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God took the reins and has held them ever since

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They met at a time when you didn’t have to swipe left to find Mr Right.

Technology had no hand in romance, Tinder was a material suitable for starting a fire and Bumble was a type of bee.

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For better or for worse, love started with a chance meeting, followed by months summoning the courage to ask for a date, followed by picnics in the park, handwritten letters and flowers.

While their memories aren’t what they used to be, seventy-one years later Jack and Shirley Waterhouse still remember their courtship and wedding day like it was yesterday.

The former Sydney jockey and his sweetheart tied the knot at St Patrick’s Catholic Church at Kogarah on 24 May 1952, in front of more than a thousand of their “closest” family and friends.

Their wedding became one of the social events of the year, with St Mary’s Cathedral Choir travelling to the southern suburbs to provide the music.

Reported in newspapers at the time as “a big show for small people”, Jack was attended by six fellow jockeys and Shirley’s bridesmaids had to be of a similar stature to not tower over them.

Such was the interest in the nuptials, the local police were called to control both the invited and uninvited guests who jockeyed for positions to catch a glimpse of a member of the famous Waterhouse dynasty marrying his young filly.

Today, Jack, 92, and Shirley, 91, smile as they reflect on the day they say, “God took the reins of our life and has been holding them ever since.”

Jack, then a non-Catholic, happily married in the church as was his bride’s wishes, but 20 years later converted to the faith after a miracle at the track.

In what was to be his final race, his mount fell on top of him while riding at Rosehill racecourse, leaving him not only with life-threatening injuries, but in no doubt God was watching over him.

Jack and Shirley Waterhouse.
Jack and Shirley Waterhouse.

He said at that moment something inside him urged him to convert … so he did.

“I was riding round the bend and the horse lost its footing and fell right on top of me,” he said.

“I was bleeding out of my ears, nose and eyes such was the force of the horse on top of me.

“I looked up and couldn’t believe I’d survived; it was my third pretty nasty fall and even I was surprised to have lived.

“It was then and there that I decided to join my whole family and become Catholic.

“There was no other explanation for my survival, I just knew God was looking after me.

“We all knew the danger every time we went out on the track and the risks we were taking, but I guess it’s not until you do fall that you realise the effect it can have on your family, and I’d fallen three times.

“When you are going around 60km an hour and you fall off it’s very dangerous. Lots of jockeys die that way.

“At that stage Shirley told me that was it, I had to stop riding and I didn’t argue with her.”

Tears well in Shirley’s eyes as she recalls the horror fall that almost claimed her husband and ended his illustrious career.

She said she knew he always carried her prayers with him, but she couldn’t let him continue to put his life at risk.

Jack Waterhouse was a former Sydney jockey.
Jack Waterhouse was a former Sydney jockey.

“Before every race we’d kiss each other, and I always blessed him,” she said.

“I’d sit with the jockey’s wives in the stand, and they’d see me take out my rosary beads and they’d say, ‘Don’t talk to Shirley, she’s saying the rosary to save the boys from falling.’

“I was praying for every jock so they wouldn’t get hurt and I didn’t care who knew it.

“I can still hear someone yelling out at me after his third fall asking why I was crying, because he was already dead.

“We had a home and two children, and I just couldn’t let him ride again and risk getting killed.

“I honestly think it was Our Lady saying, ‘Shirley stop him.’ I’m so glad I did, otherwise who knows.”

After months of medical treatment and at the age of 35, Jack decided to follow a completely different course.

He discovered a new career replacing the ivory keys on pianos with plastic ones which meant job security and just as important, safety.

And he formalised his faith, getting baptised at St Thomas More Catholic Church at Brighton-Le-Sands.

Leaving behind the industry he’d been in since he was 14 was rough at first but gave him the opportunity to be the husband and father he wanted to be.

Jack and Shirley Waterhouse on their wedding day.
Jack and Shirley Waterhouse on their wedding day at St Patrick’s Catholic Church at Kogarah on 24 May 1952.

It also allowed him the time to embrace his faith and get involved with parish life, which was previously spent at the track.

Being welcomed into the church seemed like a natural progression and unlike his nuptials, was witnessed only by close friends and family.

“It was a beautiful occasion and one I felt was meant to be,” he said.

“I felt at peace knowing God had always been with me, so this was my chance to be with him.

“It all happened at a time in my life when I was making some pretty big changes.

“Leaving the horses and just importantly the fellas was hard, but on the other hand it provided me with the opportunity to do other things.

“My cousin had a little business replacing the ivory keys on pianos as they would discolour in time and people wanted them to be white, so I joined him which kept us pretty busy.

“But it also gave me the opportunity to accompany Shirley to the parish on weekends, which I struggled to do before due to weekend track meetings.

“I instantly knew I had made the right decision becoming Catholic like the rest of my family.

“Perhaps it was always meant to be, but I had to make the decision when I was ready, which is what I did.”

A photo of Jack Waterhouse dressed in his jockey uniform.
A photo of Jack Waterhouse dressed in his jockey uniform.

Looking back, he said that while he achieved just about everything most jockeys dream of—including a ride in the Melbourne Cup—finding faith at the track was the odds-on favourite.

“I had always been close to the religion since meeting Shirley, I loved going to Mass with her every Sunday, but becoming Catholic honestly hadn’t occurred to me until my last fall,” he said.

“It was just something I felt I needed to do. Praying to God is like talking to a friend, which makes me feel happy.”

Asked what the secret to their longevity is, they both smile like they’ve said it many times.

“Jack has always looked after all the big decisions and I have always taken care of the little ones, it’s just lucky there were never any big ones,” Shirley grinned.

“In all honesty, we have always split everything fifty-fifty.

“Through it all we have always had our faith which only became stronger when Jack was baptised.

“It has seen us through many things, and I believe it’s why Jack is still with us today.

“I watch him stare up at the cross at Mass and say his prayers which brings me a great deal of peace.

“Without a doubt the highlight of my life is that God blessed us both.”

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