When Joe Brien (nee O’Brien) established the Kingsfield Stud, near Aberdeen on the Upper Hunter in 1913, he entertained high hopes for his dual Derby winner, Beragoon, as a prospective stallion. Beragoon joined Malt King there and, great performers though they were on the racecourse, neither stamped their progeny with their own particular quality. Consequently, in 1921 on a visit to England, Brien was on the market for a prospective stallion to boost his stocks, provided he could secure him at the right price. Just how fortunate he was in acquiring the black St Frusquin stallion, Rossendale, for 600 guineas on that trip was not readily apparent at the time. E. E. Coussell, the Secretary of the British Bloodstock Agency, cabled Cecil Brien, the son who was managing Kingsfield while his father conducted his world tour: “Rossendale shipped by Persic on the 22nd; bought by Brien, of Kingsfield. He is a good individual, 16 hands high, with 9” of bone; a horse of rare quality, with a lovely disposition, and is a sure server.’
Rossendale had been a first-class galloper who had won the Princess of Wales Stakes as well as the Newmarket Craven Plate, in which he defeated Pommern although on that occasion the latter had to give him 15lb and was beaten by only three-quarters of a length. Rossendale then finished third to the same horse in the first of those wartime Derbies, run at Newmarket in 1915. Considering that Pommern went on to win the Triple Crown, this wasn’t bad company. But at stud in England, Rossendale had proved somewhat disappointing to British breeders, and at the time of Joe Brien’s bid, N.S.W. as a former penal colony seemed a suitable place to which to transport this black sheep of such a distinguished family. After the stallion’s departure from the Old Country, some of his British progeny did prove themselves and among other winners were Ixia (Irish Oaks), Lady Violette (Irish 1000 Guineas), and Rugeley (Chester Cup). A magnificent black horse with two white hind feet and a narrow stripe down his face, and possessed of powerful quarters and tremendous thighs, Rossendale excited considerable interest when the Persic docked in Sydney Harbour. He made an excellent start to his Australian stud career; his first yearlings came into the ring in 1924 when seven colts and fillies represented him. Among these was Hampden, a 1900 guineas yearling and a future winner at Flemington; La Carezza, who would be one of the best ponies of her inches in Sydney; and Brida, who would run second in the Gimcrack Stakes.
For some years Joe Brien lived for much of the time in England and on the Continent and acquired many of the mares in the Kingsfield paddocks during visits to the Newmarket Sales while he was there. One such mare was Royal Pet. A daughter of Your Majesty foaled in Great Britain in 1911, she had been one of six fillies purchased by Brien in England back in 1913 from the Childwickbury Stud when he was busy establishing Kingsfield. She had arrived at Bradley’s Head quarantine station on board the Runic later in October of that year. A dark brown and a real lady, Royal Pet had a brief but successful racing career in her adopted country winning good races at both Canterbury Park and Rosehill from five appearances as a three-year-old. She had then been whisked off to stud and had already produced a decent stayer in Royal Present, the winner of an Avondale Cup, before her fateful mating with Rossendale during the stallion’s second season in Australia.
The resultant foal of this all-British liaison was a handsome brown colt. Watching him gambol in the Kingsfield paddocks as a youngster, Cecil Brien formed a high opinion of him, so much so, that when offered at the 1925 Easter Yearling Sales and the bidding stopped at 1350 guineas, the studmaster had no hesitation withdrawing him from the ring. The reserve had been 1500 guineas. At the time, many people were critical of the Briens’ refusal to compromise, contending that it would have a bad effect on the prices for the remainder of their draft as well as a knock-on impact on the prices of yearlings submitted by other breeders. It didn’t, and the Briens’ mercenary outlook was more than understandable given the prices that thoroughbred yearlings realised at that time. It was an exuberant and self-confident era and the Briens reflected that exuberance and self-confidence in backing their own judgement on this particular colt. Although of only medium height, he had tremendous depth and great quarters besides a rather sweet temperament. The father and son team of Kingsfield Stud registered him as Rampion and placed him in the Randwick stables of Fred Williams. Once he began to show what he could do on the racecourse, the judgement of Joe and Cecil Brien ringside at those sales was soon vindicated.
