In the stillness and silence of an early autumn morning at Randwick racecourse in 1950, the trainer, Ted Hush was observing his horses work out. The prominent owner, Ernie Williams, approached him and expressed his admiration for the condition of his charges. Hush, as was his habit, was chewing a lolly at that appointed hour. It was one of his more unusual behavioural traits that, being neither a smoker nor a drinker, he was seldom without a bag of sweets in his pocket. Williams asked for one. Hush obliged, and Williams said: “Why don’t you ask me to give you a horse to train in return?” Hush did, and from such a simple exchange of pleasantries was a most fruitful collaboration on the Australian Turf to emerge, one that matured into a genuine friendship that lasted until Hush’s death.
Ernie Williams, at the time of his meeting with Ted Hush, was becoming an increasingly lavish patron of the Turf but up until that time hadn’t enjoyed the success that his largesse to bloodstock breeders deserved. Born in Mackay, Queensland, in 1888, the son of an Englishman, he had been educated at the Sydney Church of England Grammar School in North Sydney. A blunt and autocratic man, Williams was possessed of enormous energy and vision, admixed with a generous dash of philanthropy; he first began his rise in the retailing world in a managerial role in Adelaide. After a move to Sydney, he, together with four partners, became the founders of Woolworths Ltd, opening their first store in the basement of the Imperial Arcade in 1924. The enterprise flourished and with it the fortunes of Williams as a chain store tycoon. Soon he diversified his business interests, retaining his directorship of Woolworths but moving into furniture retailing and becoming the principal of Cowell’s White House in George Street, Sydney.
Like many captains of industry who turn to the Turf as a diversion, he began modestly enough. His first essay came in 1938 with Jocular, a six-year-old gelding, in which he bought a half-share from Harold Cooper. Despite the name, Jocular proved more heartache than laughter although he did almost win the Newcastle Cup. Williams’ first purchase at the Sydney Yearling Sales also involved a partnership, on this occasion with Stan Chatterton, a popular former president of Tattersall’s Club and a fellow director of Woolworths. The two men bought a Beau Pere colt, which they called Grand Fils. The horse showed such moderate ability as a juvenile that George Price tried to persuade the owners to sell him. Williams accepted Price’s advice; Chatterton didn’t – and bought out his partner’s share. After being gelded and given a long spell, the horse was brought back into work with Tom Murray for whom he won The A.J.C. Metropolitan. It is an instructive tale if one is needed, which demonstrates that even the best of judges can get it wrong in this most uncertain of sports. Whereas some owners might have been permanently soured by such an experience, Williams was made of sterner stuff. He had enjoyed a more modest success on the last day of August 1940 when George Price sent out Pinero under Williams’ colours to win a Novice Mile at Randwick at the juicy odds of 50/1. Although generally a small punter, Williams was known to open his wallet on one of his own if the occasion warranted, and on this day at Randwick, his trainer had suggested that the odds were attractive. It was the first time that Williams’ sporting exploits made the headlines.
It was in the years immediately after World War II that Ernie Williams began to pay big money for his horses, but not before he changed his racing colours. His early representatives on the racecourse had carried the ‘white, dark blue spots, sleeves and cap’ but they hadn’t brought much luck during the War years, and so he eventually exchanged them for the ‘black and white stripes, red cap’. These silks were to become such a feature on Australian racecourses during the fifties. Williams public explanation for the changed registration was that it was intended to make them easier to distinguish in a race, although his secret motive was for a change of fortune. Just how spectacularly it worked will be shown in the course of this book.
Williams was content to be guided by more experienced racing men in his early forays in the yearling market during the restrained years of World War II. Most notably by the veteran trainer George Price and Bill (‘Knockout’) Smith, the great Australian industrialist of Australian Consolidated Industries fame, who was then in the business of establishing St Aubin’s Stud at Scone, and a patron of Price. Williams had horses scattered about a few stables including those of Maurice McCarten, Pat Nailon and Bayly Payten at the time. However, to some extent, there was a changing of the guard in the training ranks at Randwick in the years soon after the war as some of the older trainers like Price and Payten passed from the scene. Williams was adept at spotting talented emerging trainers and, as we have already seen, he was the first free-spending owner to patronise Tom Smith. Williams’ engagement of Hush came at a time when that trainer had just completed his most successful season, finishing runner-up to Maurice McCarten in the premiership.
