The Path to Glory ‘Riding the Olympic Rings’

The Path to Glory

‘Riding the Olympic Rings’ by Zoe Lackey

The Australian Stock Horse Journal – November/December 2000

“We’re all off to the stadium now,

We’re all gonna show them how…”

The Rider’s Anthem, led by the vocal Stewart Booth and created by a talented team of individuals could be heard echoing around P4 carpark and through the tunnels of Stadium Australia. It reflected the confidence and focus of the group from “the bush and scrub” united for the sole purpose of the Sydney Olympic Games.

They had come a long way from since the first Boot Camp held at Scone from 10th – 12th March when Sergeant Don Eyb (later dubbed “the Don”) and Tony Jablonski were confronted by a motley mob full of curiosity and a touch of trepidation. Darrel Clifford made his mark as Camp Boss, directing parking, issuing panels and keeping the strays in line. Fiona Wallis and her many helpers answered questions, filled out forms and dished out meal tickets.

Meanwhile Don and Tony puzzled out the amazing logistics of pulling such a huge number of horses into a stadium and, at the same time, choreograph it so that it looked spectacular. Ignatius Jones pulled out his trusty computer and programmed a series of dots (alias horses) into formation. By the Sunday and the visit from SOCOG, friendships had been founded and horses bonded as six troops traipsed around White Park displaying their newly discovered troop drill skills. A quick run through the original routine at the trot brought tears to the eyes of SOCOG’s Jodie and tingled everyone’s skin with goosebumps a curiosity began to turn into realisation. The specially designed carpet had been trample-tested, trees, power poles, taps and witches’ hats dodged and dressage arenas tripped over – and in the end this team of riders rolled up their swags feeling tired, elated and motivated.

On their often-long hauls home they waxed lyrical about the time they had had and looked forward to the second Boot Camp in June. Sadly, hey spike only to their steeds, as they had to keep this secret, well, as secret as they could!

The icy wind chilled the bones of the horse and rider as flagpoles clinked during more troop drill at the second Boot Camp in Scone, The Don insisted it was to refresh our skills but the riders knew it was to warm them through their thermals. Group leaders Alan, Bob, Marty, Phillip, Donna, Steve, Wendy, Barry, Mike and Paul demanded more. Looked for perfection, shuffle their riders and horses around searching for a happy combination. It was a difficult job but someone had to do it! They led their troops to the small arena for the unfurling of “the big white flag”. The horses were less interested in than the locals., hoping to get some inside viewing, but who were informed with a bright response that “they’re doing an ad for Omo!”

The riders on the other hand, were inspired at mealtimes by motivational speeches form Joy Poole and David Atkins, among others, who left Scone for the second time looking forward to the 10-day Boot Camp at Castle Hill. Yet each rider fostered a self-criticism that pushed many to get together and practice. The inspector on the tick gate at Wallangarra on the NSW/QLD border was beginning to recognise these seasoned travellers and chaperones as the Queensland horses stopped to be sprayed; Norfolk Island was reminded of three (including Buzz) of its former pony clubbers; Maitland had to part with a large amount of its polocrosse talent; farms were left to fend for themselves and bosses sat puzzled in their offices wondering just what their employees were really up to as a convoy of trucks and floats converged on Castle Hill.

Country spirits soared as boots hit the pavement on an everlasting journey to Redfern in a mission to gain accreditation to the Olympic Stadium. State Rail made special announcements for the benefit of their country cousins (“passengers on platform 6, could you please use some common sense and stand behind the yellow line?”) while also sending them on a misguided tour to get to Olympic Park. Country humour kept the bus conductors, and everyone else around, amused and a few hours late the Stadium loomed into view. A sneak preview of what the horses would face, followed by repeated crossings of a footbridge, finally led the weary mob back to the bus and then the garage, wherein their cars lay locked. It was an eight-hour city trip, which few would try again, but all ow had a big new pass with their photo and full name hanging around their neck!

A wave of excitement spread through the camp a horses and gear were loaded onto trucks and floats and the team attempted to travel in some form of convoy through the streets of Sydney. It was well after the 7:30pm departure time, jokes and cheeky comments were swapped on the radios and the map was followed in a fashion until the group pulled up at the Logistics Centre and “Checkpoint Charlie”. Checkpoint Charlie consisted of three or four stops which involved flashing passes, collecting vehicle security check sheets, trying to work out which checkpoint queue was quickest ( consensus was that the police were way faster than the army) and finally assuring the army, who were taken by surprise, that the horses wouldn’t hurt them (but taking them off the truck so that they could check for bombs in the front of the float was not an option). They turned the search into a fine art by the final night and it was anyone’s guess as to which truck would have to tip its cabin and whose seat covers would be lifted.

The drive to P4 car park involved another accreditation pass-flash before horses were uploaded into their temporary asphalt paddock. The scenic hike to the toilet had to be rectified and horse and rider learnt to be patient, spinning yarns and waiting and waiting until finally they entered the stadium.

