The year 1977 finally admitted to the honour roll of A.J.C. Derby-winning trainers, the man who was commonly regarded as the finest trainer of stayers in Australia in the second half of the twentieth century: James Bartholomew Cummings! We first met the young Bart Cummings in the 1948 chapter of this book as the strapper of the 1950 Melbourne Cup winner, Comic Court, trained by his father, Jim. Intermittent appearances have come in later chapters, notably 1973 and 1975 when he trained the A.J.C. Derby runners-up, Leica Lover and Rafique respectively. However, it was in 1977 that Bart trained his first winner of the Randwick classic. So let’s recapitulate with a little history through the mouldy chronicle of time.
No race on the Australian Turf carried more sentiment with the great trainer Tommy Smith, the least sentimental of men, than the A.J.C. Derby. After all, when Playboy took the event in 1949 it was Tommy’s first major race success and the prize money won, and the bets landed, set him up for life. Moreover, it was that breakthrough that saw clients begin to beat a path to his door. However, Playboy apart, for all of the Derbies he had won during the intervening years, none gave him more satisfaction than his triumph with Great Lover in the 1976 renewal of the classic. A homebred, T. J. shared in the ownership of the horse with his brother, Dick. The story really began when Dick Smith went to New Zealand on a holiday trip back in the fifties.
On Saturday, March 8, 1975, at Rosehill racecourse a stylish chestnut colt foaled in New Zealand in the spring of 1972, stepped out to contest the S.T.C. Magic Night Quality Handicap over 1200 metres. Battle Sign, the colt in question, was a home-bred, trained and part-owned by a septuagenarian Kiwi by the name of George Walton. Walton, who had boarded the horse at Fil Allotta’s Randwick stables, was trying to qualify this son of Battle-Wagon for the $126,000 S.T.C. Golden Slipper Stakes to be run over the same course and distance a week later. Despite being bred on sound staying bloodlines, Battle Sign had shown brilliant speed to win his previous three starts before leaving New Zealand, the last victory being over 1200 metres at Wellington on January 20. Despite the lack of recent racing and the disadvantage of having drawn the widest gate in the fifteen-strong field, Battle Sign was specked in late course betting at 20/1 after as much at 25/1 had been offered. It was no ordinary field of juveniles and included the S.T.C. Silver Slipper Stakes winner, St Louis Blue, and a subsequent Q.T.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes winner in Skirnir.
The world of horse racing can seem small sometimes and with it the random collision of remarkable talents. It is a fact of which I’m reminded by the unlikely hero of our 1974 Derby chapter. In that year or two before the lingering effects of the Great Depression gave way to the frenzied activity of World War II, a young man guided a cart horse pulling a bread van around the beachside streets of Glenelg and the shores of Holdfast Bay in Adelaide. George Maxwell Hanlon, at the age of twenty-one, didn’t want the job but it brought him a living wage. And as a child of the Depression, he understood the value of money. On his rounds, he indulged his dreams of becoming a racehorse trainer.
History is lived forwards but is chronicled backwards, i.e. upon reflection. As such, we know the ending before we can ever truly appreciate the beginning and we can never wholly recapture the moment when it was to know the beginning only. And at the beginning of that 1972-73 racing season, there was Imagele. Even now, across the divide of some forty years and more, Imagele and what he promised still engender bittersweet memories for me. Permit me to take up the story on that April day in 1962 when the Gundagai grazier, Edwin John ‘Jock’ Graham, decided that he liked the look of a particular daughter of Nullabor at the Sydney Yearling Sales. Graham needed no trainer to second guess his choice, but when it came to bidding for her, he deputised the shrewd Johnnie Donohoe, for the grazier had a solicitor’s appointment to keep before the filly came into the ring.
This 1972 chapter of our chronicle introduces two brothers, Jack and Bob Ingham, who from modest beginnings on the Turf, proceeded to build the largest racing and breeding conglomerate in Australia of the twentieth century. Permit me to begin the story in 1918, the last year of World War I, when Walter Ingham Sr purchased forty-two acres of bushland on the Kurrajong-road in Casula, near Liverpool, on the western outskirts of Sydney for just on £1,000. It was a gift to his energetic and enterprising eighteen-year-old son, Walter Jr. In those days the land was relatively cheap – given its distance from the metropolis – and young Walter embarked on a fruit and vegetable farming venture, before deciding to transition part of his property into a poultry business.
