In the years before World War I, live theatre attained enormous popularity in Australia, and no actress attained greater popularity within that theatre than the beautiful and spirited Nellie Stewart. Born in Woolloomooloo in 1858 the daughter of a theatrical impresario, she was precocious from a young age, performing with her two sisters in entertainments arranged by her father. Her long Australian career included a glorious run with the Royal Comic Opera Company in which she often played pantomime and burlesque; she won universal acclaim in her most famous role as Nell Gwynn in the play “Sweet Nell of Old Drury”.
Nellie Stewart began playing King Charles II’s famous cockney mistress on 15th February 1902 in a Melbourne production, and although the play initially wavered for a fortnight, it was to prove an astonishing success for its 44-year-old leading lady. Young men sat in the stalls enthralled, in a way that a later generation would worship the glamorous sirens of the silver screen. One such votary of the divine Miss Stewart was none other than the Melbourne baronet, Sir Rupert Clarke, and he became so besotted that within weeks of the show opening he asked his trainer James Scobie to buy him a racehorse to carry her name. In his 1929 book ‘My Life on the Australian Turf’ Scobie related the story of how in 1902 Sir Rupert said to him: “If it can be done, I want you to buy me a filly capable of winning the Oaks. My intention is to call her Sweet Nell.”
It was Sir Rupert’s grandfather, William J. Clarke (1805-1874), who was the original patriarch of the Clarke clan in Australia. A native of Somerset in England with a weak chest and a congenitally malformed hip, he arrived at Hobart Town with his wife in the Deveron on 23 December 1829. William first established himself as a butcher and meat contractor to the government and the nature of his business saw his original land grant of 2000 acres multiply down the years as he bought or squatted or rented land when the opportunity arose. Ruthless and single-minded in his pursuit of wealth, he never toyed with agriculture but stuck exclusively to sheep, and it was he who introduced the Leicester breed into Australia.
It was in 1835 that Clarke’s ambitions first extended beyond Tasmania and crossed the Bass Strait. He shipped sheep across to the mainland, moving his herd first to Station Peak in the You Yangs between Melbourne and Geelong, and then on to Dowling Forest, near Ballarat. William soon acquired pastoral leases for more than 30,000 acres and by 1842 was running 100,000 sheep in the Port Phillip District. It proved a boom era for sheep breeding and each year the grasping William extended his landholdings. In 1850 under the special survey clause of the Waste Lands Act, William Clarke successfully claimed 31,375 acres at 2/- an acre and located it near Sunbury, some 25 miles from Melbourne. He then promptly acquired the adjoining 31,000 acres under the Order-in-Council of 1847, both of which acquisitions displaced several pastoral licenses and rendered him a single property that stretched from Bunbury to the Sydney Road.
The timing was fortuitous for the discovery of gold at Ballarat in August 1851 precipitated a rush of people to the region, which further augmented William Clarke’s ballooning wealth. The demand for meat grew exponentially and the burgeoning revenue he derived from his vast wool clips, he lent to Australian import houses at extravagant rates of interest. He was rumoured to be the wealthiest man in the colony, abetted by the fact that he was a director and principal shareholder of the Colonial Bank and various insurance companies. William continued to live in Tasmania until 1850 although visiting his mainland holdings for the shearing season.
Nonetheless, he represented the Southern Province in the Victorian Legislative Council from the time of the inauguration of responsible government in 1856 until 1870, the year he finally made his home in Roseneath, Essendon. It was at Roseneath that he died in January 1874, the last years of his life marred by the effects of a stroke brought on by his massive increase in weight. William J. Clarke’s estate was valued at some £2,500,000 as well as around 250,000 acres of freehold land throughout Australasia, although mostly contained in Tasmania and Victoria. He bequeathed a miserable £800 a year to his estranged wife and omitted his second son, Thomas, out of his business affairs entirely. Whereas he left the Victorian properties to his eldest son William John (1831-1897), the bulk of his Tasmanian holdings, as well as 750,000 acres in South Australia, went to his youngest son, Joseph.
William John Clarke, the 43-year-old son who succeeded to so much of the fortune, we met briefly in our 1879 chapter. He had been living at his sprawling country estate, Rupertswood, Sunbury, and managing his father’s Victorian properties since his own marriage in August 1860. It was at Sunbury in March 1865 that Rupert, the real subject of this chapter, was born. The boy seemed destined for an easy and carefree life from the start, but it was to be a childhood rudely interrupted by the death of his mother and the intrusion of a dominating stepmother when he was just six-years-old. It was to be the seminal event of his life and one that indelibly marked his character and relationships to women.
Rupert bitterly resented the displacement of his mother, and after that, the bucolic charms of Rupertswood were to hold little attraction for the young boy. It didn’t help that the woman who became his dominating stepmother had first been his governess and aspired to be the leading lady in society. It was soon after his re-marriage in 1873 that William began the construction of the famous Rupertswood mansion, which still stands magnificently today. The double-storey, bluestone pile comprising more than fifty rooms is perhaps best known for its one-hundred-feet high tower, which commands the skyline, and the claim that it was here that the tradition of the Ashes, the test cricket trophy, originated.
It was William John Clarke, a committeeman of the Victoria Racing Club, who made the family’s first real splash on the Australian Turf when he raced the good filly Petrea, winner of the 1879 VRC Oaks. That victory came only days after the Victoria Derby, for which she had been heavily supported by the public and yet was an eleventh-hour scratching. The public squandered thousands of pounds of lost bets as a result. The resultant public indignation and furore in the press following the filly’s subsequent running not just in the Oaks but the Mares’ Produce Stakes as well, only added fuel to the fire.
