It is said that a man who chooses to represent himself in a court of law has a fool for a client. Something similar is often muttered about well-meaning but naive owners who wish to train their own racehorses as a hobby. Such was the prejudice that Joe O’Brien encountered when he first entered the ranks of ownership in Sydney. A successful Sydney businessman with a large station property in southwestern Queensland, O’Brien wasn’t born among horses but was one of those practical men who seemed to be able to turn his hand to most things. Self-confident and shrewd, backed by considerable wealth, he first emerged as a player on the Randwick scene with his purchase of Malt King as a yearling in the autumn of 1908. It was in August of that same year when Malt King was showing remarkable promise in training gallops that O’Brien moved a motion at an A.J.C. General Meeting that the club’s members be permitted to train their own horses privately at Randwick.
Certainly, it was a self-serving motion given that Randwick was a public racecourse intended for public trainers, but it didn’t seem that unreasonable considering that O’Brien had just a couple of horses. Nonetheless, it was a proposal that was met with an icy indifference by the chairman, Adrian Knox, and by the few members that bothered to attend the meeting, O’Brien’s only support coming from his own seconder. The rebuff meant that O’Brien as a member was prevented from using the club’s property and was placed in a subordinate position to licensed trainers. No doubt there was an element of snobbery in the decision with Knox and others reasoning that any man wanting to train his own horses wasn’t a gentleman at all, and perhaps didn’t properly belong within the exclusive club in the first place.
The rejection failed to dampen O’Brien’s enthusiasm and he proceeded to prepare Malt King privately, frequently at Victoria Park. As we have seen, but for the fact that Prince Foote was out in the same season, Malt King would have been acknowledged as the best of his year. Even with Prince Foote about, Malt King was able to win the Champagne Stakes at two and the Caulfield Guineas at three, before maturing into a high-class weight-for-age and handicap horse taking among other races The Metropolitan at Randwick as a five-year-old with 9 st. 1lb.
Malt King was in cracking form during the autumn of 1912 winning the Rawson Stakes before going down narrowly to Trafalgar in the Autumn Stakes at Randwick and later at the same fixture winning the All Aged Stakes. Joe O’Brien decided to parlay some of the prize money that had come his way on a likely yearling at the Sydney Easter Sales then being held. His choice fell upon a beautiful dark bay colt by Multiform out of that brilliant juvenile, Wigelmar, being offered by the estate of the late Hon. George Lee.
Just a few months before, in January 1912, the venerable George Lee had died at the age of seventy-seven, leaving behind among other bloodstock at his famous Leeholme Stud at Bathurst, three yearlings – a filly and two colts – galloping about the paddocks. The filly was the last daughter of the legendary matron, Etra Weenie, while the two colts were her grandsons, out of the good mares, Wigelmar and Diffidence. Etra Weenie herself died in March 1912 just a couple of months after her proud owner. The executors of Lee’s estate offered the three lots at those Sydney Sales, and O’Brien was among many buyers eager to acquire the magic bloodlines; almost at once he had been taken with the colt from Wigelmar. There were few more impressive pedigrees in the catalogue. The colt in question was from the second Australian crop of Multiform, who now stood at William Brown’s Will’s Gully Stud in the Hunter Valley, having been bought at the dispersal sale of the Yaldhurst horses in August 1908 for 3750 guineas when fourteen-years-old. This yearling notwithstanding, Multiform was to be sadly wasted in the Hunter after having sired a succession of marvellous stayers in New Zealand including our 1905 Derby hero, Noctuiform; Multiform died at William Brown’s Whittingham Stud in May 1912, just two months after his best Australian-bred son was sold.
