‘Stay here; go no further’
It was simply superb! Why suffer diminutives when superlatives suffice? On Monday 28th August 2017 I was a privileged guest of Antony and Kate Thompson for the Widden Stud Stallion Parade 2017. You can check all this out at: http://widden.com/ . You don’t need a prolix diatribe from me. It was my first revisit for several years. I had my best day out for a long time. Thank you both Kate and Antony and the eclectic stud staff; many of whom I knew. Hospitality was exquisite matching the presentation of the stallions.
When the original first nation inhabitants brought John Lee to the Valley from the Bathurst Area they described it perfectly: ‘Stay here; go no further’. They were right. The rest is history. If ever you have opportunity do not prevaricate! It’s an Australian icon and a best kept secret. I am indeed fortunate that I was so privileged as to spend much of my professional life in this pristine location.
You can view Widden Stud and the Widden Valley on my website by clicking on both ‘The Veterinary Surgeon on the Stud Farm’ and ‘In the Blood: Thoroughbreds in the Hunter Valley’. At the risk of accusations of solipsism, sophistry and vested self-interest I commend both.
The Thompson Family of the Widden Valley: AJC Derby 1904
In its wild and untamed state, the Widden Valley was once a haven of refuge for bushrangers. It is said to be the valley Rolf Boldrewood in his book ‘Robbery Under Arms’ attributed the members of Captain Starlight’s gang with having used to hide the stock stolen from surrounding districts. Boldrewood was the pen-name of Thomas Alexander Browne, gold commissioner and magistrate at Gulgong after 1871; and he sometimes stayed at Widden Stud on his journeys between the Mudgee districts and Maitland. I might add that Boldrewood’s bushrangers were firmly rooted in real life, and one such man who knew the caves in the Widden was the colourful Frederick Ward, alias Captain Thunderbolt. The beauty and fertility of the Widden Valley are justly renowned throughout Australia. The valley itself runs for nearly twenty-five miles and meandering along its floor is Widden Creek, a tributary of the Hunter. In summer it becomes nothing more than moist sand. The entrance to the valley is narrow, but it opens out and in parts is as much as a mile or two wide. On either flank there extends a chain of formidable range and mountain – basalt and grim, towering escarpments and battlements of limestone. The flats and banks with their lush green pastures and limestone subsoil constitute an ideal country for horses. There are charming belts of woodland and in high summer giant she-oaks, which flourish in thick clumps along the creek, affording coolness for the mares and foals. At regular intervals, mountains lift their ramparts and spires to the sky, standing like silent sentinels and watching over the Turf champions of the morrow.
The name ‘Widden’ derives from the local aboriginals and means ‘go no further – stay here’. The Widden Valley was first taken up by John Tindale of the famous Tindale family, but in 1843 he leased it to John Lee, who added the pastures to his existing holdings in the Bylong Valley – the two valleys being separated only by the spur which runs north from Nullo Mountain. The founder of the family that has controlled the Widden Stud for most of its existence was John Thompson, a younger member of the famous wool processing family, Messrs J. & W. Thompson of Rawdon, near Leeds, England. In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, England, although victorious, was subject to considerable political and industrial turmoil and this, together with a wide outbreak of cholera, convinced the 36-year-old John Thompson to try his fortune in Australia, coming by way of the ‘Assisted Emigrant’ scheme on board the barque ‘Lavinia’ in 1832. Befitting his family heritage, Thompson was an experienced wool sorter, and came over with his wife Elizabeth and their two sons, although, tragically, Elizabeth died on the voyage. John Thompson began classing wool for the man that was to become his patron in the new colony, Edward Cox, already the Squire of Fernhill, near Mulgoa. Even then, Edward Cox, had extensive sheep runs at Bathurst, Mudgee, Rylstone, and around Mulgoa and Windsor, and John Thompson was to become his trusted adviser on wool.
Having lost his beloved wife at sea and with a young family to raise in a strange land, John Thompson needed all the help he could get; and Edward Cox’s wife, Jane, became a second mother to eleven-year-old William Barber Thompson and his younger brother, Richard. Edward and Jane Cox had a young family of their own – Edward King Cox was but a three-year-old while Richard Cox was a baby. And so, it came to pass that these two young families, who were to have such a profound influence on the course of Australian bloodstock breeding, were reared in a shared and lovingly blended environment. Given the circumstances of his mother’s death, William Barber Thompson, as the oldest son, had responsibility thrust on him from a young age. As early as his teenage years, he was working alongside his father, John, in looking after Edward Cox’s pastoral interests, mostly working out of Rawdon station and extending the Cox’s grazing claims. When he came of age in 1842, William Barber Thompson married Elizabeth Christie, and their first two children, John and Mary, were born in 1844 and 1846 respectively. Soon after the birth of his second child, William Barber Thompson acquired a land holding in his own name – some 130 acres at the foot of Nullo Mountain, about 20 miles from Rylstone and six miles east of Rawdon itself. The property was drained by Cox’s Creek to the north and Davis Swamp Creek to the south. It was there that Thompson built his Olinda homestead and where his wife was to give birth to ten more children including four sons who were to have a profound influence on Australian bloodstock breeding viz. William (1849), James (1851), Alfred (1855) and Joseph (1862).
