WHEN ROD HILL PULLED UP STUMPS ON HIS RACECALLING CAREER IN 2006 HE SURE HAD AN INTERESTING LIFE STORY TO SHARE WITH JUSTRACING

04/02/15

Website visitors often email me to locate a story that they recall reading on Justracing, but now can’t find. Unfortunately there was no index or key word technology when this website started out about 18 years ago to be able to source previously written stories easily. So readers can email me to locate a story and/or have it re-run. Recently an email turned up asking me where to find the story on long retired racecaller Rod Hill. Rod had a fascinating story to tell when I wrote his life journey way back in 2006 – and it is repeated here today. Penned on 8/6/06 it read, with minor updated changes:

One of four siblings born to his paymaster father Charles Alfred Hill and his housewife mother Daisy Eileen Hill, Rodney Charles Allen Hill entered the world at Nambour Hospital on March 19, 1933. He had a normal childhood and left school at age 15 to start working as a clerk for the insurance giant City Mutual Life Assurance.

He undertook National Service in 1951 and then returned to his City Mutual job where he stayed until 1966, completing 16 years service in his two stints there. 1966 was to be a momentous year in the life a Rod Hill for another reason, as he relocated to the Ipswich suburb of Riverview and seven years later, in 1973 he married Leonore (Lee) Weller. The childless couple have called the same house home ever since.

Rod recalls how his career as a racecaller began, by saying, “I started calling at Rocklea in the early 60’s, when I used to relieve the full time caller Gordon Lawlor, who would get asked to do the Show circuit. From that start at Rocklea and calling trots at country Shows, it developed that I was able to do a trotting results program on 4KQ and then I successfully applied for the Albion Park on course calling job when night trotting kicked off in Brisbane on September 7, 1968. 4KQ and myself got the job ahead of 4BC and (fellow racecallers of the time) Vince Curry and Wayne Wilson, who had also put in an application. I was with 4KQ until October 1976, when the station went out of sport and I was left to freelance, but that left me only calling races on course at Tweed Heads and Ipswich and it was hard going financially. I had relinquished the role of caller at Rocklea for some years as due to my 4KQ commitments Ron Egerton had taken over as the caller at that track.

When 4KQ decided to terminate harness racing broadcasts from Albion Park in October 1976, Rod makes no secret of the fact that he hit hard times saying, “I had to then sell the good mare Lee and I had called Chile. We sold her about 1976 for $15,000 at auction and that was, at the time, a record price ever paid at auction for a Queensland pacer. That $15,000 sale price broke the previous record of $14,000 that Stanley Hanover had been sold for at public auction. Bob Gills bought Chile and he gave her to Neil Strong to train. They tried her at Albion Park, but once again she was reluctant to stretch out properly going right handed. They sent her to Sydney to Vic Frost and he won a race at Harold Park with her, then she went amiss. Bob Gills then rang me to tell me she’d gone amiss and he asked me if I’d like her back to breed from. I very, very quickly snapped up the offer and a measure of the great man the late Bob Gills was, was the fact he knew when he’d bought her at that auction that we’d only sold her because of my job situation. When he gave her back to me totally free of charge, he even paid for her freight home from Sydney.

“From Chile we bred Valparaiso and put her through the yearling sale. It turned out she had run a stake into her chest as a foal and the person who bought her at the yearling sale, rang me to say he didn’t want her and he wanted his money back that he had paid for her, as he said ‘it (the injury) could jeopardise her racing future’, so I said ‘send her home then and I’ll refund your money’ and I got her back and eventually sold her to Bill Ware from Ipswich. She was a handy mare winning races at Toowoomba and Redcliffe. When she finished racing, Bill Ware rang me and told me that he wasn’t interested in breeding and so I could have her back. I always found it amazing that I got offered both Chile and her daughter Valparaiso back for free. Anyway as a gesture for Bill’s kindness, I offered him Valparaiso’s first foal as part of the deal, but he said he wasn’t interested, so we mated her to Able Bye Bye – who stood at Lawson Cockburn’s stud at Oakey.

