As we sat down to discuss the life and times of Udyta Clarke, one of racing’s most popular identities, she would stop more than once to lovingly whisper “whoa bubs, whoa, mum’s here” or “good boy, good boy”.
And a couple of times she had to deliver a stern “cut that out”.
Clarke has developed a cult following for her open affection for her horses. It’s a feeling she believes is mutual.
“They know when I’m not happy and they always try and please me,” she says.
“Before I had my hip done I could hardly walk and I had a push-walker to help me. But I kept doing my horses right up until I went in to get operated on. At nights I’d have a bucket of feed on the push-walker and I’d walk into the box and they’d eat out of the bucket, then I’d stand on a milk crate to throw the rugs on. Sometimes it’d take me an hour to put the rugs on.
“They were so good, but the minute they knew I could walk properly, they tried me out again. They said, ‘oh, you’re right now, we can play around again’.”
Clarke’s horses’ affection for ‘mum’ should not really surprise, given the lengths she goes with them. No tale better illustrates that than Heza Dude.
He was virtually born dead after his dam, Skyla, encountered difficulty while foaling and only survived due to Clarke’s determined CPR skills.
“He was born cold,” recalls Clarke. “I’d spent 12 months waiting for this baby to come and here he is in front of me, lifeless.
“I did everything that I possibly could. I literally gave him mouth-to-mouth and worked on him for 25 minutes, just pushing on his chest, and I even jumped up on his chest. It’s a wonder I never broke his ribs. But all of a sudden, after 25 minutes, he started to breath. It was such a relief.”
But Heza Dude was anything but out of the woods. Skyla died three days after giving birth and while a foster mare was sourced, most of the important work was left to Clarke.
“Every two hours I had to lift him and get the fluid out of his lungs, because when they lay for a while the fluid can’t get out of their lungs,” she says.
“We did that for four months until he started to get better. He got to the point where we could get him out into the paddock and then after another month the [foster] mare died from snakebite.
“Then it was back to me again, wasn’t it?”
Heza Dude not only survived, but had a 39-start career, winning four races and a tick over $150,000.
Not all stories have a happy ending, though. Like the foal born eight weeks premature, which Clarke knew deep down meant he would never make it, but took five months to realise.
“I couldn’t even tell you what he was by, it upset me so much,” she recalled.
“For five months, I’m not joking, without a word of a lie, I fed that horse. He didn’t have a surrogate mum because he was too sick and couldn’t stand. I used to make little rugs for him to keep him warm and every two hours through the night I’d go and feed him and we got that horse up to 200 kilos.
“But he just couldn’t stand. That part of his brain just never formed. It broke my heart when we had to put him down and I buried him near the stables. I nearly gave up horses because of that horse. I thought, ‘I’m never going to go through this again because it’s too heartbreaking’.”
In reality, giving up was even more unlikely than Clarke’s path to becoming a trainer. Her own training career started by accident in the 1970s.
“Dad had a mare and bred a couple and we had a horse called Golden Force,” recalls Clarke. “Barry Burke trained him and he won a race with him at Stony Creek, but after that he sent him home.
“He was in the paddock for a while, a year, maybe two years, and then I put him in work and started running him at the picnics. You didn’t need a licence at the picnics in those days; you just accepted and rocked up at the races. But after a while I got one and I took him to Bairnsdale and he actually won. I was so excited. He came from last and won and I thought, ‘how good is this?’
“It wasn’t the intention to become a trainer. It just happened.”
Clarke is now glad it did, too, especially given she has one as good as Rich Charm. The son of Danerich provided one of the highlights of the 2017 Melbourne Cup Carnival when, with Patrick Moloney aboard, he won the Group 2 TAB Multiplier Stakes (1200m), the final event on Derby Day.
The win was spectacular, the post-race interviews priceless. Hers was one of spring’s most popular stories and led to her being crowned the Victorian Racing Media Association Personality Of The Year.
Clarke would quite happily remain anonymous, but hears enough stories to make her think she’s using her increased profile for good.
“I went to Sandown one day and this lady came up to me and said, ‘you don’t know me, I’m 52 years old and I’m dying’,” says Clarke.
“My heart nearly broke. She put her arms around me and she said ‘you’ve given me so much incentive in life. I love horses and I follow you and I follow your horses because of how much you love your horses’.”
Then there was the woman who requested a photo of six-time country winner It’s A Shame Billy to make a birthday present for her elderly mother.
“This lady loved Billy, so they put a photo of him on the pillow with It’s A Shame Billy written on it and gave it to her for her 99th birthday,” she says. “It was just lovely.”
It’s also proof that, as reluctant an identity as she might now be, Clarke’s passion is touching more of the racing industry than she could possibly know.
This article was first published in Carnival magazine (2018).