It was in 1854 that William Barber Thompson and Thomas Harris requested an official survey of creek frontage land in the Widden Valley, and the subsequent sale of that land in 1856 saw Thompson and Harris as the principal buyers. Thompson bought parcels between Blackwater and Emu Creeks where much of Oakleigh and Baramul Studs were later established. Harris preferred to purchase land in the upper valley and extending along Blackwater and Table Bay Creeks, land which remained in the Harris family for years and formed much of their Holbrook Stud. The Thompsons continued to add to their holdings although the most meaningful accretion came in 1867 when John Lee submitted Widden to auction at Mudgee. The reserve price was £2,700, and with no bids forthcoming, it became subject to negotiation with John Thompson Jr, William’s oldest son, eventually buying it in partnership with his brother-in-law, John Thomas Frost. The two men were brothers-in-law twice over with Frost having married Mary Ann Thompson in Rylstone in 1865 and John Thompson marrying Frost’s sister, Sarah, at Mudgee just three years later. For many years after its settlement, the isolated Widden Valley kept its contact with the outside world mainly through a steep track up Nullo Mountain. The Rylstone community to the west came to represent ‘town’ for the valley dwellers; their only contact with either the Goulburn or Hunter Valleys being a rough and rarely used track to the north.
In November 1873 the 77-year-old patriarch of the clan, John Thompson senior, died at the Olinda homestead and it was in that same year that John Thomas Frost sold his share of Widden to William Thompson junior. William Barber Thompson then at the age of fifty-two, stepped away from the active management of Widden and allowed his two eldest sons, John and William, to get on with the business – a partnership that was to last some thirty-six years. Supplementary parcels of Crown land were regularly snapped up by the family during the balance of the 1870’s and 1880’s until the Thompson clan owned all the valley between Holbrook and Widden stations. Initially, these older brothers bred Clydesdale horses at Widden, and it was only with the example set by their younger brother James, and with some broodmares bred by him, that the switch was made to thoroughbreds. And it is James who is the real focus of this chapter of our chronicle. It was in the late 1870’s that James Thompson took up the property adjoining his father’s Widden selection, which was later to be called Oakleigh Park Stud and began to breed racehorses. Whereas his two elder brothers, John and William, conducted the Widden Stud, James together with Alfred managed the Oakleigh Stud, although James later bought Alfred out.
It became the custom among all the Thompson clan to present their sons with mares and cattle when they were old enough to look after them properly, and though the stock was reared among the father’s, the money received for their sale was always credited to the boys’ accounts. The foundation of the Widden Valley as a thoroughbred nursery was primarily laid by that marvellous pair of broodmares, Keepsake and Adeline, together with the wisdom of E. K. Cox. Keepsake was presented to James Thompson by Cox as a reward for a clever bit of cattle buying done on his behalf; while Adeline’s origins, given the absence of a taproot mare, are lost in the mists of time although she was rumoured to have been originally brought from Victoria as a packhorse. Cox’s wise advice was for the Thompsons to stick with the blood of Sir Hercules and Kingston and where possible in-breed to them. In the early years of Oakleigh, the stock was mostly by Roodee, The Gem, The Fop and Corinth. However, the first sire of importance to stand at the stud was Lochiel. Tom Hales’ loss was Widden’s gain on that Monday in August 1890 at Yuille’s Melbourne Newmarket Sales, when James Thompson gave 670 guineas for the black son of Prince Charlie. Lochiel went on to win five titles as Australian Champion Sire, so it was no accident when in 1903 James Thompson bestowed the name of Lochiel on his palatial Mudgee homestead – the wholly refurbished former Annan Lodge. I might mention that it is now the site of a more prosaic dwelling in the shape of the Mudgee Bowling Club.
The second great thoroughbred stallion to find his way into the Widden Valley – and the sire responsible for no less than half the field in the 1904 A.J.C. Derby – was Grafton, a son of the 1875 English Derby winner, Galopin, out of the distinguished English broodmare, Maid Marian. Considering the influence that Grafton had upon the Australian racing scene, I think the amusing story of firstly his acquisition on behalf of Australia by Agar Wynne; and subsequently his acquisition on behalf of the Thompsons of Widden Valley, is worth the telling. As a yearling and a three-quarter brother to the great filly La Fleche, Grafton fetched 3800 guineas and was selected by the celebrated trainer Richard Marsh for Baron Hirsch at the 1895 sale of the Bruntwood Stud yearlings in England.
Unfortunately, he developed a reputation as a ‘roarer’ something of which Agar Wynne was unaware when, upon the death of Baron Hirsch in 1896, he shortly thereafter attended the sale of the Baron’s stud, and Grafton stepped into the ring. As a matter of fact, he followed his very near relation, La Fleche, in those sales. The mare had just realised a fabulous 12,600 guineas, and the buzz of excitement was still in the air when Grafton came up for judgement. Mr Wynne, a well-known sheep breeder of ‘Terrinallum’ in the western district of Victoria – a property of some 47,000 acres near Darlington – was in a happy mood and felt that 500 guineas seemed an appropriate opening bid for such a fine stamp of a colt, and one from such a distinguished family. Much to his astonishment, Mr Tattersall knocked him down without further parley. Apart from his reputation as a ‘roarer’, Grafton was heavily loaded with race forfeits for which, in England, the buyer was responsible. Nonetheless, Mr Wynne cleared the ledger with a smile and arranged for the stallion to be shipped to Melbourne on the SS Damascus leaving England on November 25 and arriving in Melbourne on January 8, 1897. Wynne landed the horse at a total cost of around £1,000.
