There’s not much in the world of racing that fazes Pat Lalor.
He was as unflappable and personable as he was uncompromising in his 18 years as Victorian racing’s top cop, earning a nickname of the Smiling Hangman.
But a phone call to his Pakenham home a couple of months ago did come as quite a shock.
It was to inform the retired VRC chief steward that he was to be inducted into the Australian Racing Hall of Fame, alongside the likes of jockey Hugh Bowman, who piloted champion mare Winx to her record-breaking run of 33 straight wins.
“I am very humbled and honoured,” Pat said.
“I couldn’t believe it when I got the phone call. I thought there would be a lot of others ahead of me for that kind of honour.
“Being inducted on the same night as Hugh Bowman is a big thing. He is the best jockey in Australia at the moment.”
Pat becomes only the second steward to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, following the late Alan Bell.
Inducted in 2017, Alan Bell was also VRC chief steward in the 1940s and ‘50s. A former amateur rider and trainer, he was renowned as being “strict but fair” and had an ability to stop trouble before it started.
That almost mirrors Pat Lalor’s credentials and reputation.
Growing up as one of 10 children in Healesville, Pat also started out as an amateur rider.
He learned to ride when he was 12 with the help of Rob Christie, a local butcher living at the back of the Lalor property who trained a few horses on the side.
A young Pat finished third in his first three race starts at Queenscliff on a track carved into the middle of the golf course. His first win was on Trebla (Albert spelt backwards) at Alexandra and he went onto win another two races on that horse when it was renamed Barry John.
Over his decade-long riding career he landed 41 wins from 163 rides – and he also dabbled in training for a few years before starting as club steward at the Healesville Amateur Racing Club.
Pat had completed a carpentry apprenticeship and was working at the Melbourne Board of Works when an invitation came from Bill Betts to join the stewards’ panel in the north east of Victoria in a professional capacity. He jumped at the opportunity.
By 1963, the bush telegraph was trumpeting the virtues of the promising young steward and Pat was invited to join the Melbourne panel by its then chief Frank Bullock.
“I was a bit reluctant,” he recalled. “I didn’t know if I would make the grade.”
Frank took the young steward under his wing and within six years he was acting as the deputy chief steward.
When Jim Ahern, a well-known Pakenham racing identity, retired as the VRC’s chief steward in March 1980, Pat took the reins and served in that position until his retirement in September 1996.
Integrity was a family trait. While Pat was VRC chairman his brother Gerard was a boss of the Victorian harness racing stewards’ panel, while another sibling, Adrian (dec), was president of the Victorian Police Association.
Des Gleeson, who as Pat’s deputy for 17 years and then took the reins when he retired, welcomed news of his induction into the Hall of Fame.
“It is fantastic for Pat to be recognised, but it’s also fantastic for stewarding to see him honoured in that manner,” he told Matt Stewart on an interview with RSN’s Racing Pulse.
“It is thoroughly earned. Pat was a wonderful steward and when I started in 1972 Pat gave great assistance to me.”
Des said race reading was critical in being a steward and that there was no better reader of a race than Pat, putting it down to the fact that he was a rider in his early years.
“He was a real horseman, who had a great eye for a race.”
Des said the Lalor method would be prevention rather than cure and it was not unusual for him to tap someone on the shoulder, bring them into the stewards’ room and suggest that they “never do it again”.
“His edict was that if you can prevent something from happening you can save a lot of work,” Des said of his mentor.
He added that Pat was always in control and had respect of people in the industry, with his skills sought around the world.
“Pat’s reputation around the world was at the highest level,” Des said. “He was known to be hard but fair and a terrific person away from the races. We became great friends.”
Since retiring, Pat has served on the committee of the Cranbourne Turf Club and also the Victorian Country Racing Council.
He also returned to his roots to chair the Healesville Amateur Racing Club in a time of need.
The club was struggling financially, so Pat agreed to head a committee that set about turning around its fortunes and it is now as healthy as it has been.
Pat and partner Yvonne Blackwood, a former long-time chief executive of the Cranbourne Turf Club who now sits on the Pakenham Racing Club committee, had a cattle property for years on Dore Road in Nar Nar Goon.
They have now sold that property for Melbourne Cup winning jockey and former leading trainer Pat Hyland and are living out their retirement in Pakenham.
When the Gazette turned up for a chat about the Hall of Fame honour, the coffee was brewing and the Herald-Sun form guide and a copy of the Winning Post racing newspaper were strewn alongside the plate of home-made slices on the kitchen table.
Pat and Yvonne and their great mates Frances and Hank Knaap are regulars at the races and three of them have been known to have a bet or three – and a syndicate quaddie of a Saturday.
Pat always abstains.
“If you ever see me have a bet, you had better to get on it,” he was once heard to remark, sporting a big smile.
That’s never likely to happen.