In the story of Australian bloodstock breeding during the first half of the twentieth century, one man and one stud stand supreme. The man was Percy Frederick Miller; the Stud was Kia-Ora. Born in 1879, the youngest of eleven children, Miller started life in rather humble circumstances in the inner Sydney suburb of Leichardt. When only a boy he set out on man’s estate to earn a living by purchasing a few calves, slaughtering them himself at the old Glebe Island Abattoirs, and then selling the meat to Sydney’s retail butchers. From such modest beginnings, he eventually prospered to become one of the largest carcass butchers in Sydney, founding the firm of Miller Bros. It was in 1902 that Percy Miller married his childhood sweetheart, Mabel, and the couple were to be blessed with only one child – a daughter, Marjorie – born three years later. Happy in a secure marriage, as his fledgeling meat business burgeoned in the early years of the century, Percy Miller began to race a few trotters, retaining the brothers Bert and Peter Riddle to prepare and drive the horses. If the standard-bred was to be his first love, the thoroughbred was to supplant it and become his lifelong passion.
His first thoroughbred was a colt by Maltster from Red Flag, which he purchased as an Easter yearling in 1910. Registered rather unimaginatively as Malt Flag, Bill Kelso trained him to win a few races. Subsequently, Miller resolved to build up a stud, and he became a prospective buyer of any well-bred mare by Maltster or Wallace that came onto the market, with Kelso acting as his eminence grise on all matters bloodstock. The first prestigious race in which his colours were carried to victory came with Starland, a daughter of The Welkin, in the 1914 Gimcrack Stakes. I think this really began his love affair with daughters of The Welkin and he was assiduous in seeking well-bred mares by that stallion for his stud. At the same time, he extended a commission to the British Bloodstock Agency to buy appropriate English mares, acquiring as many as eight at the December Sales in England in 1915, and these formed the core of his nascent stud. In those days Miller raced under the nom de course of ‘Leslie English’, a fiction he continued through the early years of the War before abandoning it to the full glare of publicity.
It was in February 1914 that Miller purchased the extensive property of A. J. Burcher, near Scone, to use to fatten-up cattle, as well as establish his standard-bred and thoroughbred horse studs. Initially, his holding consisted of about 1800 acres, which he initially named Kiora, although the spelling was later amended to Kia-Ora. The property, only a few miles out of Scone, was in a belt of country crowded with breeding establishments; at one time it had formed part of the old Segenhoe estate owned by William Brown. The Kia-Ora property was separated from what remained of Segenhoe by the Page River, which a few miles further downstream joined with the Hunter. It was ideal land for a thoroughbred stud, beginning with rich river flats of alfalfa extending inland to sheltered and timbered hills.
In early 1915, in his quest for a stud sire, he negotiated with Richard Wootton, who was then in England and purchased the five-year-old English stallion, Flippant. The horse, who had been a fair performer on the English Turf, was a three-quarter brother to Bronzino, the high-priced but ultimately disappointing stallion that Samuel Hordern imported into this country with much fanfare a few years before. Flippant came at a price of 1000 guineas, and Miller raced him briefly in Australia before retiring the horse to his stud in 1916, where he was mated with about twenty mares. Flippant wasn’t a stud success and once that became obvious, Miller moved quickly to supplant him. This quick turnover of non-performing stallions was a firm policy of the Kia-Ora studmaster. As far as his stallion philosophy was concerned it was very much a case of – if you will forgive the pun – ‘many were culled, and few were chosen’. Flippant was merely the first in a long line of casualties that failed to measure up to the exacting standards, only to be sold off.
Consider for a moment if you will, the number of sires that had already stood at Kia-Ora Stud in the years up to 1937. Apart from Flippant and his successor, Magpie, there were Leverrier, Demosthenes, Nassau, Legionnaire, Saltash, Spelthorne, Sarchedon, Ethiopian, Constant Son, Baralong, Caledon, Pantheon, Christopher Robin, Medieval Knight, Ronsard and Chatham. Now, this isn’t a bad list to be going on with. And from the very start, Miller was prepared to pay big money to acquire the right horse. Flippant wasn’t cheap, but when it came to replacing him, Miller outlaid 5000 guineas each for Magpie and Demosthenes. The latter, incidentally, is a rare example of Percy Miller purchasing an already tried stallion. Demosthenes was something of a sensation when he first got to New Zealand, and the Kia-Ora studmaster went after him. Alas, when installed on the Page River, Demosthenes was most disappointing and proved a shy foal-getter into the bargain. Sarchedon, whom many regarded as the best two-year-old in England, set Miller back 6000 guineas and no less an authority than Dick Wootton declared him to be the finest-looking horse ever imported into Australia. Alas, at stud he, too, proved a failure.
