In the 1869 chapter, I related the early story of the foundation of the Maribyrnong Stud. Its dispersal in April 1866 saw the property, and much of the stock, transfer from the hands of the Stud’s founder, Hurtle Fisher, into those of his brother, Charles Brown Fisher or ‘CB’ as he has become known to generations of the Australian sporting public. Curiously enough, the brothers, for all of their closeness in pastoral intrigues, never seemed to have been long-term partners in their Turf pursuits, although they could always manage to come to some arrangement with each other when it suited. Charles Fisher, like his brother, was one of a small group of Australia’s privileged and exclusive squattocracy, who though in a land quite different to England, persisted in adopting English styles of dress and custom common to the squirearchy of the old country.
Fisher was no stranger to success on the racecourse when he first took over Maribyrnong, for his earliest important victory had come as long ago as 1860 when his horse Midnight won both the South Australian Derby and St Leger; but proprietorship of the Maribyrnong Stud now put his involvement on an altogether more lavish scale. There was a general disappointment when it was quickly announced that Fisher intended to conduct the Maribyrnong Stud for the purpose of racing alone, rather than breeding for sale. It came at a time when some training stables in Melbourne were already empty as a result of gentlemen withdrawing from the Turf because of their inability to compete against the strength and numbers of the Maribyrnong Stud during Hurtle Fisher’s reign. The sale of the stud had momentarily excited anticipation that things might be about to change.
The month after buying Maribyrnong, Charles Fisher engaged the successful trainer and jockey Joe Morrison to act as stable jockey cum travelling head lad to William Filgate, who continued his responsibilities for the overall management of the stud farm itself. The Maribyrnong track was overlaid with tan, which enabled its use in any weather, a decided advantage given the Melbourne climate; and a tan training track was a luxury that even Flemington lacked in those days. Despite the money spent, quality of personnel recruited, and the impressive line-up of Fisherman blood acquired, Charles Fisher’s first reign as the Squire of Maribyrnong wasn’t particularly blessed with good fortune. Fisherman’s stock was renowned for their great size and early speed, and often they were called upon to do more on the Turf in their first season or two than young legs could withstand. Consequently, although a number of the young horses that came out of the Maribyrnong paddocks appropriated many of the good two and three-year-old races, they generally failed to train on as older horses and disappointed in the rich handicaps for which Charles Fisher had often supported them heavily at Tattersall’s.
Moreover, a number of horses suffered accidents both in the paddock and on the racecourse. Fishhook’s poisoning is but one example – which must have contributed to Charles Fisher’s decision to cut his losses in April 1868 after just two years at the helm, and once again devote all his energies to his pastoral and squatting pursuits. He came up with the somewhat novel concept of an art union for disposing of the Maribyrnong stock on 6th April 1868. In the lottery’s prospectus, there were 35 horses put up as prizes and 2,000 tickets were issued at £10 each – aimed at realising a sum of £20,000 which was far in excess of any cash offers that Charles Fisher had received for the stud stock as a whole. Among the 35 lots removed that day we find the names of Rose of Denmark, Lady Heron, Maribyrnong, Fishhook, Stockowner, The Ragpicker, My Dream, The Fly, Little Fish, Sour Grapes, Syren, Smuggler, Omen, Marchioness, Fenella, Seagull, Juliet, Rose de Florence, Sylvia, Gildermire and Token. No such collection of stallions, mares and racehorses had ever been offered to the Australian public before.
Robert Bagot, the secretary to the VRC, had responsibility for the carriage of the art union and there was a wide agency network involved in the distribution of the tickets with the apportionment being 1100 in Victoria, 500 in NSW, 300 to South Australia and 100 to Tasmania. About 1800 of the 2,000 tickets were eventually sold, with Charles and his brothers absorbing the balance. Use of the Exhibition Building in Melbourne for the lottery had been refused and recourse was had to St George’s Hall where a semaphore was used to telegraph the names of the winners from a draw that took almost nine hours to conduct. Just how clever the lottery ploy was in maximising Charles Fisher’s returns was proven a week later when a number of the horses drawn in the Maribyrnong distribution came up for sale at Kirk’s Bazaar.
Mr Tattersall put up twelve lots, and collectively they realised a mere £2,998. For example, Maribyrnong, the stallion, was started at 200 guineas only for the bidding to expire at 540 guineas. After dwelling some time and talking matters over with Fisher, Mr Tattersall informed the public there was a reserve on him of 600 guineas; and he was going to be passed in until George Petty agreed to take him at that figure, having set his heart on acquiring the horse. Petty made hay in the sunshine that day when, with William Yuille acting as his agent, he also snapped up the likes of Gildermire, Chrysolite, The Fly, Seagull and Rose of Denmark as well as the future Florence, then just a foal. Having acquired much of the stock, George Petty required a property upon which to run them. The Maribyrnong estate itself was never a part of the lottery, but Petty entered into direct negotiations with Fisher and eventually bought it, too, much to the relief of many Victorian sportsmen who had feared that it would be lost forever to Australian breeding.