Rampion was a sensational early two-year-old. He won the Breeders’ Plate by five lengths on debut and was then taken to Melbourne for the Maribyrnong Plate where he clashed with the Gimcrack Stakes winner, Kanooka (the future dam of Winooka) and eleven others. Given the penalty conditions of the race, both Rampion and Kanooka were saddled with 10lb penalties taking their weights to 9-6lb. Since the inception of the Breeders’ Plate and Gimcrack Stakes in 1906, there had been six penalised winners up to that year who had succeeded in the Maribyrnong Plate, a statistic that supports the contention that weight doesn’t stop a class juvenile in the spring over the shorter races. Rampion became the seventh, having two lengths to spare over the filly and running a race record to boot. It was the third time that the Breeders’ Plate/Maribyrnong Plate double had been won, and by a strange coincidence, the first horse to do it had been Beragoon sporting the very same colours. It was during the V.R.C. Spring Meeting that one prominent Victorian owner offered £8,000 for the youngster. Old Joe Brien, remembering Beragoon and the glorious spring of 1913, politely declined and for the rest of his life had good cause for self-congratulations on that score.
The colt was put away until the autumn when he returned to Flemington for the Sires’ Produce Stakes, posting both a hat trick and a new race record, clipping a quarter-second off the old mark and going within the same interval of the track record. Cyden and Cromwell ran the minor placings. On that performance, the colt appeared to have a mortgage on the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes, which that season was the fifth richest race on offer by either the Australian Jockey Club or the Victoria Racing Club. Unfortunately, like Heroic and Manfred before him, Rampion became the third successive short-priced favourite in the race to stop at the post. It seemed to confirm the old witticism that a racehorse was a remarkable animal in that it could take thousands of people for a ride at the same time – in this instance without even breaking into a gallop. For Rampion took no part at all in the race won by the filly Cyden. The A.J.C. stewards instituted an investigation but eventually absolved both jockey and starter from blame. And again, like Heroic and Manfred before him, four days later and carrying a 10lb penalty, Rampion proved just what ‘a good thing beaten’ he had been due to that starting imbroglio when he convincingly won the Champagne Stakes. It was his last appearance of the season with a barnstorming finish to defeat Cromwell a half-length after suffering bad interference at a critical part of the journey. His two-year-old earnings totalled £10,185 inclusive of breeder’s premiums, and Williams turned the colt out for the winter confident he had a Derby colt. When the Melbourne Cup weights came out in mid-June, Rampion received a handicap of three pounds more than weight-for-age and a pound more than Manfred carried the year before. Despite the impost, the colt was installed as the early favourite in Cup betting.
1926 was a year in which the business of racing boomed ever bigger than before. It was a year of extraordinary prices for bloodstock. In March, the well-performed imported horse The Night Patrol had brought 10,000 guineas when auctioned in Melbourne; the fourth highest price ever paid for an older horse in Australia. And at the Easter Yearling Sales, the previous Australian record price for a yearling of 3050 guineas paid for Orcus, Poseidon’s brother, was eclipsed on no less than three occasions. Valicare’s brother, who eventually raced as Avant Courier, ultimately established the new record price of 5500 guineas. No fewer than nineteen yearlings at those Sydney sales realised 1000 guineas or better. The eleven yearlings by Valais on offer went for 25,400 guineas or an average of 2309 guineas. And the prize money being made available by the major racing clubs seemed to justify such prices. In 1926 the Melbourne Cup was worth £9,912 to the winner while the A.J.C. Derby would return almost £7,000 to the lucky owners. Ever-increasing crowds were funding such largesse from the race clubs. At the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting 80,000 people attended on St Leger Day and 81,000 on Cup Day. And not even upsets such as the win by the 200/1 outsider Murray King in the Sydney Cup could seem to dissuade them from coming. At the same time, the expenditure associated with racing stables prompted a meeting in May of trainers licensed by the A.J.C., with Frank McGrath presiding, to successfully lobby for a minimum charge of £3/10/- a week for each horse, in addition to 10% of stakes won.
