On the road towards Oberon, not far from Kelso in the Bathurst district of NSW, there once stood a single-storey brick homestead built in 1872 that was an integral part of Australia’s Turf heritage. Not that any pioneering spirit from that bygone era would necessarily have recognised it years later – had they returned from the dead. The homestead in question, Leeholme, changed much over the years – most noticeably in the 1920’s when an original second storey was removed – and, in truth, with it went much of the languid charm of the place. But by then, of course, the original owners had long departed, and the property’s once redolent association with the Turf had almost been extinguished. But let it not be forgotten that it was here at Leeholme that the famous George Lee bred Nellie, the Derby heroine of 1879 from his wonderful broodmare, Sappho, and thereby guaranteed the continuation of perhaps the greatest bloodline in the history of the Australian Stud Book. Nellie was to be the second of Sappho’s foals to win the A.J.C. Derby following upon the victory of her half-brother Kingsborough, whom George Lee had bred five years earlier. Kingsborough had carried the colours of the Governor of NSW in the Derby; Nellie would do so in the livery of Edward Lee, a brother of her breeder.
Born in December 1834 at Claremont, a station near Kelso, George Lee was the sixth son of William Lee and his wife Mary, one of the original pioneers in the Bathurst district who had been given land grants by Governor Macquarie. We have already met his brothers John and Thomas Lee in earlier chapters as the successful breeders of The Barb, The Duke, Javelin and Woodlands – all winners of the A.J.C. Derby. There are instances in the early days of the Australian Stud Book when the attribution of the breeder is not altogether clear-cut – particularly in a family enterprise such as the Lees – and there is a case to be made for George being given partial credit for at least one of those earlier breeding successes.
The fog of history notwithstanding, their list of winners is a measure of the influence that this one family had on N.S.W. bloodstock in the second half of the nineteenth century. But in the fullness of time, it would become clear that George’s achievements outshone them all, thanks to just one taproot broodmare. Educated locally and at Sydney College, George Lee in his youth managed stations on behalf of his father; and it was upon the latter’s death in 1870, that George inherited the land at Kelso where two years later he built the grand mansion of Leeholme. The property was to win fame for its merino sheep and shorthorn cattle as well as its racehorses, but it is only the latter that concerns us here. The land wasn’t the only treasured gift George received from his father, and perhaps the most valued present of all came in the shape of a mare named Sappho.
Has there ever been a gold-bearing lode struck in the Australian goldfields more valuable than the blood of Sappho? Hang on to your hat for just a few sentences while I recount how this remarkable mare came into being, for the explanation will serve as a foundation to quite a few pedigrees of Derby winners contained within these pages. There are two mares named Sappho linked to the Lee family – a mother and daughter – and the practice of repeating favourite names in subsequent generations of the same pedigree was not altogether an unusual practice in the nineteenth century. Sappho the elder, if I may use that expression, was bred by William Lee in 1847 from a mating of a daughter of Zohrab to a stallion he owned named Marquis. Marquis, in turn, was a son of Dover, bred by the Scotts of Glendon, and descended from a mare bred at Camden Park by the Macarthur family. This is all we know of Sappho’s breeding. However, it is conjectured that her maternal granddam was an Arab and probably from Camden Park.
It was said that the older Sappho, a grey, was presented to George Lee by his father and that as a lad he rode the mare to school. It is also rumoured that bushrangers stole her on at least three occasions only to be recovered each time – a grey was just a bit too conspicuous in the Australian bush in those days for a man running from the law. Be that as it may, it was from this original Sappho that young George began to breed racehorses when only a youth. George Lee was approaching his twenty-seventh birthday when he mated Sappho, the elder, with Sir Hercules, a stallion that he owned for a time with his brother, John. The resultant filly foal was a grey like her mother, a resemblance that was celebrated by George giving her the very same name. Even before Nellie came along, this younger Sappho had already bred three cracking colts in Lecturer, Kingsborough and Savanaka – all by the stallion Kingston. If racing men were willing to give an undue share of the credit for that impressive trio to Kingston, they had cause for pausing in judgement when the younger Sappho in the following seasons proceeded to get the likes of Nellie, Spinningdale and Phaon from three different lovers.