Once Williams became familiar with studbook lore he insisted on picking his own yearlings – often bidding for them in the sales ring as well, albeit after his trainers had passed them for soundness and conformation. In the 1950 Easter Yearling Sales’ catalogue, his eye had been taken by two of the progeny in particular of a newly imported stallion to Kia Ora Stud named Delville Wood. Bred in England in 1942, Delville Wood was a beautifully proportioned dark-brown horse by Bois Roussel, the winner of the English Derby in 1938. The horse took his name from heavily timbered woods that were a major German defensive feature and the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting during the Battle of the Somme in World War I. If the name was intended to resonate with similar heroics and gallantry on the Turf, it was indeed well chosen. Delville Wood might have only won four races from twenty-five starts and £3,360 sterling in stakes, but he was a horse that was at his best at distances from 1 ¾ to 2 miles. One of his wins was in the Doncaster Great Yorkshire Handicap over the St Leger course, and he ran placings in both the Yorkshire Cup and Ebor Handicap as well.
Imported to Australia by Percy Miller in 1947 at the cost of around ten thousand guineas, this was the first crop to be offered by the stallion. Of course, picking a first season sire is fraught with as much risk as picking a yearling, but Williams wasn’t to be deterred. All told there were twelve lots by Delville Wood to go under the hammer and Williams bought two of them: a bay colt from the mare Best Wishes for 2100 guineas and a prepossessing dark-brown colt from Sweet Sound for 3200 guineas – stiff prices indeed for the stock of an untried stallion. Tom Smith was promised the first; and Ted Hush the second. Indeed, the Sweet Sound colt was the most expensive of the Delville Woods sold that week and only the second to go through the ring. He also happened to be the best – and not just of the Delville Wood progeny – but of any yearling sold in Australia that year. For in buying this striking youngster, Ernie Williams had, at last, got his champion and he was registered as Hydrogen. The second yearling colt – the one from Best Wishes – was registered as Forest Beau, and he was to prove a wonderful second string during a most memorable classic season for the colourful founder of Woolworths.
If there was a doubt about Delville Wood as a first-season stallion, at least the distaff side of Hydrogen’s pedigree was proven. Percy Miller was in the last year of his life, when, in 1947, he was finalising the first book of mares for his latest stallion acquisition and was determined to give the horse every chance. Sweet Sound, the dam of Hydrogen, was a daughter of the great Magpie, and like Hydrogen, had first seen the light of day in the roomy paddocks of Kia Ora in the spring of 1931. Old Percy was very reluctant to surrender the best-bred fillies of his long-time favourite, regardless of the ordinariness of their racecourse careers, and Sweet Sound was no exception. She only ran as a two-year-old and was unplaced in twelve of her thirteen starts that season, managing to win a Maiden Plate at Kyneton over five furlongs on the only other occasion. Apart from being a daughter of Magpie, Sweet Sound’s maternal granddam had been the expensive New Zealand import, Golden Slipper, and at stud had already produced the Randwick winners, Wellington and Gigli, before Hydrogen came along in her seventeenth year.
When yearlings by new stallions command big prices, the jackals of the press are quick to circle if confirmation of their racing worth is not immediately forthcoming. Rival studmasters, too, are apt to indulge in dark mutterings of failure and mock anguish. While such a rush to judgement may be understandable in the case of a speed sire, it is somewhat puzzling when the stallion in question is an influence on stamina. When the colts and fillies by Delville Wood had failed to win a race by Christmas that year, many were already dismissive of Kia Ora Stud’s latest sultan. That such opinion was so much palpable nonsense became quite obvious when his most expensive youngster made his first appearance on the racecourse in January 1951.