George W. Petty’s entry onto the stage came at a most opportune moment, and few men have made a more significant contribution to the Australian Turf in so short a time. Petty had previously amassed a fortune in business and now decided to enter upon a new calling. Writing in The Australasian a couple of weeks later under the pseudonym of Playboy, William Yuille reflected on Petty and his recent acquisitions: “This is a pretty fair commencement, and with Maribyrnong for a sire, Mr Petty cannot fail to breed something good.” Just how many and how good would soon become a matter of history. Petty got off to a brilliant start as a studmaster when at his very first public sale of yearlings in January 1871, both King of the Ring and Argus Scandal went under the auctioneer’s hammer. And as we have seen, it was Petty who guaranteed the name of Maribyrnong would resonate with countless generations of the Australian racing public when in that same year he contributed 300 sovereigns for the inauguration of a two-year-old stakes race to be called the Maribyrnong Plate. Although George Petty’s life was short and his period in charge of Maribyrnong brief, he achieved a remarkable run of success, particularly in conjunction with John Tait.
It was Petty who purchased and stood The Marquis, whom the Dakin brothers had brought with them to Australia; and he also had Fireworks, the sire of Goldsbrough. The annual Maribyrnong sales under Petty’s management acquired a high reputation almost immediately and were justly celebrated for the big prices obtained and the quality of the yearlings offered. Considering the few years that he was at Maribyrnong, Petty either bred or owned such celebrities as Goldsbrough, Florence, Amendment, Dagmar, Rose D’Amour, Hamlet, Horatio, Lapidist, Robin Hood, Canterbury and The Painter. However, it was during the spring of 1873 that there was foaled in the paddocks of Maribyrnong a little brown colt destined to achieve fame and renown far in excess of any that had gone before. The colt in question was by one of the stud’s resident stallions, Angler, from the mare Chrysolite, the daughter of that famous match between Stockwell and Juliet that Hurtle Fisher had been responsible for bringing into Australia in utero. Chrysolite had proven successful already both on the racecourse and in the paddock; she had managed to win the South Australian St Leger in her brief racing career, while at stud she had already produced a future Victoria Derby winner in Lapidist.
How George Petty came to choose Angler as a mate for Chrysolite is a testimony to his acumen. Angler, a colt bred by Hurtle Fisher in 1862, had won both the Victoria Derby and St Leger in the famous rose and black stripes. An injury precluded Angler from proving himself after his classics season, and he had first been put to Chrysolite when a four-year-old. The result of that union had been the promising mare Cleolite, who won at Kyneton, only to break her thigh and die a few hours later on the same day. Shortly afterwards Angler was sold to go to the Western District, where for a few years his goodness went unrecognised. It was George Petty that rescued the horse from comparative obscurity when he took over the Maribyrnong Stud; Petty remembered the initial blush of promise that the first tryst between Chrysolite and Angler had conjured up, and was determined to try to repeat the trick. The filly Onyx, of whom we shall hear more anon, was the happy result of this second mating. Then the following season came the colt that would win fame as well as the 1876 AJC Derby in Charles Fisher’s colours and ultimately become known to the world as Robinson Crusoe.
Charles Fisher acquired the Chrysolite colt when he came back for his second stint as owner of the Maribyrnong Stud in April 1874. Whereas George Petty had made a spectacular success of the stud in the six years after he became proprietor, likewise Fisher’s burgeoning pastoral empire had yielded him great riches too. However, by 1874 Petty, although only in his mid-forties, was in failing health and wished to make one more visit to England before he shuffled off this mortal coil, and the restless and ambitious Fisher made him an offer for Maribyrnong he simply couldn’t refuse.
Petty’s health was to decline gradually, and although he died prematurely in November 1877, he at least lived long enough to see the little colt he had bred in his famous paddocks, acknowledged as the finest in the land. Fisher regained ownership of the Maribyrnong estate from Petty at a price significantly higher than that he had originally sold out for; and with it not only acquired Robinson Crusoe but also the whole of the breeding stock with the singular exception of Goldsbrough. Curiously enough, within weeks of taking over Maribyrnong again, Fisher shipped Angler across to South Australia to serve station mares on a property he owned there, considering that such was the quality of lovers the horse deserved. It was only after the Chrysolite colt’s brilliant juvenile season that Angler came back to Maribyrnong.
Robinson Crusoe showed promise right from the start in Joe Morrison’s hands and his racecourse debut came in the Maribyrnong Plate. On the Saturday before this contest, after a brilliant track gallop at Flemington, he was the subject of some spirited speculation for the race when at the Kensington-park meeting he was backed to win over £2,000. Alas, he was unlucky enough to be out in the same season as another quite remarkable colt in Newminster. Newminster, a son of The Marquis, already had an interesting history. Owned by Andrew Chirnside and trained by Francis Dakin at Point Cook, where Dakin was in charge of all the Chirnside horses, Newminster became an orphan at a very early age. Only a day or so after foaling he was found at his mother’s side, where she was lying dead on the Werribee Plains. The colt was reared on cow’s milk, and Dakin had him in hand by the time he was a yearling. Newminster won the Maribyrnong Plate that year rather effortlessly, while Robinson Crusoe could only manage fourth in the field of thirteen, although he did lose several lengths at the start.
