Racing in Australia has benefited enormously from its proximity to New Zealand over the years, regarding both the quality of horses and of the horsemen that have crossed the Tasman to strut their stuff. Many champions have variously found their way here from the Shaky Isles but few better than George Richard Price who decided to relocate to Randwick in July 1922. A native of Christchurch, ‘wee Georgie’ was born there in January 1878, the son of Henry Price, a hairdresser, and his English wife, Mary. Price’s most distinguishing physical characteristic from an early age was his lack of size – 4’ 11” no less – and it was this, as much as a love of horses, that made a career in stables seem inevitable. George became apprenticed at the age of fourteen, and his twinkle-eyed stoicism saw him transform himself into a singularly elegant horseman who in time became established as one of the leading lightweight jockeys in the Land of the Long White Cloud.
Always gentlemanly, in an era and vocation not necessarily renowned for such a quality, George Price’s word was his bond, and his exemplary conduct during his active fourteen-year riding career became a model for fellow jockeys. Leading New Zealand owners such as Tom Lowry and Sir George Clifford were happy to entrust their horses to Price’s jockeyship, and he won good races for both men. Although he was successful in the New Zealand Oaks, Price’s ability to go to scale at 6 st. 10lb during most of his career saw him receive fewer opportunities in the rich weight-for-age and set weight contests than handicaps, and included among his wins in the latter category were the Napier, Manawatu, Hawke’s Bay, Nelson and Wanganui Cups. Perhaps Price’s most notable accomplishment in the saddle came when he rode the winner of the Rangitikei Cup three years running in 1902-04.
Given his reputation and popularity, it wasn’t surprising when he was approached in May 1909 to hang-up his saddle and assume responsibility as private trainer to the team of racehorses owned by Cecilia Johnston, the widowed matriarch of the famous Highden station, a sprawling 1200-acre estate near Awahuri in the Manawatu district. Upon the death in 1907 of her husband, Walter, a prominent merchant, politician and landowner, Cecilia Johnston had continued to race horses under the nom de course of ‘Mr Highden’ although the team was largely managed by her eldest son, Goring, later president of the Manawatu Racing Club. Originally the team had been trained by Alf Shearsby at Levin, but in 1909 the decision was made by Cecilia Johnston to transfer the horses to Awapuni, where a training stable and thirteen acres of land had been recently purchased. Additional horse boxes were constructed and a tidy sum invested in the property, elevating it to one of the finest on the coast.
It was a considerable compliment to the perceived skills and mature horsemanship of the thirty-one-year-old Price when he was offered the position and consulted on the refurbishing of the new training establishment. A number of the leading sportsmen of Wanganui tendered a farewell dinner at the Rutland Hotel on the Saturday evening before Price starting his new calling, presenting him with a gift of an expensive pair of field glasses. Just how well ‘wee Georgie’ came to use those field glasses in the years ahead will be revealed as this chronicle unfolds.
At the time of Price’s accession, the Highden stables enjoyed a prominent standing on the New Zealand Turf, although Price’s professionalism was to lift them even higher. Initially, the Highden team consisted of both hurdlers and flat racers, but within weeks of taking over, Price arranged for the hurdlers to be sent to Frank Lind at Wanganui while he concentrated exclusively on the flat. At the end of his first season in 1909-10, ‘Mr Highden’ finished sixth on the List of Winning Owners with stakes of £3,328, Sir George Clifford on top with £7,774. Such was the influence of Price and the soundness of his judgement that by the end of the 1913-14 racing season, ‘Mr Highden’ with stakes of £6,054 was runner-up on the List of Winning Owners to the redoubtable George Greenwood.
Although the stable, supported by the Highden stud, failed to send forth a champion during the years of Price’s tenure, a succession of high-class gallopers was nonetheless forthcoming to carry the blue and buff colours. Included among them were the likes of Bronze, a daughter of Field Battery raced on lease and which won both a Wanganui Cup and C.J.C. Great Autumn Handicap; Polymorphous, winner of the Manawatu Sires’ Produce Stakes; Nyland (C.J.C. Winter Cup and Stewards’ Handicap); Ermengarde (W.R.C. Wellington Stakes and Wellesley Stakes, Manawatu Sires’ Produce Stakes); Bertrada (1915 Wairarapa Cup) and Nystad (1917 C.J.C. Great Easter Handicap). Arthur Oliver partnered most of the stable’s big race winners during those years.
Such was the confidence reposed in Price that Cecilia Johnston despatched him to England in January 1915 on the ship Moldavia with a commission to buy a few racehorses with breeding potential at a time when, due to the Great War, racing in the Old Country was at an all-time low and bargains were to be had. Among the four horses that Price purchased was Panmure, a three-year-old colt by Forfarshire that later won good races including the 1916 James Hazlett Gold Cup and also proved a success at stud when he got the champion staying filly, Enthusiasm, as well as other top horses. Another of the acquisitions by Price on that trip was Tame Duck, a two-year-old filly who later threw those two fine gallopers, Admiral Drake and Francis Drake, to Chief Ruler. Such canny judgement of bloodstock only further enhanced Price’s reputation. Eventually, the First World War intruded upon Price’s training career when he was drawn in the ballot in 1917 but avoided service due to his lack of inches. However, the continued death toll in the killing fields of France saw Price go into camp in May 1918, and he served for a brief period in the New Zealand Medical Corps on the hospital ship Marama.
Discharged in January 1919 he resumed his superintendence of the Highden stables. However, the ill-health (and eventual death) of Cecilia Johnston and the retirement from the Turf of Goring Johnston, saw Highden put up for dispersal in April 1922. During the thirteen years that Price had been in charge of the Highden horses, the stable had won no less than £38,000 in stakes. The dispersal of Highden gave Price, together with his foreman, Tim Sweeney, the freedom to transfer operations to Sydney. A large gathering of friends and colleagues met at Wellington to farewell Price presenting him with an illuminated address and a generous cheque together with a Maori tiki in greenstone – an emblem of good luck. Price thanked them all and said his motto had always been “live and let live” and that rather than tell a man a lie he preferred to say nothing. It was a philosophy that was to stand him in fine stead in Australia. Whether or not one believes in the good luck of a greenstone tiki, less than 12 months after arriving in Sydney, George Price was to be given a yearling colt by Magpie to train which would develop into a future champion of the Australian Turf – and become a Melbourne Cup winner into the bargain!
