In May 1930, in a far-reaching decision, the committees of the A.J.C. and the V.R.C. conjointly decided to debar geldings from future classic races from 1932 and beyond. Their issued statement read as follows:
|“The committees are of the opinion that if horseracing is to fulfil its primary objective, which is to improve the breed of horses, it is not likely to achieve that end by allowing geldings to run in such highly endowed races as the Sires’ Produce Stakes, for two-year-olds, and the Derbies and St Legers, for three-year-olds, and in a sense holding out inducements to owners to geld as young horses without trial fine individuals possessing the best of pedigrees, who may reasonably be expected to transmit their good qualities to their progeny.”|
As we shall see, it was a ban that was to last until 1956 and despite the laudable intentions of the good committeemen responsible for the decision, ultimately failed to achieve its purpose. It was a decision that excited some not inconsiderable controversy and discussion at the time although it did bring Australia’s two oldest race clubs into line with their counterpart, the English Jockey Club. The Jockey Club in England had denied geldings the opportunity to compete in the English Derby after the 1895 running of the event. In that year Lord Rosebery’s colt, Sir Visto, had prevailed by only a length from Curzon, an animal which bore the double misfortune of not only being a gelding but designated a half-bred horse into the bargain. The English racing authorities were so shocked at the prospect of the world’s greatest race so nearly being won by an animal incapable of propagating his species that they reacted with alacrity.
As we have seen, it wasn’t the first time such a ban on geldings had been applied in the A.J.C. Derby. A similar ban had ruled in the five years from 1913 until 1917, but its removal came in time to see Gloaming victorious in the race in 1918. None of the five colts that won the Derby during that period when their de-sexed brethren were denied their chance in the race amounted to much at stud. Beragoon managed to get a couple of smart juveniles but the others – Mountain Knight, Cetigne, Kilboy and Biplane – were all disappointments. Studmasters and trainers alike were critical of this reversion to conservative custom. Percy Miller suggested that a conference of owners, trainers, breeders and race club officials might have thrashed the matter out before the introduction of the blanket ban. Alf Thompson suggested a better approach to encouraging the patronage of Australian stallions might have been a heavy tax on the importation of English stallions.
The irony of the decision by the Australian authorities was that at the time it was taken, three of the highest stakes winners in the country’s history – Gloaming, Amounis and Limerick – were all geldings, not to mention the looming shadow of greatness cast by Phar Lap in the autumn of 1930. Now we should understand that the decision to geld a horse is generally taken for commercial reasons. Ceteris paribus, a gelding is much easier to train and manage than a stallion and will stand up to the rigours of racing over more seasons. Moreover, in the case of heavy-topped horses, the gelding operation is a means of containing their bulk. This correspondingly eases the strains and pressures placed on their legs when at full gallop – a not inconsiderable consequence on Australia’s sun-baked racecourses; and, after all, the Australian climate has proven to be far more suitable to the unsexed horse.
In the early days of Australian racing in the nineteenth century, geldings were not nearly as prolific in numbers. Much of the reason lay in the fact that the landed gentry who raced horses then were breeders as well, and directly interested in improving the quality of their stock. These men wielded considerable power and influence vis-à-vis their trainers; indeed, the relationship back then would be more accurately portrayed as one of master and servant. But this arrangement whereby a training groom in the employ of a pastoralist or squatter prepared a string of his employer’s horses on his employer’s land, gradually gave way as prize money increased, and the training of racehorses came to be recognised as a specialist skill in its own right. Owners anxious to see their racehorses realise their full potential began to seek out the best horsemen in the land to prepare their charges. Accordingly, the public trainer servicing many different owners started to emerge. Slowly but surely the balance of power in the relationship began to alter, with the trainer gradually assuming the dominant role. These men were only concerned with the horse as a racing proposition, not as prospective stallions, and the sustained longevity of a gelding’s racing career and their easier handling during their life in stables saw the incidence of the gelding operation increase.
The sportsmen supporting the A.J.C. decision yearned for a resurgence of that golden era of domestic bloodstock breeding that had seen the dominance of Wallace and Carbine; Trenton and Chester. But those times were past. The success of Bill of Portland as a stallion following his importation had seen the numbers of imported sires increase considerably; and the leakage to Australia of some of the best of British bloodstock in later years, horses such as Magpie and Valais, had underlined just how superior the good imported bloodlines were. Moreover, the history of those recent Australian-bred classic winners that had gone to stud was against them. In the previous twenty years, such high-class horses as Malt King, Poseidon, Poitrel and Kennaquhair had all failed as stallions. Their breeders had given these horses every opportunity, but not one of them came close to producing a horse to match its own abilities.
To some extent, the decision by the A.J.C. and the V.R.C. committees to debar geldings and give the colonial stallion a boost was making a virtue out of a necessity. The effects of the Depression on the purchasing power of the Australian pound had rendered it well nigh impossible for Australian breeders to secure the better British sire lines. The truth of the matter, however, was that the Australian breeding base was so small – unlike England, which, apart from domestic demand, exported so many stallions – that Australia was unlikely to be able to sustain the growth in stallion numbers, and generally mediocre stallions at that. Even were the ban to save one champion for the breeding industry, the preponderance of poorly recommended animals remaining entire across the land would go a long way towards undoing any advantage that might accrue.
The more cynical of pressmen saw the machinations of Lauchlan Mackinnon behind the ban. Mackinnon was on record as having always been opposed to geldings running in Derbies, and Phar Lap’s defeat of his Carradale the previous spring at both Randwick and Flemington had only served to strengthen his prejudice. But Mackinnon had a willing ally in Colin Stephen, the A.J.C. chairman. Stephen pointed out that whereas in France and Germany the governments subsidised racing to improve the breed of horses, no such assistance came that way in Australia. Of course, what Stephen overlooked was the genuine difference in the circumstances of those countries. On the Continent, it was imperative that an abundant supply of army horses be maintained in those days. In Australia, there was no such necessity and the business of breeding thoroughbreds here was purely a matter of private enterprise.
The irony that didn’t escape many pressmen was the fact that those members of the A.J.C. and V.R.C. responsible for this new order of things were not particularly parochial in choosing Australian-bred stallions when mating their own mares. Mackinnon had given Woorak and Poitrel a chance some years before, but in more recent times had even taken to sending some of his own matrons overseas to be mated. Frank Marsden spoke for many of the trainers when he observed: “The principle of the Turf lays it down that the best should win, and it may happen that a Derby of the future might be run with a horse of Phar Lap’s type standing in his box, not eligible to start. What credit would accrue to the winner in such a year?” Nonetheless, in one of those happy coincidences that so enliven Australian Turf history, it just so happened that the year the ban on geldings again came into effect, 1932, was the very same year that the A.J.C. Derby was won by a strapping chestnut colt that many compared favourably with Phar Lap himself. Indeed, the horse in question, Peter Pan, is still acclaimed as the greatest stayer ever bred in Australia, and a horse that in due course would prove a very worthy stallion.
How this great galloper came to be bred at all makes an intriguing tale. Alwina, the dam of Peter Pan, was a chestnut mare bred by Fred and Will Moses in 1923; she never actually started in a race although she was trained. The A.J.C. committeeman, Rodney Dangar, scion of the famous pastoral family, purchased her as a broodmare for 200 guineas and her first foal in 1927 was only a moderate filly that managed to win a few races in the country. In the 1928 season, she missed and then came her fateful mating with Pantheon, much of the credit for which belongs to Percy Brown of Whittingham, who was a close friend, neighbour and sometime bloodstock adviser to Dangar. Pantheon, as we have seen, was imported into Australia by Joe and Cecil Brien of Rampion fame. A son of the much-vaunted Tracery, his dam, Scotch Rose, was a half-sister to Roseway, the winner of The One Thousand Guineas and his breeder had raced him in England.