Hydrogen was built along similar lines to those of his sire; his barrel wasn’t particularly robust, and he was inclined to be leggy. But Ted Hush held a big opinion of him from the start and extended him the honour of using the same horse box that the champion Russia once occupied. After an educational run in an unsuitable juvenile event over five furlongs at Randwick in which he ran third in a big field, Hydrogen was backed up in a six furlongs handicap at the same course a fortnight later – the first race for two-year-olds over that distance all season. The colt, relishing the extra trip, unwound a powerful burst in the final furlong to win comfortably. Impressive as that performance was, it was his barnstorming finish in the Macarthur Quality Handicap at Rosehill six weeks later that had A.J.C. Derby stamped all over it. In sticky going the handsome colt was back in fifteenth place a furlong and a half from the winning post and yet managed to win by one-and-three-quarter lengths. His juvenile season culminated in the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Randwick that saw him installed a warm favourite. Unfortunately, his preparation for the race had been interrupted by a skin infection, and he was even the subject of a veterinary examination by Roy Stewart at the stewards’ insistence immediately before the race itself. Whether it was the effects of the skin eruption or a matter of training off, Hydrogen was forced wide on the home turn and failed to finish off the race in his familiar style, running an indifferent third behind Ocean Bound. He was then turned out into the paddocks of his owner’s Cattai Creek property while Hush and Williams entertained Derby dreams.
Hydrogen resumed from his winter quarters with a slashing win in the Hobartville Stakes, run that year at Randwick. Trailing the field to the home turn and with only one of the thirteen runners behind him as he came into the straight, Munro switched Hydrogen to the outside, and the colt produced his now trademark burst of acceleration to win running away from Montana and Trizami. Owner Ernie Williams had seen his colours carried to success earlier in the day by Forest Beau when his other son of Delville Wood had won the three-year-old handicap on the card, thereby giving Williams the first and second favourites for the Derby. With two such talented horses in common ownership although in different stables, the challenge for Williams was to plot campaigns that avoided clashes where possible. Whereas Hydrogen was reserved for the Chelmsford Stakes, Forest Beau ran and won the Canterbury Guineas although in so doing sustained a troublesome leg injury that subsequently saw his Derby program abandoned. The Chelmsford Stakes marked Hydrogen’s first clash with Delta, the horse that would prove his nemesis for the balance of the season. Hydrogen was preferred in the betting to the older champion, but on a dead track, it was Delta partnered by Neville Sellwood, freshly returned from a riding stint in England, who proved triumphant from the three-year-olds Hydrogen and Trizami. If Hydrogen’s Derby prospects seemed damaged by the unexpected loss, confidence was quickly restored a week later with an effortless win in the Guineas at Rosehill in race record time.
The 1951 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions appear in the following table:
‘Nothing can be certain on a racecourse until it happens’ is one of the fundamental truths of racing and never was it more apparent than at Randwick on Derby Day, 1951 before a crowd of more than sixty-eight thousand people. Hydrogen was installed a 4/9 favourite for the classic – the shortest priced favourite since Ammon Ra won in 1931 – and the reasons weren’t hard to find in the form book. Best backed to beat him were Montana and Tossing. Montana was a well-bred son of Foxbridge and a half-brother to Vagabond, the talented but wayward galloper formerly trained by Dan Lewis. In New Zealand, Montana had raced a number of times without winning before Mick Moodabe sent him across the water to be prepared by Maurice McCarten. The colt first revealed his staying credentials at the Randwick autumn fixture when with nine stone he escaped from a hopeless pocket inside the final furlong to just fail to snatch the Fernhill Handicap. That form had since been confirmed with minor placings in both the Canterbury and Rosehill Guineas.
Tossing, on the other hand, was one of two sons of Channel Swell in the race – the other being Channel Rise – and trained by J. R. Mackinnon, the colt had emerged as a serious contender when he finished strongly for fourth in the Rosehill Guineas. Memory Inn came next in the betting, primarily as a result of running an excellent second to San Domenico in the Hill Stakes the week before on heavy ground. Neat Andrew, carrying the colours of his breeder, rails bookmaker Jack Mandel, and in the stables of C. Guy was rated an outside chance on the strength of his minor placings in both Guineas. Channel Rise, the winner of a mixed stakes race at Rosehill the week before, was regarded as an outsider just ahead of Trizami, a tearaway son of Nizami trained by Joe McCurley, and the expected pacemaker. The only Melbourne colt in the field was Shoreham, although he was unwanted in the betting.