George Price arrived at Randwick infused with the spirit of Tennyson’s Ulysses, a poem he loved, i.e. ‘to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.’ Buoyed by the prospect of a new set of challenges that would act as a whetstone to his fate, Price saw the relocation as an opportunity. After all, he had been here before. In the winter of 1912, Price had brought a small team of the Highden horses and housed them at the old Wootton stables but failed to meet with success. This time it would be very different. As we learned in the previous chapter, it was Ned Moss who was largely responsible for encouraging him to relocate to Sydney. Moss liked a bet and Price was soon to show in Australia that when he decided to ply the pencil, commissioners finished up with writer’s cramp. The New Zealand horseman first settled into stables in Kensington, and while the first two occupants in his stable, Loyal Irish and The Shag, he brought across from New Zealand, it wasn’t long before Moss gave him Stony to train. The yearling by Magpie, later registered as Windbag, quickly followed.
So dramatic was Price’s rise in Sydney’s training ranks that in the 1924-25 racing season – thanks largely to Windbag – he claimed the first of his Sydney trainers’ premierships. Runner-up in the Sydney Cup in 1924 with Stony, Windbag, too, finished second in the same race the following year although made amends by taking out the Melbourne Cup in the spring. In 1926 Price finally took out the Sydney Cup when the 200/1 shot, Murray King, was triumphant, ridden by one of his own stable apprentices, Eric McNamara, who had never before ridden a winner in the metropolitan area. It was this brand of success that quickly won Price some wealthy and influential clients including W. J. Smith, Sir James Murdoch, Ernie Williams and – most relevant to this chapter – John Spencer Brunton. Brunton’s family fortunes, his background, and how he came to patronise the stables of George Price, makes for a fascinating anecdote.
Along with his brother Walter, who was an A.J.C. committeeman for the best part of twenty years and owned an 800-acre stud farm in the Hunter Valley, John Spencer Brunton raced horses on an extensive scale. He maintained a string of thoroughbreds at Mentone with trainer Andrew Ferguson, an old-time steeplechase jockey, as well as a string at Randwick. The Brunton family fortune derived from the flour-milling business which their father, Thomas, a one-time baker’s apprentice, had first established at the corner of Spencer Street and Flinders Lane in Melbourne in 1868, on land costing £3,000. Thomas Brunton, a Scotsman from Roxburgh, had first arrived on the Eagle in Melbourne in April 1853, attracted by the gold rushes. Like many before and after, he failed to make his fortune on the diggings but came into the real dough, so to speak, when he bought a bakery for £800 with a school friend who had also migrated here.
It was the success of the bakery over more than ten years that enabled Thomas Brunton to fund the site at Spencer Street. It was in 1887 that Brunton and Company opened another flour mill at Granville in Sydney, at the junction of the main southern and western rail lines. This branch was run almost independently by Thomas Brunton’s sons, John and Walter. In 1893 Thomas Brunton sold his Spencer Street site for £50,000 and moved to another location in North Melbourne where he established another mill and renamed the whole business, including the Sydney operations, the Australian Flour Mills. John Spencer Brunton was the senior partner in the company and had moved to Sydney to help expand the business. It was in June 1886 that he purchased a large block of land that fronted The Boulevarde in Strathfield, and it was there in the same year that he built ‘Brunyarra’, a two-storey Victorian Italianate building that remains one of Sydney’s significant heritage properties today.
Brunton was a leading citizen of Strathfield for some years, although by the time he became prominent in racing circles in the early years of the twentieth century, he had moved into Sydney’s eastern suburbs. This re-location enabled him to be closer to both his city interests (he was a member of the Sydney City Council from 1914-18) and also to his sporting pleasures that increasingly focussed on Randwick racecourse. Thomas Brunton himself had been an early member of the Victoria Racing Club, and it was hardly surprising when his sons, John and Walter, quite capable horsemen in their own right, each manifested an active interest in the Turf. John was for some years with the N.S.W. Lancer Regiment and retired with the rank of major, after having attained the position of Brigade-Major of the First Brigade of the Australian Light Horse.
Largely a non-bettor, John Brunton raced for the sport alone. Nor was he in any sense a featherbed sportsman who only turned up to see his horses on race day. In the early years of the century, Brunton was a sick man, and his doctors urged him to take plenty of outdoor exercises. He soon discovered that the best way to take it was with some definite object of interest in view. Accordingly, Brunton decided to race a few horses and proceeded to register his red and white livery in 1906. His very first venture into racing proved successful when through John McMaster, he bought the filly Maltine, a well-bred daughter of Maltster that had been knocked down to the Binnia Downs owner for 170 guineas as a yearling. Like all of McMasters’ own horses, Maltine was initially trained by Tom Scully, who prepared her to win both the Gimcrack Stakes and Maribyrnong Plate later that same year.
Smitten with such extraordinary success, Brunton immediately took to the sport and after that on most ‘galloping mornings’ could be found on the Randwick course mounted on a stout cob looking over his horses and imbibing fresh air. An illustration of just how passionately Brunton embraced the Turf came after that 1906 Gimcrack when it was suggested that he ought to give a dinner in honour of the occasion, thereby adhering to the English Gimcrack tradition, and he readily agreed. The celebratory dinner didn’t take place until after the Melbourne spring meetings when Brunton invited a large party of sporting citizens to a banquet at the Australian Club. Speeches there were in plenty. An idea was put forward that the English custom could well be followed here by giving an annual dinner with an accredited member of the Australian Jockey Club put in to voice the policy of the club, and comment upon past events, as they do every autumn in York. One can only regret that despite Brunton’s enthusiasm and support the club failed to follow through on the matter.
