Baramul Stud Dispersal: Shipping Transport to the USA 1970

Baramul Stud Dispersal: Shipping Transport to the USA 1970

Featured Image: Horses in stalls on deck as arranged on the ‘Parrakoola’ (Photo courtesy of John Gilder)

In July 1970 I was extremely fortunate to accompany the last major shipment of horses to traverse the wild Pacific to west coast USA as attendant veterinarian. The MS ‘Parrakoola’ was a modern Swedish-registered container vessel circumnavigating the vast ocean in pursuit of trade. This was my first and only exposure to life on the ocean waves and the vicissitudes of a merchant seaman! What an experience in life skills and people as well as animal management training! My co-strappers were Malcolm Ayoub who has recently achieved national notoriety as the guru for Jim Cassidy. Malcolm was a colourful racing identity encompassing in spades all the skills and attributes the sobriquet implies! Jack Flood, my boss, was a magnificent horseman of the old school and a firm and loyal friend of his equally impeccable employer and gentleman John Inglis. Like John he became my much respected mentor, advocate and confidant until his ultimate demise some years ago. With three of us to care for 84 horses for a month the job was ahead! Malcolm was occasionally AWOL with some psychological baggage.

The crew was a most intriguing conglomerate of Scandinavian and West Europeans with a few global itinerants completing the cast! The captain was a very fine Swede and many were equally impressive Finns. The Chief Engineer was ex-Baron August von Reinfelds of old Prussia who had commanded a U-boat during the war! Then resident of Mosman he told me stories of his four-horse drawn carriages on the expansive family estates in Bavaria. He certainly knew his horses. All his subordinates were Austro-German and ‘Sieg Heil’ ruled, OK! Only one courageous Englishman, Ted from Manchester and resident of California challenged the domain with his Churchillian rhetoric, “fight them on the beaches”, cigar and correctly applied V sign! Willy Richter from Adelaide had previously accompanied bloodstock agent Reg Angel shipping the champion racehorse and stallion Tobin Bronze to America.

The 84 horses on board were comprised mostly of thoroughbreds from the dispersal of the famous Baramul Stud in the Widden Valley. My personal favourite aesthetic Hunter Valley stud property, this was the home of the immortal Star Kingdom. Many of the mares and weanlings on board carried his genes directly or through the aegis of his sons Todman and Biscay. The latter’s first crop were seven to nine month foetuses carried in some of the in-foal mares. The exquisitely beautiful chestnut Todman mare Eternal Youth was the then extant love of my life! She later featured as a star on the front page of the Fijian Times. Pio Pio by Summertime and dam of King Apollo was a close second! All had been purchased by a disparate triumvirate of successful USA business men following the brilliant success in North America of Todman’s brother Noholme II and his son Eskimo Prince. Rex C. Ellsworth was a big time Mormon cattle rancher from Utah who had enjoyed enormous success with Hyperion’s grandson Swaps by Khaled. His son Kumen was veterinarian at Chino CA. Dr. Franklin achieved global prominence firstly by pneumatically enlarging and enhancing the mammary tissue of the post-ingénue female residents of Hollywood and secondly by purchasing overnight thoroughbred stallion success Vaguely Noble from the UK. My colleague John Morgan vetted the latter in Newmarket prior to his sale to the US.

Dr. Arnie Pesson was a larger than life Texan-born and Lexington/Kentucky based veterinarian who was my gracious and generous host later that year. I still retain clear memory of his supervision of the construction of a new Fasig-Tipton sales complex in Lexington with mate John Finney. He directed the bulldozers on site from horseback complete with spurs, whip, cigar and topped off by an immaculate white ten-gallon Stetson! Arnie Pesson was particularly ungracious about the original owner of the mare shipment, barrister Mr. A. O. Ellison of Baramul. However, his descriptive American vernacular then fresh to my ingénue ears in alleging various banal proclivities does not bear repetition here!

The mares were held in individual inwardly facing stalls on deck and stood for the entire 28 days journey on wooden slats. The stalls were constructed of Australian hardwood (iron bark). We removed partitions between the weanlings so they could move about their corral. This was ultimately highly significant! Feed bins and fresh water buckets were placed in front of each mare. Ordure was washed overboard daily by power seawater hosing. Feeding comprised Lucerne hay and chaff, oaten and wheaten chaff, Victorian meadow hay, molasses as an appetiser and some salt. My veterinary pharmacy included penicillin (Crystapen™ and Triplopen™), syringes and needles, stomach tube, alkaline salts, Epsom salts, stethoscope and thermometer. The journey took us via Fiji (Suva 6 and Lautoka 2 days) to Hawaii (2 days) and finally San Diego. The mares and other horses rested beautifully at night gliding peacefully over the smooth ocean. It was serenely sanguine to observe the tranquil scene with flying fishes glinting and sparkling in the crystal clear moonlight before retiring at nightfall!

