Australian Biography

Bill Roycroft - full interview transcript

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After that terrible disappointment at Munich, and your disappointment with yourself at Munich, I guess you had no choice, even though by that stage you were over 60, you had to go to Montreal.

I was, I was, yeah, I was 57 then. And by the time Montreal, of course, I was 61. But you see, they told me earlier - I think it was a year before at the event in Melbourne, that was when the manager said "Bill, you're too old. It doesn't matter if you win, we won't be taking you". I said "Nice bloody time to tell me, isn't it", because I was about to go cross-country then, when he walked up and said we had a meeting last night. So I won that event. I went on to Gawler and I won in Gawler. I went to Sydney for the last one and I won there. So it was up to them to leave me or take me, wasn't it. But they took me anyhow. And we went to - we flew, flew the horses to Montreal. It was a good flight, you fly right over America, look down and you could see America as you went. And as we - oh the funny thing about going to Canada, you know, I used to think about these countries I competed in, mostly we were at war with those damn countries, you know, Japan, Germany. And it was - Italy, we were at war with Italy also, weren't we? And I thought, Canada, English-speaking country, we haven't been to war, that'll be lovely. Be lovely, you know. We landed in Montreal, French Canadians. And we spoke English and they hate the bloody English. They do, the French Canadians. And they had there the special Quebec policemen, big strong, black swarthy looking blokes with moustaches, you know, black moustaches. And when you arrived at these places you were accredited and you have a thing that you wear around you. Because after Munich, after Munich, the Jews being massacred there in the Village, things were very strict from then on. And of course, Montreal being the next one after Munich, they had all these police from Quebec. And we arrived in to be accredited, and they gave me mine, and forgot to sign the damn thing. Now we went down to the Village where all the equestrians were to camp, and they wouldn't let me in. Because my thing had not been signed. So we go back, we go back to try and get it rectified and everybody's cleared out. Because this was getting pretty late at night. And they'd all gone, there was nobody there to rectify it. So I was tired and I had the manager with me, and a lot of haggling. I told them that they were a pack of Gestapo bastards, you know, and the worst I've ever run into. Anyhow they eventually went back to the headquarters in Montreal and got this fixed up. They had a long time and we had to wait and wait 'til - to be let into this Village. And they eventually let me in, and then to be returned and have the accredited in the morning. But they never forgot that I called them a pack of Gestapo bastards. And there was one whitish coloured fellow, he was nice. He had whitish skin, and he looked like one of us more or less than the French Canadian. And he gave me all his medals when I left there. I've got them up in the cupboard there, the things he gave me, all his plaques that go on case and things. He said "These are for the bad time we gave you, Bill".

But they were tough, you know, they would shoot you, no worry, if you went - to get into our horses we had a special gate we had to go in that gate and show our thing to get into our horses, our own horses. And if you took a short-cut, which I went to do one day, and he said "You step through there, I shoot you", you know. And they would, no worry. And going in and out, when we were show jumping on the final day, we had to go out to where our horses were held and back into watch the ones that are going. And each time - we had our red coats on and these things, and of course we had them in, so we'd have to pull it out and show him to go out, and then pull it out and show him to come in. And I said to this bloke, "You are so bloody stupid, you know. You see me going in and out. You are bloody stupid". And he stuck the bayonet in my belly quick smart. You couldn't play with those buggers. And there was Peter Winton that had competed with us in London years ago, that was after the Tokyo Games, he competed with me in England. He was sitting in the seats and the area there was hilly sided and the thing was going up like a valley, so they had natural seating either side. And I could see him beckoning me to come and talk to him. Which I did. I walked across and he walked to me to the - I suppose he walked about five or six seats from where he was, to the partition. And I just said hello to him and him to me and the police, this Quebec bloke said "Sit down, sit down", and Peter said "Oh, it's my friend from Australia". "Sit down, sit down or I'll arrest you". So you go and sit down, you know. And I talked to the Queen about it, and she said "Shoot me. Now look, if they wanted to shoot me they could have done it there. I'm sitting there in the open with all my guards around, bodyguards were all there. But there I'm sitting in full light and all that scrub timber across the way there. Look they could have shot me if they wanted to shoot me". We dined with the Queen and the whole Royal Family there at Montreal. Because somebody loaned them a house and they were all there, Prince Philip, the whole lot. And of course, Princess Anne competed there, she rode there and had a fall. And I sat at the table with her. Because Colonel Sir John Miller, he used to be at most of the Games and he drove Prince Philip's four-in-hand team of horses. And he came to me and said "Bill, would you mind getting your meal, the Queen would like you to sit with her". And she's already sitting down. Now the meal you got was in the next room, on a big long table, and you chose your own food. So I went with John Miller following me, and of course the table was full of people, and I said "John, no way can I get a meal here, you have a look". He just walked in and said "Do you mind, Mr Roycroft's sitting with the Queen. He wants his meal". And they all walked away and let me get my meal. God I felt bad about that. So I went and sat down with them, it was just like sitting down alongside you, you know. "Sorry I'm late, ma'am, but you know, there was a crowd out there". "Oh that's all right, Mr Roycroft".