The son of Angler was not formed upon the same grand scale as Newminster, but nevertheless was a compact and sturdy youngster standing a little over 15.1 hands; his legs were sound and, although lazy, he was blessed with a gritty determination once his jockey persuaded him to gallop. The dominance of Newminster continued in the autumn at Flemington when the son of Chrysolite had to be satisfied with seconds in both the Ascot Vale Stakes and the Sires Produce Stakes, although his particular liking for an extended journey was becoming clear. It was at the end of the V.R.C. Autumn Meeting that Charles Fisher handed the colt over to Etienne de Mestre to train and he went back to Sydney by sea, on the City of Adelaide along with Robin Hood and other of Fisher’s horses.
Whether it was merely the absence of Newminster or the superior training regimen of de Mestre who knows, but it was a somewhat different story when Robinson Crusoe stepped out at Randwick in April. Given that the horse was always a great glutton in the stable, de Mestre ensured he fed him up to his work rather than worked him up to his feed. Joe Morrison might have lost the training of the colt, but he came across from Victoria by the steamer Avoca to ride him in his three engagements. The pair made a sad show of all that measured strides with them during that week, winning all three appearances in the Champagne Stakes, Breeders’ Plate and Sires’ Produce Stakes. However, curiously enough, the Chrysolite colt’s clean sweep of the juvenile races didn’t make him the most discussed youngster in the Tattersall’s rooms after the meeting.
That honour belonged to a little filly brought over from the St Albans stable at Geelong. She was only small and had been disadvantaged by the set weights of the Victorian two-year-old classics when she finished behind Robinson Crusoe a couple of times at Flemington earlier in the season. However, James Wilson senior was shrewd enough to realise what he had on his hands. In Sydney, he had dodged the Champagne Stakes to run the filly in the Doncaster Handicap instead, in which she had the featherweight of 5 st. 7lb, and for which the St Albans stable heavily supported her. Wilson had also brought across a little mite of a jockey named Peter Bowden – still in his early teens – who rode under the name of Peter St Albans, to partner the filly at her allotted weight. Racing as Briseis, she won that Doncaster too, and in a very fast time. Briseis became the toast of the meeting, winning each of her four starts during that week including the All Aged Stakes as well as the Nursery and Flying Handicaps.
Despite these triumphs of Briseis, the Chrysolite colt’s performances at Randwick were enough to see Charles Fisher finish as the leading owner at the meeting collecting a cheque for £1,480/15/6 on settling day for his treble. In fact, it was quite a remarkable meeting for Etienne de Mestre and other close associates of the stable as well. Apart from Robinson Crusoe’s string of victories, the stable successfully threw in for a good stake on Robin Hood and A.T. to take out the St Leger-Sydney Cup double. Robinson Crusoe’s hat-trick of wins was enough to place him sixth on the list of stakes earnings at the season’s end, while the VRC handicapper paid him the compliment of 6 st. 10lb in the Melbourne Cup, eight pounds less than Newminster. The authority shown by Charles Fisher’s favourite in Sydney was such that, in the absence of Newminster and Briseis who weren’t entered, bookmakers immediately installed him as a warm favourite for the following season’s Derby, and betting on the race remained almost a dead letter up until the time of its running.
Derby Day 1876 at Randwick saw the new grandstand completed and used for the first time. In June 1875 the AJC committee had accepted the tender of W. K. Dixon for the completion of the stand, by March 1876, supposedly in time for the autumn meeting. However, the death of Dixon had delayed proceedings, and the tender for the unfinished portion had to be let out to a new firm. The entire development including the grandstand and the re-modelling of the saddling paddock and associated constructions had cost the club £12,000, and the annual subscription of members increased as a result from three to five guineas. Although placed further back from the rail of the straight, it occupied the same position as the old wooden structure, which had to be pulled down before the new foundations were laid.
Built of brick and stone with seating for two thousand and a gallery for six hundred more, the new stand had an embankment sixty-feet wide, established to its side and front. A concreted promenade ran the whole length of the building forming the top of a well-grassed lawn, which gradually sloped down towards the course. Separate stairs were provided for the Governor’s room and the committee room, which led to boxes at the centre of the stand, where the press box was also placed. It was a construction of some grace and no little style – well worthy of the racecourse. The telegraph office, a neat wooden structure that was originally intended for the ground floor, was located in the paddock at the back.
The 1876 AJC Derby field and race conditions appear in the table below:
A crowd of ten thousand attended Derby Day in glorious weather, roughly representing one in twenty of the colony’s population, but the new stand was not so well patronised as it should have been because of the club’s policy of exclusivity. The only change in the official list had been the appointment of Henry Dangar to the post of starter for the meeting. Robinson Crusoe retained his stranglehold on the Derby betting right up to flagfall, and de Mestre had entrusted the superintendence of the colt to the leading Randwick jockey, George Donnelly, during the winter months. Donnelly maintained a roadside inn that eventually became known as the A.J.C. Hotel, where visiting horses were often stabled and where the cognoscenti often took breakfast before trackwork.
