The halcyon days of Perth racing owe much to Marjorie Charleson

9 min read
Racing has had its share of strong leaders and, with the Perth summer carnival in full song, there isn’t a better time of year to recall the deeds of the late Marjorie Charleson, who almost singlehandedly reinvented Perth racing nearly 50 years ago.

Cover image courtesy of Western Racepix

At this time of year, with so much attention turned west to Perth’s summer racing, it’s hard not to recall the efforts of the late Marjorie Charleson, who reinvented Western Australian racing nearly 50 years ago. Her legacy is particularly salient this year, with Perth’s absence of any interstate horses owing to COVID-19.

For 16 years through the 1970s and 1980s, Charleson was tireless in opening the western state to the best of the eastern states. She enticed Bart Cummings, who brought Dayana (NZ) across in 1972, resulting in that smart colt becoming the first 3-year-old in Australian history to win four derbies in a single year.

Dayana (NZ) with jockey Roy Higgins and trainer Bart Cummings | Image courtesy of Racing and Wagering Western Australia

There were many others.

Vo Rogue (Ivor Prince {USA}) was there in 1988 to win the G1 Kingston Town Classic, and Reckless flew across in 1978 for the Perth Cup. That same year, Dulcify (NZ) went for the Derby.

In 1975, Denise’s Joy (Seventh Hussar {Fr}) won the WATC Australian Derby before founding a dynasty through Joie Denise (Danehill {USA}), Sunday Joy (Sunday Silence {USA}) and More Joyous (More Than Ready {USA}).

In 1982, Charleson got no less than Kingston Town (Bletchingly) to the summer carnival, and those that were trackside will never forget the spectacle. Ascot Racecourse was waist-deep with fans cheering the Sydney horse home in the G1 Western Mail Classic. It was the horse’s final race and final win, and it’s been named the Kingston Town Classic ever since.

Last year, Marjorie Charleson passed away at the age of 88.

The late Marjorie Charleson | Image courtesy of Western Racepix

By all accounts, she was a dynamo with an infectious loyalty to Western Australian racing, and her results as the Western Australian Turf Club (WATC) public relations officer were spectacular.

Working closely with the late Harry Bolton, who served as the WATC secretary from 1958 to his death in 1978, Charleson is largely credited with the halcyon era of racing in the west, and she’s a strong example of how far good leadership can go.

Tips from the east

Trainer Lindsey Smith is known these days for his yard at Warrnambool, but his roots are in Western Australia. He moved there from Williamstown in Victoria when he was an infant, and he grew up around Palmyra, to the southwest of Perth.

By the age of 14, Smith was serving a jockey apprenticeship with Rockingham trainer Colin France, and he remembers vividly the era of Marjorie Charleson and all the eastern stars that came with it.

Lindsey Smith

“As an apprentice, I knew Marjorie then,” Lindsey said, speaking to TDN AusNZ. “She was a real go-getter and maybe the first of her kind to generate interest in coming to WA. She was the instigator in getting the Bart Cummings; the Tommy Smiths and Geoff Murphys. There were so many good horses coming over because of her, and I used to go and hang over the fence just to watch them.”

Smith said local racing had never seen the like of the horses that started to arrive in the 1970s.

“We’d never seen these kinds of horses before,” he said. “We might have read about them in the papers or seen them on the news, but it was more us seeing them on the television at Melbourne Cup time. Next minute, you had Bart Cummings and Tommy Smith walking around in the mounting yard with Dayana and all these horses you’d seen in the Melbourne carnival.”

Smith has been training since the 1990s, and he’s a student. He has absorbed the ways of others all through his career, wanting to learn and be successful.

"Next minute, you had Bart Cummings and Tommy Smith walking around in the mounting yard with Dayana and all these horses you’d seen in the Melbourne carnival.” - Lindsey Smith

In the 1970s, when the wave of interstate horses to Perth began, he saw for the first time the way things were done in the big league.

“Looking at them then, they were superior horses to ours,” Smith said. “Just the way they trained them was a little bit harder than the way they did in Western Australia, so a few of the local trainers cottoned on to that a little bit. Their professionalism was something we all noticed.”

Smith believes that spectacular era in WA was all down to Charleson.

He said her attention to detail and her fastidiousness covered every base in those days, from flights to airport transfers, stabling and accommodations. Even all these decades later, the trainer is trying to win the Marjorie Charleson Classic, which was established in 2019 and is run each April.

“As a trainer, I’ve tried a number of times to win that race in her honour,” Smith said. “She did a lot for Western Australian racing, and maybe we take it for granted at times. Marjorie opened the world to Western Australian trainers, especially me. I was there to see all these magnificent horses and trainers I admired, and it was all because of her.”

