The war ended in Europe on May 8th, 1945 and while victory in the Pacific didn’t come until the surrender ceremonies aboard the battleship Missouri on September 2nd, Australian racing had burgeoned throughout the year. Nearly all of the wartime restrictions had been abolished by Derby Day, including those on interstate transport before the spring meetings; but a persistent drought contributed to a fodder shortage, and as a result, the numbers of horses permitted to race in Victoria and NSW were drastically reduced. It was one thing for wartime restrictions to be lifted, it was another to return to normalcy after the upheaval of wartime legislation. A number of controversial issues confronted the Australian Jockey Club. Immediate lobbying began for the restoration of Wednesday racing in the metropolitan area, the prime movers in this direction being the Sydney Turf Club and the Owners and Trainers Association. While fodder restrictions meant the restriction couldn’t be lifted overnight, concerns for worker absenteeism and objections by religious bodies were to delay the resumption of Wednesday racing until the 1950’s. When the World War II ended the State Government had only approved licences for 34 meetings during the previous year compared to more than 150 such meetings the A.J.C. would be seeking. Moreover, the end of international military hostilities saw the resumption of domestic political hostilities between country clubs and provincial racing, one fearing competition from the other. The debate also resumed over the matter of the established clubs securing control of the provincial courses, or the prospect of new non-proprietory organisations being granted licences for such tracks. Breeders, of course, sought as much racing as possible as soon as conditions allowed. In the days before World War II there were three classes of racing viz. first-class on Saturday; middle-class on Wednesday; and the lower-class on Tuesdays and a few Thursdays. It would be a long time before anything like this pattern resumed. However, the limited number of race meetings did mean that prize money was at a high and racecourse crowds even higher, and nowhere was the general mood of euphoria in the wake of the War’s end more pronounced than at the yearling sales. In truth, the boom in bloodstock prices had anticipated war’s end and had really begun the year before, at the 1944 Sydney Easter Sales. Which is where the story of our 1945 Derby hero, Magnificent, should start.
One of the great pleasures for a genuine racing man, apart from someone who follows the game purely as a gambler, is the anticipation of the early two-year-olds and their likely performance on the Turf given their ancestry. I have always derived great enjoyment from surveying juveniles making their debut in the saddling paddock and observing any likenesses to sire or dam in those instances when I’m familiar with a horse’s parentage. There are some racing seasons where this is a real pleasure if a particular favourite has progeny racing for the first time. Such was the case for many people in the 1944-45 racing season when the first offerings by Ajax stepped on to a racecourse, and it had been at the 1944 Sydney Easter Sales that the initial draft of his progeny was offered for sale by Alf Thompson and the Widden Stud. In that year four chestnut colts by the stallion were numbered amongst the top twenty prices realised for yearling stock.
The two highest priced lots by Ajax sold were from the mares Only Us and Complete and came in at 2100 guineas and 2050 guineas respectively. The acquisition of those two matrons by Widden Stud is a tale of singular good fortune in itself that I think is worth relating. Both were acquired at the dispersal sale of James Barnes’ Canning Downs property in 1938. Clive Inglis attended that sale with a few commissions to buy mares for N.S.W. breeders, including one for Alf Thompson. The two mares in question were full sisters, and Clive managed to get them both for a total of just 310 guineas. It was a rum bit of horse-trading on Clive’s part, and, never slow on self-promotion, one that he wasn’t shy about discussing in later years. The reason they went so cheaply was that they were by Bonnement, a very ordinary stallion by Tracery, although it was their female line that convinced Clive they were worth a risk. Their dam was We Two by Saltash from Trois by The Welkin from Teppo, and hence they tapped into one of the best female lines in the Australian Stud Book. Only Us cost 100 guineas and in time would produce Havoc by Ajax, on whom Darby Munro would win the A.J.C. Breeders’ Plate in 1945. But the one that concerns us in this chapter was her younger sister, who was only two at the time and unnamed. Costing 210 guineas, she was ultimately registered as Complete and was to be the mother of the 1945 A.J.C. and V.R.C. Derby winner, Magnificent, the chestnut colt who sold for 2050 guineas at those 1944 Easter Sales.