The list appended above shows that Percy Miller had tried sixteen different imported stallions in the first twenty-one years of Kia-Ora’s existence. One is entitled to ask how any studmaster could possibly make a profit by turning over so many expensive stallions so quickly. The answer, dear reader, lies in the remarkable optimism of horse buyers in being willing to fall over each other in a rush to acquire yearlings by well-credentialed but unproven stallions. Given that the gestation period for a horse is some eleven months and a foal won’t race until it is a two-year-old at the earliest, it follows that any stallion will enjoy three books of mares before any shortcomings in his stock become obvious on a racecourse. Miller capitalised on this unbridled optimism of buyers towards the progeny of new stallions. If their stock didn’t fire in the first season or two, Miller quickly discarded the stallion. I might add that Miller was just as ruthless in his culling of poorly-producing mares, with rejects sold at West Maitland. The Kia-Ora Stud simply didn’t retain any stallion or broodmare exhibiting any weakness or lack of a constitution.
But I am getting ahead of my story. It was in Easter 1916 that Percy Miller made his first appearance as a vendor at the Sydney Yearling Sales when his embryonic stud put forth a modest offering of three yearlings, a colt and a filly by Flavus, and a filly by Downshire. The trio realised an aggregate of 280 guineas. In 1917 Miller again submitted three yearlings for sale, and the following year it increased to four. From the very beginning, Miller resolved to be a breeder for the public and as such, apart from a period during the Depression years, his yearlings were largely sold without reserve. It was in 1919 that he offered the first draft of Flippant, seventeen in number. Although his English import sired sound and hardy horses, Flippant wasn’t particularly fashionably-bred for the time, and buyers were not that keen on his progeny. Miller moved quickly to replace him with Magpie whom he purchased for 5000 guineas in May 1919. Now I suspect that the imagination and commercial flair of Percy Miller would have seen Kia-Ora prosper under any circumstances, but the astounding success of Magpie made the task immeasurably easier. I have already told the tale of Magpie in the previous chapter. His progeny were not early comers but oh! What stamina they possessed when allowed to mature!
It was Windbag, coming from Magpie’s second crop, that really made the stallion’s reputation and the story of his sale, as a yearling, is part of Australian Turf folklore. The champion might so easily have raced in the ownership of Percy Miller, rather than that of his older brother Bob. When the future Windbag first entered the yearling ring on that autumn day in 1923, he was initially knocked down to Ian Duncan, a leading New Zealand breeder who was buying on commission for a colleague in the Dominion. Duncan had been frustrated in attempts to obtain earlier lots by Magpie that had gone for stiffer prices, and his decision to bid for the Charleville colt had been somewhat impulsive. After the horse had been sold to him and had left the ring, Duncan hurried to where the Kia-Ora draft was stabled at Newmarket for a closer inspection of his latest acquisition. The future Windbag was not only small but a rather weak walker to boot, and in this instance familiarity bred contempt.
Duncan approached the auctioneer, Clive Inglis, and advised him that he wasn’t prepared to transport the horse back to New Zealand. Accordingly, he requested that the colt enter the ring again at the end of the sale. No auctioneer is keen on such a course of action because buyers are immediately wary that there might be something wrong with the animal. So instead, Inglis approached Percy Miller and asked him if he was prepared to relieve Duncan of the purchase. In a lifetime of trading horses, Percy Miller earned a reputation for absolute integrity and straight-shooting in his dealings, and this occasion was no different. Miller stated that if Duncan was prepared to take 120 guineas for the colt, he could book it to Bob Miller. He was, and he did. It was in this manner that Windbag became a windfall for Percy’s brother. In ordinary circumstances, Percy would have taken the colt himself. However, the Kia-Ora studmaster had only just broken off his relationship with his trainer Bill Kelso and sold all his horses in work. Accordingly, at the time he wasn’t interested in ownership. Considering what Windbag went on to achieve, Percy’s estrangement from Bill Kelso proved particularly expensive.
Incidentally, when Windbag retired, Miller could have stood him at Kia-Ora for the asking, but at that time he refused to stand a colonial sire at any price. Consequently, Windbag went to Alex Hunter’s Northwood Park Stud, near Seymour in Victoria, after bringing 4000 guineas at auction – a good price for an Australian stallion in those days. Alex Hunter was a good friend of Miller – a friendship that traced back to their younger days when each was heavily involved in light-harness racing. Although Percy hadn’t been prepared to stand Windbag as a stallion, he was more than happy to patronise him with a few mares to kick-start his stud career for his friend. Two mares that Miller sent to Northwood Park for Windbag’s first book were Kanooka and Myosotis. It was in this way that two of the great milers of the Australian Turf came into this world when the mares gave foal to Winooka and Chatham respectively. As a matter of fact, these two future champions followed each other into the sales ring when sold as yearlings.
I seem to have wandered off the theme of Magpie and the growth of Kia-Ora Stud, but it is all grist to the mill insofar as the story of the 1937 A.J.C. Derby is concerned. Once Magpie, through the racecourse deeds of his sons, Windbag and Amounis, had become famous, the growth and prosperity of Kia-Ora flourished spectacularly. Percy Miller passed his wholesale butchery business over to his older brother Bob to manage in the mid-1920s once Magpie had guaranteed Kia-Ora’s success, and from then on Percy devoted his energies to the stud. There is nothing in the annals of Australian thoroughbred history to match the mushrooming growth of Kia-Ora, which quickly became the largest stud in the southern hemisphere. The milestones came thick and fast.