Wigelmar, a daughter of the legendary Etra Weenie, had only raced three times after being entrusted by George Lee to Stan Lamond at Zetland Lodge. Despite her brief flirtation with the Turf she had still managed to uphold the family tradition of early juvenile precocity by winning the rich Debutant Stakes at Caulfield at her first start and then – burdened with a ten-pound penalty – been runner-up to Finland in the Maribyrnong Plate at her second. She developed a wind infirmity after that and only started once more, being unplaced in the Spring Stakes at Rosehill the following season, before being retired to the Leeholme Stud. Her first foal at stud had been Master Foote, the colt that carried V.R.C. committeeman William Leonard’s colours to the front in the Caulfield Guineas and other top-class races. Then followed a succession of five fillies – two of whom proved useful on the racecourse as well as being wonderful successes at stud – before this, Wigelmar’s second colt came along. An October foal and a physically imposing specimen, O’Brien managed to get him for just 700 guineas – although some buyers may have held back because two of Wigelmar’s previous progeny had – like their dam – been afflicted in the wind. This colt wasn’t musical in the least and subsequently registered as Beragoon, he proved the cheapest and the best of the three lots on offer from Leeholme that Easter, although he would clash on more than one occasion with the colt from Diffidence. I might mention that John Inglis sold Wigelmar herself the following week to William Thompson for the same price that her yearling brought.
A hard, muscular bay, Beragoon showed all of his family’s precocity as an early comer when he dominated the rich two-year-old events of the early spring, and he holds the distinction of being the only horse ever to win both the Breeders’ Plate and Gimcrack Stakes at the Randwick Spring Meeting. This seeming anomaly is explained by the fact that from the introduction of both races in 1906 until 1916 colts and fillies were eligible for both races. Word of the colt’s ability had already got out before his debut, and he went to post at odds on for the Breeders’ Plate, a race in which he took full charge once into the straight to win stylishly by four lengths. Penalised fourteen-pounds, two days later he won the Gimcrack Stakes as easily, again in the hands of W. Black who was lucky to have partnered Beragoon in the double. It is forgotten now, but Beragoon was the colt that did more than most to establish Jim Pike in the first stage of his great career even if there was a hiccup at the beginning. Pike had been booked to take the mount on Beragoon for his two engagements at the Randwick Spring Meeting but a fall in an earlier race on Metropolitan Day prevented him from fulfilling those engagements. He was however back in the saddle when Beragoon won the Maribyrnong Plate on the opening day of the Flemington Spring Meeting. In winning that race, Beragoon went one place better than his dam and emulated the performance of his grand dam Etra Weenie in 1891.
Beragoon was always a bit too big for his age as a juvenile and lacked the strength to match his size; it told on him as the season progressed. He was suffering from shin-soreness when he was eclipsed in the December Stakes at the Randwick Summer Meeting, and in the autumn, he was sent to post as the favourite for both the Sires’ Produce and the Champagne Stakes but could only run second in the former and badly unplaced in the latter. Joe O’Brien then sent the horse to his paddocks at Rooty Hill for a spell while he drove north to the Hunter Valley to finalise negotiations for the purchase of the Kingsfield Stud, a property that the earnings of Beragoon went some way towards financing. It had been a highly satisfying season for the man who had been denied training rights at Randwick. Apart from both Malt King and Beragoon, O’Brien also trained the brilliant sprinter, Golden Hop, a horse that he’d bought out of a selling race at Flemington from Allan Currie, and which Pike had partnered to win the prestigious Challenge Stakes at headquarters.
The 1913 Derby was the first to be conducted at Randwick that specifically excluded geldings. It was a controversial decision at the time and, as we shall see, only lasted until 1917 when geldings were once again allowed to run the following year. The second period of prohibition came into effect in 1932, prompted by the peculiar circumstances of the Depression, and this second ban lasted right up until 1956. Thankfully, in all the years since geldings have been able to compete. When the committee invoked the first exclusion, it had been a question that had exercised their minds for years. For a long time, the emasculation of racehorses was supposed to have a detrimental effect on their racing life let alone their sex life. At one time, geldings had received an allowance in the Derbies at Randwick and Flemington as well as some weight-for-age races – a practice that was to persist in certain set-weight events for some years even beyond 1913.