A distinguished lawyer with an extensive practice, Wynne had no real use for Grafton and put him up for sale, seeking merely to recover his costs. But there was a marked lack of interest from any of the Victorian studs and Grafton remained at Wynne’s St Kilda home for some time, being exercised regularly on the beach there. Despairing of ever getting the horse off his hands, as a last resort Wynne invited Tom Payten and Ike Earnshaw out to his residence to inspect the stallion. After an excellent luncheon and a bottle of his best, Payten was persuaded to take the horse to Sydney to try to place him at stud. Grafton was very fresh from close-housing, and he played-up on the railway station, fell, scraped his knees and knocked himself about considerably en route, arriving at Payten’s in a somewhat dishevelled state. Payten, as we have seen, enjoyed a good relationship with James Thompson, breeding a few racehorses in partnership with the studmaster, and after some haggling, at last, it was agreed in February 1897 for Thompson to take the horse for, I think, three years on rental with a right to purchase at any time for 1000 guineas. When Grafton’s first foals were but a few months old, the canny James was convinced he had struck a potent stallion and purchased him outright. Grafton was advertised to serve at twelve guineas a mare; but his first season’s stock, which included Grasspan, brought him to double that fee, and when Brakpan and Famous came along in his second crop he was practically withdrawn from the public. After that, and outside of James Thompson’s own mares, the horse served only a select few others belonging to friends of the studmaster at a hundred guineas a time.
One such friend was George Faithfull of Inverlochy. Among the mares roaming the paddocks of his sprawling Inverlochy property, fifteen miles south of Goulburn, was Golddust, a particularly well-bred but in-bred mare by Niagara, boasting a double cross of Frailty and one cross of Robinson Crusoe’s sister, Aureola. She was no oil painting, however, and on the day, she was sold as a yearling, was lame in the fetlock. Faithfull bought her because of her in-breeding to Frailty – more as a potential broodmare than as a racehorse – and she proved impossible to train because of her bad legs. Turned out for two years on one of her owner’s stations to mature, she did particularly well, and when Faithfull cast his eyes through the stallion lists in 1900 looking for a suitable consort, he chose Grafton because of the Galopin-Musket strain in his pedigree. Accordingly, he sent Golddust together with some other mares to Olinda. The Grafton mating duly occurred but while the mare was carrying the future 1904 A.J.C. Derby winner, George Faithfull decided to relinquish his interest in racing and breeding entirely. He had only ever raced for sport, and among those horses that carried his colours was a certain Lady Trenville, and she was the real cause of her owner quitting the Turf. Faithfull could not help noticing certain inconsistencies in the mare’s running and rather dramatic fluctuations in the betting on more than one occasion; he wondered why certain people seemed to know more about his own horses than himself. It was then that he decided the Turf and he should part company and proceeded to offer his mares to James Thompson. It turned out to be a tidy bit of business for Thompson, for he thus acquired both Golddust and Lady Trenville in one fell swoop. While Golddust was carrying a Derby winner, Lady Trenville duly became the dam of Jolly Beggar who later won both a Western Australian Derby and a Perth Cup.
At the Sydney Yearling Sales in April 1903 Golddust’s yearling colt by Grafton was among the lots on offer from James Thompson’s Oakleigh Stud. A great, strapping, big-boned colt with any amount of reach and depth of chest, he was, despite his pronounced Roman nose, one of the best-looking yearlings at those sales and had he been out of a well-performed mare, Scobie must have given a good deal more than the money he did to take possession. The most expensive yearling sold that April day at 800 guineas was another Grafton colt, out of the grand producer Pie Crust, and therefore a brother to the classic winners Brakpan and Grasspan. It came as no surprise that Agar Wynne, with the encouragement of Tom Payten, was the buyer of the latter. After all, Payten had bred the colt and his long-term client Wynne, having bought all of the previous progeny of Pie Crust, wasn’t about to let this one go – top price or not – and particularly given that he was by the very stallion Wynne himself had brought to Australia. Richard Casey, a member of the V.R.C. committee, purchased the Golddust colt for 590 guineas. Casey who had made his reputation and fortune in the mining industry gave the yearling the name of Sylvanite – appropriate enough considering the name of the dam and the fact that besides native gold itself, sylvanite is one of the most common of gold-bearing minerals. Casey placed the horse in the Dowling Forest stables of James Scobie. And from the first moment Scobie tried the big fellow on the racecourse, he promised to be gold-bearing indeed! Payten thought the same thing when he first trialled the expensive Koopan, Agar Wynne’s 800 guineas’ purchase. And neither man was wrong. Between them, these two imposing sons of Grafton would clean up the best of the two and three-year-old classics of their year.
Sylvanite wasn’t regarded as a likely early comer by the stable, yet he managed to confound Scobie in that first season. It was the trainer’s habit to do his stable rounds just when the evensong of birds had ceased in the warming dusk of late September evenings. It was on one such evening that he suddenly decided to set Sylvanite for the Debutant Stakes at Caulfield over four furlongs as his racecourse debut in early October. The big colt managed to get up in the last couple of strides to beat Koopan, and at his next start was narrowly beaten a neck into second place by the same horse in the V.R.C. Maribyrnong Plate. Scobie thought highly enough of Sylvanite to let him take his chance against the older horses at Caulfield in the Oakleigh Plate later in the summer, but he failed to show. It was only the ten pounds penalty that stopped him from winning the V.R.C. Ascot Vale Stakes when again he was nodded on the line by Koopan, and after finishing unplaced in the Select Stakes at Flemington on the last day of their autumn meeting, Scobie decided the big fellow had done enough in his two-year-old season. The trainer didn’t persevere with a journey across to Sydney. The year that was to hold its share of glory for the Scobie stable hadn’t begun all that propitiously for the great man himself. In late January, the trainer crashed out of his buggy and fractured a thigh that required a hospital operation to re-set, and a resultant faulty setting left him with a permanent limp. It came at a particularly bad time, as Scobie was just then negotiating a lease of a thousand acres in Dowling Forest, including the racecourse itself, the property of the late Thomas Wilson, and he already had some thirty horses in training.
