When the Spurters Spurted and Old ‘Piallah’ Plugged On
“Them Was the Days”
Acknowledgement: ‘The Scone Advocate’ Tuesday 7th February 1939
Featured Image: Gundy Cup 1928
When this (anonymous) scribe, a few weeks ago, in his moments of leisure, “knocked” a couple of columns of “copy” together dealing with the doings and incidents on the bush tracks, no special, no small section of our readers, like Oliver Twist, passed their plates, as it were, for a second helping – asked for more, and more.
Penned wholly from memory, the reminiscences of the happenings, are asked to be accepted in the spirit in which they are presented. Most of the tracks which attracted crowds in the days referred to have long since disappeared. In many instances closer settlements, with the introduction of the plough, have been responsible, and then, again, there too many present-day counter attractions – mechanical coursing, for example, has magnetised no small proportion of those who made the smaller race meetings possible – and other reasons that caused clubs to haul down their flags, never to be hoisted again.
Some of the clubs brought about their own extinction, for the one and only reason that cetain officials could not resist the temptation of having their modicum on their choice, and even wnet further in settling the chances of other fancied candidates when the webbing went aloft. Yes, it was frequently a case of ascertaining which horse the starter fancied. This was not a very difficult task. It was not an uncommon, and often galling, spectacle to see certain horses fairly catapulted from the machine, or, in the case of a walk-in, or flag, start, to discern the fancied candidate well into its stride before the riders of the remainder of the field realised what was happening. There were, of course, occasions when it was only too obvious to the “boys,” as well as to the spectators, not to mention the callers of the odds, who were awake to what was doing. For instance, there was the time on the track near the head of the Peel when a race was delayed for upwards of half an hour, and, by the time a start was effected the crowd and the betting ring had moved almost ever to the barrier. Despite the vigilance of the other riders, however, a chestnut mare left the machine with an advantage of twenty lengths, and even then only scrambled home, with bare half-length to spare, from a diminutive brown mare (a daughter of Sir Whitton, and therefore a grand-daughter of the illustrious Carbine) from the Hunter watershed.
It was on this very trysting-ground that the chronicler of these notes ran across the late John Stephens of Moonan Flat, a well-known sporting character, and good fellow into the bargain. John bred and raced Hollywalk, a mare by the Belltrees sire Cakewalk, also another handy mare named Nadi, and later on, among others, a Cressfield-bred mare, a brown with a hogged mane, Dixie, a sprinter of no mean order. Incidentally, Hollywalk fairly walked away with handicap at an Armidale cu fixture in her day. The party had had a tidy win. Nemesis, however, struck one member, a widely-known Upper Hunterite. His bulky “roll,” placed under the mattress of his bed at night, was missing at sun-up.
Getting back to that day out near the Peel, the genial John was very much in evidence. Not only was he represented by a string of horses and interested in others form the Hunter, but there he was, bag suspended form his shoulders, the real Joe Matthews of the ring. Luck was right against him, and he was “shot at” from all angles. Horses whose names he had not written were either hopelessly left at the machine or “strangled” in the running. He went for a recovery in the last. He laid the field against Dark Whitton, another of the Sir Whitton tribe, who by thw way is rearing a beautiful filly at “Gum Flat”, by the Tracery horse, Dunnottar. Dark Whitton appears as big a certainty as Ajax would loom up at an ordinary city mid-week meeting. As fast as the money came his direction, Jack would pass it on the friends, who would plonk it on the mare, irrespective of the price offering. Any price was a good price about her. But Nemesis was also to deal a severe blow to John. The mare, capably handled by Jim Wiseman, led from starter to judge, and never left the issue in doubt. She was merely cantering when the last post was reached. The judge, however, austere, and in dictator fashion, had his own ideas, and, without the slightest compunction, placed the second horse first. John Stephens, however, paid out by the handful, He showed his disgust, but did not protest.
It was in the same direction, mid-way between the Hunter and the Peel, that probably the most remarkable incident went in racing history in any part of Australia. And it was not associated with unregistered racing either. There were but two starters in the event, and the riders were ignorant of the fact that the respective connections had supported not their own, but the other fellow’s horse. The riders, however had their own specific instruction. When the starter sent them on their way, neither showed an inclination to take the lead. Something had to happen. It happened. One of the two left the saddle and was gently precipitated to mother earth. No. 2 had to do something and do it promptly. He did it. He pulled his mount up, wheeled, and went back to ascertain if No. 1 had been injured in his fall! Life disqualifications followed.
