry where the Ramsay’s were given 12 months, along with (Norm) Whopper Stephens at a retrospective enquiry. From memory that enquiry went for about four adjournments but they got out of it on Appeal. In February of 1969 they offered me the fulltime job of doing the same job at all tracks and I thought that was great. Fancy getting paid to go and watch the races - and I’ve been in racing ever since”.
Lester got his start in the handicapping department in about 1973. He explains how that came about by advising, “David Laing became the handicapper at the Queensland Turf Club, Trevor Walsh was the provincial and country handicapper, so I was appointed to assist them and in that time I was also doing the (jockey) scales and judging and time keeping on race days and all those sort of jobs. In 1980 Mr Len Hughes retired and David Laing became Secretary and I took over the top handicapping role in 1980. Today there are two other handicappers apart from myself - Nathan Bourke and Andrew Whitehead”. Asked if one of those two men will be his successor when the now 65YO retires, Lester advised “Nathan Bourke has handicapped the last three Stradbrokes and he’s also done most of the Open company races in that timeframe and he’s done a very good job doing that, so it is logical to assume he’ll be my successor”.
During his over 40-odd years of being heavily involved at the coalface of Brisbane thoroughbred racing, I asked Lester if he’d share some of his most poignant memories. He pondered for a while before a smile encapsulated his face and he said “Well I was working on Fine Cotton day and there’s one part of the day that a lot of people might not remember, but about 12 o’clock I think it might have been and the stewards were going through the racebook and one of them said ‘There’s no rider declared for Fine Cotton. You’d better put a call over the PA for Haitana’. So we did that and unbeknown to all us Haitana walked in the room about 12.30pm and I didn’t know him from a bar of soap, but Andy Tindall was at the top of the table and he said ‘Mr Haitana do you realize you didn’t declare a jockey?’ and Haitana retorted, ‘Ah, ah, Gus Philpot’, to which Andy Tindall replied ‘do you realise this is going to cost you $20? You can either pay Mr Grimmett here, or you can pay at the office next week’. Anyway Haitana produced a $100 note and handed it to me and I went and got his change and I asked him if he wanted a receipt. He said ‘No’ and off he went. Knowing of the events that would unfold later that afternoon, I’ve often wondered what Haitana was feeling on that particular day when he got called to the stewards’ office around noon.”
Lester continued on about the Fine Cotton ring-in day and said that watching the plunge unfold on Fine Cotton later that day he “smelt a rat”, adding, “there was no reason for the ridiculous plunge because it was a country horse that had been beaten in weaker races than this particular Novice, even though this Novice wasn’t a great race. The horse should have been 50/1 and he came into 7/2 at the end and about five minutes before the race I just had a look at the rail bookies with the binoculars and he was 5/2 and 3/1, so I watched the race on the stairs of the stewards’ stand and I mentioned to one of the stewards that this horse Fine Cotton is into 5/2 or 3/1. Anyway he won the race but there was clearly something wrong. I was with Paul Byrne when the horses came back to the enclosure and we checked the brands. I’ve still got the book with the brands written on them and we could see it wasn’t Fine Cotton’s brand, as they had Fine Cotton’s brands in the stewards’ room, so it was obviously a ring-in. After about 20 minutes I was standing near the jockeys’ room and someone said a jockey recognized a horse called Bold Personality being out there (in that race) and that’s when everything erupted, then almost at the same time the name was also mentioned nearby and Paul Byrne and Andy Tindall checked the brands of Bold Personality, which had raced in Brisbane – and there it was – and the horse was disqualified. I do think that other people knew who the horse was, but no one was saying”.
Asked of other ring-ins that he’d seen, Lester recalled, “In about 1982, a horse called Mannasong, which had won a Mansfield Maiden, had no form whatsoever and he was backed from 50’s to 7/2 at Doomben one day. He led to the turn and ran nowhere. We subsequently found out the brands of the horse via The Courier Mail home turn photograph being enhanced and we tracked the brands down to the much better performed Apparent Heir. Trainer W. O. Stear was subsequently disqualified”.
