On the afternoon of Saturday, 17 October 1885, a record 20,000 people crowded into Caulfield racecourse and watched as the forty-one runners engaged in that year’s Caulfield Cup, filed on to the course. The field was, with a single exception, the biggest that had ever faced a starter in the colonies. It was an unusually open and spirited betting market with three horses sharing favouritism at tens. One of them was Prince Imperial, owned and trained by John Mayo, the esteemed and experienced horseman from Maitland. The jockey on board Prince Imperial was Mayo’s own apprentice, Frank McGrath, who was due to celebrate his twentieth birthday the following day. Horse and rider had already been successful in the prestigious Hawkesbury Grand Handicap, and it was mostly on the strength of that performance that they were so fancied for the Caulfield Cup. As the big field thundered down the hill towards the home turn, it was a scene reminiscent of Lord Cardigan and the battle of Balaclava. Nor was the reminiscence to end there.
There was crowding on the rails as riders jockeyed for the inside running and the rush up the straight to the winning post. Suddenly three horses in front collided almost at the same instant. The result was one of the worst disasters in the history of Australian racing as sixteen of the forty-one starters crashed to the Turf. Surprisingly, only one jockey was killed in the incident, Donald Nicholson, a young twenty-four-year-old of Scottish birth, who had become a favourite lightweight rider in his adopted land. Indeed, despite his tender years and premature death, he holds the unique record of having won the A.J.C. Epsom Handicap in five successive years, from 1880 to 1884. Also among the fallen were Prince Imperial and the young Frank McGrath, who lay motionless on the Turf, the result of a fracture at the base of his skull. It was the quick thinking of John Mayo that arguably saved McGrath from becoming the second fatality on that miserable afternoon.
Mayo ran down the Caulfield straight and from the carnage picked the young lad up in his arms and carried him to a hansom cab that despatched him to a nearby hospital. It was just as well, for destiny had other work appointed for the young man. It would be almost eight months before McGrath rode again and when he did so, it would be with a steel plate inserted in his skull. Although he won the Epsom Handicap on Zeno the following year, and some minor races at Randwick as well as in the Maitland and Glen Innes districts, recurrent headaches and ill-health – legacies of that Caulfield fall – eventually forced McGrath’s early resignation from the saddle in the year 1890. It was a decision taken by the lad with bitterness, and for a time it seemed that, like Job, he was being tested in the fires of adversity by an Old Testament deity.
Frank McGrath was born in Boorowa, near Cowra, in Western N.S.W. on October 17th, 1866, the son of James McGrath, a blacksmith/wheelwright and part-time horse trainer who had emigrated from Ireland arriving in Sydney in July 1855, aboard the ‘Gloriana’. James first settled at Glebe with his older brother, John, but the sectarianism that was rife in Australia at the time and pitted Anglican against Catholic, saw the family move west. Like most boys born in the country, Frank could ride from an early age and at the age of 9 won an amateur race at Grabben Gullen; his first professional victories in the saddle occurred at country race meetings in the Cowra district when he was about thirteen, on horses owned by his father. First apprenticed to John Allsop at Randwick for two years, he met with little success from the few mounts received during his time there. McGrath then transferred to another Randwick personality in Teddy Keys, before completing his apprenticeship with John Mayo in the Maitland district where he rode some winners. McGrath together with two other long-term Turf identities, Bill Kelso and Tom Nerriker, all happened to ride in the first ever race run at Rosehill – the Opening Handicap in April 1885. Among the good horses with which young Frank was successful during his riding career were Lord Clifden and Rataplan. Upon being forced to swap his saddle for a stopwatch, he first plied his training craft in the Goulburn district before moving to Sydney and taking stables at Canterbury Park in 1895.
We are told that it is circumstances that draw forth men and that sometimes the ruthlessness of our fate miraculously seems to relent as we see our destiny burning brightly before us, wonderful and exciting. Such it seemed to Frank McGrath as he took his first tentative steps along the training path, after his travails as a jockey. Indeed. he was a success from the start, especially among the ponies. In those days Reub Gray, the inventor of the starting barrier that bore his name, was a jockey based at Canterbury and he did much of McGrath’s riding in those early pony races. The prize money might have been poor but the betting ring was strong, and McGrath was a shrewd player from the very beginning, taking care of the pennies just in case the pounds didn’t take care of themselves. A string of good little ‘uns passed through McGrath’s hands, including the likes of Katie, Storm, Little Lady and Comemell. However, it was the reel of victories by one pony, in particular, the remarkably resilient and durable Stormy, that enabled McGrath to buy a house and stables, together with a large plot of land, at 156 Doncaster Avenue, Kensington, adjacent to the racecourse. Over the years the establishment would see a number of champions pass through its gates, but the name above the portal would always remain the same. ‘Stormy’ in deference to the courageous 14.2 hands galloper that gave a young Frank McGrath his first real grubstake in life.
It was in 1898, after the retirement of Stormy – believe it or not, as a 17-year-old – that McGrath decided to forsake the ponies and devote all of his energy to the training of fully-grown racehorses. It had always been his intention, and the ponies had only ever been a means to that end. It was as late as 1889 that the registration of trainers and jockeys by the A.J.C. was introduced, while the following year, in a further bid to control the sport, the club prohibited jockeys and trainers from taking part in unregistered racing for ‘ponies and galloways’. In the words of the A.J.C. committee, the racing of ponies was “a so-called sport which is instituted far more for pecuniary considerations and gambling than for any useful or commendable purpose, such as the breeding of a class of strong, serviceable horses.” For McGrath, it had to be one or the other and ever since that fall in the Caulfield Cup he had been determined to cut the mustard in the big time of thoroughbred racing. Still a bachelor upon moving into his Randwick stables, it wasn’t long before he was seriously courting a young lady from Crookwell, Bridget Stapleton, whom he had known for much of his life, and the pair married in July 1900. The following year their first child, Catherine, was born.