When Pantheon (or Spalpeen as he was then known) won two of his first three races as a three-year-old, he attracted much attention although he subsequently proved disappointing. William Allison was one man who was attracted to him, and he recommended the horse to Joe Brien as a sound stallion prospect, and he was able to get him for 2400 guineas. Although purchased for stud purposes, he was nonetheless given a limited racing career here where he sported the Brien livery with distinction, winning about £15,900 in stakes. The horse was regarded as somewhat unlucky not to have won the 1926 Melbourne Cup when beaten into third place as the favourite behind Spearfelt, after a controversial ride by Jim Pike. In 1928 he was standing his first season as a stallion at Kingsfield, and Percy Brown had booked four of his own mares to him and suggested to Dangar that he should nominate one of his own. Dangar, however, was none too keen to have any commercial dealings with Joe Brien.
Rodney Rouse Dangar was a deeply conservative man descended from two of Australia’s oldest and wealthiest pastoral families. He was the son of Albert Augustus Dangar and thereby a grandson of Henry Dangar, the assistant surveyor of the colony of NSW from 1821 to 1828, and the man who surveyed much of the Hunter Valley as it was opened for settlement. Eventually dismissed from government service after charges of using his position for personal gain, Henry Dangar settled on land previously granted to him at Neotsfield and built the impressive mansion that still stands there today. Given the less than honourable reasons for Henry Dangar’s own loss of government patronage, it might seem strange that one of the reasons his grandson didn’t want to have any dealings with Joe Brien was that he regarded him as a parvenu. Dangar saw him a social climber who had once engaged in the nefarious practice of money-lending operating under the slogan ‘I never refuse’. But old Percy Brown insisted, telling Dangar that he would book an extra mare in his own name and put in one of Dangar’s to make up the number. The wealthy pastoralist grudgingly gave way.
Dangar’s homestead was Baroona, a two-storied sandstone and stucco mansion built in the high-Victorian style; it still stands today on a hilltop not far from the famous Neotsfield pile of his grandfather. Gazing at it today one can only conclude that it was a fitting birthplace for one of the great racehorses of the Australian Turf. Rodney Dangar’s father, Albert, the fourth son of the original Henry Dangar, acquired the property in 1869, then named Rosemont, and set about enlarging and developing it, firstly engaging the architect, Benjamin Backhouse, and then in 1871 recruiting Horbury Hunt. The walls of the original house, constructed in 1827 in the Georgian style, were retained when these additions took place. When completed, it boasted a Victorian Italianate tower, eighteen rooms and four bathrooms and was complemented by a red and cream painted stone columned verandah, replete with a five-bay iron balcony. All of the joineries within are of the most beautiful cedar. In 1885 a stable block and a service wing designed in Victorian Gothic fashion by the architect, Horbury Hunt, were added.
The grounds and garden of the property were lavishly cultivated including an avenue leading to the house double-lined with elms and pines, reminiscent of the stately homes of England. At around the time of Rodney’s birth in 1873, his father was responsible for a property grazing over 100,000 sheep and more than 22,000 head of cattle, as well as some thoroughbreds. Rodney Dangar inherited Baroona on the death of his father and continued the rural tradition, although at the time of sending Alwina to Pantheon there were only about a half-dozen mares on the estate. It was amidst the splendour of Baroona in the spring of 1929 that Alwina dropped her chestnut foal. He was a strikingly flashy colt, a washy chestnut with a flaxen mane and tail, not unlike Trafalgar. Rodney Dangar proceeded to register him as Peter Pan, named after the character created by James M. Barrie in 1904. Enchanting and whimsical, Barrie’s fictional creation had captured the public imagination because, among other things, he possessed the ability to fly. It was an ability that his equine namesake would demonstrate almost every time he appeared on a racecourse. Dangar placed the colt in the Randwick stables of Frank McGrath.
The first Pantheons to go through the sales ring were disappointing and lacked both size and character; they sold cheaply. Few raced early, and the stallion only managed to get three winners in his first year. But whatever the shortcomings of Pantheon’s other stock, neither size nor character was lacking in Peter Pan. Still, like most of the sire’s progeny, he was slow to mature, and McGrath only raced him once in his juvenile season, running unplaced at the Tattersall’s May Meeting in a 6f juvenile handicap. The horse was then off the scene after picking up a nail, which resulted in a septic hoof. Being a big, awkward customer that was still growing, the accident may have been a blessing in disguise. Certainly, in his later years, McGrath made no secret of his belief that this enforced lay-off was the making of Peter Pan as a racehorse. The wily old trainer brought the big chestnut back into work again just as the 1931-32 racing season was ending and as lazy and laidback as the son of Pantheon was, he showed McGrath enough to suggest he might develop into a Derby horse. Needless to say, it wasn’t an opinion that the Tattersall’s men shared when framing their spring markets on the basis of the chestnut’s only public appearance.
The best two-year-old of that 1931-32 racing season was Kuvera (pictured above), a dapper little colt of exquisite quality by the imported stallion Brazen, and bred at Biraganbil by H. C. Rouse. Trained by George Price for the partnership that raced as ‘F. Smithden’ he had been purchased as a yearling for 270 guineas. One of the partners in the colt was W. J. Smith, who had laid out a fortune on yearlings but had generally gone unrewarded until the advent of Kuvera and his year-younger brother, Shakuni.
Much was asked of Kuvera in his initial season on the Turf when the little colt started in thirteen races, managing to win six times, including both the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Flemington and Randwick, and then rounding off his season by carrying the ten-pound penalty to victory in the Champagne Stakes. Perhaps the biggest concern over Kuvera’s Derby prospects was the colt’s lack of inches and his ability to carry 8 st. 10lb over the testing mile and a half at Randwick. Nonetheless, one witness to Kuvera’s champagne victory in his last appearance as a juvenile and a believer in his Derby prospects was the glamorous and racy Countess of Jersey, the former Australian Patricia Richards of Cowcumbla, Cootamundra, and a keen horsewoman in her own right.
At the close of the two-year-old season, the colt considered the most likely to trouble Kuvera in the spring was Oro, a big raking liver-chestnut colt by Roger de Busli, who carried the ‘red, white Maltese cross, black cap’ of Hunter White. White had imported Roger de Busli into Australia at the same time that he brought over Tippler, and while he hadn’t set the world on fire as a stallion, he had got one champion racehorse in Rogilla. Jack King, the former leading amateur jockey in New South Wales trained Oro, and he held a high opinion of the colt after he had won the A.J.C. Woollahra Stakes and Tattersall’s Youthful Stakes at Randwick in the late spring and summer.
These two colts clashed in the Fairfield Handicap at Warwick Farm on the eve of the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting and the pair ran a dead-heat, although Kuvera was regarded as somewhat unlucky in the race after Maurice McCarten had seemed to relax in the final furlong; but the staying honours were with Oro. Although receiving seven-pounds from Kuvera, Oro stormed home in style, suggestive of a Derby colt after having only two horses behind him on the home turn. It was enough to see him go to the post a 7/4 favourite for the Sires’ Produce Stakes a week later. Perhaps the hard race at Warwick Farm had taken more out of him than it seemed, for Oro disappointed his backers in running an ordinary fifth behind Kuvera. Still, he was a big colt, a trifle light behind the saddle perhaps, but a horse for which time was expected to do a good deal.