The successful bidder was Moorefield trainer Arthur Croall, who was acting on behalf of Brighton-le-Sands publican Tod McLauchlan. The colt in question was a big handsome chestnut with a white blaze and white socks and was very much like his sire in appearance, but possessing more length. McLauchlan named him Magnificent, just because that was how he looked. On pedigree and price, this latest blueblood was entirely different to the class of racehorse the 54-year-old Croall was accustomed to during his life on the racecourse. Apprenticed as a jockey at the age of fourteen, Croall had encountered little success in the saddle before increasing weight forced a switch to the training ranks. For almost the next thirty years, Croall was part of the flotsam and jetsam of the racecourse, battling to eke out a living from slow horses and slower-paying clients, and not many of them at that. By prodigies of industry and hard work, and a keen judgement of horseflesh even when contained by a limited budget, Croall gradually began to acquire a reputation. The first decent horse he had was Castle Frontenac, which he trained for the Buxton family. The horse won his way through the grades before graduating in open company annexing a Winter Cup at Victoria Park and the Comfort Funds Cup at Randwick, as well as running second in a Squatters’ Handicap.
Just a year or two before he was training Castle Frontenac at Moorefield racecourse, Croall had made the acquaintance of a local publican, and fellow Scotsman, Alec (‘Sandy’) McLauchlan, whose Brighton Hotel had long been a popular haunt for racing men. McLauchlan commissioned Croall to buy him a couple of horses. One of them was Annie Laurie, a daughter of Bullhead, which Croall got for just 110 guineas. She proved good enough as a three-year-old to fill the minor placing behind Flight in the Adrian Knox Stakes.
But more significantly for this story, as a juvenile, she managed to bring off a good thing in a nursery handicap at Randwick in June 1943 at odds of 20/1! Such success confirmed McLauchlan’s faith in Croall and the publican was cashed-up when the Easter sales rolled around the following year, and he hit the jackpot with Magnificent. The colt showed promise from his very first track trials, although Croall was shrewd enough to disguise his ability from the touts. After a particularly satisfying gallop in late September 1944, Croall went to the Brighton Hotel and sought out McLauchlan. He declared: “Sandy, I’ve come to tell you that we’re going to win the Breeders’ Plate. I’ve tried your horse this morning, and he can’t lose.” Now, this is the sort of intelligence that is music to an owner’s ears. With the unfashionable ‘Pat’ Delaney in the saddle, the stable got better than tens for their money, and the flashy chestnut ran out the easiest of winners. Croall then sent the colt for a spell at Richmond until the autumn and a tilt at the Sires’ Produce Stakes – Champagne Stakes double.
The Sires’ Produce Stakes that year at Randwick gripped the public imagination more than most recent runnings. Despite his Breeders’ Plate victory in the spring, Magnificent was preferred in the betting by the Agincourt filly, Courtship, trained by Frank Dalton at Randwick and unbeaten in her only five appearances, including the December Stakes by eight lengths and the Kirkham Stakes by three. Consequently, McLauchlan and Croall were able to get fives on course, although they wouldn’t have given twopence for their chances in the running. The course was soft as a result of recent rains, yet Courtship still tried to run them ragged. Magnificent, in only his third public outing and on shifting ground to which he was not accustomed, proved awkward to handle. The horse was down on his nose at the five; and ran into a series of checks after that, but when Courtship floundered in the final furlong, the gallant son of Ajax affirmed his class by getting up in the last stride to win by a head from Lucky Stream, with Courtship a half-head away third.