A change in career direction is never an easy thing to pull off, especially when it comes amidst the financial and emotional demands of supporting a growing family. Let’s face it – the racecourse can be a grim and forbidding place to make a living when good-class winners are hard to come by. Having decided to switch from ponies to real racehorses and nail his colours to the A.J.C. mast, there were moments around the turn of the century when McGrath pondered long and hard the wisdom of that decision. It wasn’t quite despair but as the mellow days of autumn gave ground to the hard winter of 1902 it seemed to McGrath that it was time for a deus ex machina to appear and help him. Happily, the Deus long sought for arrived in early May – less than a year after the birth of his first daughter – in the shape of a two-year-old colt named Abundance. A lightly-framed dark chestnut of fine length by Pilgrim’s Progress, Abundance had been bred by the famous James Wilson senior at Queenscliff from his English-bred mare Beanfeast and had carried his breeder’s colours seven times as a juvenile. Although he had only won one race – the five-furlong Aidful Stakes on the last day of the 1901 Flemington spring fixture, this bald statistic hardly did justice to the colt. In the autumn he had gone under by a head to the flying filly Eleanor in the V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes and then found only Brakpan better by the same margin when a fast-finishing second in the Ascot Vale Stakes over the same course just a few days later. Besides, Abundance had only just recovered from a severe attack of influenza in the weeks leading into the Flemington autumn fixture and had undergone a hurried preparation.
James Wilson senior was a man of great experience as a breeder and trainer of racehorses and Abundance possessed a fascinating pedigree. Very inbred to both Birdcatcher and Touchstone, he boasted a double cross of both Sterling and the great Stockwell. Moreover, the family to which Abundance belonged had produced a greater number of classic winners than any other in the General Stud Book. Pilgrim’s Progress was a chestnut horse bred in England in 1889 and imported to Victoria by the Hon. W. McCulloch in August 1892 to stand at the family’s Woodlands Estate, near Crowlands in the Wimmera district of Victoria, at a fee of 20 guineas. The attraction of Pilgrim’s Progress as a stallion wasn’t so much his racecourse performances as his bloodlines, for he was by Isonomy, sire of the great Isinglass, out of Pilgrimage, winner of the 1878 Two Thousand Guineas and One Thousand Guineas. Apart from Pilgrim’s Progress, Pilgrimage was the dam of Jeddah, the 100/1 winner of the 1898 English Derby, and also Canterbury Pilgrim, winner of the 1896 English Oaks and the future dam of those two remarkable stallions, Chaucer and Swynford. Of course, just how distinguished the pedigree of Pilgrim’s Progress was, only became truly obvious with the passing of the years.
Beanfeast, the dam of Abundance, was a bay mare bred in England in 1887 and had been a fair performer on the Turf in England winning the Liverpool Juvenile Plate, the Monument Stakes at Yarmouth, and the Chaplin Nursery at Lincoln. She had been one of the mares selected in England for the Broken Hill silver king, Mr W. R. Wilson, by Mr J. Eden Savill and she had joined the St Albans Stud in 1890. Plebeian, her sire, was only ever heard of once when he won the 1874 Middle-Park Plate. As with Amato which won the English Derby in 1838, it was the only race in which he ever ran. Plebeian’s stock was mostly undistinguished on the racecourse, but after he died in 1893, some of the mares he left behind – such as Isabel and Match Girl, respectively the dams of St Frusquin and Matchbox, proved their worth. St Frusquin was Persimmon’s great rival during that 1896 classic season in England, and later became a champion sire; while Matchbox was sold to the Hungarians for some 15,000 guineas. W. R. Wilson never saw any of Beanfeast’s progeny race and the mare was sold out of the St Albans Stud in the celebrated lottery of October 1895 with a filly foal-at-foot, subsequently named Passover.
Not that James Wilson enjoyed much luck with Beanfeast in the early years. Passover failed to win in three seasons on the Turf, and the first time he mated Beanfeast it was with another imported son of Isonomy in the quality stallion, Eiridspord, which only resulted in a dead foal. The following season Beanfeast produced the filly, Wink, to Off Colour, and she was good enough to win a couple of welters on the Geelong course. 1897, the year that Wink was foaled, was also the year that he sent Beanfeast to Pilgrim’s Progress to get Abundance. Despite the high opinion James Wilson senior held of Pilgrim’s Progress, the couple of years after he had matched Beanfeast with the stallion suggested that much of his stock were prone to unsoundness. Indeed, the Wilson family had seen it firsthand. James Wilson junior had enjoyed stunning success with another of the Pilgrim’s Progress progeny when in 1900 Palmer won the third Caulfield Futurity Stakes, worth £2,000, while still a two-year-old. A homebred grandson of that grand broodmare Yardley, Palmer might have carried only 5 st. 12lb that day at Caulfield but the Wilsons expected big things after that from the colt. Alas, it wasn’t to be when unsoundness saw Palmer run but once as a three-year-old. Frustrated James Wilson junior sold Palmer out of the stable only to see him win both the Brisbane Cup and Moreton Handicap the following season in other hands. Still, it was this evidence of weakness in the breed and the fact that Abundance didn’t possess perfect forelegs – he had an ugly formation on one of his knees – that led James Wilson senior to let it be known after the 1902 V.R.C. autumn fixture that the colt was for sale – at the right price.
It was at this stage of proceedings that the former Victorian bookmaker, Bob Phillips, entered the picture. A colourful character, Phillips first came to notice in the 1880s when he plunged heavily on the South Melbourne football team. Betting on the important football matches was big business in Victoria in the years before the Crash, and it was a decade in which South Melbourne enjoyed an unprecedented run of good fortune winning five V.F.A. premierships including three on the trot in the years 1888-89-90. Phillips made a bundle backing the famous blue and white leather hunters during those halcyon years before the jerseys changed to the more familiar red and white. Much of the money was then parlayed into Turf and silver speculations. One of Phillips’s most successful bets came when he dreamed that Bravo, owned by W. T. Jones, would win the Melbourne Cup of 1890. He related his dream in Bowes’s Tattersall’s when Bravo was at 50/1 in the betting and impulsively laid a wager, collecting a couple of thousand pounds in due course.
