There's a lot to be said about Rod Lyons' 2019 post race interview with Racing.com after Ablaze, the horse he co-owns, won The Jericho Cup. Teetering on the edge of unbridled jubilation, Lyons said it was as big a thrill as he'd had in racing. "Honestly I'm beyond words, I'm so thrilled to have won the race ... it's a pleasure and an honour to be here."
Given Lyons' track record - he's also the lead owner of 2019-20 Australian Racehorse of the Year, Nature Strip - the significance of his statement was not lost on those within racing circles, least of all Bill Gibbins. "It was a speech for all time as far as The Jericho Cup goes," says the racing enthusiast, trucking magnate, philanthropist and founder of the event, which had only kicked off the year prior in 2018.
The Jericho Cup honours the Australian Light Horse by reviving the original race that took place during the First World War in Palestine. Inspired to reignite this historical event, Gibbins connected with Warrnambool Racing Club to stage the annual spectacle, offering to fund the prize money for the first four years.
His generosity and passion for horse racing were not only instrumental in the establishment of The Jericho Cup, but also shone a light on a fascinating slice of Australian history.
Gibbins has been a die-hard horse racing fan since the age of 12, when he placed a winning bet on Macdougal in the 1959 Melbourne Cup. The 74-year-old jokes that the long-lasting appeal was probably gambling, but also acknowledges the integral role horses play in Australian history. "It's steeped in tradition," he says, referring to generations past and their love of the gee-gees. "There was not much to do, you were on the other side of the world in the middle of nowhere. That's why the country cups still hold great interest to the local people and still thrive."
Having always lived in Melbourne's eastern suburbs (he and wife Iolanda moved to their Vermont home more than 40 years ago, and now have four sons and six grandchildren), Gibbins' first visit to the Warrnambool races was for the Grand Annual when he was about 17 years old. "A mate of mine was going out with a bird who worked on the Warrnambool exchange," he recalls.
After flitting between one and three-day visits, Gibbins eventually settled on the latter and has enjoyed the regional city's May racing festivities for almost 40 consecutive years - even with the birth of children and life's inevitable curveballs, the only carnival he's missed was the year he was undergoing radiation therapy for prostate cancer.
"It used to be just a boy's thing and then Iolanda got her nose in when we had a horse run down there," Gibbins says. "So now we head to the May Carnival, and I take a busload with her and seven of her girlfriends down and they stay for the three days too." Does Iolanda share his passion for racing? "Probably under duress," laughs Gibbins. "She didn't like the horses to start off with, but I won her over (watching) a mountain of Melbourne Cups."
Gibbins is the founder of trucking company FCL, which was sold to the LinFox group in 2006. Describing himself as not so much as a history buff, but more a staunch Australian, it was after reading the book Bill the Bastard (winner of the 1918 race) that Gibbins became aware of the original Jericho Cup. "I couldn't believe I didn't know anything about it," he says. "These are things in history we just don't tell our kids about."
In late 2015 he approached Warrnambool Racing Club with his vision to reenact the Cup through Warrnambool's jumps racing paddocks. "He spoke about the concept for a day of racing which would recognise people and horses involved in the First World War battles," recalls WRC Committee Chairman Steven Waterhouse.
"The committee and staff were captivated quickly by Bill's vision, and particularly the many stories and opportunities the concept provided."
"It had to be the place to run a long race like this (the distance covered in the main race is 4065 metres)," says Gibbins, quoting Australia's greatest ever jumps trainer, the late Jim Houlahan: "I love Warrnambool. It's a place for brave men and braver horses".
"Anybody can get a runner in The Jericho Cup if they can find one that can stay," he says. "They're ordinary horses, probably horses with nowhere to go - and now there is somewhere to go."
Much to the delight of all involved, The Jericho Cup and its concept were welcomed by Warrnambool's racing and wider community from the get-go. "It was an unknown quantity, but you couldn't have scripted it any better," says Gibbins. "I said I'd do it for four years and after the first year I didn't need to do anything, it was a raving success."
Indeed, at the Cup's first running he was chuffed to overhear comments such as, "My next door neighbour's here - he's never been to the races in his life". Gibbins also recounts the letter written to him by a 20-year-old who had a share in a horse trying to enter The Jericho Cup. "It grabs everybody, no matter what your age," he says.