Perfect weather saw 89,000 patrons drawn to Randwick racecourse on Derby Day. Only seven horses faced the starter for the blue riband, the same number as in the two previous runnings. Favourite for the race at 5/4 was the New Zealand gelding, Limerick, a somewhat light-fleshed and quartered individual by Limond, who, although he stood over quite a bit of ground, hardly excited imagination in the paddock. A narrow, leggy customer, Limerick hardly looked up to Derby weight. The horse was bred and raced by H. A. Knight of Canterbury, trained by Fred Jones, and ridden by Maurice McCarten. Only three years earlier this happy triumvirate had crossed the Tasman with Limerick’s older half-brother, Ballymena, and plundered the A.J.C.’s blue riband, and now they held high hopes of repeating the dose. Limerick’s racecourse debut didn’t come until Christmas of his first season. He first caught the spotlight when he won the Champagne Stakes at Dunedin, but it was when he beat Commendation in the Challenge Stakes on his home course of Riccarton, and then took out the Manawatu Sires’ Produce Stakes, that people started to take some notice.
Limerick’s Australian debut in the new season was a winning one in the Carlingford Mile at Rosehill against a select field of all ages. He carried 11lb over the scale for a gelding and even surprised his trainer with his early race speed. The stable was enjoying good fortune at the time, as a few other horses that Jones had brought over with Limerick managed to win races as well. It was beginning to look a lot like 1923 all over again. Limerick went under to Rampion in the Hobartville Stakes at his second run here, after he swerved badly when put under pressure in the straight. However, all was forgiven by his connections when he upset the odds-on favourite Windbag in the Chelmsford Stakes at his final bow before Derby Day. Admittedly on that occasion under the rules of the principal clubs then applying, geldings, in compensation for their abandoned sex life, enjoyed a 3lb allowance against the weight-for-age scale and Windbag was conceding the three-year-old a massive 26lb in weight. It was a concession that didn’t apply in the Derby or St Leger, and it came under renewed criticism following Limerick’s win in the set weight race. Fred Jones would have liked to start his fellow again before the classic, but both a cold and a bruised heel caused him to stay his hand. In fact, it was only the act of an intelligent and dedicated horseman that even saw the horse get to the post for the Derby.
Rampion’s path to the Derby had not been one untrammelled course of glory either. He looked a world-beater when he won the Hobartville Stakes. However, the gloss turned to dross when he went under to Cromwell in the Rosehill Guineas after some intrepid souls in the paddock had laid the extravagant odds on their fancy of 4/9. Cromwell was the colt that Rampion had flashed home to beat in the Champagne Stakes back in the autumn, and this result seemed to suggest that Rampion didn’t stay at all. Racegoers once bitten are generally twice shy of a favourite, and although there were rumours of teething problems at the time of the Guineas, the failure had caused Rampion’s displacement at the top of the markets for the Derby although he remained second elect. Limerick and Rampion apart, the next fancied in Derby betting was the Valais colt, Raron, from Poitrel’s sister, Poyferre, and James Scobie’s representative in the race. In six starts at two, he had managed to win a minor handicap at his last appearance, and Scobie was producing him first up for the Derby after being off the scene nearly six months.
Yet another son of Valais also hailing from Victoria was Valasian, whom the Melbourne wool magnate and V.A.T.C. committeeman E. M. Pearce had bought privately for 3000 guineas as an autumn yearling. He had visited Harry Taylor’s Macquarie Stud and was so impressed with the younger brother to Radnor and the Auckland Cup winner, Tanadees, that he bought him on the spot. Pearce was then in the first full flourish of his extravagance in buying yearlings that would see its culmination just before the Wall Street crash. But apart from winning a minor event at Sandown Park as a juvenile, Valasian hadn’t done much to endorse either Pearce’s faith or the glory of those fraternal associations. The third colt sired by Valais in the Derby was King Val, who, believe it or not, was fronting the starter for the twenty-first time. Apart from winning two ordinary nurseries in the winter, he had done nothing to advance the likelihood of his sire achieving the honour of a hat-trick of Derby crowns. Missing from the line-up was Rampion’s Rosehill conqueror, the Victorian colt Cromwell, who injured his off foreleg while exercising at Randwick on the previous Saturday morning.