Phillips’s earliest significant victory on the Australian Turf with a horse carrying his own colours, came by courtesy of Ellerslie when the aged gelding upset the 1890 V.R.C. Grand National Hurdle field over three miles, winning by a neck at 33/1 on heavy ground. Phillips suffered like many others as the eighties’ boom ran to bust in the early nineties, and when the gold rush started in the west, this bookmaker-cum-hustler journeyed to Coolgardie in search of the elusive metal. Phillips struck gold there alright but not so much on the diggings as on the racecourse where the betting was big; and during his stint in Coolgardie, he owned several useful horses, besides two very good ones in Tarquin and the year-younger Australian. Among a host of other races, the former won him the 1900 Adelaide Cup and the latter the 1900 W.A.T.C. Perth Stakes. Sadly, towards the end of his stint in the West, Bob Phillips’ eyes began to fail him and, fearing total blindness, he sold most of his horses, including Australian, who then proceeded to win the Perth Cup for his new owner.
However, it wasn’t long before Phillips regretted his loss of bloodstock – poor eyesight or not – and when he returned to Melbourne flush with money in the autumn of 1902, he was very keen to buy a Derby colt. Phillips was on good terms with the leading Sydney jockey James Barden, who had ridden Abundance in his last couple of starts. When Barden assured him that the blue riband was well within the compass of Abundance and that the horse was on the market, our Victorian man from the West offered James Wilson 800 guineas. The canny old Yorkshireman, however, held out for a thousand, to which Phillips eventually agreed.
At the same time, the bookmaker also bought Felicitous, a four-year-old mare by Pilgrim’s Progress who had recently won for James Wilson. Phillips, who had previously had horses trained in Sydney by Frank McGrath, sent both to McGrath’s Kensington stables in early May. Doubtless to James Wilson senior, Abundance was well-sold at the stiff price, and both father and son – who had first made the St Albans stud and stable at Geelong the most famous in the land – were regarded as the shrewdest horse-traders south of the Murray. Now, ‘twas true that old James had made a mistake when he sold the brothers Richmond and Bosworth to Eli Jellett back in the seventies, but he’d hardly put a foot wrong in horse-dealing since. Besides, as the leading trainer of the old school, James Wilson senior believed he well and truly had the measure of this son of Pilgrim’s Progress. James Wilson junior wasn’t so sure: he had been prepared to buy Abundance from his father for a thousand guineas but as he had previously taken some expensive bloodstock from the old man and most had turned out badly, James senior with true paternal solicitude, declined to visit further misfortune upon his son!
In departing Queenscliff and arriving at Kensington, Abundance was going from the stables of a man who was already a legend on the Australian Turf and coming to the stables of a man who was about to become one. As we have seen, for all of his successes in Australia’s rich handicaps and classic races, James Wilson senior was never fated to win the A.J.C. Derby. However, in Abundance, he sold a colt that was to give his new trainer the first of what would eventually amount to an extraordinary five winners of Randwick’s signature event. The 36-year-old Frank McGrath, slight, bespectacled, and diffident to the point of reticence, might have seemed an unlikely figure to be cast as a hero in any chronicle of the Sport of Kings, but that is what he ultimately became. And now, for the first time in his life, he finally had his hands on a real racehorse. During the next forty-four years, McGrath would forge a remarkable reputation as the finest trainer of stayers in the land; and in Prince Foote, Amounis, and Peter Pan, he would go on to train three of the best racehorses Australia has ever seen. While Abundance was never in their class, let it be understood here and now that this dour son of Pilgrim’s Progress was to emerge as easily the best three-year-old of his year and the very first horse to prove the nascent genius of the young McGrath.
Pray allow me to remind readers that at the turn of the century in Australia it was still the custom to sweat every horse frequently; it was the accepted method of reducing superfluous avoirdupois, so to speak. The barbarity of this practice – a throwback to the colder clime traditions of Europe – was wholly out of place in a temperate, warm region such as that Australia enjoyed. While McGrath had no special theories as to the training of racehorses, he recognised from the start that adaptability to the needs of particular animals was the first essential. Abundance was a naturally free-sweater, and, at least as a rising three-year-old, wasn’t a horse to run into flesh. McGrath understood instinctively that neither sweating this horse nor excessively long, arduous working gallops would deliver him up a Derby winner.
Now, one aspect of Australian racing that had changed markedly during the last quarter of the nineteenth century was the decline in the country’s predilection for ante-post betting. How different from the time when First Water was backed to win the Melbourne Cup for at least £50,000 without his price moving. The increase in the number of race meetings during the intervening years explained much of the change in behaviour, but also the fact that the men of Tattersall’s offered no real inducement to come in early when experience showed that at the calling of the card the night before, prices were as good – or better. The years would soon reveal that Frank McGrath had a talent for landing betting stings, but rather than long-range wagers with all the attendant risks of default – by the horse rather than the bookmaker – his technique had more to do with confusing the touts as regards the fitness of his horse or the particular race for which the horse was being set, closer to the day itself.
Abundance during the spring of 1902 offers an instructive case in point in more ways than one. Given that he was widely regarded as the second-best colt of his year, throughout the winter of 1902 he was kept woefully tight on bookmakers’ betting charts. Indeed, the only colt rated his superior was Brakpan, the second of that wonderful trio of full brothers by Grafton, all of them bred and trained by Tom Payten, and all of which sported the colours of the Hon. Agar Wynne. Brakpan raced seven times as a juvenile, recording five wins and a second and his victories included the Ascot Vale Stakes at Flemington and the Easter Stakes and Champagne Stakes at Randwick where he carried 10lb and 14lb penalties respectively. Brakpan met Abundance twice as a juvenile and defeated him on both occasions: firstly, in the Ascot Vale Stakes when the winning margin was a head at level weights; and again, two days later over seven-furlongs in the Select Stakes at Flemington when Abundance finished down the course with 3lb less. It was after the Randwick autumn fixture that Agar Wynne refused a syndicate offer of 3000 guineas for his colt. Little wonder then that Brakpan wintered as the Derby favourite with Abundance at a slightly longer quotation.
The year 1902 saw a continuation of the so-called Federation Drought and was to prove one of Australia’s driest years on record. Indeed, so bad was the drought that the N.S.W. Government was moved to declare February 26th as a day of ‘humility and prayer’, such was the concern about Sydney’s water supply. It was no small irony then, that during August 1902, the month in which so much critical work is done on Derby candidates, no less than seven inches of rain fell at Randwick racecourse hampering training operations in the extreme. Never during the previous ten years had it been necessary to shut-off the grass tracks at headquarters as during those weeks and the leading trainers were hampered accordingly. McGrath, with the availability of Kensington on his doorstep and a horse that was better suited to one-mile gallops rather than feats of stamina at trackwork, was inconvenienced less than most. “Too fat,” said the critics of Abundance; but McGrath kept his own counsel, restricting the colt to comparatively short gallops, and to the end of his life maintained that, so long as a horse was standing up to his work, the bigger he got, the better he got. Over the coming years, this master trainer was to refine the principle to perfection, but in Abundance, the touts, pressmen, and public alike all saw it applied in its most rudimentary, though nonetheless effective form.
