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Warning: This story contains graphic content and describes distressing experiences.
Ron Lockett’s rise through Victoria’s apprentice jockey ranks in the 1970s and ’80s was like most of his era.
He picked up work at his local racecourse as a school-aged kid, which happened to be the now-defunct Epsom Racecourse in Mordialloc, where he mucked out boxes for $5 a week for Hall Of Fame trainer Jim Moloney’s stable, before finally gaining his riding licence in 1979.
Former jockey Ron Lockett was “accidentally” set on fire as an apprentice in the 1970s.Credit:Simon Schuter
He looks back fondly on his short-lived career.
But, like many in the racing game, he was physically and sexually abused at the stables by those entrusted to teach him the ropes.
The repeated abuse came to a head in January 1976, when, aged 16, he was “accidentally” set on fire.
“Accidents happen, but that was an accident that never should have happened,” Lockett recalls.
Apprentice jockeys who were physically or sexually abused at Victorian stables between 1970 and 1985 are being encouraged to tell their stories as part of a civil claim seeking damages against the racing industry.
Some jockeys say they were left physically and mentally scarred, never to fulfil their dreams on the racetrack, after being abused as part of their “initiation”. Others, according to Maurice Blackburn lawyer John Rule, became champions, most remaining silent about what they were forced to endure in their early years.
Former jockey Ron Lockett was “accidentally” set on fire as an apprentice in the 1970s.Credit:Simon Schluter
Rule says he and his team have spoken to between 15 and 20 people who were affected by the historical, systemic abuse that occurred within the Victorian racing industry, but he believes there are dozens more who could provide further background to the case.
Some jockeys who spoke to The Age, including Lockett, are not clients of Rule. Two asked to remain anonymous, to protect their identities from people still working in racing.
Lockett was 15 when he quit school and got a job at Moloney’s at Epsom in 1975, about seven years after champion sprinter Vain had put Moloney on the map in the spring of 1969, winning three feature races across the four days in Melbourne Cup week. He idolised Pat Hyland, who won the Cup in 1985 on What A Nuisance.
But Lockett quickly learned racing wasn’t as glamorous as Vain or Hyland had made it out to be. “I wanted to be a jockey, and I was determined, no matter what I had to go through,” Lockett says. “They’d constantly do things like bury you in the horse manure pit, you’d be up in the silo, shovelling the oats down, and they’d lock ya and leave you in there for an hour and a half, just being smart arses. I could have died in there, roof on, dust and shit like that, but they used to think it was a big joke.
“But when you’re a 15-year-old kid, you don’t know any difference because you’ve just come out of school, and you think, ‘this is what work is all about’.”
One incident, however, left Lockett physically scarred for life. It was symptomatic of stable life in the 1970s.
“It was the first time I was taking a horse to the races to strap, so that was why they were initiating me apparently,” Lockett recalls.
“They’d dack ya, put metho on your balls, and some bright spark had the idea to light a match.
“They lit the match, and because metho has got fumes, he didn’t get right up to me, but he walked forward with the match and I lit up like a fireball.
“I was in hospital for six months and I went in two or three other times to get my skin graft under my arm done. I had no movement in my arm, that’s why I didn’t start riding until later in my career because it took me two-and-a-half years to get over the burns.”
Jamie Evans is a survivor of sexual abuse in the horse racing industry.Credit:Paul Jeffers
Lockett later sued the stable, but the damage had been done.
“I was physically handicapped because I couldn’t move my arm, but by the time I got to court I’d been riding for two years, I had movement in the arm and that all comes into the equation because you’re not disabled,” he says.
“It never got my face, it only got my back and side, so I didn’t have any facial scars or anything you could see.”
Former jockey Jamie Evans, who is part of Rule’s case, was abused on his first day of work as a 15-year-old apprentice jockey at Flemington in 1984.
“Like all apprentices of that time, on your first day you get an initiation test,” Evans says.
“[At the end of my first day] two big 100-kilogram blokes grabbed me by the arms and dragged me down to the wash. I didn’t know what was going on, I thought they were going to bash me.
