Holbrook Stud and the Harris Family

Holbrook Stud and the Harris Family

In 2019 Julie Harris was awarded the ‘Murray Bain Service To Industry Award’ by the Hunter Thoroughbred Breeders Association. Julie was the most deserving of recipients; acknowledgement at last of the enormous contribution made by the Harris Family. Her mother Mrs Madge Harris had also been recognised with her award of Scone Horse Festival VIP.

The HTBA awarded it’s 2002 President’s Medal conjointly to Alan & Madge Harris

John Harris was an inaugural Committee Man of the Hunter Thoroughbred Breeders Association formed in 1978 (then the HVTBBA). He was also President of Denman Race Club and Councillor with the Denman Shire Council.

Richard Harris was Secretary of the Muswellbrook Race Club (then UHRC) and the Queanbeyan Jockey Club. He bred 1970s champion Lord Dudley (by Right Honourable II) from his AJC Oaks winning mare Jane Hero.

See also and acknowledge: http://kingsoftheturf.com/1960-a-mandelian-theory-on-bloodstock/

Featured Image: Persian Lyric and Ray Selkrig (Racetrack Magazine)

Holbrook Stud 


An association by the Harris family with much of the country at the south western end of the Widden Valley offshoot of the Hunter Valley which commenced over 150 years ago ended in March 2007 with the completion of the sale of their property named Holbrook Stud by Trevor and Elizabeth Alley. Elizabeth is a daughter of John Harris, one of the three sons of Bill Harris, himself a grandson of the original settler in the middle of the 18th century.

The other brothers are Richard Harris, former secretary of the Muswellbrook race club, and Alan, the owner with wife Madge and daughter Julie of a prominent agistment and yearling preparation farm along the Pages River between Scone and Gundy in the Hunter Valley. The Harris family sold the bulk of the Holbrook Stud, one bisected by the Widden Brook and stretching back to the mountains, late in the 1990s. This left the Alleys with the holding they traded on under the banner of Holbrook Stud on the northern side of the creek and portion of the former neighbouring Oakleigh Stud. This farm has now been secured by the Paynters, the buyers earlier of the Holbrook homestead block, one on which they grow cattle.

The Harris family bred hundreds of good horses over the years on Holbrook for themselves or clients including Easingwold (after winning the Western Australian Derby and St Leger appeared in the first two races for the Cox Plate at Moonee Valley, following a second in 1922 with a win the following year), Even Better (three Group1s in Sydney at four, the All-Aged Stakes, Epsom Handicap, Rawson Stakes), Castanea (12 wins included STC Rosehill Guineas-Gr.1, QTC Stradbroke Handicap-Gr.1), Persian Lyric (four Group1 wins at three, AJC Derby, QTC Queensland Derby, Stradbroke Handicap, STC Canterbury Guineas), Jane Hero (AJC Oaks-Gr.1), Lord Dudley (VRC Sires’ Produce Stakes-Gr.1, Australian Cup-Gr.1, MRC Blue Diamond Stakes-Gr.1, Poetic King (MRC VicHealth Cup-Gr.1, Toorak Handicap-Gr.1, MVRC Manikato Stakes-Gr.1) and Prince Darius (Sydney Tattersall’s Chelmsford Stakes-Gr.2 twice, Tattersall’s Gold Cup; second at three in the Melbourne Cup and to Tulloch in the AJC and VRC Derbys), to mention a few.

Even Better, Castanea, Persian Lyric, Jane Hero and Prince Darius were all by the most successful of the many sires used at Holbrook, Persian Book, an England bred son of Pherozshah, a close relation to Nasrullah and Royal Charger who won two races at Newmarket in a six start career. His son Persian Lyric also stood at Holbrook and, although he died in mid age, supplied more good horses out of their paddocks including Regal Jane (successful at Randwick in the AJC Queen’s Cup, Summer Cup and Tattersall’s Cup).

