Past haunted half-way houses – where convicts made the bricks – Scrub-yards and new bark shanties, we dash with five and six; Through stringy-bark and blue-gum, and box and pine we go – A hundred miles shall see to- night the lights of Cobb and Co!
Henry Lawson’s words capture the spirit of the times of Cobb and Co., the first large-scale network of inland road transport in eastern Australia. The enterprise made a number of men’s fortunes down the years but none more so than the hero of this chapter, Walter Russell Hall. Born in February 1831 at Kingston, Herefordshire, England, the eldest son of a glover and miller, he arrived in Sydney in 1852 with just a few pence jingling in his pocket. A fine-looking young man, confident, ambitious and adventurous, he began working for David Jones, the prominent Sydney retailer but before long the siren call of the Ballarat goldfields proved too seductive to resist, and later on, he moved to the Bendigo and Ovens diggings. The rush would be the making of Hall but not in the direct way he first imagined. Like many who found disappointment searching for the elusive metal, he eventually made money by providing services to other Eldorado dreamers instead, for a time conducting a carrying service between Ballarat and Melbourne before later becoming an agent for Cobb and Co at Woods Point and Beechworth.
An opportunity came knocking in 1861 when a young American, James Rutherford, formed a company with five other partners, including Walter Hall, to take over the established coaching line of Cobb and Co. Another young American, Freeman Cobb, had originally formed the company in 1853 when he imported several American coaches and began servicing passengers from Melbourne to Port Melbourne, which, in January 1854 was extended to the burgeoning goldfields. Bourke-street was the original starting point in 1854, a fact that is recognised today by a bronze plaque in the wall of the building on the site of what was once the old Albion Hotel. Nearby is what remains of the old Cobb and Co stables in Lonsdale-street – a few brick stalls with their rough-hewn bluestone floors and the grand arched entrance that accommodated the coaches. Behind in Little Lonsdale-street until the early 1960s was a series of cottages where Cobb and Co foremen used to dwell; and across the narrow lane, the site of the Buck’s Head Inn of coaching fame.
Despite sharp competition from other coaching lines, Freeman Cobb prospered so that as early as May 1856 he was able to sell out and return to the United States a wealthy man. The firm then changed hands several times until James Rutherford came upon the scene with his scheme for revitalisation. Walter Hall played a crucial role in the new management, which re-organised the Victorian services and helped secure a near-monopoly in mail contracts. Cobb and Co. with its light-framed, leather-sprung American coaches and their narrow wheelbase proved ideal for the rugged Australian countryside – far superior to their British counterparts – such that Cobb and Co. became renowned for reliability and efficiency on the goldfields and the outback. When the railways were extended in Victoria in 1862, the company moved its headquarters to Bathurst, New South Wales, which remained the hub of its operations for more than fifty years. Services were extended to Queensland in 1865 and Frank Crowley in his book ‘Colonial Australia’ estimates that by 1870 Cobb and Co. were harnessing 6,000 horses a day in the eastern colonies and their coaches travelling some 28,000 miles a week.
The vast number of horses used by Cobb and Co. encouraged Hall and his partners into pastoralism, and it was through the steady acquisition of well-placed stations and other property that they multiplied their wealth tenfold. Hall was an integral man in the operations, and part of his early work involved travelling to outback stations, buying large numbers of horses and then arranging for them to be driven down the Darling and up the Murray to Bendigo and Ballarat or diverted to Bathurst. A shrewd judge of men, Hall won an even better reputation as a judge of a harness or saddle horse; indeed, the quality of the Cobb and Co. horses under harness was a major reason for the success of the line. Hall became the Sydney agent travelling widely in NSW and Queensland, arranging new coach routes. In 1881 when a separate limited company of Cobb and Co. was formed in Queensland with a capital of £50,000, Hall contributed £9,000 of it. As we shall see, Hall’s heavy involvement with Queensland was to lead directly to the second great investment opportunity of his lifetime.
Walter Hall’s association with the Turf began early on, and as his wealth accumulated through Cobb and Co, he became a regular, though by no means a prolific buyer of yearlings, considering the size of his fortune. Moreover, Hall’s long and active involvement in the governance of the sport began as early as 1860 when he first became a member of the A.J.C. committee under the chairmanship of Edward Deas Thomson. It was a period that coincided with the club’s move from Homebush to the old Sandy Course and a strengthening of its position in the sporting life of the colony. Although Hall wasn’t a member of the club’s committee in the following three years, he returned in 1864 and, excluding the period 1870 and 1871, after that remained a committeeman for the rest of his life. His wealth and influence together with his wide circle of government and commercial acquaintances proved useful for the club.
