“They’re Off!” – When the Spurters Spurted; and Old Palliah Plugged On
“Them was the Days”
Featured Image: J F Poynting’s Willow Tree Hotel, Scone: It appears publicans played a very large part in promoting racing, betting and gaming events!
Taken from the Scone Advocate 7/3/1939
When the scribe, a few days ago, in his moment of leisure, “knocked” a couple of columns of “copy” together, dealing with the doings and incidents on bush tracks, no small section of our readers, like Oliver Twist, passed their, as it were, for a second helping – asked for more, and more.
Penned wholly from memory, the reminiscences of happenings are asked to be accepted in the spirit in which they are presented.
Most of the tracks which attracted crowds in the days referred to have long since disappeared. In any instances closer settlement, with the introduction of the plough, have been responsible, and then again, there are too many present day counter attractions – mechanical coursing for example, has magnetised no small proportion of those who made the smaller race meetings possible – and other reasons that caused clubs to haul down their flags, never to be raised again.
Some of the clubs brought about their extinction, for one and only reason that certain officials could not resist the temptation of having their modicum of their choice, and even went further in settling the chances of other fancied candidates when the webbing went aloft. Yes, it was frequently a case of ascertaining which horse the starter fancied. This was not a difficult task. It was not an uncommon, and galling, spectacle to see certain horses fairly catapulted from the machine, or, in the case of a walk-in, or flag start, to discern the fancied candidate well into its stride before the riders of the remainder of the field realised what was happening.
There were, of course, occasion when it was only too obvious to the “boys,” as well as to the spectators, not to mention the callers odds, who were awake to what was doing.
For instance, there was a track near the head of the Peel when a race was delayed for upwards of half an hour, and by the time a start was affected the crowd and betting ring had moved almost over to the barrier.
Despite the vigilance of the other riders, however, a chestnut mare left the machine with an advantage of twenty lengths, and even then only scrambled home, with bare half-length to spare, from a diminutive brown mare (a daughter of Sir Whitton, and therefore a grand-daughter of the illustrious Carbine) from the Hunter watershed.
It was on this very trysting-ground that the chronicler of these notes ran across the late John Stephens, of Moonan Flat, a well-known sporting character, and a good fellow into the bargain. John bred and raced Hollywalk, a mare by the Belltrees sire, Cakewalk, also another handy mare named Nadi, and later on, among others, a Cressfield-bred mare, a brown with a hogg mane, Dixie, a sprinter of no mean order. Incidentally, Hollywalk fairly walked away with a handicap at an Armidale Cup fixture in her day.
Getting back to the day our near the Peel, the genial John was very much in evidence. Not only was he represented by a string of horses and interested in others from the Hunter, but there he was, bag suspended from his shoulders, the real Joe Mathews of the ring.
Luck was right against him, and he was “shot at” from all angles. Horses whose names he had not written were either hopelessly left at the machine or “strangled” in the running. He went for a recovery in the last. He laid the field against Dark Whitton, another of the Sir Whitton tribe, who, by the way, is now rearing a beautiful filly at “Gum Flat” by the Tracery horse, Dunnottar. Dark Whitton appeared as big a certainty as Ajax wold loom up at an ordinary city mid-week meeting. As fast as the money came in his direction Jack would pass it on to his friends, who would plonk it on the mare, irrespective of the price offering. But Nemesis was also to deal a severe blow to John. The mare, capably handled by Jim Wiseman, led form starter to judge, and never left the issue in doubt. She was merely cantering when the last post was reached. The judge, however, austere, and in dictator fashion, had his own ideas, and, without the slightest compunction, placed the second horse first. John Stephens, however, paid out by the handful. He showed his disgust but did not protest.
It was in the same direction, midway between the Hunter and the Peel, that probably the most remarkable incident went into racing history on any part of Australia. Ant it was not associated with unregistered racing, either.
There but two starters in the event, and the riders were ignorant of the fact that the respective connections had supported not their own, but the other fellow’s horse. The riders, however, had their specific instructions. When the starter sent them on their way, neither showed any inclination to take the lead. Something had to happen. It happened. One of the two left the saddle and was greatly precipitated to mother earth. No. 2 had to do something, and do it promptly. He did it. He pulled his mount up, wheeled and went back to ascertain if No. 1 had been injured in his fall! Life disqualifications followed.
Possibly the most colourful, picturesque and hard-boiled identity of racing in the North of the State was old Jim McGiveny, of Blandford. Jim was a character in private life, and abigger character with horses. Nat Gould himself missed his greatest opportunity here. There was a store of material here that would have kept the famous writer burning the midnight oil for days on end.