he physical handicap was a major factor in Scobie sending only a limited team to Sydney for the Randwick Autumn Meeting that year – Emir, Sweet Nell and F.J.A. – given that he was unable to accompany them, and they went in charge of his head lad. It was Bob Lewis who superintended the Scobie team at the Racecourse Hotel, Flemington, during the V.R.C. Autumn Meeting while the trainer recuperated at Rupertswood, the sprawling residence belonging to Sir Rupert Clarke at Sunbury. Nonetheless, James Scobie had much to look forward to in the spring insofar as the Derbies and the Cups were concerned, and he knew it. For that season, James Scobie was blessed with not one but three smart colts – apart from Sylvanite, the Ballarat stables hosted Sylvan King and Demas as well. Before deciding on his team to bring across to Sydney for the A.J.C. Spring Meeting that year, he arranged a gallop in early August matching all three colts on the Dowling Forest course. Sylvan King won the trial by five lengths and was clocked to cover the mile and a half in 2 minutes and 41 seconds – the fastest gallop ever timed on that ground. Scobie decided to withdraw Sylvan King from his prospective engagements at the A.J.C. fixture and leave the colt at home to be reserved for either the Caulfield or Melbourne Cups. The trainer settled on a team of five for his assault across the Murray: Sylvanite and Demas for the Derby; Fairy States for The Metropolitan; and Emir and Sweet Nell for the weight-for-age races. The happy band arrived at Randwick full of confidence in late August.
James Scobie might have left his big gun at home, but in either Sylvanite or Demas, he was supremely confident that he would capture his third Derby at Randwick in the space of just five years. Demas, a low-set, rich-brown colt with power behind the saddle, was by Pilgrim’s Progress out of a Robinson Crusoe mare, and regarded by Scobie as the better stayer and the likely winner if the Derby was run at speed; Sylvanite’s exciting turn of foot, on the other hand, was likely to prove devastating in a dawdling Derby. Each colt had done plenty of working gallops on the Dowling Forest course, and each crossed the Murray in splendid fettle. Moreover, each did well in the stables after arriving, although they showed-up poorly in gallops. Improvements to the Randwick course that had not been available to Scobie in earlier years were the new tan and cinders tracks that had been completed and posted the previous November. These proved particularly useful given the prevalence of severe frosts during late August. The week before the Derby, the trainer sent both colts out for a mile-and-a-half gallop together and was devastated when the pair finished badly and made slow time, albeit with Demas showing to advantage over his much bigger stablemate. Stable jockey Bob Lewis couldn’t explain it, and after that misadventure, both Scobie and Lewis lost faith that either colt could take the classic. Though Lewis was committed to ride Sylvanite, none of the stable’s principal patrons had a shilling on him, while Demas carried a series of modest wagers at best.
Eight accepted for the Derby with not a filly amongst them. The influence of the Thompson family and the Widden Valley was profound for no less than half the field had been conceived in those fertile pastures. Tom Payten’s Newmarket stable dominated the race with three of the entries – all colts by Grafton, including the pronounced favourite, Koopan. Koopan was to be the last of that brilliant trio of brothers thrown by the grand mare Pie Crust. Koopan’s reputation, however, rested not merely on his bloodlines, but on a brilliant juvenile season that had seen the easy-going colt emulate his siblings’ achievements, winning both the Ascot Vale Stakes at Flemington and the Easter Stakes at Randwick.
Koopan was one of two colts in the race trained by Tom Payten for Agar Wynne; the other being The Hawker, an outsider who was entered to act as a pacemaker for his more highly-fancied stablemate. The third of the Payten-trained colts was Lord Fitzroy, a notorious puller and homebred brother to the ill-fated Duke of Grafton, and like him, carrying the ‘green, orange hoops, green sleeves and cap’ of Dr Ewan Frazer. Although he had scored an upset win in the A.J.C. Champagne Stakes in the autumn, relegating his more fancied stablemate Koopan into second place, albeit carrying a stone less, he wasn’t expected to trouble the judge. Second elect in public support for the Derby was Warroo, a giant bay colt by Positano bred by Charles McPhillamy and trained by Joe Burton. When McPhillamy, the proprietor of the Warroo Stud, decided to retire from the Turf, Jack Samuel paid 300 guineas for the strapping youngster. Warroo went largely untrained as a two-year-old and only had one serious gallop before he ran in public at the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting where he claimed the minor placing in each of the Champagne and Easter Stakes; he owed his popularity in Derby betting to an easy win in the Rawson Stakes at the Tattersall’s meeting in late August. Perhaps the only other colt considered a chance was Optimist, a brother-in-blood to Sweet Nell trained by ‘Watty’ Blacklock at Hendra, Queensland, and the winner of the Q.T.C. Hopeful Stakes. While the only Queensland representative in the Derby, the northern State did have an unprecedented high representation of eleven horses at the A.J.C. spring fixture overall.