See also: http://kingsoftheturf.com/1960-a-mandelian-theory-on-bloodstock/

AJC Derby 1960

The race was a triumph for leading Sydney bookmaker, Jack Mandel, who had bred the winner and raced him in partnership with his wife, and their daughter, Mrs H. Abbott.  Offered at the Sydney Yearling Sales, the son of Persian Book had, fortunately for Mandel, failed to meet his reserve.  I think it was Banjo Patterson who observed: “that in the racing game all men are equal, with bookmakers having a shade of the odds”.  Mandel’s retention of Persian Lyric bears out the truth of that observation.  Rarely impressive in his trackwork, the Derby winner was a striking chestnut with the laidback temperament that enabled him to stay the mile-and-a-half.  In winning, the colt compensated his owners for the bad luck that had dogged Prince Darius, three seasons earlier.  A leading figure within Tattersalls for many years, Mandel was one of those purveyors of prices – Jack Shaw and Ken Ranger were others – who extended his association with the racecourse beyond the betting ledger and into breeding and ownership as well.  Jack Mandel first registered his colours in 1939 and in March of that year he bought St Andrew, a yearling colt by Gay Lothario, for 700 guineas at the Victorian Yearling Sales.  St Andrew proved a more than useful racehorse and as a two-year-old was thought of highly enough to take across to Melbourne for the V.R.C. Maribyrnong Plate.  Later as a four-year-old, he strung together a hat-trick of wins for Mandel during winter racing in Queensland culminating in the valuable Q.T.C. Metropolitan Handicap when he beat Abspear by a head.

At the end of his racing career, Jack Mandel decided to give St Andrew a chance at stud, and the horse sired a few winners sporting the Mandel family colours. These included Neat Andrew, a Scone Cup winner, and most notably Royal Andrew, who won the 1948 Rosehill Guineas and ran fifth in the Derby of that year behind Carbon Copy. But St Andrew’s greatest distinction at stud was to come from a chestnut mare that Mandel bred from him in 1947 and which he named Lyrical Lass.  She traced back to Teppo, that remarkable foundation mare responsible for so many great thoroughbreds in Australia.  Lyrical Lass only raced for one season, and that during her four-year-old days when trained by Clem Guy; in seven races – mostly around the Newcastle coalfields – she failed to ruffle the judge for a moment.  On paper, she didn’t appear to be the most likely of broodmares despite descending from Teppo.  When Mandel decided to mate her in the spring of 1952, it was to a stallion that he had imported into Australia two years earlier to replace the ageing St Andrew.  The animal in question was Persian Book, a chestnut horse by Pherozshah, and the winner of five races on English courses including Ascot and Newmarket; he had also managed to run second in the valuable Lincolnshire Handicap, beaten a neck, and fourth in The Cambridgeshire.

While Persian Book remained the property of Mandel, the stallion stood at W. Harris’s Holbrook Stud at Kerrabee.  The relationship of Lyrical Lass and Persian Book in the breeding barn was to be entirely monogamous and span a dozen years until the death of the mare in December 1964.  While their first pairing produced a nice chestnut filly that didn’t amount to anything, the second mating resulted in Prince Darius.  After that, the mare missed more than she hit and only ever got three more live foals but the 1960 Derby winner was amongst them.  The more I see of horse racing, the more I realise that the maternal side is so much more important than the paternal.  When glancing through our Turf history you come across these fine old matrons continually cropping up, many of them of no great account on the racecourse themselves, but of inestimable value in breeding the winners of middle distance and staying horses.

Persian Book wasn’t a particularly well-credentialed stallion, but Lyrical Lass just happened to nick with him and produced two fine sons; but for Tulloch, she would have had the distinction of being the mother of two Derby winners.  I find it fascinating that Persian Book was a stallion that clearly did nick with certain mares; he only got twelve individual winners of principal races in Australia, and yet half of them came from just three mares.  Castanea and Even Better were both by Persian Book from the mare, Spring Frolic; and Jane Hero and Scenic’s Gift were from the mare, Golden Hero.  I can’t think of a similar example from that period where a stallion enjoyed such success with different sets of full brothers or sisters at the highest level on the Turf from relatively limited opportunities.

