It was the Hon. Henry Cary Dangar who was responsible for importing Positano, the sire of Poseidon, into this country. In 1896 and chairman of the A.J.C. at the time, he decided to purchase a stallion by St Simon to give to his son, Richard, of Neotsfield. Dangar instructed his old Turf colleague, William Cooper, then racing in England on a grand scale, to look around and acquire one on his behalf. I think Dangar had in mind a well-performed horse at a high price, but as it transpired, William Cooper chose Positano, a poorly performed horse that had failed in his juvenile races over short distances, and didn’t favour his illustrious sire in any outward respect. Positano’s English trainer never imagined that the horse was a born stayer and required both maturity and ground before he would show his best on a racecourse. Nevertheless, this lack of imagination proved to be Dangar’s good fortune, and he was able to acquire the stallion for something around 400 guineas.
Positano arrived in Sydney when he turned four-years-old; there was a decided rush to see him on the boat, as he was only the second St Simon horse to come to NSW. Bill of Portland, by St Simon, had arrived in Victoria almost three years before, and Haut Brion had landed in Sydney only four months earlier. Considering the potency of the St Simon line, this was a seminal moment in the history of Australian bloodstock. In fact, Positano and Haut Brion were three-quarters brothers in blood.
Dangar had no intention of racing Positano when he first brought him over and how he came to do so makes an intriguing tale. After the horse had completed his term of quarantine, Dangar called at Fennelly’s Bazaar and issued instructions to send the horse by rail to Neotsfield. But while present in the yard, his trainer, John Allsop, who happened to be in town because somebody had told him that a truck of good hay had arrived, noticed Dangar. Allsop stopped to exchange a word with his old patron, and Dangar informed him that Positano was going to Neotsfield.
Allsop observed that the horse seemed poorly and recommended that Dangar instruct the stud groom at Neotsfield to put the horse through a course of physic on his arrival there. Dangar welcomed the suggestion but immediately considered that it might be wiser for Allsop himself to administer the physic and rail Positano to Neotsfield after the horse had recovered from the effects of the oil and aloes. And that’s how it happened that Allsop got the job, and finding the horse much improved as a result of his ministrations, he took him to the track and gave him a few gallops.
Of course, it didn’t take Allsop long to recognise a genuine stayer when he saw one, and, with the breeding season still some seven months away, Allsop advised Dangar to nominate the horse for a race or two over a distance at the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting. In due course, Positano’s name appeared among the entries for the Maiden Stakes and the Place Handicap. Just on nine weeks after his arrival from England the horse ran for the Maiden Stakes, but in a slowly run race, he was beaten by The Grafter, who later that season ran second in the Melbourne Cup, and then went on to win it the following year. Not bad company for a maiden stakes race!
On the third day of that autumn meeting, Positano easily won his second engagement, the mile-and-a-half Place Handicap. After further acclimatisation, later that year he developed into a genuine weight-for-age horse, squandering a good field in the A.J.C. Spring Stakes and running favourite in the Melbourne Cup, in which he finished fifth. Positano only had a handful of starts after that, being asked to carry big weights and contracting the wilful habit of sticking up on the training track – a practice that earned him a somewhat undeserved reputation as a rogue.
The next season Positano went to the stud. Whereas Haut Brion was a wonderful success from the start at Samuel Hordern’s Wilton Park, the cognoscenti dismissed Positano as a rank failure in just two seasons after receiving great patronage. But those critics so quick to condemn Positano as a stallion were as far wide of the mark as his detractors in England had been regarding his abilities as a racehorse. Although his first yearlings were a splendid lot to look at, only two of them were able to secure minor races. There was no more encouragement the following season either, as only one of his produce won a race, worth a paltry £95. But his stock required time, something that began to emerge in his third season when Postillion served notice of his galloping ability. When Lord Cardigan won the Melbourne Cup the following year in 1903, people, at last, realised that here in their midst was a first-class stallion.