Then there came the withdrawal of Avernus from the V.R.C. St Leger, which further fanned the flames, as critics of the St Albans stable observed how James Wilson and his associates would work the market to suit themselves. It was capped by the remarkable running of Caspian to win the red riband at Flemington. Many expressed surprise when Clarke first made his appearance on the Turf, for it was considered that a gentleman of his standing would have established a small but select stud and engaged a private trainer. Instead, he placed his horses with both James Wilson and William Dakin. How he must have bitterly repented his involvement with the St Albans operation when the public obloquy descended upon his head!
In the wake of the controversy, he sold his stud and switched to other, more staid sporting pursuits instead. He embraced coursing with gusto – the Victoria Coursing Club meeting on his land, and he became commodore of the Victorian Royal Yacht Squadron while his yacht Janet won the first intercolonial yacht race in 1881. The first president of the Victorian Football Association in 1877, he also became president of the Melbourne Cricket Club in 1880-86. Much of his energy was also devoted to the furnishing and decoration of Rupertswood, which gave William and his wife the opportunity to exercise their aesthetic flair and eclectic connoisseurship. Still, there remained a yearning for the Turf. Clarke made a comeback some years later, albeit on a much less public scale, and enjoyed the most satisfying win of his entire career as a racehorse owner when Claret, a horse of his own breeding – having raced both sire and dam, secured the V.R.C. Steeplechase on New Year’s Day, 1895. The large Flemington crowd present that day enthusiastically received the victory in marked contrast to earlier times.
Particularly after his second marriage, William, with his wife acting as chatelaine, entertained splendidly at Rupertswood upon completion of the palatial mansion there, with guests in their hundreds arriving by train at his property’s private railway platform. It was in recognition of his services as president of the Melbourne Exhibition in 1880-81 that a baronetcy was conferred upon William much to the gratification of his social-climbing wife. William, or rather, Sir William as I shall now refer to him, had inherited his father’s large shareholding in the Colonial Bank of Australia and served as its chairman for two decades. Like most colonial banks at the time it got caught up in the giddy and euphoric speculation that marked the roaring eighties but came to a cropper with the bank crash of 1894. Although the bank was reconstructed, partly through Sir William meeting a number of the calls from his own capital, the financial strain took its toll, and Sir William dropped dead suddenly of a heart attack on 15 May 1897. It was thus that the third generation, 32-year-old Rupert stepped up to become the second baronet.
From the very start young Rupert’s life had been foreordained to prepare for this moment: an education at Hawthorn Grammar School; thence on to Wesley College, Melbourne; and ultimately Magdalen College, Oxford. However, despite the best-laid plans, young Rupert’s lack of application and the distractions of polo, travel, and the opposite sex conspired to stop him taking a degree. During the late 1880s, Rupert Clarke leased his father’s Cobran station, near Deniliquin, in New South Wales although a station manager oversaw its day to day operations. While there, Clarke became the president of the Deniliquin Amateur Turf Club and raced some horses at their occasional meetings; his presidency only terminating when he left the Riverina district in February 1891. It was upon the death of his father and succession to the baronetcy that Sir Rupert moved into the Legislative Council of Victoria, as well as becoming governor of the Colonial Bank of Australia at the same time.
Such heady responsibilities might have had a sobering effect on most men, bringing a certain gravitas where there was none before; but there was always a sense of restlessness about Sir Rupert and an almost Freudian equation of journey and adventure as a metaphor for self-realisation and escape. He was never entirely committed to one venture for any length of time and during his peripatetic life involved himself in, among other things, a rabbit cannery and a butter factory at Sunbury; gold mining at Coolgardie; not to mention a rubber and coconut plantation in Papua. In the late 1890’s he was even doing a roaring trade in selling large consignments of racehorses – up to two hundred at one time – to India. But it was his involvement in 1902, together with two partners, in leasing the Theatre Royal in Melbourne that threw him into the glittering vortex of the live stage and his infatuation with Nellie Stewart.
By comparison, Sir Rupert Clarke’s connection with the Jim Scobie stable was an altogether more prosaic affair and seemed like one of those pre-destined partnerships of the Turf. As we have seen, among the vast tracts of land that the Clarke family-owned in Victoria was a significant portion of Dowling Forest near Ballarat, and the site was chosen by Scobie to establish his first training stables. The growth in Ballarat’s fortunes had mirrored those of the Clarke clan. First proclaimed a township in 1852, a municipality in 1855, a borough in 1863, Ballarat was finally declared a city in September 1870. Given the city’s sporting heritage and the wealth of the goldfields, Scobie chose well when he decided to base his training operations there.
Rupert Clarke first registered his racing colours – pink, black sleeves, and cap – with the V.R.C. in the 1893-94 racing season. The first horse that Rupert Clarke raced with Jim Scobie was Dreamland, a son of Trenton that Scobie had previously trained for William Bailey and Robert Orr. After the seven-year-old stallion had failed at the 1898 V.R.C. Spring Meeting and ran unplaced in the Bendigo Cup, he was put up for sale. Scobie acquired him for Rupert Clarke for 400 guineas. Dreamland served mares at Rupertswood for a couple of seasons, and then, as a nine-year-old stallion carried off the Australian Cup of 1901. At the time that Rupert first approached Scobie, Sir William J. Clarke had no idea that his son had already embarked on a turf career. In ‘My Life on the Australian Turf’ Scobie relates how one day the first baronet accosted him as he was walking along Collins Street. Upon introducing himself to Scobie and inviting him to have a glass of port wine at Scott’s Hotel, over the drinks Sir William portentously advised the trainer: “When my son takes up racing you are sure to get his horses.” Scobie diplomatically expressed gratification but took care not to disclose that he already had two or three of the young man’s horses in his Dowling Forest stables.