I might mention that Maltine proved to be the foundation mare of Brunton’s racing enterprise. Although she lost form as a three and four-year-old, which prompted Brunton to sever his connection with Scully in June 1909 and transfer Maltine to Joe Burton, her story had a particularly happy ending. In the spring of 1909, Burton managed to coax her back to form, and she won the Rawson Stakes, The Metropolitan and the Craven Plate. Retired to stud, Maltine proved somewhat indifferent as a broodmare until at the ripe old age of twenty she dropped a filly foal to the imported stallion, Rossendale. Registered as Jocelyn and carrying the white and red livery of John Spencer Brunton on the racecourse, the mare matched her mother’s feat when she took out the A.J.C. Metropolitan in 1928.
Curiously enough, no other mare had managed the feat during the intervening twenty-two years; but there was an even more remarkable symmetry than that. Maltine and Jocelyn came out of the same training yard to win The Metropolitan but did so under different trainers, for as we have seen, upon the announcement of Joe Burton’s retirement from training after the 1924 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting, George Price stepped in and bought the famous Cowper Street stables. John Spencer Brunton was one of the owners who made it a seamless transition by transferring his horses as well. He had good reason to be pleased with his decision, for, Jocelyn notwithstanding, George Price also prepared Carry On, winner of the 1931 Australian Cup, on behalf of Brunton.
Winning the Australian Cup or The Metropolitan with mother and daughter was one thing, but accepting the blue riband as the owner of a Derby-winning colt was another matter. Few owners held the classics in higher respect than John Brunton, exemplified in the fact that for years after the A.J.C. discontinued the A.J.C. Oaks in the mid-1890’s he actively moved motions such as in August 1914, to see the race re-introduced. Brunton had spent a fortune trying to buy his elusive Derby winner, and despite his lavish spending only two colts had previously carried his colours in the race, Elystan in 1912 and Maltdale in 1932, neither of which could run a place. It was with ambition unfulfilled that he went looking for a prospective classic colt at New Zealand’s 8th National Yearling Sales in January 1934. From the moment that Brunton had seen the catalogue, he was intent on bidding for the aristocratic chestnut colt by the imported first-season English stallion, Iliad, out of the English mare, Quadrilateral. Brunton already owned the colt’s half-sister, Quarto, a two-year-old by Paper Money, and she had carried Brunton’s red and white silks to victory in the V.R.C. Mimosa Stakes on Cup Day as well as in a couple of juvenile races at Moonee Valley.
It may have been only Iliad’s first crop but, unsurprisingly, there was considerable interest in the stallion’s progeny, as well there might, given that it was to include no less than three future Derby winners. Iliad, like Blandford, was a son of Swynford and was a high-class three-year-old in England. Purchased as a yearling by Mr Somerville Tattersall for 2300 guineas, he did not race as a juvenile. At three he finished fifth in the Two Thousand Guineas and then went on to Epsom where he led until one hundred yards from the winning post of the Derby but was worn down and beaten by Blenheim; he later ran second in the St James’s Palace Stakes and second again in a race at York.
At the end of his three-year-old season, Iliad was sent to the December Sales and purchased for 1800 guineas on behalf of the Elderslie Stud in New Zealand. Quadrilateral, the dam of the colt in which Brunton showed such interest, had won a few races in England before also being bought on behalf of the Elderslie Stud at Newmarket for 300 guineas; she was by Square Measure, a smart horse raced by J. Reid Walker for whom he won the Royal Hunt Cup. However, Quadrilateral’s real attraction was that she descended on the distaff side of her pedigree from the great Illuminata, who founded what is probably the most successful female line in the General Stud Book. This pedigree was extolled upon in our 1924 chapter dealing with Heroic, a horse that was similarly descended. Poltara, Quadrilateral’s dam, had been sent to Australia in 1924, the year Quadrilateral was foaled.
Illuminata left behind her several daughters who achieved remarkable success at the stud. One was Chelandry of blessed memory, and another was Gas, the dam of Cicero. This chestnut colt, which Brunton had set his heart on, descended from Illuminata through Ebba who was a full-sister to Ladas, Lord Rosebery’s first Derby winner, and a three-quarter sister to Gas. Ebba was a half-sister to Chelandry, one of the most successful of modern broodmares, and the maternal granddam of Heroic. When one considers the horse’s bloodlines, it was hardly surprising that Brunton’s grey hard hitter was nearly shaken off as he vigorously nodded to the quizzical auctioneer when bidding for the colt against a spirited opposition, but finally, he got him at 550 guineas.
George Price was also active at those sales in his own right, paying the top price of 850 guineas for a Limond colt on behalf of E. J. Watt and outstaying Jack Jamieson in the bidding duel. Time, however, would prove that Brunton’s judgement on this occasion was the soundest and the flour miller lost no time in registering a name. He considered that the handsome colt by Iliad just had to be called Homer. It seemed appropriate, too, but his history on the Turf was to be no Odyssey. Rather than a long epic journey, Homer was destined for just thirteen starts on the racecourse, and his life was to end abruptly in triumph and tragedy at the 1935 A.J.C. Spring Meeting.
Homer showed George Price speed from the moment of his first trial, and no attempt was made to hide his ability from the clockers. Accordingly, the air was thick with rumours when he made his debut in the Maribyrnong Plate but the going was so bad at Flemington that day there were ample excuses for his unplaced effort in the race won by Bimilla. The colt was then returned to Randwick in readiness for the special A.J.C. race meeting on 22nd November to celebrate the presence of H.R.H. the Duke of Gloucester in Sydney. Although it was relatively late in the spring racing season, some of Australia’s best racehorses, including Peter Pan, were kept in training after the Melbourne spring carnival in honour of the Duke. The signature event on that special Thursday was the Duke of Gloucester Plate, worth £1,500 and a £100 cup, ultimately won by Oro with Jack Pratt in the saddle.
