Robert Drewe

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Robert Drewe

At the age of ten, and just short of four feet tall, a boy from Ballarat named Johnny Day became Australia’s first international sporting hero. Against adult competition he wooed crowds across continents as the World Champion in pedestrianism, the sporting craze of the day.

A few years later, in 1870, he won the Melbourne Cup on a horse aptly called Nimblefoot, this time impressing British royalty and Melbourne’s high society. And then, still aged only fourteen, this already-famous athlete and jockey disappeared without a trace.

Robert Drewe picks up where history leaves off, re-imagining Johnny’s life following his great Cup win. Celebrations that night land him in the company of Prince Alfred himself and some key Melbourne identities. But when Johnny becomes a reluctant witness to two murders in the town’s most notorious brothel, he finds himself on the run again - this time from the law itself.

In fear of his life he heads west, assuming different identities to outsmart his pursuers. Yet all the while Johnny fears his luck will soon run out.

Johnny Day is a character that couldn’t be invented, but in the masterful re-imagining of his life Robert Drewe brings us an adventure story, a coming-of-age classic, a man-hunt, a thriller - but most of all, a rollicking good yarn. And in doing so, he lays claim to Johnny Day’s rightful place in Australia’s illustrious sporting history.


When I first moved to Australia six years ago, I was warned that Aussies (and those from Melbourne in particular) were sports mad. Turns out, they always have been. Real-life Johnny Day was Australia’s first international sports star. At the tender age of 10, he became the world champion of Pedestrianism (a form of competitive walking – the 19th century was a different time), defeating the likes of the Moscow Maestro, Bluey Vellnagel, and Magic Buffalo. Four years later, in 1870, Johnny won the Melbourne Cup on the appropriately named horse, Nimblefoot, wowing the crème de la crème of Melbourne society and Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, who was the first member of the royal family to ever visit Australia.

Despite this illustrious sporting career, not much else is known about Johnny Day. This is where Robert Drewe steps in – creating fiction out of fact and legend to give us the rest of the story of Australia’s first, and youngest, sports celebrity. In Drewe’s version of history, Johnny is invited to celebrate with Prince Alfred, a lord, a notorious bookie and the Victorian Police Commissioner following his win in Melbourne. That evening, way out of his depth, Johnny witnesses two murders at the local brothel putting him on the run, ending his sports career and starting his life as a fugitive.

With all the absurdity of a Dickensian romp, Drewe has fictionalised the life of the stranger-than-fiction character of Johnny Day. Told in a series of vignettes, Nimblefoot is a coming-of-age story, a thriller, and a damning examination of the devastating class, gender and racial politics of the 19th century. At turns, the story is hilarious and heartbreaking and, above all, never dull.

Tristen Brudy is from Readings Carlton

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