Even in the years of the Randwick Derby Stakes, the forerunner to the A.J.C. Australian Derby, Hall was a subscriber to the event and his first starter, Miss Magus, finished runner-up behind Ramornie in 1863. There were other subscriptions down the years, but Hall never enjoyed the satisfaction of seeing his colours carried to victory in an important race at Randwick until Cunnamulla, a son of Maribyrnong out of that wonderful producer Lilla, and trained by Tom Brown, won him the Sydney Cup and the Randwick Stakes in 1882. In April the following year, Brown purchased a well-bred yearling by Julian Avenel at the Exeter Farm sales for 250 guineas on behalf of Hall and registered as Garfield, the colt won the 1884 Sires’ Produce Stakes and First Foal Stakes (later to become the Easter Stakes) at headquarters. The man from Cobb and Co harboured great hopes that year that Garfield might land him the blue riband at Randwick and Flemington as well, but the horse failed to come up in the spring. The following season Hall was again unlucky when his chestnut colt, Lord Exeter, finished a close runner-up in the 1885 Great Metropolitan Stakes at Randwick.
The chance of acquiring two fortunes in a lifetime falls to very few men, but such was the luck of Walter Hall that in the mid-1880s opportunity came knocking a second time. When it came, it was in the guise of his brother Thomas, who was the manager of the Rockhampton branch of the Queensland National Bank; he invited him to join a syndicate being formed to develop the Mount Morgan mine. Speculative investment in mining had always been a weakness for both brothers. Walter, of course, had access to considerable capital through Cobb and Co. and there is an enduring tale that he used the company money to buy shares in Mount Morgan and then refused to share the very large profits with his erstwhile partners. Legal action was planned against him, but at the eleventh hour a deal was struck, and the action was dropped. Whatever the truth of the story, it does seem that those Cobb and Co. partnership agreements did allow certain scope in mining speculation. What is known is that in January 1886 notice of the dissolution of the partnership between Rutherford and Hall was announced in the Bathurst newspaper. Walter and Thomas Hall, together with their associates, resisted nine attempts to jump their Mount Morgan claim – two of which went all the way to the Privy Council. On 1st October 1886, the Mount Morgan Gold Mining Company was registered in Queensland with a capital of £1 million. Two more of the Hall clan began to work in the company although sibling rivalry and jealousy meant the course wasn’t always smooth and some fallout occurred. Nonetheless, in less than thirty years the mine produced gold and copper worth £20 million with Walter Hall a major shareholder, and a director as well as chairman of the Sydney board.
Even after the rivers of gold began to flow from Mount Morgan, Hall never cut a flashy or ostentatious figure, either in society in general or on the Turf in particular. Had he chosen, he could have become the leading owner of the colony. He did not so choose. Rather, some years he was an active buyer at the yearling sales and others not at all. Wednesday, January 22nd, 1890 and the sale of the Hobartville yearlings bred by William Long and George Hill, happened to be a day when Hall chose to be active. By this time the much-vaunted Hobartville sales had prospered into something akin to a glorious annual fete for Sydney sportsmen. A special train left Redfern station at 7.50 on the morning of the sale stopping at Granville, Parramatta and Blacktown en route before depositing its passengers at Richmond in plenty of time to witness the first act of the drama when Tom Clibborn dropped his hammer at 10 o’clock sharp. Fifty-four lots went under the gavel that day – twenty-eight colts and twenty-six fillies and many were by the glamour stallion, Grand Flaneur.
Grand Flaneur had already demonstrated in just a few short seasons at stud that his qualities on the racecourse were being reproduced in the breeding barn. Only two months earlier, the six-year-old Bravo, out of his initial crop, had given him a Melbourne Cup and so the demand for his progeny was keen. Walter Hall was among the four hundred or so cognoscenti standing under the magnificent avenue of oak trees on that warm summer’s morning and by this time he had acquired a new trainer in Tom Lamond. Hall was anxious to buy some of the choice lots and finished the day with five – three of them being among the most expensive yearlings sold including the 300 guineas he gave for the future Chlorine, a well-bred daughter of Grand Flaneur. Indeed, four of Hall’s acquisitions were by Grand Flaneur.
The fifth yearling, however, was a little bay colt by Sardonyx – a son of Fireworks and a half-brother to the great Nordenfeldt, the latter who was just then trembling on the brink of greatness as a stallion in New Zealand. Although Sardonyx hadn’t really clicked as a sire, Hall remembered his courageous win in the 1883 Doncaster at Randwick under 8 st. 9lb. Geraldine, the dam of this particular yearling, was one of those classically-bred Yattendon mares with an infusion of English blood that so dominated the paddocks of Hobartville. A full sister to two Maribyrnong Plate winners, and an A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes winner herself, she had already thrown the promising Moorhouse, a future winner of the prestigious Viceroy’s Cup in India. At 240 guineas this particular yearling wasn’t a cheap buy, but, registered as Oxide, he would go closer than any other thoroughbred carrying the famous ‘light blue, black and gold sash and cap’ of Walter Hall to victory in the race he prized more than any other – the A.J.C. Derby.