Homer, with Maurice McCarten in the saddle, broke his maiden status when he won the first division of the Culloden Stakes on the same card. Just over a month later, Homer confirmed his rising reputation when he snaffled both the December Nursery and the rich A.J.C. December Stakes, at headquarters. Freshened-up after that hat-trick, Homer was returned to Melbourne for the autumn racing, but the colt didn’t quite fulfil either Price’s or Brunton’s expectations. He failed at Caulfield when sent out favourite for the Federal Stakes but a fortnight later ran a fine race in the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Flemington when beaten a half-length into second place by Young Idea, after leading the field into the straight. A week after, however, Homer cut up badly in the Ascot Vale Stakes. Although Price tried to keep him in training for the Randwick Autumn Meeting, a poor run at Warwick Farm the week before the start of that fixture prompted Price to send the immature horse, still growing into his frame, to the spelling paddocks.
There was no argument as to the best two-year-old colt that season: Young Idea. Trained at Caulfield by Fred Foulsham, he was a stylish brown horse by Constant Son (by Son-in-Law) out of Persuasion by The Welkin. Bred at Percy Miller’s Kia Ora Stud he was sold at the Sydney Yearling Sales for 500 guineas, Alec Hunter buying the colt and afterwards selling a half-share back to Miller. Percy Miller had a real hard luck story concerning those 1934 Yearling Sales of which the half-retention of Young Idea was one of the few bright moments. A virulent form of strangles attacked his draft on the eve of the sales, and probably cost him the best part of £10,000. The attack was similar to that which nine years before had wiped out quite a few Sydney yearlings and horses-in-training.
Nonetheless, Kia Ora disposed of some fifty-nine lots at those Sydney sales for 8195 guineas or an average of 130 guineas, but it was the brown colt out of Persuasion who was to emerge as the best. Miller and Hunter, formerly both trotting enthusiasts, had been firm friends for years. Young Idea was further proof of the soundness of Miller’s policy in purchasing as many daughters of The Welkin as possible for his stud. Persuasion, trained by Bill Kelso, had won a few races in Sydney including the 1927 A.J.C. Adrian Knox Stakes before Miller bought her for Kia Ora at the end of her racing days.
Curiously enough for the leading juvenile of the year, Young Idea was beaten six times before he scored his first win on New Year’s Day. After staging a powerful finish from the rear of the field to defeat Homer in the V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes and then finishing unplaced in the Ascot Vale, Young Idea was brought to Sydney for the autumn fixture. In the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes, he again showed that the seven-furlongs journey was to his liking when he sustained a solid run over the last half-mile to beat Garrio and Legatee into the minor placings. Young Idea then surprised many sportsmen when he carried a 10lb penalty to victory over the dashing filly, Bimilla, in the shorter A.J.C. Champagne Stakes on the third day of the meeting. Slight odds were laid on the filly, but Young Idea came with a powerful run after being back in the field to beat her by a head on the line. It was a performance that augured well for the classics at three, and he wintered as the logical Derby favourite.
A new semi-classic transfigured the racing landscape for spring three-year-olds that year with the institution of the Canterbury Guineas. It was in early November 1934 that Harrie Evans, the secretary of the Canterbury Park Racing Club, announced the conditions for the new race to be run over nine furlongs at the club’s September meeting. The prize money attached to the event was to be 500 guineas. Colts and geldings would be asked to carry 8 st. 5lb and fillies 5lb less. Scheduled to be run between the Hobartville Stakes and the Rosehill Guineas, it was thought that the race would be popular with many owners of good three-year-olds because of the long, straight run out of the nine-furlong shute on the newly surfaced Kikuyu track at Canterbury. However, the announcement didn’t meet with general approbation. Much of the 500 guineas prize was coming from acceptance fees that had been accumulated since the proprietary club had abolished sweepstakes and a lot of this money had come from owner-trainers. Many argued that it would have been more equitable to share such largesse among other minor races. Still, whatever its merits, there was no shortage of entries for the new semi-classic and when the first entries came through on the first Tuesday in June, no less than 190 were drawn from Australia alone. As it happened, the first running of the Canterbury Guineas fell to the Bayly Payten-trained colt, Hadrian, who was then promptly scratched from the A.J.C. Derby.
Sydney may not have been prosperous in 1935, and illegal betting was still takings its toll on racecourse revenues, but with wheat and wool prices on the increase, some of the gloom and doom that had darkened the earlier years of the decade had lifted. The official estimate of the crowd on Derby Day was 68,000 people, some 8,000 more than the previous year. The bumper crowd took the race club by surprise, and despite the printing of 4,000 more racebooks than for the equivalent meeting in 1934, they sold out so quickly that after the Hurdle Race it was impossible to buy one even for a quid. A galaxy of the great and good was among the attendance including Their Excellencies the Governor-General and Lady Isaacs, attended by members of their personal staff. His Excellency was guest of the chairman and committee at luncheon, and Her Excellency entertained guests at a separate luncheon in the Vice-Regal rooms. His Excellency the Governor of New South Wales and the Honourable Lady Hore-Ruthven were also present and entertained a number of guests at a separate function in the State Governor’s Room.
The 1935 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions are set out in the table below:
Of the original four hundred and thirty entries for the A.J.C. Derby, the field finally distilled itself into just twelve starters with Young Idea the pronounced favourite – even odds-on at various stages of the betting. Young Idea had franked his Derby favouritism when he narrowly defeated Hall Mark in the Underwood Stakes at Williamstown, although his subsequent failure to gain a place in the weight-for-age Memsie Stakes (9f) had weakened stable confidence. Nonetheless, Young Idea had hit his straps after arriving in Sydney with an impressive win in the Sir Herbert Maitland Stakes at Victoria Park over Silver Ring and Rogilla, before going under gallantly to Peter Pan in the Hill Stakes.
