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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cook, William Henry (Billy) (1910–1985)

by Richard Waterhouse

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

William Henry (Billy) Cook (1910-1985), jockey, was born on 12 January 1910 at Hornsby, Sydney, second of five surviving children of William Edward Cook, butcher, and his wife Mary Ella Louise, née Adam, who were both born in New South Wales. Billy learnt to ride on an Arab pony, delivering his father’s meat orders, and became familiar with horse-racing as a result of family trips to race meetings. In 1923-24 he was apprenticed to the Sydney trainer John Donohoe. His first ride was on Little Marg, which finished unplaced in a race at Canterbury on 24 July 1925. Two months later he rode his first winner, Pigeon Pie, also at Canterbury.

In the 1929 Sydney Cup, riding Crucis, Cook achieved his first major victory. Subsequently he won two Melbourne Cups, on the 3-yearold colt Skipton in 1941, and on the mare Rainbird in 1945. Other important triumphs included two Victoria Racing Club (1942, 1954) and two Australian Jockey Club (1940, 1946) Derbies, two VRC Oaks races (1941, 1946), three AJC Metropolitans (1939, 1949, 1953), three Mooney Valley Gold cups (1936, 1940, 1945), a Caulfield Cup (1930), a Doomben Newmarket (1937), and one further Sydney Cup (1953). His dominance of New South Wales racing, in particular, was reflected in the fact that he won the Sydney jockeys’ premiership six times between 1931-32 and 1946-47. His achievements included riding a record-breaking 126 metropolitan winners in the 1939-40 season.

Cook also enjoyed success overseas. He visited India three times, beginning in 1932, to ride for the Maharajahs of Kolhapur and Baroda, and for Alec Higgins. In Britain in 1949 he had forty-two winners in a three-month period. Returning there in 1951, he again tasted success and such was his reputation that he was invited to ride for King George VI. His dislike of travelling and cold weather prevented an extended career in England in the mould of another outstanding Australian jockey, Edgar Britt.

Much to Cook’s surprise, he had been initially rejected for military service in World War II because of flat feet. He enlisted in the Militia on 25 June 1942 and worked in the accounts office, Sydney. On 2 August 1944 he was discharged with the rank of corporal. Although short, he possessed the physique of a prizefighter, but it was not his strength that earned him the nickname of `the Champ’. Rather, he was renowned for his sense of timing and for his ability to nurse a horse through a race and to drive it to the front in the last few yards. At Randwick racecourse, owing to the steep rise in the straight, this tactic proved particularly successful. Although Cook rode for royalty and rajahs, he never lost a sense of obligation to average racegoers, and he tried as hard on a midweek hack as he did on a fine thoroughbred in a Group 1 race. Because of his uncanny knack of winning the last race on the program, and in the process restoring the seemingly lost `banks’ of many small punters, he was also known affectionately as `Last-race Cookie’.

Although he enjoyed a career of some thirty-five years, winners came less frequently in the late 1950s. After a training accident in which he broke a leg, and faced with increasing weight problems and fewer opportunities for good rides, he decided to retire in 1959. Thereafter, he dabbled in training and owning racehorses. His greatest pleasure was his son Peter’s triumph on Just A Dash in the 1981 Melbourne Cup, in part because father and son had plotted together the tactics to be employed in the running. Peter won the Melbourne Cup again in 1984.

On 19 October 1933 at St Aloysius’ Catholic Church, Caulfield, Melbourne, Cook had married Ray (Rae) Estelle Sybil Fisher, an actress who had played Doreen in Frank Thring’s screen version of The Sentimental Bloke, produced in the previous year. For years Cook helped to raise money for St Margaret’s Hospital, Darlinghurst. Survived by his wife and their three daughters and three sons, he died on 29 January 1985 at the Gold Coast, Queensland, and was buried in the Allambe Garden of Memories cemetery, Nerang. In his career Cook won virtually every major race in Australia, the Epsom and Doncaster standing out as the only significant exceptions. The journalist Bill Whittaker remembered Cook as `the most immaculate rider … to don racing colours in Sydney’.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Penton, A Racing Heart (1987)
  • J. Pollard, Australian Horse Racing (1988)
  • People (Sydney), 13 Sept 1950, p 40
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 26 July 1959, pp 3 and 64
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 1 Dec 1978, p 56, 14 Aug 1979, p 51
  • Age (Melbourne), 4 Nov 1981, p 1, 30 Jan 1985, p 34
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Jan 1985, p 36, 2 Feb 1985, p 71
  • N. Bennetts, interview with W. Cook (transcript, 1980, National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Richard Waterhouse, 'Cook, William Henry (Billy) (1910–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 15 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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