The first hiccup was that Widden Valley domiciled mares did not find Victorian meadow hay palatable and to their liking at all! The alarm bells sounded with loud clear clarion fortissimo very early on day three! An old brown mare was clearly severely distressed from before daylight! She had consumed her usual feed and water overnight. I will never forget her anguished expression, terrified mien, flared dilated nostrils, dark purple plum coloured mucous membranes, dyspnoea, high febrile temperature (41.2°C), sanguineous blood tinged watery nasal discharge, distress, terminal struggling and death all within two hours! Treatment proved useless! I had witnessed first hand the onset, egress, progress and inevitable ultimate demise of a case of peracute “shipping fever”. Old Jack was shocked and I was in trepidation! Jack, a veteran of many long sea voyages with horses, had never seen anything like it!

The next series of events have also stayed with me over the years! At sea in the merchant navy, the captain of the ship is supreme omnipotent commander as judge, jury, advocate and executioner! No arguments! Not surprisingly I was not allowed to perform a post mortem. Within moments of her death the mare was winched up by a gantry crane with a rope around a hind leg and swung overboard. A seaman with a knife cut the rope and Duchess Delville and her unborn foal plummeted to the depths of the wide blue pacific mid way between Sydney and Suva! Not two weeks before she had languished in the lush Lucerne paddocks at Baramul! I stood transfixed and stunned at the speed and efficiency of the whole operation which seemed to take only a few seconds although it must have been longer. To this day I have never seen a more impressive or proficient means of disposal of a large cadaver.

Alarmed and fore-warned Jack and I took exquisite care and paid minute attention to detail from here on! At the slightest sign of abnormality we checked them out. With any rise in temperature I gave them 5 mega units (3g) of crystalline penicillin intra-venously and 10 to 15 mega units (6-9g) procaine/benethamine penicillin intra-muscularly. This was repeated one or two times. I became adept at picking the early cases by astute observation. At first light each morning one could look along the line of horse’s heads over the front rails. The clearly defined glazed eyes and alarmed anxious expression with flared nostrils became pathognomic for the condition. Temperature rise confirmed the diagnosis. Treatment instituted immediately proved to be effective. The affected mares were removed from their stalls and placed on straw on deck with restraining ropes attached to the containers. Here they could lie down and rest, quite critical for recovery. We lost no more.

Torrina was the biggest guts and best conditioned mare on board but she succumbed on the Lautoka toHawaii leg. She lost an estimated 200kg and slipped her hairless colt foal on deck. Disposal presented no problem!

Even though the weather was generally warm and balmy, 17 or 18 mares showed acute signs of travel or shipping fever necessitating treatment. I was not prepared to take the risk! A few others exhibited milder chronic clinical signs and were treated prophylactically. The weanlings having more space to move and mix travelled well. The six night stay in Suva was extremely damaging to the horse’s wellbeing and psyche. Container vessels are intense hives of activity around the clock while in port. On the leeward side of Viti Livu it seemed to rain every afternoon at four o’clock and frequently at other times! This meant extremely noisy opening and shutting of hatches at the slightest sign of inclemency. The hubbub of lights, metal, clanking and incessant human activity was constant for 24 hours non stop. Consequently there was no tranquil rest for the horses as at sea. They were constantly jittery and on edge all the time in port with no opportunity for relaxation. The process was repeated to a lesser extent in Lautoka (2 nights) and Hawaii (2 nights). We successfully employed local labour to assist with feeding, watering and hosing down in port. The Fijian media were intensely interested in our unique cargo. We featured on the front page of the Fijian Times as well as radio and TV. The female journalist with the Times was particularly charming. Sydney trained local veterinarian Dr. Goldsmith was also most hospitable.

Life experience with merchant seamen ashore and exposure to local culture is not something one forgets easily! Minutes after docking in Suva and laying down the gang plank the deck was swarming with local female talent. This seemed to be de rigueur behaviour and mostly re-acquaintance with further (literal!) bonding from previous visits. There were some truly memorable parties! The morning after a “special” at the idyllic Hotel Isa Lei the ship’s captain made an amusing breakfast time announcement. He read a message in broken English from the manager of the hotel: “Would gentleman from your ship kindly return to retrieve his glasses and his underpants from the swimming pool!” I made an appointment with an optometrist in Suva for a new pair for myself being half blind, very reliant and as I had no spares!

