Overlooking Camden, on the banks of the Nepean River about thirty miles south-west of Sydney, there stands a historic mansion, now known as Camelot. It is a large, two-storey, brick homestead, built around 1887 to a design by Australia’s leading architect of the day, John Horbury Hunt, which was described at the time as ‘a French-inspired fairy castle’. It is a place of haunting charm, casting a spell upon any visitor with its romantic silhouette of jumbled turrets and chimney stacks, its piles of glorious gables and projecting bays, all set off by the grandness of an elegantly arched verandah. The very name itself, Camelot, conjures up splendid visions of Arthurian legend: of swirling mists, as, trumpets sounding, colours are unfurled, and gallant men and steeds joust in stirring battle. Nor are such beguiling imaginings entirely one’s fancy. For this is a place with just such a history if one accepts that thoroughbred racing is at once both a battle of sorts and a colourful, dramatic pageant. The innocent visitor who stumbles upon the scene might not realise it, but this historic homestead and its surrounding paddocks once promised to become the greatest thoroughbred nursery in the Australian colonies.
In its previous life, and indeed for most of its existence, the place had been known as Kirkham and its first proprietor none other than the Honourable James White. The lands of Kirkham had originally been given to the Surveyor-General of Lands, John Oxley, who had been born in Kirkham Abbey near Westow in Yorkshire and had named the property after his Yorkshire origins. Oxley himself had been a member of the original Sydney Turf Club, which was formed around 1825. White acquired the property in the mid-1870s and the mighty Chester, White’s Melbourne Cup winner, became the foundation stallion at the stud. Parlaying some of his Melbourne Cup winnings, White spent vast sums of money in acquiring quality imported and colonial mares and proceeded on a programme of massive improvements. He commissioned a neat two-storey brick cottage to be built for the stud manager and refurbished the old Kirkham stables built in 1816 for Oxley, which with the old mill was all that remained of the original country estate. An extensive orchard was also laid out.
When White purchased Kirkham, he acquired at the same time a loyal stud groom by the name of Henry Bellingham, who had worked on the property for nearly thirty years. The Bellingham name would come before the Australian racing public in one form or another at various times during the next hundred years but let it be remembered that it was in the service of the Hon. James White that the name first came to notice. White brought mares from his properties on the Hunter to start the Kirkham Stud’s broodmare collection while the first stallion that Bellingham’s new patron gave into his charge was Martindale, a son of Maribyrnong with whom White had won the 1878 AJC Autumn Stakes among other races. Martindale failed as a stallion, but perhaps the fault wasn’t entirely in his loins. When White decided to anoint Chester as the next King of Kirkham, he did his best to guarantee a glorious reign by paying a king’s ransom for a harem of aristocratic broodmares in England especially to mate him. Princess Maud, Moonstone, Episode, Lily Hawthorn, Trafalgar, The Solent, Rusk, Lady Vivian, La Princess, Phillius and Malacca all came out to take up their duties at the stud in 1881-82 and do fealty to their lord and master. Except for Lady Hawthorn, every one of these mares gave the stud winners.
However, not all of Kirkham’s successful broodmares were of English blood. Among White’s yearling purchases back in 1879 had been a brown filly from Goldsbrough’s first crop out of Brown Duchess, a mare bred by John Tait. White was particularly attracted to her because she was a granddaughter through her dam of the imported Clove, dam of the 1865 AJC Derby winner of the same name and an important taproot mare in the Australian Stud Book. Of course, at the time White purchased this yearling filly the value of Goldsbrough as a sire, let alone a sire of broodmares lay in the future. Registered as Cinnamon, she only sported silk during her juvenile season. Although in half a dozen appearances she failed to win a race, she did finish just behind the place-getters in the Maribyrnong Plate won by her stablemate, Palmyra, and later at that same V.R.C. meeting was runner-up in the Flying Stakes 6f) at weight-for-age. The following spring Cinnamon was handed over to Henry Bellingham and put to Chester. In 1882 she missed and in 1883 was delivered of a dead foal, but in 1884 she threw a chestnut colt to Chester that was destined to make the Australian Turf reverberate. Registered as Abercorn, he would win 20 ½ races and £18,858 in stakes during a sensational four seasons he was on the Turf.