On paper, Hydrogen looked a good thing and not just because of his impeccable form. Well drawn in four, the presence of a readymade leader in Trizami, seemed likely to ensure a truly run race. Ernie Williams thought so and though not renowned as a gambler, had the biggest bet of his life when he laid £3,000 to £2,000 on Hydrogen with leading bookmaker, Ken Ranger. Trizami did serve as the pacemaker in the race but at a moderate gallop for the first half-mile after lugging badly on the turn out of the straight. It was only after passing the mile that Arthur Ward allowed Trizami some leeway and he slipped away to a four-length lead over Memory Inn and Montana. Even as far as a half-mile from home it was apparent that the lymphatic Hydrogen would have difficulty running down the leaders. The favourite was running ninth – about a dozen lengths behind the pacemaker Trizami – and Munro was already digging him. He did improve his position over the next furlong and although wide making the turn, was close enough to win but his run ended at the furlong pole.
Trizami, a conspicuous grey son of Hiraji, made a gallant effort to lead throughout. He turned for home full of running ahead of Montana, Tossing, Channel Rise, Memory Inn, Neat Andrew and Shoreham. It was only at the distance that Montana got to the grey, but then Channel Rise, who had enjoyed a handy position throughout, claimed the pair of them with a strong finish down the centre of the course.
It was a performance that left the hardy souls who had taken the odds on about the thewless Hydrogen gasping for oxygen. As if the Derby boilover wasn’t enough to upset patrons on the day, the breakdown and subsequent destruction of French Cavalier, the Epsom favourite, when poised to take the lead at about the two furlongs in the rich handicap, triggered an even louder demonstration. The collapse of the Epsom favourite led to his stablemate, Davey Jones, also trained by Maurice McCarten, staging a reversal of form to win the race. A police presence was required in the saddling paddock to ensure that the demonstration didn’t get out of hand. Rarely had a Derby Day seen anything like it. What was it that caused Hydrogen’s egregious failure in the Derby? At the time it was thought that the colt was either tired or had simply failed to stay. Later on, a plausible theory emerged that Hydrogen may well have been weighed down by particularly heavy shoes on the day. We do know that the horse was a little fractious in the yard even before going out for the race.
The Derby winner, Channel Rise, was a handsome black colt by the imported stallion Channel Swell, who stood at Kia-Ora Stud at a fee of 200 guineas. As predicted, Percy Miller had indeed bred the Derby winner, but he wasn’t the colt that the public had expected to see invested with the blue riband. Channel Swell was a good-looking brown or black horse bred at the Royal Stud in England in 1939 by the great Fairway and was imported into Australia in 1945. Although the winner of eight races in a limited racing career, he never won beyond seven furlongs. Disappointing in his first season at stud, he produced only three winners for around £2,000 in stakes, but in his second season, he not only sired the Derby winner but also sired Ocean Bound, the champion two-year-old of his year raced by the popular Bert Riddle. Ultimately, Channel Swell proved a disappointment at stud with his stock frequently lightening off with work; his 1948 foals remained his best. Heiress, the dam of Channel Rise, was bred in New Zealand and was by the English stallion, Posterity, out of a Kiwi mare that was one of the best juveniles of her year, and a direct line descendant of the great taproot mare, Eulogy.
Channel Rise, an August foal, wasn’t spared in his first season although from nine appearances he managed to win just twice – ordinary handicaps at Hawkesbury and Moorefield. His early three-year-old form didn’t suggest the colt had Derby pretensions until he won a ten-furlong stakes race at Rosehill on a heavy track only a week before the classic. Even then Randwick on Derby Day hovered before trainer Bill Chaffe junior more as a place of doubtful possibilities than of definite hopes, for he also shared the general opinion that Hydrogen was unbeatable. Nonetheless, friends of the stable specked Channel Rise when he touched 33/1 in the ring, before starting at 25/1. Still, the relative silence of the stands as the winner returned to scale suggested that few punters had supported the colt. Even as the blue riband was being placed around his neck, the colt’s future already lay behind him.