The official attendance at Randwick on Derby Day was given as just over 25,000 people, although many pressmen believed the figure grossly underestimated the number, as the crush had never been greater. I should mention that at this period in the club’s history, the gate takings were contracted out to private tender and it was thus in the interest of the fortunate gentleman who won this lucrative lottery to be less than honest as to actual turnstile returns. The Sydney Mail estimated that the Derby crowd in 1904 might have been closer to 35,000 than the official estimate. It ran an ultimately successful campaign highlighting that these gate contractors, who neither kept racehorses nor contributed towards the welfare of the sport, should be deprived of their profits which instead could be used to boost prize money for horse owners and breeders. In the words of the Sydney Mail’s lead writer: “To present somebody with a handsome income for providing labour to collect the head toll has forcibly struck everybody as a peculiarly philanthropic action on the part of the A.J.C.” All this was particularly true when one considered that the advent of the modern turnstile and the practice of the Tramway Department in issuing combination tickets covering the transit fare and course admission had greatly simplified gate collections.
Nor did the writer stop there in reviewing the governance of the A.J.C. committee on Derby Day. The following observation might resonate with any modern racegoer: “The Railway Commissioners will run half empty cars all day between the Quay and Kensington at 2d per capitum, but on race days, when they are called upon to carry many thousands, they clap 33 percent on to the usual charges for carrying racegoers a couple of hundred yards past Kensington, and despite the extra charge the management of the trams is execrable. The department is seldom able to cope with public requirements. The catering, too, at Randwick, is not complimentary to either the contractor or the people who control him. Probably the A.J.C. committee and their friends are well looked after, and are not called upon to pay ninepence for a cup of luke-warm, washy tea and a piece of queen cake after waiting a considerable time to get it.’ Perhaps the one innovation of the A.J.C. that assisted patrons since the previous running of the Derby was a pretty structure behind the members’ stand. On it were posted in alphabetical order the names of every horse engaged at the meeting, as well as the number of the stall allotted to each, a system which put an end to weary walks and endless enquiries.
Whatever the real crowd, and their satisfaction or otherwise with both their mode of transport to the course and their treatment while on it, most of them were pleasantly surprised to find that the Derby was a truly-run race. Sylvanite jumped off in front but was soon headed by The Hawker who was determined to set a stiff pace for the better-fancied Koopan racing in the same ownership. Given the tempo, Bob Lewis was happy to ride Sylvanite back in the field, and he allowed both Koopan and Lord Fitzroy to stride past him. After passing the six furlong-post, the pace began to tell on The Hawker, and the complexion of the race changed. At the distance, the three Grafton colts, Koopan, Lord Fitzroy and Sylvanite were all disputing the lead, although just a few yards later, the first two named submitted unequivocally as Lewis called on the Scobie-trained colt. Sylvanite responded generously, running out a comfortable winner from the favourite Koopan. It was surely an exquisite irony that Grafton – the stallion imported to Australia by Agar Wynne – in being responsible for the quinella had both enabled Wynne to go so close to claiming his first A.J.C. Derby yet at the same time denied him the prize. As it transpired, Wynne would have to wait another eight years for yet another colt got by an Oakleigh Stud stallion before he would take out his first blue riband at Randwick. Warroo finished in the minor placing. However, Warroo broke down in the final yards of the race and in the ensuing concern for the colt’s well-being, his rider, Bracken, absent-mindedly forgot to weigh-in. Consequently, Hadrian was promoted from fourth place to third, thereby costing the hapless Jack Samuel one hundred pounds.
Richard Casey, the fortunate owner of Sylvanite, wasn’t present at Randwick to witness his colt’s victory as he was in England on business. However, he was represented at the presentation by his good friend and future V.R.C. committeeman, J. M. Niall, who had been a partner of Casey’s in various Queensland pastoral stations, which hinted at the active and adventurous life Richard Casey had led before his colours found their way into the winner’s enclosure at Randwick on Derby Day, 1904. Born in 1846 in Van Diemen’s Land, as it then was, the son of a well-connected Liverpool surgeon who had first come to the island in 1833 to be appointed the assistant colonial surgeon, Casey left Tasmania when he was 17-years-old after his mother had died and his father shifted to Victoria. As a lad, he had always been a good horseman, and shortly after his arrival in Victoria sought employment as a jackeroo on the Murray Downs sheep station, near Swan Hill. He stayed there for six years rising to the position of head overseer. Similar employment on a series of such stations in the central west of N.S.W. followed before he became a partner in a stock and station agency in 1883. It was directly through this agency that he made the acquaintance of Donald Wallace, the future owner of Carbine and a man who at that stage already possessed several sheep stations in Queensland. Casey entered into a partnership with him, becoming the managing partner of the properties and at one point the land area under his control exceeded 1.3 million acres. But the decade of his involvement with the venture was to be one of abnormal droughts and floods, not to mention the problem of overstocking. Casey failed to turn a profit in the ten years, and in 1892 the partnership was dissolved. Casey left Queensland and his seat in the Legislative Assembly there, and with his wife and two sons set out to build a new life.