In the closing months of 1886, Michael Fennelly’s health began to deteriorate quickly, the beginning of cancer that was to claim his life. In a desperate bid for salvation, Fennelly travelled to Melbourne in 1887 to consult the famous Dr T. N. Fitzgerald, but his condition had so degenerated that Fitzgerald refused to operate and the distraught Fennelly returned to Sydney to die in August 1887. He was just 47 years of age. The genial Irishman’s training career might have been tragically cut short at an age when most men are in the prime of their life, but in the ten years Fennelly trained for White his record was outstanding. Fennelly’s estate was valued for probate at £12,318 and included the famous Newmarket property, which James White promptly purchased from the trustees for £8,000. Not the least of the services that Fennelly rendered to his esteemed patron during his short life was the grooming of his successor. For it was during the extended period of Fennelly’s illness that his headman, Thomas Payten, began to assume greater responsibility, although he would not be formally appointed trainer to James White until after Fennelly’s death, and would not take up residence in Newmarket House until the following year.
Payten was already a gifted horseman before he joined Fennelly’s employ, but he learned so much more from the old master. Born on his father’s farm at Menangle in the Camden district of NSW on 5th April 1855, Tom Payten was the second of twelve children to parents who had emigrated from Ireland. He spent his formative years working on the family farm and at the age of twenty-one came to Sydney and got a job at Michael Fennelly’s Horse Bazaar in Pitt-street. The older man was much taken by the lad’s abilities, and when Fennelly accepted the appointment as James White’s private trainer, Payten went with him to act as foreman of the Newmarket Stables. While Fennelly lived in Newmarket House, Payten took lodgings at Morpeth Villa in nearby Avoca St.
It was to be a fruitful collaboration. If the older Fennelly had proved to be something of a magician with his feats on the Turf, then the younger Payten was unquestionably the sorcerer’s apprentice and his rather striking figure, long and thin, with its relaxed, half-languorous walking motion and slightly stooped shoulders became a staple on the Randwick gallops. As Payten assumed the mantle it quickly became clear to the press and public alike that, seamlessly, the Newmarket establishment still conjured up magic on the racecourse ‘without knowing how to stop it, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Prospero.’ For the months in which malignant cancer gradually consumed Fennelly and saw the transition to Payten, also happened to coincide with the emergence of Abercorn, the racehorse that would prove to be the finest that the Kirkham Stud ever produced and certainly the greatest ever to carry the famous blue and white livery.
Abercorn was a bright chestnut with a flaxen mane and tail and two white hind socks. Although not a big horse, he was a beautifully balanced and symmetrical individual. Chester had already forged his reputation by the time Abercorn came along, while Cinnamon, whose talent as a broodmare remained untested, was a grand-looking daughter of Goldsbrough who threw much to her sire. Much was expected of the foal and there seemed a nimbus of pre-ordained glory surrounding him from the moment he began galloping about the Kirkham paddocks. This horse’s career was to mark the end of Payten’s apprenticeship: in the correct and original sense of the word, Abercorn came to represent his masterpiece in the art of training racehorses. Kept back until the 1889 A.J.C. Summer Meeting by Tom Payten, the colt made a successful debut in the December Stakes, winning easily, although he tasted defeat later that same week at the Sydney Tattersall’s New Year’s Day meeting when asked to carry a penalty in the Lady Carrington Plate.
Eased in his work by Payten, he was then taken to Melbourne for the Sires’ Produce Stakes. The race that year proved a classic. George Stead had brought across the Tasman a really smart colt in Maxim, and it wasn’t long before the touts at Flemington realised that he was something special. Maxim was backed to beat the Sydney colt – horse against horse – for some thousands, the Hon. James White standing up to all comers and backing the colt single-handed for as much as they cared to write. The pair were together just below the distance and fought out a classic duel all the way up the straight with Abercorn getting the judge’s decision by a short head.
Brought back to Sydney by express train, Abercorn easily won the Claret Stakes at Hawkesbury, a curtain-raiser to the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting. Abercorn had no difficulty appropriating the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Randwick but then failed by a length to give Matador 10lb over the shorter course of the Champagne Stakes despite finishing strongly. Abercorn rounded off the season by easily beating his stablemate Lava and four others in the First Foal Stakes on the following Thursday and retired to the winter quarters of Kirkham with honours thick upon him and the logical Derby favourite for the spring. That A.J.C. autumn fixture served to underline just how dominant the Newmarket stable had become. James White finished the leading owner, winning nine of the twenty-four races and £3,629/17/- in stakes.