Abundance resumed the new season at Rosehill in the Rawson Stakes during mid-August, a much stronger colt and although plain, was now a horse of real substance. Although beaten easily by the older Patronage, Abundance ran a promising race and in finishing second relegated the 5/2 favourite, Brakpan, into third place. A week later both of the top three-year-olds were again engaged in the Tattersall’s Hampden Stakes, a weight-for-age event with penalties and allowances, and Abundance, enjoying a 10lb weight pull over Brakpan, went to the post as a firm 6/4 favourite in the field of sixteen. The son of Pilgrim’s Progress had the measure of his opponents at the half-distance and scored comfortably in a race that saw Brakpan fail to fill a place. It was then on to Randwick and the Derby. As the correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald observed on Derby Day, “the spring reunion of the Australian Jockey Club had developed from a race meeting to the dignity of an outdoor festival.” His Excellency the State Governor and Lady Rawson were again in attendance, and, based on ticket selling on the trams and turnstiles, a record crowd of fully 23,000 people had joined them despite the overcast day.
Not that the journey to Randwick for the many that had relied on public transport was smooth. On this occasion, a large number of electric trams were used in the service and one of them, dismounting the rails at the intersection of Dowling and Flinders streets caused severe disruption to traffic. As a result, hundreds of people walked along Moore Park to the junction with the Cleveland-street line while others completed the journey to the course on foot. The traffic was diverted around by the railway station and along Cleveland-street but again the electric cars created delays, for, being overburdened, some of them stopped on the turns and had to wait until assistance came in the shape of steam motors. However, once arrived at the racecourse, it was apparent that the recent rains had brought about a remarkable transformation of fresh verdure to the lawns which only encouraged the ladies to promenade even more gloriously in their finery to the strains of Mr de Groen’s Vice-Regal Military Band. The Sydney Morning Herald’s racing correspondent breathlessly informed readers that amongst the vice-regal party, Miss Rawson’s pale blue voile had a vest of cream point d’esprit net and black and white embroidered chiffon, and was worn with a Tuscan hat trimmed with forget-me-nots and black ribbon velvet.
The 1902 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions are set out in the table below:
Seven horses took to the course for the blue riband although it was a matter of regret that Brakpan had declined the contest, as a clash between the Grafton colt and Abundance at level weights had been keenly anticipated. Abundance, as a result, was a firm favourite but in Brakpan’s absence, the Newmarket stable was represented by the second favourite, Great Scot, who, like Brakpan, was also owned by that prominent Victorian bloodstock breeder, the Hon. Agar Wynne. Great Scot, a flashy chestnut son of Lochiel with a marked white blaze and four white stockings, had been bred by his trainer, Tom Payten, in conjunction with studmaster James Thompson. The arrangement for their joint bloodstock ventures was that any yearling that Payten bred and wished to retain, he needed to buy through the auction ring. Payten was keen on Great Scot from the start, paying 200 guineas for the colt when the Oakleigh draft was sold by H. Chisholm and Co. in April 1901. Payten had bought the dam of Great Scot, Scotch Mary, an unraced daughter of Clan Stuart, from the Eales Bros. in April 1898 and Great Scot was the first foal she produced under his ownership.
Surprisingly, for a son of Lochiel, Great Scot showed precocious speed from the moment he was broken-in and was seen out as early as the first week of October when he won the Maribyrnong Trial Stakes at Flemington in the hands of Fred Kuhn. Payten didn’t spare the colt and before the New Year was in he had sported silk no less than eight times for three wins and four placings including third in the Maribyrnong Plate and second in the A.J.C. December Stakes. It was after he won the Juvenile Stakes at the Randwick Tattersall’s Club meeting in late December that Payten sold him to his loyal patron, Agar Wynne. The horse only carried the famous green and pink colours once more as a two-year-old, when he finished last in the field of four behind Wakeful in the All-Aged Stakes at the Randwick Autumn Meeting. Great Scot had confirmed that he had emerged as good as ever from his winter spell with an excellent second – beaten a head – in the Tattersall’s Club Tramway Handicap (6f) in late August.
Two Victorian colts shared the third line of Derby betting, Free States and Strata Florida. Free States, a son of Bill of Portland, was trained by Jim Scobie and carried the colours of Sir Rupert Clarke. A big, powerful colt, high on the leg, he had been purchased for 700 guineas as a yearling. Backward and underdeveloped as a juvenile, he had failed to run a place in his four appearances at Caulfield and Flemington in the spring of 1901. Scobie elected to miss the autumn with Free States to give the big fellow time to mature, and he had been rewarded at his latest start when the colt easily won a mile welter with 8 st. 5lb at Flemington in mid-August. Strata Florida, though a very late foal, had been the most expensive lot sold at the Randwick Yearling Sales the year before, when he realised the astounding price of 1300 guineas. He carried the ‘black and yellow diamonds’ of W. T. Jones, the well-known Melbourne stockbroker who had won the Melbourne Cup with Bravo and now resided in England. Strata Florida, by the all-conquering Grafton, out of John Mayo’s 1894 Sydney Cup winner, Lady Trenton, was trained by Walter Hickenbotham, who had charge of the commission in conjunction with Archie Yuille when the colt was originally bought as a yearling. Strata Florida had six starts as a juvenile and despite running three minor placings in the best of company, only managed to break his maiden status at his final appearance in mid-March when he won the Federal Stakes at Caulfield. Upon resuming in August, Strata Florida ran placings in two stakes races at Caulfield to fit him for his Derby mission. A glance at the jockeys’ list for the 1902 A.J.C. blue riband revealed a name that would one day resonate on the Australian Turf, albeit not as a jockey, and that was 17-year-old Cecil Godby. He was enjoying his only mount in the race by partnering The Caretaker, a horse owned and trained by his master, John Gough.
