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Frank Reys (c. 1931–1984)

by John Maynard and Sitarani Kerin

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Frank Reys, by Don Edwards, 1973

Frank Reys, by Don Edwards, 1973

National Library of Australia, 44034099

Frank Reys (c. 1931–1984), jockey, was born in the early 1930s in northern Queensland and was raised as one of fourteen children—the eldest of nine children from his mother, Anne, and five children from his father Andrew’s previous relationship. Anne was a Djiribul (Dyirbal/Jirrbal) woman from Johnstone River and Andrew was a Filipino labourer and cook who had migrated to Australia about 1916. A skilled horsewoman, Anne taught her children to ride horses at a young age. Frank and his brothers would round up brumbies, break them in, and ride them in contests among themselves, with Frank winning most of the races. Later, he became a show rider in Cairns.

In 1949 Reys was apprenticed to Alf Barker as a jockey in Cairns. On 30 July that year he rode in his first race, winning on Cruedon at Gordonvale. On 7 November 1956 at Sandgate he married Noeline Stevenson, a non-Indigenous woman of Scottish descent. He finished his apprenticeship with Gordon Shelly and moved to Sydney with Noeline and their infant son Chris (b. 1957). Daughters Debbie and Shelley were born in 1958 and 1967, respectively. By 1961 the family was living in Melbourne and Reys was racing throughout Victoria, where he built a reputation as a top-class rider. He won the Oaks Stakes at Flemington in 1962, the Australasian Cup in 1969, and two Oakleigh Plates in 1970 and 1971. Weighing just seven stone seven pounds (49 kg), he once rode five winners in a single day. He was president of the Victorian Jockeys’ Association from 1964 to 1966.

Plagued by accidents, Reys earned the nickname ‘Autumn Leaves.’ A fall at Kyneton in 1969 resulted in a broken shoulder and concussion. Early the next year a four-horse collision at Geelong left him with a fractured pelvis and serious internal injuries. Hospitalised for three months, he recovered only to refracture his pelvis in 1972 when his horse reared. Later, at a meeting at Moe, his mount fell heavily, breaking his nose and cheekbone, leaving him with a face like ‘a knockabout pixie’ (Maynard 2013, 85). The family’s finances were stretched to near breaking-point as Reys struggled to recuperate both physically and mentally. Noeline urged him to retire, but he was determined to make a comeback.

Ready to resume racing, Reys suffered another setback after helping a pony to become free from barbed-wire on a friend’s property; he broke his ankle and was not fit to ride until August 1973. He considered retiring at this time, but his friend, trainer Ray Hutchins, recommended four-year-old gelding Gala Supreme as a Cup contender, and persuaded him to undergo rehab and continue racing. In October 1973 he placed second on Gala Supreme in the Caulfield Cup, his eyes firmly set on the main event of the Victorian spring racing carnival: the Melbourne Cup. He had participated in nine previous attempts to capture Australia’s greatest racing prize, coming third in 1964. But with Gala Supreme drawing the extreme outside barrier for the two-mile race, the odds were not in his favour as no one had ever won from this starting position. Undeterred, Reys, the oldest jockey on the field, told trainer Ray Hutchins that he would be ‘one off the fence in fifth or sixth place going out from the straight’ (quoted in Maynard 2013, 84), and that is exactly what he did, narrowly beating the favourite. The story quickly became legend. After the race, a hushed crowd listened as the senior lightweight jockey gave an impassioned speech:

I thank the good Lord, my family and trainer Ray Hutchins. It is the one thing in my life as a jockey that I have wished for, it is every jockey’s dream. I cannot believe it is possible. I don’t know what to believe. I have picked myself up off the ground to win this and now I don’t know what I am going to do. (Hourigan 1973, 32)

The win earned him $153,600 in prize money and a place in the annals of racing history. Hutchins and he were also the first trainer and jockey to be awarded gold-plated Melbourne Cup miniatures, worth $6,500.

Reys was the first Aboriginal jockey to win a Melbourne Cup, but only his family knew that at the time. He chose not to publicly disclose his Aboriginal identity, as doing so could have been prejudicial to his career. Instead, he identified as Filipino throughout his life. He continued racing until 1976, retiring after a final win at Flemington, giving him 1,329 wins during his twenty-seven-year career. In retirement he became involved in a stud venture and then a licensed grocery business.

A devout Catholic, Reys was quietly spoken, gentle, and shy. He had ‘a smile that would last for days’ (Webster 2013). After undergoing major surgery for pancreatic cancer in 1981, he died at home in Melbourne on 3 April 1984 and was buried in New Cheltenham cemetery. He was survived by his wife and three children. His daughter Shelley became the inaugural co-chair of Reconciliation Australia in 2000, was appointed AO for her work in the Indigenous arena in 2012, and was named one of the Australian Financial Review’s 100 Women of Influence in 2013.


Worimi (Warrimay) man John Maynard and Rani Kerin, a European woman born on Wurundjeri (Woiwurrung) land, consulted with Frank Reys's family in writing this article.

Select Bibliography

  • Hourigan, John. ‘Fate Has a Hand in Gala Supreme’s Game Win.’ Canberra Times, 7 November 1973, 32
  • Maynard, John. Aborigines and the ‘Sport of Kings.’ Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2013
  • Webster, Andrew. ‘Man of His People Finally Gets His Due.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 4 November 2013

Citation details

John Maynard and Sitarani Kerin, 'Reys, Frank (c. 1931–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012

Frank Reys, by Don Edwards, 1973

Frank Reys, by Don Edwards, 1973

National Library of Australia, 44034099

Life Summary [details]


c. 1931
Queensland, Australia


1984 (aged ~ 53)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (pancreatic)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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