At around the same time that Scobie acquired Dreamland for Rupert Clarke he also bought the Western Australian galloper, Paul Pry. After winning the Kalgoorlie Cup and otherwise dominating racing in the West, the horse was sent across the water by his original owner to be sold. Rupert Clarke inquired of Scobie whether there was any horse worth buying and when the trainer mentioned Paul Pry the baronet crisply remarked: “Well, buy him.” There were quite a few wiseacres who maintained that £500 was too much to give for a gelding that seemed to have done with racing. However, the horse proved to be a wonderful bargain, capturing the SAJC Elder Stakes (twice), Adelaide Cup, A.R.C. Parkside Stakes (three times), Victoria Park Stakes, Williamstown Cup, Onkaparinga Cup and A.R.C. Birthday Cup with 10 st. 5lb; as well as the Autumn Stakes, Spring Stakes, Craven Plate and Wycombe Stakes at Randwick. Paul Pry carried Sir Rupert Clarke’s livery for five seasons and retired when nine years of age to a fertile paddock at Rupertswood. Sir Rupert lovingly interred his remains close to the winning post at Sunbury racecourse when the old gelding died.
When Paul Pry won the A.R.C. Birthday Cup in 1900 the horse that filled the minor placing behind him was the recent Australian and Sydney Cups winner, La Carabine, who until then had sported the colours of the St Albans studmaster, William Wilson. When shortly after that Wilson died, Sir Rupert Clarke bought La Carabine for 1200 guineas. By then, La Carabine was six-years-of-age, and although an established top-class performer, many considered her best days behind her. However, she proved another bargain for Clarke winning a host of quality weight-for-age races at Flemington and Randwick. La Carabine bowed out of racing at the 1902 A.J.C. autumn meeting and it was while in Sydney on that visit that Jim Scobie attended the Randwick sales in quest of Sir Rupert’s prospective Oaks winner.
Now classic winners do not ‘grow on every bush’ as Scobie readily acknowledged, and the hopes and dreams of most owners prove chimerical as Scobie knew only too well. Hoping for the best he paid four hundred guineas for a yearling filly by Haut Brion from the mare, Novelette II. Foaled at the Wilton Park Stud, she was stoutly and fashionably bred. Samuel Hordern’s imported stallion Haut Brion had already proven himself, while Novelette II, a daughter of Nordenfeldt and a sister to Strathmore, had previously produced the classy filly Haulette to the same stallion. Haulette had won both the Champagne Stakes at Randwick and the Oaks Stakes at Flemington before being sold to the French sportsman, James Hennessy. Although a wee bit on the small side, this yearling sister filly was beautifully balanced and athletic – like an exquisite ballerina – and no time was lost by Clarke in duly registering her as Sweet Nell. Now Charles II’s celebrated mistress had been famous, among other things, for her good humour and superb legs – qualities evident in her equine namesake. And it wasn’t long before she, too, was showing precocity in public at a very young age.
Insofar as classic juveniles were concerned, the centre of gravity of the Australian Turf in that 1902-03 racing season was unquestionably Scobie’s Dowling Forest stables. We have already seen how blessed with equine talent Scobie had been in 1900 when Maltster took the Derby. Well, here was something similar, for apart from Sweet Nell, the maestro of Ballarat also had Emir, Sinnang, F.J.A. and Hauturier that year – not a bad team of yearlings to acquire out of the sale ring all in the same season. Emir was the most intriguing galloper of them all, however, and he was owned by Sir Rupert Clarke’s brother, Ernest.
Four years younger than Sir Rupert, Ernest Clarke’s long association with Jim Scobie formally began in the autumn of 1902 when he approached the Ballarat trainer and asked him to buy a well-bred colt at the Sydney yearling sales to carry his colours at the same time that he was buying Sweet Nell. Now it is a depressing truth that wealth usually makes its owners timid rather than brave. Not so with Ernest Clarke, who, wishing to outdo his brother, didn’t baulk at the 1000 guineas price tag for the future Emir, a son of Wallace out of the former good race mare, Emmie, a daughter of Robinson Crusoe. That the bidding on this, her latest yearling reached such fabulous heights didn’t surprise Scobie; after all, her two previous foals, Beanba and Heloise, had won the V.R.C. Oaks Stakes and V.A.T.C. Debutant Stakes respectively. Scobie considered him “a gift at the price”. It was the equal top price of the sales, matched only by the 1000 guineas that Tom Payten gave to secure Piecrust’s daughter by Grafton, later registered as Praleen.
Sweet Nell was the most precocious of the team early on, and her racecourse debut came in the Debutant Stakes at Caulfield. It was an exciting time for owner Sir Rupert Clarke, for it coincided with his unopposed nomination to the committee of the V.A.T.C., thereby succeeding to the vacancy caused by the resignation of Albert Miller. Alas, Sweet Nell on debut didn’t enjoy the same trouble-free passage, when, partnered by Bob Lewis, she could only manage fourth behind the Sydney colt, Duke of Grafton. There were, however, extenuating circumstances, for she was galloped on during the race and suffered superficial cuts to one of her legs. F.J.A. – a son of Wallace out of the A.J.C. St Leger winner, La Tosca – for whom Sir Rupert Clarke had paid just 110 guineas at the Melbourne yearling sales, was preferred for the Maribyrnong Plate and the filly was started instead in the Encourage Stakes, the last race on the same programme. Whereas F.J.A. failed behind Duke of Grafton, Sweet Nell broke her maiden status. It was the beginning of a good week for the filly, and she was brought out later at the meeting to win the Nursery on the second day and the prestigious Flemington Stakes on the last day.
The rich juvenile plums in the autumn of that season provided Scobie with a satisfying dilemma: given his handful of aces, what order would he choose to play his cards? Emir was by then adjudged the fastest of the team. Having made his racecourse debut when unplaced in a Flying Handicap at Ballarat in early December, he was laid out to win the Futurity Stakes at Caulfield in February but, alas; he fell in the race won by Sir Leonard. Redemption wasn’t long in coming, however, for he snaffled the Ascot Vale Stakes in majestic fashion at his very next start. Facing in the opposite direction when the barrier rose, Bob Lewis had to turn him around and chase the field, yet he won “in a trot”.