The young man entrusted with the mount on the hot favourite was Jack Pratt, the brilliant young jockey who had turned twenty-one just the month before. Born at Casino in September 1914 he represented the fourth generation of a family associated with the Turf – particularly in the Grafton district – for more than seventy years. Apprenticed initially to James Barden at Randwick, Barden’s death in August 1931 had seen his indentures transferred to Pat Nailon. Hailed as the coming man even as a youth with Barden, Pratt flourished under Nailon’s guidance. Certainly, his master had faith in the lad, legging him up on Waikare when the Nailon-trained galloper won The A.J.C. Metropolitan in 1934 for E. J. Watt. However, 1935 had been Pratt’s year, winning both St. Legers and the Australian Cup on Sylvandale, for which he was presented with a beautiful sedan motor car worth several hundred pounds in addition to his winning percentage. And now he was partnering the Derby favourite, a colt on which he had already won both the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce and Champagne Stakes.
Second elect in Derby betting was Allunga, an unfashionably bred colt trained by Jack Munro, brother of Jim and Darby, and a horse that had first come to the attention of the sporting public when he was well-backed and finished fast in the A.J.C. Fernhill Handicap at the Randwick autumn fixture to win narrowly over the mile. Since resuming in the new season, Allunga had won a Three-and-Four-Year-Old Handicap at Rosebery before running second – beaten a neck – in the Rosehill Guineas (9f). Hadrian, Allunga’s conqueror in the Rosehill Guineas, wasn’t even an acceptor for the A.J.C. Derby. Trained by Bayly Payten the horse was raced by his breeder, A.J.C. committeeman, Hunter White. A chestnut colt by Tippler out of the former smart race mare, Figure, Hadrian had won the Hobartville Stakes, Canterbury Guineas and Rosehill Guineas in swift succession, in each race breaking up the field with sustained front-running brilliance when ridden by Darby Munro. Payten was convinced that Hadrian couldn’t stay the Derby trip with 8 st. 10lb and saved the colt for the Caulfield Guineas instead, leaving Munro, with fraternal pride, free to take the mount on Allunga.
Despite his good juvenile form and the fact that he had finished a mere half-length behind Young Idea in the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Flemington, Homer was a 33/1 outsider for the A.J.C. Derby. In his three lead-up races to the classic, despite good private track trials, the chunky son of Iliad had finished unplaced in each of the Hobartville Stakes, Chelmsford Stakes and Rosehill Guineas. Not that those indifferent performances had put either George Price or Homer off their oats. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Price stayed firm in his belief that Homer was a genuine Derby colt and in so doing exemplified that precious inability to compromise that marks the true artist. Price knew that the tight Warwick Farm circuit didn’t suit his charge, while both the Randwick and Rosehill surfaces had been rain-affected at his most recent outings. However, Maurice McCarten was another matter. The leading jockey’s relationship with George Price went back a long way, and McCarten had ridden some of the Highden horses in Price’s last season or so on the New Zealand Turf.
As we have already seen, McCarten wasn’t long in emulating Price’s relocation to the other side of the Tasman, and in the years since, the trainer and jockey had forged one of Australia’s most successful and lasting partnerships on the Turf. Consistently for years past, McCarten had ridden George Price’s Derby representative, and Homer’s poor form had induced McCarten to seek a release to partner Ned Moss’s Loud Applause also trained by Price, and on the fourth line of Derby betting following his minor placing in the Rosehill Guineas. The third elect and preferred to Loud Applause in the market was the Victorian colt, Feldspar, something of a late arrival in Sydney for the race. The Derby course might have been in poor condition on that first Saturday in October 1935, but inclement weather wasn’t to blame. Rather, for weeks before the spring meeting in a desperate attempt to have the track at perfect pitch, copious quantities of sand from the bed of the Nepean River had been transported to Randwick. While it was standard practice to top-dress the course with sand, the lack of rain during July and August had inhibited the growth of the couch grass. Accordingly, in parts, especially from the four to the winning post, and from the winning post to the nine, the ground seemed more like a set for the filming of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.
The colt carrying the No. 1 saddlecloth in the race was Wykeham, owned by the distinguished Mrs Arthur Wickham Hurd and trained by R. C. Stanton. Wykeham was the only entry in the race owned by a lady. Bred by Percy Miller at his Kia Ora Stud, Wykeham was by Baralong from the Comedy King mare, Lady Cynosure. Wykeham failed badly in the A.J.C. Breeders’ Plate for which he started as the favourite, but redeemed himself later in his juvenile season by finishing runner-up in both the A.J.C. Canonbury Stakes and Fernhill Handicap – beaten half-a-head in the latter by Allunga. Wykeham’s form leading into the Derby was consistent with seconds behind Hadrian in both the Hobartville Stakes and Caulfield Guineas and a fine fourth to the same horse in the Rosehill Guineas at his latest appearance.
Curiously for a Derby favourite, Young Idea tried to lead all the way, although jockey Jack Pratt afterwards claimed he was there under sufferance. Pratt landed in front and slowed down the field in the hope that something else would act as the pilot, but there were no volunteers, and certainly not Andy Knox on Homer. Although expected to lead, Knox wasn’t altogether confident that the placid colt would stay the journey and wanted to husband his energies for a kick in the straight. Racing past the mile-post, Young Idea was slightly more than a length in front of Homer, while three-quarters of a length away was a group including Loud Applause, Allunga, Young Crusader, Wykeham and Feldspar, with Latharna and Buzzard King at the rear.
Young Idea fretted under restraint in his unaccustomed role as pacemaker and fought for his head; as a consequence, the 5/4 favourite was already a lost cause fully five furlongs from home. Knox took Homer up to Young Idea at the half-mile and then made an effort to steal the Derby when he dashed the chestnut two lengths’ clear turning for home. Munro on Allunga was wise to the move and getting the utmost out of his mount and himself, kept the colt going as if for his life -anxious to give his older brother a classic in the early years of his training career. Munro would go to almost any lengths to win a race even if it entailed a little rough riding, or plying his whip with greater ferocity than would be tolerated by stewards today. Such was the Darb’s vigour now that Allunga had a slight advantage over Homer at the Leger, but the latter came again right on the line to make a dead-heat of it for only the second time in the history of the race.