Did you enjoy your meal with the Queen?

Oh I picked away I suppose, yeah. But she was nice to chat to. We could be talking away to you or anybody you know. She's very easy...

Don't tell me she could talk about horses.

Oh yes she could. I've got an idea that she was --oh she was a business woman you know. And she knew all about horses. She loved our horses and their strength and their bone. She talked with vets that had tested our horses and she said "You know, there's something about Australia where their bone is strong and I think it's the sunlight". And our horses are not stabled like their horses are. And she told me during the meal that she would like to breed horses in Australia. Now I wasn't that silly that I stepped in here and said "Yes ma'am, you leave it - I'll talk with John, Colonel John Sir Miller" because he looked after all the horses at Badminton and those royal horses, the cavalry horses. He was in charge of all that lot. And I think, I think the Queen liked him very much, because during the - he brought her meal and her sweets, and "That's nice, John".

Did - did you win anything at Montreal? Did you win anything at Montreal?

Pardon. Yes, we won the bronze medal at Montreal, yes.

And was that a good ride?

A good round?

A good - yes, did you...

For me, no I had a damn fall in Montreal. It was a bottle - it was a bottle fence, and there was a big fence, number 12, coming downhill very wet and slippery, big box barrel and I think that frightened him. He slipped into that thing and jumped it. We jumped it all right, but I think it frightened him. But I made the mistake, see, the next fence was a bottle and had a neck on it which was not a big jump, not a big jump, but it was built similar to the big one I'd just jumped. And to jump the bottle, to jump in and out of it, was - my stride was too short, and it was too long for a bounce, just to bounce in and out of it. So I took the neck, and I come in, already to jump and he tried to stop and fell into it. And we both finished up in the yard, in the bottle, in the bottle part, which cost me 60 down the drain. So I had to jump - mount it and jump thereabout. Run in with the fastest time, but see, that put him back. Here again luck's a fortune.

So you came away with a bronze. Were any of your boys with you in Montreal?

Had Wayne with me in there, yes. Yeah Wayne rode twice with me at the Games.

What was the result of the Montreal Olympics for you?

Well it was finish for me. I decided that I was much too old, and I wouldn't be trying again. But as we completed Montreal it was a matter getting rid of our horses. We decided that the Equestrian Federation of Australia were very short of funds and they could not afford to bring our horses home. So all the horses had to be sold right there before we left, Canada. And we set about doing that. And all the horses were sold before we left there. I returned straight home from Canada and got back to reality, back to work and making a living as we do here. Mavis went on, Mavis went on to England from there and I think looked at ponies and did that sort of thing. But that was finish, that was finish of the Olympic Games for me. But I was in, when they had the Moscow Games, the equestrian body boycotted that. Is it boycott or boycoot?

Boycotted.

Anyhow... they didn't go anyhow. And the government decided anybody that didn't go there they would sponsor them to wherever their alternative was in the world. Now the alternative events for that period was in Beaumont, France [it was actually in Fontainebleau]. And I went as their manager/trainer to England and then on to France for them to compete there. And Wayne, the son, was in that team, plus the other three. And they finished up with a bronze medal there. And well that was the last time then I took any part in the Olympics. I was getting on to the age where I should have turned around and played golf, but I still fiddled around with horses and competed here in Australia. Which was a bit silly, I should have gone and - because you know, I went on and on then until I was too damn old to - compete on horses and I was too old to start playing golf.