In Nellie’s case, the sire was none other than William Brown’s Tim Whiffler standing at the Wonga Stud in Victoria, a horse bred in England in 1859 and already the sire of two Melbourne Cup winners in Darriwell and the champion filly, Briseis. Tim Whiffler had been out in the same season as The Marquis in England but had proven somewhat inferior on the Turf. He stood in the old country with limited success before being sent out to serve in the colonies. Now the younger Sappho was a grey given to throwing greys but curiously enough her two Derby winners, Kingsborough and Nellie, were bay and brown respectively. Although George Lee had raced Lecturer in his short, unbeaten career, he sold most of Sappho’s progeny, including even Lecturer after his two-year-old season. As a non-smoking, tee-totalling Anglican, with an abhorrence of bad language, the gambling side of racing held no appeal for George, although the breeding side was a different matter.
Being a filly, Nellie was too valuable a prospect for continuing a remarkable bloodline to contemplate ever selling, and so George, in a generous moment, leased her for racing to his brother Edward, already an A.J.C. committeeman and the more prominent sportsman. Edward, like George, had been born at the family home in Kelso, and as a young man had graduated from Sydney University with the degrees of B.A. and M.A. After reading for the bar and being admitted in 1861, he had practised on the Southern and Western circuits before being made a Crown Prosecutor. He loved sport perhaps more than any member of Lee family and had been a first-class sprinter in his youth; in later years he was a patron of boxing, sculling and coursing, and for a time was president of the New South Wales Coursing Club and the Sydney Turf Club.
Before the coming of Nellie, Edward had already seen his colours carried successfully on the likes of Bylong (1866 AJC Metropolitan), Coquette (1868 A.J.C. Sires Produce Stakes and 1869 A.J.C. St Leger) and Barbelle (1872 A.J.C. Champagne Stakes). While Edward Lee was a regular identity at the Royal Hotel in Sydney and had enjoyed most of his Turf success at Randwick, his ponies and phaeton were just as well-known at Scott’s Hotel and Flemington Racecourse in Victoria. The carriage of Nellie he entrusted to Randwick trainer Tom Lamond, the man who had trained Kingsborough with such conspicuous success.
A peculiar brown with a white star on her forehead and two white hind feet, Nellie as a spring two-year-old only stood 15.1 hands, and while not possessing any great amount of bone, her legs were ready to stand any amount of work. As befitted her pedigree, Nellie showed Lamond precocious speed in her early private trials, although she could only manage third on debut in the Sapling Stakes (3f) at the Tattersall’s Club Meeting at Randwick in the middle of August. It was rather early in the season for any juvenile to be seen out in public, let alone one with Derby pretensions. Nonetheless, the scamper was enough both to educate the filly as to the business of racing; and at the same time qualify the public’s expectations of her on the basis of pedigree.
It explains why, when Lamond took her to Melbourne for her next assignment in the rich Maribyrnong Plate, the Flemington bookmakers bet as much as 15/1 about her. Lamond was no stranger to success in the prestige event having won with Habena on behalf of the Governor of N.S.W. a couple of years earlier. Even Edward Lee made the journey to Melbourne, and the stable landed a good stake when Nellie claimed the prize by a half-length from The Baroness, with James White’s Gainsborough in third place. The performance was better than the margin suggested, as Nellie suffered an erratic passage in the field of twenty-nine, which saw her almost stop inside the distance when the crowd shouted.
It is easy to forget just what a valuable prize the Maribyrnong Plate was in those very early years after its inception. Let me just say by way of emphasis that, whereas Edward Lee received £1,885 from the Victoria Racing Club for Nellie’s victory, Etienne De Mestre, as the breeder, owner and trainer, only pocketed £1,790 for winning the Melbourne Cup with Calamia three days later. The Victorians were none too pleased with that sort of money departing their colony, particularly when the A.J.C. offered nothing like the added money of the V.R.C. in supplementing owners’ sweepstakes. Moreover, all three place-getters in the juvenile race hailed from across the Murray. Nellie’s victory further enhanced Sappho’s growing reputation as a broodmare that now saw her surpass even Young Gulnare in the opinion of many.