The following Saturday only three horses were saddled up to oppose Magnificent in the Champagne Stakes but even one of those, Jamelie, was out of it upon flagfall when she threw her jockey. Once again Courtship was preferred over Magnificent in the betting, and once again she attempted to lead all the way. For a moment in the straight, it seemed that the filly might justify her favouritism under Jack Thompson’s dashing ride, but Magnificent again produced a decisive turn of foot to win comfortably at the post. Admittedly, the wartime restrictions on the interstate transport of racehorses had reduced the depth and class of the rich juvenile events at the Randwick autumn fixture. But in winning the big double in the space of eight days, Magnificent became the first horse to do so since his sire Ajax; he retired to his winter quarters as a very firm favourite for the Derby.
There was an interesting postscript to Magnificent’s two-year-old season. Originally the horse had been registered in the ownership of a ‘Mr Todd’, a nom de course that played upon McLauchlan’s second name. However, with the proven ability of the horse, McLauchlan, like most proud men, could resist no longer the glamour and the reflected glory of publicly being associated with a putative champion of the Turf. The Keeper of the Stud Book, Mr Loddon Yuille, brought the application for a transfer of ownership under the notice of the Australian Jockey Club, and an official inquiry was held before duly processing the application. After all, there had been no fraudulent intent in the original registration. However, it was shortly after this, that the club severely curtailed the practice of having a nom de course.
Magnificent made his much-awaited seasonal re-appearance at the end of August in the Hobartville Stakes and won rather narrowly from Chaytor, although the margin had more to do with jockey Pat Delaney wanting to give the Derby favourite an easy race than any real threat from his rivals. Arthur Croall then decided to by-pass the Canterbury Guineas in favour of tackling the older horses in the weight-for-age Chelmsford Stakes for the colt’s next assignment. Alas, Magnificent proved unequal to the task, running third behind the great New Zealand miler, Sleepy Fox, who was then enjoying his first campaign in Australia under the guidance of trainer Bayley Payten, with Russia in second placing. It was a performance that provided evidence for critics and admirers alike. It certainly wasn’t a failure to be beaten by two such fine gallopers, and yet the loss dampened some of the ardour that was beginning to swirl about Magnificent, with some sportsmen even declaring him a better horse than his sire Ajax before the race.
The colt’s pretensions to the Derby crown, however, seemed to become even more tenuous with his defeat in the Rosehill Guineas a week later, although there were legitimate excuses. Despatched as a two to one on favourite, Magnificent was cannoned into by Deliverance when the latter shied at the barrier strands rising too slowly at the start. Magnificent then dipped badly and almost fell at the back of the course. That the chestnut colt was able to keep his footing, work his way to the front, and even look the winner at the distance, was ample testimony to his class. The effort told, however, and Questing, a bay filly by Hua trained by George Johnson, was able to claim Magnificent in the final furlong to run out a comfortable winner. Jockey Pat Delaney, who had partnered Magnificent in all of his previous victories, was already coming under pressure from more fashionable jockeys to keep the Derby mount on Magnificent. The Chelmsford defeat and the Rosehill contretemps certainly didn’t help his cause, and though Croall wished to retain Delaney, McLauchlan sought a substitute. While simultaneously professing faith in Delaney and denying leaked press reports that he was about to be replaced, the owner was frantically approaching leading Melbourne jockeys for the ride. Both Scobie Breasley and Harold Badger declined the mount due to prior commitments before Reg Heather was declared to warm the saddle just a few days before the Derby.
The Randwick Spring Meeting returned to a level of normalcy in 1945 following the cessation of hostilities. Racing on public holidays was once again permitted, and The Metropolitan reinstated to its rightful place on Easter Monday. However, the recent occupation of the course by the Army had left an amount of debris in the centre of the course, which not only disfigured the grandeur of the place but severely restricted parking space. Moreover, the heavily laden army trucks of recent weeks had cut-up parts of the track badly. With the declaration of the Derby field, it transpired that thirteen horses – eleven colts and two fillies – would contest the race.