From a failed existence as a pastoralist, Casey turned his energies to the world of minerals. Although his first move to the Coolgardie goldfields and the floating of a gold company on the London Exchange miscarried in the mid-1890’s, he had at last found the field that suited his talents. It wasn’t long before he became a director of both Goldsbrough Mort and Mount Morgan Gold Mining. It was in the full flourish of his mining success that Richard Casey became more involved in racing. He had always been interested in horses, having hunted with the Melbourne Hounds and ridden in at least one Hunt Cup over the big fences at Flemington. When it came to registering colours, Casey chose the rose and primrose hoops made famous by Lord Rosebery in England and did so with Rosebery’s consent. Alas, despite the successes of Sylvanite the colours were never really prominent on the Australian Turf though he raced a fair number of horses. The year 1903 when he purchased Sylvanite as a yearling was also the year Casey was elected to the V.R.C. committee.
Never one to be hidebound by tradition, Casey adopted the rather unusual approach of actually informing the Melbourne newspapers as well as the club members of his views on various racing issues when he decided to enter the election for the committee. Despite this effrontery to the conservative establishment traditions of the club, he won easily, replacing Frank Madden, who unlike Casey, was opposed to the introduction of the Totalisator. The sense of radical Toryism in Casey’s character manifested itself when he succeeded to the club chairmanship in 1907. It was largely at his behest that the V.R.C. admitted its first lady member – none other than Dame Nellie Melba, who, like Casey, also retained James Scobie as her trainer. The club certainly lost none of its influence in his tenure during which the new offices in Bourke-street were built. After a distinguished period at the helm, Casey resigned the chairmanship in favour of Lauchlan Mackinnon in 1916 during the First World War when he moved to London to be closer to his two sons, who were on active service in France. He died of pneumonia in Honolulu in April 1919 when returning to Australia, leaving an estate valued at more than £100,000. His elder son, Richard, after a distinguished diplomatic career, was to become Governor-General of Australia in 1965.
It was a particularly profitable Randwick Spring Meeting in 1904 for Scobie and the stable’s followers. From the moment that James Scobie started training racehorses, station in society was his avowed object, towards which the ultimate precept was that spoken by Iago: ‘Put money in thy purse’. Scobie never lost an opportunity to do so. Although Sylvanite, burdened with a 14lb penalty, failed by a neck to take the A.J.C. Grantham Stakes over the mile on the following Wednesday after the Derby when supported into the red, being beaten by the Dick Mason-trained Nightfall, his stablemates more than made amends. At a difference of 10lb, Demas, who failed to act up in the Derby, met and defeated Koopan in the New Stakes on the second day of the meeting, thereby again returning the favour of those who had nominated him as the colt most likely from Ballarat. The enigmatic Emir further upheld the honour of the Scobie team by rather luckily defeating FitzGrafton in the Craven Plate on the third day, and Sweet Nell complemented their achievements by annexing the Wycombe Stakes after a battle royal with Famous. In fact, of the £15,094 distributed by the club in stakes during that week, the Ballarat stable took home £2,477. Except for Demas, stable jockey Bob Lewis partnered them all. It was a happy team that clambered on board the Monday night train bound for Ballarat.
Nor did Scobie’s bandwagon stall once the team returned to Dowling Forest. Awaiting him there, of course, was the highly-regarded Sylvan King, who had never left the bucolic splendour of those picturesque training grounds. The victories of both Sylvanite and Demas at Randwick confirmed the canny Scobie’s faith in the strapping brown son of Bill of Portland. The fact that the colt’s abilities seemingly remained a closely-guarded secret to none but the most intimate associates of the Ballarat stable, afforded a wonderful opportunity for a clever betting coup and the gathering on the Caulfield heath seemed as good a place as any to pull it off. Scobie took a team of seventeen horses in training to Melbourne that spring, and while not intending to run them all, he preferred to have them under his immediate supervision. Scobie’s team of staff – twenty-one boys and a headman – actually outnumbered the horses. Such numbers rendered it difficult to keep secrets. On the first day of the V.A.T.C. fixture, Sylvanite and Demas again demonstrated their abilities when they ran the quinella in the Caulfield Guineas, although Demas with a 4lb pull in the weights out-sprinted his more fancied and unlucky stablemate. The Coongy Handicap on the following Wednesday was the race chosen for the public debut of Sylvan King as James Scobie told the tale in his book “My Life on the Australian Turf”. Based on the Guineas’ running Scobie knew him to be a certainty, but his belief that the colt’s abilities were known only to his intimates was ill-founded. Scobie had got together a thousand pounds and entrusted J. M. Niall with the stable commission. It might have been a field of eighteen and the horse in question unraced, but the best price on offer was 3/1. When told, Scobie remarked: “It can’t be helped. Kindly put the money on.” Sylvan King walked in and when the jockey W. H. Smith dismounted he whispered to Scobie: “You can win whichever race you like with this horse; either the Caulfield Cup or Melbourne Cup.”
It was generally considered in those days that a thoroughbred had to be raced to get him fit. Sylvan King shattered that theory and as Scobie observed: “I have backed horses ‘first up’ over fences and on the flat, and won. If you have other horses to work them with, public racing isn’t required.” Sylvanite was coupled with Sylvan King by the stable to win the Victoria Derby-Melbourne Cup double and when the money was on Sylvan King was discreetly withdrawn from the Caulfield Cup. Sylvanite certainly kept his part of the bargain, when, backed into a short-priced favourite, he won the Flemington classic by a half-length from Lord Fitzroy and Billingsgate while his stablemate, Demas, could merely run last in the seven-horse field. Despite the lack of runners, it was the most rough-house Derby seen at Flemington in years. Lewis, on board Sylvanite, was ropable upon returning to scale, badmouthing a rival jockey but not lodging a formal complaint. He didn’t have to do so. The bell rang, and the stewards initiated their own inquiry, which resulted in both trainer James Wilson senior, and jockey J. Conquest, being ‘cautioned’.