At the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting Nellie ran in both the Champagne Stakes and the Sires’ Produce Stakes. Perhaps she was above herself in condition when she got lost in the shorter Champagne Stakes won by the George Donnelly-trained Baronet, but the gallop roused her. In the Sires’ Produce just a few days later she was magnificent, and Bricky Colley a worthy partner, when the pair just nudged out Chesterfield in the closest of finishes. In any ordinary season, one would assume that winning both a Maribyrnong Plate and the Randwick Sires’ Produce Stakes would guarantee the accolade of leading juvenile, but that 1878-79 racing season wasn’t ordinary. Unlike the previous season, the talent amongst the youngsters seemed relatively widely dispersed. Victoria also boasted a high-class juvenile filly in Petrea, a full sister to First King, and like him trained out of the St Albans estate.
Petrea had been surprisingly beaten by a stablemate on debut at the Geelong Race Club’s Summer Meeting but had then upheld the honour of the family name at the Flemington Autumn Meeting in taking both the Ascot Vale and Sires’ Produce Stakes in a hollow fashion. Many had keenly anticipated her clash with Nellie in the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Randwick, but an error in nomination caused her to be struck from the list of entries. She was eligible for the Champagne Stakes but, as with Nellie, the five-furlong scamper proved too short, and she ran unplaced. Later at the meeting, however, Petrea did win the Maiden Plate with a 10lb penalty beating Le Loup among others. Petrea was one of a very strong team of juveniles coming out of St Albans that year which included Avernus (winner of the A.J.C. All-Aged Stakes), South Hamilton, His Grace, Caspian and Athena. Nonetheless, when the weights were declared for the Melbourne Cup in late June, while the colts, Avernus and Baronet, headed the three-year-olds with 7 st. 1lb, the two fillies, Nellie and Petrea, were only one pound below them.
I might mention that a feature of the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting in 1879 was the operation of Mr Franck’s Totalisator, the first time that such an instrument of gaming was utilised at a major fixture in Australia. Rather unsurprisingly, its introduction gave great offence to the bookmaking fraternity, which as a group, was later instrumental in having its proprietor prosecuted. The NSW Attorney-General, however, refused to file a bill against the gentleman and the ongoing struggle of Ring Vs Machine for public sympathy that was to last the best part of forty years had begun!
The Australasian left no doubt where its sympathies lay with a blistering editorial squarely aimed at the morals of the ring: “We have no hesitation in stating that the betting ring as at present constituted here is the curse of any sport with which it is associated. It has degraded the turf until it has become a sport with which few gentlemen now care to be mixed up, and in which the sole aim and end is to win money…The betting ring, by which racing is maintained, is comprised both here and in Great Britain, in the main, of what may be termed the scum of society.” Scum or not, the doubts as to whether the St Albans stable would even be represented at the Randwick Spring Meeting caused Nellie to head the Derby markets throughout winter.
It was a state of affairs that remained unchanged until after the Hawkesbury Race Club had conducted their two-day spring fixture. At that meeting, Falmouth, an angular son of Maribyrnong trained by former leading jockey George Donnelly, won the Maiden Plate over the Derby distance on the first day and followed it up on the second with a comfortable win in the Hawkesbury Guineas. Bred by Andrew Town at Hobartville and sold to Donnelly as a yearling for just under £200, Falmouth had appeared four times the previous season, finishing just behind the place-getters in the Breeders’ Plate and Sires’ Produce Stakes at the Randwick Autumn Meeting before winning twice at Newcastle. He had improved markedly during the winter, and he now challenged Nellie at the top of the Derby markets. So confident was Donnelly about his chances that he scratched Baronet from the race to save that colt for the Craven Plate to be run later at the meeting.
There was a significant absence among the distinguished personnel at Randwick on Derby Day. Sir Edward Deas Thomson, the inaugural president (later called chairman) of the Australian Jockey Club and such a moving spirit at the club’s very foundation and indeed, that of Randwick racecourse itself, had died just seven weeks before. Thomson’s presidency had lasted fully twenty years – no other chairman in the history of the club ever exceeded his tenure – and the period had seen the club progress significantly under his leadership. The great American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson once famously observed that “an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man” and it was certainly true of the Australian Jockey Club and Deas Thomson.