The announcement made in February 1890 of the Hon. James White’s intended retirement from the Turf due to ill-health was received with sadness by all Australian sportsmen, although the prospect of his bloodstock going to public auction at least opened up the prospect of greater competition and the likelihood of our classics and rich handicaps being shared more equitably among rival stables. It was therefore with some disappointment that racing men and the general public alike received the news just a few days later that the eleven Kirkham yearlings would not go through the auction ring at all but rather had been sold privately through W. C. Yuille and Co. to a syndicate at 500 guineas apiece. Now it is true that the Kirkham batch that year wasn’t the finest the stud had ever produced. And the reason for this, was because White had been breeding several of his best mares to English time in his impossible dream of a victory in the English Derby at Epsom Downs, and those subsequent foals were not represented in the group sold to the syndicate. News of the transaction, however, did arouse the public’s curiosity as to the reasons for White’s change of heart, and also the mysterious identity of the principals behind the Confederacy, which promised to be the new force on the colonial Turf.
Why did White not proceed to auction with the yearlings? There were three main reasons for the volte-face: the very generous price offered by the syndicate, the identity of the principals involved, and the fact that the yearlings would continue to be trained at Newmarket by Tom Payten, who understood the temperament of the Chester and Martini-Henry blood so well. White had treated his former trainer most generously upon his own withdrawal from the Turf, having granted him the use of the whole Newmarket establishment free of charge for two years, and this further consideration was altogether consistent with his character. A syndicate comprising various principals formed specifically for the purpose of acquiring and racing bloodstock was a relatively new concept in the Australian colonies at the time and one that anticipated the famous Druid’s Lodge Confederacy based in Wiltshire, England, by some five years. The Australian sporting press, naturally enough, was eager to learn the identities of the parties comprising this new Turf regime that styled itself ‘J. B. Clark’.
The moving spirit and the man after whom the nom de course was fashioned by a transposition of his Christian names, was John Clark Bowden, a successful businessman from Geelong, then in his mid-forties, who had begun his sporting life as an enthusiastic supporter of the local football club in that district. In more recent years he had raced a number of horses through Jim Scobie and occasionally worked that stable’s commissions in the betting ring. While Bowden’s initial interest had been with horses over the obstacles – winning two Grand National Steeples racing in partnership with Albert Miller – more recently he had turned to the flat, winning the 1889 Sapling Stakes at Caulfield with the well-bred Riverina. Cold and austere, Bowden was held in awe rather than affection by most of those that knew him. The other members of the syndicate at various times were William Bailey – another long-term client of Jim Scobie as well as John Arthur, Tom Hales and Tom Payten. Besides the Kirkham yearlings that they purchased outright, the syndicate also arranged to lease a sister to Titan and two or three other well-bred fillies that the Kirkham stud wished to retain for breeding.
The new syndicate was gratified to get an early-season winner when Medina, a daughter of Chester and Lorraine, won the Tattersall’s Two-Year-Old Stakes at the August meeting. Corvette, almost a full sister-in-blood to Volley, went close to giving them a memorable first spring season when she ran second – beaten less than a length – to Yarran in the Maribyrnong Plate. A consolation of sorts came at the A.J.C. Summer Meeting when the same filly snaffled the rich December Stakes. That race was also notable for the fact that it marked the first public appearance of Walter Hall’s Oxide. Although the colt finished out of a place, Tom Lamond brought him out again the following day at Randwick to contest the Lady Carrington Stakes at the Tattersall’s Club meeting. It was a valuable race for juveniles, and while he was beaten easily by Penance, a colt then raced by Jim Monaghan, Walter Hall’s charge showed enough dash to claim the second prize and suggest greater things were in store.
Despite the early successes of the Newmarket juveniles, purportedly the better of them were being held in reserve until later in the season, and the most promising of the lot seemed to be a big coarse colt by Chester out of the good-producing mare, Etna, registered appropriately enough as Stromboli. To Chester, Etna had already thrown Lava, an A.J.C. Oaks winner, and Volcano, a brilliant juvenile, and all the indications were that this latest giant from the Hon. James White’s champion stallion was even better. Payten delayed his debut until Rosehill in early January when he finished unplaced on the heavy ground behind another of Walter Hall’s juveniles, Blue and Gold, one of the Grand Flaneur fillies bought at Hobartville. Stromboli was only narrowly beaten at his next start, again at Rosehill, before breaking through at the February Warwick Farm meeting.
