Australian Biography

Bill Roycroft - full interview transcript

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In going to England so far in advance of the Rome Olympics, what was the idea behind that? To get the horse settled into that sort of European climate? Or what was the reason that you went so far in advance?

I think their idea was they sent the team away for Stockholm, they were in England about 18 months before Stockholm. And they'd taken Australian horses with them and they didn't use one of those horses. They bought second-hand horses in England, you know, horses that the English had discarded or didn't want and paid a lot of damn money for these horses, you know. And they competed on them in Stockholm. And they came fourth, which was pretty damn good. Now I think their idea was send us over early and let us do the same thing. We wouldn't have to worry about our farms or whether the cow was milking or whether she was going dry, or - and the sheep blokes wouldn't care whether their sheep had foot-rot or, they'd be away and they'd concentrate on their work.

Now Franz Mairinger was with us and he said on the boat as we went over - he called us all in to his room and we'd have a meeting about what we do when we get to England. Now he said "We'll work in the morning, we'll work in the morning and we'll put our horses away and you can go and do what you want. Tour around England, have a look about". I said "That won't be for me, I'll be working my horses twice a day. They'll go out in the morning and they'll go out again in the afternoon. And they'll have a pick at grass for 20 minutes" and Laurie Morgan said "So will mine" and so did the others. Well he said, "Majority rules. That's what will happen. I'll work you in the morning and in the afternoon you can take your horses out again and please yourself what you do". So we were a different kettle of fish to his first team. But he worked them in the morning under his instruction, and then they buggered off and the horses stayed in the stable the rest of the time, you know. And that's what used to happen in Britain. That's what happened over there. They used to work their horses in the morning and those poor damn horses stayed in that stable 'til the next morning. So our horses went out and enjoyed, you know - standing in a stable, God damn it. I could never understand their thoughts about it. But see, this is where we opened it up for the rest of the world. We found after that that they were taking their horses out twice a day too. When we went to Rome a few of them were starting to come out in the afternoon. Not all of them, but some of them in the afternoon, because we went out, they came out. See, it kept your horse nice and fresh if he wasn't standing there, bad on his legs just standing in a hard stable. And they - and we shod our horses lightly. Very light shoes on the feet. Think about it, you know, these sort of things they don't think about. You pick up a shoe, just quietly, it only weighs its weight, whatever the weight is. You pick it up at the extent the very swift thing that the horse picks his feet up from the ground, and it weighs four or five times the weight of the shoe. Then it's up in the air with no nothing. It doesn't mean a damn thing, and it's still going up when his horse wants to put his foot down. Then it's down on the ground, and he picks it up again. And that's being done all the time that horse is doing his gallop. That's why, that's why the racehorses are shoed with alloy shoes. Very light shoes. And I finished up with my eventing career using their shoes - I used to have very light, because I had a good - and I will show people those shoes. I've got them down in my shed, and I will show what I did use before I started using alloy shoes. And you know, weight off the feet is weight off their back. So I suppose I sort of drift away from what I was talking about...

But the next question I was going to ask you was when you got to Rome and you were on the way to the Olympics, could you describe what it was like for you? How it felt arriving there, arriving there in the Olympic Village, and what the whole situation was. Before we get to the events themselves, you know, being there as an Australian competitor, at the Rome Olympics, could you paint a bit of a picture for that, of that?

