There were few more famous or distinguished broodmares in the early Victorian Stud Book than Gaslight. Bred in England by Sidney Herbert in 1850, she was purchased by William Yuille, on behalf of Hector Simson, while on a visit to England in 1857. Gaslight cast her first foal on board ship during the passage out, although it never amounted to much and she then missed the two following years. Illumination, by Warhawk, was her first foal to race in Australia, and, in Phillip Dowling’s hands, among other events, the filly won the 1864 V.R.C. Oaks and St Leger later in the same season. It was at the break-up of the Bournefield Stud that the old mare, heavily in foal to Kelpie, was sold to Hurtle Fisher. Some months later a colt was foaled and by the time Fisher dispersed his Maribyrnong Stud in April 1866 the youngster had developed into an impressive, powerful yearling. There were some fabulous prices paid at that auction and not least for the Fisherman stock. Little Fish was bought-in for 1150 guineas, Sour Grapes for 1100 guineas, and Sylvia for 600 guineas but the Kelpie offspring went cheaply and all bar one man ignored Gaslight’s son. It was Patrick Keighran who came, saw, and bought the colt for 200 guineas – the only bid made. Keighran subsequently registered the horse as Fireworks and decided to race him in partnership with his friend Samuel Martin.
The Balaklava training stables of Pat Keighran were then in the plenitude of their power. Keighran had been a successful squatter and cattleman before branching into the ownership and training of racehorses during the 1850’s. As a trainer, he first came to notice with Mormon, that fine son of The Premier, whom he trained when runner-up to Archer in the first two Melbourne Cups. A tough and durable stayer, Mormon did manage to win the Champion Race in both 1861 and 1864. The Cup wasn’t a lucky race for Keighran, however, for in 1866 with Exile he again finished runner-up – the third time in six years – this time behind The Barb. That was a particularly controversial race for poor old Pat, as he acted as both a V.R.C. steward and official starter on the day. This obvious conflict of interest was brought into sharp relief by the particular circumstances of the race. Keighran called two false starts before the real one, which – many in the crowd considered false, too – favoured Exile and Keighran’s second string, Playboy, and four other horses to the detriment of the other twenty-two starters. At the finish, Exile only went under by a head, but the furore was such that Keighran was forced to surrender his flag to George Watson by the third day of the meeting.
I might mention that Keighran and Exile were involved in another controversy at that horse’s last appearance on a racecourse. The winner of two Ballarat Cups, in 1866 and 1867, Exile dropped dead immediately after that second Cup triumph on the Dowling Forest course after starting a heavily backed favourite. Keighran arranged for a post-mortem examination, and a quantity of arsenic was found in the body although whether the dose was responsible for killing the horse was never confirmed. Rumours of racecourse poisonings were rife at the time, and, as evidenced in our previous chapter, it was a particularly shabby era in Australian racing.
Keighran prepared his team on the rambling expanses of St Kilda Park and was usually the first man there of a morning. It wasn’t the best of ground, however; after all, a hidden stump ruined Mormon’s career when he was galloping there, but such were the hazards of training at the time. Although blessed with a sweet temper, Fireworks was a very gross colt and Keighran experienced many difficulties in getting him fit when first put into training. He made his racecourse debut in the Ascot Vale Stakes on the first day of the V.R.C. Spring Meeting but, too lusty to do himself justice, was beaten by Sour Grapes. It was the same story when he resumed in the autumn and went under to another of Charles Fisher’s colts, Little Fish, for the V.R.C. Flemington Stakes. On that occasion, it was the general opinion that Fireworks had finished second but the judge didn’t think so and even refused to alter his decision when advised to that effect by the stewards.