It was Percy Miller who bred and sold Dominant, the most expensive yearling ever sold in Australia up to that time when he went for 6750 guineas at Easter 1928; it was a record that stood for thirty years. Dominant was part of the stud’s record aggregate at that year’s Easter sales of 33,885 guineas. I think this is the statistic that best illustrates the stud’s rapid development. In 1919 the yearling sales aggregate was a mere 1865 guineas, and yet just ten years later it had grown to 33,885 guineas! Two years after, in 1930, Percy Miller realised his coveted ambition of consigning one hundred yearlings into the Easter sales ring. Much of the success, as Percy was the first to acknowledge, was due to the animal husbandry of Bert Riddle, the stud manager who was there from the very beginning. In those days the yearlings were despatched to Newmarket well before Easter and, being boxed at Randwick, the youngsters were less likely to incur injury than running loose in the stud paddocks.
Among the six yearlings on offer in 1922, the very first year Magpie’s stock was sold, was a little filly from the well-bred matron, Galtee Princess. The mare had been one of Kia-Ora’s early acquisitions for breeding. She had won races in Perth and Melbourne, and in 1918, was purchased with a Linacre foal-at-foot for 700 guineas by Percy Miller. The Linacre foal subsequently raced successfully as Galtee Maid. Just about all of the progeny of Galtee Princess won races, including this particular filly sold in 1922, later registered as Chatterbox. She raced in the colours of Bob Miller – pale blue, black diamond and sleeves and yellow cap – and was a filly that got better with age. She raced in the 14.2 pony classes before graduating to win at Rosehill, Canterbury Park and Moorefield in Flying company. Perhaps her best effort was to finish second at Randwick in the June Stakes when beaten a neck as the favourite. Unfortunately, she broke down rather severely as a five-year-old and was promptly retired to matronly duties at Kia-Ora. Chatterbox, despite her small stature, proved quite a useful broodmare and had already enjoyed success when Miller mated her with Pantheon in the spring of 1933. The resultant foal was in the draft of Kia-Ora yearlings at the Sydney Easter Sales in 1936.
Now it is not always possible to provide a faithful description of a future Derby winner when offered as a yearling, but Avenger, our 1937 hero, is an exception. It was common in those days for the major newspapers of Sydney and Melbourne to send their principal racing writers on a motoring tour of the studs in the run-up to Christmas to review the yearlings for sale the following year. The pressmen would all informally chance their judgement of bloodstock by nominating the yearling they thought most likely. Chiron of ‘The Australasian’ won the contest that year when he showed remarkable prescience in selecting the future Avenger as the pick of the Kia-Ora draft of ninety-six yearlings. I quote below the copy he filed for his newspaper at the time:
“However, to my mind, the pick of the draft is the bay Pantheon colt from that one-time good performer, Chatterbox, by Magpie from Galtee Princess. The breeding is right, and so is the colt. The earlier progeny of Chatterbox were rather on the small side, but lack of size cannot be urged against this fellow, as there is plenty of him, and what there is, is exceptionally good. Although short topped, his back being strong and the middle-piece splendidly ribbed, he stands over a lot of ground and is a fine reachy mover. He gives the impression of perfect pitch and balance. He is exceptionally good in front, with a long clean shoulder well set back, with a long muscular neck and a keen, intelligent head.”
As it transpired, when the colt went through the ring he was bought by Messrs Mackinnon and Cox of Melbourne on behalf of the Victorian sportsman, J. P. Arthur, for 850 guineas. Now, chance is a funny thing in life. By the mid-1930s Miller had been racing horses for more than a quarter of a century and he seemed fated never to win a classic with a horse of his own breeding and carrying his own colours. That he eventually did so with a horse he had once sold seems scarcely credible. However, that is precisely what Percy Miller achieved with this youngster from Chatterbox. It just so happened that in the months immediately after the yearling sales at which the colt was sold, J. P. Arthur had a run-in with Victorian officialdom and decided to retire from the Turf on a matter of principle. He put up his extensive string of horses for sale at public auction during August 1936.
It so happened that Miller had taken a shine to the Chatterbox colt as a weanling when he gambolled about the Kia-Ora paddocks. The studmaster always considered the youngster would develop stamina. Miller approached trainer Jack Holt and asked him to inspect the horse before the auction, and if he was sound, to buy him. Holt liked what he saw and for 800 guineas Avenger returned to the ownership of the man that bred him. I might mention here that at that auction of Arthur’s horses, Holt also bought another rising two-year-old on behalf of Miller – Devoted Son – yet another that Kia-Ora had bred and sold as a yearling. It is interesting to observe that in both cases the horses actually cost less some four months after being sold at Easter, even though neither had been tried on the racecourse.
A strapping bay colt, Avenger wasn’t hurried by Jack Holt in his first season, his debut being delayed until the autumn when he ran unplaced in a minor juvenile event at Pakenham. He appeared five more times that season, twice earning place money and saving his best effort till last when he ran second to John Wilkes in a seven-furlong handicap at Caulfield in late July. Considering that at the time, nominations for the major handicaps and Cup races closed in June, and Avenger hadn’t returned Miller any prize money at all, it came as no surprise that the Kia-Ora studmaster didn’t bother putting forth the colt’s name for the rich events. Indeed, the stable was not even entertaining the ambition of a Derby start at that stage. But colts – and particularly backwards and immature types such as Avenger – can often improve dramatically as the last weeks of winter give way to spring.