The man responsible for preparing Oro, Jack King, presents an interesting contrast to Frank McGrath and most other trainers of the period, and given his significance on the Sydney racing scene, particularly during the decade of the 1930s, warrants deeper study. John Patrick King was born at Wagga in 1889 into the well-known family that owned The Rock pastoral station near that town. Jack King was very much a man of the land and wasn’t drawn into racing from any sense of poverty. Educated at St Joseph’s College, Sydney, where he played cricket for the first eleven, King’s parents intended that he should continue to study for dentistry. But the pull of the land prevailed over the pulling of teeth, and Jack’s love of sheep and horses saw him opt for the freedom of station life. Initially, he was based on holdings at Canonbar near Nyngan, in N.S.W. A gifted horseman, who combined sheep and cattle farming with regular mounts at the nearby picnic race meetings, King’s reputation in the saddle quickly spread and his services were soon in demand for hundreds of miles around Wagga.
It wasn’t long before King was accepting mounts at two or three meetings a week, which saw him step back from station life and pursue a career as a professional amateur jockey. It was with his own horse, Fortius, handicapped on 12 st. 5lb, that at the age of twenty-three, Jack King comfortably won the Ormond Corinthian over the mile for amateur riders at the 1912 V.A.T.C. November meeting. When he followed up that victory the following month on the same horse in the Summer Cup at a gathering of the Ballarat Turf Club, his reputation was made. On that same card at the Dowling Forest course, King also captured the Ladies’ Bracelet over six furlongs on Rockweed. Picnic racing was just then at the height of its popularity in the country districts of N.S.W. and as an indication of the demand for King’s services it need only be said that during the 1912-13 season, he had 253 mounts and won 102 races.
Meetings at Cootamundra, Barraba, Dubbo and other centres developed a significance that country racing had never previously enjoyed and would never do so again after the Great War. The stakes were substantial, which drew horses from miles around, thereby ensuring a large bookmaking presence with wide betting possibilities. It is generally assumed that amateur riders didn’t make money out of the game in those far-off days but King readily confessed that ‘he made it pay’. Unlike professional jockeys, amateurs were not debarred from betting and King was a good judge of picnic form. Together with funds given to him by his parents, he soon acquired sufficient to take a half-interest with his father in Kingsley station at Condoblin and stock it with 2,500 sheep. Clearly, Jack wasn’t your average battling country jockey! When picnic racing lapsed during the years of the First World War, King returned to land pursuits.
Jack King became manager of a station for A. P. Wade, the proprietor of Borambola Park and the prominent owner of such horses as Finmark, Colugo, Mehi King and Estland and in the not too distant future, Amounis himself. It was Wade who persuaded King to become a professional jockey in the 1919-20 racing season. 1920 was also the year that Edward, Prince of Wales, toured Australia, a tour that included not only a visit to Randwick racecourse but also to north-west country N.S.W. and the pastoral stations of Wingadee near Coonamble and Miowera near Nyngan. This was Jack King territory and the 31-year-old jockey was one of the chosen few to meet the future King Edward VIII in both places. While publicly His Royal Highness declared that during such country visits he enjoyed the time of his life, one wonders just what his fawning and sycophantic hosts would have made of Edward’s racist and hypocritical comments as revealed in private correspondence to his then-lover Freda Dudley Ward and belatedly published in the book ‘Letters From A Prince’.
Once Jack King graduated from being an amateur to a professional jockey, it took him some time to strike form. While he never ranked among Sydney’s headline riders, his connections with Sir Samuel Hordern and the like at least ensured that he won races, including a half-dozen events or more at Randwick. Undoubtedly, the highlight of his riding career was winning four weight-for-age events in succession on Sir Samuel Hordern’s imported galloper, Violoncello, at the 1922 Melbourne Spring Meeting viz the W. S. Cox Plate, Cantala Stakes, C. B. Fisher Plate and the Linlithgow Stakes. I might mention that King also won a Tattersall’s Carrington Stakes on Braehead and was one of the many jockeys that partnered the gallant Baverstock horse, David, to victory, doing so on two occasions early in the horse’s career. In 1925-26, Jack King visited England with his saddle in hand, hoping that his Prince of Wales connections, together with his letters of introduction from such Australian luminaries as Hordern and J. J. Garvan, might yield him some rides. However, from a jockey’s perspective, the trip proved quite disappointing although he did partner the odd winner at places like Lingfield.
It was in November 1926, soon after his return to Sydney that a heavier Jack King surrendered his jockey’s licence. His last winner in the saddle came at Canterbury Park on the last Saturday in October when he partnered Charlie Rudd’s English Nag to win a division of the Highweight Handicap. Immediately upon relinquishing his jockey’s licence, King was rather surprisingly granted a No. 1 trainer’s licence immediately by the Australian Jockey Club. The announcement created somewhat of a stir in training circles as it was widely considered at the time that better-qualified men had been waiting much longer for the right to train on the Randwick course. Still, there was a not-so-latent snobbery endemic in the club in those days and it wasn’t so much about what you knew as who you knew. And, of course, Sir Samuel Hordern was on the committee. I might add that Jack King’s brother, Reg, was already training in Sydney.
Soon after gaining his Randwick ticket, King purchased the historic ‘Kagal’ stables of Fred Williams. The stables, a then Randwick landmark, were located on the corner of High-street and Wansey-road and almost adjoined the southern perimeter of the racecourse itself. They had originally been constructed by Ike Earnshaw and it was out of them that Ike prepared his two Melbourne Cup winners, Poseidon and Apologue. King bought the stables as soon as Williams foreshadowed his intended ‘retirement’ but couldn’t occupy them immediately until Williams quit the scene. Accordingly, when King trained his first winner, Star Rocket, at Warwick Farm in February 1927 he did so from rented boxes. King’s official move into the former ‘Kagal’ stables came in February 1928 with a team of more than a dozen older horses and with another eight yearlings to follow from the imminent autumn sales.
King’s early clients included the likes of Harry Taylor, A. Whitney, George Magill, A. C. Willis and the Stirton family although his most important patron was Hunter White. King also raced a few horses in his own name. While his early winners included Lady Brightlights, Kinbally, Cat’s Foot and Leadlight it wasn’t until Cathmar walked through the stable doors that he got his first good-class racehorse. A son of Tippler, Cathmar was raced early in his career by his breeder, Hunter White, and as a spring three-year-old in Phar Lap’s season, won both the A.J.C. Members Handicap and the V.R.C. Batman Stakes. However, when he failed to come up in the autumn, Hunter White leased Cathmar to Jack King. Accordingly, it was in Jack King’s ‘white and black halves, green cap’ that Cathmar in the hands of Ashley Reed, won the 1930 A.J.C. Epsom Handicap. Cathmar incidentally was later to feature in the Metro Goldwyn Mayer film, ‘Sporting Blood’. In due course, King was to experience similar serendipity in his subsequent lease of Oro, who was the next top galloper to grace his High-street stables.
Writing in the Sydney Mail on 17th August 1932, in an extensive article reviewing the Derby prospects for the new season, Banjo Patterson surveyed the three-year-old ranks and concluded: “…We are left with Kuvera and Oro…As between the two, Kuvera is handier and has more brilliance; in fact, some people think he has too much brilliance to run a good mile and a half. Oro has more reach and stride and is somewhat of the type of that unexpected Derby winner Salitros. Unless somebody produces a first-class three-year-old out of a hat, so to speak, we are not going to see anything like Heroic or Manfred this year.”
