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Geelong's Melbourne Cup-VFA flag double

Don Juan with jockey Billy Wilson and trainer James Wilson Sr left of the horse. Courtesy of The Bob Gartland Collection - Geelong Cats
Don Juan with jockey Billy Wilson and trainer James Wilson Sr left of the horse. Courtesy of The Bob Gartland Collection

The Wilson brothers of Geelong were good things.

Our research suggests that Jimmy and Billy Wilson are the only two men to have achieved the astounding double of winning both an elite-level football premiership and a Melbourne Cup.

The legendary sporting all-rounders starred in Geelong's first four premierships in the VFA (in 1878-79-80 and 1882, with Jimmy captaining for the last three of these triumphs) but they gained more widespread fame in horse racing, largely courtesy of their efforts in the race that stops a nation.

Jimmy Wilson, the elder sibling, was a special case.

He rode successive second placegetters in Melbourne Cups at just 14 and 15, later winning a Cup as a trainer.

In between times, Jimmy Wilson performed such heroic deeds on the football field that he and Carlton champion George Coulthard were generally hailed as the two greatest footballers of the game's early days.

Meanwhile, Billy Wilson rode a Melbourne Cup winner at 13 or 14. (His birthdate is listed simply as 1859).

It's no surprise the brothers were stars of the turf given their racing pedigree. They were sired by Yorkshireman James Wilson senior, a one-time jockey who became widely celebrated as "the best horse trainer of his day in Australia".

For the early-to-bed, early-to-rise Wilsons, racing and football were family affairs.

'Old Jim' was Geelong Football Club president from 1878-83, the proud father's tenure encompassing his sons' glory days on the field. 'Young Jim' was Geelong president himself in 1887-88 after earlier serving under his father as a vice-president.

And when the Wilson boys traded their guernseys for silks, they rode horses trained by their father, who was also a successful breeder and owner.

Wilson senior – who founded the famous St Albans Stud, on the Barwon River at Geelong – had two runners in the second Melbourne Cup of 1862 and finished second the next year with mare Musidora.

Revered as the "Wizard of St Albans", Old Jim enjoyed his most successful period from 1870-77, when he won two Melbourne Cups and was unlucky to be second on four occasions. (He also claimed third in 1904.)

His eldest son was the first of the Wilson boys to become a jockey, Young Jim's maiden race being at Flemington on New Year's Day, 1869, when he was just 12.

Ten months later, at 13 and weighing just 24kgs, Young Jim made his Melbourne Cup debut on his father's "narrow, weedy-looking" mare Cymba.

He finished second in the next two Cups, steering Lapdog to the lead in 1870 only to be pipped at the post (when he and many spectators were certain he'd won), before repeating the effort the next year when the Wilsons unsuccessfully protested that the winning jockey had struck Young Jim's mount Romula in the head with his whip.

Young Jim – who once suffered a broken collarbone in a steeplechase but rode on and won – hung up his whip at the ripe old age of 16, because he was becoming too big.

That same year, his brother Billy – then as young as 12 – won the first Geelong Cup in a canter aboard Flying Scud.

The next year, 1873, when the Melbourne Cup was staged for the first time on a public holiday, Billy Wilson helped his father win his first Cup by piloting Don Juan to victory in a then-record time (3m 36s), despite the stallion being unwell in the days before the race. (The champion horse died just three months later after a trackwork incident.)

Three years later Old Jim won his second Melbourne Cup, this time with an 11-year-old jockey, the youngest ever.

Peter St Albans (real surname Bowden) belied his inexperience to win atop Briseis (the daughter of Old Jim's 1863 runner-up Musidora) – the first of only three fillies to win the Cup; and the only horse to achieve the triple treat of the Victoria Derby, the Melbourne Cup and the Oaks, all in the space of just six days.

Bowden would most certainly have ridden two Cup winners by the age of 12 had Wilson-trained colt Savanaka not been severely interfered with in 1877.

When Young Jim retired from football at 26 in 1882, he pursued horse training under his father’s discerning eye. His big moment came when his charge Merriwee proved the strongest "swimmer" in the rain-drenched 1899 Melbourne Cup.

Young Jim's greatest blunder was his decision to sell Newhaven in early 1896, only for the colt to romp home in that year's Cup.

Described variously as reserved, generous and gruff, Young Jim sternly advised jockeys: "Keep your eyes open and mouth shut."

He practiced what he preached, with one jockey recalling: "He did not seek publicity. Nor did he waste words … He was not unduly elated in success, nor did he complain when the wheel turned against him."

In 1935 illness prevented Young Jim from attending the Melbourne Cup for the first time in 70 years. He died 11 days later at 79, outliving both his brother (who died from illness at 30 or 31 in 1890) and his father (aged 88 in 1917).

St Albans Stud's fame took on another dimension when it acted as a secret hideout for the legendary Phar Lap after a gunman tried to shoot him three days before the 1930 Melbourne Cup. As depicted in the 1983 film Phar Lap, the wonder horse was kept out of harm's way and duly won his only Cup.

By then the stud had long been under different management, Old Jim having sold it for a pretty penny in 1886. 

More footy links with the Melbourne Cup

  • Robert Hickmott failed to play a senior game at Essendon in the late '80s but broke through for two games for Melbourne under John Northey in 1990. He later found his true calling in horse racing and, as a private trainer for leading owner Lloyd Williams, helped prepare 2007 Melbourne Cup winner Efficient before enjoying further success in his own right with Green Moon (2012) and Almandin (2016).

  • Former Geelong captain and horse trainer Mark Bairstow is a cousin of jockey Damien Oliver, who has won three Melbourne Cups – on Doriemus (1995), Media Puzzle (2002) and Fiorente (2013). Oliver's emotional win on Media Puzzle, which became the subject of 2011 film The Cup, came just days after his older brother Jason was killed in a trackwork accident. For a time in the '90s, the late Jason Oliver had been Bairstow's stable jockey.

Thanks to the AFL's statistics and history consultant Col Hutchinson and fellow historian Mark Pennings – author of the Origins of Australian Football series – for sharing their research.

The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the AFL or its clubs