Well I suppose that'd be easier if I was young and romantic. But I've been through so many, so many of these things that I've become blasé. But, well let's go back to the first one. Yes, it was exciting. Of course it was exciting, even though I was 45, it was exciting to be there, going to do it for Australia. Yes it was. And from England we flew the horses, we flew the horses to Rome. And we landed, we flew over, very pretty area, we flew in over Rome nine o'clock at night, we circled over Rome and landed. And they - our ramp to get our horses off was too short. They couldn't get our horses down. So they're out with saws and hammers and that, and built an extra ramp on the end to get us down. And where were should have been off by about 10 o'clock at least, we didn't get the horses off until 12 o'clock that night. Now then we had to go to Praterni del Vado [the venue was actually Pratoni del Vivaro] where the horse - where we were going to take place and the horses were stabled. That was about 30 mile up from Rome on a high plain. And it was much cooler up there than what it was down in Rome, because we were well elevated up there. And by two o'clock that night we got them into their stables there and we - that is one Games we did stay in the Games, we stayed in the Village. And we came back down to the Village and by five o'clock next morning we were on our way again, back up to the horses and work them. Because they did have a practice ground away from the stables you had a ground that you could do your work on, or jump if necessary. And there was some smashed up timber there I can tell you. You know, a lot of these people that weren't really up to it, they used to smash up a lot of the jumps that they had out to practice over.

And so what was the first ride that you had competing? Do you remember that, what it was like?

Well the first ride, apart from just doing a practice round, was the dressage. And that area then I imagine were going to hold the three-day event there, so they just cleaned the place up, you know. And the grass was dry and scrub and that was very close about. You could see it was just - been taken in there by the army had gone in there and cleaned up the place. And the first event that was ever run there. We were back there recently and the place is different altogether now. New trees have been planted there and it's nice and green and being watered, and a lot of events taking place there. But we were the first in I would say, into that spot. It was a good area to run a three-day event over. But my first ride, as you asked me, they had to hunt the chooks off the arena before I went in. I rode round, the chooks were wandering through. Because there was a lot of peasant type people living there. You know, I suppose they were nice people, but they were living in hovels around and they probably just worked for the people that owned that big area. Today I think it's probably a government run area and well looked after. So I did my dressage there, and I don't know where I lied. I think I did the worst dressage probably of the lot. Normally did. But I don't know for sure now where I lie in the dressage. Neale Lavis, I think Laurie Morgan may have done the best out of us, the captain.

And what was the next thing that happened? What was the next thing you had...

Well our dressage, the next day is your trial endurance. That means you do a roads and tracks, that's approximately six mile. And the second - that brings you to the start of your steeplechase. And in Rome, this being my first, I knew about taking short-cuts if you could get a shortcut, save your horse any trouble that was possible. And I set off on my first roads and tracks, and we went up a very steep climb up the side of a hill, and along, and I came to a fence, gateway. And there was a gate, and there was a chap standing on that gateway. And he said something, I don't know what it was, he said something in Italian. But I brushed past him anyhow, and he wasn't supposed to let me through there, because we were supposed to go much further and go around - there was no flags but I think they were put there to stop you from going. So you had to do, you had to do the six mile, rather than - I did about three mile and I was back to the start of the steeplechase. Now the steeplechase was two and a half mile and you had a time to do that. They gave you about four minutes I think to do that steeplechasing. And I did it in faster time than was allotted to me, and you get a few bonus points for doing it faster.