The object of the Derby ban presumably was for the improvement of the breed, although many believed the committee was merely following the practice of the Jockey Club in England. Of course, the winner of the English Derby in those days commanded a status at the stud that was altogether denied his Australian counterpart. It was often asked by those opponents of admitting geldings to our Derby, what influence the gelding could have on equine posterity should he chance to win the race? Directly, none whatever, but I would argue a great deal indirectly. As a rule, he serves the unique purpose of exposing the poverty of those colts that finish behind him and is apt to raise doubts as to whether they, too, should not have come under the knife.
Geldings or not, and despite the homecoming of the Australian fleet in Sydney Harbour, Derby Day attracted a crowd of sixty thousand to Randwick. The weeks leading into the meeting had not portended well for the gathering, with Sydney for a time a quarantine zone owing to smallpox, while the heavy rains in June had delayed completion of the new double-decker paddock grandstand. However, the new official stand replete with oyster bars and luncheon rooms was fully serviceable. A field of just seven colts stood their ground for the classic. Beragoon was a pronounced favourite for the race and seemed to know it from the provocative swagger that he brought to the saddling paddock. Whatever the disappointments of his two appearances at the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting, his performance in finishing second in a big field to Duke Foote in the Chelmsford Stakes at the Sydney Tattersall’s meeting in mid-September, and the return of Jim Pike to the saddle, had seen the public rally to the son of Multiform. September had been an unusually dry month, and the Randwick tracks were so hard that O’Brien had restricted the heavy-topped Beragoon to just the one public performance leading up to the classic. Instead of using the Rosehill Guineas as his final trial, O’Brien had opted to gallop Beragoon over ten-furlongs on the middle grass at Randwick ten days before, and a rather sensational gallop it had been.
The 1913 A.J.C Derby field and race conditions are set out in the following table.
Radnor and Solano shared the second line of Derby betting. Owned by Tom Lowry, Soltano had been arguably the best juvenile of his year in New Zealand having won both the Great Northern Foal Stakes and the Great Northern Champagne Stakes; and had taken the Spring Stakes at Rosehill in his Derby lead-up.
Radnor, Beragoon’s conqueror in the Sires’ Produce Stakes in the autumn, was an interesting colt. Ike Earnshaw had purchased this grandson of La Tosca for four hundred guineas on the opening day of Chisholm’s Easter Sales intending him for his main patron, Walter Brunton; but Brunton preferred one of Ike’s other selections and the colt was left on the trainer’s hands.
While his Sires’ win at Randwick had convinced many during the winter that despite his small frame he was the likely Derby winner, Beragoon’s easy reduction of him in the Chelmsford Stakes suggested otherwise. Moreover, Radnor had bruised his heel at a critical stage in his preparation. Beau Soult, a half-brother to the good New Zealand handicap horse, Bronze, was on the next line of betting and was the winner of the Easter Stakes in the autumn and more recently the Rosehill Guineas.
The Melbourne challenge came from Andelosia trained by Phil Heywood, who had a particularly strong hand in three-year-olds that year. Andelosia was the yearling from Diffidence that had been auctioned by the executors of the estate of George Lee for 900 guineas at Easter and had been the lot sold immediately after Beragoon. Placed in the Maribyrnong Plate behind his near relation in the spring, he had won the prestigious Ascot Vale Stakes in the autumn.
In the Derby running, Beragoon was always close to the lead, and it was at the half-mile post that Pike, deciding the pace was not strong enough for the favourite, allowed his mount to run to the front while Albert Wood moved Radnor smoothly into second place. Beragoon was the first to swing into the straight ahead of Radnor, Andelosia and Beau Soult. Inside the distance, Radnor made a run at the favourite and Pike was compelled to draw his whip. Ike Earnshaw’s colt might have run to almost a half-length in front, but opposite the grandstand, under vigorous riding, Beragoon came back again and shortly thereafter Wood dropped his whip. However, Beragoon was about a half-neck in front at the time – an advantage the favourite grimly maintained in the run to the winning post. Earnshaw accepted the defeat of Radnor with grace, having predicted that if the classic came down to a duel between the pair, the bigger colt would prevail. With Beau Soult and Andelosia failing quite to stay the journey, it was left to the outsider Ulva’s Isle to fill the minor placing.