On Friday, 10 September 1971, a special charter plane arrived at Sydney airport after an arduous eight-hour flight from Auckland, New Zealand. On board was a valuable cargo of six racehorses, and all were destined for the rich Sydney and Melbourne spring meetings. Three of the thoroughbreds, Classic Mission, Classic Nature and Crown Law hailed from the Woodville stables of leading New Zealand trainer, Syd Brown, who accompanied his team on what had proven to be a long, dramatic and turbulent journey. There was a further delay in disembarkation even after touchdown due to difficulties with the airport’s offloading facilities. However, all of this was to be as nothing compared to the turbulence and protracted drama that one of that cargo was about to visit upon Australian racing officialdom.
In the winter of 1965, Tommy Smith again made his regular pilgrimage to Europe, this time in the company of Ken Cox, the proprietor of the Stockwell Stud, Victoria. Cox was in the market for a well-bred English stallion, one with speed in his pedigree, and he was relying on Smith’s expertise to make his choice. Their itinerary included taking in the glamour and excitement of Royal Ascot, and it was there that Smith was struck by the four-year-old Infatuation stallion, Showdown, in finishing second in the prestigious Queen Anne Stakes (1m). After the event, Smith approached the horse endeavouring to obtain a close view of his conformation and physique only to be rebuffed by an overzealous panjandrum acting as gate-keeper. Nonetheless, the master horseman had seen enough. After inspecting several more prospective stallions over the next few weeks, his mind kept coming back to Showdown, and he recommended that Ken Cox make an offer for the showy chestnut son of Infatuation by Nearco, and who was out of the wonderful European broodmare, Zanzara, a granddaughter of Fair Trial. Cox offered $80,000 but was unable to close the deal, and while Smith continued on his holiday, the owner of Stockwell Stud returned to Australia empty-handed. It wasn’t until three months later with Showdown still unsold and Cox persisting with his offer through the British Bloodstock Agency, that a settlement was finally agreed and the horse transported to Australia.
When Randwick trainer Dick Roden studied the catalogue for the 42nd Annual New Zealand Yearling Sales opening on Thursday 18 January 1968, there was only one colt that he really wanted to buy. Lot No. 27 was being sold by the Trelawney Stud at Cambridge, the property of the two friends, Seton Otway and Neville Souter, and both men knew a thing or two about breeding stayers. After all, each had bred a Melbourne Cup winner: Otway with Macdougal; and Souter with Foxzami. An early September foal, the brown colt on offer was by Alcimedes out of Beehive, a half-sister to both Foxzami and Bali Ha’i, the winner of a Great Northern St Leger at Auckland and later the Queen Alexandra Stakes at Ascot in England. Moreover, this yearling colt also carried some of the Foxbridge blood that had made Macdougal, whom Roden trained to win the 1959 Melbourne Cup, such a potent stayer. There was a sense of déjà vu for Roden as he marked the page in the catalogue, for just two years earlier he had done the same thing when he successfully bid for this colt’s full brother on behalf of Stan Fox for 7000 guineas. Registered as Honeyland, he had won the 1967 Canterbury Guineas while still a maiden galloper.
Jefferson Airplane’s wild and psychedelic rock music might be caught up in the time warp of San Francisco’s LSD summers but the in-crowd quip of band co-founder Paul Kantner – “if you can remember anything about the ‘60’s you weren’t really there” – has achieved a life of its own in nostalgic reminiscences about the period. Why do I mention this? Well, I can remember Derby Day at Randwick in 1968 and very clearly – because I really was there. It’s just that I wish I hadn’t been. I made the annual pilgrimage on that Saturday in October believing Always There to be a good thing in the classic and bet accordingly. For weeks I had rioted in the imaginary opulence my winnings would bring; indeed, I was so sanguine as to my expectations that I had purchased myself a new suit and hat. Rather than harbouring any romantic reminiscences about the stylish chestnut and Geoff Lane’s unimaginative ride that day, I still suffer sleep deprivation whenever it comes to mind.