To explain to you about that, in the days when they brought in three-day eventing it was called military. The whole thing - this three-day event was supposed to be for cavalry officers that you went into battle, you know. You had, your dressage the horse did his parade work was nice you know, you did things on the parade with him. Then you went into battle and you went in damn fast, or you went in pretty damn quick, which was your roads and tracks. Anyhow the cross-country part was supposed to be taking a message somewhere, back to headquarters, and you galloped and you went over any obstacle that was in front of you, you jumped the damn thing, you know, to get there as quick as possible. That was, that's how three-day - and then your show jumping on the final day was to show the horse after that terrible cross-country to get back with a message, that horse was still capable of going out and doing his job. And that was the show jumping. And that was - they've just changed it, now, just now, on the continent, from military to three-day eventing, yeah. Tour eventing they call it now. So I do my steeplechase and I do it in time. But the Italians have got me down there for some, for being late or being too damn long doing my steeplechase. And fortunately we had a chap, Clive Cochrane, with us, very brilliant at his job, and he sorted those Italians out quick smart, and fixed up what they thought was a mistake. It wasn't. Now, there's quite stories going around about what we did in Rome. After the steeplechase we had to do about an eight mile or more roads and tracks before we get to the start of our cross-country. Now there's a lot of scrub country, and straight off the steeplechase course was tea-tree type of scrub, and we had to - they had taken us right round that when we did the roads and tracks. But just off the steeplechase track there was a goat track, a goat track through. It was pretty hard to see but I could see there was a goat track through this, which took me, took me from going way to hell around the place back to nearly to where I started my steeplechasing. And when we did that roads and tracks in a vehicle - they took us around in a vehicle to show us where we had to do the roads and tracks - we'd gone for miles and we come back on top of a high bit of country, and I said to Neale Lavis, "Look back there Neale, just look down there. There's about 500 yards I would say that's the steeplechase course, where we come off the steeplechase course. Now there must be a track through there. There must be a track through there somewhere". So after the day that you walked that course and do the steeplechase course, you're allowed to walk it as many times as you like before the day that you have to compete. So we went back next day and we found a track through there. We found a track from where we come off the steeplechase through this patch of timber that cut off I suppose the best part of four mile. Now you just imagine what that does to save your horse.

So I do my steeplechase and I cut through the first little bit and I cut straight back into that timber and I get back to the start of the cross-country, and there should have been a Canadian ahead of me. And the Canadian's waiting - you get then to what they call the 10 minute box, your horses have a compulsory ten minute break before they let you to do your cross-country. That's with the vets to show that your horse is still sound and is capable of going on and doing another five mile cross-country. The Canadian said to me, "Bill, did you see Tommy anywhere?" I said "No, I didn't see Tommy". "God damn it" they said, "he's got lost". I said "Not to worry fellas, he'll be, he'll come in". You see when I cut that big lump of territory off, he did what they were supposed to do and he was still doing his roads and tracks. And this fella said to me after the Games was over, "Why the hell didn't you tell us about that?" He said "You know we belong to the Commonwealth". I couldn't be worried about him belonging to the Commonwealth.

You just wanted to win.


So what happened on the last stretch?

Oh, that's the cross-country. Well I went well, I went well 'til I got to those pipes. Jumped everything nice and clean. There was big concrete pipes. They would have been about seven six, seven foot six wide, and just on four foot high. But you see, they said "Oh those bloody Italians", they set their fence like that, it was a trap. But they had to jump those fences themselves, so they weren't a trap. I - those pipes side by side so you would have been jumping side on, they would have been too wide, two pipes side by side. And one pipe on its own wouldn't have been big enough. So they lied them facing you with the open end facing you, the pipes. And they had a little thin bit of wood along, which was nothing for a horse to see. And I imagined the horse galloping through them, they were sitting on flat ground, and on the landing side of them you went down steep - down, downhill. But the horse approaching them would be looking through those damn pipes. And so I was right to jump in the right place to jump it and he cantered through them. He galloped through the damn pipes. And somewhere we've got that photo showing you where he hits those pipes. And of course I had a similar position on that horse over a fence before. And I didn't bail out to get away from the horse, so he didn't come - so he come on top of me and concussed me, left me lying there and he galloped away. And he was stopped, he was stopped at a gateway heading back for the stables and was caught by one of the grooms, Angelie Cleveland. And we met that little girl recently at Rome Olympics.

And what happened to you? You had stayed on the horse thinking you'd be able to recover?

But he didn't, he turned a somersault and I was underneath him.

And what happened to you? What injuries did you get?