Brought over to Sydney in late March for the A.J.C. autumn week he was a very different horse when he got to Randwick. The stallion Kelpie had not been one of the sires nominated for the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes, and thus Fireworks’ two appearances in Sydney were restricted to the Champagne Stakes (5f) on the first day and the Nursery (6f) on the fourth day of the fixture. In neither race was the colt ever headed. Seven went to the post for the Champagne and Little Fish, the odds-on favourite, lost his chance through bolting at a false start, while Fireworks in the real contest jumped off with the lead and won easily in record time. The Kelpie colt was even more splendid in the Nursery when carrying 8 st. 12lb to win hard held by four lengths giving lumps of weight away to his opponents. These performances were enough to see Fireworks head the three-year-olds with 6 st. 7lb when the handicap weights for the Melbourne Cup were released later in the season.
One man who was as highly impressed as the V.R.C. handicapper by the exhibitions of Fireworks in Sydney that week was John Tait. The Scotsman knew a good horse when he saw one and when he set his cap at gaining possession was a hard man to stop. Convoluted the path may have been, but successful overtures were made to Messrs Keighran and Martin to part with the colt at the close of the A.J.C. meeting. Keighran sold out reportedly because he doubted Fireworks would stay, and he believed he had a better Derby prospect at home in Kingfisher, a son of Fisherman and Melesina, and thus a half-brother to The Fawn, who would have such an influence on the Australian Stud Book in the coming years. Major Mylne of Eatonswill on the Clarence River became the new owner of Fireworks, but he only wanted him for stud duty and was happy to lease him for racing for twelve months, and this is where Alexander Mackellar comes into the picture.
Now the Mackellar family was to have a long association with the A.J.C. down through the years, and it was Alexander who was to begin the connection. We made his acquaintance in the 1861 instalment of our chronicle in relation to Kyogle. And it was he who in 1867 successfully negotiated the lease on Fireworks with Major Mylne. Though not actively engaged in the sport, at times Mackellar owned a few racehorses, although they usually raced in other interests and appeared that way on the race card. A case in point was Fireworks, for after negotiating the lease he passed the colt directly into the hands of John Tait. Incidentally, Fireworks wasn’t the only colt that Tait managed to acquire at the close of that A.J.C. autumn fixture. Glencoe, a fine slashing colt of immense size and power and the two-year-old that in the colours of his breeder Richard Dines, had won the Sires’ Produce Stakes in the absence of Fireworks, also found his way into Byron Lodge.
The close of the Randwick autumn meeting in 1867 saw another significant change in John Tait’s life as a trainer. Ever since the fire, which had consumed his Upper William-street stables the year before, Tait had been training his horses in rented premises. The suspected nobbling of The Barb for the 1867 A.J.C. St Leger lent added urgency to obtaining secure stables of his own, not to mention an imposing residence worthy of the leading trainer in the colonies. For some weeks Tait had been conducting negotiations to acquire Byron Lodge on Randwick Hill, not far from the Destitute Children’s Asylum (now incorporated into Prince of Wales Hospital) in Avoca-street, and a place already made famous through being the home of the eminent Jewish composer and musician, Isaac Nathan. Nathan is often described as “Australia’s first composer”, and had enjoyed considerable success through the years by setting some Lord Byron’s verses to airs of his own composition. When Nathan financed the construction of the house in 1853, it was only the third built in Randwick proper up to that time.
An elegant eleven-room dwelling, complete with stabling for ten horses together with coachman and servants’ quarters and a double coach-house, Nathan, in the act of homage to his good friend and patron, named the establishment Byron Lodge. The land itself extended to five acres, fronting Belmore-street and was bounded on its other perimeters by Alison-road and Avoca-street. Isaac Nathan resided there until 1860 when he moved to Pitt-street, where he died in 1864 from injuries sustained while alighting from a horse-drawn tram. After the eminent composer vacated Byron Lodge, it had for a time served as the family home of the businessman Archibald Mosman, after whom the prestigious Sydney suburb was named. Now once again the residence was on the market and John Tait, flush with funds from The Barb’s string of triumphs the previous spring, moved to secure possession. Tait retained the historic name of the property, and quickly put the stabling in proper order. Pure poetry and music might have vacated Byron Lodge with the passing of Isaac Nathan, but the house had now been acquired by an even more consummate artist, albeit one attracted to a much different vocation. In what was to be a golden epoch, Tait enjoyed an uninterrupted residency of more than a decade at Byron Lodge, a period that included the winners of another two A.J.C. Derbies as well as three more Melbourne Cups, not to mention a string of hits in the ring that at times reduced the hard men of Tattersall’s to crying in their satchels.