Taken to Melbourne as part of the Payten team, the big son of Chester proved most disappointing. He failed utterly in the Oakleigh Handicap and again in the Ascot Vale Stakes when he was despatched at even-money only to be beaten by the boom galloper Penance, despite receiving a stone in weight. It was this performance that prompted the free-spending Ballarat identity and Melbourne stockbroker, William Jones, to pay 2500 guineas for Penance, which, like Jones’s Melbourne Cup winner, Bravo, was a son of Grand Flaneur. Stromboli did manage to take out the V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes beating the crack Victorian colt, Lord Hopetoun, and his own stablemate Pie Crust; but as Lord Hopetoun was conceding him a stone and Pie Crust was intended to assist Stromboli, the merit of the performance was somewhat discounted. Despite Stromboli’s erratic form, that week at Flemington did provide some consolation for the J.B. Clark syndicate when two of their other juveniles, Albemarle and Albina each won nursery handicaps.
Returned to Randwick for the autumn week, Stromboli’s enormous, raking stride saw him easily win the Sires’ Produce Stakes, at the same time giving severe heartburn to William Jones who saw his newly acquired juvenile humbled into the minor placing after being sent out at as the 2/5 favourite. In the circumstances, Penance seemed a singularly apt name for William Jones’s somewhat impulsive purchase. Despite a 10lb penalty, Stromboli was heavily backed to win the Champagne Stakes on the second day of the meeting as well, the race for which Tom Lamond had been steadily grooming Oxide since his only two racecourse appearances in high summer. Walter Hall secured 8/1 for his money that day and encouraged some of his friends to partake a share of it. They collected too, but only after a thrilling three-way finish between Oxide, Stromboli and Penance with no more than a long neck separating the trio.
The three colts reprised the contest in the First Foal Stakes on the third day but Oxide, by now penalised a half-stone more and carrying the same weight as Stromboli, went down to the giant Newmarket representative by a length with the rest of the field struggling six lengths in their wake. It marked the end of the season for both colts, and when the V.R.C. handicapper announced his Melbourne Cup weights in late June, it came as no surprise to sportsmen that Stromboli, together with Lord Hopetoun, headed the list of rising three-year-olds when each was allotted 7 st. 9lb while Oxide was handicapped with 3lb less. Moreover, Stromboli’s various triumphs had helped catapult the J.B. Clark syndicate to runner-up on the Australian Winning Owners’ List. With 12 winners of 20 races, the Confederacy in their very first season was only beaten by the Hon. Donald Wallace, who, after all, had Carbine to help him.
Two important developments in the sporting and social life of Sydney occurred in the weeks leading up to the A.J.C. Spring Meeting. The first was the opening of the Australia Hotel in Castlereagh Street when the first guest to sign the register was none other than the legendary French actress, Sarah Bernhardt, just then enjoying a tour of the Australian colonies. From the very moment that, this, its first guest swept imperiously through the main entrance and portico flanked by the colonnades of massive columns of iron and granite, the Australia Hotel was destined to become the country’s premier grand hotel. In the years to come, the register would be graced by such famous names as Mark Twain, Paderewski, Melba, Albani, Chaliapin, Tauber, Olivier and Menuhin, not to mention royalty, nobility, and world statesmen.
However, the establishment’s relevance to this chronicle lies in the fact that it immediately became the preferred Sydney address for the wealthy pastoralists and their families when visiting the city for the Royal Easter Show and the Randwick autumn and spring race meetings. The number of Derby-winning owners that chose the luxury and exclusiveness of the Australia Hotel that night to celebrate their Randwick triumph down through the years would be countless.
The second significant development in the sporting and social life of Sydney to occur that year came on Tuesday, 1st September with the opening of the new premises of the Tattersall’s Club. A handsome building constructed of Pyrmont freestone it was built in the classical renaissance style of architecture and was situated on the east side of Pitt-street immediately south of Fennelly’s Bazaar. Tattersall’s Club, like its namesake in Great Britain, had initially been called into existence with the object of controlling and regulating monetary transactions arising out of the national sport of horseracing. First instituted in the early fifties’ Sydney Tattersall’s had up to this time been mostly accommodated in rooms adjacent to Tattersall’s Hotel until the membership of over six hundred members rendered that arrangement inadequate.
The freehold site in Pitt-street had been purchased for £28,000 with the building itself costing almost £22,000, and it was crowned by a heroic-sized equine figure rampant. The new clubrooms were furnished in Tasmanian blackwood and American walnut, upholstered in Moroccan leather and carpeted in a richly patterned pile. In the days leading into the A.J.C. fixture as members congregated in their plush new environs, there was money for only two horses in the Derby – Stromboli and Oxide. Curiously enough though, Walter Hall never really supported his colt for the A.J.C. Derby but took some reasonable bets about him for the Victorian equivalent.