Persian Lyric’s post-Derby career makes an interesting study.  The colt made one more appearance at Randwick at the 1960 A.J.C. Spring Meeting when Tulloch comprehensively beat him in the weight-for-age Craven Plate.  Taken to Melbourne he then finished third behind Tulloch and Dhaulagiri in the M.V.R.C. Cox Plate run that year in Australasian record time; Persian Lyric was then sent to the post an odds-on favourite for the Victoria Derby a week later in the hands of Ron Hutchinson, but failed by less than a length to run down Sky High, with Neville Sellwood giving a masterly exhibition of front-running riding.  On the eve of that race, Sky High had even suffered the inconvenience of having a veterinarian remove fluid from his near hind hock.  In Brisbane, Persian Lyric was untroubled to win the Q.T.C. Derby, again relegating Le Storm into second place.

It is highly unusual for the Derby winner to win another race at Randwick during his three-year-old season worth even more than the Derby, but Persian Lyric holds that distinction.  The event in question was the A.J.C. Centenary Invitation Stakes, a special £10,000 race conducted under quality conditions over a mile-and-a-half to mark the club’s centenary at the 1961 Autumn Meeting.  To stage the race, the club cancelled the running of the St. Leger, which in recent years had been attracting derisory numbers.  In a memorable finish, Persian Lyric exacted a measure of family revenge for some of the losses suffered by his older brother Prince Darius, when he lasted to beat Tulloch a half-head, albeit in receipt of 21lb from the champion.  Persian Lyric ended his three-year-old season when George Moore partnered him to a surprise win in the Q.T.C. Stradbroke Handicap; Moore’s legendary whistle never secured a more remarkable passage on the inside rails than Persian Lyric enjoyed that afternoon.  Moore also partnered the horse when beaten into second place by High Society in the B.A.T.C. Doomben Cup, after conceding the winner 29lb in weight.  Persian Lyric struck trouble in that race and afterwards developed a swelling in his near tendon; it was an injury that effectively finished the colt on the racecourse.  Persian Lyric didn’t race at all as a four-year-old despite attempts by Clyde Cook to train him, and when the horse did finally resume as a five-year-old, he failed to regain form in five appearances.

In the autumn of 1963, Persian Lyric was transferred to the stables of leading Adelaide trainer, Colin Hayes, in one last bid to get the horse back to the racecourse.  Hayes was just then beginning to emerge as a force on the Australian Turf and had already enjoyed considerable success with bad-legged horses, thanks largely to the long stretch of beach adjoining his Glenelg stables.  But even the magic of saltwater and the Hayes touch weren’t enough to see the baldy-faced chestnut withstand a racing preparation, and the son of Persian Book was, like his sire, retired to stand at the Holbrook Stud, and he was far from a failure.  The best of his progeny, Regal Jane and Broadway Boy, came along in his first season.  Regal Jane won a Queen’s Cup, Summer Cup and Tattersall’s Cup at Randwick, and at stud was the dam of Lord Folkestone; Broadway Boy won a Newcastle Cup among other races.  There were a lot of other useful gallopers in future years as well, and Persian Lyric finished up with progeny winning best part of a million dollars at a time when stakes were much less than today.

Brian Russell writes (09/05/2020):

The last horseman of Upper Widden Valley: Alan Harris passes on at 91 by Brian Russell (09052020)

When the Harris and Thompson families in the mid-1850s purchased at Government auctions much of the usable land in the then isolated Widden Valley, one nurtured by the sweet waters of the Widden Brook, a stream which wends its way from the mountains to feed the Goulburn River west Hunter Valley, it is doubtful any of them foresaw they were to be cornerstones of a hub of thoroughbred excellence which continues today.

What was to become the Harris dynasty, settled on country they called Holbrook in the upper reaches of the Widden Brook and the Thompsons occupied much of the choice country lower down, operating under the banners of Oakleigh (first homestead) and Widden.

The families had brought stock over from the Rylestone-Bylong region using a spur off the Nullo Mountain to reach the Widden Valley. Both bred horses for transport and farm work and very likely had some thoroughbreds as one of the leading thoroughbred breeders of the time was Bylong located John Lee family.

The Harris family stayed at Holbrook until 1998 and the Thompsons seven generations down the line  maintain thoroughbred breeding in the Valley today using Widden Stud, one of the world’s most respected and successful stud farms.

