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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Hickey, Noel Fraser (1921–2010)

by Malcolm Brown

Noel Hickey, by Nancy Menetrey, 1957

Noel Hickey, by Nancy Menetrey, 1957

image provided by Nancy Menetrey's family

In 1982, Phar Lap's headstone, which had been set inside the band enclosure at Randwick racecourse but tended to be disregarded, disappeared. It was gone several weeks, then reappeared, as a beautiful memorial, with a marble base and the lettering, ''A Noble Horse'', redone in gold.

Only when Herald race writer Bert Lillye made inquiries did it emerge that the work was unauthorised. It had been done in secret by Noel Hickey, a man with a lifelong devotion to Phar Lap, who had taken the headstone and replaced it without being seen.

Hickey had felt the memorial was treated with disrespect, especially when the crowds packed the enclosure. At one meeting when he saw someone standing on it to get a better view of a race, he felt enough was enough.

Interviewed by Lillye, he said: ''It has taken me a few weeks to complete the memorial but I had to do the job myself or walk away with the memorial. I was disgusted. The stone was so loose it had come away from the base.''

Phar Lap, probably Australia's greatest racehorse, died in California on April 5, 1932, in controversial circumstances. When news reached Australia, it was seen as a catastrophe, no more so than for the young Noel Hickey.

For years, Hickey had sneaked away from home and gone to Randwick racecourse to watch Phar Lap train and race. ''I would walk all the way, but sometimes a friendly tram guard would let me ride for free from Circular Quay to the Dowling Street depot,'' he told Lillye. ''A trainer would let me work his horses in exercise so I would get close to Bobby.

''It was always 'Bobby' to me. I learned that from his strapper, Tommy Woodcock. It was impossible not to recognise Phar Lap. He was so intelligent and majestic. He seemed to know that he was the best horse in the world. He was, you know.''

On race days, young Hickey got through a hole in the fence at the sandhills end of the course, crept through scrub, sometimes crawling on his belly across the tracks so he could see the champion gelding race.

When Phar Lap died, Hickey heard about it as a pupil at Fort Street Primary School, ran all the way to his home in George Street, The Rocks, to confirm it. ''Phar Lap was dead,'' he told Lillye. ''At first I refused to believe that my big, beautiful Bobby was dead.''

Noel Fraser Hickey was born in Todman Avenue, Kensington, on August 2, 1921, son of James Hickey, principal violinist with a Sydney orchestra, and Madge (nee Wildie). When he was young, the family moved to The Rocks. Elder brother Lionel was groomed to become a violinist. Noel completed his schooling at Fort Street High and became a professional photographer, working for Kodak. He retained his love of Phar Lap and each year on April 6 he nailed a wreath of flowers for the horse outside the Alison Road entrance to Randwick racecourse, decorated with red, white and black ribbons, colours used by Phar Lap's trainer, Harry Telford.

Hickey met Edna Towers, a photographic processor, but was unable to pursue his romance with her because he enlisted for service in World War II. He served with the 2/13th Battalion in the Middle East and in New Guinea. He talked to his fellow soldiers about Phar Lap and in 1944 raised £1 from them – the soldiers then being paid six shillings a day – and sent it back to Australia, asking the Sydney Daily Telegraph to use it to buy a wreath and lay it on the grave. The Telegraph obliged and the gesture made Hickey famous.

Hickey was repatriated from New Guinea, suffering shrapnel wounds and fever. On the arrival of the hospital ship in 1944, the wife of the Premier, William McKell, presented him with a statuette of Phar Lap. Hickey, recovering from his wounds, married Edna at St Philip's Church in Sydney on March 5, 1946. ''I got into some tight spots in the war,'' he said. ''It was the memory of Phar Lap that got me through.''

Hickey settled back to living at the George Street home of his parents, who both died while he was serving overseas. Three children were born: Wayne in 1947, Karen in 1948 and Michele in 1958. He continued his photographic career, for a time working for the ABC, but in 1970 he divorced and started drifting.

But each year, the flowers and ribbons arrived at Randwick. In 1975, the United States donated Phar Lap's headstone – which had marked his grave outside the stable in Menlo Park, where Phar Lap died – to the Australian Jockey Club. From that time, Hickey placed the wreath and ribbons there. He would go into the course, unseen by anyone, sometimes walking in with the caterers. In 1980, when he could not get there, an anonymous order and payment to a Sydney florist had the flowers placed. Hickey was disappointed that year because the florist used the wrong coloured ribbons – black, green and red, the colours that had been used after Harry Telford's lease on the horse expired.

Hickey was married again, to Maree Gorupec, with whom he had another son, Warwick, but that also ended in divorce. He moved to Western Australia, where he trained some racehorses, applying to brand them all with the initials, ''PL''.

He returned to NSW and for 15 years lived with a daughter at Coffs Harbour, always arranging for the wreath when he could not lay it himself. He died on Anzac Day.

He is survived by his children and nine grandchildren.

Original publication

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Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Hickey, Noel Fraser (1921–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/hickey-noel-fraser-16836/text28731, accessed 7 December 2021.

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