Doings of the Old Tracks

Doings of the Old Tracks – In the days long since

Celebrities of the Period

Featured Image: George Hopper’s ‘Crown & Anchor Hotel; the start for the match race between Archie Hall of ‘Nandowra’ and W. Grogan of the Commercial Hotel, Aberdeen

Taken from the Scone Advocate 3/3/1939

Apart altogether from the annual and picnic fixtures which eventuated in the days long since, many matches were run and it was not uncommon for these latter events to end unsatisfactory.

With but two horses, and, of course two riders facing the starter, it was quite an easy matter to “get at” one of the riders, the outcome being that the winner would virtually have a walkover.

In the days referred to there would be meetings held in almost every little locality. Distance was no object to the old-time sportsmen, and hundreds of miles were covered along the bush tracks.

The late John Corbett, for instance, apprised the chronicler of these lines that he and his companions thought nothing of taking their horses from the head of the Hunter across country to the New England districts. How conditions have changed! Today the prads are whisked north by train or in floats, a matter of a few hours travel. And they had their outings on the old Rooty Bank track, with the “darnce” at night, and the attractions had a following from the far-removed Paterson, Tamworth, Nundle and the coastal districts generally. Who could have predicted in those dim and distant days that the many logs scattered about the landscape which were used as plants for bottles of the strongest brew would in time become a refuge and harbour of countless rabbits.

Just to deviate from the subject of racing, it is worth that the district in question possessed athletes of more than ordinary ability. Take Albert Taylor, of Belltrees, for instance. Clean-limbed and solidly built, was known to ride to Tamworth overnight, and only an hour or so out of the saddle next morning pull on his spiked shoes and show the way to the tape in fields comprising the best athletes in the North. And with prize in pocket, the long trek back to Belltrees would commence.

Many matches were run with horses on the Aberdeen track. One memorable contest was between Bob Neeley’s Mailboy, who was carrying everything before him, and another, The Waif, owned by Tom Flanagan and trained by Harry Houseman. The Waif had many trips up the Hunter, hitched to a wagon, before it was discovered that he had plenty of pace. Herb Luddington was aboard The Waif and Jack Sindeberry rode Mailboy. It was a £20 match, run over four furlongs. There was money to burn, bags full of it, and George Hopper and party covered every “tenner” produced. The Waif lowered Mailboys’ colours, and continued his long sequence of wins.

Another match about the same issue was a trot between a bay mare owned by Archie Hall of “Nandowra” and a one-eyed horse in the ownership of W. Grogan, a remarkable character, and mine host of the old Commercial Hotel, Aberdeen. The course chosen was from George Hopper’s Crown and Anchor Hotel, to the bridge spanning the Hunter River at Aberdeen, approximately seven miles.

Hundreds of interested spectators waited at the finishing point, and presently they caught a glimpse of Grogan, seated in a heavy sulky, well out in the lead and waving his hat and urging his rival on. It was great afternoon at the Commercial, Grogan celebrating his victory in traditional style. One of the carnival party actually rode his horse up to the bar counter and called for drinks for all hands. A second horseman essayed to go one better by trying to ride his steed up the stairway of the house.

Grogan was a great sport, and although 60 years of age had a standing challenge to run any man his own years over 50 yards. He was never beaten, and the events were decided in bare feet in the gravel road in front of the hotel.

Grogan later got hold of Don Juan, a Thornthwaite-bred mare by a horse called Master McGrath, owned by Georeg Vine, and one of the smartest sprinters of her day. He pitted her against a grey mare, by Tester from a half-draught mare. The £20 were soon forthcoming, and to the surprise of the followers of Don Juan, the grey mare showed a clean pair of heels.

Another much discussed match was between Grogan’s Ivory and Jewell’s Negress, £20 aside, four furlongs. Sid Elwell, of Maitland, was specially brought up to ride ivory, but after the pair had traversed two furlongs, Elwell came to grief, offering as an explanation that one of his stirrup leathers had broken. But the leather also broke during the running of the subsequent match! Stan Felton’s Abbot, a winner of 32 races, next accounted for Dick Jones’ Osborness. Again the distance was four furlongs and the stake £20. Abbot never let his supporters down in a match. The galloper won five races in one week – two at Blandford and Moonan and one at Aberdeen. He was saddled three times in one day at Moonan, his victims including Little Jim, a bold galloper from Quirindi, whose arty issued a challenge for the next morning, but when Pat McLaughlin dredged £50 from a wallet, the Quirindians kept quiet.