Looking back on your Olympic career, for you personally, what was the best moment? What was the moment that gave you most joy?

Well I suppose, getting ready, or striving to go to the Olympics probably gave me the most joy, when I won the first three-day event in Sydney, you know. And then onto Gawler, and winning there. But the first, the first time that I won the thing and knew that I could do it, was probably gave me the most pleasure.

And that was the three-day event in Sydney?

Yes.

What did it mean to you, do you remember? Can you put yourself back into how you felt that day?

The press, I can see the press coming, "You must be exhausted, Bill, you know, after that". I think I rode more than one horse around. And you know, it didn't exhaust me. I was fit and fit for riding. I suppose if I run a hundred yards I would have fallen over, but horse-riding, I seem to be able to ride all day and it never got exhausting. But apart from that, and then I - see the show jumping, I just did a clean round of show jumping and that was it, I'd won it. And then we went and drank a fair bit amongst the rest of the competitors. That's something I really enjoyed you know, was the other boys coming and having a drink with me after it was over. There was - and I think right through - right through my life as a competitor in the horse world, a friendly lot, you know, there didn't seem to be any, "Oh I hate this bloke" or "I hate that fella", you know. They were always friendly didn't matter how badly you beat them, they'd come and have a drink with you, or vice versa, if you were beaten you went and drank with them.

Carrying the flag, have you ever carried the flag for Australia?

Yes, I carried the flag in Mexico. It was very funny there, you know, in Mexico, because they'd been shooting a few students just prior to the Olympics there. Because the students reckoned that they were spending money which they - on the Olympics there - that they couldn't afford, instead of looking after their poor people and more money for the universities. And they were having these big strikes with the university, with the students. And you know, up to 16 they were shooting of a night-time, and they said they will not stop the Olympics, it will go on. But there won't - we will have the opening ceremony and we will not have any guns on the place. Now we marched in I suppose a quarter of a mile, into the Village, and down over the sides of the road they were there, they were there with their rifles or whatever things they were going to stop. But you could see the army either side of the road. They weren't going to let those students take over, it was going to run and run correctly. So we marched in, and of course Australia, we were one of the first - I suppose Australia or Austria - we were pretty early into the arena. And then I had to stand with this flag the whole time, while all the others came in, and all the athletes behind me, they sat down or lied down, didn't matter to them. But I had to stand holding that flag. And it was rather gruesome for me too, because just prior to - a couple of days before, the horse stood on my toe and broke my big toe. I was out working my two horses, and I used to work for some time leading one, then I'd change over, put the saddle on the other horse. And while I was doing this, one stood on my toe, and in me trying to push him off he ground around and broke that toe, broke my big toe. So I'm in new shoes with a broken toe, carrying a flag. And you know, standing there with a broken toe. But there you go, that's how she was, and I couldn't do anything else but just stand with that flag until the whole lot of them came in and then we were marched off.

Bill, if you had told them that you had a broken toe they might have let somebody else carry the flag.

No. They knew I had a broken toe, they knew they had a broken toe, and the doctor put an injection into it, but it didn't do any good. I suppose it did good for a while, but he did it some time before we went in.

But broken toe or no broken toe, would you have let anybody else carry that flag?

No, no, of course not. No. And you see years afterwards, Wayne, my son, carried the flag in Los Angeles.

What has it meant to you that your family has been so involved. Your sons and your daughter-in-law have all been involved in riding. What has that meant to you as the father of the family?

Well, it's terrific you know, it's terrific, because those three boys, because I sent them to school on ponies and they continued on from that competing on horses, those - everything they did, it was always thinking ahead about the horses competing. And then because the Olympic Games come into it and they were striving for the Olympic Games, it kept those boys out of trouble, you know, where the other - a lot of their friends went to the towns, got into trouble with the police. They never caused me any trouble those boys, and it was I think through the horse and their involvement with the horse that kept them out of that trouble. Because they didn't - they put their time in on that horse, instead of being in the town having fun. I suppose they look back over years gone by, and think Christ, we probably missed a lot of fun. But I don't know. But they - they were very good to me and - you see over those period of years, I competed against those boys. They competed against me. And we were always good friends. There was no bickering between father and son, "I'll beat you" or "I'll do this", you know. It was always help you, help you, we all helped each other.