The 1945 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions are set out in the table below:
Magnificent remained the easing favourite with the Maurice McCarten-trained Monmouth best backed to beat him. A son of Le Grand Duc retained to race by his breeder, Percy Miller, Monmouth had given Maurice McCarten his first classic as a trainer when he won the Canterbury Guineas by a head from the Hua filly, Questing, before occupying the minor placing behind that same filly in the Rosehill Guineas. Questing was the public’s third elect ahead of Chaytor, a brother to Skip Bomber, trained by Jack Cush, which had almost won the Hobartville Stakes carrying the colours made famous by Windbag. Excluding Magnificent, ultimately the best two horses to emerge from the race, Blue Legend and Columnist, received little market support. Trained by Bob Abbott, Blue Legend had been a present of Herbert Field’s to his mother when the colt was just a yearling. Although the smallest horse in the field, Blue Legend had managed to win two races at Randwick during the winter. But unfortunately, he suffered a disrupted Derby preparation when he missed the Rosehill Guineas after the horse float conveying him to the course broke down. Although he later galloped seven furlongs on the Rosehill track upon completion of the card, it wasn’t the ideal lead-up.
Columnist, on the other hand, was the first Derby runner of press baron and future A.J.C. committeeman, Frank Packer, and was trained by his nephew. An immature son of Genetout, the horse had only broken his maiden status in a minor three-year-old handicap at Rosehill the week before, and the Derby came too soon for him to reveal his real ability. Significantly, the field also included a Victorian colt, Fine Fettle, a half-brother to Simmering by Tudor King, trained by Roy Shaw, a man who was then beginning to make his mark in the training ranks of gallopers, having already distinguished himself as a leading trainer-reinsman in the world of trotting. At his previous start, Fine Fettle had finished second to Don Pedro in the Spring Stakes (1m) at Flemington; and it was the lifting of the road ban on transportation of racehorses that enabled Fine Fettle to become the first southern representative in the race since Laureate had carried off the Derby prize in 1941.
The doubt about Magnificent going into the Derby was whether or not the colt would stay a truly run mile-and-a-half. As it transpired, the question was never asked. There had only been three slower Derbies conducted at Randwick since Kilboy wallowed through a sea of mud in 1916 and as is so often the case in such affairs, there was much interference suffered by those behind the leaders. Magnificent, however, wasn’t one of the victims. The favourite jumped smartly and after that enjoyed the run of the race; being no worse than fourth until Reg Heather decided to launch his bid for victory upon entering the straight. The maiden performers, Guiding Light and Cavalero, had shared the lead throughout until Magnificent’s challenge, while Monmouth, the public’s second fancy, unsuited by the slow tempo and caught-up in the roughhouse melee, was throughout among the tail-enders.
Magnificent went on to an effortless victory at the post, with Guiding Light and Cavalero holding onto the minor placings. Thus, the son of Ajax succeeded to the blue riband where the sire himself had failed. The deposed jockey, Pat Delaney, who watched proceedings through the window of the jockeys’ room, must have reflected ruefully on the hollowness of the win but at least he enjoyed the compensation of receiving a winning rider’s fee. On the other hand, the post-race dregs of the heady Derby draught held a bitter aftertaste for substitute jockey Heather. Stewards gave him a two-month suspension for crossing Blue Legend too sharply in the first furlong of the race and causing interference. At least Heather’s outing removed the problem of choosing between Magnificent and Don Pedro, his erstwhile classic mount, during the rich Victorian carnivals.
Unlike the Derby laureates of more recent years, the removal of wartime travel restrictions afforded Magnificent his opportunity to challenge Victoria’s finest and he left by train the following Monday with a few days’ stopover in Albury en route. Croall had already anticipated the task of galloping in an anti-clockwise direction by training Magnificent the reverse way at Moorefield on slow mornings. That year Melbourne’s three-year-olds were rumoured to be well above the ordinary and three, in particular, Attley, Royal Gem, and Don Pedro were considered outstanding.