The relative isolation of de Mestre’s training stables at Terrara on the Shoalhaven meant that in these years Donnelly often acted as his travelling foreman, including on visits interstate. A brilliant gallop with his stablemate Robin Hood over a mile-and-a-half on Tuesday morning before the Derby convinced even the sceptics that Donnelly and de Mestre had the brown colt back better than ever, and his price firmed into even money. Charles Fisher had a second runner in the race in Sovereign, a half-brother to Florence, Hamlet and Horatio, and although Fisher had announced that each was to run on their merits, the opinion of de Mestre and the stable money was that Sovereign had no chance – an opinion endorsed by the public. Joe Morrison had again come over from Melbourne to partner the colt.
Seven rivals confronted the Chrysolite colt for Derby honours, and best backed to beat him was Andrew Loder’s homebred, The Cardinal, who had run the minor placing in the Champagne Stakes in the autumn and had been considered unlucky when second to Tocal in the Hawkesbury Guineas at his seasonal debut. He had then beaten Tocal on the second day of the meeting at the Clarendon course in the Produce Stakes. Sir Hercules Robinson had two representatives in the race sporting the vice-regal colours, the filly Queen’s Head and the aforementioned colt Tocal. Queen’s Head had run a bold race when second to the Chrysolite colt in the Champagne Stakes at the Autumn Meeting after setting the pace. However, Tocal was shorter in the betting, his being the preferred mount of Ramsay, who – with the temporary withdrawal of the newly-married Billy Yeomans from the pigskin and now managing a pastoral station – had assumed the position of leading jockey for the Governor.
There was a romantic tale associated with Sir Hercules Robinson’s acquisition of Tocal. His Excellency purchased the colt because he had known the family in Ireland. Once while out hunting in the Emerald Isle, the hounds he was following came to a halt, caused by a property owner and his labourers ‘sooling’ the dogs off the scent before they reached a field that held a favourite thoroughbred mare and a day-old foal. The mare in question was Potteen by young Blacklock, and the foal that was by Harkaway was afterwards known as Melesina. Melesina later came to Australia carrying a foal by Red Hart, and the foal was a filly (Sweetheart) that in due course went to the stud and to The Barb she threw Tocal. Sir Hercules, knowing the value of the blood in Ireland, bought Melesina’s grandson to carry his colours. Apart from winning the Hawkesbury Guineas, Tocal had run a very good second in the Sires’ Produce at Randwick earlier in the year. Queen’s Head, the second vice-regal representative in the race, was also fancied on the strength of sound juvenile form.
It wasn’t until his fifth attempt that Mr Dangar managed to lower his flag to a grand start. Davis urged Sovereign to the head of affairs after getting over the tan crossing, in a bid to cut the work out for his more favoured stablemate and carried the field along at a good clip, leading Queen’s Head a length going past Cutts’. Going down the back of the course Queen’s Head assumed command and both she and Sovereign ensured the pace was genuine for the first ten furlongs. Once in the straight Sovereign was satisfied and Davis, his jockey, pulled out to allow the Chrysolite colt up on the inside. As he passed, Davis gave Robinson Crusoe two or three cuts on his quarters to help him on his way. At the same time, Queen’s Head was making galloping room for her own stablemate, the Governor’s well-supported Tocal. Morrison, who had been riding Robinson Crusoe keenly for most of the journey, now made a determined call upon him and at the distance managed to pinch a length on Tocal. In the run to the line, the favourite just managed to hold off the gallant son of The Barb to win by a short half-head with The Cardinal a good third.
Charles Fisher stepped the colt out again on the third day of the meeting in a four-horse field for the Mares Produce Stakes (10f), and once again with the assistance of Sovereign setting the pace in the early stages, he ran out the easiest of winners. The form of the son of Angler at Randwick and the unsettling rumours emanating from Melbourne concerning Newminster’s fitness, now saw the colt heavily supported for the Victoria Derby by both the stable and the public in general at the A.J.C. settling at Tattersall’s. But taking pre-post odds at any time is a practice fraught with risk as those that now supported the Derby winner for Melbourne would soon understand.
I should emphasise the fact that at the end of the AJC Spring Meeting our Derby hero remained unnamed, merely being referred to as the Chrysolite colt. It wasn’t that unusual in those informal days of racing administration, but how the colt came to be called Robinson Crusoe is one of the more charming yet tragic tales of the Australian Turf. Two days after winning the Mares’ Produce Stakes, he together with Sovereign, Robin Hood and some other horses, most of them owned by Charles Fisher, was loaded on-board the steamer City of Melbourne bound for the Victorian capital. Joe Morrison, the successful Derby jockey, was in charge of the horses, ably assisted by Sam Davis. In addition to the eleven valuable horses on board, there was a full complement of passengers returning from the A.J.C. Spring Meeting. The ship left Sydney at midnight, 9th September 1876, lurching forth into dark seas and uncertain weather.