How much did they learn from your experience? Could you pass on things to them that helped them to get started quicker?

I think I probably helped them in that I saw they had good horses. And good type of horse. I think right from the start as little boys we put them on very good horses, and that encouraged them to go on. I think today a lot, you know, fathers and mothers, they don't know enough about it and they will buy them a horse that's not suitable and either frightens the young one or discourages them, "Oh bugger this, we go play golf or play cricket". I think for - to be very wise people, parents should buy them a very suitable horse and a horse that can do something. Even if they - we paid money you know, for one particularly good pony that went on for years that we really couldn't afford, but that went to the boys and competed in Melbourne, Sydney, with great success. And then was handed down, when Clarke, see Clarke had carried him on great success, winning in Melbourne, Sydney, in the big shows against all the competition. I think that is something that I did that was really sensible.

What would have happened if you'd married a woman that wasn't interested in horses too? Would that have prevented you doing some of what you've done?

Oh I suppose instead of lasting 50 years as it has, we probably would have divorced pretty smartly. Who knows? Who knows? Perhaps she would have come my way or I would have gone her way.

What is it about horses? I mean you said that you rode the way you did and made a life really of riding because you were good at it. But there's also something about the horses themselves that has always fascinated you, isn't there? What is it about horses?

Well I suppose - that's rather hard to answer but it's a - I suppose it's a challenge. Now there was one particular horse we finished up taking him to Montreal. Now he was one of Hayes' horses from South Australia, one of the best known racehorse men in Australia, Hayes, and he was a highly bred horse. But a wayward horse. Apparently he jacked up with the jockeys and they couldn't get him to start. And he was sold at Wright Stevens in the sale yards in Melbourne. Now a lady that we know bought that horse and she had him for some time and said "Bill, I'm not going to do any good with that horse. Do you want him?" And I said "Whether I want him or not I'll have a look at him". So I looked at the horse and he was a good looking horse. And I gave her the money that she had paid for him at the sale, brought him home here and Mavis and I went to muster stock, so I got on this horse. Now that damn donkey of a horse he run me into a fence and he went everywhere and then he'd stop, jack up, just stop. Now I suppose most people would have said "Okay, I'll put a bullet between your ears" and boom, gone, but I was determined I was going to make something out of that horse. And you know, he would stop, stop. Now I tried belting the horse, no good, that didn't do anything for the horse. So I'd pull his head around to my leg, I'd pull his head around with the rein right round and hold his head tight against my leg, you know. And that hurts a horse, if you bend him around that hard like that. And he'd explode, he'd bound into the air, but he'd go, he'd go away you know. So every time he stopped I'd do this. Near side I'd pull his head around right around and hold it there. And he'd explode, but he'd go away. Now it wasn't long before that horse gave it away. He'd stop and before I'd just start to pull his head around he'd go. Each time you know. And it wasn't long before that horse gave it away completely. I finished up winning on him in Melbourne three-day event. And he went with me as - he went with me as my spare horse to Montreal.

Did they - do you...

And I've seen a few of these. Once - a horse I've got up here on the wall, Avatar, he was a brilliant racehorse, but he was a rig, he had one big stone and one up in his belly, a little stone up in his belly. We call them, they're a rig. So I bought this horse in Melbourne at the sales because he was related to Stanaswa, a horse that had won 24 races for us. He was being sold because being a stallion, half stallion, he started savaging horses as he raced. But he was a brilliant racehorse, but they banned him because of his bad habit of wanting to fight the other horses... [INTERRUPTION]

... You were telling about Atavar and how - what you did with his personality.

Ah, yes. Funny how you drift away.

Mmm, never mind.