Frank McGrath was supremely confident that Abundance would win the Derby and his only concern was that absence of pace might render it less a contest of stamina than a lottery for sprinters. Accordingly, both McGrath and Phillips instructed Barden to keep the field moving if his rivals were inclined to go slow. The outsider, Lord Middleton, led past the judge’s box the first time from Great Scot with Strata Florida and Abundance next, and Free States last. As the field swung out of the straight at a canter, Burn sent Strata Florida to the front, although even then the pace continued to be pedestrian – the first half-mile took a minute – until nearing the seven-furlong post when The Caretaker assumed leadership duties. It was after passing the six that Barden, dissatisfied with the tempo, made his move. Dashing Abundance to the front ahead of The Caretaker, this fine son of Pilgrim’s Progress was never in danger of defeat after that, and while both Strata Florida and Free States ran on in the straight, the favourite was never extended, albeit in a slowly run race.
It was a popular victory with the crowd, and the cheering was renewed when Mr Clibborn invested the colt with the blue riband. It was a sweet triumph for McGrath who resisted the temptation to get back at those critics who had been so vocal before the race. Still, down through the ages, ridicule has always been the fate of genius. McGrath later observed: “I was condemned on the score that it was impossible for a horse to win at a mile and a half unless he worked at that distance.” Horse-training, so the fates had decided, was to remain Frank McGrath’s profession after all. Those that missed the significance of the man’s training achievement with Abundance in the Derby might have been given pause to reconsider later in the day when the second horse that Bob Phillips bought from James Wilson senior, Felicitous, ran a nice race to finish third behind the champion, Wakeful, in the Spring Stakes. Two days later she was to run a fine fourth in The Metropolitan in the hands of Fred Kuhn behind Dick Wootton’s Queen of Sheba. Sportsmen were unaccustomed to seeing horses once trained by the founder of the St Albans Stud improve in the hands of other men. A perceptive paddock bookmaker of the time remarked to a colleague: “This man McGrath may bear watching.”
James Barden, the successful jockey on Abundance, was one of Sydney’s leading riders. Born at Boggabilla, near the New South Wales and Queensland border, where his father managed a station on the Macintyre River, Barden displayed an aptitude for the pigskin quite early in life in those days when shearers were ever eager to match their ponies and were on the lookout for a lightweight to ride them. As young James matured, his victories at places like Inverell and Moree caught the eye of John R. Smith of the Tucka Tucka Stud, who sent him down to Tom Ivory at Randwick. Ivory had made first-class riders of Paddy Piggott and Donald Nicholson, among others, but was down on his luck during much of Barden’s time with him. A strong and vigorous jockey, James Barden was a shrewd judge of pace that saw him in great demand in our rich handicaps and weight-for-age races; he was one of the first riders in Sydney to adopt the forward crouch, made so famous overseas by Tod Sloan.
Barden’s first winner in Sydney came aboard the Ivory-trained Tea Tray in January 1889, but lack of patronage and a couple of accidents in hurdle races saw him turn his back on the Turf and return to the land to become a grazier. It was only the drought that prompted him to make a comeback. Success came quickly the second time around. Whereas most jockeys preferred a lounging life around Pitt-street and the less desirable parts of Castlereagh-street, Barden was a dedicated horseman. Even a broken thigh in a hurdle race at Warwick Farm in 1900 couldn’t deter him for long. He won two Epsoms for Agar Wynne on Melodrama and rode most of the good horses of the period including Wakeful, Trafalgar, Lord Cardigan, Gladsome, Dividend and Collarit. While 1902 saw him at arguably the peak of his powers – he won no less than six races from eight rides over the four days of the V.R.C. Spring Meeting that year -perhaps the ride of which he was most proud came aboard the outsider Ibex in the 1903 Craven Plate. It was on that occasion that his initiative saw him upset the favourites, Wakeful and Cruciform.
When increasing weight forced him from the saddle in 1910, he turned his horsemanship to training, where he met with similar success and for about ten years trained for the rebarbative John Brown – a dubious honour that he shared for a time with Frank McGrath. Barden trained numerous winners for the Newcastle coal baron including Duke Foote and Wallace Isinglass, but it didn’t stop Brown peremptorily dismissing him in August 1919. Even without Brown’s patronage, Barden continued to train with success, and perhaps his best-known training triumph came with the great sprinter Greenline in the 1930 V.R.C. Newmarket Handicap at Flemington. Barden died in Lewisham private hospital in August 1931 at the age of sixty-two leaving an estate valued at £10,065 to his wife. Barden was survived by six daughters and three sons and two of them, Jim and Charlie, each made their mark in racing. Jim helped his father out in stables and upon his father’s death took out a trainer’s licence to succeed him, training for among other clients, the great Dick Wootton. Charlie Barden, two years’ younger, was a brilliant young apprentice who served his indentures with his father and, while still an apprentice, won the Sydney jockeys’ premiership in 1916-17 by the bare margin of one winner from another gun apprentice of the period, Fred Foley.
Abundance was stripped for the Duff Memorial Stakes on the Wednesday after the Derby, when, despite carrying the full 14lb penalty, he went off slightly in the red but found Great Scott too hot over the mile. A fortnight later and Frank McGrath left for Melbourne to slay the dragons in their own den with his modest three-horse team comprising Abundance, Felicitous and Kinglock – the last a promising miler by Lochiel. McGrath’s intrigues in Melbourne that spring provided an object lesson in hoodwinking both the touts and the gentlemen of the Victorian press. Not entered for the Caulfield Guineas, Abundance appeared to go off in his trackwork (largely thanks to the help of a heavyweight saddle) and when the great Wakeful beat him pointlessly over nine furlongs in the Caulfield Stakes the men of Tattersall’s began to take some liberties in their Victoria Derby betting.
The truth was that Abundance was in a rare buckle, but our Frank wanted to get the stable commission on for both the Derby and the Cup at better odds. Circumstances conspired to help him when Strata Florida went some way towards repaying his big purchase price by beating Wakeful over ten furlongs in the weight-for-age October Stakes at Flemington and then took out the Caulfield Guineas. Despite the clear superiority Abundance showed at Randwick, for a time Strata Florida disputed Victoria Derby favouritism. Meanwhile, McGrath’s close associates in Sydney loaded the money in abundance on Abundance. Two days before the race it was no secret that, notwithstanding the adverse track reports, the wily Frank was very sweet on him. Once the stable commissioners were satisfied with their quota of Derby and Cup bets – £10,000 was said to ride on the Abundance double, owner Bob Phillips advised his friends far and wide to be on the colt.