In the wake of this exhibition, an offer of 4000 guineas was made for the colt although Ernest Clarke lost no time in refusing it. F.J.A., previously the winner of three races during the spring and summer, came out and won the Oakleigh Purse at Caulfield and was unlucky the following Saturday when, with a 10lb penalty, he was beaten into fourth place for the prestigious Oakleigh Plate. Emir was left out of the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Flemington in favour of the other pair, and Sweet Nell won her fourth race that season when she upset her more-fancied stablemate F.J.A. and four others. Scobie chose Emir and F.J.A. as the stable representatives for the Randwick Autumn Meeting, whereas Sweet Nell was despatched to Adelaide instead. Both raids proved successful and though Emir might have failed in the Champagne Stakes, the son of Wallace created a huge impression when he came out and caused a boil-over by easily winning the All-Aged Stakes, upsetting the likes of Sir Leonard and the recent Newmarket Handicap winner, Chantress. Even F.J.A. wasn’t to be denied, winning the Easter Stakes at the meeting. A few weeks later in far-away Adelaide, Sweet Nell sounded an ominous warning to rival Derby stables when she effortlessly carried 9 st. 8lb to victory in the S.A.J.C. South Australian Stakes.
The racing purist might have been marvelling at the embarrassment of juvenile talent that the Master of Dowling Forest had at his disposal during that autumn, but the chattering classes were otherwise preoccupied with a juvenile talent of an altogether different kind. On the 24th March, Newcastle Jockey Club stewards acting at Broadmeadow racecourse had discovered the presence of a small boy concealed beneath the wooden floorboards upon which the club’s weighing-in scales were located. The lad was armed with some scraps of food and a bag of lead, and it was his job, upon a given signal, to attach the bag to a hidden wire that ran through a hole in the floor and connected to the scales.
The real author of this scheme was a hard-bitten trainer by the name of Jim ‘Grafter’ Kingsley, a picaresque character who eked out a living on the pony tracks around Maitland. It was said of Kingsley that he slept with his boots on all his life in an endeavour to beat the books, but as the Broadmeadow incident showed, he often went further than that. Kingsley’s horse, Gentleman Jim, had netted his owner a tidy profit from the ring that afternoon when he carried what was supposedly 10st. 9lb to victory in a handicap. Of course, he hadn’t carried any such weight, but this was to be the last in a series of weight-rigging incidents arranged by the Grafter on racecourses in the coalfields. By the time Sweet Nell and company were strutting their stuff at Randwick the following spring, Grafter Kingsley had been warned off racecourses for life, although it wasn’t to last quite that long.
James Scobie’s original intention had been to send Emir across to win the Derby at Randwick and keep Sweet Nell at home, but the big son of Wallace wrenched a fetlock early in his preparation and had to be eased in his work. F.J.A. was the logical substitute until Scobie decided to try to win the South Australian Derby with him first. Sweet Nell thus became the default option for Sydney. Derby Day conducted in glorious sunshine that year attracted a bumper crowd to Randwick, and it was just as well the club had undertaken recent improvements to the course to accommodate the multitude.
The committee had reduced the track to a uniform width of 100 feet and a corresponding extension made to the area of the lawn and saddling paddock. Moreover, a new avenue had been created between the two. As a consequence, the public was afforded a much closer view of the racing. The rubbing-boxes once located near the entrance to the course had been done away with, and all horses were now stripped in the boxes situated in the corner nearly opposite the Kensington tramway waiting room. For once the Derby wasn’t the main attraction. On that day some 28,000 people were officially in attendance – a remarkable crowd considering the disastrous drought. And most were there to witness the much-hyped clash between Cruciform and Wakeful, two champion racehorses hailing from each side of the Tasman Sea and still regarded as two of the best mares ever to race in either New Zealand or Australia.
Cruciform was owned by George Gatenby Stead, the leading owner in New Zealand, and for some time he had been anxious to promote a clash between his mare and the Victorian champion. A long-standing dispute with the Victoria Racing Club which saw the imperious Stead boycott Flemington for nigh on twenty years had seen him attempt to arrange for a Champion Stakes at Christchurch under the auspices of the Canterbury Jockey Club. The idea was for that institution to subsidise the event with 1000 sovereigns besides a substantial sweepstake to be put up by the owners of the contestants. However, Wakeful’s owner, Les Macdonald, wasn’t prepared to make the journey across the Tasman. Mr Stead’s challenge had then taken the form of a newspaper paragraph in which he expressed a desire to meet Wakeful at Randwick. This, then, was the background to how the neutral sandy course came to host this famous clash. The newspapers did the rest in attracting the multitude. Nor did the pair disappoint in their meeting for the weight-for-age Spring Stakes on Derby Day; they joined battle in front at the half-mile post and engaged in a two-horse war all the way to the winning-post with Cruciform finally triumphant by a head.
In comparison to such vintage champagne, a Derby field with just five horses engaged was always going to be poor beer. The public fancy for the classic was Duke of Grafton, the most prohibitively priced favourite since Camoola took the classic in 1892. A big, brown bay colt by Grafton out of the Lochiel mare, Disgrace, Duke of Grafton had been bred by Herbert S. Thompson, the eldest son of James, at Widden Stud. Sold as a yearling for 350 guineas to Dr Ewan Frazer, he was trained at Newmarket by Tom Payten. A fine striding galloper that stood well up to sixteen hands, Duke of Grafton had been a brilliant two-year-old winning the rich Debutant Stakes at Caulfield, taking command soon after the barriers were released and never being headed.
