Noel Watson was 17 and had just landed his first trifecta.
He had passed his HSC, his footy team had won the flag and he was named club best and fairest.
So, Watson was hooked on winning, and he was also hooked on racing. Pacers first, and then gallopers. Then both.
But while he tinkered around the edges of the harness racing world, his footy career kept going from strength to strength.
The trick was going to be getting his training career on the same path.
This cross-trainer is a high-profile figure in his hometown of Swan Hill, where he has run a successful real estate business for more than 30 years.
He also works closely with brother-in-law Con Kelly (who finds he only has time to train gallopers).
Watson, however, has always been hot to trot.
On Thursday he will be at the Swan Hill harness races looking for another winner after landing five-year-old gelding Redjina at Ararat (which was also one of four on the day for jockey Jarrod Fry).
His love affair with harness racing stretches back more than two decades. And he still recalls his first meeting with legendary country trainer Henry McDermott, a relationship which was to prove pivotal in steering Watson to his first foray into the racing world.
“I got my introduction to harness racing while working and playing footy in Bendigo in the late l970s,” Watson said.
“I introduced myself to Henry McDermott one day, and soon after I started helping out at his stables on Sundays and after work.
“Henry was a great horseman, a thorough gentleman to whom people used to gravitate.
“His best horses at the time were the Inter Dominion heat and SA Pacing Cup winner Cosh, Quamby’s Pride and Shy Skipper.
“I used to drive Cosh in trackwork and that was a terrific thrill.”
In his spare time, when not selling properties or preparing gallopers and trotters, Watson also manages to call the game of the day (for 35 years and counting) in the Central Murray Football League for local radio station 3SH.
After Bendigo, football took him to Newbridge in the Loddon Valley league as playing coach, where he won the competition’s B&F medal in 1980.
Watson’s first good horse was the Speed King mare Just Speedie. Originally trained by him and driven by Trevor Patching, Just Speedie won nine races in the Sunraysia district and, at one stage, won four on end.
He said she was a quarterbred and had done enough to convince him to take her north for a tilt at the classics.
“I left her with Darrell Graham, who I had not previously met,” Noel said.
Just Speedie took out the Quarterbred 4YO Mares Classic at the Gold Coast and two other races at Albion Park before heading home, while Torado Stone – a Tasmanian bred gelding – saw the Watson-Graham combination snare the 1997 Redcliffe Cup and finish runner-up in the Pot of Gold at Rocklea.
But Watson insists ‘the’ horse was Saint Flash, a Grinfromeartoear gelding which ended up with 27 wins and 43 placings from 175 starts for $285,368.
“He won the first cup run on the new Swan Hill track and that was one of my true highlights, and thrills, in harness racing,” Watson added.
Saint Flash (yes, Watson is that trainer whose horses and trotters all wear the St Kilda colours) was the first of six winners thrown by the Safely Kept mare Torridon.
Watson has proved to be an equally astute judge of thoroughbreds, often snapping up bargains in online sales of horses no-one else seems to want, or which have had limited success.
And all the horses he runs he also owns. It does, he laughs, cut down on cranky owners, even angry owners, and he doesn’t have to deal with anyone – except himself.
He showed his keen eye when he paid $1,800 for Madam Manguy, his first horse, at a sale. It gave him his first winner at its first start for him, over 1200m at Balranald, and went back-to-back at Wentworth (over 1000m) before winning the Deniliquin Cup on New Year’s Day 2006.
“I sold her five months after I got her – for $20,000 – and I think she ended up in the US as a broodmare,” Watson said.
“She was by a sire called Distorted Humour, who had become a flavour of the month horse so all up, four wins, including a cup, in five months and $18,200 more than I paid for her was a good deal all-round.”
Footnote: If you want to know how much Watson likes to compete, he celebrated his 50th birthday by asking Quambatook Football Club if he could turn out for the twos (“because they played in Saints colours) – and proceeded to play another nine seasons, finally hanging up his boots at 59 so he could devote more time to his trotters, and gallopers, and business, and game calling, and service club, and charity work, and maybe even his family.