Possibly the most colourful, picturesque and hard-boiled identity of racing in the North of the Sate itself was old Jim McGivney, of Blandford. Jim was a character in private life, and a bigger character with his horses. Nat Gould himself missed his greatest opportunity here. There was a store of material here that would have kept the famous writer burning the midnight oil for days on end. “Mr. J. J. McGivney’s g h, aged, by Charge – Unknown. Red jacket, red sleeves.” Thus ran the nomination in scores of race books over a period of not a few years. Charge won the A.J.C. blue riband for the Belltrees people. Hence Piallah inherited his sire’s stamina. Bred, trained, raced and at times ridden by his lean be-whiskered owner, the horse always bore the emaciated appearance of Jim himself. Underfed and always leg-weary from long treks from meeting to meeting, always on the hard roads, he was as hard as the metal himself, and stood up to a power of racing under all conditions. All handicappers, were, however, lenient in their treatment of the grey. The veteran would take him, say, to Wallabadah, or Nundle, thence to Tamworth and Manilla, on to Scone, and from here to Maitland. He would generally ride a hack and lead the grey, who, however, carried the gear of the stable, and mostly his own feed. Woorak was the champion middle-distance horse in the land at the time, but put Woorak up against Piallah at Blandford on Boxing Day, and populace to a man almost would be on the local idol, for such he was. There was the time when Jim was dissatisfied with the manner in which the old horse had been handled in an earlier race, the outcome being that he himself plied the whip later in the afternoon – and won.
Just as Piallah was taken to different towns by road, so also was he more frequently worked on the same hard going, owner-trainer up, with watch in hand. It happened on more than one occasion when Jim was short of the “ready” with which to defray nominations and other expenses, his old plug, an entire, had to earn it, and sometimes on the morning of a race fixture.
On the old Satur (Scone) course one afternoon, the late James Hardcastle who had a cracker-jack in Potassium, one of the very few mares by Positano to possess speed, and Cyanide’s Daughter, brought Albert Wood, then the leading jockey in Australia, and who by the way, served his apprenticeship with him, to Scone, to ride a mare, Vellum, in his stable. It was a field of good proportions, the race was run over a mile, and there were some good performers engaged. Piallah, nothing short of a bag of bones, had established a good lead, and when appearing all over the winner well inside he distance faltered. He quickly recovered but the post was too near for him to make up the leeway.
A little later on the old Aberdeen track, when up against a couple of handy gallopers in Ann Bolynn and Jingo Joss, and others, he was jumped out from the mile barrier Albie Chaston, secured an early advantage, and stayed there, winning with anything up to a dozen lengths to spare. He did the bag merchants a good turn. He went on to Maitland, performed creditably, and was induced by some of the southerners to nominate him for the Randwick Plate. What a sensation Jim and his old horse would have created at Royal Randwick! Strange to relate, the grey was subsequently leased to two would-be Peter Riddles, who got him into excellent shape, but he could never raise a gallop for them. Jim McGivney had two other horses in Piallah’s time Piccaninny and General Jackson, but the owner could well-nigh have raced them on foot himself.
In the days referred to, Tom Callinan, now a resident of Murrurundi, was mine host , of the now delicensed Plough Inn, Blandford. Needless to add, the annual gathering was a sort of throw-in for him. The five-event bill of fare was spread over the afternoon, with the ‘Opening’ synchronising with, or prior to, the luncheon hour. Tom- was generally the best winner at the close of the day, and was not begrudged his share. He was the club and the village itself, and always conducted a good ‘house.’
There was nothing that savoured meanness or pettiness about this tall son of Erin’s Isle. If Jim McGivney, who passed on years ago, happens to be in Elysian Fields, his first and foremost thoughts will be for the son of Charge — Unknown.
The same pair of ‘battlers’ who had Piallah for a term also secured a St. Aubins-bred mare, Miss Beulah. They took her to Aberdeen in the good old days when the ‘Deen ran really good meetings. The trainers were amateurs, 100 per cent, inexperienced. The mare did her part of the contract in fine style, but on returning to scale it was discovered that she had carried 171b ‘ overweight, which had not been ‘declared.’ And the party had supported her well at double-figure odds. They had the mortification of seeing the number of the second placed horse hoisted.
On the St. Aubins track, which has been re-conditioned and fenced by Mr. W. J. Smith, who is vying with the big stud masters of the State, many a top-hole meeting was held. It was later used for unregistered racing, but an incident, or happening, led to its being closed. Some of the ‘lads of the village’ had secretly taken possession of Miss Beulah from one of the distant paddocks. They had, in seclusion, not only knocked her into shape, but had transformed her chestnut mane and tail with the aid of, say, cosmetics. She was a different mare that stepped out in the ‘Opening’ — different in appearance only. She just cantered in from a smart field. The folk of the estate got to hear of the ramp. Result: Locked gates leading to the course.