When Banjo penned those lines, it seemed he must have imbibed the precious waters of the Castalian spring itself. For almost right on cue, the man with the hat and the horse – a horse that would ultimately prove superior to both Heroic and Manfred, and just about every other Derby winner up to that time, appeared at Warwick Farm racecourse ten days later.
The race in question was a lowly novice handicap at Warwick Farm in late August on Warwick Stakes Day, and trainer Frank McGrath had laid out his strapping chestnut colt for a good old-fashioned plunge. The field of twenty in the novice was the largest of the day, but the colt’s trackwork had been so impressive that McGrath’s commissioners, working the ring, backed him into 5/2 favourite on the firm ground. At the half-mile, the tall chestnut had sixteen horses in front of him and a mountain of work to do. Andy Knox manoeuvred the big fellow to get a clear run, and he absolutely flew at the finish, unwinding a sensational last furlong to get up on the line and dead-heat with Babili.
Now the gulf in class between a novice and a Derby is such that under normal circumstances to suggest a winner of the former can make the transition to the latter in a matter of weeks would render the purveyor of such an opinion almost certifiable. But Frank McGrath knew what he had on his hands. As an aside, I might mention that McGrath on that same day had saddled up Amounis, after a twenty-month lay-off, for the Warwick Stakes. The old fellow had done so well in retirement up at Scone that his owner, Bill Pearson, was curious to see whether he could stand another preparation. He didn’t. Old Amounis was suffering neuritis in his shoulder and his unplaced effort in the weight-for-age event that day was his final hurrah on the racecourse. Nonetheless, McGrath stepped lightly off Warwick Farm that evening as the last flush of sunset was dying in the western sky. Amounis, his redoubtable old champion, might be finished but it seemed that his crown as King of the Turf was about to pass to a new, young pretender that also just happened to reside in Stormy Lodge.
There seemed nothing pretentious to McGrath in choosing the weight-for-age Hill Stakes in preference to the Rosehill Guineas as Peter Pan’s next mission. The bookmakers still hadn’t twigged, however, and the bagmen let McGrath on again, this time the horse being backed into fives and the big fellow has no trouble in defeating Nightmarch and Johnnie Jason on soft ground. At the end of the race, he was looking around with his ears pricked. He would always be the most laidback of racehorses, and even the flattering attention of a coterie of admirers at his stall on race day rarely brought forth much animation; he might just as likely be having a snooze. After this victory over Nightmarch at weight-for-age, McGrath was extremely confident of winning his fourth A.J.C. Derby; after all, it wasn’t as if the trainer lacked appropriate tackle on the gallops to test his charge. McGrath trained Denis Boy, the winner of the Caulfield Cup the previous spring, and the manner in which his thrice-raced colt held his own on the gallops with both him and Satmoth in the interim caused many good judges to share McGrath’s confidence.
Derby Day dawned dull and grey, and the mood seemed to fit the hard, economic times with most of the 46,000 people in attendance wearing overcoats and bracing for rain. One man missing from the scene was Charles W. Cropper, the long-serving secretary of the A.J.C. who had died in May at the age of seventy-two and having been in ill-health for some time. The newly introduced turnover tax on bookmakers came into effect on Derby Day, replacing the iniquitous winning bets legislation. Jack Lang’s legislation had never really been successful, serving to increase the trade of S.P. men and even on the racecourse it had been possible for the well informed to back their fancy that way. The major problem confronting race clubs now was, in fact, the burgeoning growth of illicit betting off-course, aided and abetted by wireless broadcasts of prices and results. At the annual general meeting of the A.J.C. in August, the club’s chairman, Colin Stephen, advised members that admittance money received by the club had dropped from £155,000 in 1929-30 to £86,000 in 1931-32.
The debilitating effect of the Depression on racing at Randwick was apparent wherever one looked. No more than six trainers at the course had teams extending to double figures excluding juveniles, and Frank McGrath wasn’t numbered among them. Poor prize money was reflected in the poor prices for yearlings; at the Sydney and Melbourne sales earlier in the year only two youngsters reached four figures. The added money for the four days of the A.J.C. Spring Meeting had been reduced to £20,650 compared with more than double that amount only four years earlier. The A.J.C. committee’s boast of the Derby as Australia’s richest race was all too brief, and in 1932 the race carried added money of only £5,000 compared to the £8,000 of the previous year. 1932 was to prove the cruellest year of the Depression in Australia and much of the western world, mainly because the global economy’s downward spiral was accelerated by public measures, which according to economic orthodoxy ought to have brought amelioration but in practice achieved the very opposite.
The 1932 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions are set out in the table below:
Eleven horses were vying for the prize, and the majority of the crowd opted for the New Zealand colt, Gaine Carrington, as the likely winner. A big solid chestnut that filled the eye, he was by Hunting Song, a son of the English Derby winner, Hurry On, out of a Martian mare. It was a pedigree that inspired Derby confidence. The horse took his name from the man who had been responsible for importing Hunting Song into New Zealand in 1925. Gaine Carrington had been one of the best juveniles of his year in the Dominion, winning twice in five starts, including the Great Northern Champagne Stakes at his final appearance. He crossed the water with a big reputation. The colt owed his Derby favouritism to an impressive victory in the Chelmsford Stakes at the Sydney Tattersall’s Club meeting. The race that year had been postponed from the Saturday to the Monday because of heavy rain and even with the forty-eight hours delay the course remained waterlogged. Even the bagmen weren’t sure of the strength of the form coming out of the event because, apart from Nightmarch, who didn’t relish the going, the balance of the Chelmsford field had been three-year-olds. Still, Gaine Carrington had defeated them with little effort.
Peter Pan was second elect in the market with Oro the next fancied. In the Rosehill Guineas, Oro had come from the rear of the field to take the minor placing. Unfortunately for his supporters on Derby Day, the colt had worked himself into a muck lather by the time he got to the post. Kuvera had seemingly confirmed his inability to stay when runner-up in the Rosehill Guineas behind the gelding Bronze Hawk, and was quoted at double-figure odds. Although his sire, Brazen, had got a New Zealand Derby winner in his first crop, many harboured doubts as to Kuvera’s stamina even before his Rosehill failure, but he was arguably the pick of the paddock despite lacking the size and scope of both Peter Pan and Gaine Carrington.
An interesting runner from Victoria was Eastern Chief carrying the distinguished colours ‘white, black band, red cap’ of J. P. Arthur and trained by P. B. Quinlan. A homebred by Arthur’s imported stallion, Eastern Monarch, who stood at his owner’s Riverside Stud at Nagambie, Eastern Chief was to be ridden by the youthful Edgar Britt, who was enjoying his first engagement in the classic. Although an improving colt, Eastern Chief had only one win to his credit which came when he dead-heated with Petit Fils in the Two-Year-Old Mile at Flemington in July. At his most recent runs prior to the Derby, he had finished unplaced in both the Memsie Stakes and the Hill Stakes. J. P. Arthur hadn’t been the luckiest of owners although Eastern Monarch’s son, Cragford had accorded him The Metropolitan in 1930 after a controversial ride by the stable apprentice, Scobie Breasley in what was the youngster’s first big race victory. Of course, in the years to come, both Britt and Breasley would go on to forge wonderful international reputations in the saddle.