“Her first foal arrived and we named him Banka, because he was born on Melbourne Cup day and a horse pronounced the same but spelt differently, Banker, had won the Melbourne Cup in 1863 as a three-year-old. The pacer Banka showed so much ability before he raced that I got offered $100,000 for him from (former Albion Park Chairman) Kevin Seymour. We rejected the offer and he went on to win almost that amount in prizemoney in his career. He won classic races like the Pinnacle Stakes at 2YO in Sydney and the Sires Stakes in Queensland as a 3YO. He was trained in the early part by Merv Poole and I was approached by Lou Cini. Lou said he’d like to have the horse and Lee and I discussed it and we went out to Merv Poole’s and told him we intended to give the horse to Cini’s to train and he was not happy and said ‘well take the other one too’, which was Chile Fury, so Cini’s got both to train. Chile Fury finished up in America and won in Canada. Banka always had foot problems, but he never looked back when he went to Lou’s son Stephen to train. He won his only two starts in New South Wales. He won at Fairfield and then four nights later went straight to Harold Park and won the Pinnacle Stakes. Robbie Martin drove him to both Sydney victories and also when he won the Sires at Albion Park – he was an outstanding driver,” concluded Rod.

Rod Hill started his foray into harness racing breeding by purchasing a mare called Diana Miss out of a Trotguide advertisement for 150 pounds ($300). “Three of us, myself, Pat Cahill and John Schwarer, bought her from a chap called McCarthy from Junee. We put in 50 pounds ($100) each. She’d won one race at Junee. We gave her to Cliff Mewes to train and she won quite a few at Rocklea and the old Gold Coast track, from memory, she won 14 or 15 races. But when she retired my two partners didn’t want to breed with her, so I put her to stallion Friendly John for her first two matings and the resultant foals raced as Dulacca Kidd and Daisy Hill and both won races. In fact that pacer Daisy Hill was named after my mother. For the third mating of Diana Miss, we sent her down to an imported American stallion called Bravado Hanover at Charlie Muddle’s stud at Cowra. That 1972-born foal was named Chile. She won 18 races as a two- and three-year-old, five at two and 13 at three, the highlights being her victories at three against the males in the Gold Coast and Rocklea Derbys. She was voted ‘Queensland 3YO of the Year’ for her achievements. Chile was trained by a wily old character at Aratula called Bill Lucas and was driven by his son Geoff. In the breeding barn though Chile really threw nothing to compare to her own ability, whereas her daughter Valparaiso was a lesser performed mare, yet threw lovely horses,” concluded Rod.

Asked the best horses he had seen in his long and illustrious career, Rod Hill named in order Popular Alm, Paleface Adios, Hondo Grattan and Stanley Hanover as the best horses he’d seen. “Who could forget Vinnie Knight and Popular Alm?” he said, continuing on by saying, “He just seemed to have unlimited stamina that horse, he’d never get tired. Paleface Adios would have to be included, as he did so much for harness racing. Hondo Grattan, well, we saw plenty of him up this way at Tweed Heads and he was top class and Stanley Hanover was a great horse for Jim O’Sullivan,” he said.

On great drivers he’d seen, Rod Hill named Vic Frost as the best. “He was a champion driver and a great conditioner of a horse. Just look at what he did with (Interdominion winner and three times Grand Circuit Champion) Westburn Grant. I saw Vic Frost one night on the tiny Bulli track come from 40 metres behind with a mare called Fountain and she got there right on the line, it was a wonderful drive. He is the best I’ve seen,” he said.

I threw three great Queensland pacers’ names at Rod without notice and asked him for his comments – Wondai’s Mate, Stormy Water and Lucky Creed. Of Wondai’s Mate, Rod said, “He was a freak and about the only decent horse that (his sire) The Houseman ever threw.” On Lucky Creed and Stormy Water, Rod said, “They were both Queensland champions and I’ll tell you how strong the Show circuit was back then. Those two great pacers raced each other one day at the Dalby Show.” Asked which one won the race at the Dalby Show, Rod laughed and said, “I can’t remember to be honest; I think Lucky Creed.”