Abercorn furnished into a magnificent specimen during his five months’ absence from the racecourse. However, a slight accident while being shod during the early days of August delayed his preparation and precluded any public appearance until a cool and seasonable Derby Day itself. Nonetheless, the public’s faith in the son of Chester was such that he was still installed a very warm favourite to wear the blue riband despite an interrupted preparation. Nor was the sporting public to be disappointed, although those who had considered the sturdy chestnut to hold a lien on all of the three-year-old classics of the season were to be disabused of that notion. The race, run in the presence of the Governor of NSW Lord Carrington and his wife, and a crowd of about twelve thousand people, attracted a field of just six colts and one filly – Lava, who was deputed to act as the pacemaker for James White’s more highly fancied standard-bearer.
The 1887 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions appear in the table below:
Curiously enough, the colt best backed to beat Abercorn had not run as a two-year-old and was making his debut under colours. The horse in question was The Australian Peer, a son of Darebin out of the imported English mare, Stock Dove, and had been bred by E. K. Cox at Fernhill. The Australian Peer was just a foal when the dispersal sale of the famous Fernhill Stud occurred in April 1885 following the death of Cox, and he had been purchased by the Queensland identity, Andrew Gordon. Only a couple of months before, Gordon had acquired the stock and taken a lease of The Grange, the famous stud property on the limestone ridges bordering the old town of Ipswich, first established by Sir Joshua Bell. Alas, despite Gordon’s ambitious plans for The Grange, within a year his financial difficulties had become apparent, and he was forced to relinquish the lease and sell off all his bloodstock in May 1886.
By this time, the youngster to be known to the world as The Australian Peer had matured into a low-set, bright bay colt, a true son of his sire who inherited all the colour, coarseness and characteristics of the Melbourne tribe. He was sold for 310 guineas and now at Randwick on Derby Day sported the maroon and white stripes of William Gannon. During a vintage 1887-1888 turf season, The Australian Peer was destined to match strides with Abercorn in a series of quite remarkable clashes. Perhaps the most intriguing entry for the A.J.C. Derby was Niagara, a half-brother to the mighty Trenton. Niagara had created a big impression as a juvenile in New Zealand when he had won the A.R.C. Great Northern Foal Stakes. It was that victory and the impressive bloodlines that had prompted William Cooper to buy Niagara in April and have him shipped across the Tasman. Placed in the stables of Ike Foulsham, the Derby represented his seasonal reappearance. Other runners in the field included the New Zealand visitor Enfilade, a full brother to Nordenfeldt; and Matador, conqueror of Abercorn in the autumn Champagne Stakes.
So confident were the followers of the Newmarket stable that 5/2 was readily laid on Abercorn, despite the interruption to his training regime. The big chestnut stripped for the chase with his flanks clammy with perspiration, even before he had left the saddling paddock; but it was the only moment of anxiety that his supporters suffered during the whole of the proceedings. The field had gone no more than three furlongs before it was the bookmakers themselves who began sweating profusely. Lava, the Hawkesbury Guineas winner, cut out the work for a good mile in the interests of the favourite, and it was a trifle less than half a mile from home that Abercorn assumed command. In the straight the big chestnut was imperious, and Hales gradually eased him down as he neared the post to canter in the easiest of winners from Niagara with The Australian Peer narrowly beating Bowmont for the minor placing. James White had won his fourth A.J.C. Derby in succession and on this occasion, William Cooper, like his brother Daniel the year before, had to be content with the second placing behind the Newmarket flagbearer.
The only controversy surrounding the race was the winning time. The office of timekeeper for the meeting had been rendered vacant by the resignation of Mr T. Alcock and John Daly, a registered bookmaker, had hurriedly filled it. His first effort with the timepiece was decidedly unsatisfactory inasmuch as the official time for the race was recorded as 2 minutes 39 ½ seconds while some reliable private watches made it 2 minutes 43 seconds. Contributing to the contretemps over the timing was the fact that the A..JC., unlike almost all other clubs, failed to give the official timer special placement, but rather left him to find his own place among the public in the official stand and there catch his time as best he might!
Still, there was nothing wrong with either the timing or placement of the Newmarket stable representatives. Of the 24 events decided at that A.J.C. Spring Meeting the Hon. James White carried off six namely the Spring Stakes and Craven Plate with Trident; the Trial Stakes with Carlyon; the Derby with Abercorn; Spring Maiden Stakes with Cranbrook; Oaks with Lava; and divided the Second Foal Stakes with Cranbrook with Niagara, and also the Members Handicap in which Enigma and The Charmer did a like performance. Hales rode four of the winners plus a dead-heat.