The 1926 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions are set out in the table below:
The Derby was a two-horse race from start to finish. Sid Cracknell on Rampion rode an entirely different race to the Guineas, setting out to make the pace from the start. Limerick remained at his girths for the first seven furlongs of the trip, with the rest of the field distanced. Approaching the half-mile, McCarten sent Limerick past Rampion who fell back to third, and the New Zealander held the advantage until into the straight when Cracknell gave the Rossendale colt his head. He quickly raced past Limerick to win by a length and a half, with Raron six lengths behind in third place. The journey had been covered in the rather smart time of 2 minutes 33 seconds, one second faster than that taken by Spearfelt to traverse the same ground in the weight-for-age Spring Stakes on the same day. For all of the problems Fred Jones had experienced in getting Limerick to the post, there was no suggestion of lameness when the gelding returned to the weighing-yard after the race, although there was a little blood emanating from the heel. Rampion’s triumph proved popular with patrons, and the colt came in for a fine reception from spectators as Lady De Chair placed the blue ribbon around his neck. It is interesting to observe that whereas in a Derby connection, the sire line of St Simon in England was becoming something of a spent force, in Australia it was still thriving. Rampion, like Limerick and Ballymena, was a great-grandson of the wonder stallion whereas St Simon’s last direct descendant of the male line to win the English Derby had been the French-bred colt, Durbar, in 1914.
Rampion’s victory gave both owner and trainer their second A.J.C. Derby. Fred Williams’ first had come with Salitros in 1920, while Joe Brien had previously won the race with Beragoon in 1913, although in those days his name was spelt ‘O’Brien’. However, with Beragoon’s successes and the flourishing of Kingsfield Stud, old Joe aspired to higher things and sought to distance himself from past associations and the Irish connotations of his origins by discreetly dropping the ‘O’. The 1926 A.J.C. Spring Meeting was a triumph for all concerned, including jockey Sid Cracknell, in more ways than one. Williams trained five winners during the four days of the meeting, and no other trainer won more than one race. One of his winners came in the Breeders’ Plate with Beckwith, a big gelding by his old favourite, Greenstead, and Williams not only trained but also bred and owned him as well. Sid Cracknell partnered Beckwith in that race to complete a memorable meeting. Another of Williams’ winners was Pantheon in the Randwick Plate, and earlier in the meeting the imported stallion had run a very good second in The Metropolitan. Like Rampion, Pantheon raced in the black and white livery of the Kingsfield Stud proprietors. Joe Brien had bought Pantheon at the December Newmarket Sales in England in 1924 with the intention of racing him in Australia before his standing stud duty at Kingsfield, and as we shall see, he succeeded rather well on both counts. The Briens pocketed over £10,000 in prize money during that week of the A.J.C. Spring Meeting, which was big money in the days before the Depression. Thanks to Rampion and Pantheon and the ten races the pair won during the whole season, the father and son proprietors of Kingsfield finished the 1926-27 racing year at the top of the Australian Winning Owners’ List with £26,619 ½ stakes.
The 1926-27 racing season also saw Fred Williams at the top of his game as a racehorse trainer. In the six years since Salitros had won the Derby, Williams had quickly emerged as the leading trainer in Sydney.
However, only six months after Rampion’s Derby victory, Williams sold ‘Kagal’, his racing stables and residence in High-street to Jack King, who had only recently retired from the saddle and was building up a big team. The stables still stand today. There are few men who turn their back on a profession when at the top of the tree; but Williams had long planned to embark on extensive travels to England, the Continent and America. Because of his plans, Williams declined to accept any yearlings in the autumn of 1927.This cost him Ramulus, the younger brother of Rampion for whom Joe and Cecil Brien declined 3000 guineas at the Easter Yearling Sales. George Price eventually got him, and like his older brother he won the Breeders’ Plate in the same colours at his first appearance, and the following season, in 1928 was a Derby contender. When Williams sold his stables and finally left Sydney on board the luxury ship, Maloja, for his round the world odyssey in April 1928, he had no intentions of returning to the early morning gallops and the stopwatch. Nonetheless, the racing pressmen at the time were somewhat sceptical that Williams could just walk away from it all. In recognition of his retirement, a dinner was organised in March 1928 at the rooms of Tattersall’s Club by his racing confreres. As we shall see, the pressmen proved right, and the call of the Turf was too strong. There was yet one more instalment of the Fred Williams’ story to be written into the pages of A.J.C. Derby history.