Waterhouse adds that Gibbins embraces anyone who shows an interest in the day. "Bill had a clear understanding of what would and wouldn't work in the community," he says.
A longtime philanthropist, Gibbins has committed more than $1 million to The Jericho Cup since its inception, while donating further time and money to a variety of organisations over the years. Having helped everyone from former soldiers to kids in wheelchairs, Gibbins is uncharacteristically short on words when talk turns to his generosity. "I dunno ... (it) just happens - you've got to be able to do it, haven't you?," he says. "The reason most people have money is they don't part with it. I'm just a slight exception. There's no big deal about it, certain things are worth doing."
Gibbins' philanthropic work was acknowledged in June's Queen's Birthday Honours when he was awarded the Member of the Order of Australia. "Yeah, it's pretty special, innit?," he says. "It's an acknowledgment of what you do ... but I'm not an honours sort of person, it's not going to change me."
According to Waterhouse, The Jericho Cup is now a key fixture in the Warrnambool Racing Club's calendar of events, and recognised by the industry as a key event in Victorian country racing. "Bill and his wife are honorary life members of the Warrnambool Racing Club, which recognises the contribution that they have made to the Club and the Warrnambool community by bringing the Jericho concept to life," he says. "We are so proud of the event and the enduring partnerships that have formed as a result of it. Bill will continue to be involved for as long as he desires."
It's somewhat poetic that The Jericho Cup started with a champ named Bill.
Bill the Bastard to be precise, warhorse and winner of the first Jericho Cup that was run in the deserts of the Middle East in 1918.
Given the unflattering moniker thanks to his habit of flinging riders from his back, it was highly anticipated that Bill the Bastard would dispatch his jockey, Jackie Mullagh, mid-race. Not only did Mullagh stay on, they won by half a length.
And what was the true purpose of this Australian Light Horse race meet? It was a clever (and ultimately successful) act of trickery and distraction, to fool Turkish soldiers into assuming no plans were underway before their final attack to drive them from Palestine, Syria and Arabia.
Programs were printed to ensure the Turks heard about all it, with the strongest Walers (named after their origins as New South Wales stock horses) announced as contenders on the day.
The event was held close to Jericho (nowhere near where the planned attack would take place) and included five races, with the marquee event being run over three miles - The Jericho Cup.
Bill the Bastard's cantankerous attitude belied not only his win in this historic race, but also some of the heroic feats he demonstrated during the war - the story goes that when Major Michael Shanahan passed out on his back due to blood loss from a gunshot wound, Bill gently trotted through the sand and delivered him to the veterinary hospital.
Australian author and historian Roland Perry detailed Bill's story in the 2012 book, Bill the Bastard.
When Bill Gibbins was given a copy to read, he was fascinated by the history and captivated by the spectacle of The Jericho Cup. He successfully proposed the idea to Warrnambool Racing Club of a re-staging of the event, to be held on the 100th anniversary and re-run annually.
Gibbins' involvement over an agreed four years would see him donate the $304,000 prize money, with a hand in other aspects such as the ornate trophies, bronze statuettes and timber plaques for the races.
Each of The Jericho Cup's race names and trophies honour horses, people or events from the Light Horse crusade. The only change is the 1000-metre Charge at Beersheba Sprint, which each year honours a different person involved in the charge. This year it's A J (Jack) Cox, who was awarded a DCM for his actions at the charge at Beersheba. Five of Cox's descendants will travel from Sydney for the race.
Sharing a strong place in Australian history, Haymes Paint has been honoured with naming rights of The Jericho Cup since its inception.
While Gibbins' legacy remains, his financial commitment comes to an end after this year. Racing Victoria will then assume responsibility for the popular race.
"In its short history, The Jericho Cup has already captured the imagination of the racing public and that is largely due to the tireless efforts of its founder, Bill Gibbins," said RV's Executive General Manager - Racing, Greg Carpenter.
"Bill is the architect of The Jericho Cup and will continue to be the face of a race which has firmly established its place on the Australasian racing calendar."