In the wake of this, the fourth successive occasion of his leading in the A.J.C. Derby winner, the Hon. James White hosted a lavish party at his Cranbrook residence. Situated at Rose Bay and facing Woollahra Point, Cranbrook, had a rich history and association with the best families in the colony even before being acquired by White. The grounds formed part of the celebrated Cooper Estate and were leased by Edwin Tooth in 1854 for ninety-nine years. The house itself was built by Robert Tooth and was a Tooth residence for some time before being occupied by Captain Towns, the famous Sydney merchant.
It came into James White’s hands in 1873 at auction in Mort’s rooms when he parted with £10,500 to secure it. He then immediately commissioned the well-known architect, Horbury Hunt, to remodel and extend the building at the cost of £20,000. It became a magnificent mansion boasting 42 rooms including four reception rooms and a fine billiard room in one wing opening onto a wide verandah. White retained a vast retinue of servants and gardeners to tender the estate. It was a fitting residence in which to hold a Derby celebration, and White made a habit of hosting at least one party for his racing confreres each season, and no one who had been once to Cranbrook refused a second invitation to such hospitality. William McSherry’s fine portrait of Abercorn, executed on the instructions of Mrs White, eventually occupied a prominent place in the billiard room. More than eighteen acres of grounds extended down to the Rose Bay road, although the guests were protected from the unwanted attention of the public by high banks of flowering shrubs and creepers. The carriage drive, from the entrance on the Victoria road leading to the house, was justly celebrated, as were the orchid houses that White spent large sums cultivating.
Despite the seemingly effortless victory by Abercorn, some keen sportsmen recognised in The Australian Peer’s first-up performance a colt worthy of the favourite’s mettle and one that would improve as the season progressed. Whereas Abercorn ran only once more at that A.J.C. Spring Meeting, dead-heating with Niagara in the Second Foal Stakes after giving the other horse 7lb, rather more use was made of the Peer. Following his Derby debut, he went for the Spring Maiden Stakes but another giant from Newmarket in the shape of Cranbrook blocked his way, and he was beaten a half-length.
Losing a Maiden Stakes was hardly encouraging form, but it took a great deal to daunt William Gannon in those days; and rather than let the Newmarket stable enjoy a walkover for the weight-for-age Randwick Plate (3m) on the last day of the meeting with the champion Trident, Gannon threw down the gauntlet. The men of Tattersall’s eagerly laid the 1/8 Trident, who had Aberdeen to make the running for him; but he had no chance with The Peer who had him beaten half a mile from home – aided it must be said by the absurd disparity in the weight-for-age scale at the time. Nonetheless, sportsmen began to scratch their heads and question just which three-year-old was the better.
The reputation of The Peer was enhanced during the week of the V.R.C. Spring Meeting, whereas that of Abercorn’s was tarnished. There were, however, legitimate excuses for the son of Chester in failing to run up to his best form in his three appearances. Intermittently during his three and four-year-old seasons, Abercorn suffered from shelly feet, and Payten couldn’t always work him as hard as he wished. Moreover, the chestnut seemed easy prey to any wayward nail from a blacksmith’s hammer. Such was the case in the days leading up to the Victoria Derby although the trouble on the training ground wasn’t made public and he went out at evens. Harry Rayner, on the other hand, was able to give The Australian Peer the perfect training regimen and the colt ran out an easy winner on the hard ground by a length from the courageous Abercorn, who for the second successive time had to share the spoils in a dead-heat with Niagara.
Weeks before old Harry had encouraged William Gannon to take the generous odds on offer about The Peer for the Victoria Derby-Melbourne Cup double, not that Gannon needed much prodding. Such was the impression the Derby winner made and the potential liabilities bookmakers held on the race that he was installed a 6/1 second-favourite for the Melbourne Cup with Abercorn and Niagara blowing out to 20/1. Rayner had already trained one Cup winner for Gannon with Arsenal and was confident about another. Alas, Dunlop upset the party that year in race record time, but The Australian Peer at least franked his Derby victory by finishing a good third. Niagara and Abercorn weren’t disgraced in finishing fourth and fifth respectively on a ground that was as hard as bell metal. On the final day of the meeting in a three-horse contest for the weight-for-age Canterbury Plate (2 ¼ miles), The Australian Peer again proved too good for Abercorn with the Cup winner a very distant third. Not unnaturally, sportsmen began to assume that Abercorn’s early reputation was overblown and Darebin’s son was the superior horse.