The newly opened Tattersall’s Club wasn’t the only sign of progress in Sydney racing in September 1891. Nothing in my wanderings about the old Randwick course today fills me with a more profound sense of the pathos of nostalgia and decay than the ruins of the old tramway. And yet it is interesting to reflect that 1891 was the first Derby Day in which the platforms newly erected on the tramline opposite the course were brought into use. It was a vast improvement on previous arrangements. Public travellers were also assisted by the tram loop-line recently laid down in Cleveland-street, connecting the Elizabeth-street and Randwick lines, which was available to passenger traffic for the very first time on the opening day of that A.J.C. Spring Meeting. It proved a great convenience since residents in the southern and western suburbs could be carried directly from Redfern station to the racecourse, thereby avoiding the expense and loss of time incurred under the old system, while the traffic via Oxford-street enjoyed a similar relief.
The racing correspondent for the Sydney Mail set down his observations in September 1891 of the pleasures of such public transport:
“There are several ways of going to a big race meeting, and, as some may have learnt by experience, there are at least as many ways of returning. But if you want to see the life and colour of the festival, the rule is, by all means, to go out to the course by a public conveyance. You may return how you like or how you can. Time was when the seat of a shilling bus was the best coign of vantage from which to view the motley scene, but times have changed now, and today (1891) the inside of a tram is as good a place as any. For there you see not only the spectacle but some of the individuals who compose it. Our tram today seems a drag-net for sweeping up all the raffish young men from street corners, persons who hang about the doors of alleged tobacconists’ shops, totalisator speculators, and possible ‘spielers’ and the capitalist with a luxuriant outcrop of coloured handkerchief burgeoning out of one pocket. With this sort of entertainment, the tram is not such a plebeian conveyance after all. “
I might observe that once at the racecourse patrons had the choice of paying half a sovereign to get into the paddock, or two shillings and one penny to access the St. Leger or the Flat.
Charming weather greeted Derby Day, and the classic had attracted a field of seven – all colts with Stromboli, the favourite throughout the winter, firming into even-money and Oxide the only serious challenger in the market. Both the Newmarket and Zetland Lodge stables had taken the precaution of engaging a pacemaker for their respective fancies in Bengal and Sulphide. A pleasing feature of the line-up was its broad geographical representation.
George Stead from New Zealand had sent across Lebel, a well-bred son of Nordenfeldt who had won the A.R.C. Great Northern Foal Stakes to be his representative. Donald Wallace from Victoria had Aster sporting his now-famous Carbine colours. While W. H. Kent flew the flag for Queensland with Brazenose, a half-brother to Gozo, who was just then setting out on what was to prove a most remarkable career as a stallion. When the photograph was taken of the starters as they assembled in front of the official stand, Oxide appeared like a Galloway by comparison with the gigantic Stromboli.
The 1891 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions are set out in the table below:
It proved a grand race and rarely has any classic been so stubbornly contested. Oxide’s stable companion, Sulphide, made the running but the pace wasn’t particularly snappy for the first half of the journey, and many felt afterwards that Jack Gainsford had erred in not making more use of the Grand Flaneur colt on behalf of Zetland Lodge. Meanwhile, Oxide was lying second and being closely pressed by the stablemates Bengal and Stromboli. Shortly after swinging for home Sulphide retired from the fray and Oxide surged to the lead. Only at the distance did Stromboli, coming on the outside with his glorious sweeping stride, manage to get on terms, but Oxide wasn’t going down without a fight.
This was to be a David and Goliath contest with the giant Chester colt fairly towering over Walter Hall’s courageous little flag bearer. Over the next furlong, the pair raced lock together, nostrils drinking the air, with first one, and then the other, having the advantage until Stromboli managed to get in the last stride. Tom Nerriker on Oxide might have been mugged on the line, but at least he’d been done over by an absolute professional in Ernie Huxley. In truth, it was a race that neither colt deserved to lose. The gallant horse, that glorious animal that Kipling described as man’s first servant, had rarely been seen to better advantage over the Derby course. Oxide had strained with every fibre and sinew of his being and as Hall grimly remarked to Lamond afterwards: “If one must lose a Derby, then let it be like this.” The colt had become old Walter Hall’s favourite precisely because he was a fighter, and he did all that and more striding up the unforgiving straight at Randwick.
And so, the bold experiment in syndication that the J.B. Clark confederacy represented had won a Derby at their first attempt. It proved a rewarding day for, besides another of their charges, Albermarle, running second to Megaphone in the Spring Stakes, yet another representative, Grandwing, won the V.A.T.C. Hurdle in Melbourne. Fortune attended Newmarket on the second day as well when Corvette defeated her stablemate Pie Crust in a three-horse contest for the A.J.C. Oaks although a certain harsh reality broke in on the third day when their Derby winner was beaten at level weights by Oxide in the Second Foal Stakes (10f) – a victory that gave Walter Hall immense satisfaction.