Peter Pan would have won that Derby in almost any circumstances, but it was a somewhat roughhouse affair, and a number of his rivals suffered their chances. Through greenness, Peter Pan missed the jump, and when the field swept out of the straight the first time, he was caught near the rear and on the outside of four others. Jostling near the nine furlongs post caused a number of horses to lose their positions, but it enabled Pike to secure the run of the race on Peter Pan behind Bombastic and Prince Pombal. Meanwhile, the favourite, Gaine Carrington, had got his tongue over the bit and with it lolling, was running none too kindly for jockey Roy Reed near the rear of the field.
Passing the half-mile, Prince Pombal accelerated away with a three or four lengths lead in an attempt to steal the race. Pike was wise to the move and affording Peter Pan a little more rein, was practically on terms as they swung into the straight. Once Pike changed his hands, and the rangy chestnut dashed clear in the straight, it wasn’t Peter Pan but his ten rivals who were in never-never land – at least insofar as this Derby was concerned! Oro chased him over the final two furlongs and managed to reduce the margin to one-and-a-half-lengths at the post. Kuvera, who had travelled kindly throughout, just failed to stay the journey and was three lengths away in third placing. It transpired after the race that Peter Pan had thrown off one of his shoes near the ten-furlong post and this served to emphasise the merit of the performance. Here was one flashy individual that confounded the prejudice that the palomino look belonged in the circus and not the racecourse.
Derby Day was a rewarding one for Jim Pike; not only did he win the Derby but he was successful also in the Epsom and the Spring Stakes on Chatham and Veilmond respectively. It was a season in which the popular rider incurred two separate suspensions totalling five months in all, but that first day of the A.J.C. Spring Meeting went some way to offset the misfortunes. That A.J.C. Spring Meeting also proved particularly profitable for Frank McGrath. Excluding juveniles, McGrath only had eight horses in work, and apart from Peter Pan’s brilliant victories, Denis Boy also gave him The Metropolitan and Lightning March won The Shorts, while a few weeks earlier Satmoth had won the Rosehill Cup. McGrath was adept at placing his horses and he frequently galloped his team at Rosebery, a course that often provided better going in wet weather than the training grounds available at Randwick, particularly after heavy rain. Indeed, Peter Pan did some of his best work at the old Rosebery course.
Peter Pan wasn’t entered for either the Caulfield Guineas or the Victoria Derby due to a misunderstanding between owner and trainer; Dangar believed McGrath had made the nominations while McGrath thought Dangar had done so. In Peter Pan’s absence, both races went to Liberal, a son of Windbag, who was raced by the Moonee Valley committeeman, Alex Hunter. Instead, McGrath attempted the rich Cups double with the son of Pantheon. Dreams of winning a hat-trick of Caulfield Cups were dashed for McGrath when lack of racing experience brought Peter Pan undone on the tricky Caulfield circuit. The horse hung out badly throughout the journey to narrowly miss a place in the race won by Rogilla. On the day that Liberal beat Gaine Carrington in the Victoria Derby, Peter Pan had to be satisfied with the consolation prize of the Melbourne Stakes in which he convincingly turned the tables on his Caulfield conqueror, Rogilla. That first day of the V.R.C. Spring Meeting was rather memorable for Frank McGrath for he also won the rich Cantala Stakes with Denis Boy. Next came the drama of Peter Pan’s first Melbourne Cup victory as a 4/1 favourite when he got up to win in the last strides after being almost knocked off his feet at the five furlongs. But for his stablemate, Denis Boy, cannoning into the back of him, which ironically, got him back on his feet, he could not have won. Frank McGrath and close associates of his stable won handsomely over that result, having coupled a few Caulfield Cup horses in doubles in early Cups betting including the winner, Rogilla.
After the Melbourne Cup, the colt returned to Baroona for a few weeks rest. A measure of the esteem in which the smart men of the Turf held the son of Pantheon came with the release of the Sydney Cup weights when the A.J.C. handicapper, Fred Wilson, gave the big chestnut nine stone or 12lb over weight-for-age – the same weight Carbine had carried to success at that age. It came as no surprise when Dangar and McGrath declined to accept, reserving the colt instead for set-weight contests. It was a campaign in which he was restricted to just five starts, all at Randwick bar one – the exception being the Rawson Stakes, and the race that represented the only blot on his escutcheon. Even then there were mitigating circumstances, however, as the playful colt got his mouth caught in the barrier strands at Rosehill when Jack Gaxieu released the lever, causing Peter Pan to stumble and concede a big start to his rivals. That mishap came after Peter Pan had successfully resumed winning the mile A.J.C. Randwick Stakes from Rogilla and Lough Neagh at the City Tattersall’s meeting in mid-March. But after tasting the barrier strands at Rosehill, Peter Pan was back to his best on the wide stretches of Randwick and during the week of the autumn meeting, he was untroubled to take the St. Leger, Cumberland Plate and A.J.C. Plate.
Of those three races run at Randwick during the same week, the St. Leger proved the most intriguing as it was anything but a one-horse race. It seemed that Jack King, Oro’s trainer, doubted Peter Pan’s fitness on that occasion. Accordingly, at the mile and a quarter, Billy Cook sent Oro on his way with a big lead and at the mile, he was easily ten lengths ahead of Peter Pan with the rest of the field fairly handy. Peter Pan then gradually bridged the gap until at the straight entrance he was level with Oro. From that moment he was definitely superior but for a furlong at least, he was being hard ridden to hold off Oro. Peter Pan ran his last mile that day in 1 minute 37 seconds and at the post had a length and a half to spare. Perhaps Oro was unlucky. The stewards later reported that after entering the straight, Oro came out on to Peter Pan and laid on the big chestnut for a stride or two. The stewards found that Oro’s saddle had worked up on to the horse’s withers with the result that Cook was unable to control him properly. In the run to the line, Oro beat Kuvera three-parts of a length for second.
Perhaps the real disappointment of that autumn from the perspective of three-year-olds was the premature retirement of Liberal. The Caulfield Guineas and Victoria Derby winner was the one colt apart from Oro that might have given Peter Pan some competition, but he had broken down a few weeks before in the St George Stakes when fracturing his near sesamoid bone. The son of Windbag had already been retired to his owner’s Northwood Park Stud where he would ultimately prove a useful stallion. At season’s end, thanks to Peter Pan, Rodney Dangar headed the Australian Winning Owners’ List while Frank McGrath finished Sydney’s leading trainer with 24 ½ wins.
It was then almost a year before the big chestnut appeared in public again. A form of muscular rheumatism afflicted Peter Pan in the spring of 1933 when he was being prepared for back-to-back Melbourne Cups, for which he had been handicapped at 9 st. 7lb, or 5lb less than Phar Lap had carried to victory as a four-year-old. The muscular affliction proved to be intermittent and a blight on the balance of the horse’s racing career. Consequently, Peter Pan’s four-year-old season was restricted to just six starts – all in the autumn, winning twice at weight-for-age at the 1934 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting in the Autumn Plate and the Cumberland Plate. Peter Pan made a third appearance at that meeting in the King’s Cup on the final day. A quality handicap over a mile-and-a-half, it proved a cracking contest when Rogilla beat Peter Pan a head, with Kuvera a short margin away in the minor placing.
But any suggestion that the big son of Pantheon was finished was quickly scotched early in his five-year-old season when he put up a brilliant performance to win the Sir Herbert Maitland Stakes (7f) at Victoria Park. On paper, the race looked a snap for Chatham, the best sprinter/miler of his day, and especially at Victoria Park, a course that despite its long straight, distinctly favoured sprinters. Peter Pan wore Chatham down in the straight to win by a neck, and rare archival footage of that victory survives to this day.