It was sound advice, for despite a Victoria Derby field that included Strata Florida and Brakpan, together with Great Scot making the pace for his better-fancied stablemate, Abundance – again in the brilliant hands of James Barden – ran home a convincing winner. So well did Great Scot discharge his pace-making duties that it turned out to be the fastest Derby ever run in Australia up to that time. Great Scot might have been a 33/1 shot, but he held on toughly to finish second – a length away from Abundance – while Brakpan, who was supposed to benefit from his stablemate’s tearaway tactics, finished an inglorious last. Given the substantial doubles commitments hanging over it, the ring was now as blind in its apprehensions towards the Cup as it was confident just a few days before. The history books tell us that The Victory won the Melbourne Cup that year but what they don’t reveal is how very fortunate he was to do so. Abundance almost certainly should have won it in the opinion of most objective witnesses, including the A.J.C. handicapper, John Daly. It was a view Frank McGrath held to his dying day. In an extensive interview with Jack Dexter almost thirty years later, McGrath ruefully reflected on the race and claimed that had Frank Kuhn ridden Abundance he would have landed the prized double.
The Melbourne Cup that year was marred by a series of accidents and mishaps that should never have occurred. Wilful interference when big money is riding will always be a hazard in horseracing, but just how much more of a hazard it was before the advent of stipendiary stewards, elevated watchtowers, and the wall-to-wall video footage of the modern era, can only be imagined. Moreover, in those days the Flemington course lent itself to foul and careless riding because the crowds lining the racetrack afforded the stewards only limited observation. Abundance copped his share going down the back of the Flemington course when he was knocked from the near to the rear division. That the colt managed to regain his balance and find his stride sufficient to finish strongly in the straight and claim the third prize – beaten just over a half-length – was quite remarkable. Handicapped with only 7 st. 6lb, Barden was unable to do the weight and, given that Frank Kuhn was held to his retainer to ride Brakpan in the race for the Newmarket stable, McGrath was forced to leg-up his own young apprentice, Walter Jennings. Interference apart, the young lad struggled to handle such an idle, heavy-headed colt as Abundance. Remarkably, there was no inquiry into the conduct of the Cup despite the fact that a jockey was maimed, a horse was killed, and several good horses – most notably Abundance – were badly knocked about.
There was a fascinating denouement to the politics of the Newmarket stable refusing to release Frank Kuhn to ride Abundance. Widely regarded as the finest lightweight jockey riding in Sydney at the time and numbering among his patrons some of the leading figures on the Turf, the 21-year-old Kuhn had been riding Abundance in much of his work leading up to the Cup. He was only too aware of just how good the horse was going, and just how much the McGrath stable stood to win if he landed the double. Kuhn was ropeable when Tom Payten insisted that he honour his commitment to Brakpan in the Cup – after all, Brakpan had run stone last in the Victoria Derby. Kuhn’s subsequent ride on Brakpan surprised and disappointed Payten and owner, Agar Wynne, as he used the colt very freely, taking charge after a few furlongs and carrying the Cup field along to the half-mile post before dropping right out in the straight.
A cynic might have observed – and plenty did – that as a ride it wasn’t so much calculated to do Brakpan a power of good as Abundance, a genuine stayer who needed a stiff gallop to show his best. Nonetheless, there was no inquiry. Then, on the last Saturday of the V.R.C. meeting, Payten and Wynne elected to run Brakpan in the ten-furlong Spring Handicap, but this time with James Barden in the saddle. Both the ride and the result proved quite different, with Brakpan winning his first and only race of the season by fully three lengths. This time the stewards did initiate inquiries, calling upon Agar Wynne and Tom Payten to account for the horse’s inconsistent running. The sensational upshot was the disqualification of Frank Kuhn for two years. Twice previously the A.J.C. had held over Kuhn’s licence, but in each case, the jockey was able to clear his way. There was to be no comeback this time, however, and the term effectively ended Kuhn’s career in the saddle and ultimately his life.
Born in Lambton in the Newcastle district in 1881, Kuhn hailed from a family of jockeys, and a brief look at his life is to be reminded of both the highs and lows of that demanding profession at the turn of the nineteenth century. Kuhn commenced his racing career as a 14-year-old riding at pony and galloway meetings and soon came to the notice of, among others, Tom Payten and Frank McGrath. When the A.J.C. granted amnesty to jockeys that took part in unregistered meetings, Kuhn threw in his lot with the legitimate game, joined Tom Payten’s Newmarket stable, and proved equally adept on thoroughbreds as he had previously been on ponies. At the 1901 A.J.C. spring meeting, Kuhn had seventeen mounts in the twenty flat races and rode no less than nine winners including the Epsom on John Mayo’s Sequence and The Metropolitan, Spring Stakes and Randwick Plate on San Fran for Tom Payten. On the occasion when Sequence won that 1901 Epsom by a conservative twelve lengths when handicapped on 9 st. 4lb, there was scuttlebutt that Kuhn didn’t carry the full impost expected by the handicapper. It wasn’t just the margin of victory that excited the rumours; it was the manner in which it was achieved from flagfall with Kuhn dashing to the front and riding as if the very Devil himself was in hot pursuit. As Tom Willis observed in the Sydney Mail: “Kuhn did some wonderful things on horses weighted high in handicaps, and a certain clique did some wonderful things in the way of betting when Kuhn was up.”
Before I leave this subject, I might mention that San Fran after winning The Metropolitan went on to run second in Revenue’s Melbourne Cup when handicapped on 9 st. 7lb, with Frank Kuhn again in the saddle. San Fran was subject to some heavy wagering in that Cup but went under by a half-length. About a year later it leaked out that Kuhn hadn’t always carried the weight expected. It was the era of scale-tampering, generally achieved by digging a tunnel under the official weigh-in room and manipulating the weights using a pre-arranged signal when the appropriate jockey stepped on the scales. It was a ruse that occurred at quite a few suburban racecourses, but most notably at Newcastle in April 1903 by Jim “The Grafter” Kingsley. Anyway, some months after that 1901 Melbourne Cup, a tunnel was discovered under the Flemington scales and lying within it were some drink bottles, blankets and a set of weights. No official statement was ever made by the V.R.C., but for some months the A.J.C. were reported to be inquiring into certain matters that were never made public. The inquiries supposedly ended when Frank Kuhn accidentally killed himself with a pea rifle in his Doncaster-avenue home on March 12, 1903, less than a year after marrying his sweetheart, Clara Frith, in Randwick.