Jack Holt chose the Chatsworth Plate, a mile race for three-year-olds run at Caulfield, for Avenger’s seasonal reappearance. It was unfortunate for Holt that the veteran Caulfield trainer Frank Musgrave also chose the same race for a flashy chestnut son of Heroic sheltering in his ‘Ruthen Lodge’ stables in Leopold Street. The horse in question was Ajax, who had proved himself the best juvenile in Australia earlier in the year. Despite a field of seventeen competitors and conceding weight to them all, including a full two stone to Avenger, Ajax had little trouble adding this event to his lengthening tally of triumphs. Avenger, however, ran on nicely enough at the end of the race to take the second prize and suggest that he was going to make up into a nice colt once he got over further ground. Moreover, he possessed a relaxed and docile temperament, the trait of a real stayer.
When the strapping son of Pantheon continued to thrive in his work and won his next two races at Williamstown and Caulfield against his own age group, Holt knew he had a genuine Derby contender and laid his plans for a northern visit to the Harbour City. His only start in Sydney before the Derby came in the Hill Stakes at Rosehill, and as is so often the case with Victorian horses making their first appearance at the suburban course, managed to find plenty of trouble. Several horses suffered in a scrimmage at the start and Avenger was the worst sufferer when crowded onto the inside running rail. After being last on the home turn he unwound a great finish to run second to the previous year’s Derby hero, Talking.
The Australian Jockey Club suffered a serious setback eighteen days before the Derby was due to be run at Randwick with the death of their esteemed chairman, Sir Colin Stephen, at the age of sixty-six in his Sydney home. His health had been in decline for some months, but just days before his death he had attended Randwick races in his motor car to see his colt, Caesar, run in the Chelmsford Stakes. Indeed, for a time Caesar, who had finished runner-up in the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes and had won the Hobartville Stakes, had been looked upon as a real Derby chance. Born in Sydney in May 1872, Sir Colin became a member of an old N.S.W. family associated with the law since the earliest days of the colony. It was inevitable that Sir Colin would pursue the family vocation and with this object in view, he was educated at All Saints College, Bathurst, and later in England. Admitted as a solicitor in 1896, Sir Colin became a partner in the law firm his family had helped establish, Stephen, Jacques, and Stephen. A shrewd and able lawyer, although too shy to harangue a jury, his administrative abilities were quickly recognised both at work and at play. He became a director of many public companies, and apart from his interests on the Turf, he was a skilful polo player who served for a time as president of the Australian Polo Council.
As a young man, Colin Stephen was an amateur rider of considerable ability; he rode his first winner at Randwick during May 1892 at the age of twenty on his own horse, Pro-Consul, by The Drummer, which was trained on his behalf by Tom Payten. It was to be the forerunner of many successes in the saddle, particularly at the popular picnic meetings then conducted at the likes of Bong Bong and Tiranna. Elected a member of the Australian Jockey Club in 1892, he became a committeeman in 1912, succeeding to the vacancy left by the death of George Lee. His father before him, Septimus Alfred Stephen, had also been a member of the committee for some years in the eighties’ and had been the right-hand man and confidante of the Hon. James White during his all-conquering years on the Turf. Alas, Septimus didn’t live long enough to see his second son succeed to the A.J.C. committee, having died in September 1901 at the relatively young age of forty-nine.
Colin Stephen succeeded to the A.J.C. chairmanship upon the elevation of Sir Adrian Knox to the position of Chief Justice of the High Court. The appointment was in keeping with the traditions of the club. Stephen possessed the same degree of aloofness and hauteur and the same punctilious correctness in his demeanour that had been associated with past chairmen. Knighted in January 1935, Sir Colin was always a keen amateur breeder but he only began to enjoy real success in the twilight of his life and almost exclusively through the descendants of his foundation mare Vole, by the imported Petrillo. Tom Payten was Sir Colin’s first trainer and following Tom’s death, his son Bayley Payten. The two best horses to carry his pale blue jacket and white cap were: Fidelity, foaled in 1933 and the winner of the Maribyrnong Plate, Ascot Vale Stakes and Mimosa Stakes; and Caesar, foaled in 1934 and the winner of the Ascot Vale Stakes and Hobartville Stakes. Other good descendants of Vole bred by Sir Colin included Sal Volatile (Adrian Knox Stakes) and Voleuse (James Barnes Stakes). Upon the death of Sir Colin Stephen, George Main was appointed to take his place as chairman while Rodney Dangar, the owner of Peter Pan, was elected to the vacant position on the A.J.C. committee.
And so, we come to Derby Day. The 1936-1937 racing season had once again seen the Australian Jockey Club record a financial loss. Excessive taxation and the flourishing of illegal S.P. betting were the main causes. As a result of the latter, together with the live broadcasting of races on wireless, racecourse attendances had fallen. Only 50,000 were at Randwick for Derby Day – a significant fall from the crowds attracted during the twenties. When racing clubs had banned broadcasts from within the racecourse confines, some enterprising souls with microphones had merely transferred their operations to a vantage point outside their perimeter but overlooking the track. The previous year there had been an unsuccessful attempt to ban such transmissions, but the clubs had been rebuffed in the courts. The A.J.C. had then allowed on-course broadcasts, albeit with a delayed transmission of starting price information.