The victory heralded a brilliant season that saw Peter Pan win his second Melbourne Cup – the Centenary Cup celebrating Victoria’s foundation. It was a good race to win, for in recognition of the occasion the V.R.C. returned the Melbourne Cup prizemoney to its pre-depression value of £10,000. The previous year, the Cup had only been worth £7,000. Drawn on the extreme outside of the twenty-two runners and burdened with 9 st. 10lb on the rain-sodden ground, Darby Munro piloted the rangy chestnut to victory. Jim Pike was denied the ride, having fallen foul of the stewards earlier that spring when partnering Peter Pan in the Spring Stakes at Randwick and causing severe interference to Limarch, earning the jockey a two months’ suspension.
Pike’s loss was certainly Munro’s gain for he teamed up with the chestnut to win both the Melbourne Stakes and Duke of Gloucester Cup at Flemington as well. I might mention that Rodney Dangar in the months after Peter Pan’s second Melbourne Cup, arranged for a miniature replica of the cup to be made in solid gold, which he presented to Frank McGrath as a token of appreciation for all that he had achieved with the horse. At the same time, Dangar made a generous donation to a children’s home in the Hunter Valley, a cause that was dear to Frank McGrath’s heart. Frank wasn’t somebody who needed mementoes to remind him of the many big-race triumphs in his career. But there were two souvenirs lovingly displayed in his Kensington home. One was that miniature replica of the Melbourne Cup, while the other was a pair of racing plates worn by Amounis to commemorate the horse who was the first to pass Gloaming’s stakes’ winnings total.
In the autumn and early spring of 1935, Peter Pan was in cracking form – the best of his life, stringing together eight successive victories in Sydney. One of them came in the All Aged Plate at Randwick. Most people remember Peter Pan for his two Melbourne Cup victories, but in many respects, this mile weight-for-age contest was every bit their equal. The big horse won by three lengths and set an Australasian record of 1 minute 35 ½ seconds for the distance – clipping a quarter of a second off the time record previously held by Winooka. It came on the third day of the autumn meeting, and Peter Pan was up against only three opponents although they included Hall Mark, fresh from his Doncaster victory the previous Saturday, as well as the Epsom winner, Silver Ring. Most racing men assumed McGrath would opt for the easy money of the Cumberland Plate but instead, he accepted the sporting challenge (and the betting opportunity) of the mile.
Frank McGrath’s son, Frank later recalled the moment in the A.J.C. Calendar: “Dad had Peter Pan and Master Brierly in the Cumberland Plate. In those days horses could be left in weight-for-age races until an hour before starting time. ‘While we were walking across to the racecourse Dad told me ‘give Peter Pan’s silks to Jim Pike and tell him the horse is running in the All Aged Stakes. McCarten still has Master Brierly’s colours, so he can ride him in the Cumberland Stakes!’
“You’re going to bring Peter Pan back to a mile?” I queried, thinking the old man had gone clean off his rocker. The horse had won over a mile-and-a-half, four days earlier and the longer Cumberland Plate looked money for jam.’
“That’s right,” Dad told me; so, I did his bidding.’
Frank McGrath knew something that few others at Randwick did. Only some days earlier the trainer had timed Peter Pan to run a mile gallop at Victoria Park in 1 minute 42 seconds – with even splits for each half-mile. McGrath, like Fred Williams, often favoured the smooth Kikuyu grass for special gallops away from the prying eyes of headquarters. However, what made that gallop so extraordinary was the fact that McGrath’s horse had worked on the extreme outside! Until the end of his life, the old man maintained that it was the best work he had ever seen at the course.”
The magical sequence of victories in 1935 only came to an end at the Melbourne Spring Meeting when for the first time in his life he was beaten at Flemington, running unplaced in both the Melbourne Stakes and Melbourne Cup, the latter event with 10 st. 6lb. It is doubtful whether a fully fit Peter Pan would have been competitive against the lightly-weighted Marabou in that Melbourne Cup, but the big horse was not in a condition to do himself justice. The colder climate of Melbourne on that visit brought on a recurrence of rheumatism in the shoulders of the big horse; his action was markedly stilted on the way to the post in the Melbourne Stakes on the previous Saturday. Rather than return him to Baroona, McGrath elected to spell him for a few weeks at Bacchus Marsh in the care of his regular attendant, George Phillips. When Peter Pan did resume work at Randwick in the autumn, he developed soreness in his off foreleg – a new seat of trouble. By now he had furnished into a top-heavy six-year-old stallion standing more than 16.2 hands, and the pressure on his joints at full gallop was pronounced. Both Dangar and McGrath dearly wanted to see him depart the racecourse a winner at the 1936 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting but it was not to be, and he could only manage third in the weight-for-age Autumn Plate at his final appearance when he pulled up lame.
Peter Pan thus ended his career on the racecourse with 22 ½ wins from 39 starts and with total earnings of £34,840; but for the Depression, his stakes might well have exceeded £40,000. Given his dominance, there were times during his career when the question was often asked as to whether he was a better horse than Phar Lap. While both were big horses, there was a difference in their development, particularly given that Phar Lap had been gelded. Whereas Phar Lap developed tremendously between the spring and autumn of his three-year-old season, Peter Pan showed no such physical maturity and didn’t really grow into his frame until an older horse. One man who was in the perfect position to settle the issue of superiority between the pair was Jim Pike. Pike was always adamant that Phar Lap was superior, but he did emphasise their different styles of galloping. Whereas Phar Lap broke a field up with sustained speed throughout a race, Peter Pan was always inclined to loaf when he got to the front. “You could easily be beaten on Peter Pan if you stopped riding him”, Pike observed.
Peter Pan was retired to his owner’s Baroona estate at Whittingham and stood his first season there later that spring at a fee of 100 guineas a service. Although his book was open to a limited number of outside mares, his services were largely patronised by mares owned exclusively by Rodney Dangar. It seemed entirely appropriate that Peter Pan’s first winner, Pan Pipe, was trained by Frank McGrath. The race was a division of the Maiden Nursery at Randwick in December 1939. The horse had been bred by Rodney Dangar and sold to Hunter White for 475 guineas at the Sydney Yearling Sales. Despite the restricted availability of outside mares and the fact that his life at stud was cut tragically short when he broke a leg in the autumn of 1941 and had to be destroyed, Peter Pan proved a very worthy stallion. But for the half-length margin that Sirius beat his son, Peter, in the Melbourne Cup of 1944, Peter Pan would have the distinction of joining Spearfelt, Comedy King and Positano as Cup winners of the twentieth century to beget a winner of the same race. But Peter apart, Dangar’s flashy chestnut sired other good performers including the Victoria Derby winner, Precept, and Grampian, winner of an A.R.C. Birthday Cup.
It was no accident that when Australian breeders decided to launch their own magazine, ‘Australian Thoroughbreds’, in April 1950, they chose a portrait of Peter Pan for the front cover. Peter Pan is buried at Baroona, and his grave can be seen today. The Baroona property remained in the ownership of the Dangar family until 1944, when, owing to the sudden death of his wife, Elsie, the property was sold and the stud dispersed. Rodney Dangar lived on for six more years, finally passing away at the age of 77 in October 1950. Peter Pan’s racing trophies and related memorabilia passed to the couple’s only child, Mrs Roslyn Ritchie of Booligal, the place made famous in Banjo Patterson’s poem.