“Then this dickhead, a toothless bloke, was carrying a tin of hoof grease. He was yelling at the blokes, ‘take his pants down’. They ripped my pants off and the guy grabbed my dick and was painting me with hoof oil, and they said, ‘now you’re a jockey’. That was the initiation test.”
Evans says he knows he’s not the only apprentice who went through such initiations. He says others were sexually penetrated with carrots, some repeatedly.
Des Gleeson, a respected Victorian racing steward for 35 years, says abuse claims never reached his desk in the ’70s and ’80s.
Gleeson first worked in Warrnambool from 1973 before becoming deputy chairman of the Victoria Racing Club’s stewards panel in 1984. He spent his final 13 years, until his retirement in 2008, as Victoria’s chief steward.
“Nobody came to me about being mistreated in the stable environment,” Gleeson says.
“I wasn’t comfortable with some of the arrangements that were set up with apprentices living in the stables and things like that, and we did take steps to improve life for the apprentices back then.
“You hear some of the things that went on back then were totally out of order. But nobody came to me directly or any of the others because I can’t remember any of the stewards talking about it.
“I did hear about the Ron Lockett one because of the action he took, and it went through the courts.”
However, a former jockey, who asked not to be named to protect his identity from people still working in racing, said he reported abuse to Victoria Racing Club stewards in the 1980s on three occasions. He says he did not make a report directly to Gleeson.
On one occasion, aged 15 with his mother by his side, he told stewards his tooth had been chipped while being physically abused at a metropolitan stable. He said the VRC paid for his tooth to be fixed under the proviso that it was reported that a horse had caused the damage, which he accepted.
He was also sacked by one boss after complaining about the abuse.
The unnamed jockey also said he was aware of at least three jockeys from his era who took their lives after their abuse claims fell on deaf ears.
In March 2008, a Victorian Country Court judge described historic ‘greasings’ by one former stablehand as “a case of sexual assault in the context of workplace bullying”.
Justice Felicity Hampel found former stablehand John William Honeysett, then 54, guilty of indecently assaulting an apprentice jockey in the 1970s, at the Caulfield stables of Melbourne Cup-winning trainer Geoff Murphy.
Murphy’s son Barry told the County Court that apprentices were routinely subjected to the degrading rituals.
“It’s been going on as long as I can remember throughout the racing industry in Australia,” Barry Murphy told the County Court in February 2008, according to an article in The Age.
Two other apprentice jockeys at the stable told the court they had also been subjected to abuse.
“It was humiliating and degrading being stripped and having your genitals groped,” said then apprentice jockey Andrew Vine, who described the greasings as of a sexual nature.
But Honeysett’s legal representative Andrew Jackson described the greasings as nothing more than “harmless fun”.
Former apprentice Chris Tolliday was 13 or 14 when he left his abusive boss, just three or four months into his first gig in racing, rocking up to the Victoria Racing Club’s headquarters in St Kilda Road to report the abuse to stewards. But, in about 1972, he was turned away.
“He [the steward] didn’t really want to know about it,” Tolliday recalls.
“He had a ‘suck it up’ sort of attitude. They gave a really strong impression they didn’t want to know about it.”
Tolliday first went into racing was to escape his physically abusive father. “But I went from one hell to another. It was even worse,” he says.
Multiple periods of abuse while working as a teenager in racing have destroyed Tolliday’s life. He says he now has an extensive psychiatric record, and a history of self harm and suicide attempts, and has struggled to work because of mental health and trust issues.
Tolliday, now living in Queensland, is one of a number of jockeys who are part of the Maurice Blackburn case.
“[My boss] told me that if I let him do this and do that, he’d expedite my apprenticeship and give me the good rides,” Tolliday says of returning to one of his abusers after he was discharged from a psychiatric hospital.
“That just never happened. He went 12 months without even paying me or giving me a day off.
“I was using drugs, the same as all the others, and there were others copping the same treatment as me.
“Words can’t really describe the horror of it.”
While Tolliday is reluctant to go into details of his assaults, he said he wanted Racing Victoria to acknowledge the systemic abuse inflicted on him and other jockeys of that era.
“People need to sit up, as they did with the Catholic Church, and realise how destructive this behaviour is and that paedophiles are a blight on society,” Tolliday says.