The Derby proved a wonderful start to the training career of Bill Chaffe junior, who was just thirty-two and had only held a trainer’s licence for two years. The son of the veteran pony trainer of the same name, he trained at Hawkesbury, on the old Clarendon course. The younger Chaffe had been encouraged by his father to overlook the deformed hocks and peculiar gait of Channel Rise as a yearling to pay just 600 guineas for him. At the same sales, the most expensive of the Channel Swell yearlings had sold for 2700 guineas. Chaffe bought the relatively cheap colt on behalf of Bill Clarke, a city service station proprietor who raced him in partnership with his wife. Alas, Mr Clarke was denied the pleasure of personally receiving the Derby trophy at the official presentation, having loaned his admission ticket to his wife earlier in the day, and then been unable to find her immediately after the race.
For winning jockey, Barry Smith, the mount on Channel Rise proved a lucky late engagement. He had been widely expected to ride Tossing, but when Jack Thompson chose to ride that colt, Chaffe engaged Smith. Smith had made a dramatic rise to prominence in Sydney’s jockey ranks after a rather humble beginning on the country and provincial circuits. Eventually, after winning hundreds of races out of town, Smith was induced to try his hand in the big smoke. He wasn’t an immediate success, but after accepting advice to modify his monkey crouch and drop his stirrups two holes, he quickly made his mark. The Derby would come to be seen as the pinnacle of his life in the saddle, and his only prior major success had been when he partnered Rim Boy to win the previous year’s Doomben Ten Thousand. Smith would finish the 1951-52 racing season as runner-up to Neville Sellwood in the Sydney jockeys’ premiership. In a truncated career Smith, acting upon medical advice was eventually forced to resign his licence after two particularly nasty race falls, the second at Hawkesbury in 1953, which resulted in several broken ribs and a punctured lung. He retired to assume the life of a wealthy grazier on six thousand acres at Manilla, N.S.W.
Channel Rise must rank as one of the poorest winners ever of the A.J.C. Derby. Even before his finest hour at Randwick, the colt’s bad legs had plagued his training regimen, and he was prone to lameness, a plight that became even more pronounced after his classic victory. In twenty-nine starts afterwards, he failed to win again and in fact only once more returned any prize money at all, when third in a weak mile handicap at Newcastle when weighted near the limit. It was after finishing an inglorious last in a Newcastle handicap as a six-year-old stallion that he was retired. Although he was given a few mares at the Bringelly property of Mr and Mrs R. W. Farrell, not surprisingly he failed to make any mark as a stallion.
In stark contrast with the post-Derby fortunes of Channel Rise, Hydrogen gave the lie to his mysterious classic failure at Randwick by maturing into a wonderful racehorse. Four days after the Derby, Hydrogen had little difficulty winning the weight-for-age Craven Plate on a heavy track in Neville Sellwood’s hands, before going to Melbourne. The colt was brilliant enough to win the Caulfield Guineas over the mile, the first Sydney horse to do so in twelve years, and then went under by a neck to fellow three-year-old Bronton, in the W.S. Cox Plate when beaten for speed. Such form was enough to see the son of Delville Wood forgiven by the public for his Derby failure at Randwick for the chance of redemption in Flemington’s blue riband, and he went to the post as the favourite. If there were lingering doubts about his stamina before the race, there were none afterwards.
Last early in a field of sixteen after jumping up instead of out when the tapes lifted, Hydrogen gave the leader Trizami twelve lengths from the half-mile and yet won by more than a length, with Shoreham and Bronton filling the minor placings. After the Victoria Derby, jockey Darby Munro wouldn’t be drawn on comparisons of Hydrogen with either Hall Mark or Reading but classed them all as champions. Underlining the claim that he was the finest three-year-old of the season, Hydrogen only narrowly missed a place in the Melbourne Cup three days later.