Since the Thompsons enjoyed their first major success as thoroughbred breeders, supplying1887 Caulfield Cup winner Oakleigh, a son of early resident sire Roodee, the paddocks of Oakleigh and Widden have grown hundreds of top performers and a big contingent of others got by sires in their stallion yards.

One of the first champion sires stood by the Thompsons was Lochiel (1882), the leading Australian sire five times and the instrument of the Harris family involvement in thoroughbred breeding, supplying their first sire, a horse they called Holbrook.

At that time Holbrook was conducted by Tom Harris, grandfather of Alan Harris, the horseman whose death at Scone at the age of 91 in early April has dwindled further the pool of members of the breeding fraternity who supported me when I began writing on breeding 57 years ago, at the time with the now defunct NSW Country Life, a weekly stock journal.

Holbrook was run in the 1960s by William ‘Bill’ Harris, son of Tom, with the assistance of the two eldest of three sons, John (the eldest, 92) and Alan, and was on the highest plane in its horse history with Persian Book (GB), one of the best sires in Australia at the time, in their stallion yards.

An imposing looking chestnut good class English miler foaled in 1943 after the mating of the Pharos sprinter Pherozshah (later stood New Zealand) with Belleheim, a daughter English Derby winner Blenheim, Persian Book was imported in 1950 by Sydney bookmaker Jack Mandel and installed at the Holbrook Stud.

Mandel kept mares at Holbrook and two great gallopers raised on the property for him were the Persian Book brothers Persian Lyric (1957; won AJC Derby,  QTC Derby, Stradbroke, second VRC Derby, Doomben Cup)) and Prince Darius (1954; wfa champion, runner up to Tulloch in the AJC and VRC Derbys, also second at three in the Melbourne Cup – beaten a neck by Straight Draw).

The brothers were produced on Holbrook using Lyrical Lass, an unraced daughter of St Andrew (Holbrook sire) and Gozoni (by Lo Zingaro (GB). Both mares were owned by Mandel.

There were two runners by Persian Book bred on the stud in the Straight Draw – Prince Darius Melbourne Cup, the other being Book Link. One of the first horses bred by Alan Harris as a member of the WH Harris and Son partnership, Book Link finished near the rear in the Melbourne Cup, but still had a distinguished racing career, performances including wins in Brisbane in the Derby, Doomben Cup, St Leger, Guineas and Queen’s Cup.

Other good offspring of Persian Book to come out of the Holbrook pastures included the brothers Even Better (AJC Epsom) and Castanea (won QTC Stradbroke, STC Rosehill Guineas, AJC Villiers), and also Jane Hero (AJC Oaks).

Even Better and Castanea were out of Spring Frolic, a mare by Kerry Piper, an English stayer standing alongside Star Kingdom at nearby Baramul Stud purchased by John Harris and the breeder of Jane Hero was the youngest of the three Harris brothers, Richard. Now a resident of Morpeth near Newcastle, Richard for some years had a store in Denman, the hometown for the Widden Valley, and was a leader in Denman and Muswellbrook racing, including serving as secretary. He finished his involvement in racing with a stint as secretary of the Queanbeyan Race Club.

When John (1927) and Alan (1928) Harris were born, Holbrook breeding was still basking in the success of the first top horse bred by the family, a colt by the name of Easingwold who followed up success in the 1921 Western Australian Derby with a second in 1922 in the inaugural Cox Plate at Moonee Valley, one taken out by imported Violoncello, and then victory in the new prestige event the following year.

Bred by their grandfather Tom, Easingwold was by Eaton Lad (GB) 1905, the first imported sire to call Holbrook home. Among sires that followed were Sun Cure (GB) 1916 and locals Pentheus 1926, St Andrew 1937 and Melhero 1941, but it was the achievement of Persian Book and involvement of the Harris brothers that paved the way for Holbrook’s busiest and most successful era. Sires used included Persian Lyric 1957, Special Kingdom 1974, Ifni (Fr) 1970, Proud Knight, Colisee (Fr) 1956 and Bayarin (GB) 1964.