At noon on Sunday when not far from Jervis Bay, the ship was struck by a severe squall, which split the mizzen and capsized the port quarter-boat. Morrison approached the skipper, the unfortunately named Captain Paddle and urged that the ship seek shelter or else return to Sydney given the imminent risk to the valuable cargo of bloodstock. Paddle declined and resolved to face the storm. A couple of hours later, soon after passing Cape St. George, the gale had increased to a hurricane, and the seas had become huge and treacherous. Massive waves crashed on board the Melbourne, and one boat on the port side was carried clean away while the starboard side of the engine-room hatch was driven in and the wheel and binnacle destroyed. The ship was spinning, and a number of the horses had fallen as relieving steering tackle was fitted. The blinding rain and heavy seas prevented Captain Paddle for making Jervis Bay and he now belatedly resigned himself to attempting a return to Sydney.
In changing course, some of the fallen horses were washed onto the deck and drowned, including Nemesis who had won the recent Great Metropolitan Stakes at Randwick; the Derby colt, Sovereign; Burgundy, a one-time Melbourne Cup favourite; and The Poacher, a brother to Hurtle Fisher’s Melbourne Cup winner, Lantern. Robin Hood fell under the other horses, and this champion racehorse and brother to Goldsborough also drowned. In all, nine horses met their deaths, and six of them were the property of Charles Fisher. Only two managed to survive, thanks mainly to Morrison and Davis – and one was the gallant Chrysolite colt that had so bravely won the Derby. But it had been a close-run thing.
One of the passengers on the vessel was The Australasian’s racing correspondent, E. S. Chapman, returning from having covered the AJC Spring Meeting for his newspaper. It was his opinion that the ship should never have proceeded beyond Cape St George. In respect of the Chrysolite colt, he wrote: “…constant rubbing and plentiful doses of beer kept him alive, and Morrison’s face brightened up with joy when the danger was past – it was no easy matter to enter the Heads, and another quarter of an hour outside would have proved fatal. He was carried into a shed where a bale of hay was opened, and the colt reposed until late at night when he managed to get on his feet. In the morning when Morrison went down to take him to Kiss’s yard, he could not walk any distance and had to be removed in a van.”
Several times in the days immediately after his landing he had been expected to die. His tail was almost cut through, his off-hock was swollen to a tremendous size and his quarters presented the appearance of raw meat. Unnamed the colt might have been before his misadventure on the high seas, but his survival of the voyage immediately suggested the possibility of naming him Robinson Crusoe, and it was as such that Charles Fisher proceeded to register the son of Angler much to popular acclaim. There was a curious aftermath to the City of Melbourne disaster that came barely a month later. The Australasian newspaper in the edition of 14th October contained the following paragraph:
“It is proposed to present Captain Paddle and Mr Tait, the commander and chief officer of the City of Melbourne, with testimonials in the shape of a gold watch and chain each, as a mark of appreciation of the services rendered by them on the occasion when the Victorian racehorses were killed. The matter has been taken in hand by one of the leading bookmakers, and already a goodly sum has been subscribed.”
There have been few spring meetings in Melbourne with more drama and controversy than the year 1876. Apart from the shipping disaster of the City of Melbourne, in September the long-time reigning favourite for the Victoria Derby, Newminster, was found in agony in his stalls, the victim of a suspected nobbling attempt. The VRC committee subsequently investigated the incident and soon identified the culprits as a stable lad named Leary in the pay of a bookmaker named Zucker; both characters were eventually warned-off Flemington. Newminster’s Derby programme continued despite the setback, with newspaper reports of his trainer Francis Dakin sleeping in the horse’s stall with a loaded pistol. Although Dakin managed to get his charge to the post for the classic, Newminster raced lengths below his best form and could finish no nearer than sixth. The race was won by the filly sensation of the year, Briseis, who later in the same week brought off a unique treble by landing the Melbourne Cup and Oaks as well.
How remarkable it was to see such a triumvirate of top-class three-year-olds as Briseis, Newminster and Robinson Crusoe out in the same year. When that 1869 VRC Spring Meeting ended, there was much speculation as to whether either of the colts would ever fully recover from their near-death experiences, while the filly’s lack of size suggested she might have trouble carrying the weights with which she would be handicapped in future. As it turned out, Briseis never did win again after that memorable week and was retired to stud after her three-year-old season. No doubt James Wilson expected big things from his wonder filly, but he was to be disappointed. In 1879 she was booked to King of the Ring at the St Albans Stud, but while hobbled and ready to be mated, Briseis reared up and fell backwards dying of a fractured skull.
Newminster fared much better, although it took him a long time to recover from the nobbling. When he did so, he was placed in the hands of Thomas Wilson of Ballarat, Dakin having given up training for a time, and Wilson managed to win both a Caulfield Cup and a Geelong Cup with the horse before he was retired to stand at Werribee Park. Newminster never clicked with the mares there, and eventually, Andrew Chirnside leased him and some mares to John Crozier at St Albans, and when in turn W. R. Wilson became the proprietor of the famous stud, they were handed over to him. Standing at St Albans, Newminster completely rescued his reputation as a stallion siring a string of first-class horses, the best of which was undoubtedly Newhaven.