Asked the best horses, jockeys and Queensland based trainers he’d seen along the way Lester said, “I think Mick Dittman is probably the best jockey I’ve seen. He was very smart and very good. In the (19)70’s and (19)80’s he just took them apart. On local trainers I think Henry Davis was an excellent trainer and was the best I’ve seen. I also respected past trainers like Jim Griffiths and Fred Best. You see they could set a horse for a race. That was the art of the profession, yet over the years I’ve seen trainers just shove horses in willy-nilly in races, with no idea how to place their horse, but Davis, Griffiths and Best could set a horse. Henry Davis once asked me how to place a horse and he said to me ‘I can’t win a Novice with nine stone (57 kgs) and I don’t want to win too many races in the bush’ and I spoke to him at length and he woke up then and he’d win two or three in the bush, or the country so to speak, then he’d put the horse in a Novice in town and get in on the limit weight and win”. Of the modern day trainers, Lester named “Kelso Wood and Johnny Wallace” as being two trainers who could place a horse.
When the subject changed to racehorses, Lester felt two horses – Kingston Town and Black Caviar – were the best two racehorses he’d been involved in the handicapping of, noting he’d been forced to handicap both those champions at “3.5 kgs above weight-for-age”. He continued by saying, “Kingston Town is the best horse I’ve seen and I think David (Laing) handicapped him in a Cup race at 3.5 kgs over weight-for-age, which is the same mark as we had Black Caviar on in the 2011 Stradbroke. Horses like Emancipation, Takeover Target and Apache Cat would be the next best horses I have handicapped”.
Lester also stated that he felt a handicapper can in fact “give a horse too much weight and ruin the horse”, adding, “once you get up to 59 and 60 kgs, especially over a distance, it does affect them. I mean you’ve got to line it up with say weightlifting. That little bit of extra weight can tip them over the scales. The famous Brisbane handicapper from many years ago, J.C. Anderson, made that statement to me one day. He was the handicapper of Tatts and the provincials for many years and he was in the twilight of his career when I started and he said to me one day, ‘Sonny, you can always control horses over 9 stone’ (57kgs), when the minimum was around 47.5kgs, so that’s always been in the back of my mind. I’m not saying it does definitely affect them, but I’m saying it can affect them because some horses can carry weight and some can’t. Asked if he’d seen any horses gutted or ruined by being asked to carry extremely high weights, Lester replied, “I’ve been accused of it. I’ve been accused of breaking down a horse that won a Stradbroke, but I don’t think that’s quite right and I won’t say the name of the horse or the accuser.”
Asked if he agrees with my publicly advised statement that “weight will not single-handedly stop a horse winning, up to and including 1200 metres”, Lester said “I think it depends on the company they are racing against. For instance Chief De Beers won 20 races at Doomben and I handicapped him in every one of the 20, but the highest I ever gave him was 65.5 (kgs) and he claimed 3 kgs and he won. I think one day I gave him a lot of weight as a 3YO and I don’t think Billy Calder (trainer) ever forgave me, but he got beaten a nose. I was a nose out.”
Interestingly Lester has experience across all three codes of racing, advising, “in the (19)70’s I worked at both the dogs and trots. They wanted a time keeper at the dogs and they wanted a shorthand writer at the trots. I had great times there with (race-callers) Mick Cox at the dogs and Pat O’Shea. I worked at the trots in the days of (Chief Steward) Jack Greig and John Hackett, Darryl Kays and Alan Pearson. They were busy days but good days”.
