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Rail, Victory Robert (Vic) (1945–1994)

by Peter Howard

This article was published:

Victory Robert Rail (1945–1994), racehorse trainer, was born on 15 August 1945 (the day World War II ended) at West Townsville, Queensland, seventh of nine children of Queensland-born parents William Rail, railway worker, and his wife Doris Emily, née Bullock. Following his elder brother Billy into horse-racing, Vic left Townsville West State School (1951–59) to work at stables near the city’s racecourse. At age fifteen he became apprenticed as a jockey to the trainer Arthur ‘Sadie’ Standley. A good athlete, he took up amateur boxing and won eighteen of nineteen bouts, including three junior North Queensland championships.

In 1963 Rail moved to Brisbane to continue his apprenticeship under the trainer Jim Griffiths. He won three country races in June and none thereafter but gained prizes at the Queensland Turf Club Apprentices’ School as champion athlete and boxer. Because of his increasing weight, he moved in 1964 to Melbourne to ride in hurdle and steeplechase events; the horses in these races were handicapped on a heavier weight scale. Unsuccessful, he abandoned competitive riding in 1965 and remained in Melbourne for another twelve months, working as a stablehand for the trainer Des McCormick, near the Epsom racecourse at Mordialloc.

Rail went back to Brisbane in 1966, where he turned his hand to anything that enabled him to work with horses: strapping, riding trackwork, and learning the basics of the farrier’s craft. On 9 July 1966 in a Church of England ceremony at the Church of the Holy Trinity, Fortitude Valley, he married Coleen Cecily Thomsett, a shop assistant; they would later divorce (1981). In 1968 he returned to Melbourne and became stable foreman for the trainer Tommy Woodcock at Mordialloc. He later credited Woodcock with teaching him how to prepare horses for races, in particular, how to feed them correctly to suit their training regime.

Seeking to train in his own right, Rail settled in Brisbane in 1973. The Queensland Turf Club granted him a permit and in his first season (August 1973 to July 1974) his horses won six races on country tracks. For ten years he eked out a living by training a small stable of thoroughbreds and supplementing his income by riding trackwork and doing some farrier work. His fortunes changed when a group of friends bought a colt they named Rode Rouge and asked Rail to train him. Rode Rouge came first in ten races, mostly in Brisbane. When he had first shown promise, one of his owners, John Murray, decided to buy his younger half-brother for $5,000. Neither the new colt’s sire, Ivor Prince, nor his dam, Vow, had won a race but this did not deter Murray, who enticed a friend, Jeff Perry, to share in the ownership. They named the horse Vo Rogue, and in 1984, when he was just a yearling, Murray and Perry arranged for him to come into Rail’s stables at Hendra, not far from the Eagle Farm and Doomben racecourses.

Vo Rogue won twenty-six races and $3.1 million. He raced from 1986 to 1991 and captured the imagination of racegoers with a brave, front-running style. Six of his victories were at the Group 1 level, including the 1989 and 1990 Australian Cup at Flemington, Melbourne, and another ten were at Group 2 level.

The horse’s success thrust the knock-about, craggy-faced Rail into the limelight. His training methods were unorthodox. Keeping his horses as close to nature as possible, he preferred to turn them loose in yards during the day rather than lock them up in the confines of stables; discarded the use of rugs except in extreme cold; and avoided horseshoes because, as he said, they were not born wearing them. On one occasion the stewards discovered him working Vo Rogue without horseshoes and fined Rail $200. He maintained close personal contact with the horses and often rode Vo Rogue in his trackwork. That brought another fine after stewards spotted him wearing thongs rather than the obligatory riding boots.

In September 1994 Rail brought two horses into his stables from a suburban Brisbane paddock. Soon, both showed symptoms of a respiratory illness. Despite veterinary treatment, their condition worsened and other horses in his and a neighbouring stable became ill. Within a week fourteen horses had died or been put down by veterinary surgeons. Rail himself developed similar symptoms to those that had presented in his horses. Urged by his partner, Lisa Symons, he sought medical treatment. He was admitted to hospital in South Brisbane and died there a week later, on 27 September 1994. Following a Catholic funeral, he was cremated. His partner survived him, as did the two sons of his former marriage. This was the first time in the world that the disease, identified as an acute equine respiratory syndrome, had been detected; it was named Hendra virus. Researchers found that the virus’s natural host is the flying fox. The horses initially infected had probably sniffed or eaten vegetation contaminated with flying fox droppings. Rail’s last winner had been Shampan, in a Maiden Handicap at Toowoomba. It was ridden by his son Troy.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Carlyon, Les. True Grit: Tales from 40 Years on the Turf. North Sydney: Random House Australia Pty Ltd, 2013
  • Clark, Bruce. ‘Reverse Way of Going Was No Problem for Larrikin Vic.’ Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 28 September 1994, 57
  • Cormick, Brendan. ‘Chatty Trainer a Breath of Fresh Air in Racing.’ Australian, 30 September 1994, 12
  • Dawson, Graham. ‘Is Queensland Champ Racing’s New Superstar?’ Turf Monthly 36, no. 9 (1988): 18–21
  • McKinnon, Michael. ‘Why Vic Lost the Big Race.’ Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 2 October 1994, 7
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Sinclair, Bart. Personal communication
  • Sinclair, Bart. ‘Unforgettable Larrikin Honoured.’ Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 5 October 1994, 5
  • Walker, Jamie. ‘Mystery Illness Claims Vic Rail.’ Australian, 28 September 1994, 1–2

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Howard, 'Rail, Victory Robert (Vic) (1945–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rail-victory-robert-vic-27840/text35586, published online 2019, accessed online 26 May 2022.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

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