Racing – A Walk Down Memory Lane

Racing – A Walk Down Memory Lane

By Harley Walden 2002

Featured Image: Peter Pan in the 1933 AJC St Leger Handicap ridden by Jim Pike

The story of Australia’s greatest national sport began with an impromptu bush racetrack, the meeting run by settlers near Windsor in New South Wales in 1805.It contained all the elements of the rugged, the exciting, the bizarre, the picturesque, the daring, the roguish and the boisterous, but never dull and never static as entertainment.

The first recorded Australian race meeting was staged in Hyde Park in Sydney Town on October 15, 17 and 19, 1810. The main event, a two mile run, carried the prize of a silver plate worth fifty pounds. Captain Richie riding Case, a grey gelding freshly imported from the Cape of Good Hope was the successful contender.

Up until then the Cape had been the main source of the better-class horse in the colony, but stallions and some valuable breeding stock were also imported from England, and on two occasions from America.

Among the most outstanding of the imported sires was Northumberland, brought to Australia in 1802, and Hector, shipped from Calcutta, 1806. By the time of his death in 1823, Hector’s genetic dominance was well established. Three sires, the Byerley Turk, the Godolphin Barb and the Darley Arabian, imported into England in the 18th century, were the source of some of Australia’s early bloodlines. The Darley Arabian began notable sire lines, which included Eclipse, and further down, Carbine.

Sydney’s Hyde Park races were abandoned in 1832 in favour of a newly cleared portion of land at Randwick. The first meeting held there was staged on April 15, 1832. The same year the Australian Jockey Club came into existence – “men of vision and integrity picked from the cream of Colonial society” – as one contemporary Sydney newspaper wrote.

But it has not always been the landed gentry that have held sway over the Sport of Kings. Although the organising strings have been pulled by such gentlemen over the course of time, it has been the battling owner, trainer and jockey, and in the depression years it was Phar Lap, who captured the imagination and raised the spirits of the average Australian.

Australian folklore is an indelible part of our history and our descriptive poets have ensured that it remains so. One such story that depicts this comes from the small town of Boglong (the earlier name for the township of Bookham on the Hume Highway) in 1872. The course laid out in a clearing of stringy-bark scrub had horses, riders, pub owners, and punters from as far as the Snowy River, the Murrumbidgee and Yass. Among the congregation was a young eight-year-old boy having his first day at the track. This experience was to become part of Australian literature and the source of one of the great Australian ballads. A horse called Pardon won the Bogolong Plate. The young lad was A.B. (Banjo) Paterson and ‘How Pardon Won the Cup’ part of our national heritage.

There is not a single day goes by that some kind of controversy arises from the Australian turf, and this is what intrigues the followers of the sport. It is a sport that is placed high on the gambling mantle, whether it be breeding, owning or just having a “flutter” on the Melbourne Cup, but one could then say that every walk of life is a gamble. The stock market, land deals, corporate ventures all have a series of ‘booms’ and ‘busts’.

It was the helices of days of racing when bookmakers traded pounds then dollars with punters that a gauge can be set on the enormous amount of money that would change hands, hundreds of thousands of currency would legally change hands each and every race meeting, and then there was the local SP (starting price) who was busy dodging the tax-man and the local law, while still trying to relieve the bloke at the local of the weekly milk money.

Today we have the TAB (Totalisator Agency Board), and it is well publicised the amount of money that passes through these outlets. It would be fair to say that the average Australian likes a “punt”. If you were new to this country and wanted to know what Australians were like, what they wore, how they spoke, then the place to go would be the TAB or the races.

The word Champion denotes an overall winner of an event. Then there is the title Legend, a traditional famous person. With the depth that lies within Australian racing with its hundreds of famous people and horses the term Legend becomes hard to decipher, but I thought well, why not, and my first choice is one whom I feel no one will query, Phar Lap.

From the time he placed foot on Australian soil the horse with the unfashionable pedigree, to all of those but the trainer Harry Telford, who purchased the horse sight unseen for 160 guineas, was destined to capture the newspaper headlines around the world for the next four years.

His scratching from the 1930 Caulfield Cup, leaving the way open, as was widely publicised, for certain people to clean-up on the Caulfield/Melbourne Cup winning double of Amounis and Phar Lap. The famous or infamous attempt to shoot the champion on the Saturday before the big event, the horse’s owner and trainer’s constant run-ins with officials, were they trying to weight him out of Australian racing ending with his tragic death on foreign soil?