Getting back to Aberdeen, in the days when the club ran its meetings for grass-feds, which drew large fields, racing was at its height in the district. There was more than a suspicion that not a few of the prads were well lined with grain, given furtively, whilst in the paddocks. Vic. Parkinson (not to be confused with the V.P. of the stock and station line of Muswellbrook), led in many a winner, most of them by the ‘Nandowra’* sire, Phil May. Vic.’s colours, blue and white, were actually sported one day by the three placed horses in a field approximating twenty. Who doesn’t remember Tom Gallan and Ogo ? Both, were part and parcel of the club, with the old bay a near approach to perpetual motion so far as horses go. He raced all the year, in all seasons, and must have known every blade of grass on the track. Jimmy Meredith also was always handy with a useful galloper or two. And the same applies to Les. Haigh, of Rogilla fame, a good horseman before he entered the ranks of trainers.
The late Arthur Hopkins, of Jerry’s Plains, and more recently of Merriwa, had a good string in hand, including one Bulga, who could not be weighted out of races. He would carry his 12.12, put up his 7lb penalty and win again by an even greater margin. Bulga was subsequently put over the timber with similar success, and later on was secured as a galloping companion for the mighty Trafalgar, whose trainer often remarked that lie wished he had re ceived this son of Merv, whose dam had no lineage, a few years earlier. At a meeting held at Jerry’s Plains, about the same time, the same owner trainer won the entire programme — a record which may stand for many more years, if not all time. Performances and incidents associated with registered racing will keep for another time.
Before passing, however, it must be mentioned that prominent trainer Dan Lewis received his introduction to the game when he won a ‘double’ at Belltrees with the first and last horses owned by ‘Dad’ Poynting, who ran the Willow Tree Hotel in Scone for a number of years. ‘Danny,’ who has since saddled up four Sydney Cup and hundreds of other winners, mixed book-making with training, and is always pleased to see folk’ of the old town when visiting the city. In the days referred to, Belltrees put on an annual fixture to commemorate the conclusion of shearing, and they put through up to 150,000 sheep in those years. But to get back to the ‘mackers,’ patrons mostly got a spin for their money, if not one way, another way. And at times there was fair money to be won — and lost.
There were dashing punters then as now; but the Eric Connelly of the bush was probably Tom Sullivan, of Mooby, who now leads the quiet life, with the weight of a young family adding but few grey hairs to his thatch. Ken. Campbell, of the ‘Arden Hall’ ilk, now spending his time with an eye to the C.7 cattle of the old estate out Tomalla way, likewise made his presence felt. Ken was a good sport, but what with deductions for riders, ‘strappers,’ etc., he retained but little of the prize-money won for himself. One of the best ponies he had was Eileen, a chestnut, capable of taking stride for stride with the best of them. In the show ring, he owned Joe, a grey pony, one of the most versatile in the State and a winner of a hundred or more of cash prizes and ribbons. He subsequently passed the pony over to Jim Gleeson, of Wingen, and the change in ownership did not cause a break in the sequence of successes.
Stan. Felton, of Gundy, “knocked the dust off” a number of horses for different owners, and possibly the best prepared was old Blarney Castle. And, unlike most of those associated with the game, he cheerfully let his friends In on a fancied candidate. Stan, acted as stipendiary steward for quite a number of clubs in the .district. Jack Davidson, also of Gundy, fed several more than useful sorts, and later on had his fair share of success on city and other courses, taking some of the big handicaps on the A.R.C. courses, as also did his brother Jim. Jack, by the way, was one of the best rough riders of his time, and when Martini and other proprietors of travelling shows put in an appearance, showed his capabilities as a horseman, as he also did on occasion when he had a recalcitrant horse nominated for racing. He had one fiery customer in particular, which had the boys bluffed. It had shaped unsatisfactorily in an earlier lace at Aberdeen. Despite his weight, John weighed out himself in the principal race, jumped his mount away well, obtained a break, and maintained it.
Of course, the present generation of rough riders, like their contemporaries in other branches of sport, stand on a pedestal of their own! The formidable and brilliant participants of the past are soon forgotten, but not by all.
Needless to say, there were starters, ‘good and bad, who pulled the levers, and they frequently ‘pulled the strings’ as well. Many a heated argument ensued following unsatisfactory despatches from the machine. It is worth narrating that the barrier used on all the courses was patented and constructed by Joe McCue, who was proud of his invention, and no person dared adversely criticise the machine. It was not uncommon for certain wags to blame the barrier for the un satisfactory starts. And wouldn’t Joe roar and stamp his feet like an old wether defying a dog. Of course, if Joe had his way, all races would have started from the, say, four or five furlongs disc. He couldn’t see the necessity for shifting it after each race, and then re-erecting it in its former position.
Of course, the meetings attracted a cosmopolitan crowd, a section of which paid more than expenses by diverse means. There were the spinning boards, dart throwing, etc. Who does not recall the clarion cry, ‘Evens ‘Esmerelda, 20 to 1 The Bolter,’ etc. The late George Buckland, who also had a horse or two, ran a board as a sideline, and was known to be the richer by £’50 as the outcome of his operations at a meeting. Of course, money was more plentiful in those days, and it circulated more freely.