S t rapper for Belflyer Vic Bennetts pays the recuperating champion a visit at his resting paddock at Cathy Chapman's property at Lower Southgate.

A life of horses and courses

10th July 2019 1:00 AM
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Growing up with Sydney's Moore Park Golf Club at his back gate and one of Australia's premier racing tracks across the road, Vic Bennetts was destined to become involved in the two sports.

But, little did he know he would reach the pinnacle in both.

From the age of five, Bennetts had a golf club in his hand, spending hours on the course.

"My mother would be calling me in the dark to come in for dinner," he laughed.

"I had always played golf. I loved it, it was an exciting thing."

Bennetts enjoyed some success as an amateur, including taking out three state junior championships before his passion eventually saw him turn professional when he was 24.

"I got married and, of course, you've got responsibilities after that and then, after a few years of marriage, my wife suggested I take golf seriously and turn pro," he said.

Australian golf pioneer Norman Von Nida took young Bennetts under his wing and nominated him to the PGA of Australia.

From 1968 Bennetts took up playing golf full time, later going on to become one of Australia's most celebrated golfers.

During the early 1970s success came at the Queensland Open, the South Australian PGA, and 11 wins from 14 tournaments in the Queensland PGA Sunshine Tour, regarded as one of the largest pro-am tours around the world and dubbed the 'Troppo Tour'.

Then, in 1975 after six years on the professional circuit came the big one: The Australian PGA at Burleigh Heads.

Bennetts was up against a tough field, including 1960 British Open champion and Australian legend Kel Nagle, who won at least one tournament each year from 1949-1975.

Windy conditions saw many players flounder and, on the final day of play, Nagle made up plenty of ground on Bennetts, who led the competition coming into the final day.

 

 

FINE FORM: Professional golfer Vic Bennetts in action in 1971 at Royal Sydney Golf Club.
FINE FORM: Professional golfer Vic Bennetts in action in 1971. Contributed

 

 

Despite a comfortable lead overnight, the result went down to the final few holes, but according to The Canberra Times it was a "miraculous birdie four" on the 14th hole that sealed the victory for Bennetts.

"He cut his drive into the trees and left without a shot to the green, hit up an adjoining fairway," the paper reported.

"He again finished in the rough and put his third shot into a trap.

"Then came the shot which probably won Bennetts the championship. A sand wedge to hole out."

Bennetts' win made headlines around the world.

"Vic Bennetts of Sydney shot 72 today for a four round score of three over par 287 and won the Australian professional golf championship. He finished three strokes ahead of Kel Nagle, Robert Taylor and Brian Moran, all of Australia," The New York Times reported on September 23, 1975.

Bennetts went on to win the New Britain Open in Papua New Guinea in 1976, but a wrist injury saw him slow down from tournaments and play part-time for a few years before he became the golf professional at the Royal Sydney Golf Club, teaching the next generation of golfers for 20 years from the mid-1980s.

When Bennetts decided to retire in 2006, he knew Grafton was where he wanted to relocate and it was an area he was familiar with through his golf connections.

"I came up here in 1962 with Sir Leslie Herron, who was the Chief Justice of the High Court," he said.

"He used to bring a trainload of amateurs up from Sydney to play here. He was the patron of the Australian Golf Club and was a marvellous man. Being Chief Justice of the High Court, he spoke to the little people too, didn't just speak to the big people.

"The Grafton District Golf Club still has the Herron Cup over 36 holes."

It wasn't just golf that had put Grafton on the radar, but Bennetts' other passion, horse racing, and the July Carnival in particular.

"I came to many July Carnivals before I ever moved to Grafton," he said.

"I used to come up from Sydney with a bookmaker who had come up for years and I used to work with him for something to do."

Bennetts had another connection to racing in Grafton, a connection that developed into a decades-long friendship and last year, one of the biggest moments in Grafon racing since Kensei won the Grafton Cup-Melbourne Cup double in 1987.

 

 

 

 

 

Jockey, Adam Hyeroninmus rides Belflyer to victory in race 5, The Kosciuszko  during The TAB Everest race day at Royal Randwick Racecourse in Sydney, Saturday, October 13, 2018.  (AAP Image/Simon Bullard) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Jockey Adam Hyeroninmus rides the John Shelton- trained Belflyer (right) to victory in the $1.3 million The Kosciuszko, the richest race for country horses in NSW, at odds of 60-1 at Royal Randwick Racecourse on October 13 last year. SIMON BULLARD

 

Well-known Grafton identity Gordon Fraser had been coming to the July Carnival for 40 years and, when Bennetts moved to Grafton he introduced him to trainer John Shelton.