As we have seen that formal caution, the first he had received in more than fifty years of racing, led to James Wilson subsequently selling up much of his bloodstock and largely retiring from the Turf. Sylvanite’s misadventures that day didn’t end at the winning post either, for when he was taken onto the lawn and the blue riband put over his head, he took fright, slipped his bridle, and bolted down the straight making for the stalls where Scobie’s horses were stationed. No real harm came to him by the time he was caught in the birdcage although the same couldn’t be said for the other great hope of the stable. Alas, for Scobie’s doubles fortunes, Sylvan King, who carried a twisted front fetlock, went so sore in the bone leading up to the Melbourne Cup that he couldn’t be worked for four days. Although he started in the big race with Smith up, he could do no better than finish sixth while Sylvanite finished down the course in the race won by the aged mare, Acrasia. Writing of Sylvan King in the aforementioned autobiography, Scobie stated: “Had the colt been all right, or even if the Melbourne Cup had been run a little earlier, he would have been a certainty. He was one of the best horses ever I handled.” Sylvanite started once more at that 1904 V.R.C. Spring Meeting when he finished runner-up to the champion four-year-old New Zealand mare, Gladsome, in the weight-for-age Flying Stakes (7f).
When that spring drew to a close Scobie seemed to have the St Legers and major handicaps in the autumn at his mercy. But neither true love nor unsound horses ever run smooth, and both Sylvanite and Sylvan King proved difficult to train thereafter. Sylvan King was only good for another four starts the following season, and with the troublesome leg, the stallion was retired to stud. Similar misfortune marred the balance of Sylvanite’s career on the racecourse. In the wake of the Melbourne Cup, a knot formed on one of Sylvanite’s fore-joints. He was off the course for nearly a year, and when he did return as a four-year-old, he finished unsighted in all five races for which Scobie started him. Yet as undistinguished as Sylvanite’s return season was, it didn’t pass off completely without notice. One run, in particular, became the subject of very public acrimony between two V.R.C. committeemen rarely, if ever, matched in the annals of this most conservative of institutions. The two committeemen in question were Richard Casey and John Bowden, and the race was the Final Handicap at the 1905 V.R.C. Spring Meeting. Sylvanite had been prominent from the start of the event and entered the straight well in command before dropping out to finish a poor seventh in a field of ten. The winner of the race was a stablemate of Sylvanite and a horse that also happened to be owned by Richard Casey, namely F.J.A. The four honorary stewards entrusted with control of racing during that meeting were all committeemen of the club, and one of them was none other than Richard Casey himself.
John Bowden had been lobbying the club for years on the necessity of reform – to drag it from its fin de siècle decadence into the twentieth century and the fresh air of public scrutiny, an institution acknowledging its responsibilities to members and the general public at large. Modelled on the Jockey Club in England, the V.R.C. committee had by the turn of the century, like its A.J.C. counterpart, settled into the exclusive cigar and port comfort of its leather-upholstered and wainscoted clubrooms and sniffed at any notion of accountability. Given Sylvanite’s lamentable catalogue of failures that season, it is difficult to believe that Bowden genuinely thought that there were any grounds for a retrospective inquiry. Rather the outcome of the race afforded an opportunity too good to resist in championing his nostrum for independent stipendiary stewards to control racing at Flemington. When the committee failed to act, Bowden took the matter to the newspapers. Bowden and Casey then proceeded to tar and feather each other in a series of epistolary jousts in the city’s broadsheets in a most unseemly manner. Perhaps the issue was invested with particular combustibility by what many had considered the high-handed behaviour of the V.R.C. in challenging James Wilson senior on the running of one of his horses in the Victoria Derby won by Sylvanite the year before. That episode had led to Wilson dispersing his Frankfort stud and for a time quitting the Turf. The double standard wasn’t lost on William Reid, the president of the Victorian Horseowners and Trainers’ Association. He argued that by setting themselves up as stewards, the twelve committeemen of the V.R.C. were essentially claiming immunity from the very rules that they enforced upon others. The matter eventually fizzled out but not without some cost to Bowden, who lost his seat in the 1906 election. Perhaps it is significant, however, that when the V.R.C. did belatedly move to follow the A.J.C.’s lead and appoint full-time stipendiary stewards with complete powers in 1912, Richard Casey was the club chairman at the time.
James Scobie had a high opinion of Sylvanite and didn’t give up on him easily; he made another attempt to train the big fellow when he was brought over for the 1906 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting but Sylvanite broke down completely after a working gallop of a half-mile on the turn at Randwick. Offered for sale in Melbourne later in the year he failed to attract any bids. Scobie again brought him back to Sydney the following autumn while he was still on the sale lists and was available for inspection at the Coach and Horses Hotel, Randwick. Eventually, he was disposed at auction by H. Chisholm and Co. to the man who bred him, James Thompson of Oakleigh for 700 guineas. His first yearlings were offered in Sydney during Easter 1910 when thirteen lots brought an aggregate £2,800 or an average of £215, placing him sixth on the list. The first of his progeny to bring him to notice was Elvanite, who early in the new season was beaten a short head in the rich Debutant Stakes. When Tom Payten produced two other useful youngsters by him later that season in Counterpoise and Brittany, horses that he had bred himself, it looked the start of a promising career. But Sylvanite never quite went on with the job and Thompson, already standing his sire Grafton as well as Ayr Laddie, parted company with the horse shortly after when Cooltrim came along and replaced him. Always a magnificent specimen of a thoroughbred, Sylvanite won the blue ribbon as the champion thoroughbred stallion at the Royal Agricultural Society Show in 1912, weeks before his being sold to Thomas Hoult of Fielding, New Zealand. Sylvanite lasted just one season in New Zealand, dying of lockjaw in July 1913. Perhaps the best of his progeny was Sylvanmore who won a V.R.C. Bagot Handicap.
