By the 1980s, racing in Western Australia had descended into what appeared to be an almost lawless state and was commonly known in racing circles as the ‘Wild West’.
George Way and Laurie Connell
Dubious characters had large tentacles wrapped around the heart of the industry, and huge scandals emerged one after the other on the western seaboard and one name kept bobbing up with monotonous regularity. That name was George Way, racehorse trainer, punter, and friend of trainer Les Samba—who was murdered in 2011—and crime boss Robert Trimbole.
And more often than not, when Way’s name came up following one racing indiscretion or another, so did that of his friend Laurie Connell, owner, merchant banker and fellow rorter. Exactly who was robbing whom in that relationship was never crystal clear but it is assumed that Way may have won on points.
At one time Connell had about 40 horses with Way and said, ‘Every time that I had a good horse, he’d buy it off me before it ran on the Saturday. I used to sell him two or three horses a week’. Connell’s stable grew so large that one month Way sent Connell a monthly training account for $17,000—four bills like that would have bought an average house in Perth at the time.
Way recalled that in a moment of quiet reflection over a beer Connell, almost apologetically, asked of Way, ‘Come on George, we’re a great team but how much have you robbed me of over the years?’
Way looked him in the eye and said, ‘Laurie, mate, to be honest I really can’t work it out, but if I told you it was a couple of million, would you be annoyed?’
Connell replied, ‘George, if it was only that much, I’d be elated’.
They say that ‘Give up’ never won a race and nobody could ever accuse Laurie Connell of giving up. He didn’t get the nickname ‘Last Resort’ by bailing out of a tricky situation. So, even when one of his dastardly plans unravelled he would stop at nothing to try to retrieve a pitiful situation. This was certainly the case where young jockey Danny Hobby was involved.
Hobby was to ride the favourite Strike Softly in the 1983 Bunbury Cup and was widely considered a certainty. Not only did Connell have other ideas, he also had the second favourite in the race, Saratoga Express, who was clearly the second best horse in the race. Connell was sure that with just a tactical tweak he could realise a favourable outcome for his horse, but instead of his standard modus operandi of drugging his horse or the favourite, or tying up the jockeys to become part of his team, his tactics were quite simple and applied to only one person. He simply asked 19-year-old Hobby, the rider of the favourite, to part company from Strike Softly any time he wished to receive a payment of $5000—as long as that dismount occurred during the running of the race and not after it. Hobby duly obliged with a delightful three-point dismount but the riderless Strike Softly, blissfully unaware of Connell’s plans, interfered with Saratoga Express, ruining its chances.
Post race, mumblings soon became murmurs, which then bred mutterings and Connell soon realised that his unconventional riding instruction to Hobby might be construed by some to be inappropriate, so he arranged for Hobby to lie low … with his girlfriend … at $4000 a month … overseas … for the best part of 20 years!
Hobby eventually resurfaced in Australia. Connell received five years for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and Hobby received three.
If there was an avenue to robbing the bookies, Way would find it: some involved meticulous planning yet other rorts just seemed to present themselves to him. Way recalled how his staff took the wrong horse to Pinjarra one day, and when he was saddling up the chestnut he realised that it wasn’t the maiden galloper but rather a very smart horse. Way said, ‘Seeing as we’re all here, I might as well let this run’.
Way warned jockey Keith Watson, ‘Don’t win by too much, son’. Watson, oblivious to the mix-up said, ‘You’re kidding George, this thing is a cat’.
The cat straightened up for home 8 lengths in front and won by 12. Way thought he was gone but the stewards never even bothered to look at the horse and correct weight was declared.
On another occasion Way had a very talented horse entered in a race at a provincial venue. The horse was definitely on the way up and looked an absolute moral this day as it had got in very well at the weights. The bookies recognised this by putting it up at a very short price. Too short for Way, who knew that the second favourite was the only danger to his horse. His horse only had 51 kilograms but Way, knowing that only the first four horses home would be required at the weigh in, saddled the horse up with extra lead in the saddle and a heavy bridle to boot. Such was the extra impost that it was actually carrying about 67 kilograms, weighting it out of the race completely and making the second favourite a good thing.
Needless to say Way unloaded on the second favourite. As Way legged his jockey up he said to Watson, ‘For Christ’s sake, don’t finish in the first four’. The race went to plan and Watson steered it into fifth but such was the extra weight in the saddle that Watson had a lot of trouble carrying it back to the jockeys’ room. Way picked it up to assist Watson until a steward intervened. Way said, ‘There’s no problem here, sir, old Keith’s been wasting hard, and he is not feeling too good so I’m just giving him a hand with the saddle’.
One day before an Ascot meeting a rider told Way that he had been offered $10,000 to pull his horse up in the forthcoming race. Way thought his horse was very smart and had intended backing it for whatever he could get on for.
The horse could be a strong puller in his races and was always difficult to restrain; it was best he be given his head and allowed to lead. But the bribe offer to his jockey worried Way and he was more than a tad concerned that the rider might go ahead and pull the horse up. So before the race Way put Vaseline on the horse’s reins to make it impossible for the jockey to hold the horse.
The horse jumped well, went straight to the front and won easily, although it did continue on for another full circuit of Ascot before it could be stopped. Way got on for plenty.
One day Way had a runner in a race with no depth at all; there were clearly just two winning chances. The trainer of the other horse just happened to be a friend of Way’s. At the time, Way was the leading trainer in the state. His mate, on the other hand, was going through a particularly lean trot so Way agreed to ensure that his horse would get beaten and then backed his friend’s horse for whatever he could get on for.
Despite racing tightly in the straight his friend’s horse got through a narrow gap to win and it seemed to be a good result for all concerned. But as Way unsaddled his beaten charge, the chief steward approached Way and advised him that he should lodge a protest.
Way declined the suggestion but nevertheless the steward put a protest in on behalf of his panel. Naturally it was upheld, much to the dismay of Way and his battling mate.
The very next week Way had a promising horse entered. He elected to put an inexperienced apprentice on but instructed the boy not to show it up as they had a more suitable race picked out for it a fortnight later. The apprentice did a terrible job of getting the horse beat with all on course realising that he was just ‘having a run’. Way knew that he was gone and could see himself facing another 12 months on the sidelines. But to his surprise there was no inquiry.
Flying to Kalgoorlie the very next day, whom should Way bump into at the airport but the steward who, after exchanging pleasantries, gave Way a stern warning to never to do that again. Way acknowledged his error and tipped the steward his Kalgoorlie runner as a conciliatory gesture.
That night, Way did all his money at the two-up at Kalgoorlie. In desperation he tipped his horse to the Greeks, the Chinese and any other nationality who might have something on it for him. And so they did, as it was spectacularly backed from 9/2 ($5.50) in to 9/10 ($1.90) and won easily. Everyone was happy, including the steward who had a grin from ear to ear.
Just a couple of weeks later, Way again had a well-backed horse that appeared to get a lot of favours in the run and again the stewards chose not to act. By now Way was getting a little suspicious and he rang the steward and told him that he suspected that perhaps it was the steward that owned the horse and not the bodgy name that appeared in the racebook. The official somewhat sheepishly confirmed that this was the case.
When Way then asked him how many others he owned, the steward admitted to having seven horses in his yard. Way promised to assist them in every way possible and that he would never pull any of them up without the steward’s say so!