Rampion was jockey Sid Cracknell’s only winner of the A.J.C. Derby, but at least it came with a horse prepared by his former mentor. Born in Junee, NSW, on 22nd June 1900, Cracknell spent his boyhood in the saddle and his first paid job on horseback was as a butcher boy up Camden way. It wasn’t until he was seventeen that he became apprenticed to Fred Williams, gaining permission to ride in races from the A.J.C. in December 1917; he served the full five years of his apprenticeship with the leading trainer. But once attached to this most professional of trainers, he quickly became recognised as one of Sydney’s best lightweight jockeys and he can thank Williams for not having to fall back on a career of carving up beef and mutton carcases. Williams was always prepared to give a talented apprentice a chance and Cracknell enjoyed early success on that wonderful old miler Greenstead, the first good horse that Williams ever trained. In 1921, towards the end of Greenstead’s career, when the horse was being asked to shoulder big weights, Cracknell, with his apprentice’s claim, won a couple of races on the old fellow at Rosehill. However, I think the first really good win of Cracknell’s career came in 1922 when he won the Challenge Stakes on Sir Maitland.
The jockey was renowned for his proficiency at the barrier, particularly on inexperienced two-year-olds or recalcitrant barrier jibs. A celebrated poor actor at the tapes during this period was the imported horse Claro, and one of the five winners of the Epsom Handicap prepared by Williams. In his start, prior to the big mile, Claro had stood flat-footed at the strands and refused to take any part in the race. Cracknell never lost faith in the horse, however, even though he was a maiden at the time he was entered for the 1923 Epsom. In the days leading up to that rich Randwick mile, Cracknell proceeded to school the big slashing chestnut in Australian barrier etiquette. The bagmen took liberties with the English horse, and the Williams’ stable stepped in with a huge commission, Williams himself confided to stable patrons that they were only betting on the jump-off. When the Epsom came along, sure enough, Claro was sent to the very outside of the field like a mischievous schoolboy. His backers suffered some anxiety as the horse whipped around a couple of times but when the tapes were finally released, ‘Crack’ jumped Claro away smartly and always had him handy. At the home turn, he shot the horse away and won easily.
The Epsom wasn’t a bad race to Cracknell over the years as toward the close of his career he won it again, this time on protest aboard Capris. However, it will always be a wonderful partnership with Rampion for which the jockey will principally be remembered. ‘Bunty’ Brown, Fred Williams’ stepbrother, generally did the stable riding but in 1926 he was contracted to ride for Sir Victor Sassoon in England. This is how Cracknell came to be associated with Rampion, and he was on his back in all but the last two of the horse’s thirteen races. It proved the most lucrative partnership. The outbreak of World War II hastened Cracknell’s retirement from the saddle. At the beginning of the 1954-55 racing season, Cracknell was granted a No 2 trainer’s licence by the A.J.C., and he trained with limited success on Kembla Grange Racecourse. His two sons, Edwin and Max, both became jockeys and for a time rode in England.
Rampion, together with his stablemates Sion and Pantheon, was sent to Melbourne by train on Sunday night following the A.J.C. Derby to compete in the Caulfield Guineas a week later. He continued his dominance in the three-year-old classics in Melbourne, winning the Caulfield Guineas easily enough, and at Flemington he led all the way in the Victoria Derby, running the second-fastest time in the history of the race. In that event, Limerick was relegated to third, with Thracian, Heroic’s younger brother, taking the second prize. Rampion and Limerick were then both declared for the 1926 Melbourne Cup. Lucky indeed is the owner with one genuine chance in the Melbourne Cup. But on Cup Day 1926, Joe and Cecil Brien had two of the most fancied candidates in Rampion and Pantheon. On the strength of his sound form during the A.J.C. Spring Meeting and a fine second to Manfred in the Melbourne Stakes, Pantheon was sent to the post the 9/4 favourite with Rampion third elect at 6/1 while Limerick was quoted at 14/1.