The 1937 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions appear in the table below:
Part of the reason for the lessened attendance on Derby Day 1937 was the discomfort of a malicious southerly wind, which saw those that were there, huddling in every nook and cranny that afforded shelter. Nonetheless, those that did make the sacrifice witnessed an unforgettable classic. The 1937 field consisted of eight colts, but only three serious contenders in Ajax, Hua and Avenger, all hailing from Victoria. The regally bred New Zealand horse, Courtcraft, was not regarded as seasoned enough for the race, while Bristol, Bourbon, Highborn, and Only One seemed present merely to make up the numbers. Avenger was a big powerful horse in every way, standing sixteen hands high and very deep through the heart; he was the biggest horse in the Derby field, though not quite as big around the girth as Hua. Perhaps Avenger’s most notable feature was his remarkable rein, which, measuring just over fifty inches was even greater than Manfred’s.
The ‘talking horse’ of this classic generation was Ajax, a thoroughbred that was very rarely headed in the early part of his races if his jockey set his mind to it. In his first juvenile races in Melbourne, he had shown a tendency to hang out, a failing that almost certainly cost him the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Flemington when he finished under the judge’s box. Ajax rehabilitated himself in Sydney, however, not showing the least inclination to hang, and in the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Randwick had given a dazzling exhibition of speed to lead practically from start to finish to win easily by five lengths in race record time. It was a similar riot of speed in the Champagne Stakes when the 10lb-penalty failed to dull his pace. He wintered as the Derby favourite, although that perennial question as to whether he possessed too much speed to stay the Derby course again raised itself. The key lay in his breeding. Ajax was by Heroic and had been bred at Widden by the A.J.C. committeeman Alf Thompson, and V.R.C. committeeman ‘Prince’ Baillieu.
It was Baillieu who was really responsible, for it was he that had imported Medmenham, the dam of Ajax, into Australia. She only raced here during her four-year-old season but won twice in nine starts, including a narrow victory in the Brunswick Stakes (10f) at Flemington. I might mention that while ‘Prince’ Baillieu never maintained a separate stud farm, this Melbourne stockbroker and scion of one of Melbourne’s establishment families, was far more responsible for improving the quality of Australian bloodstock than many who did. Medmenham was just one of many of his successful imports.
Ajax was Medmenham’s fourth foal, and the colt was raced by her two breeders together with Fred Smith, yet another race club committeeman (being on the Rosehill Racing Club board) and a man who cloaked his racecourse identity under the subterfuge of ‘Mr Constable’. Ajax came into the world on Melbourne Cup night, a few hours after Peter Pan had won his second famous victory and even then, the omens of greatness seemed written in the dark sky. The colt was a replica of Heroic in colour, shape and markings. He was never destined for the sales ring and was the subject of quite some interest in the racing press even before he had appeared in public. After a sensational first season on the Turf, that interest had only strengthened before his three-year-old career opened and he resumed where he had left off at two. After his comfortable victory in the Chatsworth Plate, his veteran trainer Frank Musgrave chose the Rosehill Guineas for his final Derby trial, a race in which he again exhibited his rare turn of foot to run out an easy winner in race record time. It seemed the only concern with Ajax from a Derby perspective was whether he could make his own running and still stay the testing course.
Hua, considered the other major prospect for the Derby, was typical of a Jim Scobie representative, making his seasonal debut in the Derby; he had proven one of the best juveniles seen out the previous season. Purchased for 750 guineas at the 1936 Sydney Yearling Sales, he was still a very backward colt when he managed to win the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Flemington in a head-bobbing finish from Caesar and Ajax; when only a few weeks before he had still been in the paddocks of Underbank at Bacchus Marsh. Burdened with a 10lb-penalty Hua then went under to those same two colts in the Ascot Vale Stakes later at the same meeting. Brought to Sydney for the autumn gathering at Randwick, he disappointed in the Sires’ Produce Stakes before running second to Ajax in the Champagne Stakes at his last appearance.
Although Hua hadn’t yet raced as a three-year-old, he had impressed in a public gallop over 10 furlongs at Rosehill on Guineas Day against the older handicap horse, Silver Standard, and the reports from Pytchley Lodge were that Scobie rated the imposing son of Heroic the equal of Trivalve. It was one of those rare Derbies that saw Sydney without a genuine contender. Our best prospect had been Caesar, owned by the A.J.C. chairman, Sir Colin Stephen; a brilliant two-year-old, he had won the Ascot Vale Stakes and was runner-up in the Sires’ Produce Stakes at both Flemington and Randwick. Caesar appeared set for an exciting spring campaign when he won the Hobartville Stakes and then engaged Ajax in a famous jostling duel in the Guineas at Rosehill before being beaten a couple of lengths by the Victorian colt. But any hopes that the executors of the late A.J.C. chairman may have entertained of Derby glory at headquarters were dashed when, after dislodging his rider, Caesar bolted and collided with a fence during trackwork in the days leading up to the race.
