Throughout the 1950s and 1960s it seemed that stewards and racing authorities were facing a losing battle against the doping of well-fancied horses—mainly at metropolitan meetings where betting possibilities were far in excess of those available at the provincial tracks—but they grimly held on to the belief that the feature races were still immune from that insidious practice. That all changed in 1969 when the raging hot Melbourne Cup favourite was ‘got at’.
In 1969 Big Philou, trained by Bart Cummings, had been heavily backed to win the Caulfield Cup–Melbourne Cup double. After winning the first leg at Caulfield after a very controversial protest, the doubles bookmakers had liabilities running into millions. He bolted in the Caulfield Cup and many, including master trainer Bart Cummings thought the horse only needed to show up to complete the big cups double. Bart rates it the most confident he’d ever been about any single one of his Melbourne Cup runners.
On Cup morning, staff at Bart Cummings’ Flemington stables noticed that Big Philou was not its normal self, but the horse was taken to the course without a great deal of concern. As the day progressed, the horse suffered further bouts of scouring and its condition worsened rapidly.
After an inspection by Victoria Racing Club veterinary surgeons, the horse was sensationally withdrawn from the Melbourne Cup just 39 minutes before the start of the race. It had been the raging hot 2/1 ($3) favourite. Max Presnell, writing later in the Sydney Morning Herald, said, ‘Bart Cummings still rankles over Big Philou and the 1969 Melbourne Cup, a perfect example of the race being a major target for corruption’.
Cummings maintains to this day that he was more confident about Big Philou going into the 1969 Cup than any other of his 12 victories. Champion jockey Roy Higgins was of the same opinion, telling Cummings, ‘You’ve no idea how good this horse feels. We’ll probably never get him as good as he is today’.
Cummings recalled that Big Philou’s strapper, Ron ‘Smokey’ Dawson, was the first to notice that something wasn’t right with the horse, which was hanging its head low, scouring and running a temperature.
By the time Cummings reached the stalls the horse had deteriorated further. ‘I’ll never forget the terrible trouble the horse was in’, he recalled. ‘He was exploding with diarrhoea and writhing in pain.’
Stewards had no option but to immediately order the scratching of Big Philou, saving bookmakers a fortune.
Subsequently, Big Philou tested positive to Danthron but had been given ‘too much and it made him ill’ and it was not long until rumours started to gain momentum around the track as to who was behind the doping. Bart Cummings certainly had his suspicions. ‘For a brief period I had employed Les Lewis, a shifty, unreliable character with flaming red hair’, Cummings related. ‘He was an odd bod and I didn’t like the look of him. If you can pick a horse, you can pick a human …’
Big Philou’s jockey, Roy Higgins, was appalled by what had taken place: ‘Now the horse could have collapsed. If it was another 20 minutes down the line, that horse could have collapsed and brought half the field down, killed me, killed others, killed horses. You’ve got these evil human beings out there, that would do that to a poor animal, just for the thought of an illegal dollar. If I ran into the guy, I’d spit on him.’
Lewis was charged by the police. He beat the Big Philou rap but he went to the well once too often and was caught the following autumn trying to nobble another Cummings horse, King Pedro, in the hours before the Duke of Norfolk Stakes.
Many years later, dying of cancer, Les Lewis signed a statutory declaration that not only had he doped Big Philou in the early hours of Cup morning but he had also got at Tails, which had eventually started favourite in the race. Lewis conceded that he had been paid $10,000 for the deed. ‘Money was speaking all languages which it always has. And you get a thousand dollars waved in front of you when you are only getting a dollar an hour. It’s a lot of money to get put in your hand. A lot, and you’re willing to take that risk for it.’
According to television program The Track, it was revealed that during the original police investigation Lewis had made a number of phone calls to business numbers associated with bookmaker Bill Waterhouse, although there was no evidence that Lewis had ever spoken to him.
‘When they, the police, investigated, they cleared me’, protested Waterhouse. ‘I wasn’t involved, I hadn’t laid the damn thing but that didn’t stop the witch-hunt and my name was just bandied around as though I was.’ Was Waterhouse the backer of the doping scandal? We’ll never know but one thing can certainly be said for sure, when trouble was in the air the Waterhouse’s were never far away…..