Well he - he would rear. He would stand up on his hind legs, you know, and boy he'd be standing up that high you'd think he was going to tip over backwards. But he never ever did. The first time he sat down once with me and then up again. And I cured that. It was, because there was another horse with me that did so I knew what to do with him. That was turn your riding whip upside-down, so you had the heavy part at the end, and you hit the horse just back of the ears either side on the neck there. Bang, bang on the - as they stood, down they'd come and go away. And if they were up again you did that. And it was no time before that horse would give away rearing. It was - so - and that horse I took to the Olympic Games also and then on to England for his quarantine and rode him in a hurdle race in England.

So you're a bit of a horse psychologist then. You really do study their personalities and work out the best way to handle them.

Well I suppose, yeah. I suppose.

Now they very much respond to the way you treat them, and you have to think about that. Are you also dependent on them? For example, were you dependent on Our Solo, when you had that fall in Rome and got back on, to kind of know what you were wanting him to do?

Yes. Solo, a brilliant little horse, because I suppose, when you think abut it, I was non compos when I got on that horse and went on, because the first - the first fence after that was what they called an Irish bank. It had a ditch in front of it, four foot high, six foot across the top and you know that little horse should have stopped there with me, because I was just sitting on him and pointing him the right way. Well we went there and after that he jumped the whole damn thing instead of landing on top and off it. And then the giant steps and down onto that road, short stride to a post and rail fence and a big brush. Now why didn't that little horse stop there with me? Damn near fell because we were going to take that road that we went across on an angle, so we got the stride long enough. But I went straight across it apparently and the short stride put him right against the fence. Why didn't he stop there, you know? Brilliant little horse. Now the big horse with me that did stop in Munich, would have probably stopped there, you know, so there was a difference.

And how close do you get to the horse you're riding? I mean could you - do you get to love the horse?

I suppose I was involved so much with the horse right through my life that I never thought about loving a horse. But yes, you certainly, you go and pat the horse, you know, and talk to him. Just like as if he's a friend of yours. But I wouldn't say - they were our transport and I wouldn't go as far as saying you loved the horse, you know.

You weren't sentimental?

... very fond of that horse of course, yeah.

You wouldn't want to admit to being sentimental, would you Bill?

[laughs] I suppose not.

So looking back too, on your time that you were involved in the whole Olympic movement, was it - how important was it for you to keep going each time? You know, people were saying to you quit while you're ahead. But you kept going back. What was it about the Olympics that made you want to keep going?

When I think back over it now, you know, I was so damn stupid. I was silly. I suppose it was something I can do reasonably well, and I possibly wasn't much good at anything else. It kept me going at something I could do reasonably well, you know. If I built a dog kennel it wasn't good enough for the dog to sleep in you know, so he slept outside. And I suppose it was something, as I say, something that I was reasonably good of and I could make a horse - you see I bought a horse from Alec Creswick. No, I was given it, I was given Stony Crossing. When Sabre broke down in Rome, ridden by Brian Crago, Alec Creswick said to me "Bill when we return to Australia, I will give you a horse to take the place of that one". He never ever did, for years. I bought horses from him. We were steeplechasing a little horse called Foaming Sea, and I'd won the three-day event on that horse and Alec Creswick wanted him for the next Olympic Games. But we wanted money, and this was a grand little horse for steeplechasing, so we steeplechased the horse, and we got a second and a third and, you know, and we were about to win our first in Melbourne and two horses fell just in front of him and as he went between them they kicked him and lamed him. And Creswick said to me - he was there - "You rotten so and so". He swore something awful. "I asked you not to race that horse. So what are you doing on Sunday?" I said "I'm always busy, what do you want?" "Be in Swan Hill". That's Swan Hill up on the Murray. "And be on my property the other side of Swan Hill Sunday, I'll give you that horse I promised you all those years ago". So I went and he rode a big mob of horses in and he said "What do you like there?" I said "That big brown horse". "Well put your saddle on him and try him". So I did. And I said "This will do, Alec. This horse will do me". "What are you going to do with him, Bill?" "I will win the novice three-day event on this horse in Sydney come five months time". "You are mad. You can't do it". And I did it, you see. And that horse was very soon - he went off to the Olympic Games. And he wasn't ridden by me. He was ridden by - I rode the big horse Eldorado, the big chestnut horse with a white face.

[end of tape]

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