Geoffrey Alan “Woolley” Wilson grew up in Gosford close enough to the race track to hear the PA system, and it was like a siren call that lured him into a life of racing.
He was born on April 1, 1957, but he was nobody’s fool.
He never strayed too far from the Central Coast, and lived there with his late mum June and his dear dad Al all his life.
He started his journalism career at the Gosford Examiner before joining the Newcastle bureau of News Limited in 1980, then moving on to the Daily Mirror in Sydney.
His racing colleagues at the Mirror gave him his nickname, ironically taken from the champion greyhound Woolley Wilson.
He came to the Newcastle Herald by chance in 1996 on a casual placement, and we instantly loved this bloke whose passion for racing shone through in his vibrant writing.
Woolley had a line to the biggest names in racing, but he loved equally to tell the stories of the battling trainers, the jockey struggling with his weight, the coat-tuggers, and the small-time owners who had the luck to get themselves a handy horse.
It didn’t matter whether it was a Broadmeadow maiden, a Golden Slipper, or Choisir winning at Royal Ascot, Woolley gave them the same treatment.
One of the first racing stories he wrote for the Herald was on a bush trainer who had picked up a lame horse that had been written off as a racing proposition.
The trainer turned the horse out in a steep paddock with a stream that ran along the bottom, and he put the horse’s feed bin at the top of the hill. The horse would make the trips up and down the slope between food and drink and slowly, over many months, walked its way back to fitness and back into the winner’s stall.
Woolley had a million stories, many of them concerning his own bad luck on the punt.
Once, long before the days of pub TABs, he had given a winning daily double ticket to a mate to collect for him when he went to put a bet on. Sadly, the poor chap collapsed and died en route with Woolley’s ticket in his top pocket. His widow remarked later how unusual it was for him to take a daily double, but it had paid for the funeral.
“Just another way to do your dough,” Woolley would say.
(Woolley once wrote a column for the Herald on the perils of punting. We illustrated it with a cartoon of him placing a bet on horse called “Sure Thing”, which was the even-money favourite. As Woolley walks away, the bookie winds Sure Thing out to 100-1.)
There were the good luck stories, too.
For a time, Woolley would host a lunch on the day before the Melbourne Cup for Newcastle punters on the annual Kerry Phillips Great Events tour.
On one of those occasions, Woolley got the champion jockey Darren Beadman to come along as a guest speaker.
Afterwards Beadman, who had returned from his famous sabbatical from racing as a lay preacher, signed autographs and added “John 3:16”.
This is, of course, one of the most famous verses in the Bible: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him” etc etc.
But some took the numbers to be a tip and the next day backed number 16 in race three, which was a moderately performed conveyance named Sophie Princess paying $34. It won, of course.
“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” Woolley chuckled.
Some of Woolley’s best stories were not for publication.
“It’s only a rort if you’re not in on it,” he would say.
Early in his career as a racing writer he visited the home of a country trainer who had enjoyed his share of success.
On the walls were photographs of Slipper winners and Derby winners, but pride of place was taken by an ornate oil painting of a horse Woolley had not heard of and whose record, listed on the frame, showed only two wins from 50-odd starts.
“Why is this bloke so special,” Woolley asked. “He only won two races.”
“We only tried twice,” replied the trainer with a twinkle in his eye.
Woolley believed that the secret to punting was to watch races.
“Seeing is believing,” he said. “Watch races – anywhere, any time, and look for winners.”
He used that philosophy when he declared Green Moon to Herald readers before the 2012 Melbourne Cup. The year before the horse had won the Newcastle Cup in outstanding fashion.
Strangely, a seemingly disappointing seventh in the Cox Plate leading up to the Cup only reinforced Woolley’s opinion that Green Moon was unbeatable. He won and paid $22.
He was all about confidence, was Woolley.
“Old racing proverb: Money lost, nothing lost; confidence lost, everything lost,” he once told this $5 each-way punter during a lean spell.
His favourite horse was Kingston Town.
“He won from 1200 metres to 3200, he won 30 of 41 starts, three Cox Plates in a row, 14 group 1s,” he would recite.
“When he was racing of a Saturday, you couldn’t sleep the night before, because you knew something special was going to happen.
“Don’t talk to me about Black Caviar.”
Woolley was in his twenties when he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.
He tried to manage the insidious disease as best as he could but, as the long-suffering staff at the Gosford renal unit will attest, he was never the best patient.
Those nurses and his fellow patients became like a second family to Woolley, and he always shouted everyone coffees if he’d had a win on the weekend.
His problems became almost insurmountable when he suffered a fall in 2011 that left him in a wheelchair.
But he battled on, and was able to work from home with the aid of Sky Channel and his constantly ringing phone.
Against all odds, we got him online, and he joked that “www” stood for “World Wide Woolley”.
And he was forever grateful to the racing community for the way they kept him in the loop.
Long calls with Woolley were a staple of the working day, always full of laughs, gossip and tips – his voice full of life but often masking the pain he was in.
His love for his craft kept him going when most would have called it a day.
“I’ve got one for you,” he would say when he had a good yarn, and then he would bash it out and email it up.
And bash it out he would. He was never the greatest typist, and he had glasses like the bottoms of Coke bottles.
I can recall a rookie sub-editor at the Herald throwing his hands up in dismay when he tried to unscramble Woolley’s copy.
“It’s like cracking a code,” one of the old hacks advised. “You just have to work out which keys he had his fingers on when he started typing.”
As good a bloke as Woolley was, he had a fierce temper and his blow-ups were legendary.
When Woolley felt that things weren’t right, he let you know.
He graded his blow-ups according to racing terminology, and you didn’t want to be on the end of a group 1 spray from Woolley.
Usually though, they blew over as quick as they blew up.
The best I saw was in Melbourne after Derby Day in the late ’90s.
Newcastle trainer Paul Perry had won a race with horse called Bezeal Bay.
Woolley had declared it, and a crew of us from Newcastle had backed it and cheered it all the way down the long Flemington straight.
Afterwards, Woolley took us to a Chinese restaurant he had discovered. But the service was painfully slow, and as the mob got hungrier the tension mounted in Woolley until … what transpired does not bear repeating in a family paper.
As we were marched out of the restaurant I said to the bride: “One day you’ll look back on this and laugh.”
“No I won’t,” she replied, and she never has. But I have – many, many times – and I am now as I write this. It was just before Christmas when Woolley finally became too ill to work.
He was admitted to Gosford Hospital where, on top of everything else, he couldn’t watch the races.
But things took a turn for the better last week when he moved in to a nursing home.
On Sunday, he got Sky Channel hooked up, and his great friend Frances O’Shea reported that he was in fine spirits.
“He was even talking about writing some stories,” Frances said.
On Sunday night, though, Woolley took a turn for the worse.
He died peacefully on Monday afternoon, a racing man to the end.
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