Robinson Crusoe, on the other hand, was to go on virtually unchecked and have a distinguished career on the Turf after his near-death experience, although he was a none-too-willing galloper at times and Morrison used fairly to open him with his spurs. But as his experience on the high seas demonstrated, he wasn’t one to shirk it when the going got tough. His comeback race was the A.J.C. St Leger at the 1877 Autumn Meeting and the grandstand enclosure at Randwick never held such a crowd as came to see. Never mind that there were only four starters. The grand little fellow was still bearing the marks of the bruising and cutting, and his saviour Morrison had reduced to ride the colt, with the stable supporting the pair with confidence. He won the race clearly from the V.R.C. St Leger winner, Adelaide.
Both Morrison and George Donnelly, who had trained the colt in de Mestre’s absence, each met with resounding cheers upon the horse’s return to the enclosure. It was to be a good meeting for Robinson Crusoe for he later won the A.J.C. Plate on the fourth day. Moreover, he trained on as a four-year-old and in the spring won both the Spring Stakes and Craven Plate at Randwick as well as the Melbourne Stakes at Flemington. But for being left at the post with Glenormiston, he might have troubled Chester and Savanaka in the Cup that year. Crusoe’s last race came a few weeks later on New Year’s Day in the Champion Stakes at the V.R.C. Midsummer Meeting when Chester and that other great three-year-old, First King, proved his masters at the weights.
Only the day before Robinson Crusoe’s last race, Charles Fisher had submitted the Maribyrnong Stud and his entire racing and breeding stock for auction. During his second, albeit brief term as the Squire of Maribyrnong, Fisher, unlike Petty before him, had conducted the Stud strictly as a private concern for his own pleasure, and the produce of Fireworks and The Marquis was never offered for public auction. Given this closed-shop mentality, it is interesting to note that at the time of this dispersal, not one of the animals he bred there during that second term had won a single race of importance. Nonetheless, in his hands, the property had been much improved and beautified: drainage and tree planting had been undertaken on a large scale with double fencing, and its acreage had assumed colossal proportions. Having disposed of his yearlings earlier in November for something over £13,000, the sale of Fisher’s breeding stock and racehorses in training realised over £50,000.
Chrysolite, the dam of Robinson Crusoe, with another foal at foot by Angler, was sold for 1750 guineas to Fitzwilliam Wentworth, who was one of the most active buyers on the day; he was also responsible for paying a sensational 2650 guineas for Sylvia and her Fireworks foal. As we shall see, Etienne de Mestre was the other prominent buyer. It was significant, however, that the only horse for which Fisher laid down a condition of sale was Robinson Crusoe; and it was that Fisher reserved the right of making just one bid for the four-year-old stallion. It came at 3000 guineas, and nobody at ringside felt disposed to advance upon it. Robinson Crusoe thus ran for the last time the following day, in Fisher’s colours for the Champion Stakes. The horse had already served a few mares the previous spring while in racing trim and thus proven his fertility.
Fisher leased him to de Mestre, initially for two years, and whatever the misadventures de Mestre experienced with his own stud, Robinson Crusoe turned out to be a successful stallion. He got Navigator and Solitude in his first year, and overnight Robinson Crusoe became all the rage. His fame at stud did not last, however, with Trident and Copra being the only other good horses he got at de Mestre’s Terrara Stud. Robinson Crusoe’s favourite mare was Cocoanut, and he was as successful with her as Abercorn was with her daughter, Copra. When the last of de Mestre’s stud was sold off in April 1887, John Crozier determined to give Crusoe his chance at St Albans, bought the rising fourteen-year-old for 875 guineas and there he remained until the lottery in 1895. Drawn by a New Zealander, Robinson Crusoe enjoyed two good seasons in the Hawke’s Bay district before he died in February 1898 at the ripe old age of twenty-five. For all of the success of those two famous brothers, Navigator and Trident, both of whom would win the AJC Derby, he is best remembered for his mares. St Hippo, Camoola, Coil, Cobbity, Cocos, Malvolio, Maluma, Ascotvale and a host of other good performers were all out of mares by Robinson Crusoe.
Thus, Charles Fisher ended his second and last reign as the Squire of Maribyrnong, and although this second term of three-and-a-half years was only slightly longer than his first, it was a period during which he embraced the Melbourne sporting scene with gusto. Although his brother Hurtle had been a founding member of the VRC and served on the original committee, it wasn’t until his second term at Maribyrnong that Charles Fisher actually joined the club. A short while later – in July 1876 – Charles was also elected to the newly formed VATC, around the same time that he was acting as the judge for the Melbourne Hunt Club.
