It was a life-changing phone call for a “hard partying” jockey and a key launching pad for the Subzero legend.
Staying in Adelaide for the local autumn carnival with his Uncle Joe and Aunt Pauline, Greg Hall vividly remembers when Lee Freedman – a rising star of Australia’s training ranks at the time – came calling.
“Lee rang out of the blue and asked ‘Have you got a ride in the SA Derby?’ and I said I didn’t,” Hall recalled this week.
“He said ‘Can you carry the whip in the left hand?’ and I said ‘Yeah, I’m a champion at it’.”
History shows Hall’s larrikin-like deception – he had never used the whip left-handed – secured him the Derby ride on the promising stayer, and the pair duly landed the three-year-old classic, before backing up nine days later and streaking away with the 1992 Adelaide Cup.
In November that year they captured Australian racing’s greatest prize, the Melbourne Cup, and the duo’s names were forever etched in the nation’s sporting history.
Racetrack feats were merely the first chapter in Subzero’s remarkable life, which has been mourned and celebrated this week, after he died last Saturday, aged 32. He became a celebrated clerk of the course horse, then a racing ambassador, teaming with beloved handler/owner Graham Salisbury to lift community spirits and touch the hearts of countless people in schools, hospitals, aged-care facilities and much more.
Hall’s life ultimately took a different direction, beset with alcohol and gambling addictions, and forced to publicly declare his rock-bottom status before starting the journey back several years ago.
Speaking this week about Subzero, and the role the two Adelaide wins played in the legend, a “very emotional” Hall says he remembers the SA Derby and the circumstances of his booking on the lightly raced gelding “like it was yesterday”.
In his final pre-SA Derby run, Subzero – ridden by a young apprentice named Damien Oliver – had ducked in along the Flemington home straight, costing himself victory in the St Leger behind Dark Ksar.
Freedman subsequently started searching for a jockey able to use the whip left-handed, to offset Subzero’s troublesome trait. However, the Melbourne trainer left just enough wriggle room for Hall to secure the ride on a verbal technicality, with a clear conscience.
“On Derby Day I walked out holding the whip in my left hand, jumped in the barriers, put it in my right hand – and he went as straight as a gun barrel for me,” Hall says.
“He came down the middle of the track and, as we know, won very easily.
“Nine days later he had 51.5kg and Lee said ‘Can you ride him in the Adelaide Cup?’.
“I was a heavyweight, so I had to lose about six or seven kilos, which I did.
“Then before the Cup I went back out with the whip in my left hand again, and in the barriers I put it in my right hand.”
Subzero again sailed down the middle of the Morphettville track, travelling truly, and won the Adelaide Cup by three lengths. Hall’s omission was suddenly moot.
“Years down the track, after ‘Subbie’ won the Melbourne Cup, Lee said to me one day ‘You know what? I watched all those races and you told me you could use the whip in the left hand’,” Hall says.
“I said ‘No, I didn’t say I could use it in the left hand – you asked me if I could carry it in my left hand’.
“And that’s the true story of how I got the ride on Subbie.”
So convincing was the Adelaide Cup win – on a ‘soft 7’ track – that Hall immediately made a recommendation to Freedman.
“It’s not an easy task for an Adelaide Cup winner to win a Melbourne Cup, I know it’s happened, but it’s rare,” Hall says.
“But I did say to Lee after the Adelaide Cup ‘Better get him ready for the big one, because he’s a serious two-miler’.
“But Lee was going to do it anyway.”
Hall, who retired 20 years ago, learned of Subzero’s passing via a Saturday afternoon phone call from Melbourne-based news and sports presenter Jacqueline Felgate, triggering an overwhelming wave of sadness within his heart.
Hall had retained a close association with Subzero post the horse’s racetrack commitments, seeing him “at least half a dozen times a year”, often to attend community visits with Salisbury.
“He was very special. It’s been a long week for me,” Hall says.
“To tell you the honest truth, I turned the phone off on Monday because I couldn’t take any more. I needed to grieve and get over it.”
Hall last saw Subzero – in Bendigo Equine Hospital – a few months ago, before Salisbury passed away in June. He says the horse recognised him instantly.
“It was unbelievable,” Hall said.
“When I went to the hospital, Graham said ‘Hall, he doesn’t do that for anyone’.
“It was freezing cold, but Subbie put his head over my shoulder and gave me a cuddle and I gave him a cuddle. I spent an hour or so in the box with him, and it was just beautiful.”
Hall says he feels “lucky and proud” of his association with Subzero.
“He’ll never be forgotten and they won’t replace him,” Hall said.
“I might have just been the lucky prick who rode him.”
IMAGE: The finish of the 1992 Adelaide Cup, captured by Atkins Photography.