When Jack Holt saddled up Avenger to win the 1937 A.J.C. Derby, it was his second victory in the race from as many starters – Hall Mark having been the first back in 1933. Exactly seven days after Avenger’s thrilling victory at Randwick, the great Victorian trainer produced a small and lightly framed two-year-old chestnut colt, a very near relation of Hall Mark and one who sported the same famous colours, for his racing debut at the Caulfield Spring Meeting. It was one of the rare times that the horse in question, Nuffield, failed to win. For in the course of the next twelve months this colt would emerge as the best juvenile of his year and ultimately credit Holt with a hat-trick of Derbies at Randwick.
The man the racing world would come to know as Jack Holt was born in November 1879 in the Victorian country village of Berwick, about 27 miles southeast of Melbourne. He was the fourth and last child of poor but staunch Irish Catholic immigrants, who had settled there in the district in 1872. Berwick was then part of a small agricultural and dairying community linked with the greater metropolis of Melbourne by a coach road that stretched all the way to Gippsland. Horses were an integral part of life there and Holt’s gift of being able to handle them came at an early age from observing his father, Michael, a horse-breaker, who also trained a few for racing on the side. Although Holt senior boasted no formal qualifications, he was acknowledged as a skilled veterinarian in the surrounding hamlets, and, like so many Irishmen, horses were in his blood. But horses alone could not furnish bread for the table of his young family and Holt senior was forced to take various labouring jobs on surrounding properties to supplement the family income.
This struggle to make ends meet would have a lasting effect on his youngest son and develop in him a keen regard for money and the security guaranteed by it. Young Jack attended the local state school and sang in the choir of the Catholic Church while his favourite hobby was horse riding. As a boy, Jack occasionally rode his father’s team in races but the lad’s sturdy physique ensured that he had no long-term future as a jockey, as much as he wished to continue working with horses. Upon leaving school his first job was with the postal department, delivering mail on his pony. Nonetheless, it brought him into contact with many of the wealthy landowners in the district and when it came to taking out a trainer’s licence a number of them became his early patrons.
Holt quit the mail service and at the tender age of just sixteen, set himself up as a public trainer. His first metropolitan winner came before he had even turned twenty, at a meeting at Sandown in November 1899. The horse in question was Flying Fox, and Maurice Cavanough in his excellent little book ‘The Wizard of Mordialloc’ relates the story: “The horse was entered in the Trial Handicap, the first race on the programme, and also in the last event, the Welter. Ridden by the great Bobby Lewis who was only a year older than Holt, Flying Fox won the Trial comfortably. The trainer then assured Lewis that his horse was just as sure to win the Welter, but Lewis had other ideas. He told Holt that he had been engaged to ride a horse called Palmerston in the Welter and that Palmerston was sure to beat Flying Fox. Holt thereupon engaged a lad named Jimmy Thomas for his horse and had the satisfaction of seeing Flying Fox win the Welter even more easily than the Trial. In a field of six, Palmerston could do no better than fourth. That incident was an early example of the almost unerring judgement about his horses’ prospects that distinguished Holt’s career.”
In these years Holt made intermittent visits to the city racecourses but was generally happy to frequent the local meetings of the Gippsland district, training on the Beaconsfield course. It was only the very severe winter of 1908 and the waterlogged ground in the mountains that forced Holt’s hand and a move to the big smoke. Even then his rental of stables at Epsom racecourse was intended merely as a temporary expedient. But when Holt realised how suitable were the sandy stretches of Epsom, on the shores of Port Phillip Bay, for the conditioning of his horses, he sought to make the move permanent. But only after his parents and sisters declared themselves content with the relocation, for by then he was supporting them all. Neither Jack Holt nor his three siblings ever married and only his brother, William, really ever broke free from the family. With their blessing, Jack bought some land at Mordialloc and erected a rather humble cottage that was to be his home, and the home of his two sisters, for the rest of their lives. It was an eight-roomed weatherboard dwelling replete with iron roof and an L-shaped Australian verandah kept in immaculate condition by the spinster sisters. Over the years the property grew as Holt purchased surrounding land and nearby paddocks from his race winnings, ultimately swelling to well over five acres. While Epsom racecourse was close, Holt eventually spent much of his time at nearby Mentone.