In the absence of Reg Heather, Jack O’Sullivan occupied the irons on the Randwick Derby winner. Magnificent’s first clash with the best of the Victorian colts came in the Caulfield Guineas. Alas, the chestnut cast a hind plate during the race and, despite finding the journey too short at this stage of his preparation, still managed to run fourth behind the dead-heaters Attley and Royal Gem, each bred at Ted Underwood’s Warlaby Stud, with Don Pedro filling the minor placing. When Don Pedro managed to run Flight to a half-head in the Cox Plate at his next start, and Magnificent finished last in the same race, bookmakers drastically revised the market for the Victoria Derby with Croall’s colt going to the post at Flemington at the generous odds of 15/1 while Don Pedro started at odds-on. It was a grand contest too, with Magnificent proving himself the finest colt of his year by running down the favourite in the last furlong and a half to win going away. The victory was marred only by an on-course demonstration at the Sydney colt’s apparent form reversal.
Unfortunately, the Victoria Derby proved to be Magnificent’s last victory on a racecourse. When the horse resumed in the autumn of 1946, he was troubled by niggling leg problems which saw him fail to even run a place in a six-horse field for the A.J.C. St Leger won by Gay Lad. A similar tale of woe attended Magnificent’s performances the following spring although he did run the mighty Bernborough to a neck when resuming in the A.J.C. Warwick Stakes. I don’t think that he was ever really intended to be a stayer and after failing in both the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups in 1946, Croall resolved to set him for the Doncaster Handicap in the following autumn. Sent to the post at 12/1 in the hands of Vic Hartney, Magnificent injured his suspensory ligament and promptly retired from racing.
Sandy McLauchlan had no interest in retaining the horse as a stallion, and consequently, he was put up for auction at Newmarket in July 1947. By a curious coincidence, his sire Ajax was being offered for sale at the same time, and Magnificent followed him into the ring. W. J. (Bill) Smith finished up buying them both for 13,000 guineas and 6000 guineas respectively.
Smith was one of Australia’s great industrialists of the twentieth century who spent his entire working life in the glass industry. Beginning as a humble glassblower, he had risen to become the managing director of Australian Consolidated Industries, and had been largely responsible for building-up that company. The Turf had been Smith’s passionate hobby all his life, and the St Aubin’s Stud at Scone was his pride and joy on which he had spent upwards of £40,000 to establish. It was Smith who had bought the great Beau Pere from New Zealand, and for a time that stallion had stood at St Aubin’s before Smith on-sold him to Spendthrift Farms in the U.S.A. at a tidy profit. He was to be the first of some highly profitable stallions that Smith would sell into the American market and 1947 was to represent the high point of his horse-trading when in the successive months of July and August he bought Ajax and Shannon for this purpose.
For a time, it seemed that Magnificent was destined for the northern hemisphere too, but instead, he was retained at St Aubin’s to carry on the Heroic line that had done so well for the stud in the form of the Victoria Derby winner, Hua. Alas, the Midas touch that Bill Smith brought to the world of corporate deals failed him in many of his bloodstock adventures and none more so than his purchase of Magnificent. In two seasons at his St Aubin’s Stud, the Derby winner failed to get one foal. Frustrated at the horse’s apparent infertility, Smith passed him on to Jack King who had previously been successful in treating Sir Hugh Denison’s imported horse, Merry Matthew, with a series of special injections. King tried the same programme on Magnificent before turning the horse out with a few mares on his property in the mountains. The experiment wasn’t a success, and although the horse did manage to get a handful of foals, none ever made their mark on the racecourse.
If Magnificent’s post-meridian career following his Derbies was less than splendid, that of trainer Arthur Croall was, ultimately, to be tragic. In the immediate aftermath of Magnificent’s string of triumphs during 1945, the future looked golden indeed. And so, it proved – for a while. Flushed with money after Magnificent’s brilliant first two seasons on the Turf, ‘Sandy’ McLauchlan commissioned Croall to buy him another couple of horses at the 1947 Easter Yearling Sales. This time his choice fell upon a good-looking son of Midstream that cost him 2600 guineas at the fall of the hammer. Registered as Riptide and sporting the now familiar colours of the popular Brighton publican, the colt won three of his five starts as a juvenile including the Breeders’ Plate and Sires’ Produce Stakes. He won the Canterbury Guineas the following season, too, but then lost form when tried over longer distances. Croall had also managed to buy Mine Host – like Magnificent, another son of Ajax – which won the 1948 Carrington Stakes in the hands of George Moore. There was no premonition of impending doom here. However, the fortunes of the racecourse are capricious, and Croall was a soft touch and a heavy gambler when coins jingled in his pocket.
