Lester Oliver Fell at J.E. Pike’s stable gate. Courtesy Colin Stuart
Another jockey whose Aboriginal heritage, like that of Percy Kennedy, has to date been unrecognised, is Lester ‘Mick’ Fell. Lester Fell’s family had their Aboriginal roots at Merrigal station in the Warren area of New South Wales – Wiradjuri county.
Attending a country race meeting in 1946 the turf editor of the Sydney Morning Herald made an interesting discovery:
Sydney racing men will remember Lester Fell, who began his apprenticeship under the master horseman, James Edward Pike, and rode his first winner when he weighed under 5 stone. Today I saw him ride five winners in six mounts at Orange Jockey Club’s New Year meeting.
There have been a lot of people named Fell in racing in the western parts of New South Wales. After this one had ridden Ned Roi, winner of the Maiden Handicap, I had a look at him. “You’re Lester Fell?” I asked him, mainly because I had heard him addressed as “Mick.”
Then it came back to me. I remembered what one of the ‘Herald’s photographers in New Guinea had told me. He had met a soldier, a diminutive little fellow in a paratroop unit in the front line in New Guinea. It was Lester Fell, who long before had given up riding in Sydney. One would have expected him to be a paratrooper or something of that sort.
Fell told the journalist that he had come back from the war weighing 9 stone but was now 7 and was hoping to gradually ease himself back into the Sydney racing scene. He was doing this, despite having sustained a severe war time back injury, when he was tragically killed in a car accident three years later.
In September 1941, aged 18 Fell interrupted his promising career to serve in the Australian Army, initially with the CMF in Narromine where he was allotted to the 6th Light Horse Regiment. He transferred as a volunteer to the AIF in September 1942 becoming a trooper with the First Australian Mountain Battery and in 1944 qualified as a parachutist when the Battery joined the First Parachute Battalion. The First Mountain Battery was an AIF artillery unit whose support for the Australian and US infantry at Salamaua in 1943, culminated in the capture of Mount Tambu and the fall of Salamaua. The terrain and conditions at Salamaua were described as worse than Kokoda. Salamaua was the scene of some of the most famous depictions of mateship and suffering during the fighting in wartime New Guinea.
Fell’s formal career as a jockey had begun seven years before, after he visited Taronga Park as a 13 year old with the Far West Scheme. He already had a background in carnivals and rough riding and drew attention to himself by climbing into a zoo enclosure to ride a zebra bare back. Subsequently he was noticed by Jimmy Pike, well known amongst other things for riding Phar Lap (thirty rides for twenty seven wins) and the next year he became Pike’s apprentice.
Lester Fell’s particularly small stature, while helping him to secure wins, created other problems. He was described in the Sydney Morning Herald as
one of the smallest apprentices at Randwick, and one of the smartest. He weighs only 5st 3lb, and although he will not be 15 years of age until August, he has already been indentured to Pike for more than a year. He has only had five mounts, and his difficulty in handling his saddle and gear on returning to weigh in, particularly when a fair amount of extra weight is required, has generally brought forth sympathetic remarks from those around the enclosure.
Despite this minor issue, by 1939 his career was well on its way. Fell had won his first race at Kensington – the Three and Four Years Old Handicap on The Palmist, raced and trained by Pike. The successes which followed created a sense of great expectation in the racing fraternity.
The Rise of a Young Apprentice. Fifteen-year-old L. Fell looks like following in the footsteps of Sydney’s leading apprentice, W. Lappin. This protege of Randwick trainer, Jim Pike won on Hole in One and Grey Derby at Moorefield recently and in each instance he rode a perfect race. Fell comes from Bourke, where his father is a drover … The Randwick trainer Jim Pike heard of the kid’s ability, secured him as an apprentice and to date he has ridden eight winners. It is only on rare occasions that Pike allows the lad to accept mounts out side of the stable. He can go to scale at 6.7. Jim Pike claims that, with more experience, Fell will be one of the leading riders in Sydney.
Jimmy Pike trainer instructing his apprentice the young Lester Fell c.1936 at Moorefield race course. Courtesy Colin Stuart
Lester Oliver Fell at Rosehill Races 1938. He appears to be listening to instructions no doubt from Pike. Courtesy Colin Stuart
But all this promise was to come to nothing. The news report broadcast on the ABC on the evening of his death on 6 December 1947 noted with under-statement that ‘he was one of the most capable horseman to have plied his trade in the western districts of NSW during the last decade’. He was only 23 – his life and a great career cut short by war and misfortune.
I was directed to much of this information by Colin Stuart, first cousin (once removed) of Lester Fell and himself an ex-apprentice jockey and ex-servicemen (Citizen Military Forces – Singapore, Malaya, Borneo and Royal Australian Regiment – Vietnam).
Colin Stuart, aged 15 with his mount Glamour Torch, Kembla Grange, Wollongong Cup 1958. Photo John Redden (Note Colin’s surname is incorrectly spelled in the caption). Courtesy Colin Stuart
Lester Fell’s brother Cecil also served in World War Two with the 2/19 Battalion AIF and lost his life in 1942. He is buried in Kranji Cemetery Singapore. His cousin Raymond Colin Stuart and nephew William Fell served in Korea with the Signal Corps and Infantry Corps respectively. Lester’s uncle Theodore Hilton Fell volunteered for World War One in October 1918, aged 17 but did not serve overseas.
Philippa Scarlett 20 August 2013