It was a different story, however, in the autumn when Abercorn was once more himself. The trick to him – as Payten was coming to realise – lay not just in getting his feet right, but also in his need for speed. At the V.R.C. Autumn Meeting, he was imperious, running a race record in the St. Leger to beat his great rival before scoring a hollow victory in the Champion Stakes. It was much the same tale at Randwick a few weeks later when the pair clashed in three races during the autumn meeting viz. the St. Leger, Cumberland Stakes and A.J.C. Plate. In the St Leger the two cracks frightened off any other runners and Abercorn won comfortably. However, the gallop evidently improved The Australian Peer, for two days later Mr Gannon and his confreres freely supported their colt to within a point of favouritism for the Sydney Cup and duly collected when young Power navigated a safe course with his 8 st. 6lb. The Newmarket stable had relied on Acme in the race and although unequal to the responsibility at least collected third money.
On the third day, the son of Darebin gained a measure of revenge on Abercorn in the weight-for-age Cumberland Stakes (2 miles) after his stablemate Arsenal had forced the pace in his favour. It seemed that he might have the Newmarket champion’s measure after all, particularly over the longer ground. If that was the accepted conventional wisdom, it was turned on its head on the final day of the meeting when the same three horses went around in the three-mile A.J.C. Plate. Rayner went to the well once too often, however, and with The Australian Peer quoted at 1/3 in the ring, it was one of those rare occasions that season when James White was able to get a decent price about Abercorn and the chestnut duly landed the money. Both colts retired to their winter quarters after that race and having clashed eight times the honours were even. If the general public were confused as to their respective merits, the official handicappers for both the A.J.C. and V.R.C. were no more enlightened. Whereas in the coming A.J.C. Great Metropolitan Stakes Mr Scarr had rated Abercorn with 9 st. 8lb, a 2lb better horse than The Australian Peer on 9 st. 6lb, Mr Barnard had given the pair equal billing at the top of the weights in the Melbourne Cup with 9 st. 8lb.
Abercorn’s four-year-old season was the least successful of his four seasons on the Turf and although he did manage four victories from his twelve starts, it was his string of minor placings that attracted the most attention. The Peer managed to beat him in their first engagement in the Spring Stakes on the opening day of the 1888 A.J.C. Spring Meeting, but it was to be his last victory over the Chester horse. Abercorn ran third in the Great Metropolitan Stakes when conceding a massive 3 st 4lb to the winner Lamond, and then registered his only win at the fixture when he beat The Australian Peer by a neck in a race for the Craven Plate that attracted only three starters. The Australian Peer gradually lost form after that meeting and William Gannon’s gun galloper was ultimately retired in the autumn by which time his erstwhile rival was left to battle for supremacy with the two emerging younger lights in Carbine and Melos. Abercorn’s first clash with the champion son of Musket, with whom his name will always be linked, came in the V.R.C. Champion Stakes (3m w-f-a) on March 7th, 1889. Carbine ran out the winner that day by two lengths from Abercorn with Melos languishing five lengths away in the minor placing, but there might have been another tale to tell had Huxley on the St Leger winner, Volley, obeyed orders and made strong running for Abercorn. Instead, Huxley laid in the rear with Volley, and Hales was compelled to take Abercorn to the front, labouring to great disadvantage in having to make his own running over the last mile and a quarter.
The next match between Abercorn and Carbine came in the Autumn Stakes (10f w-f-a) on the first day of the A.J.C. meeting with Abercorn triumphing by a neck. It was a result that had many people quick to declare the baldy-faced chestnut the superior racehorse and saw him installed that night at Tattersall’s as a 2/1 favourite for the Sydney Cup with Carbine easing out to 8/1. On paper the big son of Chester looked a good thing; after all, Abercorn was in the race with 9 st. 4lb or only 4lb over weight-for-age while the year-younger Carbine with 9 st. was lumbered with 12lb more than the scale. If Rowley Pickering is to be believed, Carbine was no good thing to even start in the Cup. It was only on the Saturday night after the Autumn Stakes when the wine flowed freely at Tattersall’s, and a few of the biggest bookmakers joined forces to challenge Donald Wallace with a substantial bet, that the owner acquiesced. Carbine started, and the three-year-old won in extraordinary fashion by a head from Melos with Abercorn two lengths away. The victory was no fluke either for on the third and fourth days of the fixture Carbine again had Abercorn’s measure in both the Cumberland Stakes and A.J.C. Plate at weight-for-age.