Derby Day, the first day of the Randwick Spring Meeting, dawned gloriously; and all morning horse-drawn vehicles, equestrians and pedestrians poured out to the course, including the Governor, Sir John Young, and his suite. Although the attendance was considerable, it was not as numerous as came to witness the famous clash of The Barb and Fishhook the year before. The usual amusements were keenly patronised by the general public in front of the Leger stand and the operators at Monte, under and over, and other games appeared to reap a rich harvest from a gullible public. Various course improvements had been made since the previous year. A new Leger Stand had been built, capable of holding fifteen hundred people; six loose boxes have been added to those already in the training-paddock, for the convenience of drying and scraping the horses after their gallops; and a large shed erected close to the entrance gates, for stabling seventy or eighty horses, for the use of the public. The high picket fence had also been extended around the first turn, where so often horses had been inclined to bolt. William Yuille, writing under his nom de course ‘Peeping Tom’ had observed in The Australasian:
“All the horses engaged at the forthcoming meeting are located at and about Randwick, numbers of training establishments having been lately built within a mile or so of the course; and as they all take their exercise either over the tan gallops or the course itself, the morning’s performances are the constant theme of discourse during the day, especially at Tattersall’s Hostelry, where the horsey men do congregate. In the evening the subscription betting-room is open, and is nightly well filled; the bookmakers are as lively as crickets,…What with their witty sallies and their buzzing about gathering honey like busy bees, and the auctioneer, assisted by his two clerks, selling the horses in the different sweeps that are perpetually being drawn during the evening, the little game is kept alive in a very amusing and interesting manner – a little more lively than the humdrum meetings generally held at the Albion…”
The 1867 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions appear in the table below:
A notable feature of the Derby, comprising a field of six colts and one filly, was the absence of representatives from studs that had previously been prominent in the race. Not a single horse from the Lee brothers; none to represent the late Sir Hercules or Kingston; and nothing from Messrs De Mestre, O’Malley or Cheeke. Pat Keighran, who had sold Fireworks and hoped that his other colt, Kingfisher, would measure up to classic standard, was disappointed when the great overgrown colt faltered in his preparation and had to be scratched. The son of Kelpie was always a firm favourite but the arrival of Hurtle Fisher on Wednesday before the race, saw Little Fish receive some support. A bloodlike brown with a sprawling style of action, Little Fish was yet another son of the all-conquering Fisherman out of a well-bred English matron; his juvenile season had resulted in minor placings in both the Ascot Vale Stakes and the Champagne Stakes when well supported in the ring, while his only win had come in the prestigious V.R.C. Flemington Stakes in the early autumn at the expense of Fireworks. The Derby was his first appearance in the new season, but alas for his chances, Little Fish had contracted a cold en route to Sydney.
Glencoe, now a stablemate of Fireworks, was third most popular fancy with the public, emphasising the strong hand Tait held for the classic. Glencoe was one of three horses in the field sired by the imported English horse, Lord of the Hills, a son of the great Touchstone. The horse was brought to Australia in 1860 by Mr R.L.L. Alison; and after he had been about a year in the colony, he was purchased for a large price by Richard Dines, of Hambleton Hill, over whose stud of mares he had presided since that time. Until the 1866-67 racing season, his stock hadn’t been very successful on the Turf, although neither indeed had many of them even been trained. Such had been the stallion’s success the previous year that he was standing the 1867 season at William Town’s Richmond Stud. The Italian, a well-bred son of Lord of the Hills, was sporting Richard Dines’ livery in the classic.