Good leadership

Charleson was the public relations officer for the WATC (now Perth Racing) for 16 years. It wouldn’t have been an easy role initially. She was the first in that position of any race club Australia-wide, and the sport’s loudest voices and most important faces then were all men.

Her success across 16 years, however, earned her the title of WA’s ‘first lady of racing’ and, arguably, her female place in the sport is rivalled by only Gai Waterhouse.

While the obvious consequences of her leadership were record racecourse attendances, record levels of interest in Western Australian racing and, possibly, then record turnover, the underlying consequences are more interesting.

Charleson brought a maturity to WA horse racing, flinging it onto the national stage in the 1970s, and Perth trainers benefitted from that. Injections of prizemoney and exposure to new ways of training... these were all things that came with interstate interest.

In Melbourne, 93-year-old turf journalist Ron Taylor, who was on-hand each year to cover the carnival for Truth newspaper, has a unique and modern perspective on Charleson’s achievements.

“She was a leader,” Taylor said. “It’s a bit like the way Peter V’Landys is running racing in New South Wales at the moment. He has taken control of it himself, and he’s made it a personal thing. He’s put on races worth millions, and it’s all through his personal drive and effort that Sydney racing is now so dominant.”

“It’s a bit like the way Peter V’Landys is running racing in New South Wales at the moment. He has taken control of it himself, and he’s made it a personal thing." - Ron Taylor

Taylor’s parallels are fascinating.

“That’s the way it was in Perth, to be truthful,” he said. “It was a one-woman show. I couldn’t pay Marjorie tribute enough to say that she brought racing in WA to the forefront of people in Australia.”

Weaving the magic

At 93, Ron Taylor’s memories are crisp from his first trip to Perth’s carnival in the summer of 1972, and he went every year thereafter until his retirement from the press in 1993. For 33 years, Taylor was the racing editor of Melbourne’s Truth newspaper.

His annual Perth junket kicked off when Charleson arrived in Melbourne for a 1972 visit.

Ron Taylor | Image courtesy of Ron Taylor

“I didn’t know anything about Marjorie until she called a press conference of all the leading racing writers and editors of the daily papers,” Taylor said. “She got us all together, issued this invitation to us to visit the Marco Polo Hotel in North Melbourne, and she put on drinks and canapés and proceeded to tell us the attractions of racing in Western Australia.

"She convinced us it would be remiss if we didn’t express that view to all the trainers around Australia, that Western Australia was a wonderful place to race horses.”

Did Taylor buy it, though?

“I did,” he said. “Marjorie was very persuasive. She was a very dynamic character. She was a youngish woman then, maybe in her 30s, unmarried and full of her love for her job. Oh boy, she was good. She would get hold of Bart Cummings and Colin Hayes, and she’d extol the virtues of Perth on them while disposing of some of the myths that tracks over there were too hard and that horses would break down if they went there.”

"She (Charleson) was a very dynamic character. She was a youngish woman then, maybe in her 30s, unmarried and full of her love for her job." - Ron Taylor

Taylor said Charleson constantly weaved her magic and, as a result, the WATC got what it needed.

The Club wanted to popularise Western Australian racing and get more people to the track, and the best way to do that was to bring the big names from the eastern states. Charleson and Harry Bolton delivered.

They looked after every horse, trainer, jockey and strapper, even the journalists flying in to report. Charleson met Taylor at the airport in her own car, drove him to his hotel and took care of anything asked of her. Nothing was beneath her, and it’s an attention to detail that even Lindsey Smith said has never been bettered anywhere in his experience.

Harry Bolton | Image courtesy of Racing and Wagering Western Australia

“It was all down to Marjorie,” Taylor agreed. “It was her drive and her passion, and her powers of enticing people. It must have been her personality. She was quick as a wit, a clever lady but she was caring. She mothered the press, but also the trainers and jockeys. They were given every consideration because she was so good at her job.”

In the years since, both Smith and Taylor said Charleson has been irreplaceable. Her work ethic was exhaustive and her results remarkable, and it’s possible that Western Australian racing owes its modern identity to this woman.

In 1988, the Club altered the schedule of its calendar, moving certain races like the Derby to April, moving them back again in 1993 and then back to Easter in 2002. In a way, this has interrupted the momentum Charleson created, which both Smith and Taylor agree on.

As the most isolated of Australia’s capital cities, separated from the east by a vast expanse of sand that is the Nullarbor, Perth has had its geographical challenges. This year, it’s COVID-19 and state-border controls. Nevertheless, even in the modern era with horses like Buffering (Mossman) and Takeover Target (Celtic Swing {GB}), the Perth summer carnival has remained a destination event for the country’s biggest stars.

Marjorie Charleson
Lindsey Smith
Ron Taylor
Perth Racing