In what was arguably the most controversial ride of Jim Pike’s career, Pantheon was beaten by just over half-a-length into third place with Rampion and Limerick finishing close together among the beaten brigade. Spearfelt won that Cup in a time that equalled the race record set the previous year. There were mitigating circumstances to explain the failures of both the outstanding three-year-olds. Rampion maintained a good position in the race until about the mile and a half when a clod of earth struck one of his eyes and caused him to fall back through the field. It was an injury that caused bruising and required veterinary attention. Limerick, too, required the ministrations of the veterinary surgeon with the re-opening of his heel wound. In fact, in each of his five starts in Australia that spring after winning the Chelmsford Stakes, Limerick’s injured foot bled.
I think it was clear to most people that in Rampion and Limerick two cracking good horses had arrived in the same season, even if the jury was still out concerning their ability to get a fast two miles. Perhaps what wasn’t so clear was the genuine disadvantage that Limerick suffered under throughout that spring in having a split heel. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that many owners would not have taken the risk and even started the colt. As an early three-year-old, compared with the more mature horse to which Sydney racegoers became accustomed over the following two seasons, Limerick was far from prepossessing. Certainly, his Derby preparation was less than perfect. In mid-September, after winning the Chelmsford Stakes, he caught a cold, and he was just recovering from that when he bruised the heel that for the balance of his campaign required a special bar shoe, with indiarubber between it and the bad part of the foot. Like many of the Limond stock – Veilmond was another – Limerick suffered from shelly hoofs. Consequently, he was probably not as fully wound up for the Derby at Randwick as he might have been. Still, he did back up in the Craven Plate the following Wednesday when beaten by Windbag, and had the bruising been very serious, the hard race in the Derby must surely have put him out for some time. Moreover, the heel didn’t prevent a Melbourne campaign. McCarten believed that in the Victoria Derby when Limerick ran up close to the leaders in the straight, he was going to win the race, but the gelding faltered through lack of hard conditioning and didn’t quite see out the trip.
Sadly, Rampion and Limerick never matched strides again after the 1926 Melbourne Cup. Rampion only appeared twice more on a racecourse. It was the practice of Fred Williams in those days to keep his three-year-olds pottering about his Randwick stables between their spring and autumn campaigns rather than send them to spell at Windsor. This was the policy pursued with Rampion as a campaign aimed at both St Legers was drafted. Meanwhile, the V.R.C. handicapper paid the horse a handsome compliment when he allocated him 8 st. 4lb or four-pound more than weight-for-age in the Australian Cup. Whether or not he was up to it was never tested. Rampion’s only appearance that autumn came at Caulfield in the V.A.T.C. Bond Cup (1 ½ miles), which he won easily with half-a-stone more than weight-for-age, leading all the way in the hands of ‘Bunty’ Brown who had only recently returned from his riding stint in England. That victory took Rampion’s earnings to £26,484/10/- an Australasian record for any two or three-year-old, eclipsing the previous record amount won by Heroic at the same age.
Rampion, however, paid a heavy price for victory. After cooling down, he was found to be lame in the off foreleg and was returned to his owners’ Kingsfield Stud to spell. He was only to have one more start on a racecourse. That came ten months later on New Year’s Eve at Randwick in the Tattersall’s Club Carrington Stakes (6f). Looking very much above himself in condition and heavily bandaged on both forelegs, he started at 8/1 and ran fifth with Jim Pike in the saddle. Before the event, Fred Williams had made it known that the horse was a day-to-day proposition and, sadly, the Carrington Stakes confirmed it. As so often happens when a horse favours one suspect leg, the other gives way, and this time it was the suspensory ligament of the near foreleg.
For a time, it was hoped that he might stand another preparation and the colt spent months at John Stewart’s veterinary hospital at Randwick. When Rampion was ready to be tried again, given the temporary retirement of Fred Williams, Joe Brien transferred the horse, along with Pantheon, into the stables of Frank Marsden. Rampion was always inclined to grossness, and his prolonged absence from the racecourse made Marsden’s task impossible. Neither Rampion nor Pantheon for that matter was equal to the rigours of racing again, and each was retired to stud. Rampion’s racing career ended with only 13 starts, resulting in 9 wins, 1 second and 3 unplaced runs. I think his reputation suffered from being out in the season immediately following those of Heroic and Manfred with whom he was inevitably, and unfavourably compared. His Melbourne Cup failure caused many to underrate him. It is interesting to speculate on what might have happened had the colt stayed sound, particularly given Limerick’s subsequent form over the next couple of seasons.