While his mental acuity remained strong almost to the end, his physical stamina markedly weakened. Indeed, the 79-year-old had been ill for some time, and his death was not unexpected. Visitors to Randwick well remembered the venerable Deas Thomson, a tall, erect figure invariably dressed in a black frockcoat and top hat – formal, exacting and proper in every detail of behaviour. Thus, fastidiously elegant but decidedly old-fashioned, he was often to be seen on the stand chatting to his friends when the sport was the subject; or accompanying the secretary, walking-stick in hand, on a tour of inspection when the improvements were taking place at Randwick – as so often they were during his tenure. Deas Thomson’s gentle and benign countenance peers out of those later studio portraits preserved from Freeman and Company in the State Library of NSW. Mutton-chop whiskers and Victorian paterfamilias notwithstanding, Deas Thomson was no tyrant of the colonial Turf.
A legacy of Deas Thomson’s dominant life still lingers on in Sydney in the shape of Barham, the grand villa built in the Colonial Georgian style for him back in 1833 to a design by the architect John Verge. Deas Thomson had originally been granted over six acres on the Darlinghurst estate in 1831 by the then Governor, Sir Ralph Darling. It was at Barham where Deas Thomson and his wife, Anna-Maria, reared their seven children and where they remained for 40 years until Sir Edward’s death in July 1879. It was from Barham that the long and distinguished funeral cortege of Deas Thomson left shortly after 3 pm on Friday, July 18, 1879, for his burial in the family vault at St Jude’s Church of England, Randwick. Barham itself survived while most of the other historical Darlinghurst villas were demolished, thanks largely to the fact that it was acquired by the Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School in 1900 and it has formed part of that school ever since.
Deas Thomson was succeeded as chairman by 41-year-old Frederick Griffiths, a long-time director of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company and a man prominent in Sydney’s commercial circles who had first joined the A.J.C. committee in 1873. Griffiths had been born in England but came to Australia while still a young child soon after his father, George, was appointed inspector or superintendent of the Bank of Australasia. George Griffiths resigned from the bank in 1842 and went on to establish other enterprises including the merchant and commission agency firm of Griffiths, Fanning and Company. These activities prospered, and in 1847 he was able to buy the impressive villa, Clarens, at Darlinghurst or what is now Potts Point.
Accordingly, young Frederick, the future chairman of the Australian Jockey Club, was reared amidst privilege and splendour in one of Sydney’s most distinguished residences. It is a residence now remembered perhaps most for the fact that it was in its gardens that the soon to be famous Thomas Huxley – visiting Sydney aboard the Rattlesnake at the time – first became engaged to Henrietta Heathorn, whom he later married. I might mention that neither of the first two chairmen of the A.J.C. ever actively raced horses on any scale; rather it was the old networks of patronage and class, and the prestige of their names and positions, that were of most benefit to the club during those formative years.
The 1879 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions appear in the table below:
When Derby Day arrived in 1879, just seven numbers were hoisted on the board for the blue riband, with Falmouth as the public elect. Disquieting rumours to the effect that Nellie was off her feed, and had missed important track gallops, saw the filly’s price recede in the days leading up to the race. Gainsborough, sharing the third line of betting, was James White’s only representative in the race. A grandly bred colt sired by Yattendon, he was built upon the same generous lines as Chester, although decidedly inferior on disclosed ability.
His Grace was the only candidate out of the bevvy of juvenile talent the St Albans’ stable had boasted the previous season. Charles Fisher had bred this full brother to the previous year’s Derby winner, His Lordship, although His Grace hardly resembled him at all, being a bright bay standing upon shorter legs and altogether rounder and stronger. His Grace had only started once the previous season – in the Sires’ Produce Stakes at the Geelong Racing Club’s Summer Meeting. On that occasion he caused something of an upset by narrowly defeating his more fancied stablemate, Petrea, however, the result may have been different had Yeomans not snapped one of his leathers, which caused the colt to roll onto the filly twice in the run home.