Despite a 10lb penalty for that victory, Duke of Grafton became the first colt to win both the Debutant and the Maribyrnong Plate since the former race was inaugurated as the Foal Stakes in 1881 when he finished resolutely down the middle of the Flemington course to just get up in time. The merit of the performance was confirmed by the clock as he put up a new race record of 61 ¾ seconds for the five furlongs scamper. Duke of Grafton later lost his early-season dash and had to strike his colours in the summer and autumn respectively to Cherson in the December Stakes and Emir in the Ascot Vale Stakes. However, the colt’s recent performance in the Rawson Stakes upon his seasonal re-appearance, when carrying 10lb more than weight-for-age, was sufficient for many of the general public to assume Derby success.
The 1903 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions appear in the table below:
Sharing the second line of Derby betting at 7/1 with Sweet Nell, who was resuming from her winter spell, was the Havoc colt, Belah, trained by Joe Burton for the Mungie Bundie breeder, John McDonald. Belah’s claim to Derby consideration largely rested with his classic lineage – he was, after all, a grandson of the marvellous Nellie. This, together with his impressive victory in the Nursery Handicap over the Randwick mile on Sydney Cup Day. It might have been his only win in seven appearances as a juvenile, but it was enough to suggest a likely stayer. Belah had confirmed that he had returned to the racecourse with all the promise that he had left it at the end of his two-year-old season, when he resumed in late August to annex the Lyndhurst Stakes at Rosehill, beating some highly fancied Epsom candidates into the bargain.
The only other horse considered a chance to upset the favourite was Dumont, the best of William Duggan’s three-year-olds whom he trained for his loyal patron, George Osborne of Foxlow. Postulate, a poorly-performed son of Positano carrying Henry White’s colours, was the only runner dismissed utterly by the speculative public. There might have been a sixth runner in the classic but at the last moment Jack Mayo, the veteran West Maitland owner-trainer had withdrawn his little-homebred colt by Positano, convinced he wasn’t built to carry Derby weight. Even supposing that the colt was up to it, he preferred to avoid the risk of penalties in waiting for a particularly rich handicap later in the spring; but meanwhile, Lord Cardigan won the lowly Trial Stakes over ten furlongs – the race run immediately before the A.J.C. Derby.
Once the start to the classic had been affected Belah lost no time in assuming the role of pacemaker and so well did the son of Havoc discharge the self-imposed duty that he made a one-horse race of it. Maintaining a smart pace all the way, jockey W. H. (Bill) Smith steered Belah around the home turn just clear of the favourite, who, when called upon to make his run responded but feebly. It was left to Sweet Nell to issue the only challenge. Inside the distance the gallant filly, though taking ground from the colt, try as she might, simply couldn’t run down Belah. The colt had a length to spare at the judge’s box with the ill-fated favourite, Duke of Grafton, who was to be killed in a race fall at Flemington less than a month later, trailing badly into the minor placing.
Belah represented trainer Joe Burton’s second triumph in the classic, his first having come 32 years before when as a stripling he travelled Javelin all the way from Bathurst. In the four years after Javelin’s win, Burton had gotten Commodore, Llama and Ringwood – three descendants of the Gardener’s mare and all owned and bred by Thomas Lee – into the Derby, but hadn’t repeated his initial success. Strange to say, Burton, who had only just moved into his new Cowper-street stables at Randwick the month before, then didn’t train a Derby candidate until this gallant son of Wilga. Belah was raised at Mungie Bundie by John McDonald, and when a yearling, was not reckoned in the same class as his paddock mate Scottish King, a Wallace colt, who much to Joe Burton’s disappointment, was leased to Leslie MacDonald.
Although Scottish King ultimately did distinguish himself by winning the St. Leger at Flemington and other good races, at the time of Belah’s Derby he hadn’t done anything. Belah became the third Derby winner to trace from that superb taproot mare, Sappho. Belah’s dam, Wilga, was a daughter of the 1879 Derby heroine, Nellie, bred at Bathurst by the Hon. George Lee. I might mention that a remarkable feature of that 1903 AJC spring fixture was that, besides the A.J.C. Derby, five of the other six principal races were won by horses that did not trace into the General (English) Stud Book. Accordingly, none reached any of the original English mares numbered on merit by Bruce Lowe. The races were the A.J.C. Derby, Craven Plate, Randwick Plate, Wycombe Stakes, Metropolitan, and Epsom Handicap.
Wilga carried the colours of Donald Wallace, and in her two-year-old days was a very fast filly out in a very fast year. In the spring she ran third in The Admiral’s Maribyrnong Plate, while in the autumn she bowled over the hitherto seemingly invincible Titan in the Champagne Stakes. At the time, Titan was regarded as the best juvenile Australia had ever seen. When Wilga was retired she was tried with Carbine, Bill of Portland, and Padlock but failed to them all. Then, when the balance of Donald Wallace’s stock was disposed of in November 1899 at the Newmarket Sales of William C. Yuille and Co., Joe Burton acting on behalf of John McDonald, got a hold of her in foal to Havoc for just 160 guineas. And as fate would have it, John McDonald got the first of his Derby winners.
Unlike most of his later Derby winners whose names usually derived from the name of the sire, McDonald exercised a certain amount of imagination in registering Belah. At the time of registration, Australia was in the midst of a debilitating drought, and the wealthy grazier had only recently purchased Glenleigh Station, near Glen Innes, to serve as relief country. Substitute stock feed was very much on his mind, and Wilga and Belah were common drought fodder trees in Australia at the turn of the century, used for survival feeding of beef cattle. Considering that the name Belah also had biblical undertones of destruction, it seemed an appropriate name to McDonald for a colt by Havoc.