Waikiki was also exceptional! Hans Selgren, ship’s bursar, entrepreneur, urbane avid punter, motel owner and resident of Brisbane put on the greatest show on earth in a bar on the strip. His sobbing rendition of the pain of loneliness at sea so impressed the gullible but sympathetic barmaid we had our own private party within an hour of arrival! ‘Hassa’ is one of the most socially adroit, experienced and genuinely gregarious people I have ever met! I don’t think he’s ever been lonely! His thespian talents exceeded his consummate social skill and punting proclivity! He later wrote to tell me he’d successfully backed Divide and Rule for the proverbial squillion in the Stradbroke Handicap and Doomben Cup of that year. I rather doubt he still retains the proceeds!

While I was administering prophylactic penicillin to the horses the whole crew seemed to be lining up in sympathy for the same treatment by ship’s medical officers after leaving port! On strong medical advice they had all been compulsorily vaccinated against tetanus before embarkation because of exposure to horses and the perceived increased danger of contracting the disease!

The Hawaian visit was rudely interrupted by the need to blood sample all horse on board for quarantine purposes beginning at 2am! Some party pooper! Dave Mackay was the courteous and hospitable local state veterinarian. His expertise with horses wasn’t initially great but he adjusted very quickly and we finished the task long before breakfast. Before arrival in Los Angeles (LA) we were met by boarding party including a senior California state veterinarian. He came to check the “strange virus”. After detailed and thorough interrogation and the results of the blood tests were known we were cleared to land on mainland USA.

Disembarkation in LA was classic! The horses were lifted individually in crates by large gantry cranes from deck to port. The crates were geriatric wooden devices probably not used for decades. Chief Engineer von Reinfelds had not disguised his disdain or disgust for Americans and their culture all voyage. His vituperative about the caricature Yankee with the “loud shirt, big hat and bigger cigar” was strongly impressed on anyone who cared to listen. In fully gold braided Chief Engineer’s uniform complete with cap, gloves and white cane he paraded conspicuously in upright splendour back and forward along the sidewalk poking the LA wharfies with his cane loudly proclaiming time and again: “So Fred Flintstone have built zese crates, ugh?, So Fred Flintstone have built zese crates, uh?”

I thought World War III was about to erupt! August Von R. was even more delighted when the challenge of dismantling the iron bark wooden stall infrastructure proved too much for the “soft” chainsaws operated by the indigenous wharfies. All were firmly seized up within 20 minutes and the job only just begun! Interestingly ‘Hassa’ Selgrun and ‘Baron August’ visited me in Scone the following year. After a very good night out in the Wounded Buffalo and the Golden Fleece, August became somewhat disoriented and was discovered wandering in the grounds of the house in which I now reside! Then incumbent Janet Barton, mother of Cessnock veterinarian David was singularly not amused on discovering the strange man late at night in the bushes muttering in deep gutteral German/English: “So Bill Howey have done zees! So Bill Howey have done zees!” Strike one Winston C. and Ted from Manchester!

Pessin, Ellsworth and Franklin were present to greet their precious but somewhat dishevilled cargo in LA. The journey was complete. Dr Pessin kindly invited me to spend time with him in Kentucky. I was delighted to accept! I was unable to extract any response at all from either Franklin or Ellsworth!

In Lexington I was accommodated in the Polo Club at Winchester Farm on Winchester Pike. I had never seen such luxury! I met a few mates I had seen in Oz (Brian Palmer) and was also lavishly entertained by Patrick Madden of Meadowcrest Farm. The gate posts at the entrance drive had flames leaping from their apex throughout the night! Easier to find your way home? It was facile to be side tracked by Patrick and his colourful entourage! This was southern exposure at its very finest. Modesty and coyness prevent full disclosure of the extent of hospitality provided! Suffice to say anything goes! I also made time to visit old friend John Hughes of Dublin then completing his research at the University of Kentucky. Jim Smith and Walter Zent of Hagyard/Davidson/McGee were great and we began a lifelong communication. Among many other highlights were visits to Darby Dan Farm (Ribot), Gainesway, Claiborne, Spendthrift, Castleton and the like. I also ran into Aussies, Sky High and Tobin Bronze en passant. Remarkably on the last leg of my return journey to Sydney I sat next to Dr. Goldsmith’s parents from Suva! Small world! Some life!