Frank McGrath might have failed to land the Melbourne Cup, but his small team of just three horses plundered quite a fortune from the Melbourne ring during that spring of 1902. Apart from taking the Victoria Derby with Abundance, McGrath also won both the Toorak Handicap and the Coburg Stakes with his own horse, Kinglock, a black colt by Lochiel carrying McGrath’s own colours of black, green hoops, black sleeves, and green cap. A few weeks later the same horse guaranteed McGrath both a Merry Christmas, when he landed a good plunge in the Villiers Stakes at Randwick; and a Happy New Year, in early January when winning the New Year’s Gift at the Tattersall’s meeting with 10 st 6lb. Soon after, McGrath sold Kinglock to South Africa for £1,500. Abundance, however, remained the real breadwinner in the ‘Stormy’ establishment, despite returning from Melbourne much lighter in condition, sore, and occasionally lame. The horse resumed in late February to win the V.R.C. St. Leger against just two opponents, Great Scot and Rienzi, hard-held by two lengths. However, his task was made so much easier on that occasion by James Barden, now retained by the Newmarket stable following Kuhn’s fall from grace, for once riding an ill-judged race on Great Scot and leaving that horse far too much to do in the final furlongs.
During the summer recess Bob Phillips, again an active horse-trader despite his failing eyesight, had tried to buy Great Scot intending to use him as a pacemaker for Abundance, but Agar Wynne wouldn’t sell. Both Phillips’ motivation for wanting Great Scot, and Wynne’s reasons for keeping him, took on new meaning in the Australian Cup, run a few days after the V.R.C. St. Leger. Despite having to set a weight-carrying record for a three-year-old with his 8 st. 10lb, Abundance went to the post sharing favouritism with Acrasia; while Great Scot, in receipt of 10lb from his great rival, was despatched a 33/1 shot. A heavy downpour took place shortly after 1 o’clock that afternoon, which transformed the Flemington course. Great Scot, complemented by Tom Payten’s crack apprentice of the time, Arthur Richardson, jumped to the front and was never headed.
Inadvertently it seemed that the stable had tumbled to the correct manner of riding the son of Lochiel and in his next couple of starts he added both the V.R.C. Loch Plate and the R.R.C. Rawson Stakes to his trophy haul. Mention of Arthur Richardson is to be reminded yet again of another brilliant apprentice of the era who, like Frank Kuhn, was lost to the sport at a young age. Richardson had first come to notice when he rode Clean Sweep to victory in the 1900 Melbourne Cup, which he followed up by taking the Sydney Cup on his master’s San Fran the following autumn. 1903 was to be an equally memorable year for the boy from Glen Innes, for apart from Great Scot’s Australian Cup, he also won the Caulfield Cup on Sweet Nell. Alas, being of a convivial nature, Richardson succumbed as easy prey to the hawks, big and little, that are ever on the watch for boys of his stamp in the racing game. Richardson was battened onto and rooked in his flush days, and his fall from grace was even swifter than his rise. In the depths of depression, Arthur Richardson drowned in the Clarence River in December 1908.
Suddenly the A.J.C. St Leger, which had seemed such a foregone conclusion just a few weeks before, was now very much a contest. As with its Victorian counterpart, the A.J.C. red riband attracted just three runners although in this case the bit part was played by Balfour, a very well-performed colt from Queensland. Since its inauguration in 1866, the race had afforded some sterling contests, but the 1903 renewal was to prove a cracker. Unlike some previous memorable runnings when the battle was joined as late as the home turn, this one started in earnest at the mile-post when Abundance got up on his great rival. With a neck advantage at the mile, James Barden on Great Scot made a hot pace with the intention of breaking up his doughty opponent; but Jennings on Abundance was under instructions to go at the baldy-faced chestnut as soon as he was able to get him and take him along for all he was worth. It made for gripping drama.
At the half-mile Abundance got on terms and a great shout went up from the grandstands, but once into the straight the favourite began to shift out under the whip, and Jennings was forced to ride with just his hands. From the members’ stand Great Scot appeared to win by a half-length, but what made it difficult for the naked eye to line up the two colts was the fact that Abundance had finished much wider out – some four or five yards away from Great Scot. What is true of Randwick now, was true of Randwick then: from the vantage of the members’ stand the closer the outside horse gets towards the judge’s box, the better it appears for the horse on the rails. Contrary to this deception, the people stationed on the lawn always favour the outside horse, but on this occasion, many weren’t sure. Tom Watson seated on his pony near the judge’s box couldn’t part them, and he was in a better position than all bar the officials. However, Charles Perry, acting in the capacity of judge, the one official whose verdict mattered, gave it to Abundance by a nose. Tom Payten remarked that ‘it was the shock of his life’.
When the card number of Abundance was hoisted for that St. Leger, there was some clamour from the members’ stand – and patrons of this vantage are rarely given to questioning official fiats. Thomas Clibborn, from his place in the stand, thinking some mistake had occurred, committed a faux pas by ordering the man-in-charge to haul down the number frame. The official duly altered the numbers only for the judge to countermand the change! For a while, the greatest confusion reigned. It was an embarrassing episode in the life of the classics at Randwick on a day when there were so many visitors from all over Australia in attendance. The Sydney Mail the following week – and remember, this is 1903 – addressed the fracas in a pointed editorial:
“When the St. Leger finish rumpus was on, the ‘Mail’ photographer was asked ‘Have you a photo of the finish?’ The reply was ‘No’, and if I had, it would be useless to you because you will not allow me to work from a point from which the actual finishing line can be taken. The retort was just. We all know the great service photographs did for the starting gate, and how far the Sydney Mail pictures in half-tone illustrations which portrayed as many as thirty-seven horses moving from a starting line with as much regularity as a front rank of trained cavalry, were forwarded all over the world and attracted much attention even in conservative England. Let us give the camera its due. It was the chief factor in making the starting gate – although when first introduced it was ranked as a toy.”