John Mayo, who owned and bred Lord Cardigan from his mare Lady Trenton, sent Lady Trenton’s daughter to Positano and was rewarded with a second Melbourne Cup winner in Lord Nolan. It was after Lord Cardigan’s success that the quality of Positano’s book began to improve, but although he sired three Melbourne Cup winners apart from Poseidon, he never once headed the Australian Sires’ List, although he was twice runner-up. His colts were generally better than his fillies and although he got the odd sprinter/miler such as Little Toy, who won a Doncaster and set Frank McGrath on the road to prosperity, his progeny usually required a bit of a trip. When the horse was fairly well on in life, Dangar sold Positano to Sol Green for 4500 guineas to stand at the Shipley Stud at Warrnambool, and Green, in turn, passed him on when Comedy King came along. Positano died in July 1921 at Windsor in his 28th year.
It was in the autumn of 1904, coinciding with the Randwick Autumn Meeting, that Richard Dangar decided to sell out his stud of mares and young stock, and retain only Positano as a public stallion at Neotsfield. The dispersal occurred on the same day as that of the Russley Stud, and both enterprises disbanded for much the same reason – the land had become much too valuable and was needed instead for Ayrshire and shorthorn cattle. Leading trainer, Ike Earnshaw, was among the crowd of interested buyers and it was he that recommended the brothers Will and Fred Moses purchase Jacinth, with the future Poseidon, a foal at milk, for 400 guineas. Jacinth, by Martini Henry and bred by Mrs James White in 1894, had been bought by Richard Dangar as a broodmare after a moderate career on the racecourse, winning one race in town and four others in the country. This little fellow was her fourth foal and while not a commanding youngster, his physicality was such as to attract Earnshaw’s attention.
Like many others, Earnshaw was beginning to be very impressed by Positano’s growing reputation as a sire of good class stayers. Will and Fred Moses didn’t hesitate to follow Earnshaw’s recommendation. After all, only a few years before the same trainer had advised the budding young studmasters to purchase Emmie, a daughter of Robinson Crusoe, as a matron. She had proven a wonderful success for their stud: her first colt foal, Emir, sold for 1000 guineas as a yearling. Time would eventually show that there were some rare bargains on offer that day at Neotsfield apart from Poseidon.
That good weight-for-age horse and dual winner of The Metropolitan, Mooltan, another son of Positano, also sold as a foal at foot that day; while the future dams of both Post Town and Mother Goose were knocked down as well. But Poseidon would prove the best of them all. Of course, it was never the intention of Will and Fred Moses to retain him to race, but rather to offer him for sale as a yearling. When the brothers did so some twelve months later, Ike Earnshaw liked him even more and this time gave 500 guineas on behalf of a new client of his stable, Hugh Dixon, who cloaked his racing activities under the anonymity of ‘U. R. Robertson’. The price was substantial but well short of the record given at the same sales for a brown colt by Grafton from Lady Trenton.
Poseidon, like so many of the Positano stock, was slow to mature and Earnshaw delayed his racecourse debut until the Tattersall’s Summer Meeting when on New Year’s Day he ran unplaced in a nursery handicap. Tom Clayton rode him that day, as he would in all thirty-three of his race starts in what would become one of the most enduring horse and jockey partnerships in Australian racing history. Poseidon showed the benefit of the experience of that first foray with the colours up when at the Australia Day Meeting at Randwick later the same month he broke his maiden in a nursery – his only win in six starts that season. As undistinguished as his juvenile form appears in retrospect, the colt was showing Earnshaw enough at the time to warrant a southern trip for the rich Victorian autumn meetings where he opened as the favourite on the course to win the Alma Stakes at Caulfield but failed to flatter. Brought back to Sydney to contest the Champagne Stakes, Poseidon again failed to fire, and after a minor placing in a nondescript nursery on the last day of that autumn meeting, he went to a paddock until the spring.