1937 was fated to be one of the great Derbies ever run at Randwick. Comparisons were drawn with the 1924 race when three first-class colts with thunder in their blood and courage in their hearts again fought out a desperate final furlong. The fact that the 1924 Derby hero, Heroic, was the sire of two of the three colts in question, made such comparisons inevitable. However, although as in 1924 the three public fancies filled the placings, this time the result didn’t accord strictly with market expectations. In the race itself, Ajax slipped to the front immediately upon barrier-rise and proceeded to dictate a quick tempo considering the state of the ground. The first half-mile was cut out in 51 ½ seconds with Ajax two lengths in front of Highborn and Hua, who was enjoying the run of the race while Avenger was second last.
After a mile, the only change in the order of things was that Courtcraft was now third and Avenger was starting to bestir himself. At the entrance to the straight Hua was only a little over a length behind Ajax, while Courtcraft was third, with Avenger beginning to eat the ground. At the furlong-post, Hua and Avenger collared Ajax but McCarten conjured another effort from the chestnut, and for a stride or two it seemed he might even come away again. But both Hua and Avenger were relentless. Despite running in under pressure, which inconvenienced Hua and forced Bartle to stop riding, Avenger was dominant going to the line and won by a length. It was a triumph of stamina over speed. Ajax managed to hold on for the second placing, although it was so close that many expected a dead-heat declared between him and Hua. The interference from Avenger almost certainly deprived Hua of finishing second, and had he gained it, jockey ‘Tich’ Wilson might well have protested against the winner. Ajax was also slightly hampered by the crowding but not to the same extent.
Avenger proved himself a genuine stayer in catching Ajax after conceding that horse five or six lengths advantage from the three furlongs mark. The result gave trainer Jack Holt and jockey Ted Bartle each their second A.J.C. Derby. The performance of Avenger was even more meritorious when one considered that the colt was not yet three years of age, being a late October foal. It is interesting, if ultimately futile, to speculate on how differently the race might have resolved itself, had the Randwick course not been subject to the inch of overnight rain. It had become apparent earlier in the day during the hurdle race that the track was soft. The ground rendered the task of Ajax, in attempting to lead all the way, much more difficult. Nor was the chestnut helped by the strong headwind. But the presence of Ajax in the field hadn’t cramped the confidence of the Holt stable, particularly after their horse had posted a brilliant gallop against Allunga over a mile at Victoria Park in the days leading up to the classic. Avenger landed some big bets. When it comes to the racing fraternity, those who know don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know. Jack Holt was certainly numbered among the school of the knowledgeable and the silent and plundered the Sydney ring accordingly.
It was fairly evident that all three of the Derby place-getters were good colts, while the state of the going at Randwick on Derby Day was enough to suggest that perhaps the best horse had not won on the day. The truth was that only about a length separated the three of them, a fact that was proven again in both the Guineas at Caulfield and the Derby at Flemington. On each of those occasions, as at Randwick, the happy triumvirate filled the placings, although the finishing order varied. The mile at Caulfield was much more to the liking of the brilliant Ajax although he only had a neck to spare over Avenger, with Hua a half-length away. But Avenger might have been a little unlucky in the Caulfield Guineas. He didn’t travel well when returning from Sydney and remained sore from the buffeting that had occurred over the last furlong at Randwick. As it was, he only went under by a neck in course record time. A strange thing then happened insofar as the betting on the Victoria Derby was concerned. How is it that three colts demonstrably so evenly matched on the racecourse, can be so widely discriminated against in the betting ring? On the strength of his superior stamina at Randwick, Avenger went to the post for the southern blue riband at the prohibitive odds of 4/9, with Ajax at sevens and Hua, the joint ruling favourite in the Melbourne Cup, despatched at tens.
So often in racing what appears to be an intriguing contest on paper rarely lives up to its billing on the course. The Victoria Derby of 1937 proved to be the rare exception. The betting public might have regarded the race as being at Avenger’s mercy, but his defeat proved to be one of the more celebrated upsets in the race when he only managed third. Hua and Ajax fought out the race and the issue hung in the balance until the very last stride. Indeed, nobody knew which colt had won for sure until the numbers were hoisted. Hua marked the fourth Victoria Derby ribbon garnered by Ernest Clarke and was the last top horse to sport his famous colours. As a rule, Clarke generally left Melbourne for his summer fishing holiday in New Zealand before Derby Day, but Jim Scobie persuaded him that year to postpone his departure. The result of these two great sons of Heroic disputing the prize all the way down the Flemington straight only served to emphasise the tragedy of their sire’s impotence and the premature end of his stud career. And so, at the close of 1937, following the series of great clashes between these three colts, racing aficionados looked forward to some exciting re-matches in future years. But those whom the gods wish to frustrate, they first titillate. Only one of the threesome, Ajax, would withstand the rigours of racing and enjoy a full career on the Turf. Avenger and Hua were each to fall victims to unsoundness.