“Racehorses pass winning posts at a speed of 55’ a second. The human eye, good though it is, cannot accurately deal with bodies moving at so great a velocity. That is why the actual positions of the legs of a horse could never be defined until the photographic lens with its shutter speeds up to 1000th of a second came into service. The old paintings of horses galloping invariably gave them with their four limbs gracefully spread out, positions which they never really assumed. My contention is that if a camera with say a shutter set at a speed of 1000th part of a second were placed on a shelf over the head of a judge, the lens being accurately focussed on the line between post and post that now guide the judge, with a well-trained photographer in charge of the bulb, there need be, but few dead-heats for first place declared. There would be a dark room handy. In this, the development of a plate would be the work of not more than four minutes….”
It was an interesting article and one that resonated even more strongly later that year when Bridegroom was placed first and Long Tom second in the Summer Cup. Might I observe that consistent with the glacial pace at which most conservative sporting administrators move – as true today as it was at the turn of the nineteenth century – it would be another forty-four years before the A.J.C. adopted the photo-finish camera. Curiously enough, the first occasion it was used was at Randwick on March 29, 1947, at the Chipping Norton Stakes meeting transferred from Warwick Farm, exactly one week before another A.J.C. St. Leger Day.
Thanks largely to the four classics won by Abundance and the Caulfield Cup won by Lieutenant Bill, Pilgrim’s Progress finished the 1902-03 racing season as Australia’s leading sire, with winnings of £12,661 but only by a whisker in front of Lochiel. Indeed, the half-head margin by Abundance over Great Scot, a son of Lochiel, in the A.J.C. St Leger made all the difference to the sires’ premiership that year. Not that the title did much for the reputation of Pilgrim’s Progress. A season or so later, after disappointing results, the son of Isonomy was sold to Hugo Friedlander’s Kelburne Stud in New Zealand where he enjoyed some success, particularly in the 1904 season when his foals included Mercy, Prim and Signor winners of the C.J.C. Oaks, Dunedin Cup and Canterbury Cup respectively. Sold for 800 guineas in 1905 when Friedlander dispersed most of his stud, Pilgrim’s Progress died in January 1908. All told, the Isonomy horse sired seventeen individual stakes winners of thirty-two principal races. Abundance was certainly the best horse Pilgrim’s Progress ever got, but there were other good winners besides those mentioned above including Diffidence and Demas, winners of among other races, the 1899 Sydney Cup and the 1904 Caulfield Guineas.
Those sportsmen that looked forward to more clashes like that of the St. Leger at Randwick were to be bitterly disappointed. Shortly after the 1903 autumn fixture at Randwick, the Hon. Agar Wynne sold Great Scot for 2000 guineas to Mr R. McKenna, the well-known agent who bought horses to race in India. The son of Lochiel proved a money-spinner on the subcontinent winning the prestigious Viceroy Cup twice, and almost pulling off a hat-trick of wins when he was second to another Australian expatriate, Long Tom, in 1905. A much-travelled racehorse, Great Scot was later taken to England and won a race at Lewes in September 1906 before eventually standing at W. A. Allison’s Cobham Stud. He enjoyed some success there too, and when Allison sold out in July 1913, Great Scot, who was by then a rising fourteen-year-old, still realised a thousand guineas.
Like so many of the Pilgrim’s Progress stock, Abundance proved a difficult horse to train after that classic three-year-old season. The stallion was restricted to just three starts at four; he resumed to brilliantly win the Caulfield Stakes (9f w-f-a) beating Wakeful among others, but then failed behind that champion mare four days later on the same course in the Eclipse Stakes when lumbered with a 5lb penalty. A light preparation though it may have been, the reputation of Abundance and the memory of his performance in the Melbourne Cup the year before, saw him go the post at Flemington on that first Tuesday in November as the 9/2 equal favourite. However, he could only finish twelfth in the race won by Lord Cardigan, owned by McGrath’s old master, John Mayo. Abundance pulled up sore after that Cup and was off the scene for more than eight months. Brought back to racing as a spring five-year-old, this, his last campaign, comprised just four races. He was unlucky to be beaten a head first-up in the Spring Stakes at Rosehill but then failed to run a place in The Metropolitan and both the Craven and Randwick Plates during the A.J.C. Spring Meeting.
His legs no longer able to stand-up to a stayer’s preparation, Abundance was offered for sale as a stallion in January 1905 through Chisholm and Co. but was passed in when bidding ceased at 400 guineas. The horse was later sold through private negotiation for 500 guineas to Mr J. B. McDougall of Casino. McDougall was acting on behalf of the brothers, Henry and Walter Barnes, of the Dyraaba Stud on the Richmond River in northern NSW. Dyraaba had been developed during much of the second half of the nineteenth century by Henry Barnes senior. Although at the time of Barnes’ death in November 1896, it was bequeathed to two of his sons, it was then more renowned for the quality of its cattle than that of its broodmares, the majority of which were by the disappointing St Albans horse, St Blaize, and the Yattendon horse, Sweet William. Standing at a fee of 15 guineas Abundance had failed to sire a first-class racehorse by the time the Dyraaba Stud was dispersed in May 1910 when the stallion was sold privately to Hunter White, the future A.J.C. committeeman, to stand at his Havilah Stud. Although Abundance couldn’t be regarded as a success at Havilah, he did manage to get one decent horse there in Kandos, a colt that carried Hunter White’s colours to victory in the 1916 A.J.C. St. Leger and A.J.C. Plate. Abundance was no more successful as a sire of broodmares, but there again Hunter White received a measure of satisfaction when one his daughters produced Cathmar, winner of the 1930 A.J.C. Epsom Handicap for White and his trainer Jack King.
Frank McGrath would have become one of the great racehorse trainers in Australian history with or without Abundance; but thanks largely to the son of Pilgrim’s Progress, and to a lesser extent, Kinglock, that 1902-03 racing season put him on the map sooner rather than later. As we shall discover as this chronicle continues, the next few years would see a number of high-profile sportsmen beat a path to ‘Stormy Lodge’ – men such as Harry Boan, John McGrath, Patrick Scahill, John Cox, Patrick Heffernan and, of course, the redoubtable John Brown.