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Connolly, Eric Alfred (1880–1944)

by John Ritchie

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Eric Alfred Connolly (1880-1944), punter and owner-trainer, was born on 17 April 1880 at Degamero, a sheep station on the King River near Wangaratta, Victoria, the sixth of eight children of Henry James Connolly, grazier, and his wife Elizabeth Sarah, née Bould. After his father's move to Melbourne in the 1890s as a racehorse trainer, Connolly determined to make his living from the turf. In 1903 he bought The General, an undistinguished sprinter, trained it as a jumper and netted £14,000 in 1904 when it won the Grand National Steeplechase. The General was to remain his favourite horse and Connolly had it painted by Fred Woodhouse, senior. After a visit to India and Singapore, on 16 January 1906 Connolly married Ada Jane Webb in St Peter's Church, Eastern Hill; they had three daughters.

His horses won the 1910 Oakleigh Plate, the 1913 Williamstown Cup, the 1922 and 1923 Newmarkets (which he considered the toughest race to win) and the 1927 Metropolitan. In his heyday in the spring of 1929 he dished the noted New South Wales punter, 'Rufe' Naylor, in one of the most intellectual feats of Australian turf history—Connolly took control of Nightmarch, a champion New Zealand stayer, backed him in the one-mile (1600 m) Epsom, bet against him in the 13-furlong (2600 m) Metropolitan and then supported him against the mighty Phar Lap in the two-mile (3200 m) Melbourne Cup: each time his judgment proved correct. By the end of the heady 1920s Connolly's winnings, with his income from investments, had earned him an estimated £250,000 and the reputation of being Australia's outstanding better. Though he sometimes enriched the bookmakers, especially Sol Green, he abided by the motto: 'Money lost, nothing lost; courage lost, everything lost'. Late in 1929 he suffered a heart attack and was bedridden for three months; thereafter his activities became more restricted and his fortunes fluctuated.

To contemporaries, his punting seemed inspired and 'the luck of Eric Connolly' became part of the Australian idiom, but behind his good fortune lay hard work. He trained at dawn most of the horses that carried his colours of red and black. He developed a photographic memory, an instinct for pace and an eye for form; he became adept at setting horses for races months ahead; he had pluck and composure. Arriving long before the first event, he seldom ate or drank on the course; he was the cynosure of all eyes at Flemington and Randwick, and his sorties into the ring were followed by many eager punters.

Brown-haired, blue-eyed and purse-lipped, in his prime 'E.A.C.' stood 5 ft 11 ins (180 cm) and weighed 11 stone (70 kg). A fastidious and conservative dresser, reserved, quietly spoken, devout and a disciplinarian, he drank moderately, smoked heavily, appreciated a joke and had many friends and acquaintances, among them the Prince of Wales and John Wren. Operettas cheered him, as did Tivoli stage-shows. He also found relaxation in following test cricket, in a game of billiards, in a hand at bridge and in listening to his wife play the piano. Comfortably housed with his family and servants, he donated money to the Anzac Buffet and repatriation programmes, to churches and hospitals, and to the down-and-out.

Connolly died of coronary thrombosis on 9 October 1944 at his home in Toorak, and was buried in Brighton cemetery with Anglican rites. He left his estate, valued for probate at £5741, to his surviving daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • Punch (Melbourne), 16 Oct 1913
  • Herald (Melbourne), 9 Oct 1944
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 1 Feb 1958
  • private information.

Citation details

John Ritchie, 'Connolly, Eric Alfred (1880–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/connolly-eric-alfred-5754/text9747, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 22 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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