William Wilson initially reserved Havoc for his St Albans Stud, but Wilson’s death in May 1900 ultimately brought about the horse’s sale to Charles Baldwin of Durham Court Stud at Manilla, although he begot Belah during his brief stay at St Albans. Belah was the first of Havoc’s stock to win on the racecourse, and at the time of that victory, he was standing at Durham Court at a fee of fifteen guineas a mare. A son of Nordenfeldt, our Derby hero of 1885, Havoc was out of the famous matron, Frailty, the mother of Trenton, Cuirassier, Niagara and Zalinski.
While not as distinguished as some of his brothers on the racecourse, Havoc matured late and only raced once during his first two seasons on the turf. When Hugh Munro finally got him right as an autumn four-year-old, he struck fine form winning the Australian Cup and Loch Plate at Flemington; and the Cumberland Stakes and A.J.C. Plate at Randwick. Unfortunately, as a stallion, he did not quite fulfil the early promise that the likes of Belah suggested. Nonetheless, he did get some other good gallopers such as the top miler, Hyman, winner of both an Epsom and a Doncaster at Randwick, as well as Prizefighter, that fine stayer that won both an Australian Cup and Hotham Handicap at Flemington. Havoc was probably the best of Nordenfeldt’s stallion sons when he died at W. M. Borthwick’s stud near Walcha in April 1911.
In consequence of dissatisfaction with G. Osborne’s handling of Belah in the Rawson Stakes at Rosehill when he was cut-off during the running, Burton elected on a change of riders for the Derby. W. H. ‘Billy’ Smith gained the ride, and he was a most capable horseman but not one whose curriculum vitae at that stage had extended to the classics. There was a rather comical exchange between owner and rider in the paddock on Derby Day when Belah saddled. McDonald, who was casting a rather critical eye over the jockey in the light of Belah’s recent misfortunes at Rosehill, finally addressed him with a question: ‘Have you ever ridden the winner of a Derby?’ ‘No sir’ was the quick and respectful reply. ‘Well’ replied the boss of Mungie Bundie, ‘I never owned one; so, the odds are high against us, and we are not likely to take home any blue ribbons today.’ Now, this was hardly the spirit of Henry V on the eve of Agincourt. That they did take home the ribbon was largely due to the initiative Smith displayed in accepting the role of the pacemaker when no one else was willing. It was an initiative he reprised on the second day of the meeting as well when Belah put up a 14lb penalty in the New Stakes and proceeded to again make a one-horse act of it from start to finish.
These were triumphs of front-running riding from a man whose horsemanship had been contemptuously dismissed by jockeys and trainers alike when he first arrived in Sydney from Queensland to ride Merloolas in the 1898 Sydney Cup. Born at Scrubby Flat near Clermont, Queensland, in November 1872, Smith was induced to come to Sydney by George Gilbert, the popular owner-trainer of Merloolas, who had known the jockey for some years in the north. Despite winning that Sydney Cup and a number of other valuable weight-for-age races on that old bay gelding in the 1898-99 racing season, Smith wasn’t easily accepted into the Sydney racing scene. Belah’s Derby success helped break down some of the prejudice as did winning The Metropolitan the following year on the 100/1 Alias.
After that, the winners started to roll and among other big races, Smith won a second Sydney Cup on Trafalgar, a Caulfield Cup on Aurifer, and two Epsom Handicaps on Silver Hampton and Hartfell. He is perhaps best remembered for his association with those two champion gallopers, Trafalgar and Prince Foote, and, while not the regular rider of either horse, won multiple races on both including some of Australia’s best weight-for-age races. A natural lightweight, Smith became famous for his vigour in a tight finish that saw him win races on horses who were entitled to lose. Sadly, the Turf cost him his life, succumbing to injuries received when his mount, Aurofodina, crashed to the ground in the 1914 Rosehill Cup. Eight horses fell that day near the half-mile, on sodden-ground that was heavy from previous days’ rain and it was reminiscent of the tragedy that claimed Tom Clayton’s life in March 1909 on the same course. At the time of his death, Smith held a valuable retainer of £500pa plus 10% of all winnings and place money from the prominent owner and heavy bettor, Fred Merton; although, ironically, he had intended to retire at the end of the season. Responsible with his money, Smith left an estate that was valued for probate at £14,976/15/-.
Belah confirmed his promise when he picked up the New Stakes on Metropolitan Day while Sweet Nell instead went for the rich distance handicap and weighted with 7 st. 4lb ran a creditable sixth behind Marvel Loch. After finishing runner-up in the Grantham Stakes (formerly the Duff Memorial Stakes) behind Duke of Grafton over the mile on the following Wednesday, Sweet Nell was taken back to Melbourne to be freshened for the Caulfield and Flemington fixtures. It is interesting to note that despite having such a strong hand in three-year-olds, a commissioner acting on behalf of the Scobie stable in the days after the A.J.C. Derby approached John McDonald with a view to purchasing Belah at a price in excess of 2000 guineas, but the Mungie Bundie studmaster refused to trade. Rebuffed, though the stable might have been, Scobie remained supremely confident of a profitable spring back in Victoria and no horse imbued him with more confidence than Sweet Nell, who began to really thrive on the gallops.
The Master of Dowling Forest believed that Sweet Nell was pitched into the Caulfield Cup with 6 st. 13lb but the trick was to get a strong rider at that weight. Scobie’s choice fell on Arthur Richardson, a young lad who had spent his apprenticeship with Tom Payten and who three years earlier had won the Melbourne Cup for Scobie on Clean Sweep. The engagement for Sweet Nell was to have a similarly rewarding result. The stable money went on the last Friday before the Caulfield meeting opened – both straight out in the Caulfield Cup and in Melbourne Cup doubles with stablemate, Hauturier. On the first Saturday of the V.A.T.C. gathering the filly proved worthy of the confidence when in the hands of Bob Lewis, she took out the Caulfield Guineas from her stablemate Hauturier with Belah among the unplaced brigade.
