Two Bills bring Jericho Cup to life

6 min read
100 years ago a race run in the Palestinian Desert, won by Bill The Bastard provided distraction enough for the light horsemen to carry out an attack on the Turks which turned the tide for the ANZAC's. Bill Gibbins has made it his mission to re-stage that great race as a tribute to those who were lost.

100 years and 13,500km removed from its last running, the emergence of the Jericho Cup, to be staged at Warrnambool on Sunday, is a tribute to two things, a nation's love of the horse and the persistence of Bill Gibbins.

While the likes of The Everest and the All Star Mile have come about because of a need to market thoroughbred racing to the next generation, the Jericho Cup has been conjured from a distant past because Gibbins wanted to ensure the heroics of our war heroes, both human and equine, will never be forgotten.

It was pure chance that Gibbins, a former transport magnate, came across the story of a horse race run as part of a military ruse during the famous World War 1 Battle of Beersheba called the Jericho Cup.

"I knew nothing about the Middle East part of the First World War and it just amazed me what the guys did over there." - Bill Gibbins

Warrnambool Racing Club chairman, Nick Rule with Bill Gibbins

The race, run over three miles through the desert sands of Palestine, was won by a Waler called Bill The Bastard, a nickname which a family friend had tagged Gibbins with over the years as a joke.

The friend saw a book written by Roland Perry of the same name and gave it to Gibbins to read. He admits it sat there for a few months before he decided to pick it up, but the story would change his life

"I knew nothing about the Middle East part of the First World War and it just amazed me what the guys did over there," Gibbins told RSN recently.

The legend of Bill The Bastard

Bill The Bastard's Jericho Cup heroics are the subject of Chapter 24 of Perry's book, entitled The Ruse. It details a full race meeting conducted in a warzone, featuring bookies, stewards and a bunch of brave men willing to ride the Walers over the three-mile track.

From Perry's depiction, Bill had certainly earned his name - as stubborn a horse that the Light Horse Brigade had seen.

"Despite being a total rogue, they thought they'd throw him into the field to make up numbers." - Bill Gibbins

Light horsemen before the battle of Beersheeba in Palestine in 1917

"Despite being a total rogue, they thought they'd throw him into the field to make up numbers. A little guy, Jackie Mullagh, managed to stay on him," Gibbins said.

Mullagh was the only jockey not to take a whip for his horse, scared Bill might 'kill him' should he use it.

The story goes that Bill was as courageous as he was stubborn and he fought out a heroic half-a-length win over the well-backed Khartoum, much to the joy of the Australians who had backed him to win at monster odds. Mullagh was dumped from him after the finish of the race.

Under the cover of the race meeting, Light Horse General Harry Chauvel led a successful attack which blindsided the Turkish forces that night and it was seen as the beginning of the end of the campaign.

Bringing the Jericho Cup back to life

With his imagination captured, Gibbins set about commemorating the centenary anniversary of the Jericho Cup with a horse race in Australia.

Starting out in December 2015, he committed his time and money to staging an event for Australian and New Zealand bred stayers over the distance.

"As we looked into it. I thought we can re-run the race, and the only place to run it would be Warrnambool through the paddocks, it’s that long a race," he said.

"It would be a great spectacle, and I got them (Racing Victoria) over the line. It was a three-year process."

"We always talk about the centenary of Armistice Day, and it’s a big deal, and then we all forget about it for another 100," Gibbins said.

"It’s just logical, they were horsemen back then and they are horsemen now." - Bill Gibbins

"I don't want these guys to be forgotten and every year we remember them. The big thing is, there are so many people in the racing industry, who go back to those days."

"It’s just logical, they were horsemen back then and they are horsemen now."

Warrnambool was decided as the only track with the space to run The Jericho

Such is Gibbins' commitment to the process, he has invested over $1 million in funding a large part of the prizemoney and trophies for the raceday over the next four years.

That includes the $300,000 Jericho Cup, to be run for the first time on a course usually reserved for steeplechases, including one of Australia's greatest jumps races, the Grand Annual, run over 5500m during the famous Warrnambool May Carnival.

The race has attracted 12 starters, including this year's Grand Annual winner Gold Medals (NZ) (Elvstroem), trained by Symon Wilde, as well as four emergencies.

The entire raceday commemorates the heroes, horse and human, of the Beersheba campaign

The legend of Midnight

Including among them is the mare Midnight, via the Midnight Madness Fillies and Mares BM74 H.

A three-time champion in events conducted between the British and Australian troops, Midnight was killed when charging the trenches during the campaign, but in the process saved the man who had brought her to war and had reared her on his property.

Guy Haydon on Midnight in the Middle East

"The story of her was as she was going over the trenches the Turks fired through her, killing her, through the saddle and the bedroll and into back the rider, Guy Haydon, a bloke whose property she had been born on, and who had rode her off to war," Gibbins said.

"She gets shot, through her into Guy. He's badly wounded and she was killed. He was four days on the critical list, but he survives and they dig the bullet out of him and he sends the bullet home."

In a touching connection, Guy Heydon's great nephew Peter, who runs the Haydon Horse Stud at Blandford near Scone, will be at Warrnambool on Sunday to watch the race and present the trophy.