Victory in the Derby by the favourite is always bound to elicit a magnificent reception from the general public, a fact that was enhanced on this occasion by their knowledge of O’Brien’s wonderful training feat and the fact that the owner was regarded as something of a parvenu by many on the committee. Having been denied a licence to train at Randwick, to triumph in the club’s most important race was sweet revenge indeed, and it was a proud owner that watched Lady Denman decorate his colt. O’Brien quipped to surrounding pressmen that he wouldn’t exchange places with the Admiral of the Fleet and would sooner own Beragoon than the flagship. Easy as it is to be magnanimous in victory, Derby success never diluted O’Brien’s enmity towards certain individuals on the A.J.C. committee whom he considered his natural enemies.
However, O’Brien was generally well regarded by the racing public whom he sought to engage with over his Turf ventures. Like most of the sporting public, O’Brien saw himself as an outsider. Beragoon had remained in the entries for The Metropolitan to be run on the following Monday, but the owner had warned the public that the horse would not run were he to have a hard time of it in the classic. Within minutes of the Derby presentation, O’Brien had withdrawn his colt from the rich handicap and had been anxious to ensure that a notice to that effect was prominently displayed on the course. Such confidences guaranteed that his public standing was in stark contrast to that of John Brown, particularly given the controversial scratching of Duke Foote from the same race. The Spring Stakes on Derby Day 1914 was the famous occasion of that very bitter public demonstration against Brown mentioned in my 1909 chapter.
It had been a masterly Derby ride by Jim Pike, who had been something of a child prodigy in the leathers. Banjo Patterson was fond of retailing the simple exchange when the little lad appeared before the A.J.C. panel to apply for his riding permit. “Old Bill” Kelso, Pike’s master, before introducing him, just said to the stewards: “Now I’ll show you a horseman.” On the occasion of the boy’s first winning ride, courtesy of William Kelso in the Liverpool Mile at Warwick Farm on Saturday, November 15th 1906, Tom Willis, the racing correspondent for the Sydney Mail had written: “Victoria Cross was ridden by an exceedingly small but workmanlike apprentice named Pike, who will surely be heard of again as a jockey. This was his first winning mount. He only got permission to ride a couple of weeks back. He followed up his win on Victoria Cross by riding Tregeare and dead-heating with Tall Boy for the Farm Stakes. [Tod] Hewitt, who was riding in the race, declares Pike is a phenomenon and would be worth his weight (5 stone) in gold several times over in England. I have often noticed this mite riding work, and for a youngster, he is undoubtedly a wonder.” Willis covered the Sydney racing scene for years under the pseudonym ‘Milroy’, and it is doubtful if he ever penned a truer word.
Born at The Junction, near the old Newcastle racecourse in September 1892, Jim Pike didn’t come from a racing family; his father was a Newcastle-born butcher. Never inclined to scholarship, at the age of twelve Jim was encouraged by his father to get a job. It happened that an uncle kept the local Exchange Hotel in Hunter Street where visiting trainers to the coalfields often stabled their horses. It was through this connection that Pike initially joined Ernie Connors’ stable. Despite being under-aged and underweight, the lad enjoyed some race rides before officialdom caught up with him and stood him down until he matured. Still, his limited forays in the saddle in due course attracted the attention of Sydney trainer, William Kelso, and he came to Sydney to serve a five-year apprenticeship with the trainer, whose stables were at Redfern, on the site of what was to become Resch’s Brewery. Although just on five stone, the A.J.C. granted Pike his riding permit in December 1906. Despite there being no apprentice allowance and competing on equal terms with senior jockeys, success quickly followed.