1906 was a significant year of legislation impinging upon gambling and the Turf in NSW. By the early years of the twentieth century, the proliferation of proprietary clubs and pony racing had seen gambling flourish to an unhealthy extent. The first step towards an excessive amount of racing came when the A.J.C. recognised Canterbury Park. Soon afterwards, in quick succession came Rosehill, Moorefield and Warwick Farm – all proprietary clubs. And in their wake, came the ponies. By now the twin evils of excessive racing and continuous gambling called forth the urgent need for special legislation and in October 1906 the Gaming and Betting Act was introduced into NSW. For the first time, racecourses became licensed, and racing fixtures in the metropolitan area and Newcastle district restricted to Wednesdays, Saturdays and public holidays, except, of course, for Good Friday and Christmas Day.
The Act further prohibited the publication of ante-post betting in newspapers. Drastic provisions applied for the suppression of bogus clubs, ‘tote’ and betting shops, and street betting. Not for the last time, during the debates on the new legislation, some sections of the State Parliament began to advocate the removal of Turf control from the A.J.C. The antagonism towards the club was quite marked. Opponents of the bill declaimed against it as a specimen of class legislation, arguing that the wealthy would continue to gamble in their clubs while the working class would be practically debarred from modest wagering away from the racecourse. The prohibition of betting information was deplored in the sense that off-course gambling would continue despite the ban and bookmakers would be able to lay their own prices at the expense of the public. Nonetheless, despite its shortcomings, the bill was a welcome instalment of reform.
The spring campaign that was destined to be the finest ever conducted by a three-year-old in Australia up to that time, kicked off in winning vein at the Tattersall’s Meeting at Randwick in early September. Poseidon was never a particularly big horse, although he was bigger than first impressions, being built on short but powerful thighs and gaskins and very thick through the heart. In appearance, he threw very much to Positano, particularly from the girth back. The race chosen by Earnshaw as Poseidon’s pipe-opener was a welter handicap run over a mile on a programme when the more fancied Derby candidates, Collarit and Antonius, were preferred for the weight-for-age Rawson Stakes. The most notable feature of the weight-for-age contest that day wasn’t the conspicuousness of the three-year-olds engaged, but rather the fact that all of the jockeys involved in the race were fined £1 for their late arrival at the post. The horses remained in the paddock for a time after the clerk of the course’s instructions to leave for the start.
Tom Clayton was almost guilty of similar tardiness when he just managed to land Poseidon a winner at the post in the very last stride of the welter, from Tom Payten’s Grafton horse, Melodrama, another prospective Derby candidate, after coming late on the scene. Although he received 8lb from the runner-up, Poseidon was much more backward at that stage of his preparation and as such the run was a hint of things to come. Earnshaw elected to give him his final Derby trial two weeks later in the Hawkesbury Spring Handicap, transferred that year from the Clarendon course to Rosehill. There was a time when the Hawkesbury spring and autumn meetings had ranked among the leading fixtures in N.S.W., but the spread of proprietary racing in the metropolitan district had seen a decline in the fortunes of the Hawkesbury Racing Club. Poseidon gave it a timely boost with his appearance. He won the contest easily enough after being sent to the post as the favourite and in doing so drew keen attention to his Derby prospects.
In April 1906 the A.J.C. committee had announced some important changes to the Spring Meeting, the most significant being the deferral of the fixture to some three weeks later than had hitherto been the case. The change afforded several advantages including the likelihood of more congenial spring weather as well as larger crowds because of the completion of shearing in most pastoral districts. It was also the first time the Labour Day public holiday became incorporated into the fixture. It was a significant announcement from a Derby perspective too, because it ensured that colts and fillies contesting the race would be more mature. Another important change was the decision for the first time to include two rich races for juveniles in the spring programme viz. the Breeders’ Plate (5f) and the Gimcrack Stakes (4 ½f). The conditions for both races provided winning penalties to safeguard against youngsters racing from the start of the season. The Breeders’ Plate replaced the Spring Maiden Stakes, while the Gimcrack Stakes dislodged the Wycombe Stakes from the programme.