“Mr. J. J. McGiveney’s g h, aged, by Charge – Unknown. Red jacket, red sleeves”. Thus ran the nomination in scores of race books over a period of not a few years. Charge won the AJC Blue Riband (the Derby) for the Belltrees people. Hence Piallah inherited his sire’s stamina. Bred, trained, raced and at times ridden by his leaned and be-whiskered owner, the horse always invariably bore the emaciated appearance of Jim himself.
Underfed and always leg-weary from long treks from meeting to meeting, always on the hard roads, he was as hard as the metal itself, and stood up to a power of racing under all conditions.
All handicappers were, however, lenient on their treatment of the grey. The veteran would take him, say, to Wallabadah, or Nundle, thence to Tamworth and Manilla, on to Scone, and from there to Maitland. He would generally ride a hack and lead the grey, which, however, carried the gear of the stable, and mostly his own feed.
Woorak was the champion middle-distance horse in the land at the time, but put Woorak up against Piallah at Blandford on Boxing Day, and the populace to a man almost would be on the local idol, for such he was. There was a time when Jim was dissatisfied with the manner in which the old horse had been handled I an earlier race, the outcome being that he himself plied the whip later in the afternoon – and won.
Just as Piallah was taken to different towns by road, so also was he more frequently worked on the same hard going, owner-trainer up, with watch in hand. It happened on more than one occasion when Jim was short of the “ready” with which to defray nominations and other expenses, his old plug, an entire, had to earn it, and sometimes on the morning of a race fixture.
On the old Satur (Scone) course one afternoon, the late Jim Hardcastle, who had a cracker-jack in Potassium, one of the few mares by Positano to possess speed, and Cyanide’s Daughter, brought Albert Wood, then leading jockey in Australia, and who by the way, served his apprenticeship with him, to Scone to ride a mare, Vellum, in his stable. It was a good field of proportions, the race run over a mile, and there were some good performers engaged.
Piallah, nothing short of a bag of bones, had established a good lead, and when appearing all over the winner well inside the distance faltered. He quickly recovered, but the post was too near for him to make up the leeway. A little later on the old Aberdeen track, when up against a couple of handy gallopers in Anne Boleyn and Jingo Joss, and others, he was jumped out form the mile barrier, Albie Chaston, up, securing an early advantage, and stayed there, winning with anything up to a dozen lengths to spare. He did the bag merchants a good turn.
He went to Maitland, performed creditably and was induced by some of the southerners to nominate him for the Randwick Plate. What a sensation old Jim and his horse would have created at Royal Randwick! Strange to relate, the grey was subsequently leased by two would-be Peter Riddles, who got him into excellent shape, but he could never raise a gallop for them. Jim McGiveney had two other horses in Piallah’s time Piccaninny and General Jackson, but the owner could well-nigh have raced them on foot himself.
In the days referred to, Tom Callinan, now a resident of Murrurundi, was mine host of the now de-licensed Plough Inn, Blandford. Needless to add, the annual gathering was a sort of throw-in for him. The five-event bill of fare was spread over the afternoon, with the “Opening” synchronising with, or prior to, the luncheon hour. Tom was generally the best winner at the close of the day, and was not begrudged his share. He was the club and village itself, and always conducted a good “house”. There was nothing that savoured meanness or pettiness about this tall son of Erin’s Isle. If Jim McGiveney, who passed on years ago, happens to be in Elysian Fields, his first and foremost thoughts will be for the son of Charge-Unknown.
The same air of “battlers” who had Piallah for a term also secured a St Aubins-bred mare, Miss Beulah. He took her to Aberdeen in the good old days when ‘Deen ran really good meetings. The trainers were amateurs, 100 per cent inexperienced.
The mare did her part of the contract in fine style, but on returning to scale it was discovered that she had carried 17lb overweight, which had not been “declared”. And the party had supported her well at double-figure odds. They had the mortification of seeing the number of the second horse hoisted.
On the St Aubins Track, which hadd been reconditioned and fenced by Mr W. J. Smith, who is vying with the big stud masters of the State, many atop-hole meeting was held. It was later used for unregistered racing, but an incident, or happening, led to it being closed.
Some of the old “lads of the village” had secretly taken possession of Miss Beulah from one of the distant paddocks. They, in seclusion, not only knocked her into shape, but also had transformed her chestnut mane and tail with the aid of, say cosmetics. She was a different mare that stepped out in the “Opening” – different in appearance only. She just cantered in from the smart field. The folk of the estate got to hear of the ramp. Result: Locked gates leading to the course.
Getting back to Aberdeen, in the days when it ran its meetings for grass-feds, which drew large fields, racing was at a height in the district. There was more than suspicion that a few of the prads were lined with grain, given furtively, whilst in the paddocks. Vic Parkinson (not to be confused with V. P. of the stock and station line of Muswellbrook), led in many a winner, most of them by the “Nandowra” sire, Phil May. Vic’s colours, blue and white, were actually sported one day by the three placed horses in a field of approximately twenty.