Stromboli represented yet another example of the clever names that the Hon. James White so often came up with when registering his horses, for although the J.B. Clark syndicate bought the colt as a yearling, he had already been registered. Stromboli, who was by Etna, is the name of a volcanic island and was often referred to as ‘the lighthouse of the Mediterranean’. Lord Nelson saw it and described it thus ‘…From the deck of a vessel, a glow of red light is seen to make its appearance from time to time above the summit of the mountain; it may be observed to increase gradually in intensity, and then as gradually to die away. After a short interval, the same appearances are repeated, and this goes on until the increasing light of dawn causes the phenomenon to be no longer visible.’ In many respects, Nelson’s description is just as appropriate for the island’s equine namesake. Stromboli’s light on the Turf was never to shine consistently and those at Randwick on Derby Day who witnessed his glowing victory would have been surprised to learn that, as a racing phenomenon, he too would no longer be visible after the close of his three-year-old season.
In 1891 the Hawkesbury Spring Meeting lost much of its caste, when, for the first time, the A.J.C. pulled rank and relegated it to after the A.J.C. fixture. Nonetheless, the J.B. Clark syndicate scored a memorable quinella in the Hawkesbury Guineas when it was belatedly held a week later – with Stromboli easily beating his stablemate Piecrust. It was then off to Melbourne to do battle with the big brigades from the St Albans Stud, claimed by the Melbourne press to be well-nigh invincible that year. William Wilson had hazarded a pretty penny on the cream of New Zealand bloodstock, and the rumours emanating from the training ground at Geelong were strong. In the days leading into the Caulfield Guineas, stable money was heaped on the parrot-mouthed Strathmore for that event as well as the Derby and the Cup. A son of Nordenfeldt, in his only start as a juvenile the colt had finished second in a stakes race for two-year-olds at the V.R.C. Autumn Meeting. Strathmore and Stromboli were bred on similar lines with each having a strain of Yattendon. Although Stromboli went to the post for the Guineas a shade in the red, he gave nothing when challenged by the Melbourne crack in the straight. It was a day when the St Albans’ strength was revealed to be anything but a bluff – for another of William Wilson’s strapping three-year-olds by Nordenfeldt, Zalinski, who had cost his owner 950 guineas as a yearling, won the Toorak Handicap at his seasonal reappearance.
Execrable weather ushered in Victoria Derby Day, and it was always going to depend upon which colt possessed the gift of the going in the sea of mud that the course became late on the card. Strathmore was despatched at even money while Oxide (4/1) and Stromboli (5/1) ran the next fancied in the field of ten. Despite Stromboli’s size and substance, the colt confirmed his growing reputation as something of a fancy Dan when put under pressure by Strathmore a furlong out. He compounded quickly to finish second, beaten just over a length by the St Albans’ colt, with the very unlucky Oxide, one-and-a-half lengths further back in third placing, having received a buffeting and been severely inconvenienced by the fall of Swordbearer. Perhaps there were mitigating circumstances for Stromboli also, for he had been struck by both Oxide and his stablemate Albemarle while milling at the start. When Stromboli cooled down the effects of the kicks became apparent, and he played no further part at the meeting. Strathmore, on the other hand, franked his credentials as the finest colt of the season when with 7 st. 6lb, he was a gallant and fast-finishing third – beaten less than a length after being boxed in on the fence – in the Melbourne Cup won by Malvolio. Walter Hall’s Oxide was a most respectable fifth in the same race.
Stromboli’s Jekyll and Hyde character was again on display in the autumn. On the day when Strathmore enjoyed a hollow victory over Oxide in the V.R.C. St Leger, Stromboli resumed in the Newmarket but cruelled any chance when left badly at the post. Although he did manage to win the Bourke Handicap (7f) on the second day of the meeting, his staying pretensions seemed completely exposed when he failed utterly in the Champion Stakes (3m) on the third day. Returned to Randwick, Stromboli failed by a neck in the St. Leger, despite the presence of two stablemates to assist him and the outrageous odds of 5/1 demanded by the bookmakers. The race was won by William Wilson’s third string, La Tosca, by Robinson Crusoe, and a half-sister to the Melbourne Cup winner, Mentor. Stromboli rumbled out to 20/1 for the Sydney Cup, the same price on offer about his erstwhile rival Oxide, who had been an unfortunate withdrawal from the St. Leger at the eleventh hour; with Highborn and Strathmore dominating the Cup betting that autumn. In a major reversal of form, Stromboli and Oxide staged a magnificent reprise of their Derby finish six months earlier. In a field of twenty-five brimful of quality, Ernie Huxley nursed Stromboli patiently and produced him very late in the straight to cut down any number of horses and just collar Oxide in the shadows of the post.