At Brisbane’s annual RNA Show all the great pacers would compete. Rod holds special memories of great Show pacers like Nostradamus, Little Afghan, General’s Fairy, Rollicker, Chastise and Airstream. “They were exciting times. I’d call all the trots live to radio station 4KQ from a caravan up the top of Machinery Hill. (Top Sydney reinsman) Joe Ilsley would come up every year with a team of horses,” he recalled.

Rod was a competitive athlete in his teenage years. He won a 42-mile (67.6 kilometres) cycling race as a member of the Kangaroo Point Cycling Club and he once took seven wickets for nine runs in a social cricket game, in the Brisbane suburb of Salisbury.

He named the mobile barrier and the sprint lane as the two biggest innovations he had seen in his long time in harness racing. In a career that has spanned over 40 years Rod has called trots at Tweed Heads, Rocklea, Redcliffe, Toowoomba, both the old Stephens Trotway Queen Street track and new Parklands Gold Coast track (since closed in 2013) which opened in 1988, both the old 800-metre and new 1000-metre Albion Park tracks and Ipswich until it closed in 1982.

The man who has called many thousands of Show trots since the early 60’s, at both the Brisbane Exhibition and country Shows as far away as Kingaroy in the South Burnett and Toowoomba on the Darling Downs, called it a “dreadful shame” that Show trotting is almost a thing of the past. He said, “I can’t see the reason why harness racing is not being conducted. It is an education for the horses and the drivers and it’s wonderful for the public. It relieves the monotony (of ring events) to see the trotters go around. People throng to centre ring every time a trot is on, because it is wonderful entertainment. You see, it’s very boring to watch those Monaro (precision) cars, as that’s the same old thing each year – and even looks dangerous – yet they can get insurance cover for that,” he said. (harness racing resumed at the Brisbane Exhibition in 2014)

It goes without saying that Rod’s saddest day in his near half-century involvement in harness racing was losing two of his pacers – Riolandy and Rodwick – in a fire whilst they were stabled on course at the Redcliffe Showgrounds. Some arsonist set fire to eight wooden stables at about 3.40am one Friday morning in July 1996, police concluded. To this day, the perpetrators of the hideous crime have never been found. Rod’s lifelong friend, (the late) Keith “Chicka” Charlwood, was training the horses for him and lost thousands of dollars worth of harness gear in the inferno.

Asked whether he sees the future of harness racing as bright or gloomy, Rod spoke in a downcast voice and said he sees the future as “gloomy”. Asked to expand on that statement, he said, “There are more and more people leaving the industry, because the prizemoney is not increasing. The cost of feed and shoeing and transporting horses keeps increasing. In reality, the costs involved are equivalent to those of a thoroughbred, yet look at the prizemoney difference. I can’t see how people can stay in the industry with the current trend.”

Asked the funniest incident he’d seen on a trotting track, Rod said he was a price assessor in a business association with the late Keith Boyle for plenty of prominent trotting bookmakers for many years on tracks like Albion Park, Tweed Heads, Gold Coast, Redcliffe and Rocklea – for big names in the bookmaking ranks like Brian Ogilvie, Kevin Kent, Bob Turner and Johnny Manning. “I did the markets for Rocklea one day and I assessed a hopeless horse at 20/1. I said to one bookie I was friendly with, this horse is no hope, so you could safely bet 100/1. The other bookies followed him out. All the smarties then stepped in and backed the horse each way, all over the ring back into 14/1. I went up and called the race and blow me down, it loomed up to win on the turn. At that exact moment I heard a thumping noise coming up the stairs to the box. I knew it would be that bookmaker I’d told to bet the 100’s. The horse got beaten in a photo. I’d never have walked out of there alive if it would have won, but I honestly thought it was no hope at all,” he said with a wry smile.