Unlike the unsoundness that afflicted Rampion, the shelly feet that Limerick suffered from intermittently throughout his racing career were never bad enough to cripple his racing prospects. In Rampion’s absence, he dominated the 1927 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting, scoring easy wins in the St. Leger, Cumberland Stakes and A.J.C. Plate besides running a very good second in the Sydney Cup when carrying 5lb more than weight-for-age. That was to be the beginning of a wonderful dominance of the Australian and New Zealand Turf by Limerick. As a four-year-old, he was to be beaten only twice in sixteen starts winning the richest weight-for-age races in the land over distances ranging from one to two-and-a-quarter miles. Limerick possessed more pace than most good stayers, an attribute that enabled him to occupy a good position and an indifference to the pace of any race. In all, Limerick won twenty-two races on Sydney racecourses, more than any horse up to that time and a record that would last until the coming of Kingston Town.
Limerick’s last win in Sydney, and indeed the last win of his career, came as an early six-year-old in the 1929 Warwick Stakes. This was the race in which Phar Lap finished a close fourth, and for the first time hinted at the greatness to come. It was in the Hill Stakes at his next appearance that Limerick went in the suspensory ligament and was lame after the race. The strenuous demands of the previous two seasons were now beginning to play havoc with his legs. The affected leg was fired, and the gelding was kept pottering about the trainer’s Riccarton stables, but in hindsight, it is a shame that Fred Jones pursued a campaign the following season. After being off the scene for almost a year, Limerick resumed as a seven-year-old but in all eight races that season he failed to gain a placing. I suppose it is the inevitable fate of a gelding to be pushed to the very limit but it somewhat spoilt the impressive record Limerick had put together in his prime.
It was Limerick, a horse he had assisted in breaking-in, that was responsible for Maurice McCarten’s decision to settle in Sydney, a decision he made during the spring of 1926 and finalised in May 1927. And, of course, it was Limerick’s splendid sequence of wins during the next two seasons that gave McCarten the springboard to the incredible success he was to enjoy in his adopted homeland. Limerick won 28 ½ races from 59 starts and £38,725, and McCarten rode the gelding in 22 of those wins. He always rated the horse’s defeat of Valparaiso, with 9 st. 5lb, or eight pounds over weight-for-age, in the King’s Cup at Randwick in 1928, as his best win. The race was held each year and rotated between the major race clubs with a cup provided by King George V. That year it supplanted the A.J.C. Plate on the A.J.C. programme.
McCarten, despite his later association with luminaries such as Todman and Delta, invariably nominated Limerick as his favourite racehorse reflecting upon his own retirement from racing: “Limerick was the greatest horse I ever rode – though Ballymena, I think, was the greatest stayer. Why Limerick? Absolute merit in the horse! Nothing else! I’ve won most big races on other horses: I was beaten in the two Derbies when I was on Limerick, but I enjoyed some grand victories on him; he was game – dead game. I should say he was an efficiency expert. You could put him anywhere. He was tractable, sensible, and had a nicely sustained burst of speed. He didn’t like fuss; he didn’t look for pampering. He was just in the equine world what would be equivalent to a ‘man’s man’.” It was no accident that McCarten’s Wansey Road home, overlooking Randwick racecourse near the seven furlongs post, and the home in which he was to spend his final years, was christened ‘Limerick’.
The other horses that made up the 1926 Derby field at Randwick were rather undistinguished before the race and remained so afterwards. There were few more disappointing horses than the expensive Valasian, and he was just one of the many costly failures to carry E. M. Pearce’s colours. The horse never won a race after that A.J.C. Spring Meeting and like so many of the gallopers sired by Valais, was to prove troublesome at the barrier as he got older. He died when only a four-year-old while undergoing an operation, and it is difficult to imagine that his Melbourne owner spent much time mourning his passing.