Colisee one year was a leading sire numerically and what could have been the best of Bayarin’s progeny, Baron Bold, won four races Sydney at two, finished third in the Sires’ Produce Stakes and was one of three runners who fell in 1973 Golden Slipper. Bred by WS Harris and sons, he was from Persian Heroine, a Persian Book Sydney winner from Real Heroine, a winner by Pentheus.

After Bill Harris’s death, Holbrook was continued on as a horse and cattle producing property by John and Alan Harris until it was sold in 1998. Still taking a big interest in breeding and racing, John and his wife retired to Denman, but Alan kept involved right up until his death, settling with his wife of 55 years, Madge, and their daughter Julie on Pages River bordered agistment farm near Arrowfield at the northern end of the Segenhoe Valley near Scone

Now managed by Julie Harris and trading under Holbrook Thoroughbreds, they maintain a small number of their own mares, but services are primarily for outside clients. Currently there are sixty horses on the farm, including mares owned by the Andrew Bowcock headed Bowcock Bloodstock and premier Western Australian breeder and owner Bob Peters.

Privately cremated owing to the Covid19 restrictions, Alan Harris lived with horses all his 91 years and was involved in yearling sale selling for about seventy. His contribution, one which was recognised by a Hunter Valley Thoroughbred Breeders Award, will be recalled in the future as Holbrook Thoroughbreds continues to be represented with Julie at the helm.

WIDDEN VALLEY STUDS: In the 1960s there were four of Australia’s leading studs in the Widden Valley, Holbrook, Oakleigh (Tom Flynn), Baramul (AO Ellison) and Widden (the Thompsons). Still active are Baramul (Gerry Harvey) and Widden.

JOHN HARRIS: Seventy years in Widden Valley by Brian Russell 30/10/2020

John Harris, a horse breeder who spent the first seventy years of his life as a resident of the family’s Holbrook Stud at the southern end of the famous Widden Valley, passed away on October 5 at the age of 93. At the time of his death, he and his wife, May (99), had been living since May at a nursing home at Merriwa, west Hunter Valley, transferring from nearby Denman, the home town for the Widden Valley folk.

John and his two years younger brother, Alan, one who also died this year, ran the family’s Holbrook Stud following the death of their father William ‘Bill’ Harris in 1975.The property had been settled on by the family in the mid-1850s and began commercial thoroughbred breeders at the beginning of last century.

John Harris made a contribution to the family’s history as the breeder of the brothers Castanea (12 wins, QTC Stradbroke, STC Rosehill Guineas, AJC Villiers, 2nd AJC Derby, Doncaster and Epsom Handicaps) and Even Better (11 wins, also won America, successes included AJC Epsom, All-Aged Stakes, STC Rawson Stakes, Newcastle Newmarket).

Sons of resident sire Persian Book (GB), Castanea and Even Better were from Spring Frolic, an unraced daughter Kerry Piper (GB), a good English stayer who stood at another Widden Valley Stud, Baramul.

Persian Book was one of more than a dozen sires used at the Holbrook Stud during John Harris’s seventy years in residence, others including Persian Lyric (by Persian Book), Melhero (Heroic), Sun Cure (GB) (Sun Star), Eaton Lad (GB), St Andrew (Gay Lothario (GB),  Pentheus (Rossendale (GB), Colisee (Fr) (Delirium), Bayarin (GB) (Kynthos), Proud Knight (Vain) and Special Kingdom (Planet Kingdom).

While living on Holbrook, John Harris was elected to the shire council serving the Denman region, including the Widden Valley. He was also a founding committee member of the Hunter Valley Thoroughbred Breeders Association.

When the family disposed of the property in 1998, he and May took up residence in Denman, the centre at which he was farewelled at a funeral service held at the Anglican Church on October 14.

John Harris is survived by May, daughters Elizabeth Alley and Annette Dixon, four grandchildren and three great grandchildren. Also, a younger brother Richard, the breeder of the Persian Book AJC Oaks winner Jane Hero and of her champion son Lord Dudley, winner in Melbourne of the Blue Diamond Stakes Sires’ Produce Stakes, William Reid Stakes, St Leger Stakes, Blamey Stakes, Australian Cup, Flemington Stakes and Freeway Stakes, survives him.