It was his last victory on a racecourse. In the week after that A.J.C. Autumn Meeting, Stromboli was put up for auction along with ten other horses in the J.B. Clark syndicate to resolve yet another dispute among some of the parties. Stromboli was knocked down for 1000 guineas to CM Lloyd, who was acting for a third party. In September Stromboli was sent by the steamship Arawatta to Mr Case’s station, Normanby in North Queensland, where he stood as a stallion for a season. Returned to Sydney in March 1893, in May of that same year Bruce Lowe transported him along with Clieveden, a brother to Chester, to race on lease in San Francisco. Lowe, the author of “Breeding Racehorses by the Figure System”, was an astute and sensitive student of the thoroughbred and observed of Stromboli: “He was never beaten fairly on a dry track in good company, but the ordinary plater could give him weight on the muddy tracks. His action was particularly long, and his hoofs somewhat large and flat, so that he floundered about unmistakably.” After a moderately successful sojourn of several years in America, Stromboli returned to his native land in February 1896 onboard the steamship Alameda. Subsequently, he stood at Mr Cassidy’s Mungalla Stud, near Ingham in North Queensland but he wasn’t given much encouragement and while he improved the local stock, rather unsurprisingly, he failed to sire anything of note.
By comparison Oxide’s career after his three-year-old season involved much greater longevity on Australian racecourses. Disadvantaged by his small stature, yet expected to fully carry his share of weight in handicaps as a result of his classic performances at two and three, he was a difficult horse to place. The gallant little black suffered a similar misfortune to his sire Sardonyx, who was notorious for running placings but rarely winning. Oxide failed to win in ten appearances as a four-year-old but at five not only won the A.J.C. Place Handicap at the autumn meeting but went very close to winning a sensational Caulfield Cup. That 1893 running of the Cup was responsible for Oxide’s best performance on a racecourse and his owner’s worst. A desperate Caulfield finish saw Tim Swiveller, a 40/1 outsider, first past the post by a half-length to Sainfoin, with Oxide a neck back in third place. The winner did bore into Oxide during the last twenty yards or so but whether Oxide in turn cannoned into Sainfoin was uncertain. Nonetheless, the connections of Sainfoin lodged an immediate protest against the winner. However, it was dismissed by the V.A.T.C. stewards on the curious grounds that while Tim Swiveller had caused interference, Oxide was the only horse to suffer and thus to award the race to Sainfoin would have been unfair because he had enjoyed an uninterrupted passage.
In what was to be an important test case in the governance of the Turf in this country, the owner-trainer of Sainfoin, Ike Carslake, father of jockey ‘Brownie’ Carslake, then appealed over the heads of the V.A.T.C. directly to the V.R.C. Although the settlement of all bets was suspended until the outcome of this later appeal, bookmakers gave it no chance of being upheld. But, of course, it was. Sainfoin was declared the winner and Oxide promoted to second, with no third place declared. Walter Hall was none too pleased; he believed that he was entitled to the first prize as his horse had suffered the more severely of the two. In seeking redress, Hall sullied his reputation by resorting to a technicality. The V.R.C. had only recently made it mandatory for nominations of horses to be under the owner’s name. Hall alleged that Carslake didn’t own Sainfoin at all but was, in fact, the property of a Mr H. Skinner.
Hall rendered no honour to his name in this grasping tactic, and Carslake was readily able to prove to the satisfaction of the V.R.C. that he had acquired all of Mr Skinner’s prior interest in the horse. Oxide continued to race on and at six managed to win the A.J.C. Place Handicap for a historic third time. At the age of seven, the gallant little galloper won his last race – as a hot favourite when he took out the A.J.C. Bylong Stakes at the spring meeting carrying 8 st. 4lb with just a neck to spare from Henry White’s Form. Even as late as May 1897 Tom Lamond had Oxide in work following a lengthy spell, but the old horse failed to stand a preparation and was finally retired to a life of leisure by his grateful owner.
In a career on the Turf that lasted almost fifty years, forty-five of which were spent as a committeeman of the A.J.C., Walter Hall was never destined to win the club’s greatest race. It wasn’t for want of trying – for he was a subscriber for many Derbies from 1862 until ill-health supervened; his last nomination was for the 1908 Derby with Contango, a colt of his own breeding from one of his favourite mares in Florrie. Miss Magus, who ran second in 1863 behind Ramornie, was his first starter in the race and Oxide his second; and after that, he ran third twice – with Delaware in 1893 and Reviver in 1899, the last horse to carry his colours in the classic. Nonetheless, while the Derby remained a lacuna on his honour roll of major races won at Randwick, Hall still enjoyed a good measure of success on the course. The best thoroughbreds to carry his colours there, apart from Oxide, included Cunnamulla and Garfield referred to earlier; as well as Delaware (1895 A.J.C. Doncaster Handicap), and Reviver (1899 A.J.C. Champagne Stakes and 1900 Metropolitan). All of these, except for Cunnamulla and Garfield, were prepared at Zetland Lodge by Tom Lamond, who remained Hall’s friend and trainer until the day he died.