There was a curious explanation for the failure of His Grace to appear in public any more that season. When galloping one morning at St Albans, a cow got onto the track and the colt, unfortunately, fell over her, sustaining injuries that required a lengthy spell. James Wilson refused to travel over to Sydney for the spring meeting, and the owner of His Grace had transferred the horse to ‘Billy’ Yeomans. The crack Victorian horseman was bringing a small team over by steamship on his own behalf, and he not only prepared His Grace for his Derby assignment but partnered him in the race as well. Chesterfield carried the banner for Terrara, and although possessed of a brilliant turn of speed, many believed that this son of The Marquis would not stay the course.
Sour weather in the week before Derby Day led to some speculation of postponement, but sunshine broke through on Friday to ensure a racing surface that was no worse than dead. Among the seven thousand in attendance was the new Governor of N.S.W., Lord Loftus. After one slight breakaway, Mr Prince despatched the field to a capital start, although no jockey was anxious to lead. The field crawled for the first half-mile with Gainsborough pulling double at the head of proceedings. It was a state of affairs that didn’t satisfy Pigott on Falmouth, who dashed the favourite to the front just after passing Cutts’. At the six-furlong post, Falmouth had established a six lengths’ advantage before being given a bit of a breather at the top of the hill only to draw away again. Meanwhile, Colley was content to ride Nellie quietly back in third place until the entrance to the straight and then have the last shot at the favourite. Falmouth looked home until the distance when Colley got to work on the filly, and he managed to land the daughter of Sappho the winner with a neck to spare. It was left to His Grace to come with a late rush on the line to dead-heat with Falmouth for runner-up. The time for the race was somewhat ordinary as a result of the slow early pace and the dead ground.
Thus, for the second time in the history of the race, the Derby narrowly eluded George Donnelly, the hapless partner of Chester in 1877, though this time it was in the guise of the trainer. Some pressmen were critical of his decision to strike out Baronet for the race to reserve him for the Craven Plate later at the meeting. Apart from his own chance in the field, his front-running style would have saved Falmouth the trouble of cutting out so much of the work himself so far from home. Donnelly’s critics were given ammunition when Baronet came out later at the meeting and beat both Falmouth and Chester at weight-for-age in a Craven Plate run in the blinding rain, and then backed up two days later and proved his stamina by taking out the three-mile weight-for-age Randwick Plate as well. Nellie, on the other hand, could manage only third when saddled up for the Mares’ Produce Stakes won by His Grace later at the fixture after a fairly strong gallop. The excuse provided on that occasion was that whereas she wore plates, His Grace raced barefoot on the rain-affected ground.
The A.J.C. Derby was the last time that Nellie won on the racecourse. Taken to Melbourne for the Victoria Derby she was unsighted as the second favourite, eventually running last in the race won by the Ballarat-trained Suwarrow. There was a particularly controversial lead-up to that Victoria Derby, and I don’t think the betting public had ever endured a worse result on the race. St Albans had three winter favourites for the event in Petrea, South Hamilton and Avernus. In the end, the scratching pen went through the names of all three, and Caspian, from the same stable, was sent out as the favourite only to finish down the course. The withdrawal of Petrea from that Derby amidst rumours that all was not well with the filly, only for her to appear a few days later in the Oaks and effortlessly dispose of Nellie and her other rivals in record time, left much bitterness. Nellie’s long-awaited clash with Petrea over the classic distance was something of an anti-climax – Nellie could only manage third, almost four lengths behind the winner – in the light of recriminations against the St Albans stable and their earlier manipulation of the Derby market.