Later that afternoon F.J.A. gave Sir Rupert an affair to remember when he won the Toorak Handicap in style. The lightweight Richardson then substituted on Sweet Nell seven days later in the Caulfield Cup; he surged the filly to an early lead in the race and was then content to take a pull and wait just behind the leaders. Upon entering the final straight Sweet Nell dashed clear to easily win the twenty-sixth running of the rich handicap and to become the first three-year-old filly to win the race. Indeed, to this day she remains the only one to do so. The result meant a bad time for the ring and Sir Rupert kept the champagne flowing for members of the Victorian Club on the Monday afternoon after settling. Arthur Richardson gained his own reward when, on the following Saturday evening at the conclusion of her appearance in “Sweet Nell of Old Drury”, the glamorous Miss Stewart introduced the young postilion to the audience and presented him with a gold-mounted whip. One newspaper enigmatically reported that at the same time the actress ‘gave him some good advice’. One can only presume that it had nothing to do with his whip action.
What an intriguing contest the Victoria Derby proved that year. Although there were only five starters, the Scobie stable provided three of them – and all owned by the Clarke brothers. Sweet Nell and Emir might have shared favouritism at 6/4 but on the eve of the contest, F.J.A., who had won the South Australian Derby and Toorak Handicap at his two most recent starts, was backed for more money than either of his stablemates. Travelling to Melbourne hadn’t agreed at all with the A.J.C. Derby winner, Belah, who had gone completely off his feed. The colt still started in the Victoria Derby but as a 10/1 despised outsider. F.J.A., who was only a Galloway in stature, led for most of the journey and equalled the race record in beating his stablemate Sweet Nell comfortably, while the hapless Belah struggled into the minor placing.
Sir Rupert Clarke might have won his first Derby, but the fact that he did it with the outsider of the stable trio triggered an unruly demonstration. In point of the number of races won – if not in the actual value of stakes appropriated – Scobie, as he acknowledged in his ‘My Life on the Turf’, reached the high-water mark of his training career in the spring of 1903. Just consider the results: the Caulfield Guineas and Caulfield Cup with Sweet Nell; the Toorak Handicap, Victoria Derby and V.R.C. Flying Stakes with F.J.A.; the V.A.T.C. Debutant Stakes with Sylvanite; and the Gwyn Nursery and Flemington Stakes with Demas. At that V.A.T.C. reunion the club distributed a sum of £9,000 in stakes and Scobie captured the lion’s share of it with £4,950.
Derby Day marked the zenith of the Scobie stable celebrations that spring. Less than twenty-four hours later, on Sunday morning, its great handicapping hope for the Melbourne Cup and the horse that was carrying a wad of doubles money, Hauturier broke down irredeemably. The slashing big fellow, a brother to Eleanor and who carried the colours of William Bailey, had been specifically withdrawn from the Victoria Derby to avoid any penalty for the Cup. Sir Rupert Clarke still had the pleasure of seeing each of his prize three-year-olds start in the race that year, F.J.A. running equal 9/2 favourite with Abundance, while Sweet Nell was adjudged a relative outsider at 25/1. Neither proved a match for that other brilliant three-year-old, Lord Cardigan, although Sweet Nell did run a respectable seventh. The filly had an easier task of it in the V.R.C. Oaks a couple of days later, with the stable supporters confidently laying 4/1 on her. Sweet Nell was sent forth again on the final Saturday to do battle in the C.B. Fisher Plate and was the even-money favourite, but interference – which saw an unsuccessful protest – brought about her downfall in the straight.
Much was expected from this vintage crop of three-year-olds in the autumn and while they served up some wonderful moments on the racecourse, it was autumn that proved just how transitory glory on the Turf really is. F.J.A. did manage to win Sir Rupert Clarke the V.R.C. All Aged Stakes and the South Australian St Leger but was sold later on to race in England where he proved an ignominious failure. Sweet Nell had to bow to the superior talent of the moody Emir who reeled off four successive victories in the Essendon Stakes, Loch Plate and Champion Stakes at Flemington followed by the St. Leger at Randwick in which he relegated Belah into second placing. The only race Sweet Nell managed to win that campaign was the Autumn Stakes at Randwick, run on a rain-affected ground when she beat New Zealand crack Gladsome, due largely to the advantage of a more capable rider. However, arguably the best performance of the daughter of Haut Brion that week came in the Sydney Cup when she carried 8 st. 7lb into the minor placing behind Lord Cardigan, who was handicapped on the same weight. Emir with 9 st. 1lb ran unplaced as the favourite in the race of sixteen starters.
Sir Rupert and Ernest Clarke travelled to Sydney that autumn entertaining high expectations onboard their luxury yacht La Carabine, and must have been bitterly disappointed that their colours didn’t figure more prominently at Randwick. The absence of Scobie, who remained in Melbourne nursing a fracture didn’t help matters, but the real stumbling block was Lord Cardigan, who was in cracking form at the time. That year for the first time the A.J.C. had changed the weight conditions for the Randwick or Flemington St Leger winner starting in the Sydney Cup. Whereas hitherto the winner of either was compelled to carry weight-for-age, 8 stone for fillies and 2lb more for colts, conditions now provided that the winner of either red riband should bear 8 st. 6lb if originally handicapped below that weight.
That alteration changed the thinking of more than one trainer, and Jack Mayo hadn’t started Lord Cardigan in the St. Leger for fear of incurring a Cup penalty, and he restricted him to the Cup and the Cumberland Stakes and A.J.C. Plate. And it was those last two races that were the talk of the meeting! In the Cumberland Stakes, Lord Cardigan had but a half-head to spare over Belah with Sweet Nell a further length-and-a-half away in the minor placing. The A.J.C. Plate was an even-more stirring struggle between Lord Cardigan and Belah as the pair cut it out together as if it were a mile race rather than the real distance. Although Belah was beaten by four lengths he hung on gamely to the end. Gladsome, a short-priced favourite was badly beaten while Sweet Nell, feeling the effects of her previous engagements, was a scratching. Lord Cardigan’s brilliant form that week saw him establish a new record of three-year-old earnings of £8,618 eclipsing Newhaven’s £7,599.