After the sterling form displayed by Avenger as a spring three-year-old when he was still a backward and unfurnished colt, it was assumed that with maturity he would develop into an outstanding galloper, particularly over further ground. But leg problems plagued the balance of his short-lived career. In the autumn, Hua proved his master in both the C.F. Orr Stakes and the St George Stakes before Avenger broke down on the eve of the V.R.C. St Leger. Jack Holt then blistered the leg in the hope that the horse might stand a spring campaign. Avenger was brought over to Randwick for the spring meetings of Tattersall’s and the Australian Jockey Club in 1938, but in two races at headquarters, viz. the Chelmsford Stakes and the Colin Stephen Stakes, the great New Zealand horse, Royal Chief, easily outstayed him. Avenger returned to Melbourne and went to the post as the second fancy in the Caulfield Cup, despite 9 st. 3lb in the saddle. The favourite, Buzzalong won the race although Avenger was never afforded the chance to show his true form. During the running, he damaged the sinews in his near foreleg. For a time, it was feared he would not be able to race again. It would have been better if he hadn’t. For less than three months later, Avenger’s racing career came to a tragic end at the New Year’s Day meeting at Flemington in 1939 in the Bagot Handicap. Starting a 2/1 favourite, Avenger was beginning to make his run at the bottom of the Flemington straight when he suddenly faltered and snapped his off-foreleg and had to be destroyed.
Hua was also to meet misfortune of the racecourse. When he resumed racing in the autumn of 1938, he promised to be the best colt of his year. At his first start back in the William Reid Stakes at Moonee Valley, he equalled the course record. Similar victories followed in both the Orr Stakes and St George Stakes before Hua went under to Ajax at level weights in the Futurity Stakes. Even so, Scobie had no hesitation declaring him potentially the best colt that he had ever trained, and the Master of Pytchley Lodge didn’t indulge in hyperbole. With Avenger’s legs giving trouble, and Ajax running in the Newmarket on the same day, the V.R.C. St Leger attracted only one solitary opponent for Hua, who enjoyed the easiest of tasks in taking the classic in a hand canter.
It was his last win. Later that week, Hua was sent to the post at prohibitive odds for the King’s Plate in a field of three, only to finish an inglorious last after attempting to lead all the way. Throughout that autumn the big horse had raced with his front legs bandaged, and after the King’s Plate, he was very tender though not actually lame. Although attempts were made to train him after that, Hua never raced again. Retired to stud, he upheld the honour of Australian-bred stallions and proved a most useful acquisition for William Smith’s St Aubins Stud, near Scone. His best horse was unquestionably that brilliant sprinter San Domenico, but other good gallopers included The Groom, Captain Hua and Questing. Some of his progeny showed something of a temper, and older readers might recall his son Prince Hua, whom owner-trainer Jim Bendrodt described as the most savage horse that he ever had through his hands.
Unlike either Avenger or Hua, the post-Derby career of Ajax prospered extravagantly. Ironically, after the spring of 1937, the flashy chestnut was only asked to run over twelve furlongs on three more occasions in his racing life, and he won them all – twice in the King’s Plate and once in the C.B. Fisher Plate, all at weight-for-age and all at Flemington. But the son of Heroic was at his best in races up to ten furlongs. Before being retired in the spring of his six-year-old season, Ajax ran in 46 races, winning 36 times and only once finishing out of a place earning stakes of £40,275. Alas, the fame of Ajax has been scarcely equal to his merit. When he is remembered today it is more for that sensational defeat at 40/1 on in the Rawson Stakes rather than for his string of grand victories. A succession of eighteen consecutive race wins had caused him to be cast as a living certainty for that Rosehill race and had he been successful he would have equalled the record sequence shared jointly by Gloaming and Desert Gold.
The defeat came in a race where only three ran and which, on paper, looked among the easiest. It was one of those unexpected happenings that lend a charm to the Turf and accretion to the wealth of bookmakers. The owners of Spear Chief were as much surprised by his victory as the owners of Ajax were by his failure. There was no suggestion that Ajax had been got at, as he didn’t blow when pulled up, which seemed proof that he was clean inside. It was a shame because Ajax then won his next four races and, but for the Rawson Stakes mishap, might have established a sequence of 23 wins. Throughout his career, Ajax was placed ever so astutely by his veteran Caulfield trainer, Frank Musgrave. Musgrave, who was born in Coleraine, Victoria, in 1860, had been actively connected with racing for well over 60 years when he was given Ajax to train. As a jockey, Musgrave began his career when he rode three winners for his father in the western districts of Victoria at the age of nine and then at the age of fourteen, rode the 50/1 Goshawk in the 1874 Melbourne Cup. Musgrave had also partnered a horse in the first Grand National Hurdle at Flemington in 1881. However, it was on the ground rather than in the saddle that Musgrave was to make his name. Long before the mighty Ajax had brightened the threshold of his stables, he had trained the likes of Lilyveil (1914 Sydney Cup); Aleconner (1913 Epsom Handicap); and Jolly Beggar (1913 Doncaster Handicap).