The flag fell to a good start with Stanley on Fireworks getting the best of it, although on passing the grandstand, The Italian rushed to the front and proceeded to set a strong gallop. Fireworks remained in second place with Little Fish third and then Vanderdecken. The pace proved too much for Little Fish who compounded as far out as six furlongs. The Italian still led turning for home but when fairly into the straight Stanley let the favourite down, and Fireworks had The Italian’s measure at the distance and won rather easily at the end, even though the margin was only a half-length. John Tait’s other runner, Glencoe managed to force a dead-heat for the minor placing with Carnation after coming with a rush at the finish.
Fireworks’ brilliant Derby victory rekindled interest in his imported English sire, Kelpie. A chestnut horse bred in England in 1855, Kelpie’s pretensions as a stallion were snubbed when first imported into Victoria in 1859, and he was as little thought of as his own sire, Weatherbit, was in England. Neither of them got the best choice of mares at stud in their early years. In 1863 Kelpie was secured by George Wyndham for his Bukkulla Stud on the Macintyre River near Inverell, and while there he managed to get the useful galloper Trump Card. The sensational three-year-old season of his son, Fireworks, saw renewed interest in Kelpie as a stallion, and in around 1870 he went to the Gordon Brook Stud where he got some very useful fillies for Thomas Hawkins Smith. However, it was at the Tocal Stud of Frank Reynolds where he spent the latter part of his career, that Kelpie sired most of his principal winners, particularly with daughters of Cossack and The Barb, and he died at that stud in May 1882 of inflammation of the bowels. Gaslight, the dam of Fireworks, as we have seen was an acknowledged matron long before her Derby-winning son exploded on the scene and nor did her fame end with him. Before being sold out of the Maribyrnong Stud in April 1866 for 420 guineas to William Pearson of Kilmany Park, Gippsland, she had already produced Gasworks to Fisherman the season after foaling Fireworks. Moreover, when sold she was carrying the future Lamplighter having been mated with Fisherman’s son, Ferryman, following the death of the foundation sire at Maribyrnong.
The A.J.C. Derby ushered in a brilliant season for Fireworks that would see him win twelve of his sixteen starts. Untroubled to win the Maiden Plate later in the week in a time four seconds faster than the Derby over the same course, the colt was then taken down to Melbourne and stabled at the Laurel Hotel, Essendon. He failed when a well-backed second favourite in Tim Whiffler’s Melbourne Cup – run that year on the opening Thursday, after giving a buck-jumping exhibition at the start, but was none the worse for wear on Friday when he won the first of his Victoria Derbies. I say the first because as any schoolboy student of the Turf can tell you, Fireworks is best remembered today for the fact that he won two Victoria Derbies. This anomalous turn of affairs came about when in October 1866 the V.R.C. resolved to inaugurate a great three-year-old race to be run for the first time on New Year’s Day, 1868. Hitherto, the Flemington Derby had scarcely afforded a race worth witnessing, and the club, to avoid such a stigma with their newly proposed race, was adding a bonus of 500 sovereigns to the sweepstakes. Part of the rationale for the new race and its timing lay in the manner that the Champion Stakes had settled itself. It was now looked upon as too much of a good thing and killing work for three-year-olds. And so, instead of giving so large a stake as was formerly lavished on it, the money had been divided, and one-half added to the sweepstakes of a new Derby, and the other half to a three-mile race, the Port Phillip Stakes, which excluded three-year-olds. As it was necessary to bring the entries into a proper routine, the first nominations for this new Derby came when the youngsters were two-year-olds rather than yearlings.
For all the fanfare and trumpets with which the V.R.C. announced this new order of things and the record crowd it attracted, the experiment was doomed to failure, and their New Year’s Day Derby lasted no more than the one running. Despite the boost in prizemoney, only five accepted for the race, and, in the presence of H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh, it proved a shutout with Fireworks strangling both the betting and the outcome. Belatedly, the V.R.C. committee recognised that the leading three-year-olds, having already measured strides in the spring, had exhausted any interest and excitement that a Derby would engender only a matter of weeks later. Moreover, denying three-year-olds their rightful place in the Port Phillip Stakes, merely served to neuter that great three-mile event as well. Accordingly, the V.R.C. hatched their plan to make their Derby the great race of the first day of the V.R.C. Spring Meeting – a position it continues to hold to this day.