Who amongst the large crowds that bore witness to those two wonderful clashes between Lord Cardigan and Belah would have dreamt that both of these gallant racehorses would be dead before the anniversary of that 1904 A.J.C. autumn meeting was but a fortnight old? But so, it came to pass. Lord Cardigan fell ill and within three days of agony was dead from the strangulation of the intestines caused by the rupture. Belah, having developed a weakness in one of his legs, was off the scene for a year and rested at Windsor Farm during the hottest months returning to Burton’s stable only in April 1905 with a view to being prepared for the spring meetings later that year. Within a matter of weeks after returning to Burton’s establishment Belah, too, was dead. A post-mortem revealed a rupture of the stomach nearly two inches in length and a partial rupture extending to six inches. The rupture was followed by septic peritonitis although Belah fought a hopeless battle for twelve hours before succumbing. How Belah came to rupture himself was a matter of surmise but Burton believed that the stallion was either playing or reaching round to nip his quarters when his legs slipped from under him and he fell heavily.
Sweet Nell’s career on the racecourse didn’t last much longer either. Her last campaign came in the spring of 1904 when she failed in a bid to win a second Caulfield Cup when weighted with 8 st. 13lb having been sent to the post at an outsider’s price of 33/1. The lithesome daughter of Haut Brion was never really made for carrying weights in top company and mixed her form in that campaign anyway, although she did win the Wycombe Stakes at Randwick and the C.B. Fisher Plate on the last day of the Flemington Spring Meeting. It proved to be her last appearance on the racecourse; thereafter niggling problems prevented Scobie from being able to train her properly despite a couple of attempts to do so.
In her three seasons on the Turf, Sweet Nell’s complete racing record comprised 31 starts for 11 wins, 6 seconds and 3 thirds and stakes winnings of £8,142. Retired to Clarke’s Rupertswood stud in the spring of 1906 she first yielded to the advances of the stallion Dreamland, Sir Rupert Clarke’s first racehorse. It was a mating rooted more in sentiment than bloodstock science, for Dreamland had proven a conspicuous failure at stud; his only notable winner, Somnambulist, wouldn’t come for five more years and then only in the 1911 Kalgoorlie Cup. Not surprisingly, the resulting filly thrown by Sweet Nell and registered as Orange Girl, in acknowledgement of Nell Gwynn’s original occupation, proved hopeless on the racecourse in the one season that she raced.
Sweet Nell missed in her second season at stud and then in 1909 produced a chestnut colt to Curtain Lecture – yet another curious choice as a stallion mate. Curtain Lecture, an imported English stallion, did nothing for the Motherland’s bloodstock reputation in Australia; like Dreamland he only ever sired one principal race winner in his adopted land – but it turned out to be Sweet Nell’s colt. Registered as Uncle Matt and carrying the colours of Sir Rupert Clarke and the polish of Jim Scobie, Uncle Matt proved a useful handicapper, winning among other races the 1913 Launceston Cup and the 1914 Hotham Handicap. He was certainly the best horse Sweet Nell dropped at stud because after that her trysts were marred by misfortune. She slipped a foal to The Welkin and the following season produced twins to the same stallion. Slipped twins to both Wallace and Ipidi followed. The last of her foals to carry Sir Rupert’s colours was the filly Katiga, and although not up to metropolitan class, she did win him the local Sunbury and Woodend Cups.
Sweet Nell might have been disappointing at stud for Sir Rupert, but she still proved more rewarding there than Emir was for his brother. It’s worth remembering that Scobie was on record at the end of his long training career as acknowledging Emir and Sylvan King as the two finest racehorses he ever trained, and Ernest Clarke established the Melton Stud specifically to install his idol there as the resident stallion. Sadly, Emir proved infertile. After failing as a sire, he was presented to Mr Gill, and it was upon his property at Casterton the horse died. Sweet Nell together with La Carabine remained the two favourite mares of Sir Rupert Clarke and the only two that he retained when he disposed of all his broodmares through W. C. Yuille in December 1907. It was only when the First World War broke out, and he went to England to be commissioned a lieutenant in the British Army Service Corps in 1915 that he passed over Sweet Nell to his friend R. M Hawker and his Morphetville Stud. It was at the Morphetville Stud that she died in September 1918.
Sir Rupert Clarke survived his bonny filly by a little more than eight years. An accomplished horseman and first-class shot, his early experience in his father’s Rupertswood Battery of horse artillery served him in good stead in the British Army in the Great War where he saw action at Salonika, Greece, before being invalided out in 1917. Clarke had controversially divorced his first wife, by whom he had two daughters, back in 1909. Still, yearning for domestic felicity, in 1918 the 53-year-old baronet married Elsie Tucker, 31 years his junior. They were to have two sons and a daughter together.
After a tempestuous life, Sir Rupert Clarke died at his villa in Monte Carlo on Christmas Day, 1926. It was another Rupert that succeeded to the baronetcy upon his death – his seven-year-old son from his second marriage. How fitting it was that this Sir Rupert, the third baronet, was also to achieve eminence in the Sport of Kings and nowhere more so than at Caulfield racecourse, the scene of Sweet Nell’s most famous victory. For this Sir Rupert was, like his father, to serve on the V.A.T.C. committee too – only in his case for forty years with sixteen of them as chairman. During that period he raced some smart gallopers carrying the same pink jacket, black sleeves and cap that had brought his father so much success.