There was good money to be won at the “Harben Vale” shearer’s meetings in those days, and John Perkins (now President of the Warrah Shire Council), who was one of the best men with blades, got hold of Abbot, won the principal with him, and then downed a good field in the all-comers event, in which a station-bred gelding named Barney figured. Bob Ward rode Abbot, while a black boy was entrusted to the handling of Barney. When the coloured lad dismounted, he explained, “By cripes, boss, if I hadn’t lost my plurry whip I would have won.” The reply of the “boss” was to the point. “Not if you had two whips”.

Stan Felton later did a fair bit of handicapping, and was stipendiary steward at a number of places. There was an outcry at Rouchel one day when he gave Homo, an ex-city performer, 13 stone. But the horse won by the proverbial street, and could have carried the grandstand as well. Years later, then an old horse, with his winter coat still in evidence, he was produced on the old track. Two persons knew his identity – the one who brought him from Muswellbrook, and his rider, Nat Cherry.

The “Sons of Israel” were calling him at 10 to 1, a quotation, which they increased to 20 to 1 when they saw him shuffling his way to the barrier. The webbing of the barrier flew skywards, and Homo, another name, of course, sped on his way. He won by the half the length of the short straight. The committee of the club then realised that the winner was a “ring in”. They acted promptly, a “no race” was declared, with all bets off, and the field sent back to the starter. The books asked 10 to 1 from punters! The veteran won just as easily again, but his rider did not bring him back to the enclosure. Instead, he kept him going, made a beeline for the entrance gate and then home to Muswellbrook.

On the same track, Harry Knight, who was the monarch of all he surveyed in build as well as sportsmanship, had three horses, Phil Grey, Rose May and Thunderbolt, all going in one race. Form pointed to Thunderbolt, but the old man was investing his sovereigns on Rose May. Some of the lads were in the know and did not wish to see Harry disappointed spirited Thunderbolt to the nearby river and let him drink his fill. Rose may duly won, and the “old general” let his younger friends know in no mistaken manner that his opinion of the mare had been vindicated. “You’ll listen to me in future” was his parting shot.

It was Boxing Day on the picturesque Dungowan track, the creek fringed with oaks, that “yours truly” ventured one morning while holidaying out Nundle way. There had been no publication of nominations for the meeting. Still a quarter of a mile away from the “paddock”, a little black mare was seen on her way to the barrier for the first race. It was Will Pinkerton’s dandy little galloper Diana. Jim Wiseman was aboard. When he caught a glimpse of the car, and still more important, its occupants, he suddenly discovered something was wrong with the gear and lost no time dismounting. The few minutes break gave the party ample time to reach the betting ring. “8 to 1 Diana” was called in a stentorian voice. All bookmakers, with a solitary exception, had her at the same price. There were horses from Tamworth, Manilla and even one from Narrabri in that field, to say nothing of local talent. The little black mare was first out, and what a procession she made of the event – and at 8 to 1, too.

It was to one of the old-time that a leading Sydney jockey had been enticed to come along for a couple of special mounts. It was not uncommon to see the Judge’s stand only slightly detached to the pub and the pub yard itself used as the saddling paddock. Luncheon had been served in the good old style, first in first served, and the catering in relays; corned beef and pickled pork, a couple of spuds, and an ill-shaped chunk of pumpkin with a mug of tea to wash it down. What more did the average bush racegoer want? However the city lad was obviously disappointed when his when his place was plonked down in front of him, or maybe it had been there for some time. “No pickles?” he grunted. The veteran inn-keeper then piped in, “This is not a banquet. Suppose you blokes want a beer with our porridge?”

A thrilling race often referred to by those of much earlier generation had its setting on the old “Nabinabah” track, on the Page, north of Gundy. “Three starters or no race,” was a hard and fats condition on the program. It was 62 years ago, and the late James Campbell, of “Arden Hall,” had his day’s racing with the next, and best of them. Scratchings had reduced the field to two – two greys. To ensure a race, the G.M.O. of the Hunter nominated a third, also a grey. They were Emily, Tarquin and Charlie, the last named from Paterson, and raced by George Crowley, father of Ernie Crowley, who made his presence felt in the ring events at the opening Bushmen’s Carnivals in Scone. “Jimmy” Smith rode Charlie and “Billy” Bristow was aboard Tarquin. In one of the best finishes witnessed for years, Charlie prevailed.

