KEY ROLE: Northern Rivers Racing judge John Sullivan looks over his final race meeting at Grafton.
KEY ROLE: Northern Rivers Racing judge John Sullivan looks over his final race meeting at Grafton. Adam Hourigan

Judge John's final decision

HE'S cast an eagle eye over more than 13,000 races, and Northern Rivers racing judge John Sullivan, who retired last week, said he owed his near 30-year career to one piece of advice from racing legend John Tapp.

Mr Sullivan began as an assistant judge at Grafton in 1989, graduating to be official judge in 1993, and in 1997 became judge for the Northern Rivers.

He said the judges' primary roles was to get the placings in the right order, and while the modern age has computers and cameras to assist, he said the ability to be able to recognise where the entire field finished was as crucial as ever.

"It's crucial we get it right, particularly when prizemoney can go down to 10th sometimes, so if there's a dead heat for ninth we have to figure it out. You have to know where the whole field is," he said.

"Also, sometimes the computers don't work, or the power goes off, and we've had a couple of occasions where I've had to make the decision by eye, and it's crucial we can do that right every time."

Mr Sullivan memorises the colours of each horse and their number for every race, and said his greatest ability wasn't his memory, but his ability to forget.

"Once that race is done, it's forgotten about, and it's straight onto the next one," he said.

"I watch a race with no expectations, I don't know who the favourite is and I don't. I make sure I know the players and watch it unfold.

"The most important race we do every day is the next one."

And the pressure is always there. Mr Sullivan said he always remembered the 1995 Ramornie Handicap where he said he almost made a mistake with the results.

"We just got out of it. Before they called correct weight my assistant judge Wally Green noticed the numbers were wrong so were able to correct it beforehand," he said.

Feeling bad about the error, Mr Sullivan said what happened the next day changed his outlook forever.

Racing legend John Tapp came to Grafton the next day, and noticing Mr Sullivan was still upset about his error, called him into his broadcast booth halfway through the day.

"He said 'I know you're feeling bad. I've called thousands of races and I've called the wrong winner four times, and every time I did, I sharpened up my process, and you will do the same. You will sharpen up your system and you will become a better judge'," Sullivan said.

"And I went away and really took it to heart, and did that and two years later I became the regional judge.

"I haven't seen John Tapp since, but I rang him the other day and I told him that if I hadn't taken his advice to heart, my career wouldn't have happened."

As for highlights on the Grafton track, Mr Sullivan said one horse stood out.

"Takeover Target. Of all the horses that have raced in my time, he was head and shoulders above anything else," he said.

Mr Sullivan said he had enjoyed the challenge of the job, with his mind challenged, having to have a good eye for detail and document what he saw.

"I'm looking forward now to being a mug punter and having $5 each way on a horse that has no chance of winning," he laughed.