Abercorn’s reputation has suffered in comparison with his great contemporary, largely as a result of those three days in April 1889. How different might things have been but for an unfortunate slip on the Flemington tan when Abercorn was being prepared for the 1890 V.R.C. Autumn Meeting. A tragedy is a difference between what is and what might have been. That slip sent the big chestnut horse home lame in the round bone, and James White would risk him no more. At the time Abercorn was at the zenith of his power, unbeaten in his only six starts as a five-year-old in the spring of 1889, including a crushing victory in the Great Metropolitan Stakes under the thumping impost of 9 st. 7lb. That victory earned the stallion a 14lb penalty for the Melbourne Cup taking his weight up to 10 st. 10lb and White declined to start him. Bravo won that Cup beating Carbine, who carried 10 stone into second place, but Payten maintained to his dying breath that, with a stiff pace, Abercorn could have won the race because he was in such cracking form. Indeed, Abercorn had easily beaten Carbine in the Melbourne Stakes (10f w-f-a) on the previous Saturday and would do so again seven days later in the Canterbury Plate (18f w-f-a).
That Canterbury Plate retains a prominent place in the pantheon of great races on the Australian Turf for it proved to be both Abercorn’s last start, and the only time in 43 starts that Carbine ever finished out of a place. There were only four starters viz. Abercorn, Carbine, Melos and Sinecure with the latter engaged purely to make the pace for Abercorn. Sinecure, a homebred son of Martini-Henry, could hold his own in the best handicap company up to ten furlongs. Thus, to ensure that he didn’t run himself out before little more than half the journey had been covered, thereby leaving Abercorn exposed to a sprint with Carbine, it was resolved that Sinecure was to be reserved until he reached the mile and a quarter post. From there he was to set sail with Abercorn at his heels as fast as his legs would carry him. It was a good plan insofar as it went, but the plotters had figured on the cooperation of Dunhey, Sinecure’s crack lightweight jockey. There had been some speculative betting on Sinecure in the ring, and while such profligacy had the wiseacres bemused, the reason for it became obvious as the race unfolded. In those days and for some years later, the crowd at Flemington used to line the fence at the river turn. Sinecure sauntered along in front by about twenty lengths over the first part of the journey, a little better than a hand canter; and so, the field passed the stand, but when Dunhey came to the corner and was hidden from view by the crowd, he let Sinecure go early and off he cleared.
When Hales and O’Brien, the riders of Abercorn and Carbine, made the turn they discovered to their astonishment that the leader had stolen nearly a furlong start. Off they went in pursuit. Carbine and Abercorn together, striding as one horse, ran the first five furlongs of the chase in less than a minute, and 6f in a tick under 1.12. Here Abercorn got his white face ahead of Carbine, and despite O’Brien’s vigorous efforts, the big chestnut drew further away, and soon after that Carbine dropped out of the hunt altogether and was pulled up to canter in alone. It was said at the time that he had burst a hoof at the abattoirs.
Split hoofs, however, were common with Carbine. He split two in the Melbourne Cup of 1890, but that did not prevent him from getting there with a record weight. When Carbine left Abercorn to pursue Sinecure alone, the latter was fully thirty lengths in front and the winning post less than half a mile away. At the end of the stand enclosure, as much as 20/1 was laid on Sinecure but Hales got the big chestnut up to beat him by a neck. With a flying start, Abercorn ran the mile and a quarter in 2 minutes 4 ¼ seconds with 9 st. 5lb up! Afterwards, Hales declared that Abercorn was at his very top for the last mile and a quarter, but he never wavered or changed legs during that wonderful run.
After a hundred years or so, all the raging thunders of such bygone sporting clashes between the titans come only as a faint echo. Despite what the history books might say now, and as great as Carbine was, in Abercorn he met an antagonist worthy of his steel. In all Abercorn and Carbine met six times at weight-for-age and each won three races. Abercorn’s retirement came at a time when Payten believed that he had finally found a chink in Carbine’s armoury. Until the end of his life, Payten maintained that no horse that ever raced could sustain a run longer than Abercorn, and, having discovered the key to his great favourite, was confident that Abercorn would have henceforth trumped Carbine every time in staying contests conducted at a cracking gallop.
