NSW Premier Mike Baird was followed into Bart Cummings’ state funeral by a couple in well-worn coats and shoes – the old gent carrying a green shopping bag, his wife limping with what might be a dodgy hip.
The St Mary’s Cathedral congregation looked a lot like a race day crowd at Flemington: tailored suits alongside zip-front jackets and sneakers, and everyone looking like they belonged there.
Whether racing royalty like Gai Waterhouse, dignitaries like Mr Baird and Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove, or just everyday punters, everyone had been touched somehow by the story of legendary trainer Cummings and wanted to pay their respects.
Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, said the modest Cummings was revered by Australians of all sorts.
“Even the shyest racehorse trainer was bound to become a national figure when he trained 12 Melbourne Cup winners,” he said.
“From the cabbies who drove him to Randwick and Flemington to leaders of government and industry, even the Queen.”
More than a thousand people filled St Mary’s for the funeral mass, among them champion jockeys Jim Cassidy, Blake Shinn and Glen Boss, trainer Chris Waller, federal health and sport minister Sussan Ley, former NSW premier Barrie Unsworth and state Labor leader Luke Foley.
Cummings’ 12 Melbourne Cup wins have set a record that won’t be broken.
When he died aged 87 on August 30, he also left behind a personal record of modesty and quiet determination.
“I was always in awe of my father,” Cummings’ son Anthony said in a tearful eulogy.
“One of his favourite sayings was there’s no such word as no.”
Anthony had an at-times fraught relationship with his father but learned skills that have made him a leading trainer in his own right.
Anthony was one of the large Cummings clan mourning the passing of Bart, who had five children, recently became a great-grandfather and only two days before his death celebrated 61 years of marriage to his beloved wife Valmae.
Valmae Cummings, frail and in a wheelchair, sat at the front of the congregation with her family around her.
She had met Bart at a Catholic youth group in Adelaide and been by his side, helping build the business and raise the family, throughout.
Beside Cummings’ coffin were placed the 1996 Melbourne Cup won by Saintly and a statue of the Virgin Mary – symbols of the two religions in his life.
Archbishop Fisher said Cummings and Valmae either attended Mass every Sunday or had it said for them at home but Bart still brought his dry wit to bear on his faith.
Every year Cummings had his stables blessed by the parish priest but said of the practice: “It doesn’t help if they can’t gallop.”
The priest who gave the homily, Father Adrian Meaney, said Cummings had passed away peacefully at his home beside the Nepean River in Sydney’s northwest.
“Bart finished his race of a lifetime,” Fr Meaney said.
“He had run his course with great courage.”
Outside the cathedral bystanders broke out in applause as the hearse carrying Cummings’ coffin pulled away.
Among the crowd was jockey JJ Miller, who rode the trainer’s second Melbourne Cup winner, Galilee, in 1966, and had the last of his regular conversations with Bart a few months ago.
“We used to have conversations about everything – politics, the sharemarket and red wine – the important things in life,” he said.
Paddy McDonald wasn’t a regular racegoer or punter but among those applauding as Cummings’ coffin left.
“He was just a man who did good,” he said.