On the eve of the Melbourne Cup, ex-jockey Peter Ramsay is sitting down with Eternity to discuss the horse racing industry. But he keeps getting off track. It seems he would much rather talk about church and his gospel-filled conversations with strangers.
We do get around to speaking about hot-button issues such as gambling and animal cruelty, but not before Peter keeps galloping back to what has spurred him for almost half a century.
“If I’m out at the races and I’m just sitting in the grandstand, I say to the person next to me, ‘what’s your connection to all this?’ Well, it’s amazing what’s evolved out of that question!”
Since spending eight years as an amateur jockey in country NSW as a young man, 80-year-old Peter has always been involved in the racing industry. But it’s the 48 years since he made a commitment to follow Christ that have made a bigger impact on his life.
For Peter, horse racing – just like every other activity – is a means to an end. It’s an opportunity to talk with people who don’t know Jesus.
“If I’m out at the races and I’m just sitting in the grandstand, I say to the person next to me, ‘what’s your connection to all this?’ Well, it’s amazing what’s evolved out of that question!” he shares.
Peter also regularly uses conversation-starters to have long chats with people on the bus or train and with newcomers to his church in northern Sydney, where he’s known for asking the question: “What’s your story?”
This unassuming, slightly built man has brushed shoulders with some of the biggest names in horse racing. He knows Hugh Bowman, the jockey who rode champion mare Winx, as well as Winx’s trainer, the now famous Chris Waller. “He gives us considerable money towards the Australian Racing Christian Chaplaincy,” says Peter, who has served as a longtime committee member of ARCC.
As we chat, Peter pulls out a personal photo of Pat Day, who rode 8000 winners and was one of America’s best jockeys. Again, he draws the conversation back to the gospel, as he delightedly tells the story of how Day came to Christ by watching a tele-evangelist. He then shares the story of another well-known Australian trainer who is currently doing the Alpha Course, which explains the basics of the Christian faith.
Finally, he pulls out the “business card” he used as a jockey’s agent that shows a grainy photo of himself in his racing days, crouching over in full flight as his horse thunders into second place. This is quickly followed by a brochure about the ARCC – outlining how it was formed in 1996 to bring gospel-based Christian ministry to the racing industry, and now has about 15 chaplains across Australia.
It seems inevitable that Peter’s horse racing experience and his love for evangelism drew him to the ARCC. Having just retired from the committee (as well as his job as a real estate agent), he reflects on his 15 years of voluntary service with the ARCC – dishing up hot drinks to jockeys in the early hours of the morning, providing encouragement to national chaplain Colin Watts, handing out brochures and taking donations while chatting to people at the track. Peter describes this as “an opportunity to witness”.
“There’s a bookmaker out there who’s the most lovely man that I always speak to. He’s got a soft heart and tries to help with our racing chaplaincy, but he’s not there [as a believer] by the proverbial mile yet.”
Prayer has always played a big role in Peter’s evangelistic encounters at the track. “When you’re out there talking to people, I think if you ask God for opportunities, you’re more inclined to handle it better, rather than just flying into it,” he says.
While Peter is expert at diverting attention away from himself, he eventually unravels his own story before we get to the good, bad and ugly of horse racing (see below).
Peter grew up as an only child on a sheep and cattle farm in Coolah, central-west NSW.
“I had a terrible childhood because my parents split up when I was only one and my mother came and lived in Sydney,” shares Peter. “My father stayed on the farm and then he remarried again and his second wife turned out to be an alcoholic. Then he had a third marriage. All my friends loved him, but he just had no idea how to value women. He was just brought up in that era where you don’t talk.
“So, as a result of all of that, all through my 20s, 30s and into my 40s, I was terrified to make a commitment to anybody because I didn’t want to do it and have it fail.”
Peter fell into the horse racing industry when he was 22, “as everyone rode horses in Coolah”. After learning how to “ride trackwork”, he competed in several events in Queensland before entering the picnic-race circuit in his local area.
“After only about four or five rides, this horse at Tamworth won at a hundred to one. So once you’ve ridden a winner, let alone a hundred-to-one winner, then people ring you up,” Peter explains.
He went on to ride in about 500 races over the next eight years and had 60 wins. However, Peter certainly wasn’t in it for the glory and the prize money was minimal, so he kept working on his father’s farm.
“We weren’t really professional jockeys in the way they are in the city. Most of us were farmers’ sons, and we just did this as a form of social outlet. They used to have two-day meetings and there would be a lot of social life involved.”
After his stint as a jockey, Peter got fed up with country life and came to Sydney for a change. It was there that the somewhat “wild and materialistic” Peter found himself in church, after accepting an invitation from a girl, Clare, who he met at a party.
“We’ve been given dominion over the animals, but that doesn’t give us the right to be cruel.”
“So I went to St Barnabas [Anglican Church, Sydney] with her and I couldn’t believe it when somebody put $20 in the plate. That was such an example to me of real commitment that I just couldn’t take it on board at that stage.”
And yet, after reading the book A Man Called Peter by Catherine Marshall (sent to him by Clare), Peter overcame his fear of commitment and gave his life to God at age 32.
“On page 57 of that book were these exact words: ‘The act of will must come before the discovery.’ That’s what got me over the line … I had to respond to what God had done and was doing,” he shares.
The good, the bad and the ugly
When we finally reach the planned topics for our interview – the good, the bad and the ugly of the horse racing industry – Peter’s responses are again framed by his Christian faith.
On the good aspects of the racing industry, he tells this story: “At one of the big races just last month, there was a fall right at the finishing post and an apprentice jockey got knocked out, concussed … The chaplain knew his family and went over to help console them and pray with them. When the apprentice jockey woke up from his concussion in hospital, the chaplain spent some time talking with him and praying for him.”
In discussing the “bad” element of gambling, Peter says: “I don’t want to get religious about it, but I just don’t think that Christians should be betting. It can be a bad witness to somebody who’s struggled with a gambling addiction.”
And about the ugly issue of horse deaths and animal cruelty, he concedes: “We’ve been given dominion over the animals, but that doesn’t give us the right to be cruel.”
Then he adds, “There’s a vast amount of money being spent to regulate this at the moment, but I think the real emphasis needs to be on how we’re treating one another. For example, how people have been treated in nursing homes where the same sort of things are happening.
“We’ve got to really work hard from a political viewpoint to bring that up to another level. There needs to be a real emphasis on the love commandment.”
We end the conversation with Peter’s plans for Melbourne Cup day, which are suitably humble and focused on others. He’s going to a lunch at Sydney Golf Club with his wife Barbara and some friends. There they’ll watch the race on TV and, no doubt, Peter will also find a stranger or two to engage in deep conversation.