Young Idea weakened to finish only fifth while another Victorian colt, Feldspar, who had been expected to give a good account, covered a deal of ground and spoiled his chance through hanging out on the turns. Though the weather had favoured an assault on the clock, the sandy surface and muddling early pace hadn’t, and the official time for the race was 2 minutes 33 ¾ seconds – fully 2 ½ seconds outside Phar Lap’s race record. Some people expected the green protest flag to be hoisted in the wake of the race, given that Homer had slightly interfered with Allunga by hanging out in the run home, but the latter’s connections declined to dispute the result. Sir Colin Stephen was in something of a quandary at the presentation with just one blue riband for decoration. In the end, the Governor-General Sir Isaac Isaacs draped it first around Homer’s neck and then Allunga’s.
If one can forgive the pun, it had been a struggle of Homeric proportions. As the crowd reflected on the stirring duel just witnessed, some could not help but be struck by the contrast in the lineage and background of the men associated with the respective Derby colts that shared the spoils, and indeed that of the horses as well To a bloodstock connoisseur, Allunga’s breeding was far inferior to that of Homer, and the story of how the brown colt came to enter the world is one that can only lend succour to any breeder of modest means. Inchaquire, the sire of Allunga, was by the Marco horse, Marten, and had been bred in Ireland in 1926.
Raced in Ireland by his breeder Mr W. W. Ashe when a juvenile, Inchaquire won two of his five starts – an £88 Plate at Mallow and the Goff Sale Stakes of £166 at The Curragh. The horse was then bought for 750 guineas on behalf of the South Australian owner, George Milne, and imported here to race. Although he ran a series of seconds in South Australia he never really acclimatised and broke down before adding to his winning tally. Milne wasn’t interested in standing the stallion at stud, and the horse was offered to various Victorian and South Australian breeders who showed little interest. Eventually, Sir Sidney Kidman bought Inchaquire for his Fulham Park Stud. Not long afterwards, Lucknow, the 1919 Caulfield Cup winner and another of the imported stallions owned by Kidman, died at one of his outback stations and it was decreed that Inchaquire should replace him.
However, before leaving Fulham Park, the stud groom decided to put just a few mares to Inchaquire. One of those selected was Heliope, an imported English daughter of Beppo that had been bred at the Glasgow Stud, near Enfield – the very same stud at which Musket was located before removing to New Zealand to set the racing world agog. Heliope, like her dam, had been bred by the late Admiral Sir Hedworth Meux; she raced twice, unplaced, when a two-year-old and was after that mated with her owner’s horse, Sir Douglas, and produced a colt in 1922. Heliope wasn’t then covered again until 1925 when matched with Chosroes, by which she had a colt in 1926 –Persian Sun – who won a selling race first time out. In 1927 Heliope bred a dead filly by Chosroes, was mated with The Yellow Dwarf and then sent to that year’s December Sales where she was purchased for 220 guineas by the British Bloodstock Agency on behalf of Sir Sidney Kidman. Upon reaching Adelaide, Heliope’s misfortune continued when she dropped a stillborn foal. However, her luck was about to turn. Her first mating in Australia to the Irish stallion, Silvius, resulted in the good stayer, Byethorne, which won a Tattersall’s Cup in South Australia. The next decent foal she dropped was Allunga, the name being an Aboriginal word for the ‘sun’, derivative of the dam’s name.
The horse was sent to the Sydney Yearling Sales in 1934 and, as the last lot in the catalogue and the only one by Inchaquire, was knocked down for just 120 guineas to a certain Mr Oakes, a one-armed station manager. He was acting on behalf of the prominent pastoralist, Hunter Bowman, who subsequently leased the colt to Messrs Mark Mulligan and J. T. Williamson. If Allunga’s breeding and background relative to that of Homer was that of an inferior outsider, then a similar gulf separated the lessees’ Messrs Mulligan and Williamson from Homer’s silvertail owner, John Spencer Brunton. Whereas Brunton, backed by the immense fortune of his family’s flour milling business, had been racing horses on a lavish scale for almost thirty years and had enjoyed quite remarkable success, Mulligan and Williamson were relative newcomers to the game and subject to a tightly-constrained budget.
There was a similar difference in the training fortunes of the two men that prepared the dead-heating colts. George Price was an established trainer with rich and famous owners; Jack Munro was struggling to establish his small stable.
The older brother of Jim and Darby Munro, Jack was born at Caulfield in 1903, and although he grew up around his father’s stables, he was the only one of the brothers not to be a success as a jockey, although he quickly became too heavy to pursue a career in the pigskin properly. Granted a permit to train in 1926-27 and a No 2 licence in August 1935, he established stables at Warwick Farm and most of his horses, like Allunga, were raced on a lease. Winners were few and far between and when Jack’s horses won they were invariably supported in the ring and usually partnered by either brother. Attunga was the only top horse Jack ever trained. During World War II he drifted out of the racing game to become a hotelkeeper in Cootamundra, and later in William St, Sydney. Jack Munro died in 1959, the last years of his life rich with disillusion.
The debate among sportsmen as to the respective merits of the two colts that shared the Derby spoils was soon silenced, although in a wholly disturbing manner. Four days after the Derby, Homer stepped out onto the Randwick course to take his place in the Craven Plate. After having been crowded for room and checked in the running, Homer was moving up just after the half-mile post was passed, when suddenly he faltered and dropped back to the rear of the field. Keith Voitre quickly pulled up the chestnut and dismounted, but it was apparent that Homer’s case was hopeless. The colt had received a compound fracture of the near fore-fetlock, and after a minimal delay, he was quickly destroyed. Voitre explained that interference wasn’t the cause of the accident but rather the horse had merely knuckled-over. Critics were quick to blame the accident on the Randwick surface itself although George Price, ever the diplomat, denied the track was the problem.