It is worth making two observations. Whereas Melos never beat Abercorn at w-f-a, he twice beat Carbine under the same scale; and when John Scarr, the official AJC handicapper, issued the weights for the 1890 Sydney Cup, he allotted Abercorn 10 stone and Carbine 9 st. 9lb – thus inferring when age was taken into account, that he regarded Abercorn as the slightly better racehorse. It was a judgement shared by many at the time and never before had two racehorses so caught the public imagination. During the heyday of Carbine and Abercorn, there wouldn’t have been a public house or tobacconist’s shop from the Quay to Newtown Bridge without a picture of one or the other of the two cracks on their walls. It is fair to say that until the advent of Abercorn many sportsmen were inclined to accuse any chestnut with staying pretensions of softness. There was nothing soft about Abercorn, except perhaps on odd occasions the brittleness of his hooves. And he could stay like a bailiff!
Despite offers from England for the horse, including one from the famous Captain Machell who commissioned bookmaker Joseph Thompson to make a bid on his behalf, James White regarded Abercorn as the logical successor to Chester as a stallion and was always going to install him at Kirkham. Sadly, White didn’t live long enough to see his grand champion’s first foals. Some critics have argued that Abercorn was poorly placed there, as the majority of mares were unsuitable, being also by Chester. Moreover, Kirkham Stud would not take public matrons, and as a result, Abercorn only got 62 thoroughbred foals all told in his seven seasons in Australia. While there is some substance to these claims it doesn’t provide the full story.
Abercorn’s first book of broodmares might have been disappointing – with the likes of Cartoon, Iolanthe and Aurelia – because it coincided with Chester’s last and all the best mares were reserved for the father rather than the son. However, with the illness and subsequent death of Chester in the spring of 1891 with peritonitis, Abercorn entered into the fullness of his patrimony and enjoyed the run of Kirkham’s seraglio. Abercorn’s second and third books read like pages from Debrett’s: Lady Vivian, Copra, White and Blue, Percussion, Etna, Trafalgar, Cameo, Moonstone and Rusk to name but some.
All of these mares had foaled first-class racehorses to different sires, many with Chester, and most were the dams of multiple winners of principal races. Yet Abercorn really only achieved a nick with two of them viz. Copra and the imported British mare, Lady Vivian. In fact, the best six of his progeny came from just this pair of mares. Copra was responsible for those sterling brothers, Cobbity, Coil and Cocos: while Lady Vivian threw those three good chestnut colts, Vivian, Valorous and Vigorous. There might have been more but for the fact that the stud was prematurely disbanded and the famous chestnut shipped to England.
I might add that nearly all of the good horses sired by Abercorn, seemed to meet with an accident that cut short their racing career. He was no more successful as a sire of broodmares and sired the dam of only one principal race winner on the Australian Turf in Nucifera. After the death of James White, Abercorn and several fillies were not catalogued for sale but became the property of Captain Scott, who succeeded in marrying White’s widow. In October 1898 Abercorn and some other horses owned by Scott and his new wife were shipped on the SS Nineveh to do duty at the Cobham Stud in England. Alas, the stallion’s reputation as a racehorse was not widely appreciated over there, and he proved a failure, his service fee eventually falling to a paltry 20 guineas. Abercorn eventually drifted to the Foxhall Stud, Raheny, in Ireland where he died in December 1904 in his 21st year.
It is worth observing that Abercorn’s two great contemporaries in that famous A.J.C. Derby of 1887, The Australian Peer and Niagara, each made their mark as stallions. Niagara found his way into William Forrester’s Warwick Farm Stud and was responsible for Waterfall (Caulfield Cup) and Queen of Sheba (A.J.C. Metropolitan) among other good horses. Niagara was still standing there at the time of Forrester’s death and was then moved on to Currawang where he died in October 1903. John Eales purchased The Australian Peer for the Duckenfield Park Stud. Among the progeny he sired there were Nobleman (A.J.C. Metropolitan); and those good brothers Australian Star, who won the City and Suburban Handicap in England, and Australian Colours, runner-up in a Sydney Cup and who also campaigned overseas. At the break-up of the Duckenfield Park Stud, John Eales junior bought The Australian Peer in the hope of either getting him into a first-class stud here or sending him to the U.S.A., but his good intentions were frustrated. The horse eventually went out to a far back Thompson River station in Central Queensland where he ended his days. He was certainly one of the best big horses to appear on our racecourses in the nineteenth century.
The victory on Abercorn in the A.J.C. Derby marked the sixth and last time that Tom Hales greeted the judge first in the classic. In all of the years since no jockey has ever equalled his record. Hales’ Derby success on Abercorn involved a double celebration because it coincided with his marriage to Harriet, the daughter of William Blackler, the well-known breeder of Fulham Park, near Adelaide. Lord Carrington, the Governor of N.S.W., presented the hoop with a handsome silver cigar case in recognition of the occasion while Mrs James White gave the bride a diamond bracelet. Marriage, eventually helped hasten Hales’ retirement from the saddle, which came in 1894; although in his last two seasons he rode only sparingly.