Never one to do anything by half-measures, it was soon after returning to Maribyrnong that he became dissatisfied with the quality of the training grounds at Flemington – the tan was little more than a ditch and easily became waterlogged after rain or flooding from the river. Accordingly, in January 1876 Fisher took over the lease on the Williamstown racecourse from Philip Dowling and constructed a trainer’s cottage there for Joe Morrison as well as an extension to the number of horseboxes available. The sandy ground of Williamstown was less damaging to young horses’ legs, and the relative seclusion of the place allowed for track trials without the touts. Morrison transferred there with eighteen of Fisher’s gallopers as his private trainer, representing the bulk of Fisher’s string, although other horses remained in place with both de Mestre and William Filgate.
Charles Fisher, like his brother Hurtle, placed a high premium on trust and loyalty in the men he employed in his Turf adventures and it was a loyalty reciprocated in kind. It was no accident that first-class horsemen such as William Filgate, Joe Morrison and the Davis boys all enjoyed a prolonged tenure of employment, working at different times for both brothers and often moving seamlessly between the two. Moreover, in the inevitable disputes with officialdom that occurred in those palmy days, each of the brothers backed their horsemen to the hilt. Perhaps the most celebrated dispute concerned William Filgate, who first managed the Maribyrnong Stud for both Hurtle and Charles, and at times trained for both men. Filgate fell out with the A.J.C. over the club’s decision in January 1872 to unilaterally bring forward the date of their autumn fixture just a couple of months later. In invoking the change, the A.J.C. acted without consulting the subscribers to the Champagne and Sires’ Produce Stakes, which at the time entries were received were fixed for the last week of April.
Filgate along with a few other Victorian sporting men protested against this alteration, believing that the fixture now followed too closely on that of their own autumn meeting at Flemington. Hurtle Fisher, among others, signed the letter of protest but eventually paid his forfeits. On principle, Filgate refused to do so. The A.J.C. then proceeded to publish his name as a defaulter in the Town and Country Journal and Filgate, in turn, commenced an action for libel against the club. On coming before the Supreme Court of NSW, Filgate was non-suited by legal privilege. The rule then operating as regards privileged communication was that a man could speak or publish of another a statement (even if untrue) provided that he acts within the scope of his duty in making the statement or directing the publication. Nonetheless, Justice Cheeke, who heard the case, intimated that the conduct of the AJC was clearly illegal. I might add that at the 1873 Autumn Meeting Filgate tendered his money to run Lapidist in the Champagne Stakes; while the club took his cash, it refused to let him run.
Querulous and litigious, Filgate wasn’t a man to give up easily on a point of principle. Despite the technical finding against him in N.S.W., Filgate initiated action in the Victorian Supreme Court. The veteran trainer had already sought out the opinion of the Hon. Admiral Rous in England on the matter and publicly pledged to abide by his judgement. The fact that Rous supported Filgate’s interpretation of the A.J.C.’s actions only strengthened the latter’s resolve. Filgate, in turn, proposed to the A.J.C. committee that the whole matter should be left to the arbitration of the Jockey Club in England, a course of action that the committee refused to follow. The affair proved unsatisfactory and costly to both parties, dragging on until a face-saving compromise could be agreed a few years later, with only the lawyers profiting from the whole ordeal. The dispute is relevant to the racing fortunes of both Hurtle and Charles Fisher, for, during the protracted period in which the A.J.C. refused to accept Filgate’s nominations, horses owned by the brothers were at various times withdrawn from their Randwick engagements.
William Filgate’s other celebrated clash with racing authority came in the mid-1870s when he led the opposition to Captain Standish’s attempts to limit the extent of two-year-old racing, barring juveniles in races beyond a mile or contesting any handicap open to older horses. Standish managed to get his motion up, but only for one year with Filgate winning the debate at the very next annual general meeting. At the time many believed Standish’s action was directed specifically at Hurtle and Charles Fisher, both of whom were then winning a number of quality handicaps with their well-bred Maribyrnong juveniles. Charles Fisher was prepared to back his jockeys in the same way he supported Filgate when it came to clashes with officialdom. Perhaps the best example here was when his crack lightweight jockey, Davis, was ousted for jostling in the 1866 Ballarat Cup. Davis got 12 months from the VRC, who were determined to support the Ballarat stewards without ever seriously investigating the case. It was an absurdly severe sentence, and in the end, the Ballarat Turf Club remitted part of it, but not before Charles Fisher, and the Maribyrnong stable exercised a boycott on the Ballarat meetings.
Such, then, were some of the incidents that coloured the life and times of the Maribyrnong Stud under the Fisher brothers, the passing of which came with the sale of Charles’s stock in December 1877, and later the sale of the estate itself. It was hoped that Maribyrnong might survive as a thoroughbred nursery, but in July 1884 a syndicate of land speculators stepped in and purchased the whole of the property with the intention of establishing a township, and by 1886 many of the stud’s paddocks were being cut up into building allotments. In a column written for The Australasian in May 1890 E. S. Chapman, reflected upon those idyllic, providential days when the paddocks there seemed more like Elysian fields, “where one could generally depend upon a good day’s sport either with the rod or gun, or a brace of greyhounds. Bream were plentiful, and so were quail, and horses were to be found in any of the paddocks from the V.R.C. racecourse to Maribyrnong. How the place has changed. The Stud was dispersed some years ago and the quail and the hares have gone but the bream remain”. Alas, it wasn’t to be long before even the bream were gone too.
