Jockey William "Skinny" Thomas created Australian racing history on June 29, 1929 when he rode all seven winners on his home track at Cluden in Townsville. The feat has been equalled twice since, but never bettered.
The year was 1929. A neddy called Nightmarch won the Melbourne Cup some months after world financial markets were thrown into chaos when New York’s Wall Street crashed on “Black Tuesday”. The first talking film was recorded in Australia by Fox Movietone News and three important people first saw the light of day during the year. One was christened Robert James Lee (call me Bob) Hawke and he would later become Prime Minister of Australia, another was a black activist named Martin Luther King and he too made his mark on the world stage, before being killed by an assassin’s bullet, and then on June 12 a remarkable Jewish child named Anne Frank was born. She only lived for 15 years before dying of typhus in a Nazi concentration camp, but a diary she kept of her short life has since been reproduced in 67 languages and made into a best seller movie.
But there was a remarkable feat which took place in the Australian racing industry in that same year of 1929, when a jockey called William ‘Skinny’ Thomas established a record that in the subsequent 77 years of Australian racing history has been equalled only twice, but never bettered. You see on June 29, 1929 William ‘Skinny’ Thomas went to the Cluden racecourse in Townsville, which was at the same location as today’s current track and he lined up to a full book of seven rides. By the time the last race had been run and won on that day, he’d ridden the entire card. In racebook order he’d ridden Own King, Kingsman, Constant Boy, Greengold, Pageacre, Northern King and Night Flame to victory.
It would seem a gross dereliction of duty on behalf of someone in the racing industry that this man’s wonderful achievement has simply got lost by the passage of time, in the hi-tech world in which we live. His record is thankfully listed in the Australian racing bible that is the Miller’s Guide, which at least annually gives some due recognition to his achievement.
William ‘Skinny’ Thomas was born the eldest of six sons and one adopted daughter in the Central Queensland mining township of Charters Towers on May 17, 1898 to his parents William Edwin Thomas and his mother Florence (nee Wellington).
With the only means of transport back then being either horseback or train, not a lot of information is known about William ‘Skinny’ Thomas’s childhood and early adult life. What is recorded though is that in 1925, aged 27, he was spotted one day riding a horse by a chap named Tom Salmon who hailed from the nearby 140,000-acre Burdekin Downs Station and Salmon asked Thomas if he would ride a horse for him in a coming event against professional jockeys at Cluden racecourse. Thomas, who never served an apprenticeship, accepted the challenge and won the race and, in doing so, forged a new career for himself – that of a top jockey. In an incredible irony, Thomas’s career as a jockey lasted 13 years and when he had his last ride in a race in 1938, as a then 40-year-old man, his last ride was also on a Tom Salmon-owned horse – and again the combination was successful. God alone would know the astronomical odds of that event occurring.
William ‘Skinny’ Thomas was dual licensed and, apart from riding horses, he also trained and bred thoroughbreds. At age 34, William ‘Skinny’ Thomas married Doris Kneen – a Rockhampton girl – on February 8, 1932. William and Doris spent their entire married life in Townsville at different addresses including Hammond Street and Townsend Street, even being forced at one point to move their horses “over the river to Wulguru because of a polio outbreak”, according to granddaughter Desley Cahill. William and Doris’s union netted three children, a daughter Doris and two sons William (deceased) and Eddie.
William ‘Skinny’ Thomas must have been a very successful jockey in his day. The Townsville Bulletin newspaper reported that from July 1, 1928 to June 30, 1929 William Thomas had ridden 74½ winners and had 148 losing rides. He is said to have broken 32 bones in various race falls during his career and at one point he was unconscious for two weeks in Mackay Hospital.
William ‘Skinny’ Thomas passed away on February 17, 1973 aged 74, from the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s Disease. The official Townsville Turf Club racebook dated Saturday 24th February 1973 – just seven days after his death – in a tribute to William ‘Skinny’ Thomas, stated that he was “a champion jockey”, due to the fact that he was “brilliant at the machine (open barrier), an expert sprint rider, (and was) a great tactician and judge of pace”.
Modern racing history says that Cluden racetrack and the Townsville Turf Club are better remembered for June 1, 1985 when for only the second time in Australian racing history a triple dead heat occurred when Angular (Bill Cullen jnr.), Apollo’s Flame (Peter Warren) and Plenty of Spirit (Gilly Farrell) couldn’t be separated. Cluden was also host to the massive crowd that streamed through the turnstiles on February 23, 1985 to watch a bush champion called Picnic In The Park attempt to break a long-standing Australian record by winning 20 races in a row. He and his trainer Malcolm Raabe didn’t let the big crowd down.
Over time Cluden has hosted champion jockeys the likes of Neville Sellwood, George Moore, Russell Maddock, Ron Hutchinson and Barry Stein, but not one of those greats ever looked likely to remotely get close to what a man named William ‘Skinny’ Thomas achieved on June 29, 1929. His record stood as a solo achievement in Australian racing for 43 years ironically until just on 13 months before his death, when jockey Geoff Prouse rode all seven winners at a meeting at Elwick in Tasmania on 22/1/1972. Then 11 years after Prouse, jockey J. Kinninmont rode all seven winners at Laverton in Western Australia on 18/6/1983, so that today three jockeys jointly hold the Australian record of riding the card when seven races were conducted.
William ‘Skinny’ Thomas’s granddaughter, Desley Cahill from Townsville, has single-handedly lobbied the thoroughbred industry just to get the family’s case across, thus ensuring her grandfather’s 1929 achievement is held in the esteem it deserves. Sadly, most of racing’s hierarchy have turned a blind eye to her pleas, or promised plenty of assistance and delivered precious little. I find it incredible in an industry with such a long and rich history that so many people can do so little to try to record that wonderful history for future generations.
This story will be forwarded on to the Racing Museum in Melbourne now to gauge their interest and national magazine “New Idea” has expressed interest in running a story.
Since 1929 the William ‘Skinny’ Thomas volcano has lain dormant, but now it has suddenly turned active again and stories are about to explode from its epicentre. Like they say in the classics, “it’s better late than never”, but really you have to ask, “How the hell could it possibly take this long to get the man recognised officially and have his story told posthumously?”
A special “Photo Gallery” has been set up on this website to commemorate Skinny’s achievements and that can be viewed by clicking on “Photo Gallery” (above) and then scrolling down to whatever photos you would like to view.