In 1973, Frank Reys' made Australian history on the grounds of the famous Flemington Race Course. Riding his horse 'Gala Supreme' on Melbourne Cup day, the country saw a remarkable victory by a jockey from Far North Queensland who had spent his career overcoming hurdles.
Not only was Frank Reys' was the first— and to this day, the only —Aboriginal winner of the Melbourne Cup, he was also the oldest sportsman in the event, coming in a champion at 41-years-old. His horse, Gala Supreme also made history, as the first Victorian-bred horse to win the Melbourne Cup since 'Wodalla', 20 years prior.
As a boy, Reys and his brothers are said to have round up and break in wild brumbies and then race in contests. He participated in gymkhanas and pony rides in Cairns and in 1949, teenage Frank became an apprentice jockey to trainer Alfred Baker. Later his apprenticeship was transferred to trainer Gordon Shelley.
Throughout his career Reys had claimed an impressive 1329 titles from his early apprentice days to his retirement in 1976. This includes the Warwick Farm Autumn Handicap, The William Reid Stakes and the Bendigo and Ballarat Cups.
However, in 1969, Reys suffered numerous injuries after a four horse fall. He had a smashed pelvis, a broken shoulder, a broken cheek bone and broken ankle. His Melbourne Cup victory happened in the first year that he had gotten back on the saddle, after spending nearly 10 months recovering from his injuries and poor health.
At 49 kg, Reys was carried by Gala Supreme and despite raising concerns with his then-trainer Ray Hutchins about drawing the extreme outside barrier (number 24), the dynamic between rider and horse overcame this perceived disadvantage. It was a narrow win, just passing favourite 'Glengowan' by a nose. Reys claimed $153, 600 in prize money.
Although Reys' mother is a Djiribul Aboriginal woman, his father's Filipino heritage was the only background reported on. As Indigenous Australians had only been granted citizenship rights six years prior to Reys' win, having a Aboriginal person involved in a national sporting event was very considered controversial, racing historian, Andrew Lemon told ABC's Radio National,
"At the time that he was racing and there was often quite a lot of publicity about him, it was always said that Frank was of a Filipino background which of course he was but that wasn't the whole story," Lemon told ABC.
"The information that's now come through his family in later years was that he also had an Aboriginal background as well. It was something at the time that most racegoers didn't know."
Reys' daughter Shelley Reys AO, a national cultural competency specialist and the inaugural Co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia, paid respect to her late father today, sharing photos of the first and only Aboriginal Melbourne Cup winner.