Meanwhile, John Tait was imbibing all the festive cheer offered on that New Year’s Day. Following the hollow manner of Fireworks’ Derby victory, he pulled the horse out again for the Midsummer Handicap (14f) later on the card which he won as easily with Stanley, 4lb over, riding another waiting race. It was to prove a brilliant late summer and autumn for Fireworks who won both the Champion Race and the Launceston St Leger when taken across to Tasmania and then returned to win the V.R.C. St Leger easily, relegating the hapless Pat Keighran’s Kingfisher into second place. Brought back to his home course of Randwick, he was forced to play second fiddle to his stablemate Glencoe in the A.J.C. St Leger after Tait had declared for the latter, upsetting quite a few doubles wagers made by the gullible public concerning the Sydney Cup, which the stable won with The Barb. Honest John indeed! Fireworks then completed his three-year-old season with a hat-trick of hollow wins in the All-Aged Stakes and the Autumn Bruie Stakes on Friday, and the Randwick Handicap (10f) with 8 st. 4lb against older horses on the last Saturday – the infamous day The Barb returned 2lb short-weight for the Queen’s Plate.
The settling over that 1868 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting was heavy and protracted indeed, with several bookmakers detained longer than intended. The meeting was not a good one for the ring with the commissioner of Byron Lodge monopolising all the gains. As The Australasian observed: “It is once in a man’s lifetime that a stable can turn out such a lot of cracks as The Barb, Fireworks and Glencoe and all in top class form to say nothing of that funny little Tasmanian purchase, Jack. To win with this one, and pull that one, at pleasure! Verily John Tait is a lucky man, and from all accounts, the strings have been pulled with considerable skill. There is a good deal in luck, but such consummate generalship and such good stable management imply that there is a mastermind at the helm. The St Leger was close shaving on the lines of propriety in legitimate racing, but the 2lb deficiency in the Queen’s Plate was a poser to many who considered that it was about an impossibility [sic] for such a knowing stable to make a mistake. There are not a few here who can’t swallow the saddle cloth ‘yarn’.”
Fireworks’ career on the Turf was to prove both as spectacular and ephemeral as the combustible chemical mix from which he took his name. After his brilliant three-year-old season, Fireworks left John Tait’s stable, the lease arrangement with Major Mylne having come to an acrimonious end. Fireworks contracted a very severe cold that affected his bronchial tubes towards the end of his time with Tait, and although trained in other hands as a four-year-old, Fireworks’ three performances at that age descended to those of a common plater unable to earn even his hay and corn bill. At his final appearance, he finished an inglorious last in the 1869 All-Aged Stakes at Randwick won by his former stablemate Glencoe. There was quite a public fall-out between John Tait, Alexander Mackellar and Major Mylne at the conclusion of Fireworks’ career on the racecourse over the accounting for the horse’s winnings during the period of Tait’s lease. Fireworks earned £4,239 during that memorable three-year-old season when he raced in Tait’s yellow jacket, of which only about £300 found its way into Major Mylne’s pocket. Tait was a keen man when it came to money, and it seems he made an excellent bargain when structuring that particular lease. The dispute arose as to what constituted ‘clear winnings’ and became very public through the pages of The Australasian in July 1869. It was a good example of the type of ruction that so marred the sport in the days of laissez-faire administration before the two senior race clubs in Australia, the Victoria Racing Club and the Australian Jockey Club, began to exert their control through a common code of practice.