When Sandy McLauchlan died in October 1951, Croall lost his best and most generous patron and very soon after the executors of the estate transferred the horses, including the useful Golden Brew, to Harry Darwon. Perhaps the real turn in fortune’s wheel, however, came when Moorefield racecourse itself, was sold by the Sydney Turf Club, eventually to make way for a housing scheme, and Arthur Croall was forced to find stabling elsewhere. Eleven trainers were operating out of Moorefield when the old course closed down, and while the transition proved traumatic for most of them, it was especially so for Croall. In October 1955 he moved into a house and stables at Rosehill in Aston St under a concession arrangement brokered by the Sydney Turf Club committee. It wasn’t an auspicious change, and the winners began to dry up, and the hard-bitten trainer’s familiarity with poverty and hardship renewed. And so, began the inexorable slide towards that grim day in June 1959 when the loss of a prospective champion out of his stables in Martello Towers, and the unfounded rumour that the Australian Jockey Club would not renew his trainer’s licence, so unhinged Croall’s mind that he took his own life. He was found hanging from a trellis in the yard of his Rosehill stables.
Before passing completely from the subject of the 1946 A.J.C. Derby, allow me a word on a couple of the unplaced horses in that classic. Time would show that both Blue Legend and Columnist were high-class gallopers. In 1946 Blue Legend would win both the A.J.C. Doncaster and Epsom Handicaps, and then add a second Doncaster Handicap in 1947 carrying 8 st 11lb as a four-year-old. It is interesting to speculate as to what might have happened in the Derby had the son of Waikare not suffered that mishap with the horse float on Rosehill Guineas Day, although he was far more suited to the mile. However, undoubtedly the best horse to emerge from that 1946 Derby at Randwick was Frank Packer’s Columnist.
The chestnut stallion would win some good weight-for-age races in those famous colours of ‘green and white hoops, red cap’ and crown his career on the racecourse by taking out the 1947 Caulfield Cup with nine stone when trained by Maurice McCarten. Columnist was part-owned by the divisive newspaper and magazine proprietor, Frank (later Sir Frank) Packer. When television came to Australia in 1956, Packer was awarded the licence for TCN 9 in Sydney. As Maurice Cavanough relates in his excellent publication ‘The Caulfield Cup’, Frank was not averse to telephoning Channel 9 to demand a Saturday night replay if he was entertaining dinner guests at home and one of his horses had been successful that afternoon. As Cavanough drily observed: “It is a fair guess if Australia had had television in 1947, TCN 9 viewers would have become very familiar with the running of that year’s Caulfield Cup.” I might add that at stud, Columnist sired that useful stayer, Essayist.
Before I leave this chapter, I might note that the 1945 A.J.C. Derby was the last conducted with George Main as Chairman of the Australian Jockey Club. On Friday, November 23, some eight weeks after the classic was run, Main resigned his office although he was to remain on the committee until April 1947. Aged sixty-six at the time of his resignation of the chairmanship, Main had succeeded to the office upon the death of Sir Colin Stephen in 1937; he was the oldest chairman in the club’s history. In truth, the war years had taken their toll and Main had wanted to resign some two years earlier, but through an honourable sense of duty persevered until the War ended. Main lived on his property at Illabo in the Riverina and transport conditions made it difficult for him to travel regularly to Sydney. The post-war challenges now confronting the club demanded a chairman constantly in attendance in Sydney. It was also the dawn of a new age that demanded a chairman who was not merely an experienced administrator, but a man of imagination and judgement with his ear to the ground. As Main’s successor, the club elected the deeply conservative Anglophile, Alan Potter. In keeping with the grand and venerable traditions of the club, Potter was no more than fifty years behind the times.