There was a curious postscript to the breakdown of Homer that unfolded slowly over the years ahead. Those who believed that Homer’s destruction owed as much to some fatal infirmity in his constitution as to any depredations of the Randwick course on that Craven Plate Day were lent a measure of support by the tragic fate that befell two of his younger brothers. Rob Roy, a colt by Night Raid from Quadrilateral, and foaled the year after Homer, suffered a similar breakdown. Originally raced by Ike Foulsham, Clive Inglis bought the horse at a big price on behalf of Percy Miller and at only his second start after changing hands bolted in by six lengths to win the Members’ Handicap at the 1936 A.J.C. Spring Meeting. Spirited down to Melbourne as a highly fancied candidate for the Cup, a few days before that race Rob Roy broke a fetlock in a track gallop and had to be put down. However, the tale of woe that befell the progeny of Quadrilateral didn’t end there.
Homeric, a brother to Homer that realised the highest price at the 1937 Sydney Yearling Sales, when purchased by John Spencer Brunton for 1800 guineas, was also a victim of the family curse. Sadly, Brunton died at the age of seventy-six on the last day of December 1937, before Homeric ever raced. When the colt was put up for sale in January 1938 at the William Inglis Newmarket yards along with Brunton’s other bloodstock, he realised a hundred guineas more than his original purchase price when knocked down to Melbourne businessman, A. B. Palreyman. George Price continued to train the colt but at Ascot in July 1939, in his first start after winning his maiden at Victoria Park, the colt was shot after breaking his leg. The truth was that Quadrilateral threw big foals and their strength didn’t always match their size. A few older racegoers might remember Quadrant, yet another of Quadrilateral’s progeny that had much ability when trained by Bill McGee at Randwick in the mid-forties. He was one of the biggest horses in training and had to be raced very sparingly. Even by the age of five, he had made just five appearances on a racecourse.
However, digressions aside, let us return to the immediate matter of the balance of the 1935 spring campaign. Homer might have bitten the dust, or rather the sand, but Young Idea and Allunga remained alive and well to do battle with the Melbourne colts. Looking as fresh as a flapper’s lipstick, to quote the racing correspondent for The Truth newspaper, Young Idea showed that his A.J.C. Derby running was all wrong when he came from third-last at the five furlongs in a field of eleven to win the Caulfield Guineas at 6/1 by three-quarters of a length to Garrio, with The Trump a further length away third. Hunter White’s Hadrian failed badly in the same race, which effectively ended the boom on the Tippler colt. The Victoria Derby began to take on a more open appearance, particularly after the local three-year-olds, Feldspar, Palfresco and Garrio, won the Caulfield Stakes, Caulfield Cup and W.S. Cox Plate respectively.
As it transpired, an element of interference marred a true running of the Flemington classic that year. Young Idea stumbled about a furlong and a half from home, dislodging his jockey Jack Pratt, when he was about to make his run. Allunga, which had met with severe interference near the abattoirs, suffered the misfortune to be close behind Young Idea when the contretemps occurred, and Darby Munro was forced to check his stride, which cost him a length or two. It may well have cost him the prize because on the line the son of Inchaquire went under by just half-a-length to Feldspar, with Feldspar’s stablemate, Garrio, a half-neck behind in the minor placing. That Victoria Derby was a triumph for Victorian pastoralist Alex Creswick, who not only bred and owned the winner but also the minor placegetter, Garrio. Perhaps Allunga’s misfortune in the Victoria Derby was a tad overstated because although both he and Feldspar ran in the Melbourne Cup three days later, Allunga weakened badly in the run home whereas Feldspar ran a creditable sixth.
George Price may well have dreamed of dominating the Melbourne spring when Homer triumphed at Randwick on Derby Day, and much of the sporting press thought he might do so; but as it turned out it was another New Zealand horseman who had settled in Melbourne, rather than Sydney, that managed the trick. Lou Robertson, who was almost three years older than Price and first moved to Australia in 1908, prepared his powerful and well-respected team privately at Aspendale racecourse and was a graduate from the ranks of men who initially made their mark in trotting circles. In New Zealand, Robertson had been one of the leading trotting men of his time, and it was a trotter, Almont, which first brought him to Australian shores. Even after settling here, Robertson returned to New Zealand to win the New Zealand Trotting Cup with an Australian-bred horse.
However, it was his achievements with thoroughbreds that were to distinguish him here, and his biggest clients included Messrs Allen and George Tye of Allendale together with Sol Green. Even before the spring of 1935, Robertson had trained the likes of Lavendo, Gothic and Strephon to win big races, but those four weeks in late October and early November were to be something else. The week before Feldspar had won the Derby, Garrio had taken the W.S. Cox Plate for Robertson while the following Tuesday Marabou won him his first Melbourne Cup after previous seconds with Naos and Strephon. Nor did it end there. On Thursday Nalda won the V.R.C. Oaks and a little later on Garrio added the Williamstown Cup to Robertson’s haul. There was a big betting brigade behind the Robertson stable, prominent among whom was A. H. Griffiths, the owner of the old Aspendale racecourse and one of the stable’s leading clients. Ironically, six months after winning the Oaks with Nalda for Sol Green, he and Robertson had a parting of the ways despite a decade and more of remarkable success.
After the rigours of his spring campaign, Allunga was rested at Hunter Bowman’s property at Muswellbrook for a few weeks. The colt’s road to the red ribands at Flemington and Randwick was made immeasurably easier, first by the destruction of Homer; and secondly by the peremptory retirement of the Victoria Derby winner, Feldspar, after that horse had run a boxthorn spike into one of his pasterns, which subsequently became poisoned. Other high-class three-year-olds fell by the wayside as well. Palfresco, the winner of the 1935 Caulfield Cup and the subsequent favourite in the Victoria Derby, had injured his near fetlock joint in the latter race. Although he briefly re-appeared in the autumn, the fetlock was never quite right after that and he had retired to a paddock by the time the 1936 V.R.C. Autumn Meeting arrived.