With the retirement of Peter Pan came the end of Jim Pike’s career as a jockey: on the very same day that Peter Pan ran his last race in the A.J.C. Autumn Plate, Pike at the age of 43 hung up his saddle after his apopemptic ride on Golden Gate in the Vaucluse Handicap. In his closing years in the saddle, Pike never lost his touch despite the fact that his weight prevented him from riding fast work on the tracks and guaranteed him only one or two mounts a week in races. From early youth, Pike had half-starved himself as his growing frame told him he wasn’t meant to be a jockey. Pike’s eating habits were faithful to the dictum of the Venetian nobleman and temperance philosopher Luigi Cornaro (1467-1566) that a man should rise from the table hungry. It had never been a matter of choice, even in his poverty-stricken childhood. Those haunting photographs of Pike, gaunt and hollow-cheeked, during his last years in the saddle, betrayed something of the physical cost for his choice of vocation. Pike was even then a sick man. The years of starvation and purgation, of long hours spent in sweatboxes, had exacted their toll. Pike was already suffering from an ulcerated stomach and the first hints of tuberculosis that would mar his later life. In common with many of his calling in those days, Pike as a jockey had found money easier to come by than to keep, with the result that upon retirement this once most carefree and generous of men began to struggle.
There would be mooted comebacks in the saddle in the years ahead, but such never advanced beyond riding track work, as the tyranny of the scales never once relented. Appropriate in one sense, ironic in another, Pike’s last winner had been on board Babili at Ascot for his old master, William Kelso. Appropriate because it was Kelso that had supplied him with his first winner thirty years before; ironic because it was Babili who had denied Peter Pan outright victory in his very first race win almost four years before. Pike was tendered a testimonial dinner by his fellow riders at Tattersall’s Club later that week, and in August 1936 the A.J.C. granted him a No 1 trainer’s licence.
Pike was never a success in this new vocation. His wins were few and far between in Sydney, and whatever financial benefits he might have derived were dissipated through indiscriminate gambling. The absence of winners and ill-health eventually forced him to relinquish his licence. In the mid-1950’s Jack Green, aware that Pike was down on his luck, induced him to take a Saturday afternoon job helping Green saddle his horses on race day and provide instruction to his apprentices and riders. Mel Schumacher was one young jockey, who on his relocation to Sydney, benefited from Pike’s advice while riding for Green. Later, in the 1960s, Theo Green was another trainer who paid Pike to school his early apprentices in the art of race riding and Ron Quinton, Gordon Spinks and John Duggan were three young jockeys whose careers were boosted by the old man’s tuition at Green’s Rosehill stables.
One of the last jobs of Pike’s life was as a casual barman in a sporting club until he lost it through an inability to adjust to Australia’s conversion to decimal currency in February 1966. He died in poverty on 7th October 1969 in a tiny, rented Bondi flat, part of an entire apartment block that he had once owned. The racing public at large was shocked and saddened when the impoverished circumstances of his closing days were revealed. In the words of the respected racing journalist, Pat Farrell, who interviewed him shortly before his passing, he died a sick, puny and embittered old man. “My big mistake was to be a punter; to think that I could back winners when I got too old to ride them”. His wife, son and daughter, survived him.
And what became of some of the other horses that started in that 1932 A.J.C. Derby? In retrospect, it proved a field of some class. Gaine Carrington after a disappointing spring campaign as a three-year-old was sold to the Victorian bookmaker, Jack Phillips for 2000 guineas and went into the Caulfield stables of Cecil Godby. Phillips was something of a lucky owner in buying New Zealand bloodstock around this time for not only did he acquire Gaine Carrington but also his year-older half-brother, Peter Jackson as well as the later Epsom Handicap winner, Synagogue. Gaine Carrington, in particular, repaid the faith of Phillips and among other races won the 1933 Caulfield Cup and later that same spring dead-heated for third in the Melbourne Cup.
Kuvera, whom many dismissed as a non-stayer on his Derby performance later gave the partial lie to that interpretation when he took out both the C. B. Fisher Plate and the King’s Plate at Flemington over the classic journey. Regal Son, yet another starter in that 1932 A.J.C. Derby, the following spring won the A.J.C. Metropolitan Handicap at Randwick in heavy going for the bookmakers, Messrs Hickey and Hackett, and in so doing gave a considerable fillip to the training career of Stan Lamond junior. However, the man and the horse that hold the most fascination for the racing historian coming out of that Derby – apart from Frank McGrath and Peter Pan – are Jack King and Oro.
Hunter White, an A.J.C. committeeman and the prominent breeder-owner of Oro, had a great number of horses on his books, and as we have seen, often leased them to various owner-trainers. Oro was a case in point, like Rogilla, another son of Roger de Busli. Oro carried Hunter White’s colours until he was a five-year-old and was then leased to his trainer, Jack King, free of charge. Under White’s colours, Oro proved a good but somewhat unlucky galloper, running the minor placing in both the A.J.C. Metropolitan Handicap and the Caulfield Cup in the spring of 1933, a campaign in which Jack King unsuccessfully sought an A.J.C. licence to ride the horse. Oro consistently filled placings in weight-for-age events but rarely proved up to winning them. Under Jack King’s colours, Oro enjoyed the good fortune of winning the 1935 A.J.C. Metropolitan at Randwick in the stewards’ room after the Tom Clune-trained High Cross (7 st. 6lb) was first past the post but disqualified for causing interference. Jack Pratt who partnered Oro (8 st. 9lb) that day was seen to brilliant effect in his advocacy before the stewards’ panel.
The A.J.C. Metropolitan Handicap was Oro’s most famous victory in a career on the racecourse that ran through almost seven seasons and over eighty races. Indeed, this son of Roger de Busli proved something of an iron horse in winning 13 races and running 10 seconds and 17 thirds for £11,028 in prize money. Apart from the A.J.C. Metropolitan, Oro’s other significant wins included the A.J.C. Duke of Gloucester Plate in which he established a new record for the Randwick mile and a half, the Waverley Handicap and the V.R.C. Handicap. Had Peter Pan not been around to rain on his parade, Oro would also have won an A.J.C. Derby, St. Leger, Craven Plate and Cumberland Stakes at headquarters.
Oro was also very unlucky in the Victoria Derby. It was a race marred by the fall of Kuvera at the entrance to the straight and Oro suffered severe interference as a result. Frank Dempsey, who rode him on that occasion declared afterwards that at the time he was travelling like a winner. Upon Oro’s retirement, he went to F. W. Hughes’s Kooba Stud at Whitton in the Narrandera district to serve as a stallion. There were no questions concerning Oro’s fertility as he had proved it long before his official retirement from the racecourse. Jack King bought a farm at Rooty Hill, near Sydney, during Oro’s four-year-old season and Oro often served mares there while spelling. It wasn’t such an unusual practice in those days. At least the name of the district seemed appropriate. Perhaps there is such a thing as nominative determinism after all.
Oro was the horse that showcased Jack King’s talent as a trainer and as his High-street stables began to expand, King was soon challenging for the Sydney trainers’ premiership. Jack Jamieson narrowly beat him for the title in 1933-34, but thanks largely to Oro, King captured the premiership the following year when for the one and only time he also finished as Sydney’s leading money trainer with stakes of £10,891. King then proceeded to retain the trainers’ premiership over the following three seasons. Leaving aside Oro’s wins, numbered among King’s major victories during those seasons when he ruled the roost were: Tattersall’s Tramway Handicap and A.J.C. June Handicap (Turbine); A.J.C. Adrian Knox Stakes (Limyris and Sweet Myra); A.J.C. Anniversary Handicap (Clever Fox and Miss Nottava); A.J.C. Gimcrack Stakes (Spirits); Tattersall’s Club Cup (Billy Boy); and the A.J.C. Craven Plate and V.R.C. Mackinnon Stakes (Gay Blonde). King’s secret to winning premierships was the size of his team, which was the largest stable in Sydney for a time with many of the horses raced by himself although he didn’t lack for influential patrons such as Hunter White, G.B.S. Falkiner, Sir Hugh Denison, F. J. Crittenden and W. J. Smith.