The early years of Hales’ career have not survived in records; it wasn’t until 1872 and his association with the wealthy South Australian T. J. Ryan that detailed statistics of his riding history have been preserved. Indeed, it was from that year that Tom Hales himself marked his success in life. From 1872 until 1894 when he hung up his saddle for the last time, Hales has 1,678 mounts winning 496 races, was second in 332, and third in 195. The total of stakes won by his mounts during those years was £168,340. Never during his long career in the saddle did the breath of suspicion sully his fair name. He was a splendid trial rider and a wonderful judge of pace. Perhaps his greatest performance of sustained artistry in the saddle came at the V.R.C. Autumn meeting in 1888 when he won 11 races from his 14 mounts. On the first day, he won four races for James White viz. Cranbrook in the Newmarket, Volley in the Ascotvale Stakes, Abercorn in the St. Leger, and Carlyon in the Essendon Stakes. His most famous finish almost certainly came in the 1888 V.R.C. Derby when aboard the Hon James White’s gelding, Ensign, he upset the unbeaten Carbine.
The success that Hales enjoyed from the moment he linked his fortunes to the horses of James White in the 1884/85 turf season has never been equalled in the annals of Australian racing history. When Williamson’s retainer expired on December 31st, 1883, Hales succeeded to the position, initially on a £400 p.a. retainer together with the usual commission for winning mounts. During the seven years that he was the first jockey to the White stable, he partnered the best horses in the land and so breathtaking was the journey, it seemed at moments as if he was riding on the wings of the wind.
For the Master of Kirkham Stud, his major race wins are as follows: AJC Derby thrice, The Metropolitan once, the A.J.C. St Leger four times, Champagne Stakes four times, Tattersalls Cup once, A.J.C. Oaks four times, V.R.C. Oaks twice, V.R.C. Derby thrice, Newmarket Handicap once, Ascot Vale Stakes thrice, Australian Cup four times, V.R.C. St Leger six times, V.A.T.C. Great Foal Stakes twice, Caulfield Guineas thrice, Debutant Stakes twice, Champion Stakes thrice, and the Maribyrnong Plate once. It reads like a remarkable succession of victories, and in all, Hales was successful in 137 races from 302 rides for James White. He earned £75,944 for the owner who only ran his horses at important meetings. Hales often declared that any ordinary jockey could beat the best horse in the world over a half-mile, and he attributed his great success to one principle; he never bustled a horse unduly, allowing them to get balanced and into their rhythm before setting to work.
Following his retirement from race riding, Hales decided to follow the same career as his father-in-law, buying a nice piece of land on the upper Murray and establishing the Haleswood Stud, which his brother Henry managed for him. But Hales’ stud venture was dogged with bad luck from the outset. After purchasing some well-bred mares, he managed to secure Lochiel for a stallion, but after his purchase, Hales was advised that the horse was suffering from an incurable disease. The great jockey decided to cut his losses and so disposed of Lochiel at W. C. Yuille’s Newmarket yards in August 1890 for almost £100 less than he paid for him and substituted the stallion Newmaster in his place. Newmaster was an absolute failure whereas Lochiel, who came into the hands of James Thompson, proved a wonderful progenitor.
Whether Lochiel would have been the same success had he stayed up on the cold slopes of Mitta Mitta instead of Widden is debatable. I think that Hales’ decision to get out of the horse, while a personal disaster for him, proved a blessing for NSW bloodstock. Apart from the harsher winters of Mitta Mitta, Widden boasted some of the finest blood mares by Sir Hercules and Kingston in the colonies and was far more convenient for visiting mares to reach by rail. Nor was Hales ever wholly successful as an owner. Although he raced a number of useful horses, the only race of importance in which his colours were successful was the Newmarket Handicap with Carlton. Hales suffered from asthma all his life and at times it seriously disrupted his riding career. He died rather suddenly at his residence in Moonee Ponds, Melbourne on Saturday, October 26th, 1901, from the congestion of the lungs, the result of a severe chill caught a few days before. He was only 54. Pre-deceased by his first wife, Harriet, his second wife Frances survived him, but there had been no children. Said to be worth more than £30,000 when he hung up his saddle, a measure of Tom Hales’ plummeting fortunes both as an owner and breeder can be gauged by the fact that when his will was filed for probate, his estate was valued at only £1800.