The words spoken by jockey Jim Pike, who rode the great galloper for 27 wins and two seconds from 31 races, summed up his thoughts, and probably those of all Australians on the wonder horse, with these words, before the ill-fated trip to New Mexico:

“The only way they are going to beat him over there, is if they breed a horse with wings and get Kingsford Smith to ride him.”

Of course they didn’t beat him, Phar Lap winning the Agua Caliente Handicap on March 20, 1932, and in less than weeks the great horse was dead.

Tommy Woodcock’s “Bobby” had passed away and into our language. The phrase, “a heart as big as Phar Lap’s” is a saying among Australians for the horse that has become an icon and whose memory is still honoured more than seventy years passed.

Just over a half-a-century ago a new era was about to unfold in Australian racing and breeding with the arrival of the legendary Star Kingdom. Sent to Australia by the astute horseman, Stanley Wootton to stand at Alf Ellison’s Baramul Stud in the famous Widden Valley, a move that was to play a significant role, a role that would turn the Australian breeding scene form one based on stamina to that based on speed.

Star Kingdom was not readily accepted by breeders and covered only small books of mares in his first couple of seasons in an era when 60 or 70 were classed as a full-book for a stallion, unlike today when 130 plus is readily accepted.

But things were about to change, form the moment the first of his progeny hit the racetracks in 1954, Kingster winning the Breeder’s Plate and Ultrablue the Gimcrack Stakes, the Star Kingdom juggernaut had started to roll.

The winners of the first five Golden Slippers were his, and then in 1964 his champion son Todman (who had claimed the first running of the now world acclaimed two-year-old race) came up with Eskimo Prince – a Golden Slipper winner form his first crop, and then again three years later with Sweet Embrace, the first filly, and a maiden to boot, to take out the coveted event.

When Star Kingdom died on April 12, 1967 he had been Australia’s Premier Sire on five occasions, the year following his death he achieved the double – champion two-year-old sire and leading broodmare sire.

The champion stallion sired hundreds of “black type” winners, but probably his greatest attribute was the legacy of an extraordinary sire line, leading sires such as Todman, Biscay, Planet Kingdom, Noholme (USA); grandsons Bletchingly, Imposing and Luskin Star, all playing a large role in what is a cornerstone of our breeding today.

Trainers and Jockeys are an integral part of the racing game, people like the late T. J. Smith who trained so many great horses and captured 20 Sydney Trainer’s Premierships in as many years, and now his daughter Gai Waterhouse who has taken up the challenge left to her by her famous Dad.

The late Colin Hayes, leading trainer in Victoria for a record thirteen successive seasons, and in South Australia, his home State, for twenty seven seasons, the last seventeen in succession; founder of the famous Lindsay Park Stud, renowned throughout the thoroughbred world for its breeding achievements.

The Cups King, J. B. (Bart) Cummings, had eleven victories and five quinellas in the Melbourne Cup. These three gentlemen must rate high on the list of champions, if not legends.

The names Bill Duncan, Scobie Breasley, Jim Pike, George Moore, Jack Thompson, David (Darby) Munro, Neville Sellwood, Athol Mulley and Roy Higgins along with Bobby Lewis rode four Melbourne Cup winners, a feat equalled by Harry White in the nineteen-seventies, would head a list of great riders, and I have left out many, who would have proved their equal.

Racing families have always had some role on the Australian Turf, and no one combination would have been more popular with the racing public than the father and son combination of Bill and Peter Cook who between them won four Melbourne Cups. Father Tom and Bayley Paten each enjoyed for lengthy periods, the distinction of being Sydney’s Premier Trainer. Hugh Munro won the 1901 Melbourne Cup with Revenue; his other runner in the race was the wonder mare Wakeful.

The Munro siblings were also a formidable combination, James and David. Jim Munro won the Melbourne Cup on Windbag and Statesman and rode every champion of the ear. Darby won the Cup on Peter Pan, Sirius and Russia and was embroiled in one of the sports’ most controversial races, yet claimed by many as one of Darby’s masterful exhibitions on Shannon when left 50 yards at the start of the Epsom Handicap in 1946, and then failed by only ahead to catch the winner Blue Legend.

Down through the years the Australian racing annals have been graced by some colourful personalities, some of who have achieved their ambitions. And then there have been those who have just made up the numbers, but whatever role they have played, whether it be man, woman or beast, they have helped develop an odyssey of racing that at times envelopes people from all walks of life.