THE biggest compliment in life can sometimes be never forgetting where you come from.
Roy Higgins could have easily left behind the heat and dust of his early racing years in the Riverina, starting at Deniliquin and including a successful association with one of the area’s greatest trainers, the late Jack Freyer, at Corowa.
Racing opened doors for “The Professor” to literally rub shoulders with royalty in a career headlined by two Melbourne Cups and 11 jockeys’ premierships.
But Higgins remained the rider of choice for Freyer long after his apprenticeship ended and he relocated to Melbourne, which remained his home until his death last Saturday aged 75.
Freyer had the last laugh on a long line of press critics when Higgins, still an apprentice, rode Tauri to victory in the Provincial Plate at Flemington in 1958.
Freyer’s son and eight-time Alb-ury Cup winning trainer, Richard, said the win was particularly sweet and set Higgins’ career alight.
“They criticised dad for putting on a three kilo apprentice in a non-claiming race,” he said.
“The Provincial Plate was big in those days and the decision to put Roy on this good mare attracted plenty of critics.
“But at the presentation dad let go and said ‘don’t worry about this kid, he will be mixing it with Scobie Breasley, George Moore and Geoff Lane in the next few years’.”
He was a good judge.
The Freyer-Higgins bond was unbreakable in an era when speed maps and other gadgetry available to modern day trainers and jockeys didn’t exist.
At the peak of his career in the mid-1960s, which included his Melbourne Cup wins on Light Fingers and Red Handed for Bart Cummings, Higgins won back-to-back Albury and Corowa cups with one of the Freyer stable’s greatest horses, Glo Whirl.
They almost added the Wagga Cup in an era which included another great local horse, Burmonga, that Glo Whirl narrowly beat in the 1967 Albury Cup.
Geoff Duryea rode for one of the other big Riverina stables — Berrigan’s Bert Honeychurch — and never encountered a tougher rival.
They regularly crossed paths on local tracks and in Melbourne, where they went head-to-head in the 1973 Melbourne Cup.
Duryea had his one and only ride on the Riverina’s big chance Red Hope, who had been installed favourite after taking out the Wagga Cup earlier in the year.
Higgins was on another Cummings-trained hope, Dayana, who had won the Victoria Derby 12 months earlier, but both horses finished outside the placings in the cup won by Gala Supreme.
Duryea and Higgins also share the rare distinction of winning back-to-back Albury Cups on Jack Freyer-trained horses — Higgins on Glo Whirl in 1966-67 and Duryea on Shakir and Carl’s Gift in 1975-76.
“He was by far the best jockey I rode against,” Duryea said.
“I watched him a number of times on horses getting to the 300 or 400 mark and thinking he can’t win.
“But he just lifted them across the line.
“I rode against Harry White and Peter Cook, who were great riders, and without sounding disrespectful, I thought Roy, by far, was the best.
“He was the George Moore of Victoria.”
Duryea said Higgins’ competitive streak put him ahead of his peers.
“You would try to push him into a pocket, but he would just push you out of the way,” he said.
“It didn’t matter whether it was a big race in Melbourne or an improvers at Deniliquin, he would do the same thing.”
Higgins retired in 1984 but remained in racing by forging a long career in radio and television.
His soft spot for Border horses and trainers who ventured to town was well known.
Wangaratta trainer John Ledger was one of the many beneficiaries of Higgins’ racing acumen, starting with talented mare Blaze The Turf, who enjoyed a hot streak on city tracks in the late 1990s.
“He helped me pick out races, who he thought should ride and how we should ride her in a race,” Ledger said.
“He was as sharp as a tack.
“He never lost his grassroots.
“He always appreciated people from the bush because he knew what their backgrounds were and how hard they had done it.”
Ledger’s late son Adrian was another to tap into Higgins’ tactical genius.
Adrian’s greatest days in the saddle were aboard the stable’s best performed horse, Brave Chief.
“He would be forever talking to him about how to rate the horse out in front,” Ledger said.
“Ade won 12 races on him and Roy was only too willing to help.
“When Bart Cummings became a legend it was Roy Higgins who played a big part.”
Fittingly, Higgins’ funeral will be held at Flemington today.