In the autumn Hydrogen campaigned in both Melbourne and Sydney winning the respective St Legers in hollow fashion from his only two rivals in each instance as well as carrying seven pounds over weight-for-age to win the Rosehill Cup in course record time. However, Delta proved more than a match for him in their only three clashes at weight-for-age. In his main mission that campaign, Hydrogen, handicapped with 8 st. 2lb and ridden by Bill Cook, was sent to the post as the equal favourite with Dalray for the rich Sydney Cup but struck one of the heaviest tracks seen at Randwick for years to finish unplaced behind the lightweight Opulent. As a four-year-old, Hydrogen’s career was just as rewarding, particularly after Delta’s breakdown, and the son of Delville Wood managed to win numerous weight-for-age events including the Craven Plate, W.S. Cox Plate and C.B. Fisher Plate although his biggest pay-cheques came with victories in the Alister Clark Stakes and the Brisbane Cup. As a spring five-year-old, Hydrogen remained dominant in the weight-for-age classics winning both a second W.S. Cox Plate and C.B. Fisher Plate while being narrowly beaten in The A.J.C. Metropolitan by the year-older Carioca when in receipt of four pounds. Such was his form that despite the handicap of 9 st. 4lb, Hydrogen ran unplaced as the favourite in the Melbourne Cup.
Four days after that Cup disappointment, Hydrogen succeeded as Australia’s highest stakes winner when he galloped effortlessly through a sea of mud to beat his only two rivals in the 1953 C.B. Fisher Plate. The cheque for £1,750 carried his winnings to £57,179 to pass Phar Lap’s total that had lasted for more than twenty years. Alas, there were only fifteen thousand or so people prepared to brave the elements at Flemington to witness the feat. Williams acknowledged Hush’s contribution to his good fortune when he later presented the trainer with a precious clock encased in gold as a memento of the occasion. The champion horse was then given only a brief let-up before being brought back to prepare for the historic Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Randwick in the first week of February – run early that year to coincide with the Royal Visit and in the presence of Her Majesty.
The affair was something of an upset when the 33/1 outsider Blue Ocean triumphed with Hydrogen finishing out of a place. It was to be a disappointing campaign with Hydrogen only managing to win one more race, the weight-for-age Queen’s Plate at Flemington, and a proposed American venture was aborted when he hurt his shoulder.
Lame as a result of the mishap, Hydrogen was scratched from all engagements at the 1954 Autumn Meeting at Randwick, and his retirement was announced. Unfortunately, little interest was shown in acquiring the son of Delville Wood for stud purposes, and he was brought back for a brief six-year-old season that saw him restricted to just three unsuccessful starts in Victoria, after being banned from N.S.W. racecourses for bleeding. Hydrogen was finally retired for good as Australia’s greatest stakes winner with £59,444, after finishing behind Rising Fast in the 1954 L.K.S. Mackinnon Stakes. Considering that Hydrogen as a three-year-old had to contend with Delta, as a four-year-old with Dalray, and as a five-year-old with Carioca, his record career earnings merit added respect. When negotiations with the U.S.A. again fell through, arrangements were made in April 1955 for the horse to stand as a stallion at Jim Ryan’s Riverview Stud near Toolambool in Victoria. Hydrogen proved a disappointment as a stallion and only sired one really first-class racehorse in the filly Fire Band that Charlie Waymouth trained to win the V.R.C. Wakeful Stakes and Sandown Guineas in 1965. Another of his progeny, Hydrell, as a juvenile won the prestigious Byron Moore Stakes but broke down before realising his full potential.
I began this chapter with the story of Ernie Williams’s rise to prominence in the world of commerce and his early forays into bloodstock. It might have taken Williams an inordinately long time to find himself a good horse, but when he did so, he was to experience a quite remarkable season. Apart from Hydrogen’s classic haul in that 1951-52 season, Williams also won the Queensland Derby and St Leger with Forest Beau while at the same time he had a promising juvenile in Waterlady, who the following season would give him the Victoria Oaks and the A.J.C. Adrian Knox Stakes. Williams shared his good fortune as leading owner on the Turf that season when he gave his £50,000 home at Wahroonga to the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children to accommodate child polio sufferers, and moved to live in his apartment in The Astor. When interviewed at the time Williams said: “God has been good to me – and I feel I need to do something worthwhile in return.” The philanthropist died in St Vincent’s Hospital in March 1961 at the age of seventy-two.