Well a dislocated collar-bone and a broken bone behind my shoulder. And I was injured down - all down the right leg. But just sore I guess. But the thing was the bad concussion. I was - I was just lying there for some time and when I come to, I said "Where's my bloody horse?" and he was standing alongside me. They'd had him back waiting for me to come around. So I got aboard him and off again. And next jump after that was an Irish bank with a ditch in front of it and a ditch behind it. And the thing was to jump onto that bank and off it. But he jumped the whole damn thing, you know, and we were still on downhill to giant steps, big steps up on to - and then five feet down onto a road, and a short stride to a post and rail fence with the brush behind it. And of course by that time I was non compos anyhow. I don't remember. They said I damn near fell there. Or Mavis said I nearly fell again there. And then we had one more fence after that, it was a big - barrels, beer barrels stacked on top of each other. And the - and Clive Cochrane, our secretary was standing at that jump. And he said I said to him, "Where do I go?" Now those days, after the cross-country, after your five mile cross-country, you had what they call a mile run in. And that wasn't - that was only done at about a half-pace. Not at a gallop. And we - and the area we had to do was up a valley and through red and white flags, turning - they used to call them turning flags. And there was a chap there to see you went through those flags. And they say I stopped there, I must have been saying to that bloke, "Where do I go?" and dumb bugger probably pointed which way I had to go, and that was back down another little valley to the yards where they stop you and weigh you in. You've got to carry eleven eleven, or seventy-five in the metric, eleven - eleven stone, eleven pound. That's what the horse has to carry. And you've got to carry that and when you finish that mile run in, you're not to dismount until the authority says you can dismount. And you go to the scales and weigh in, and you must weigh in at the correct weight or be eliminated. And the Americans were there waiting for their horses and the Canadians. And they said, "Poor old Bill looks a bit buggered, doesn't he?" So the Americans are giving me whisky to drink and the Canadians have got oxygen up my nose. And you know, it's all great for you.

So you finished the course.

I finished the course, yes.

With a dislocated shoulder, a broken bone at the back of your shoulder...


And concussion and bruising. Were you in very great pain?

Oh God, you wouldn't be feeling any pain then... No, no I wasn't feeling any pain. You know, it was just the heat of the moment. Anyhow a bit of pain's nothing. I wouldn't be worried about that, you know. Concussion the next day... but anyhow from there, it was a funny thing, you know, from there they put me on a stretcher there. He's buggered the old fella, put him on a stretcher. And they took me to the place where they look after anybody that's been injured. I don't know what that call them, the casualty room I suppose. And they took me off that stretcher and put me on the casualty room stretcher. So if I'd have been badly injured they would have killed me anyhow. So they decided I had to go to hospital, so they put me back on another stretcher and took me to the helicopter and took me off that stretcher and put me on the helicopter stretcher. And they had to tuck me up a bit to get me in the helicopter, it was only one of those little ones. And talking about that helicopter, you know, I rode out past that damn thing and back in past the thing - four times a day I used to pass that little helicopter sitting there. And I used to think some poor bugger will get a ride in this thing. And that poor bugger was me.

And so what was it like in the Italian hospital? Did they...

They were quite good. They were quite good in hospital. They packed my head in ice and I said to them, there was one could speak a little bit of English, "Can you give me something for the pain?" because by that time I'd cooled off you know, and I was feeling pain. And they said, "Oh no, no". I suppose they think if they gave something to put me to sleep - they kept me awake all night, I wasn't sleeping. And they weren't giving me anything to kill the pain. I suppose they worry about blood on your brain or some damn thing, you know. They packed my head in ice all damn night... To stop the bleeding I suppose.

What happened the next day?

Well next morning Mavis told me that - I knew that the horse had broken down, the one Brian Crago... He hit him with the whip, the second fence we crossed was a big ditch, and it was six foot deep and you had to jump about 16 feet to clear that thing off the top of the bank. The ones that tried to go a little bit over the bank, they finished up in the ditch. And Brian Crago on this big horse hit him with the whip there, he thought he might stop. And the horse took him full gallop you know, and that broke the horse down because he was carrying, he was carrying three stone of lead. He was only a little light rider, and all that lead on the horse, he broke down. Broke his tendon and he was broken down. So that meant I'm in hospital, the horse had broken down, they've got two riders. Now you've got to have three to finish... And I knew, I knew, because Mavis had come in and told me that they wouldn't get that horse right. See they got to be vetted those horses next morning before they do the show jumping the final day.