Lester spoke of the “card system” being all that racing staff had to identify race horses and handicap them before the computer form system came in” until the early (19)80’s. Lester explained “in those days we’d rely on newspapers to get the form and on the nomination form they had to fill out the last three runs of the horse. That was in the days of Bob Brazil at the Sportsman and Alison Best at AAP. We used to liaise back then and between us we’d to try to get the form right. Why I mention that is that there was a case in the Grand Prix where a horse called Noble Ambition was wrongly weighted. On the day before the race I found out it had won two races in a week, yet when I’d done the weights that wasn’t listed, so I had to tell the trainer that he had a two-and-a-half kilo penalty, which would have taken the horse’s weight to 55.5 kgs. The trainer’s name was Charlie Porter and he blew up when I told him. Today that missing information wouldn’t happen with computers, so I told the Press and I rang (race-caller) Vince Curry and I said ‘Vince would you mind mentioning that when you do your (radio) preview in the morning’. Vince, being the gentleman he was, said ‘don’t worry, I’ll look after it for you’. I thanked him and anyway I put the radio on at 8 o’clock Saturday morning and the first thing Vince said was ‘bad luck for the connections of Noble Ambition. It pulled up sore in trackwork,’ so that was one of those things that happened before computers. I think also about that same time Jimmy Cassidy rode his first Brisbane winner when Four Crowns won the O’Shea Stakes and the chap who trained Four Crowns came into the office to pay up for the Brisbane Cup the next week and he said to me ‘you can’t penalise me for the Cup, can you?’ and I said ‘no, it’s a weight-for-age race and anyway I see he had one start in New Zealand in a 3200-metre race and ran thirteenth’ and he said ‘Yes, but he wasn’t ready then,’ so that was the time that I woke up about the New Zealanders. Then Red Anchor appeared and he won the Sires (Produce). (Trainer Paul) Sutherland came in the day after he won the Sires and said ‘what are you going to do with Red Anchor’ and I said ‘I can’t penalise you as you already have enough weight in the T.J. (Smith), you’ve got 56 (kgs)”. He said ‘That’s good it’s a champion this horse’. On the day Prince Frolic beat Red Anchor a head, but Red Anchor certainly did go on and become a champion”.
Asked where racing handicapping is going nowadays, in comparison to the days when there was the progression through the classes in town, of Maiden, Novice, Transition, Encourage, Trial and Open company, Lester replied, “I thought the old system was very good, because you could still win a Maiden and two Improvers, two Intermediates and Progressives and so on. You probably could win more races then, going through classes towards Open company, but you can go to a Class 6 now and you’ve virtually got to go into Open company, apart from metropolitan win races, so that’s been cut down, but with the Benchmark system now, that might give me more avenues to move up and down. The top Benchmarks are very good now - they’re like the old Welters. We’re working towards more flexibility now with this Benchmark system, as the horse that wins a Class 6 but really isn’t up to Open company, or the Open company horse that’s on a backward slide, can slot into a high Benchmark race”.
Queried as to whether he attends race meetings regularly, Lester retort was, “I do go to Carnival racedays to watch, but I do a lot of work at home on Saturdays and Sundays doing videos on non-Carnival days”.
Lester’s named “the Stradbroke” as “the best race in Queensland and one of the best in Australia, in my time,” but he also noted “not many topweights start in the Stradbroke. We’ve had horses like the Black Caviar, Takeover Target and Apache Cat nominated and get weighted, but they don’t start in the race. I think if you go back to about 1970, you’d find three of the first four placegetters in a Stradbroke carried 9 stone or over, in the days of horses like Rajah Sahib, Gunsynd and Triton, but they don’t start in the Stradbroke these days carrying those big weights. In fact most times we have to raise the weights. I think the reason they are reluctant to run in Stradbrokes with big weights is that the BTC Cup and Doomben 10,000 are weight-for-age races now, so the top horses all go there”.
Although unable to give an unequivocal date for his retirement, Lester named “visiting the Gold Coast, following Australian Rules Football and watching golf” as the three things he’d like to devote more time to when he announces his retirement. When retirement does come, standing by his side as always will be his besotted bride Roslyn, whom he married in 1971. Their union has produced two sons, 37-year-old Grant, an accountant, and Customs officer Craig, aged 35.In the merry-go-round called life, the atrocities of war sadly saw Lester Grimmett’s father Joe deprived of the opportunity to see his first and his only son spend over four decades as a highly respected employee in the many and varied roles that he no doubt undertook with aplomb in one of the hardest industries on the planet – the racing industry.