The 1906 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions appear in the table below:
The A.J.C. had increased the added money for the Derby by half, in the wake of the V.R.C. putting up the stake for the V.R.C. Derby to 1500 guineas. As a result, both races were now worth the same, excluding sweepstakes. Half a dozen colts mustered for a start in delightful weather and before a crowd estimated at more than thirty thousand people. Collarit and Antonius, the two crack juveniles from the previous season, dominated the betting. Collarit, a most impressive son of Haut Brion, was the reigning even-money favourite trained at Randwick by Fred Mayo.
Purchased at the autumn sales for 145 guineas, Collarit was bred by Samuel Hordern at Wilton Park, and was a grandson of that good-producing Musket mare, Necklace, and was out of a sister to The Metropolitan winner, Cravat. An exceptional upstanding brown colt, Collarit had dominated the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting making a one-act affair of the Sires’ Produce Stakes and thereby upsetting the substantial odds laid on Antonius. When the same pair met again in the Champagne Stakes – again at equal weights – the betting was reversed, and the result was the same although Barden almost cost Collarit the race by easing up after passing the distance. Collarit then rounded off his juvenile campaign by again humbling Antonius in the Easter Stakes.
Collarit had failed when resuming in the Rawson Stakes three weeks before the Derby. However, that defeat was put down to the poor riding instructions given to his rider, McLachlan. The horse had then redeemed his reputation a week later when Tod Hewitt partnered the colt, and he was just run down in the Rosehill Cup when attempting to lead all the way. Antonius had shown his best form as a two-year-old earlier in the season, having won the A.J.C. December Stakes before annexing both the Sires’ Produce Stakes and Ascot Vale Stakes at Flemington. In each of his two Flemington races, Antonius finished powerfully, after appearing hopelessly placed early.
Antonius boasted the distinction of having been bred by a Roman Catholic priest from Victoria, the Reverend Father Campbell. Campbell saw nothing inconsistent in a dalliance with the Turf and his ecclesiastical vows. Sold as a yearling, Antonius went into the stables of Tom Payten. Victoria was represented in the Derby by the high-priced Iolaire by Grafton, a half-brother to Great Scot and Walter Scot, bred by Tom Payten. The colt raced in the colours of Lauchlan Mackinnon, who at this stage of his sporting life, hid his identity under the pseudonym of ‘K. S. McLeod’. Huascar, carrying the colours of George Stead, was the sole representative of New Zealand in the classic.
Collarit and Huascar, racing together, made the early running in the Derby, a couple of lengths ahead of Banzai, with Poseidon a similar distance away, just ahead of Iolaire with Antonius last. As the field crossed the tan, Huascar began to draw clear on his own terms and at the milepost had established a four lengths margin over Collarit, with Banzai and Poseidon three lengths further adrift, and Antonius and Iolaire at their heels. A little further on and Barden decided to give the favourite his head in an attempt to steal the race, and by the half-mile Collarit had shown a rare turn of foot to race to a six lengths’ lead. But once the field entered the straight and Clayton released the brakes on Poseidon, there was only ever going to be one winner.
The bay horse responded generously, running right over the favourite inside the distance to win comfortably by three-quarters of a length to Collarit, who never quite saw out the trip, with a similar margin to Antonius in the minor placing. The winning time might not have been anything to write home about, but the manner of the victory marked Poseidon as a high-class colt. At the time he was Sir Hugh Denison’s only horse, and the lucky owner had succeeded in the classic at his first attempt. Alas, Denison wasn’t at Randwick to enjoy the glory, being in England on business – travels that denied him the pleasure of seeing all of Poseidon’s subsequent triumphs that spring.