Scone’s original course was on the eastern side of the now residential area of the town. Were it possible for many of the early habitués to emulate Rip Van Winkle, what a surprise wold be in store for them!  At least two hundred building snow blot out the old track, the scene of many hectic meetings and incidents.

The mile course had its beginning in Oxford Road, near the residence now occupied by Mr. H. E. Garside. From there the field ran in the direction of Gundy Road, turned and came in a westerly direction to Park Street, near the home of Mr. A. J. Chalkley, ran along the street and swung towards the Golf Links to the site of the Scott Memorial Hospital, where the straight was entered and finished in close proximity to the home of Mr. A. S. Davies, and nearby stood the unpretentious grandstand and booth.

Here was the scene of the many triumphs of Lagoona, a chestnut mare bred by John Wiseman, by Mail Train, and prepared and ridden by the astute “Jimmy Smith”, who had as neat a pair of hands that ever handled the reins. Lagoona was the idol of the followers of the game, and residents of today claim when fit she was capable of pulling off some of richly endowed handicaps at Randwick. She was tackled form all points of the compass, but without avail. She was the Ajax in her domain. “Jimmy” went to scale at 8.7, but his mare had to carry up to 12 stone, and won as far afield as Maitland.

There were other good horses to pass through his hands in later years, those of district interest being T. S.; a Tester entire bred by the late George Hopper. T.S. scored on many northern district courses, as far afield as Maitland, and when taken in hand by “Jimmy” was practically broken down, still he managed to patch him up and continue the good work. His last horse was Kingo Lad, which won a double on the Satur track despite the fact that he was on three legs, as it were, at the time.

Tuck Holmes, another well-known sporting identity of his generation, made frequent trips from Quirindi, and always had a good following. He brought a mare named Music down to meet Lagoona, but she was no match for the dashing Scone mare.

J.Epstein, a hotel keeper in Scone – he had the “Fleece” – came into possession of a handy mare which he named Idalia. James Hardcastle, up the street, who subsequently bred two top-holers in Potassiumj and Cyanide’s Daughter, had a bay gelding, bred at “Grampian Hills,” which he named Huggamugga. The pair met in a race on the old town course, and a dead heat was the verdict. The pair ran off half an hour later, and the gelding proved the better. By the way, it was “Jimmy” Smith who always argued that a good horse did not need the dandy brush, and a bad one was not worth one.

Another great clash often recalled was between the two Testers. In the days to which these notes have reference, anything bred by Tester had the same hallmark of breeding in the provincial districts as any of our leading imported or colonial sires of today. Harvest Home, one of the tribe, and a great galloper, too, and a ‘gelding’, met his superior when he encountered T. S., but it was an epic struggle to the post.

In the days of half a century since the starter was Mr. F. S. North of Singleton; but the latter was a mere toddler when his progenitor first officiated with the flag, and had no thoughts of selling millions of pounds worth of business for A.M.P. Society. In fact, he was not old enough to sell a race book, yet he celebrated his 70th birthday a few months ago.

Two great gallopers came the way of the late George Hopper in later years. They were Tinagroo and Ruenalf II. With them he won a power of money, and with a little better luck of fortune wold have come up to his ménage through the agency of the brilliant son of Ruenalf, who was sheltered at Belltrees for many years and turned out hundreds of good winners.

Ruenalf II was a most tractable fellow, with almost human understanding and habits. He was never known to foul his box. Such brilliant form had he shown that he was taken across to Melbourne for the Caulfield Cup and back at long odds for a fortune. George was accompanied by Aldino Erranatti (better known as Italian George). One of the leading horsemen of the time was given the mount, but the horse ran indifferently, George Hopper was disgusted, and expressed his opinion openly. On the Sunday, he took his horse to Caulfield and gave him a trial against the watch. It was a brilliant run, being only a fraction of a second slower than the time occupied in the Cup race itself.

With another rider in the saddle, he let the horse run unbacked in the Melbourne Cup, where he registered a sterling performance, only being caught and beaten in the last furlong after practically leading all the way. (Any other enlightenment on the incident will be willingly proffered by “Italian George,” who frequently recalls the tilts of the betting ring, with varying luck, by “Opper” and me).