Kelso acted upon the gratuitous advice of Lance Hewitt quoted above; he closed his Sydney stables in February 1908, and with young Jim in tow, caught a ship to England. The climate proved too severe, and although Pike rode a couple of winners over there and attracted the attention of the distinguished Lord Carnarvon, master and apprentice were back in Australia by July. Nonetheless, the trip wasn’t entirely a waste of time; apart from observing English training and riding methods, accompanying the pair on the return journey was an English-bred horse named Son of the Marsh. He would win numerous races for Kelso and Pike in Sydney and Melbourne, including a Tattersall’s Cup at Randwick.
Kelso apart, few men did more to bring Pike to the public’s attention in the early stages of his career than Joe O’Brien. One of Pike’s first wins in a feature race had come aboard Malt King when the three-year-old won the 1909 Rosehill Spring Stakes, and now Beragoon had given him what was to be the first of three famous Derbies at Randwick. As if winning the Derby wasn’t enough. On the second day of the A.J.C. Spring Meeting, O’Brien and Pike combined to take out The Shorts with Golden Hop. Considering that he had only a half-dozen horses in work at the time, O’Brien gave Pike’s career a significant boost that spring at a time when it was badly needed for Pike was then beginning his unequal struggle with the scales. Pike’s weight soared that year putting most mounts beyond his reach. In fact, during that 1913-14 racing season, the jockey only rode one other metropolitan winner in Sydney.
Beragoon made one more appearance at the 1913 A.J.C. Spring Meeting and that came on the following Wednesday in the weight-for-age Craven Plate in which he clashed with the reigning champion, Duke Foote. O’Brien acknowledged in retrospect that it was a mistake to start him, as Beragoon was rather scratchy in his action on the way to the start and it came as no real surprise when he finished out of a place. A few days rest in the stables saw the soreness disappear and O’Brien travelled the colt to Melbourne in the company of stablemates Golden Hop and Noogilla, putting up at the Tower Hotel near Flemington racecourse. The Victorian colts having already been exposed at Randwick were not seriously expected to trouble either Beragoon or Radnor in the Victoria Derby, and the Sydney pair went out as joint-favourites for the classic. It was the first Derby Day at Flemington at which patrons on the Flat were charged an entrance fee, but they got their money’s worth. The Derby was a peculiarly run race with Beragoon, accompanied by Radnor, leading the field to the back of the course only for Bob Lewis on Eubulus to take off at the seven and make the pace a cracker. Nothing could have suited Beragoon more, and entering the straight Eubulus had spent his force while Beragoon clearly had Radnor’s measure. The champion colt ran out the easiest of winners by four lengths with Radnor again the runner-up.
It was enough to see the son of Multiform start the public fancy for the Melbourne Cup three days later in the hands of W. H. McLachlan, given that Pike couldn’t do the weight. It was one of the coldest Cup Days on record with raw winds and even a dash of hail before the running. Although well-placed at the turn, Beragoon failed to improve his position in the straight and finished fourth in a muddling race won by Posinatus. The colt was clearly over the top when he could only manage third to Radnor in the C. B. Fisher Plate on the last day of the fixture, and he was immediately turned out for a spell. I might mention that it had been a march of triumph for the Etra Weenie breed that spring. Apart from both Derbies, her descendants had also taken out the Debutant Stakes, Caulfield Guineas, Maribyrnong Plate, Maribyrnong Trial Stakes and both nurseries at the Caulfield Cup meeting.
After the rigours of that spring campaign, Beragoon wasn’t fated to recapture form ever again, and in fact, he only faced the starter four more times. He suffered the misfortune of maturing into a heavy-topped animal with a suspect foreleg. Always a gross feeder, after spelling at Kingsfield the horse returned to stables in early January as big as a prize ox and O’Brien fought a losing battle in readying Beragoon for the St. Leger at Randwick. Although he ran, the race proved little more than an exercise gallop for the revitalised Radnor. Even the mile of the All-Aged Stakes a few days later at the same meeting was beyond the Derby hero. O’Brien had already advertised the horse for stud services the following spring at a rather costly 50-guineas a mare – the same as Malt King – but few takers saw O’Brien persevere with one more campaign in the spring of 1914. It wasn’t a success, and after failing in the Chelmsford Stakes and then pulling up lame following a track gallop at Randwick a fortnight later, Beragoon was retired to stand at Kingsfield, the winner of five of his sixteen starts and £12,133 in prizemoney.
