It’s been a bad year for racing journalists. We’ve already lost the unique talents of Nick Columb and Steve Brem and now John Costello has joined them. What a press room gang that would be! Imagine the stories, the laughter and their unabashed delight as they attempted to outdo each other with their lyrical use of language.
The wonderful writing talent which was Cos decreed, at the age of 81 and a half, it was time to await his inevitable fate. He would not make it until Christmas my friend Michelle told me earlier this week. And he didn’t. This morning the news was received that this week’s column in The Informant was indeed, as Cos predicted, his last.
It may have been his last but it was also possibly one of his best. It touched on the best horses and human competitors he had come across during his 60 year career – just take a moment to contemplate that, 60 years combining a love of thoroughbreds and writing! He didn’t steer away from the problems currently besetting our industry either with some nicely crafted serves at those who deserved them. But at the end there was positivity and hope, the hope that our industry would one day return to the glory days which Cos remembered.
While I share his hopes for the future one thing we may have seen the last of is racing journalists with the same level of wit, humour, and love of the English language as that possessed by Cos. At the risk of sounding like an old person, something Cos could never have been accused of, I find the blandness of current racing writers mind-numbingly dull.
That was something foreign to Cos as his writing shone with the positive joy of someone who loved what they were doing and took pride to craft each sentence.
Fortunately, his writing will remain to be enjoyed in the multitude of books he wrote. Those female jockeys out there currently plying their trade might also take time to give a nod of thanks his way as Cos was a dogged champion for the right of women jockeys as they fought to be licensed.
His legend will also live on through a myriad of Cos stories, as it seems everyone who encountered him has at least one or two.
My Cos story came about in the 1980s when he signed up for the mammoth task of producing the definitive history of New Zealand thoroughbred racing, Tapestry of Turf. I think the realisation of just what they had to deliver had hit Cos and his mate Pat Finnegan and they had decided to enlist a little help.
A meeting with Cos resulted in me coming away charged with the task of researching and writing about some of the greats of the 1940s. I can’t remember exactly how the conversation went but I do remember that Cos was somewhat nonplussed at my decision to research a decade so removed from personal experience.
But so it was that Clyde Conway, Kevin Bell, Wally O’Hearn and myself ended up contributing in our own ways to what was, and still is, a magnificent manuscript which tracks the beginnings of our industry through to the heady days of 1987. It is probably time for someone to tackle the intervening years, although much of it would make rather dismal reading.
I consider myself lucky to have been living in Auckland and working at BloodHorse during that time as it meant I was able to regularly attend the Racing Writers’ annual dinner. Back when daily newspapers still employed racing journalists the Racing Writers’ Association was a strong organisation and the black tie dinner was always a highlight. I remember it being sponsored by a tobacco company – these were the days when smoking wasn’t frowned upon and one could even smoke inside. The tables at the dinner were adorned with cartons of fags and the evening was capped off with port and cigars.
Cos – who in those days enjoyed the odd cigarette – was always front and centre, smiling and cracking witticisms, an enduring memory.
I don’t remember being more excited about any inductee into the NZ Racing Hall of Fame than I was in 2016 when admission to that elite group was bestowed on John Costello. It was an honour richly-deserved and he was certainly rather chuffed.
This wasn’t the blog I intended to write as we lead into Christmas and I only wish I could better acknowledge a man who contributed so much to our industry over the years.
Before I got the word about Cos my intention was to write something incredibly light-hearted about Christmas being one of the few racing free days of the year and to end with one of my favourite poems.
Because I think Cos would’ve enjoyed it I now share with you the wonderfully clever Tangmalangaloo by John O’Brien. Enjoy, and have a wonderful Christmas…..
The bishop sat in lordly state and purple cap sublime,
And galvanized the old bush church at Confirmation time.
And all the kids were mustered up from fifty miles around,
With Sunday clothes, and staring eyes, and ignorance profound.
Now was it fate, or was it grace, whereby they yarded too
An overgrown two-storey lad from Tangmalangaloo?
A hefty son of virgin soil, where nature has her fling,
And grows the trefoil three feet high and mats it in the spring;
Where mighty hills uplift their heads to pierce the welkin’s rim,
And trees sprout up a hundred feet before they shoot a limb;
There everything is big and grand, and men are giants too –
But Christian Knowledge wilts, alas, at Tangmalangaloo.
The bishop summed the youngsters up, as bishops only can;
He cast a searching glance around, then fixed upon his man.
But glum and dumb and undismayed through every bout he sat;
He seemed to think that he was there, but wasn’t sure of that.
The bishop gave a scornful look, as bishops sometimes do,
And glared right through the pagan in from Tangmalangaloo.
“Come, tell me, boy,” his lordship said in crushing tones severe,
“Come, tell me why is Christmas Day the greatest of the year?
“How is it that around the world we celebrate that day
“And send a name upon a card to those who’re far away?
“Why is it wandering ones return with smiles and greetings, too?”
A squall of knowledge hit the lad from Tangmalangaloo.
He gave a lurch which set a-shake the vases on the shelf,
He knocked the benches all askew, up-ending of himself.
And so, how pleased his lordship was, and how he smiled to say,
“That’s good, my boy. Come, tell me now; and what is Christmas Day?”
The ready answer bared a fact no bishop ever knew –
“It’s the day before the races out at Tangmalangaloo.