And could Brian ride Our Solo to finish?

No, no, you can't change. Once you do your dressage you can't change horses. That's final, finish. So I said "I've got to get out of here". And they said "Well you're going to be here three or four days, you know, you won't be getting out of here". So they took my clothes away, I just had my underpants, that's all I had on, knickers. So I said "Well I'll be going you know". They said "You won't be riding this afternoon". I said "You watch television, you just watch television this afternoon". So I said "You don't let me go, I'll walk out in me knickers". And so they went away and they got a doctor to write out a thing for me that I signed, I left the hospital letting them out of any risk letting me out, you know. So Mavis and Clive Cochrane, the secretary chap, they came and picked me up.

Was Mavis supportive of you discharging yourself from hospital in this condition?

Oh of course, of course, yeah. Yeah, she'd ride with a broken arm, so what the hell. Yes, so we went back to the hotel that she stayed in. I forget the name of the hotel now, but she knows what it is. She went and had - when we were in Rome this time she went and had a look...

So you went back to the hotel and got - what happened there?

Well that was night. See we went back and stayed there the night. Oh, I stayed in hospital that night, but we went back to her hotel and they wanted to inject me with pain-killers and I said what the hell, pain-killers. The show jumping took about a minute, you know. Once they ring the bell for you to go, the show jumping itself takes about a minute. Well for God's sake if you can't stand a bit of pain for a minute, there's something wrong with you, isn't it? So by the time they got me out to there they had the horse saddled and I think I was, I was listed eighth to go, but so many had fallen by the way I was pretty damn close to first to go do the show jumping. And I jumped a clean round and I didn't have much power in my right arm, but I just held loosely. You see, he'd been trained to play polocrosse that pony, Solo, and he was used to being reined with one hand, left or right. Because you were using a polo stick or a polocrosse stick in that right hand. So he was brilliant at being guided with one hand. And I jumped a clean round.

So you left the hospital, went back to the hotel, got kitted out and went direct from there to the arena.

Yes. They held it in the Borghese Gardens, the Borghese Gardens in Rome, beautiful spot. And Vicki, Wayne's wife won a big jump in those same gardens years - oh about two years ago she won a big jump on those same gardens.

Now when you actually mounted the horse to do this round, were you in pain? You hadn't taken pain-killers?

Oh well, look, it was something - no, I wasn't worried about. Perhaps I was feeling a bit of pain but it wasn't worrying me. And it didn't stop my riding. My legs were okay. So what the hell, you know... I'd probably been hurt more playing football.

How was your head feeling after the concussion?

Well I wasn't feeling all that bad. It worried me, it worried me a bit that the jar over the fence might send me off. And Neale Lavis, the other boy that's the only one left in the team now, because Morgan's dead and so was Lavis - so was Crago, Brian Crago. They're both gone. So Neale, Neale walked the course with me and he kept saying "Bill, you know where you're going?" "I'm okay". And he kept saying this. "You sure you know where you're going?" "You cranky bugger, I do know where I'm going". And it was tricky you know, that course they set there, they were having a bit of trouble with the distance, the distance, you know, some 700 yards or 600 yards. They had to have a certain distance that you had to travel. So to get it in, you had to bypass an odd fence. Instead of jumping the damn fence, you went around it or went either side of the thing to make the distance. And this created two of them, Harry Freeman-Jackson from Rome - from Ireland, he messed up and jumped the wrong fence. So that eliminated him from the team. And they had to take one of the other boys' scores, which was a bad one. With his score they could have been bronze medal winners. Him being out put them right out altogether. And there was one other country that went the wrong way. So ever after, ever at the Games now, they're not allowed to do this by making their distance.

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