Since then Bennetts has been a regular at Shelton's stables, working with horses like he did when he was a boy at Royal Randwick, keeping himself busy during retirement.

In 2017, a new horse arrived at Shelton's stables. The then-six-year-old gelding had raced previously in Victoria where he won three provincial races from 18 starts, before being moved to Queensland in May 2016.

"He wasn't winning many races, he lost form and whatever happened to him when he was in Queensland, he didn't have that form," Bennetts said.

"When he arrived in Grafton with John, he instantly turned it around."

The gelding arrived in Grafton, and his first race for Shelton was at the Casino Cup. Under-prepared, he ran second.

"After the race John said 'I haven't had a horse this good in a long time'," Bennetts said.

Belflyer had arrived in Grafton.

After the Casino Cup run, Belflyer went on to win six of his first 10 starts, including his second Warwick Cup.

"Belflyer had a bit of a spell after that and came back to Grafton carrying 64kg in a sprint race and he had an apprentice jockey with the claim," Bennetts said.

"He must have been eight lengths in front at the 500m mark. He has had some unbelievable wins, really special wins."

 

 

 

Last year's July Carnival saw Belflyer run second in the $160,000 GDSC Ramornie Handicap (1200m), finishing behind Havasay, trained by Toby Edmonds.

A fourth at Doomben and a third at the Gold Coast followed, before Shelton set his eyes on the biggest prize in NSW country racing: the inaugural $1.3million The Kosciuszko.

Early it looked like the plan would not come to fruition. In September, the slot holders for the event were drawn and, at the time, Bennetts said Shelton was losing confidence. Not in his champion's chances at the race but in finding a slot owner to take an interest.

"The hardest thing was actually getting him in the race, because of the system," Bennetts said. "One of the owners put $2000 on him before the field was announced to try and get Belflyer's price down so other people might be interested."

With three slot holders remaining at the 11th hour, Shelton received the call he had been waiting for when Belflyer benefited from a slot redraw.

Thad King, Richie Butterworth and Nathan Lavers, otherwise known as the Battlers Punters Club, won a slot and secured Belflyer.

Shelton booked former apprentice and long-time friend Adam Hyeronimus for the ride of his life. Hyeronimus already knew a thing or two about Belflyer, as he and Shelton had talked nearly every day on the phone since Hyeronimus finished his apprenticeship.

While Shelton and Bennetts were confident in Belflyer, the bookies had another opinion.

"I strapped Belflyer on the day, and when I led him out on the track, the strappers go into an area just near the outside rail and I was looking at the big screen, and I had a bet on him at $26," Bennetts said.

"I was looking at the field and Belflyer was going out from $26 to $31, $41, $51, so I said bugger this and I walked back into the betting ring and had another bet."

In one of the biggest moments of Grafton racing, Belflyer overcame all odds, a wide barrier draw and heavy Royal Randwick track to scale the heights of The Kosciuszko and etch its name into racing folklore.

Bennetts said the atmosphere at the track was indescribable.

"It was fantastic, the whole thing, with Adam being an apprentice to John and them being such great mates," he said.

"When Belflyer went past the post, I saw John disappear into a scrum of press people, there must have been 50 of them. He disappeared into this scrum and then Adam came back and he was over the moon, too.

"Apart from the fact that he had won a $1.3million race, he was excited and excited for John, too."

While the celebrations continued into the late hours of the morning following the race, Bennetts decided to celebrate quietly with his daughter at her house, where he was staying for the race.

"I went back there and she had $10 each way and she was jumping up and down, she was thrilled," he said.

"I organised with John I'd pick him up the next morning. I told him I'd ring him in the morning and tell him what time I was going to pick him up (to drive back to Grafton). I'm an early riser so I got up, went and had a coffee and I rang John and I asked him if he was up.

"He said he didn't know where he was, he didn't know what day it was."

Unfortunately Belflyer will not feature this July as he recovers from surgery on a tendon sheath but Bennetts said Shelton would have runners in the biggest week of Grafton racing.

"He has a big team of horses now and quite a few good ones but I wish we had a couple more Belflyers. What trainer wouldn't?" -OT