Over the years the critics have disparaged Ajax, harping that the horse was only allowed to contest handpicked set-weight events and that he was something of a ‘glass jaw’ champion. Such criticism is misplaced. Let us not forget that on the day Hua won the St. Leger at Flemington, Ajax won the V.R.C. Newmarket Handicap with nine stone, or 8lbs over weight-for-age. In doing so he broke two records – the weight-carrying record for a three-year-old and at the same time becoming the shortest-priced favourite in the history of the race at 6/4 on! In those years such a rich handicap prize so early in one’s career meant crushing imposts in other handicaps on other days. It was for this reason that the three wise men who guided the colt’s destinies restricted him to contests at set weights or weight-for-age on all but three occasions. If Ajax’s record is found wanting when measured against the scales, it most certainly isn’t when measured against the clock, that other infallible touchstone of truth on the racecourse. Apart from being the joint holder of the Australasian record for a mile, Ajax set new race records in the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Randwick, the Rosehill Guineas, the Caulfield Guineas and the Futurity Stakes. Some glass jaw!
The mythological Ajax, the hero of the Trojan War, was to die by his own hand after seeing the coveted armour of Achilles go to someone else. Although the equine Ajax saw the coveted Derby prize go to someone else, there was distinctly less melodrama associated with the end of his career than that of his classical namesake. The horse had his last race in the 1940 W.S. Cox Plate when Beau Vite narrowly beat him. He was then put up for auction as a stallion in March 1941 and knocked down for 6500 guineas to W.J. ‘Bill’ Smith of St Aubins Stud, near Scone. Although Smith was the successful bidder, he had come to a prior arrangement with Alf Thompson, who had shared in the ownership of the horse during his racing career, that if he got the horse, Thompson would be half-owner.
It was in this way that Ajax came to return to Widden, the place where he was born and bred. Like his own sire, Heroic, who returned to do duty at Herbert Thompson’s stud where he was bred, Ajax, returned to Widden for the same purpose. In seven seasons there he sired one excellent horse in Magnificent, himself an A.J.C. Derby winner, as well as a number of lesser luminaries including Chaperone (V.A.T.C. Merson Cooper Stakes; V.R.C. Ascot Vale Stakes) and Achilles (AJC Epsom Handicap). He also sired some brilliant fillies that showed their best form at two and three but often failed to train-on. Despite such good stock, I think it is fair to say that rather more was expected from him. Ajax was again put up for sale during July 1947 when Bill Smith bought him outright for 13,000 guineas; Smith then sold him to America where the horse met with only moderate success.
I started this chapter with the life and times of Percy Miller, and perhaps I should round out his story. Despite the success of a Derby with Avenger and a Caulfield Guineas and other good races with Young Idea, Percy Miller, for all his genius as a horse breeder, was never really fortunate as a horse owner. He raced some useful gallopers such as Broadcaster and Flying Duke but somehow, they never quite lived up to their early promise. Perhaps the best horse to carry his colours was the wonderful filly, Sweet Chime, who swept the board of fillies’ classics in Melbourne in the spring of 1946. There was one other horse that might have developed into something special, however, – and that was Rob Roy, the half-brother to Homer that raced in Talking’s Derby. He later won the Members’ Handicap at that A.J.C. Spring Meeting by six lengths pulling up at only his second start in Miller’s colours and was strongly fancied for the Melbourne Cup that year only to break a leg in a Caulfield gallop before the race, and was subsequently destroyed. To the end of his days, Miller maintained that he was the most promising stayer that he had ever had the good fortune to own.
Percy Miller died at his Dudley St, Coogee, home during August 1948 at the age of sixty-eight after a long illness. He was survived by his wife, and his only child, Marjorie. At the time of his death, Kia-Ora remained Australia’s pre-eminent stud as the quality of the stallions standing there at the time attest – Midstream, Le Grand Duc, Channel Swell and Delville Wood. Although in its prime, Kia-Ora had been extended from its original 1800 to almost 3000 acres, the march of progress had served to reduce it over the years, not least with the construction of Glenbawn Dam, and at Miller’s death, the stud totalled a little more than 2,400 acres. Likewise, its broodmare numbers had declined from the halcyon days when two hundred or more matrons roamed the paddocks to about half that number. During Percy Miller’s lifetime, the stud had been responsible for breeding such champions as Windbag, Amounis, Murray Stream, All Love, Feminist, Loquacious, Chatham, Winooka and Shannon from its own mares, not to mention the greats such as Peter Pan that came from visiting broodmares.
Miller lived long enough to see another of his stallions in Midstream, succeed to the title first won for Kia-Ora by Magpie, that of Australian Champion Sire. Loyal and generous, and a man of absolute integrity, from his very first tentative offering as a vendor in 1916, Percy never sold his yearlings outside the Sydney region, and he retained his original selling agents, William Inglis and Son, to the very end of his days. His friendship with the Inglis family was such that he bequeathed his racing colours to John Inglis and for years after Miller’s death the livery continued to be successful on Sydney racecourses. I shall leave the story of Kia-Ora’s sad decline to a later chapter of this chronicle, but it is fair to say that the seeds of destruction were sown with Percy’s death. Even during his lifetime, the inevitable squabbles and petty jealousies that so often mar and fracture family companies had threatened the stud’s viability. But a legal instrument that resided control of the enterprise in Percy’s hands had at least contained such discontent while he lived. His death released the demons to wreak their havoc.