Rod also recalled another “error” he made in assessing a market a Redcliffe one day. He explains, “There was a first starter called Stanley Hanover with Jim O’Sullivan in the sulky at Redcliffe at a non-TAB Saturday afternoon meeting. The bookies got good crowds there in those days as they bet on Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne gallops meetings as well. Anyway they put up 20/1 Stanley Hanover and it was hammered into odds-on. He won easily and of course was a champion juvenile.”

Following a committee decision, Rod was replaced as racecaller at Rocklea in June 2000 by Craig Rail, but was reinstated some time later. “I’m on the roster now at Rocklea and call once every three weeks, just to keep an interest in the sport. That’s about my only involvement up until now, but I have made the decision to retire permanently after I call the meeting at Rocklea on June 24 (2006). That will definitely be my last day of calling,” said 73-year-old Rod, who recently was made redundant as a judge from both the Albion Park trots – after six years’ service – and the Albion Park greyhounds, after about four years.

Whilst he admits he may have made the odd error in assessing prices, on the whole there is no question that, as Rod Hill puts it, “harness racing has been good to me”. But no one would deny that he too has been good for harness racing, devoting the majority of his adult life to the sport. In 1990 he received an industry award from the Queensland Women’s Pacing Association. On three different occasions – 1995, 1996 and 1999 – Rod was given appreciation awards by the Marburg Pacing Association. The current commentator’s box at Marburg is named the Rod Hill Stand in his honour. In 1998 the Australian Harness Racing Council bestowed a “Meritorious Service Award” on him for his services to harness racing. In 2000 his wonderful service and dedication to the racing industry was honoured – outside of his own code of harness racing – when he and his wife Lee were special guests at the Ipswich Greyhound Racing Club and the “Rod Hill Appreciation Stakes” was run and won. In 2005 he was awarded the “Pegasus Personality Award” by BOTRA (Breeders, Owners, Trainers and Reinspersons Association). In 2005 he was also awarded life membership of the Metropolitan Harness Racing Club at Rocklea. On July 30, 2005, again at the Brisbane non-TAB track of Rocklea, a “Rod Hill Tribute Race Day” was held.

As a measure of the respect in which the name Rod Hill is held in the harness racing industry, the club was inundated with nominations for the special day, so much so that they could have held 11 races on the day. The Club advised in its race book for the day that “because of time and finance restrictions” they could only run eight races. Incredibly, sponsors from three States – Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria – wished to financially be part of the day and a sponsor from each of New South Wales and Victoria jetted into Brisbane on the big day. Rod also said he had felt “honoured” that during his career he had been asked to make appearances on David Fowler’s Briz 31 “Harness Highlights” television show, as well as Sky Channel’s “In The Gig” program and Brisbane’s Channel 9 “Extra” program, when he was asked to give an insight into the life of a racecaller.

As a racecaller, breeder, price assessor and form analyst, or just a man to sit down and reminisce about harness racing with over a cool drink, you’ll be hard pressed to find a person more qualified and dedicated to the cause than Rod Hill. Many tens of thousands of people have had their heart skip a beat at Shows, or at racetracks, just listening – either in person at the track, or with a radio up to their ear – to Rod Hill’s every word, as he painted the descriptive picture of a harness race that was unfolding in front of him.

When Rod Hill hangs up his binoculars and walks away from a microphone for the last time on June 24 (2006) he can walk away justifiably proud of his wonderful contribution to harness racing in Queensland, for he has nothing left to prove to anyone. The entire racing industry salutes him on a job well done.

Editor’s footnote: I spoke to Rod Hill just this morning before this article went up live, to get an update on he and Lee – who are living in the same house that they’ve been in for nearly five decades. Lee has had some health issues in recent years but is okay at present and has to go for a check-up at Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital “every six months”. Rod, whose mind is as sharp as a tack still, told me that he turns 82 in March 2015 and has no health issues apart from “a bit of arthritis”.

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