Another defector to the spelling paddocks was The Trump, a son of Manfred out of a Spearhead mare that had impressed in the spring by winning the Stand Handicap and running the minor placing in the Caulfield Guineas, before weakness in the knees that often afflicted descendants of Spearhead, cost him an autumn preparation. In their collective absence, Allunga indeed won both St Legers but not in the commanding manner of a champion three-year-old. He took the Flemington classic easily enough, but at Randwick, he had to dig deep to dispose of the indifferent Wykeham by just a long head after Knox was left in front much sooner than he would have liked. The fact was that Allunga had failed egregiously as a three-year-old whenever he had been tried in open company over a distance – whether in the Melbourne Cup, Australian Cup, Sydney Cup or the Cumberland Plate. No first-class three-year-old could have failed so thoroughly in all those races. As an older horse, Allunga proved something of an enigma. He was transferred to the stables of Les Haigh at the beginning of his four-year-old season after Mulligan and Williamson’s lease expired.
After that, he was raced by the N.S.W. pastoralist, Hunter Bowman, together with his good friend, Mr J. H. Oakes, who managed some of Bowman’s stations. It was hoped that the Newcastle horseman might conjure up something of the magic he had achieved with the recently retired Rogilla. It wasn’t to be, although that season the son of Inchaquire did win both the A.J.C. Autumn Plate and the weight-for-age A.J.C. Plate at Randwick. As a five-year-old, Allunga suffered no fewer than twenty-three starts, winning only four times but amongst those wins were the A.J.C. Warwick Stakes, Spring Stakes and Autumn Plate. Allunga raced on less successfully with the passing of the seasons and endured his final appearance on a racecourse in March 1940 when unplaced at Rosehill in the Rawson Stakes won by Dashing Cavalier.
Unquestionably, the best horse to emerge from that 1935 A.J.C. Derby was, in fact, the favourite, Young Idea. The brilliance that this Constant Son horse had shown leading into the Randwick blue riband continued afterwards, but he never could stay a mile-and-a-half. In April 1936, Percy Miller bought out Alex Hunter’s half-share and transferred the horse to the stables of Jack Holt. Over the next few seasons, he would win a number of good races including two W.S. Cox Plates, a Caulfield Stakes and an A.J.C. Craven Plate.
If the story of Young Idea in the months after Derby Day at Randwick was to be happy and glorious, the story of the brilliant young jockey that rode him was to be nothing short of tragic. Jack Pratt at the age of twenty-two was dead even before the next A.J.C. Derby had been run. Two days after partnering Young Idea in the Derby, Pratt, on Oro, had won The Metropolitan for the second year running. Soon after that, however, his young life began to unravel. A gambling jockey, Pratt was forever running afoul of the stewards and spent as much time on race days warming his seat in the grandstand as the saddle, and put on weight accordingly. However, he was lucky enough to meet a lovely young girl who had a tempering effect on him. Pratt stopped betting and although he wasn’t long out of his time, briefly headed the jockeys’ premiership.
One Sunday, not long after his engagement, he was having lunch with his fiancée and her family when she complained of feeling unwell and collapsed in his arms; she had suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and was dead a few hours later. Disconsolate and unable to fairly focus on his riding, Pratt went away for a few days. Upon his return to riding trackwork, one morning at Moorefield his mount stumbled, and, with his foot caught in a stirrup iron, Pratt was dragged along the ground, sustaining head injuries. After two weeks in hospital he seemed to be recovering well but the night before he was scheduled to be discharged, and within a month of his fiancée passing away, Pratt suffered a relapse and died in late August 1936.
George Price, however, was to enjoy a number of highly satisfying seasons on the Australian Turf although 1935-36 was right up there, and it was largely thanks to New Zealand bloodstock. Homer’s A.J.C. Derby apart, Gold Rod gave him both the A.J.C. and V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes that season, while Cuddle won the Doncaster and Egmont finished runner-up in the Sydney Cup. Price was destined never to train another A.J.C. Derby winner in the remaining eleven years he devoted to his profession but there was no shortage of good horses, and the majority of them were ridden by Maurice McCarten as the stable jockey, until his switch to training in September 1942. However, after McCarten’s retirement and as World War II dragged on and racing fixtures became ever more restricted, Price’s stable began to wind down and the winners were slow in coming. One of his last metropolitan representatives to salute the judge was the two-year-old Liberality, a well-named Nuffield colt that bowled over the odds-on Shannon in the A.J.C. Fairfield Handicap in April 1944.
Illness compelled Price to retire from training at the close of the 1945-46 season and in October of that year to mark his retirement, he was given a celebratory dinner at Sydney’s Tattersall’s Club by the N.S.W. Owners and Trainers’ Association. It was a career worth celebrating. Among the races to fall to this little master had been the Melbourne Cup (Windbag); Caulfield Cup (Beaulivre); Sydney Cup (Murray King); Australian Cup (Carry On); four A.J.C. Doncaster Handicaps (Cuddle, Gold Rod, Mildura twice); two A.J.C. Metropolitan Handicaps (Jocelyn, Waikare); three A.J.C. St. Legers (Windbag, Veilmond, Gold Rod); A.J.C. Champagne Stakes, Sires’ Produce Stakes, V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes (Kuvera); and the V.R.C. Newmarket Handicap (Mildura); as well as a host of others. It was Price that trained Spear Chief when that horse upset Ajax at 1/40 in the 1939 Rawson Stakes while other good horses to pass through his hands included Capris, Ramulus, Caramba, and Pandava. George Price died at Sydney’s Prince Henry Hospital in January 1950 at the age of seventy-two from cerebrovascular disease and was buried in the Catholic section of Botany cemetery. Childless, he was survived by his wife, Alma, seventeen years his junior, whom he had married at Randwick in May 1938.