Jack Holt began his metropolitan career with just six horses and the best of them was Carette, a mare he owned himself and one that gave the rising young trainer his first big success when she won the 1911 Standish Handicap at Flemington on New Year’s Day at 12/1. It was the first of many significant betting coups that would see the Wizard of Mordialloc become the richest racehorse trainer in Australian history up to that time. There is as much an art in accurately summing up a trial and placing horses to the best advantage as regards course and distance, as there is in training them. Jack Holt was a master of both facets: a fact that was soon recognised by prominent Melbourne racing men who began to beat a path to Holt’s door asking him to train their horses. Over the years these numbered some very distinguished luminaries of the Turf including Lauchlan Mackinnon, Percy Miller, Charles Trescowthick, Jim Niall, T. M. Burke, Len Buxton and, of course, Charlie Kellow. All were wealthy men who rewarded Holt generously when their horses were successful. His list of patrons extended to royalty and the peerage as well. In 1926 he trained Trice to win the Standish Handicap for the Countess of Stradbroke, the wife of Victoria’s Governor at the time, and a lady who became a personal friend of the Holts. In late 1938 when King George V appointed his youngest son, the Duke of Kent as Governor-General of Australia, the Duke sent out three racehorses in advance to be trained ready for his arrival. Jack Holt was the man chosen for the task.
A curious aspect of Jack Holt’s training career was that until Charlie Kellow started to race some of his homebred youngsters by his great favourite, Heroic, beginning in the 1930-31 racing season, the Mordialloc trainer had shown an aversion to training two-year-olds, preferring instead the quicker returns from older horses. Whereas the yearling market was something of a lucky dip, when it came to horses already tried on the racecourse, Holt trusted his judgement implicitly in spotting those he considered would improve under his training methods. But whatever bias Holt may have harboured towards juveniles, Kellow’s collection of Heroic home-breds certainly overcame it. For in Hall Mark and Nuffield he got two of the best horses to ever pass through his hands.
When Heroic was retired to Tarwyn Park Stud in the Bylong Valley, Kellow retained the right to send a number of mares to him every season, and for this purpose kept a few likely matrons at Herbert Thompson’s property, among them Herowinkie, the dam of Hall Mark, and Belle Gallante, the dam of Nuffield. In fact, Kellow’s two Derby winners were bred on identical lines and were practically blood brothers. Each was by Heroic from mares by Cyklon, whose dams were full sisters. Herowinkie was a daughter of Deneb, by The Welkin from Teppo, while Belle Gallante was a daughter of Isa, by The Welkin from Teppo. Earlier in this chronicle, I described the immense good fortune enjoyed by Ernest Clarke when he imported The Welkin together with a number of mares from England, purchased on his behalf by John Brewer. Teppo was among that band of sisters and she was to become one of the great additions to the Australian Stud Book. She was the dam of one really good horse in Thrice, who also became a useful sire, but it was the daughters of Teppo that really made her reputation. These included not only Deneb and Isa but also Trey, a Maribyrnong Plate winner and the dam of Trivalve. In fact, Belle Gallante and Herowinkie were both full sisters-in-blood to the A.J.C. Derby hero of 1927.
Belle Gallante cost Charlie Kellow only 575 guineas as a yearling, less than the 800 guineas he’d paid for Herowinkie, but she proved a much better racing proposition than the latter. Cecil Godby trained Belle Gallante, who was little more than a pony, and he managed to land a tidy betting coup on behalf of Kellow when he prepared the filly for a first-up win in the 1927 Gimcrack Stakes at Randwick.
The stable fairly plastered the money on, seeing the price tumble from fifteens to eights, and Belle Gallante just caught hold of Gold Tinge inside the last hundred yards to win the juvenile classic by a head. Although she won other races later on, that Gimcrack victory condemned her to carry big weights for much of her career and she was retired to stud relatively early. Belle Gallante’s first foal died as a yearling while her second wasn’t of much account; she hadn’t bred the season previous to producing Nuffield in October 1935.
The little chestnut colt took his name from the English motoring magnate, Lord Nuffield, who as William Morris, had been a cycling chum of Charlie Kellow, years before either became rich and famous. Morris was six years younger than Kellow, and both men made their fortune after graduating from bicycles to motorcars. Morris eventually became one of the world’s great philanthropists after the company he founded, Morris Motors Ltd, prospered in the years between the two World Wars. A frequent visitor to Australia, he had been a guest of Kellow’s at the time Belle Gallante’s latest offspring was due to be registered. The name seemed fitting and Nuffield himself had taken it, upon being made a viscount, from the Oxfordshire village in which he had earlier settled. Kellow had endured a fairly quiet time of it on the Turf after the retirement of Hall Mark in May 1936, despite racing on a fairly generous scale, but this latest son of Heroic promised once again to place the famous gold and green livery before the general public with distinction.