The horses took it in their stride as Don and Tony directed a trot-through form the control tower. James Morrison’s trumpet scared the living daylights out of everyone but set a beat which the horses came to love and recognise. Ignatius Jones practised his French in the hope that either horse or rider might realise that it was the signal to back up. At 2am the weary troops loaded up and headed back to Castle Hill; a few slightly geographically embarrassed, arriving a wee bit later but in time for a nightcap or two before rolling out the swag at 5am!

The smell of bacon and eggs wafted form the Clancy’s kitchen at about 8:30am, horses were fed before the riders wandered over to build their strength. Mealtimes became the focus of most, interspersed with a bit of riding her and there. Most rehearsals at the Stadium followed the late-night schedule. It was a pleasant surprise when the team scored a daytime practice, particularly after being all but blown away by the Castle Hill gale force wind as it lifted the flags and threatened to carry horse and rider away like Mary Poppins.

The audience of the 1st dress rehearsal contained family and friends of a few riders and volunteers eager to watch the ceremony unfold. A lunchtime passage through Checkpoint Charlie culminated in a five-hour preparation party in P4 car park. Riders hummed the National Anthem to themselves as they wracked their memories for the words of the 2nd verse, pulled on their moleskins, botts and spurs, white shirts, drizabones and hats then lined up for a wardrobe check aa coloured scarves were tied around their necks. Butterflies fluttered as Tony and Don addressed everyone before they formed the hollow square then marched in half-sections to the stadium chanting the Rider’s Anthem.

The whole routine seemed too quick, the Mexican Wave swam through the audience, the countdown began, and Steve Jefferys and Ammo led the charge into the stadium. The noise of the crowd lifted the specially designed ground-covering as the waves of horses worked to maintain straight lines, form sections, circles, then break into the pinwheel. The horse listened and stood quietly as the national Anthem was sung, then the charge home began. The cheers echoed as tears were wiped away, the audience declaring it spectacular, the riders buzzing that it was a buzz, a big buzz. The spirit of it all was celebrated at the Castle Hill Tavern with the help pf a few other spirits and ales and to the entertainment of the local city folk.

Sadly, back at the camp, the dreaded lurgy ran rampant through the riders and they dropped like flies. Nurse Connie gave strict instructions that there should be no kissing, spitting or sharing of drink bottles as it was a very nasty virus. The visiting doctor consoled and treated 45 or so patients and Roy, the vet, wandered around to make sure that horses were healthy even if their riders weren’t.

The 2nd dress rehearsal came and went prompting Don Eyb to remind the riders not to sit on their oilskin coat-tails and glow in the glory just yet; the big night was still to come. More friends and family were impressed by the ceremony and were convinced that the horses stole the show. A rest day was warmly welcomed with the sick tucked away in bed and the not-yet-sick heading off to inspect he Mounted Police Barracks.

The morning of the big day dawned, water flowed in the wash bay and the hum of clippers resounded through the showgrounds. In the car park, the Livestock Transport Trucks lined up and the seasoned travellers plodded on for a final trip through Checkpoint Charlie and to P4 car park. Clancy packed lunches for all at P4, volunteers offered water and soft drinks. The now relaxed riders polished boots and saddles and milled about under brollies or slept off the effects of Panadeine or Codral Flu tablets. At 5pm there was movement at the parking station that the word had was passed around, by Jodie, that the Opening Ceremony was soon to get underway.

Once again radios were issued, Olympic Rings were pinned onto Drizabones and the green and gold saddlecloths were laid on the horses’ backs. The hollow square looked good as cameras flashed in all directions and Stu fired the atmosphere with a haunting rendition of the Rider’s Anthem. Helicopters hovered overhead as white flags with blue Olympic Rings were handed to each rider and the procession moved to the Ring Road that led to the Stadium. Well-wishers cheered along the way and other performers waved good luck. The countdown began, the “Lone Horseman” (alias Steve Jefferys) galloped into the arena, reared, cracked his whip and disappeared. The 120 riders followed on his fetlocks and wowed the world. The riders were more critical of their performance than the spectators who saw the formation of galloping stock horses storm to the edge of the arena and salute the crowd with a frisbee-spin of hats. The stirring rendition of the national Anthem stirred emotions and showed just how patriotic Australians could be, then after a welcoming “G’day”, the horses wheeled and turned their heads for home.

Unlike The Man from Snowy River these riders were from “alone and unassisted” on their return as volunteers, group leaders and most of the world spurred them along. Silver flagpoles in formation shone in the streetlights as the troop made its way to P4. Mixed feelings filled the car park – feelings of elation, disappointment, pride and achievement – yet it had been the best and biggest buzz of all time.

Acclaim was given to all involved – riders, horses, group leaders, volunteers, Don Eyb and Tony Joblonski – and gifts of appreciation given to the many hard workers who helped to make this huge project a success. Tony Jablonski, the co-ordinator behind the project, looked on as riders revelled in the wrap party at Castle Hill Tavern to Stu’s chant of the now famous Rider’s Anthem.

“… and hope we all remember this”.