If there were any doubts that a new staying power was abroad in the land, such were effectively expunged on Monday when Earnshaw saddled up Poseidon to run second in The Metropolitan. These days, The Metropolitan has lost much of its aura, but in the early years of the twentieth century, it was a most valuable and much sought-after prize. Being conducted so early in the season, it was not a common practice to run three-year-olds in the race, particularly Derby winners who received a weight penalty for their classic victory. Poseidon was asked to carry 7 st. 9lb, and while he went under by five lengths to the high-class New Zealand mare, Solution, who started a short-priced favourite in the field of twenty-five, the colt met severe interference at the six-furlong pole. The fact that the canny Earnshaw even elected to let Poseidon take his chance in the big field against such handicapping bias, spoke volumes for the regard in which he held the horse.
I consider it the most exceptional staying performance by a three-year-old in the history of the race. Solution, a five-year-old mare, was only asked to carry 8 st. 2lb, a mere half-stone more than Poseidon when the weight-for-age scale stipulated another stone would have been equitable. After all, in the forty years since the inception of The Metropolitan in 1866 only three three-year-olds had been successful, and none carried more than 6 st. 4lb. There seems little doubt that had Poseidon been permitted to run at his original handicap of 6 st. 7lb, Solution would never have won. I might mention that Solution later won the weight-for-age Craven Plate at the same meeting to emphasise her class. Indeed, so impressive had she been that a Melbourne hotelier, P. H. Reynolds, parted with 4000 guineas to become Solution’s owner in time for the Cups at Caulfield and Flemington, and he heavily backed the mare in both races as well.
As good as his Sydney campaign had been, it was his four appearances in Melbourne that spring that guaranteed Poseidon Turf immortality. First up in the southern capital he won the Eclipse Stakes (w-f-a 11f) at Caulfield. Three days later at the same meeting, Poseidon became the first favourite to win the Caulfield Cup since Calma in 1883 when he had three lengths to spare in a race record time for the distance. His conqueror from The Metropolitan, Solution, conceding him 26lb on this occasion, finished a tiring fifth. Next stop was the Victoria Derby in which only five horses opposed him. Despite light rain throughout the night before and downpours during the afternoon, Poseidon, starting at the prohibitive odds of four to one on, won the classic comfortably in the end from Antonius.
Having dominated the betting in the Caulfield Cup, Solution and Poseidon now did the same for the Melbourne Cup, but on-course betting on Tuesday eventually saw the mare go off as the 7/2 favourite with Poseidon a firm 4/1. Although Solution led into the straight, soon after that she had spent her boast and in a matter of strides Poseidon, who had already overcome a couple of serious bumps, raced to the front to easily win the rich handicap by three lengths from his luckless contemporary, Antonius. Sportsmen were now asking whether this was the finest three-year-old Australia had ever seen.
Trainers of great experience such as James Wilson Senior and Harry Rayner used to say that if you got a horse to the top of his game for the Melbourne Cup meeting, you were a lucky man indeed if you had him fit again in the autumn, especially if he was a three-year-old. Up to the time of 1907 Lord Cardigan had done it but few others had, and there was considerable speculation as to how Poseidon would recover from the exertions of the previous year. Earnshaw pulled it off with aplomb. Poseidon won both St Legers in hollow fashion, as well as a couple of weight-for-age races; his only defeats came in the three-mile Champion Stakes at Flemington and the Cumberland Stakes at Randwick.
Sent to the post at 8/1 on in the Champion Stakes against his only three opponents, Tom Clayton didn’t hang about, as he was anxious to finish within the time limit and snare the full prize money. Such tactics suited Barden, who rode a waiting race to win on Dividend. When the newswire of Poseidon’s defeat reached Rosehill that day, regulars were astonished at the result. Poseidon’s defeat at his last appearance for the season in the Cumberland Stakes came when he was already beginning to train off; he again tried to force the pace with Dividend, only to come up second best and pull-up in a distressed state. Thus, ended the most magnificent season ever enjoyed by a three-year-old in Australia up to that time – 11 wins and 3 seconds from his 14 starts. The champion colt went to Windsor Farm for a well-deserved spell, and the arrival of such an equine celebrity in the usually somnolent town of Windsor caused quite a stir.