When one considers that the runners-up in the four seasons that King won the title were George Price (twice), Bill Kelso and Fred Cush, the significance of his achievement can be appreciated. However, King’s success was built on sheer horse numbers and therefore it was an expensive stable to run. It became even more expensive after November 1933 when he purchased the historic property of ‘Woodstock’ at Rooty Hill, formerly the home of Percy Lamb and the coursing ground for greyhound racing conducted by the National Coursing Association. King retained the old homestead there but then ploughed considerable money into establishing a private galloping track and installing an up-to-date starting barrier as well as re-fencing the paddocks and constructing additional stabling. All up the property consisted of 170 acres, to which King added an adjacent plot of land in June 1937 which more than doubled its size. While King ran cattle and sheep there and grew feed crops, it served very much as an agistment farm and pre-training complex.
Nonetheless, the financial strain of maintaining two training properties during the Depression years proved a difficult balancing act and in the 1938-39 racing season, King sold his High-street stables, surrendered his No. 1 training licence at Randwick, and moved lock, stock and barrel to train his entire team at Rooty Hill. It was to prove a disastrous decision with the coming of World War II. The distance of Rooty Hill from Randwick and other major racecourses meant that King was having to continually transport his racehorses to meetings and thereby relied on both fuel and manpower, two commodities that became increasingly scarce as the country was put on a war footing. Moreover, as racing, like most other commodities during the hostilities, became rationed, and prizemoney was slashed, King’s Rooty Hill stables became economically unsustainable. In May 1940 we find him offering the Commonwealth Government the Rooty Hill property for the duration of the war as an Air Training School for men above the age of active military service. By the year 1941, King was back at Randwick training a very small team, having lost most of his clients as a result of his initial move away from Randwick.
The coming of World War II effectively checked King’s momentum and he sank from the ranks of Sydney’s leading trainers even more quickly than he had risen. King’s fall was counterbalanced by Bayly Payten’s rise and henceforth for the better part of the next decade, it would be the latter’s Botany-street stables that would assume the status of Sydney’s leading training establishment. There would be no return to greatness for Jack King at the end of the war. Winners proved very hard to come by. For example, in June 1946 Rouge d’Or, a son of Oro ridden by Billy Cook, gave Jack King his first winner since scoring with Skip Bomber at Randwick in December 1944. King part-owned the horse and bought him because he reminded him so much of his old favourite.
Every now and again during the late forties and the fifties, Jack King’s name would bob up in the newspapers, such as when he paid 4000 guineas for the Al Wassat-Chaperone yearling colt in April 1950 at the Inglis sales. Registered as Chief Host he proved a gross disappointment. After surrendering his trainer’s licence, he raced the odd horse such as Ameroo in partnership with S. G. White through the Morrie Anderson stable. By the time King died at the age of eighty-one in 1970 in the Sydney suburb of St Leonards, he was a forgotten man and the sporting broadsheets hardly registered a murmur. I think of all the men who have taken the Sydney trainers’ premiership since its inception, he remains the biggest mystery to those younger generations that follow the sport.
But let us return to the man who is the main focus of this chapter and who, unlike Jack King, may never have won premierships but nevertheless had so many high-class gallopers pass through his hands during his many decades on the Turf. While Peter Pan became the champion that perhaps defined Frank McGrath’s training career, the great horse’s retirement wasn’t the end of Frank’s association with either champions or A.J.C. Derby winners. As we shall see, McGrath prepared Pandect on behalf of owner John Wren to win the 1940 A.J.C. Derby, when that horse’s regular trainer Frank Musgrave couldn’t make the trip to Sydney because of his obligations with Ajax. And what a remarkable personal triumph that 1940 A.J.C. Spring Meeting proved to be for the Master of Stormy Lodge. Not only did McGrath have Pandect as a resident at his stables but also the great New Zealand champion Beau Vite owned by Ralph Stewart. McGrath won five races at that meeting and prize money of £9,895. While the Derby fell to Pandect, the Metropolitan Handicap, Colin Stephen Stakes and Craven Plate all came Beau Vite’s way. McGrath then took the Beau Pere stallion to Melbourne where he added both the W.S. Cox Plate and the L.K.S. Mackinnon Stakes to his tally before finishing the unplaced 7/4 favourite in the Melbourne Cup won by the 100/1 shot, Old Rowley.
Beau Vite alternated between racing on both sides of the Tasman as an older horse, but McGrath was responsible for him each time he came to Australia after his three-year-old season. Throughout the calendar year of 1941, the handsome brown horse dominated the weight-for-age events in Sydney and Melbourne winning nine races on Australian soil although invariably failing in the rich handicaps when weight stopped him. He failed again to give McGrath his fourth Melbourne Cup when he went to the post as the 11/2 favourite in 1941 although this time he claimed the minor placing with 9 st. 10lb. Beau Vite broke down in a pastern-joint in August 1942 when McGrath was getting him ready for the rich spring races and was promptly retired to stud. He was the last of the champions that old Frank McGrath trained.
Nonetheless, there would be other useful horses during the twilight years including Geebung with whom he won the 1939 A.J.C. Epsom Handicap for Dan Seaton; and Tidemark who won the 1943 Tattersall’s Cup in brilliant style from Dashing Cavalier for J. C. Clark and then ran a nice second in the Anniversary Handicap behind Veiled Threat. Frank McGrath also trained Murray Stream early in his career and prepared him for the A.J.C. Derby before he was later transferred to Gordon Brown. Frank McGrath was a sick man during those last years of World War II going in and out of the hospital and it was all he could do to keep the stable ticking over. There was a manpower shortage and Frank McGrath junior, his foreman since 1935, was fighting in the Australian Army. Old Frank wanted to hang onto the stables and at least give his son the option of succeeding him once he was demobilised, despite the fact that in the past he had done his best to persuade his son to follow a vocation less prone to chance.
Still, after the gamble of war, which saw Frank junior not only survive as one of the Rats of Tobruk but later win the Military Medal for bravery in fighting the Japanese in Borneo, the racecourse must have seemed a positively benign theatre of conflict. It was at the end of the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting in April 1946, that Frank McGrath senior finally relinquished his trainer’s licence and there was a ceremonial passing over of his prized binoculars to his son. Such was the respect in which the old man was held – never having been charged with malpractice by any of the major race clubs – that even the staid and snobbish A.J.C. committee invited Frank to the inner sanctums of the committee rooms at Randwick for a farewell noggin. It was recognition too, of his stint as the elected president of the N.S.W. Breeders’, Owners’ and Trainers’ Association during some of the dark years of World War II.
In contrast, his fellow trainers gave him a more rousing and warm testimonial dinner at the Carlton Hotel some weeks later. Sadly, old Frank didn’t survive retirement for long. After a life well-lived, including countless compassionate hours spent assisting various Sydney charities and orphanages, he died on Tuesday, 28 October 1947 at his Kensington Avenue home, survived by his beloved wife, two sons, and three of his four daughters. It was exactly one week before the Melbourne Cup. Buried in Waverley cemetery, Frank McGrath’s estate was sworn for probate at £15,537.