Legendary Melbourne Cup horses gone but not forgotten by NSW Hunter Valley
I’m indebted to my close friends Mike Pritchard and Brian Russell for this blog. It’s very timely in the lead up to the 2017 Melbourne Cup. I actually wanted to feature Merriwa and its connection to ‘Old Rowley’. Peter Gleeson told me the actual burial site may not be the one popularly promoted? It will always be a subject for debate.
I’m also pleased to acknowledge Jessica Owers who has been the author of some great books about horse history including ‘Shannon’ and ‘Peter Pan’.
Posted 1 Nov 2016, 8:30amTue 1 Nov 2016, 8:30am
The New South Wales Hunter region may not have a horse in 2016’s Melbourne Cup, but some of the race’s most iconic winners are buried there in treasured sites.
For those living in Australia’s thoroughbred capital, the horses may be gone but they are not forgotten.
Brian Russell from Muswellbrook is a thoroughbred breeding consultant, and has been a racing enthusiast for 80 years.
He said two giants of the turf were buried in the area and not many people knew about it.
“Five horses won the Melbourne Cup twice and two of them are buried here — that was Rain Lover who lies in Tarwyn Park in Bylong, and Peter Pan who rests in Singleton,” Mr Russell said.
Horse history alive in the Hunter
Mr Russell is delighted by the stories behind the winners.
“Old Rowley was another horse who rests at Merriwa; he was bred in Queensland but owned by a grazier in Merriwa and won the 1940 Cup at 100-1,” he said.
“Backwood won in 1924 and lays to rest at Widden Stud in the Widden Valley.”
But the name most people in the racing fraternity remember is Peter Pan, the two-time Melbourne Cup winner which was often compared to Phar Lap but did not receive the same attention.
The chestnut horse was born and bred in Singleton by the Dangar family who were pioneers in racing.
Mr Russell said everyone in the local community took interest in the stallion in his day and many benefitted from his wins.
“Rodney Dangar, who bred and owned him, told the young boy who delivered his milk to bet on Peter Pan,” he said.
“That young boy later on became very well known in gambling circles in Sydney.”
Competing with Phar Lap’s memory
Another big fan is author Jessica Owers. There exists an exquisite photograph of the 2015 Melbourne Cup trophy next to Peter Pan’s grave at ‘Baroona’.
In her book, titled Peter Pan, she said because of the success of Phar Lap, Peter Pan’s legacy was overshadowed.
“He was born in the wrong generation,” Ms Owers said.
“When you have an icon as big as Phar Lap who died the same year Peter Pan debuted on the race track, it would be difficult to compete with that.”
Ms Owers said Peter Pan’s ability on the track was remarkable.
“He won the Melbourne Cup as a three-year-old in 1932, and again in 1934; he was an outstanding stayer and set mile records — he was remarkable,” she said.
“He was a local celebrity in Singleton [and] he is a strong presence in Singleton.”
More than 80 years later, Peter Pan’s legacy lives on.
He is buried on the former Dangar estate at Baroona Homestead outside Singleton, his gravestone in the place where he used to stand looking out over his patch.
Rumour has it that there is a breakfast held on Melbourne Cup day at his grave site to honour this Australian legend — just one way the community shows their respect for the superhorse.
My good mate Max Presnell has written an inspired resume of Old Rowley who won the Cup in 1940 at 100 to 1.
The legend of ‘outsider’ Old Rowley still soldiering on after 70 years
GREAT CUP TALES
‘I’ve often wondered why I have never heard of Old Rowley,” telephoned Clare Coburn. ”My grandfather, Tom Carroll, lived in Western Victoria, and had a friend who was a soldier settler between Ballarat and Camperdown.
”The friend had a mortgage that was worrying him, farming wasn’t easy at that stage. The friend said he was going to Melbourne to back a horse in the Melbourne Cup he had a tip about. Would my grandfather go with him? So they went down and the horse was Old Rowley.
”The money went on and the friend was white when he saw a very ordinary horse with a bad gait. He turned his front foot in on the left side. He was the roughest of the pack. My grandfather said, ‘you haven’t put the money on this’ to which the reply was ‘I’ve put £2,000 on him. It’s all I’ve got’.
”Old Rowley won at 100/1. It paid the mortgage and set the soldier settler up for life …”
A crowd of 90,000 went to the Melbourne Cup at Flemington in 1940 described as ”one of the most remarkable” because it was won by the outsider, Old Rowley, who hadn’t been successful since 1938. He’d be at three figure odds just to make the field today. A seven-year-old gelding, his owner-trainer Jack Scully described him as ”difficult to train because of his bad joints”.
Old Rowley had been a gift horse to Scully, organised by his mate Bayley Payten, another Randwick trainer. He had been used as a hack prior to Scully deciding to set him for the Big One.
But there was no hint of what was to come on the first Tuesday in November. A few days earlier, Old Rowley had a bad heel and ran indifferently in the Hotham Handicap at Flemington.
Perhaps the key to Old Rowley’s improvement was jockey Andy Knox figuring he was best going around the outside and employing those tactics successfully.
Around 12,000 servicemen attended the Cup that year and introduced a different style of race watching. Several hundred climbed on to the flat roofs of the public stands, and had an excellent view. Awaiting the start they played two-up.
After the triumph, Scully told the Sydney Morning Herald: ”I do not back my horses these days. The prize of £7000 was enough … I advised friends to have a little on him, pointing out that at least he was known to be a stayer.”
Maybe the answer to the £2,000 bet by Tom Carroll’s mate was linked with Scully being a returned soldier from 1914-18.
Nobody cared much about Old Rowley before the Cup but threats leading up to the race led to a strengthening of the watch over favourite Beau Vite. While he was in the saddling enclosure and until he went out on the track, a police guard was kept on him
Four mounted constables were at the starting post and more than once people who attempted to approach the barrier were sent back. No one was allowed closer than 200 yards.
Incidentally on the first day of the 1940 Flemington carnival, Sydney-trained horses won five races. Nothing changes.
And the Old Rowley tip for the Melbourne Cup today? Zavite is probably as close as you are going to get to him.