The balance of Poseidon’s career on the Turf is easily related. As a four-year-old, although he won at seven of his twelve appearances, he never quite achieved the dominance of his three-year-old season. Nonetheless, it was twelve months that yielded an even richer harvest for the Earnshaw stable. If there is such a thing as ‘a tide in the affairs of men’ as the Bard of Avon once wrote, then for Ike Earnshaw the spring of 1907 was to be the flood. Numbered among Poseidon’s stablemates that season was a five-year-old stallion over from New Zealand named Apologue, a half-brother to the great mare Gladsome, owned by an Auckland bookmaker, R. L. Cleland.
Apologue’s early trackwork for Earnshaw convinced the trainer that he might have stumbled upon his second Melbourne Cup winner. Moreover, Poseidon’s early season gallops confirmed that his first Cup winner had lost nothing during the winter layoff. Despite a handicap of nine stone in the Caulfield Cup, Poseidon was thus strongly supported by the stable in doubles to win that race even before he had made his seasonal re-appearance, with Apologue coupled as the second leg to win the Melbourne Cup. Sol Green alone laid the stable double to win £100,000, and he wasn’t the only bookmaker that Earnshaw’s commission agents claimed.
After a slightly disappointing A.J.C. Spring Meeting in which Poseidon only managed to win the Spring Stakes in three appearances, the horse together with his trans-Tasman stablemate journeyed to Melbourne. Poseidon easily won the Eclipse Stakes at Caulfield on the Wednesday before the Cup and then three days later in a field of just sixteen, beat Apologue by a length to take the Caulfield Cup itself. The fact that Apologue had only been brought upon the scene somewhat belatedly by his jockey to challenge his stablemate in that race led to some dark murmurings in the sporting newspapers as to the result suiting the Earnshaw stable’s Cups betting.
Such was the controversy that the V.A.T.C. stewards took the unusual action of writing to Apologue’s owner offering to hold an inquiry into the race if Mr Cleland so wished, although the stewards themselves were satisfied. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the bookmaker-owner declined the invitation. Apologue, having avoided a Caulfield Cup penalty, a few days later ensured that Australia’s doubles bookmakers would remember 1907 as an annus horribilis of the worst kind when he kept his part of the stable bargain by winning the Melbourne Cup. Later that week it was rumoured that Mr Cleland was seen carrying a suitcase stuffed with money onto the trans-Tasman steamer for his journey back to Auckland. Poseidon, whose Melbourne Cup weight had increased to a sturdy 10 st. 3 lb due to his Caulfield Cup-winning penalty, finished well back in eighth place.
Poseidon was brought back in the autumn for the Randwick fixture where he managed to win the Cumberland Stakes and A.J.C. Plate at his final two appearances that season. The great horse was fated to confront the starter only one more time – as a five-year-old. It came at the Tattersall’s meeting at Randwick in the 1908 Rawson Stakes. There had been persistent rumours that all was not well with Poseidon even before the race. Sporting a boot and a bandage and burdened with 9 st. 11 lb, Poseidon ran a gallant fifth but returned to the enclosure lame. Although an attempt was made to train him the following autumn, his racing career was over and his stallion days about to begin. There was never a question of his potency. While taking one of his spells from racing – in his three-year-old days at Windsor Farm – Poseidon had been mated with a couple of pony mares, and two foals had resulted. One of these, out of Warfare, was in fact subsequently trained by Earnshaw, while the other, named Dominion, from a 13.3 pony, won an important race for Galloways at Ascot.