That spring of 1926 proved to be the zenith of the Brien family’s racing fortunes. Apart from the glorious succession of victories by Rampion, Joe and Cecil Brien won both the Randwick Plate and the C.B. Fisher Plate with Pantheon. When Cecil, his only son, died prematurely in early January 1929 at the age of only thirty-four from pneumonia, the old man lost all interest in maintaining Kingsfield Stud, and he sold it only two months later. In the seventeen years that the father and son team had owned it, the paddocks had proved to be a nursery for some very good horses, for apart from Rampion, the stud bred Ramulus, Maple, Remora, Vertigern, Red Gauntlet, Bigaroon, Oatendale and Pentheus. David Seaton of Urunderie Stud, Mudgee, bought the property for £10,000. The most remarkable feature of that March dispersal was the extraordinary price realised by the aged stallion Rossendale. The success of Rampion had aroused great interest in the horse, and a bidding duel took place between Percy Miller of Kia Ora Stud and James Foster of Cullengoral Stud, near Gulgong. The latter was given the last nod at 9500 guineas – this, for a stallion that had cost old Joe Brien only 600 guineas eight years earlier. Given that there is a significant falling away of a stallion’s prepotency after fifteen years of age, this was quite a gamble on a seventeen-year-old stallion. Only moments before the spirited bidding for Rossendale began, Pantheon, the other imported stallion owned by Brien, had been knocked down to Percy Miller for 7250 guineas.
It was generally expected before the sale that this handsome bay, only half Rossendale’s age, would command the more attention from buyers but by comparison, the interest was subdued. Time would tell just how lucky Miller was on that balmy autumn day. Pantheon, as we shall see, was to become the sire of two A.J.C. Derby winners and one of them would be acclaimed the finest stayer ever bred in this country. By comparison, Rossendale failed to sire another winner of a principal race and Foster had ample opportunity to reflect ruefully on his precipitate bidding. The price the studmaster paid for the stallion, together with drought and the onset of the Depression, eventually saw Cullengoral Stud itself dispersed in April 1933 when the highest bid for Rossendale was a paltry 750 guineas. Rossendale died in March 1934 and although his later years proved both ordinary and expensive for one studmaster, in his time he had left his mark on Australian breeding with stock that won about 480 races and over £182,000.
Incidentally, neither Rampion nor his dam, Royal Pet, was offered at the Kingsfield dispersal. Brien deferred selling Rampion until the Easter sales of Chisholm and Co., away from the debilitating shadows cast by the two more illustrious imported stallions of Kingsfield. Come Easter time, and Harry Taylor of Macquarie Stud at Wellington was highly delighted to secure the former Derby winner for the relatively modest sum of 1850 guineas. At the time Harry quipped that he would have gone to 10,000 guineas! On the other hand, Joe Brien retained ownership of Royal Pet, who at the time of the Kingsfield sale had a foal at foot by Rossendale. Brien had enjoyed remarkable good fortune with her foals by Rossendale. Cecil Brien had had such fond regard for the progeny of Royal Pet and Rossendale that, after he died, the old man wouldn’t sell any of their foals. It was in this manner that Cecil retained that useful horse Rosendo, who was also trained by Fred Williams, and also the filly foal that subsequently raced as Ranier. She proved to be a smart filly too, and if memory serves me right, she ran a placing in the Gimcrack Stakes and turned out to be a stakes winner as well as a very successful broodmare. Joe Brien was a sick man in his closing years and finally retired from the Turf in May 1933 on the advice of his doctor. He died in October 1934 after having made a significant contribution to the sport in this country. His wife, May, whom many older racegoers will remember, maintained a keen interest in racing until her own death in a private hospital at Darlinghurst in December 1967.
At Macquarie Stud, Rampion let down into a magnificent stallion and soon exhibited the desired disposition to gallantry that one likes to see in a stallion. Boasting the blood of St Simon’s two greatest sons in Persimmon and St Frusquin, he proved attractive to breeders and stood at a fee of 50 guineas. Rampion’s first draft of twelve yearlings came up for sale in April 1932 at the William Inglis Sales, and his stock was very much in his own mould. The highest price brought was 750 guineas for a yearling colt, and they averaged around 190 guineas. In time he was to prove a good stallion despite limited opportunities although his colts proved better than his fillies. Among others, he got that smart youngster Pasha, the winner of the 1933 Maribyrnong Plate, as well as Tonga (A.J.C. Champagne Stakes), Velocipede (Avondale Cup), Ramdin (A.J.C. Villiers Stakes) and the good horse Botanic. Rampion stood eight seasons at Macquarie before it was dispersed in June 1937 with the rising fourteen-year-old stallion realising 550 guineas at the sale.