Hall was never seriously tempted to found a stud although he was quite happy to retain a small number of his better-performing fillies such as Florrie in his later years for breeding purposes. A good betting man in his younger days, as his wealth flourished, Hall restricted his betting to sporting wagers and remained content to put his friends on when Lamond suggested that one of his horses was ready to tickle the ring. Nor did the man from Cobb and Co. ever fall into the habit of paying excessive prices for his yearlings. As befitted a man whose commercial fortune in life had, in its first manifestation, required a certain amount of shrewdness in horse-trading, Hall was as much concerned with conformation as with pedigree. There were times when he did open the purse strings ringside at yearling sales, such as the 950 guineas he gave in January 1884 for the well-bred Tuberose, a daughter of Grand Flaneur, and the 600 guineas in April 1902 for the son of Etra Weenie that raced as Great Heart. However, neither of those gambles paid off and Hall generally restricted himself to paying reasonable but not over-the-top prices for his bloodstock.
A passionate man, Hall believed in causes although some were worthier than others. In January 1900 rallying to the jingoistic cause of empire, he subscribed £5,000 to raise a corps of real bushmen to fight Paul Kruger and the Boers in South Africa. More sensibly and compassionately, later that same year when his Reviver won the A.J.C. Metropolitan he donated £1,000 to the Children’s Hospital during the settling at Tattersall’s Club on the following Monday. It was this latter action that was more reflective of the better angel of his nature, for once Hall had made his pile, he was benevolent and generous for the rest of his life. Ostentation was mostly alien to his character, and he was the bane of frivolous Sydney society hostesses for his reluctance to embrace what then passed for the social circuit. Walter Hall might have been in society, but he was never of it, and he very shrewdly took the measure of that world. Perhaps the only flashy extravagance that Hall permitted himself was in the quality of his equipages, particularly the stylish Abbott buggy that became such a familiar feature at Randwick over many years. Hall was as notable for the quality of his own buggy horses in much the same way as Tom Clibborn was for his saddle hacks. Walter Hall and his wife, Eliza, entertained but sparingly at their impressive two-storey mansion, Wildfell, at Potts Point, with its expansive garden extending down to the harbour. It was at Wildfell that Walter Hall died on October 13, 1911, in his 81st year having attended the Craven Plate meeting at Randwick only the week before.
Childless, Hall was survived by his widow and wife of 37 years, Eliza, who inherited an estate that was valued for probate at a staggering £2,915,513 – one of the largest left in Australia up to that time. Eliza was the elder daughter of George Kirk of South Yarra and a man who had been involved in pastoral partnerships with Richard Goldsbrough. She had never shared Walter’s passion for the Turf, but instead was a pious woman heavily involved with the Church of England who spent much of her time doing social work helping disadvantaged women and children. Having no children to inherit the estate and anxious to continue the spirit of philanthropy that had animated much of her life with her husband, Eliza Hall established a £1,000,000 charitable trust in 1911 after seeking advice and guidance from Richard Casey, a good friend of Walter’s, who had served on the boards of both Goldsbrough Mort and Mount Morgan Mines.
Although sixteen years her husband’s junior, Eliza only survived her beloved partner until February 1916 when she, too, succumbed at Wildfell – in her case to cancer. After generous bequests to nieces and nephews, she dedicated the bulk of her estate to the charitable trust that now bore the name of Walter and Eliza Hall. It was after her death that Richard Casey and Harry Allen, the Dean of Medicine at the University of Melbourne, organised a small portion of the trust’s income to be used to found an institute of medical research that continues to do good work to this day. The charitable instincts of Walter and Eliza Hall did not merely embrace the big picture of medical research and all its related activities in Australia. Their four-legged friends, who in brass and leather harness had first made possible the remarkable rise in the world of a certain young man from Herefordshire, were not forgotten. A portion of trust money was devoted to the construction of countless sturdy stone horse-drinking troughs in most Australian cities. A familiar sight at one time, each bore a simple and dignified plaque that read: ‘Erected by the Walter and Eliza Hall Trust’. Some specimens survive even to this day.
I might mention in closing that one rare self-indulgence of Eliza Hall in those few short years left to her after Walter’s death was the purchase of a new-fangled 1912 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. Just what the man who had done so much to expand the operations of coach and horses in Australia, and who took such pride in his own gleaming horse-drawn equipages, would have made of this development one can only conjecture. However, it was clear by then that the lights of Cobb and Co were quickly dimming as a whole new force in horsepower began to stalk this wide brown land. Curiously enough, after the death of Eliza Hall, this particular Silver Ghost was to enjoy a vicarious relationship with the Turf in its own peculiar way when it ultimately became the property of the pastoralist Otway Falkiner, owner of David, the champion galloper of the 1920s.