With Beragoon removed from the scene, Radnor’s post-Derby career provides an instructive tale in the luck of ownership. After the Melbourne Cup in which Beragoon again beat him home, Earnshaw sold the horse for £1,500 to the prominent pastoralist, S. P. Mackay, a man who experienced a mixed bag throughout his life in buying quite a few tried horses at big prices. Earnshaw reasoned that the diminutive son of Earlston was fully exposed in the eyes of the handicapper, and Beragoon’s evident superiority would deny him the consolation of the St. Legers. It was to be the worst bit of horse-trading the wily old Ike succumbed to in his life, made even more acute, by the fact that he had both owned and trained the colt. At his first start for his new owner, Radnor had won the C.B. Fisher Plate, defeating Beragoon and others. Taken to Western Australia, Radnor then won the Derby and the W.A.T.C. Grandstand Stakes at the Perth Cup meeting. Brought back to Melbourne for the V.R.C. Autumn Meeting, the horse won in succession the St. Leger, Governor’s (then Loch) Plate, and Champion Stakes; and at the subsequent A.J.C. Autumn Meeting, Radnor not only won the St. Leger but ran a very good second to the Sydney Cup winner, Lilyveil, in the Cumberland Stakes. Shortly afterwards Mr Mackay rather fortuitously sold him at a big price to Norman Falkiner, for whom Radnor proved a profound disappointment.
Boasting a double frontage to the Hunter River, the Kingsfield Stud was one of the richest and best-sheltered studs in the region with a constant stream of water even in the driest of seasons. The Hunter cut the seven hundred-acre-property in halves, and Kingsfield itself abounded in limestone. O’Brien had spent a considerable sum in acquiring a choice selection of British and Australian mares with which to kick-start his breeding adventure to his two resident stallions. Malt King, the winner of twelve of his thirty-five races and £12,663, was arguably one of the best horses Maltster sired, but he had been plagued with leg problems during Beragoon’s triumphant juvenile campaign and began standing at Kingsfield in 1913. As we have seen, Beragoon went there a season later.
Despite a good-class harem to mate with each stallion, neither horse proved particularly successful although both gave Joe O’Brien some useful horses even if the best of their progeny raced in colours other than his own. Malt King’s best progeny were the fast sprinters Maltgilla (Challenge Stakes) and Royal Thought (Oakleigh Plate). Beragoon looked a likely prospect when he succeeded in getting Bigaroon, winner of the Champagne Stakes at Randwick, in just his second crop and hopes were raised that he might even revive the Musket blood, but he failed to go on with the job, although he did get a few other good-class horses such as Arendal (V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes) and Royal Present (Avondale Cup) later on. Nor was Beragoon any more successful as a sire of broodmares although his one claim to fame in this field was his daughter, Sweet Chime, who produced that brilliant Queensland filly – so successful in 1924 – Mountain Song.
It was a curious feature of the Sappho-Nellie-Etra Weenie bloodline – and one of those anomalies of the art and science of bloodstock breeding – that it failed to exercise dominance when introduced through the male. Nellie’s three distinguished brothers Lecturer, Kingsborough and Savanaka were all stud failures, and the only one of Etra Weenie’s sons or grandsons that made a mark at stud was Merriwee – and he did so in New Zealand. Reluctantly Joe O’Brien came to realise that if he was ever to establish the Kingsfield Stud on a truly successful footing, he needed a well-credentialed British stallion. That old Joe was eventually to find the right horse in the imported Rossendale, and that the Kingsfield paddocks were to nourish a colt that would ultimately emulate Beragoon’s dual Derby victories carrying the very same colours, is a story I shall leave to a later chapter. Let me say that Rossendale’s arrival saw Beragoon sold to Bereen Station near Barraba, where he died from gastroenteritis in June 1926 while Malt King was pensioned-off in the Kingsfield paddocks where he died in January 1929.