“I want it to be exposed for what it is. Racing Victoria need to collectively apologise publicly for what happened, and I’d like to see some people go to jail if they’re still alive.
“A lot of lives have been destroyed.”
Another former jumps jockey, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his and his family’s identity, remembers the flight-or-fight moment that brought his torture to an end.
He was 10 years old when he began working at the former Epsom racetrack in Mordialloc, in about 1974, and the abuse began almost immediately.
“It was a continuation for years until you learned to stand up for yourself,” says the former jockey, now in his late 50s, of the greasings.
“The bastardisation just went on and on until, you look at it now, you went by the wayside with alcohol and drugs.”
He says he was 14 or 15 when he decided enough was enough.
Maurice Blackburn lawyer John Rule (left) is building a civil case for survivors of abuse in the racing industry between 1970 and 1985, like Jamie Evans (right).Credit:Paul Jeffers
“I can remember when I drew a line in the sand the last time it happened to me at the community stables,” he says.
“I walked around the corner and went ‘f—’, and there were three of them, and I had just had enough. There were three adults in front of me, ready to attack me and do whatever they were going to do to me.
“I just started yelling at them … it was the only defence I had, to try and belittle them, and it got other trainers coming out of their stables.”
But he isn’t looking to reopen old wounds, and said he would not be joining Rule’s case.
“We all played the game. You had to survive,” he says. “What we went through, it was shocking. People wouldn’t believe it, what we went through back then.”
Rule says there was a “cohort of people” whose stories hadn’t been told, and they were probably under-represented.
“I think there are going to be a lot of people out there who know what went on and may well have been affected themselves,” Rule says.
“And not just apprentices either; [also] stablehands and other minors who were working around the stables.
“Everyone who calls in is helpful, even if just for more context and background. Some are able to give more specific information than others, obviously. The more people that call in the better.”
While the Victoria Racing Club that oversaw the racing industry until 2001, a court will have to decide whether the appropriate defendant in the civil claims case would be the VRC or Racing Victoria, which now governs the sport.
Read a statement provided by Racing Victoria to The Age on Friday below.
In 2016, then RV chief executive Bernard Saundry said: “Racing Victoria takes any allegations of sexual assault or any criminal activity with the utmost seriousness.”
“If any allegation of criminal activity is brought before Racing Victoria it is standard procedure that the matter is referred to Victoria Police.”
Rule believes there are plenty of others who can provide information.“People will be quite shocked to know that it’s not only kids who didn’t go on with their careers, there were also people who were affected who went on to become very famous, very successful jockeys who were put through this sort of stuff as well.
“I reckon there are dozens and dozens out there.”
“Throughout the years, we have had a relatively small number of individuals contact us with allegations of historical physical or sexual assaults by persons that were, at the time of the alleged conduct, participants within the industry. The support afforded these individuals has varied from case-to-case depending on the circumstances and the wishes of the person involved.
“Where appropriate and supported by the complainant such allegations have been referred to police for investigation and confidential counselling has been offered. Consideration has also been given to whether the circumstances have amounted to a breach of the Rules of Racing.
“It is not appropriate for us to provide any information that may identify those individuals who have made reports, likewise the specific support or referrals that any individual has received.
“Whilst we have only been made aware of a relatively small number of individual allegations over time, we are keen to know if there are other historical incidents and are encouraging any person that may have an unreported experience of historical physical or sexual assault whilst participating in the industry to come forward so they can be directed to appropriate support.
“Since 2019, RV has employed a full-time Participant Protection Manager who is equipped to receive and manage any reports of physical or sexual abuse, assault or harassment within the industry, be they current or historic. Such reports are treated with strict confidence and in accordance with the wishes of the complainant.
“In addition, we are aware that some people may wish to report incidents of historic physical or sexual abuse to someone other than a controlling body which is why Victoria’s three racing codes have requested the Racing Integrity Commissioner implement an independent opportunity for individuals to report historic abuse complaints and to access support services as required.”
Racing Victoria statement to The Age, March 25, 2022.
If you or someone you know needs support, it is available through Lifeline 13 11 14; MensLine 1300 789 978; and Beyondblue 1300 224 636.
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