Robinson Crusoe might have been the last high-class horse to carry Charles Fisher’s ‘white, blue spots’ and Maribyrnong might have been lost to racing, but Charles himself continued to play a prominent role on the Victorian Turf for a few more years. For it was upon the death of Captain Standish in 1882, that he succeeded as Chairman of the Victoria Racing Club, a position he continued to hold for more than twelve years. Upon his accession to the chairmanship, it was Fisher’s good fortune to inherit H. Byron Moore as the Secretary of the club, the man who was responsible for implementing a bold vision of development for the Flemington racecourse. This development notwithstanding, the V.R.C. committee under Fisher made some poor decisions in the late eighties on their wider brief of guiding horseracing in Victoria as a whole. John Pacini in his book ‘A Century Galloped By’, an official history of the V.R.C. in its first hundred years, observes: “Having assumed control of racing throughout the colony, the Committee simply proved it was not equal to the task. It led the industry into near chaos.”
During Fisher’s reign, proprietary courses seemed to burgeon in every hamlet and the club declined to conduct effective supervision as all sorts of chicanery from ring-ins to rigged races thrived throughout Victoria. I might mention that it was Charles Fisher, along with the likes of A.K. Finlay, Captain Standish and William Pearson, who played a critical part in founding the Victorian Club. It was instituted upon the demise of Tattersalls Club in 1881 and it was contemplated the club would fill the same position in Victoria as the Newmarket subscription rooms in England. The founders aimed at a club that would first serve as a sporting rendezvous and social club ahead of what ultimately became its most important role, a club for the settlement of betting disputes down through the years.
The unprecedented and unregulated burgeoning of gambling in the late eighties as Australia expanded pell-mell was greed writ large, and in a manner matched the personal conduct of Charles Fisher during the same years. Fisher held down the position of VRC Chairman while at the same time he continued his life’s obsession to become the wealthiest pastoralist in the land. When Fisher first established himself in Victoria in 1866 he sold most of his properties in South Australia and proceeded to plough the money back into Yanga Station near Balranald, Gunbower near Echuca, and Thurulgoona on the Warrego River. Just as South Australia wasn’t big enough to accommodate Fisher’s ambition, nor was Victoria, and by 1868 he was snapping up leases in Queensland.
Less than a decade later he had sixteen runs in the northern colony but lost them all when the Supreme Court there ruled that his claim to residency was fraudulent. Fisher’s appeal to the Privy Council was rejected but undaunted he proceeded to concentrate his energies on pastoral pursuits in the Northern Territory. Forming a partnership with J. S. Lyon, ‘CB’ took over Victoria River Downs among other sprawling leases, stocking them with more than 30,000 head of cattle over landed from South Queensland. By 1887 the two men controlled some 34,000 square miles, which they continued to stock and improve by lavish expenditure.
The partnership overreached itself – perhaps inevitably given the characters of the men involved – and when the slump came in the guise of plummeting prices and six bad seasons of drought, C.B. Fisher was forced into a humiliating bankruptcy. He never recovered. Distracted by his crumbling empire and the howls of anguished bankers and creditors baying for blood, Charles Fisher resigned his chairmanship of the V.R.C. during the Autumn Meeting of 1895 before the public knew the full extent of his disgrace. Septimus Miller was his own choice to succeed to the chairmanship of the club, a choice subsequently endorsed by the full committee. Fisher’s liabilities totalled almost £1,500,000 against assets of little more than half that amount. His roaring days on the Turf were over and he passed over his famous colours ‘white, blue spots’ to Samuel Hordern.
Destitute, Fisher remained in Melbourne for a time and some friends took up a charitable subscription on his behalf in November 1896. For a few more years he continued to visit Flemington, travelling in by tram from St Kilda, a dapper, white-haired man in brown tweeds. However, it was a difficult transition following his bankruptcy. After all, a prince accustomed to the luxuries of court and fawning sycophants, finds it hard to re-cast himself into the role of the supplicant when circumstances change. Better, then, not to attend court at all. In time Charles Fisher moved to Adelaide where his brother-in-law, Sir John Morphett, persuaded him to come and share his home. Charles Fisher’s colourful and turbulent life came to an end in his ninetieth year at Glenelg on May 6, 1908. Survived by his only son, Fisher’s estate was valued at just £1,600. James, the eldest and sole surviving brother of the Fisher clan whose bloodstock buying adventures had done so much to elevate the quality of the Australian thoroughbred, lived on for another five years after Charles’s death, dying in England in December 1913 at the age of 97.
Charles Brown Fisher’s name continued to resonate in Australian racing for many years following his death. In the same year that Fisher resigned the chairmanship of the Victoria Racing Club, the club recognised his services by changing the name of the weight-for-age Canterbury Plate to the C.B. Fisher Plate, at the same time reducing the distance to twelve furlongs. The race was traditionally run on the last Saturday of the Spring Meeting but even this link with a romantic past was snapped in 1979 when the name of the race changed again, this time to become the Queen Elizabeth Stakes.