I don’t think any owner of a Derby winner has gone to greater lengths in a bid to establish his horse as a stallion than did Sir Hugh Denison. In the summer of 1908, he had bought 8000 acres of the original Guntawang holding on the Cudgegong River for around £50,000 with a view to installing Poseidon there as his foundation stallion when the horse’s racing days had ended. The Rouse family had originally taken up Guntawang in the early days of the colony. Denison changed the name of the stud to Eumaralla and embarked on an ambitious programme of refurbishment, constructing a new set of stables and a ring paddock, and becoming a prolific buyer of bloodstock from Britain, as well as within Australia and New Zealand. Earnshaw himself bought some well-bred young mares at the Newmarket July Sales on Denison’s behalf when he visited England in 1911. Poseidon stood his first season at the stud in the spring of 1909 at a fee of 25 guineas and served a full book of twenty mares.
Poseidon had a quality harem with which to start, and his mates included such matrons as Zilka, Sir Hugh’s 1908 Breeders’ Plate winner, as well as the imported Trinket, future dam of Westcourt, a Melbourne Cup winner.
Sir Hugh Denison retained most of his first crop of yearlings to race himself although three were sold at the 1912 Easter Sales and aggregated 725 guineas, placing Poseidon seventh on the list of stallion averages for those sales. But despite Sir Hugh Denison’s best endeavours and high hopes, Poseidon was to prove a rank failure as a stallion. Perhaps the best of his progeny were Telecles, the winner of a Moonee Valley Cup and Rascasse, a Queensland Derby hero, although he was also responsible for some useful horses over timber including Old Mungindi, the winner of the 1917 V.R.C. Grand National Steeplechase.
Poseidon was possessed of a sweet temperament, and even before his procreative failings had been revealed, he was used as a hack about Eumaralla out of season working up in the hills after sheep and horses. Eumaralla was eventually dispersed in the dark years of World War I when the Government was seeking land upon which to settle returned soldiers. Denison offered his property at a very fair price and having sold the land; he decided to sell out his stud of thoroughbreds as well. The stock dispersal occurred in June 1916 although Poseidon himself failed to arouse any interest among buyers and was passed-in. Sir Hugh retained the horse, later establishing another stud at Sledmere in partnership with Guy Raymond, and re-locating his old favourite there. Poseidon was eventually pensioned off and died at the Kialgara station in the Coonamble district in February 1930.
It is not that unusual in Australia for an owner, having acquired a racehorse, to wish to change its name; but I think Poseidon affords the only example in our racing history where a racehorse has prompted a change in his owner’s name! Although as we have seen, Hugh Dixson initially raced Poseidon and his other horses under the nom de course of ‘U. R. Robertson’, the flood of unwanted publicity that Poseidon unleashed with his unique sequence of wins in the spring of 1906, inevitably saw the real name of the owner leak into the press, together with rather lurid reports of exaggerated betting plunges. Hugh Dixson had an uncle of the very same name, a strict Sabbatarian, who became acutely embarrassed by his nephew’s racing associations. Not wishing to change his sporting habits, the younger Hugh decided to change his name instead, and after the change by deed poll in March 1907, became known to the world as Hugh Denison.
Known as such, he was fast becoming one of Australia’s foremost captains of industry – rising to prominence first in the tobacco industry, and later through newspapers and wireless. Born near Forbes in 1865 and the eldest son, his father controlled the tobacco-manufacturing firm of Robert Dixson and Co. Educated at Scotch College in Melbourne and the University College School in London, Hugh returned to work in the family firm. He was to be instrumental in 1903 in bringing about the eventual merger of various tobacco interests into British Tobacco (Australia) Ltd and was one of the principal directors of the newly established company.
It was in 1910 in the full flush of success both in the boardroom and the on the Turf that Hugh Denison formed a company to take over the ‘Star’ newspaper in Sydney, whose circulation was dwindling rapidly in competition with ‘The Evening News’. Changing the name of the paper to the ‘Sun’, within a few years Hugh Denison had wholly revised its fortunes and saw it emerge as the pre-eminent afternoon newspaper in Sydney, a position it held right up to the time of his death in 1940. Denison was to become chairman of Associated Newspapers Pty Ltd which he formed in 1929, and later he diversified his media interests into radio, becoming chairman of 2GB Pty Ltd, a director of Macquarie Broadcasting Services Pty Ltd, and an associate of radio 2UE.
