MIDNIGHT and Bill the Bastard sound like names for a pair of bushrangers but these two weren’t, even if Bill was a notorious rogue before he turned hero. He and Midnight were bush horses — two of the 136,000 Australian “walers” that went to war a century ago and didn’t come home.
No one alive knows whether Midnight ever “met” Bill but it’s unlikely. He was with the 2nd Light Horse Regiment and Midnight went to the 12th with her owner, Guy Haydon. Midnight died in battle and Bill apparently didn’t. A book loosely based on “the Bastard” claims he survived the war and was given to a Turkish family on the Gallipoli Peninsula, a Hollywood happy ending so preposterous it sounds like an invention.
But the real stories behind the legends of Bill the Bastard and Midnight are so touching they don’t need embellishing. That is why a Melbourne businessman with a big heart and deep pockets has come up with a way to honour those two as a tribute to all Anzac horses lost at war.
Bill Gibbins sold his trucking business for plenty a few years ago so he can afford a couple of hobbies: punting and philanthropy.
Back in 2007, when the “Rats of Tobruk” looked like losing their Albert Park building used for reunions since World War II, Bill quietly bought it for the surviving “Rats” to use. The $1.75 million price went to fight childhood cancer — and the old soldiers could still call Tobruk House their own.
When Bill the Good Bloke heard of Bill the Bastard and Midnight, he thought of a way to combine doing good works and going to races. That’s why, next year, to commemorate the end of “the war to end all wars” and horses and men that died in it, the Warrnambool Racing Club will stage the inaugural “Jericho Cup”. The main event will be the first running of what Gibbins and the club plan to be a permanent fixture every November.
At 4600m the $300,000 Cup will be the longest flat race in Australasia and then some (the Melbourne Cup is 3200m) — a tribute to a “three mile” race that “Banjo” Paterson and other Light Horse officers staged in Palestine to boost morale. And, perhaps, to lull the enemy into a false sense of security before launching an attack. A race meeting, deliberately promoted so the Turks would hear about it, was a way to explain a massed gathering of soldiers and horses. In the “factionalised” version, Bill the Bastard wins the “three-miler” across the sand, ridden by an Aboriginal jockey. As history, that bit is up there with The Man from Snowy River and Braveheart.
The real worth of Bill the Bastard was not how fast he was, but how tough.
Descriptions suggest he was a big, rough chestnut gelding of uncertain breeding and temperament. Like thousands of others sold to the army by outback stations, he had probably run wild early in his life — then proved too hard to break in.
After being sent to the Middle East with shiploads of other “remounts”, Bill proved an incurable buckjumper — hence the nickname. He was mostly used as a packhorse until a Queenslander, Major Michael Shanahan, managed to ride him, which was lucky for the four soldiers that Shanahan and Bill the Bastard rescued at the battle for Romani on August 4, 1916.
The story goes that Shanahan rode up and down the line under fire to rally the troops. Bill endured this for several hours longer than other officers’ chargers.
According to one account: “Shanahan and Bill found four Tasmanian soldiers stranded next to their dead horses and under gun fire. Shanahan said to them, ‘Get up on Bill, get up! One on each stirrup, two on the back, we will get out’.”
The rogue horse, unrideable not long before, carried the five men (a load of maybe 380kg) to safety.
Sadly, Shanahan was shot later in the battle and would lose a leg. The amputation got him a trip to England, then home to Queensland, the DSO bravery medal, and the war story of a lifetime.
The legend of Bill the Bastard carrying five men grew better with each telling. Meanwhile, in the 12th Light Horse regiment, Midnight and a young lieutenant, Guy Haydon, were making a reputation for Australian horses and horsemanship.
Horse and rider were a great match. Midnight was one of the most superbly bred horses in the army, and would never have been sent to war if Guy, a gun polo player and all-round sportsman, hadn’t insisted on taking her when he signed up in 1915.
Midnight was jet black, with a white star shaped like a tiara, and as athletic as she was beautiful. The Haydons had bred her from a line of thoroughbreds on their family property Bloomfield in the Upper Hunter Valley, where the family still breeds some of the finest performance horses in the world.
The only reason they let a gem like Midnight go to war was that Guy had ridden her from when he was a boy, and they trusted her to keep him safe. She was the fastest horse in the district and brilliant on her feet, and that could be the difference between life and death on the battlefield.
Midnight was the “Black Beauty” of the Light Horse. There are no photographs of Bill the Bastard or thousands of others but young Haydon’s superb mare was photographed several times from recruit camp to the Palestinian desert. In a “Desert Olympics” staged between Australians and the British cavalry, Guy rode her to win a clean sweep of events — “quarter-mile” sprint, obstacle race and a formal “equitation” test.
It all ended during the fabled charge to the wells of Beersheba in late 1917. As Midnight leapt over a trench at the head of the charge, a Turk shot upwards through her belly. The bullet went through the mare’s body and the saddle and hit Guy next to his spine. As his great-nephew, Peter Haydon, wrote decades later, “The mare had saved his life, absorbing the point-blank shock of the bullet.” She was dead. Guy lay wounded all night near her body. It was October 31 — 12 years to the day since Midnight was born in 1905.
Five days later, Guy survived an operation to remove the bullet. He sent it home to his mother for Christmas. The Haydon family still have it along with other mementos from 185 unbroken years of horse breeding. Amazingly, they still have horses related to Midnight — descended from her mother, Moonlight, and her sire, Tester. One of the Midnight family, Haydon Angel Jewel, known in Argentina as Mi Gatita, is a champion polo pony ridden by the world’s best player, Adolfo Cambasio. She has a white star like Midnight. The resemblance is uncanny.
Peter and Alison Haydon keep photos of “Angel” with their other home-bred champions. But what they cherish most are sepia pictures of great-uncle Guy and Midnight, the mare who died saving him.
Wild horses wouldn’t keep the Haydons away from the Jericho Cup at Warrnambool. And if they and Bill Gibbins and the club can persuade Racing Victoria, there will be a super short-distance sprint on the program named in memory of Midnight.
How good would that be? On the same day, the longest and shortest flat races in Australia-NZ, open only to horses bred in those countries. All in memory of the Anzacs and the horses they took to war.
The obvious date, of course, would be Sunday, November 11 — exactly 100 years since the first Armistice Day. If the Racing Minister can’t make that happen, he’s not trying.