The public reputation of Sir William Clarke, the absentee owner of Petrea, was somewhat impugned together with that of James Wilson by an extravagant press campaign about the running of Petrea and certain other horses in the classic races that season. Wilson ultimately brought an action against the proprietors of The Age and Leader newspapers for libel. The fallout was such that Clarke stopped racing horses for a time and leased Petrea to William Long. At the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting the following year, Petrea, whose final preparation was overseen by James Wilson junior, proved beyond all doubt that she was the true champion staying-filly of her year and easily had Nellie’s measure. Though still trained at St Albans, in Long’s colours she comfortably accounted for Nellie in the St. Leger at Randwick, before taking out the Sydney Cup in which Nellie ran unplaced carrying 8lb less than her erstwhile rival. Petrea won the weight-for-age Cumberland Stakes as well and only lost the A.J.C. Plate through a stumble. Her star eclipsed, the daughter of Sappho only appeared briefly on the racecourse in her four-year-old season before being whisked off to the Leeholme Stud. If Petrea had proven her superior on the Turf, time would prove that the breeding paddock was Nellie’s true calling.
George Lee never kept stallions at Leeholme, and he attributed much of his success to this firm policy of not doing so. It was a policy at variance with most successful breeders at the time. But by not having a resident stallion at Leeholme his judgement was not prejudiced, and he was free to select mates for his mares from the best available sires in Australia. His sound judgement in such matters, albeit with the odd miscalculation, is starkly demonstrated in the stud career of Nellie. Lee mated her with First King in her first two seasons, but neither of the two colts she produced to him created a splash. Maribyrnong was next tried twice as her lover, but the results again were disappointing.
George Lee was beginning to get anxious, particularly after Sappho’s death at the age of 22 in August 1884, for he had placed great faith in Nellie continuing the line. Lee’s luck with Nellie began to change when she was mated with Epigram, a son of Blair Athol imported from England. In 1887 Nellie dropped a brown filly to the English stallion that was subsequently registered as Wilga, and, bought and raced by Donald Wallace, she proved inferior only to the great Titan as a juvenile. She ran second to the champion in the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Randwick and even managed to beat him in the Champagne Stakes. At stud Wilga was equally successful, getting among others, Belah, the A.J.C. Derby hero of 1903. Nellie’s following mating with Epigram produced another filly in Yarran, and she won the Maribyrnong Plate of her year.
It was Nellie’s next mating, however, that was to prove one of the greatest blessings in Australian bloodstock breeding. Trenton was then standing a season at Hobartville, and in an inspired hour, George Lee decided to send his prize broodmare to the great son of Musket. The desirable result was Etra Weenie, whom Lee leased to Herbert Power for racing and she proved the best filly of her year, a brilliant winner of the Maribyrnong Plate at two, and the Oaks at three. At stud, Etra Weenie proved a veritable fountainhead in supplying an almost endless flow of high-class racehorses. She produced eight colts and fillies to six different stallions that either won major races on the Australasian Turf or at least got sons and daughters that did, and some – such as Diffidence, Merriwee and Wigelmar – managed to do both.
Just sit back and marvel at Etra Weenie’s extraordinary influence down the ages as we trace the course of future Derbies though the pages of this chronicle. Subsequently, Mr W. R. Wilson purchased Trenton for St Albans and took him to Victoria, and George Lee had to cast about for another match for Nellie. Who can say just what evil influence induced him to patronise Trident for four successive seasons? However great Trident was as a racehorse, he was an absolute disgrace as a stallion. It was a mesalliance that cost Lee dearly. Not one of the three fillies that resulted from the matings viz. Athata, Lady Helena nor Kangulandai ever achieved anything on or off the racecourse, and the same was true of the only colt, Currawang. By the time George Lee came to recognise his mistake, four seasons had been wasted, and it was too late; he transferred Nellie back to Trenton for one last tryst in the year before she died, but it was to no avail.
George Lee did eventually succeed in breeding another winner of the Derby although it never came until 1913 in the shape of Beragoon – fully thirty-four years after Nellie’s triumph. What was entirely fitting, though, was that when it finally happened, it was with a great-grandson of the famous filly. Alas, George Lee didn’t live to see the victory; he had died twenty-one months earlier in January 1912 at the age of seventy-seven, the grand old man of New South Wales bloodstock breeders. Curiously enough, George, like his brother Edward in 1888, died while still serving on the committee of the Australian Jockey Club. For all of the useful committee work the two brothers did during some critical years in the development of both the club and the Randwick track, today they are remembered most of all for the deeds, both on and off the racecourse, of just one, quite remarkable filly.