Who doesn’t remember Tom Gallan and Ogo? Both were part and parcel of the club, with the old bay a near approach to perpetual motion so far as horses go. He raced all the year, in all seasons, and must have known every blade of grass on the track. Jimmy Meredith also was always handy with a useful galloper or two. And the same applies to Les Haigh, of Rogilla fame, a good horseman before he entered the rank of trainers.
The late Arthur Hopkins, of Jerry’s Plains, and more recently Merriwa, had a good string in hand, including one Bulga, who could not be weighted out of races. He would carry his 12.12, put up his 7lb penalty and win an even greater margin. Bulga was subsequently put over the timber with similar success, and later on was secured as a galloper companion for the mighty Trafalgar, whose trainer often remarked that he wished he had received this son of Merv, whose dam had no lineage, a few years earlier. At a meeting at Jerry’s Plains, about the same time, the same owner-trainer won the entire program – a record which may stand for many more years, if not all time.
Before passing, however, it must be mentioned that prominent trainer Dan Lewis received his introduction to the game when he won a “double” at Belltrees with the first and last horses owned by “Dad” Poynting, who ran the Willow Tree Hotel in Scone for a number of years. “Danny,” who has since saddled up four Sydney Cup winners, and hundreds of other winners, mixed bookmaking with training, and is always pleased to see folk of the old town when visiting from the city. In rthe days referred to, Belltrees put on an annual fixture to commemorate the conclusion of the shearing, and they put through up to 150,000 sheep in those years. But back to the “mackers,” patrons mostly got a spin for their, if not one way, another way. And at times there was fair money to be won – and lost.
There were dashing punters than as now; but the Eric Connelly of the bush was probably Tom Sullivan, of Moobi, who now leads the quiet life, with the weight of a young family adding a few grey hairs to his thatch. Ken Campbell, of “Arden Hall” ilk, now spending his time to with an eye to the C.7 cattle of the old estate out Tomalla way, likewise made his presence felt. Ken was a good sport, but what deductions for riders, “strappers,” etc., he retained but little of the prize-money won by himself.
One of the best ponies he had was Eileen, a chestnut, capable of taking stride for stride with the best of them. In the show ring, he owned Joe, a grey pony, one of the most versatile in the State and a winner of more than a hundred ribbons and cash prizes. He subsequently passed the pony over to Jim Gleeson, of Wingen, and the change in ownership did not cause a break in the sequence of successes.
Stan Felton, of Gundy, “knocked” the dust off a number of horses for different owners, and possibly the best prepared was old Blarney Castle. And, unlike most of those associated with the game, he cheerfully let his friends on a fancied candidate. Stan acted as a stipendiary steward for quite a number of clubs in the district. Jack Davidson, also of Gundy, fed several more than useful sorts, and later on had his fair share of success on city and other courses, taking out some of the big handicaps on the A.R.C. courses, as also did his brother Jim. Jack, by the way, was one of the best rough riders of his time, and when Martini and other proprietors of the travelling shows put in an appearance, showed his capabilities as a horseman, as he also did on occasion when he had a recalcitrant horse nominated for racing. He had one fiery customer in particular, which had the boys duffed. It had shaped unsatisfactorily in an earlier race at Aberdeen. Despite his weight, John weighed out himself in the principal race, jumped his mount away well, obtained a break, and maintained it.
Of course, the present generation of roughriders, like their contemporaries in other branches of sport, stands on a pedestal of their own! The formidable and brilliant participants of the past are soon forgotten, but not by all.
Needless to say, there were starters, good and bad, who pulled the levers, and they frequently “pulled the strings” as well. Many a heated argument ensued following unsatisfactory dispatches from the machine. It is worth narrating that the barrier used on all courses was patented and constructed by Joe McCue, who was proud of his invention, and no person dared adversely criticize the machine. It was not uncommon for certain wags to blame the barrier for the unsatisfactory starts. And wouldn’t Joe roar and stamp his feet like an old wether defying a dog. Of course, if Joe had his way, all races would have started from the, say, four of five-furlong disc. He couldn’t see the necessity for shifting it after each race, and then re-erecting it in its former position.
Of course the meetings attracted a cosmopolitan crowd, a section of which paid more than expenses by diverse means. They were spinning boards, dart throwing, etc. Who does not recall the clarion cry, “Evens Esmeralda, 20 to 1 the The Bolter,” etc. The late George Buckland, who also had a horse or two, ran a board as a sideline, and was known to be richer by £50 as the outcome of his operations at the meeting. Of course, money was more plentiful in those days, and it circulated more freely.