Throughout his life, Denison was a forceful advocate of the British Empire, and among other activities, he largely financed Mawson’s Antarctic expedition and proved a great benefactor to the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia. He was appointed a K.B.E. in 1923. Sir Hugh’s sporting activities were occasionally the subject of critical comment in the various newspapers of rival proprietors. In 1933 Denison unwisely chose to sue “Truth” and “Sportsman” Ltd for £10,000 damages, a celebrated case which resulted in the N.S.W. Supreme Court awarding him damages for the derisory sum of a farthing!
Despite such sniping from rival newspaper proprietors, throughout his life, Denison remained a keen sportsman with a passionate attachment to the Turf. He failed in his bid to fill the vacancy on the A.J.C. committee created by the death of Walter Hall in 1911 and after that channelled his passion into the breeding and racing of bloodstock. Denison became the inaugural president of the Blood Stock Breeders’ Association in January 1919, and over the years he was responsible for importing some well-performed stallions to Australia. These included the 1933 Irish Derby and St Leger winner, Harinero, Great Star, Quantock, Treclare and Dark Fox, as well as many English broodmares.
Denison’s partnership with Guy Raymond in Sledmere ended in 1926, and after that, he carried the business of the stud on his own, with Guy linking up with R. V. Rankin at the St Albans Stud near Geelong. But for all the considerable fortune that Hugh Denison expended on distinguished European pedigrees during his life on the Australian Turf, it is with the progeny of Positano and Jacinth that his name will always be linked – and not just because of Poseidon. For if Poseidon represented the very zenith of his fortunes on the racecourse, the colt’s younger brother, Orcus, came to represent the nadir, and a byword for expensive failures procured in the auction ring.
After the glorious spring that Hugh Denison enjoyed with Poseidon in 1906, his anxiety to acquire the colt’s younger brother, at the Sydney Yearling Sales the following autumn came as no surprise. A beautiful specimen who, apart from a couple of splashes of white, looked very much like Poseidon, the yearling had also attracted the attention of Sir Rupert Clarke, and the two men engaged in a spirited bidding duel to obtain ownership of the colt, listed with a reserve of some 2000 guineas. Fortunately for the Victorian baronet, he lost to a bid of 3050 guineas by Denison. This was a fabulous sum and it stood as the Australian record price for a yearling until the year 1928.
When brothers or sisters to champion racehorses bring big money at yearling sales, there is never a shortage of racecourse wags eager to impart the intelligence that Nellie Melba’s brother couldn’t sing a note or that Esther Williams’ sister rarely took a bath: the implication being that siblings rarely shared the same extraordinary talent. This time the wiseacres were spot on the money. Subsequently, the colt was registered as Orcus, which in classical mythology was the prison house of the departed, and the name seemed singularly appropriate for a racehorse that showed a distinct lack of vigour on the racecourse. In fifteen starts over four seasons on the Turf, Orcus failed to win a single race and was eventually sold by Denison at a fraction of his purchase price to stand as a stallion in Queensland where he met with only moderate success.
After Poseidon and Orcus and until Sir Hugh Denison’s death in November 1940, perhaps the best horses to carry his purple livery were Habashon, who won a Villiers, and Dark Spear, the winner of a Summer Cup and Moonee Valley Cup. In 1948, some years after Sir Hugh’s death, the family finally disposed of Sledmere to Maurice Point. As much as Sir Hugh’s uncle might have deplored his nephew’s involvement in the Sport of Kings, it became something of a family pastime. His son, Cecil, bred Sylvandale and also raced a number of horses over the years, with Fawnia probably being the last good horse to carry the family colours when she won the 1964 Gimcrack Stakes. To this day the all purple livery remains registered in the Denison family name.