James Thompson died of heart failure at the age of 60 at his residence Chepstow, in Albert-road, Strathfield, in October 1911. He had taken a motor trip along the northern and western lines when he was seized by a painful heart attack at Medlow. Returned to his Strathfield residence, he appeared to be making a good recovery only to suffer a fatal heart attack just a few days later. At the time of Thompson’s death, Sylvanite’s reputation as a stallion still hung in the balance. However, what was beyond doubt was James Thompson’s reputation as the greatest bloodstock breeder in the land and the pre-eminence of the Widden Valley as a nursery for thoroughbreds. A man of great natural strength, James Thompson more than any other individual had rendered the heavily timbered and sheltered valley into a showpiece pastoral estate. Moreover, he had been fortunate to enjoy a remarkable run of success with stallions that he stood at Oakleigh. Grafton was to give the Widden Valley an enormous fillip and was to win no less than four Australian titles as Leading Sire while he would also finish runner-up on four occasions. Sylvanite was his first A.J.C. Derby winner but, as we shall see, Grafton would capture a second blue riband at Randwick eleven years later with arguably his greatest son. Perhaps nothing better demonstrates the imagination and judgement of James Thompson in stallion procurement than the manner in which he came by Ayr Laddie. This imported son of Ayrshire had been siring station horses at Irvingdale on the Thomson River in western Queensland when the success of Air Motor in the 1903 A.J.C. Villiers Stakes prompted James to send his eldest son Herbert to negotiate for the horse, which he eventually secured for a thousand guineas just a few weeks later. Ayr Laddie became yet another Oakleigh stallion to top the Australian Stallions’ List when he won the title in the 1912-13 racing season.
At the last Sydney Yearling Sales before his death, Thompson had the satisfaction of seeing his breeding firm, by then James Thompson and Sons, top the aggregate with 61 yearlings sold and realising some 13,522 ½ guineas. Just two years before Thompson had taken his two eldest sons, Herbert and James junior, into a partnership that owned the largest collection of thoroughbred mares in Australia with Herbert actively managing the operation. The third and youngest son, Harold, was to be killed in action in France in October 1916. At the time of handing over control, James retained sole ownership in just three broodmares viz. Lady Trenton, Symmetry and Golddust. It was hardly surprising that he held on to Golddust and it wasn’t just sentiment; for at the Easter Sales in 1908 a full brother to Sylvanite, later registered as Calaverite, topped the list at 2100 guineas when knocked down to Agar Wynne. Alas, he proved a gross disappointment to his owner and his trainer Tom Payten, failing to win anything at all. After their father’s death, the Oakleigh yearlings continued to be sold on account of the Thompson brothers until 1924 when Herbert began selling yearlings in his own name after his brother James relinquished all his breeding interests. As we shall see in due course, Herbert Thompson as the Master of Tarwyn Park – a stud property acquired in the rich Bylong Valley in 1918 and worked in conjunction with Oakleigh – was to go on to become the most successful thoroughbred breeder of the entire Thompson clan. In 1927 in partnership with Percy Basche Herbert, he also secured a property adjoining Tarwyn Park, which was subsequently called Sunnyside Stud.
So much, then, for the history of James Thompson and his immediate family, and the future of the Oakleigh Stud! What of his two brothers, John and William, and the destiny of the Widden Stud? The stud had enjoyed a remarkable coup with the acquisition of the champion stallion Maltster in August 1903. The Widden yearlings continued to be sold in the name of both brothers until 1909 when William sold his interest to John. William then removed to Torrie Lodge, Rylstone, later to St Clair, Singleton, and eventually to Yarraman Park, Scone. William was the father of W. B. and C. C. Thompson, whose Camyr Allen Stud, Scone, was dispersed in 1924. Meanwhile, his brother John took his own son Alfred into partnership, and the Widden yearlings were sold on behalf of John Thompson and Son until John’s death in 1914. For the next thirteen years, the Widden Stud’s fortunes were shared by John’s two sons, Alfred W. and Albert E. Thompson until 1927 when Alfred bought Albert’s interest, and the latter went to Bylong station in the Bylong Valley, although he was also actively breeding at Canema and Kerrabee. It was at Bylong that Albert became the first of the Thompsons to match Uncle James’ feat of breeding the A.J.C. Derby winner when he bred Reading in the spring of 1936. After Albert’s departure, the Widden yearlings were then sold on account of A. W. Thompson solely until 1936 when the stud became A. W. Thompson and Co., Ltd. As we shall see, the Widden Stud continued to flourish down the years frequently topping the yearling price averages, particularly in the seasons of standing Maltster and Heroic. The Widden pastures would be responsible for other winners of the Derby at Randwick as the twentieth century unfolded including Allunga, Reading and Magnificent not to mention great racehorses such as Malt King, Beverage, Eurythmic, David, Ajax, Hua, Victory Lad and Indian Summer.