Major Mylne’s interpretation of the lease was that he was to receive a percentage based on the horse’s clear winnings less his own stake. Tait, on the other hand, refused to pay that gross amount via Mackellar until he had deducted every expense incurred in racing the horse during the twelve months. Tait’s deductions included such indulgences as champagne consumed in the stewards’ private rooms and ambiguities such as ‘incidental expenses’ and ‘personal training expenses’, which only aggravated tensions. Mylne argued that Tait was offering him a percentage based on Tait’s clear winnings, not the horse’s. The disputant owner and trainer agreed to leave it to a mutual Sydney friend to decide on the matter, with the friend deciding in Tait’s favour. While Mylne accepted the decision, out of curiosity, he wrote to Admiral Rous, the Father of the Turf in England, seeking his opinion. It may seem strange to the modern reader that arbitration was sought in such a distant and foreign quarter, but it wasn’t an unusual course for the time. Rous ruled unequivocally in favour of Mylne and stated: “The clear public winnings must be calculated, minus entrance money, stake money, charges of the clerk of the course, and jockey’s fees, to 10%, of which Mylne was entitled.” Of course, Rous’s decision carried no weight here and failed to move Tait towards any magnanimous gesture; but its publication was but one more episode that imbued the epithet of ‘Honest’ John Tait with heavy irony in some of the sporting journals of the time. Tait construed The Australasian’s reporting of the arrangements as a libel, and made it the subject of a threatened action for defamation. Nothing came of it.
Whatever the misfortune of Major Mylne in leasing Fireworks on such unfavourable terms to John Tait during the horse’s most prolific season on the Turf, it was nothing to the tragedies that overtook Pat Keighran, the man who first discerned the promise in the gangling bay colt as a yearling. Rarely have the vicissitudes of the Turf been more cruelly exposed than in the life of Keighran after letting Fireworks slip through his hands. While it is true that he experienced a measure of success with Lamplighter, a younger half-brother of Fireworks, a couple of seasons later, Keighran’s hitherto Midas touch with bloodstock soon deserted him completely. His gambles both on and off the racecourse cost him dearly, and as his fortune ebbed away, he turned increasingly to the bottle. Those fair-weather friends who had so crowded around him when his purse was full were no longer to be found, and Keighran ended his days as a non-paying guest in the old Barley Mow Inn, at the corner of Park and Castlereagh streets, Sydney, in March 1888. The end was particularly wretched. One night after doing the rounds of some watering holes in the city, Keighran returned to the bar at his lodging house for a nightcap before ascending the steps to his bedroom. He managed to mount two or three before he missed a step and fell backwards. The landlord ignored his plight, and, while a couple of other boarders did eventually carry him senseless to his room, he remained unconscious the following morning. Taken to Sydney Hospital, the fifty-eight-year-old Keighran died without ever regaining his senses. At the inquest, Henry Shiell, the Coroner, expressed both his surprise at the conduct of the landlord; and his intention of reporting the matter to the Licensing Bench. The latter proved unnecessary when the landlord left the house soon after.
Fireworks began his stud life on the Clarence River but in August 1869 that astute judge of thoroughbreds, George Petty, approached John Tait to buy the horse on his behalf for the Maribyrnong Stud. £650 was the price according to Bell’s Life, and Fireworks thereby returned to the place of his birth. The stallion came back to Melbourne in time for the annual horse show on the first Tuesday in September, when from an early hour Bourke-street, between Elizabeth and Queen-streets was crammed by an eager crowd, who watched the usual parade of Clydesdales, thoroughbreds and other equine breeds. Any doubts that Fireworks hadn’t flourished during his brief sojourn on the Clarence were dismissed on sight, and it came as no surprise that in his very first season at the stud he got three crackers in Goldsbrough, Rose D’Amour and Lapidist. Other good horses followed in later seasons including the ill-fated Robin Hood; but, rather curiously, after Charles Fisher resumed possession of the Maribyrnong Stud, Fireworks seemed to become something of a failure. When Fisher sold out the stud for the last time on 31st December 1877, Fireworks was knocked down to Thomas Cummings for 1750 guineas, at which price he was considered a bargain. Alas, Fireworks died a few weeks later from an inflammation of the bowels having just been removed from Woodlands to stables at Flemington. Nonetheless, his blood lived on, and a few of his daughters threw some good-class gallopers including the likes of Barefoot, The Crash, The Harvester, Inverary, Palliser, and those two full brothers Precious Stone and Turquoise.