As a racehorse, Nuffield was rather more highly excitable than his namesake, and from the first, Jack Holt had to line the colt’s box with rubber to save him from self-inflicted harm. Still, Holt knew that he had something special in the little firebrand even though he never showed it on the occasion of his first start in the Debutant Stakes at Caulfield. But that experience taught the youngster all he needed to know about the business of racing. Starting the race favourite on each occasion, he then proceeded to reel off four successive victories during spring and late summer which included among them the Maribyrnong Plate and the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Flemington.
Perhaps he didn’t win the latter race as easily as a 1/3 quote would suggest, but there were excuses. He was considered unlucky when he went down to Tactical and Pandava in the Ascot Vale Stakes a few days later, although less than a neck separated the trio at the finish. Jack Holt then brought him over to Sydney and followed the same course that he had taken with Hall Mark five years earlier. Pandava beat him for speed again in the Fairfield Handicap at Warwick Farm but in the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Randwick a week later, the extra furlong enabled Kellow’s budding champion to easily turn the tables on his arch rival after being in a seemingly hopeless position at the half-mile.
Nuffield had thus won the richest prizes of the season for juveniles but Pandava had one last trick to play. Back to the six furlongs of the Champagne Stakes, he justified his reputation as the fastest two-year-old of his year, by leading from start to finish to beat Nuffield by a length and equal the race record set by Manfred in 1925.
The two colts had clashed six times during the season and that last race made the honours even. George Price always said that Pandava was the fastest horse from the barrier ever to be in his care. While it was never thought the colt would make a stayer, a great career was predicted nonetheless for Pandava as a sprinter. Alas for his owners, the prominent racing men that raced under the pseudonym of Mr ‘F. Smithden’, the colt died of a pulmonary haemorrhage after a training gallop early the following season while being prepared for the Caulfield Guineas.
There was a tendency by some critics to regard Nuffield as over-rated after his Champagne Stakes defeat, but the manner in which he raced during that first season – usually tailed off – suggested he would be better over more ground; he consequently wintered as a pronounced favourite for the classics. As was the case with Hall Mark, the day paddocks that Holt maintained at Mordialloc meant that the trainer could keep a careful eye on his charge while spelling in the colder months of 1938. Highly temperamental and never particularly robust, Nuffield presented an altogether different challenge to Holt than did either Hall Mark or Avenger in their respective Derby preparations. Whereas Hall Mark was small, he was nevertheless a thickset customer who had been given three runs in Melbourne before fronting up at Randwick. Avenger had been a big, gross horse needing plenty of work and ran four times before his Derby quest.
When it came to Nuffield, the Wizard of Mordialloc elected a first-up tilt at the blue riband in a style reminiscent of Jim Scobie in his prime. Although the colt had a lean and hungry look and came to hand quickly, there was another reason for Holt’s reticence. The horse had suspect front legs – he raced in bandages – and the soft stretches of Epsom and Mentone were far more sympathetic to such a condition than most other courses. Holt did give him one good gallop when he got to Sydney – over a mile at Victoria Park – and the manner in which he despatched it convinced both Holt and Kellow that the Derby cheque only wanted for Mr Rowe’s signature. Nuffield appeared on paper to be an outstanding colt out in an ordinary year. Both trainer and owner subscribed to the theory that any price about a winner was a good one, and proceeded to support the colt with gay abandon. This support overcame any suspicions bookmakers may have had regarding Nuffield’s non-appearance since the autumn, and on Derby Day he headed the market at 4/5.
The 1938 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions appear in the table below:
The field of six colts was the smallest to contest the race since 1906 and Nuffield at 15.2 hands high was one of the two smallest to muster. The best-backed to beat him was Limulet, a colt who had won a novice handicap on Hobartville Day when partnered by Darby Munro and had then earned minor money in both the Chelmsford Stakes and Rosehill Guineas. The next fancied runner was Respirator, a son of Windbag, raced by George and Harry Tancred.
This fellow had earned his place by winning the Canterbury Guineas, although the race that year had been something of a fiasco when a malfunction of the barrier tapes had necessitated a recall and a subsequent flag start. The fact that the hotpot Pandava had already run a furlong and a half in the first attempt before being recalled, made Respirator’s victory ring a little hollow, a fact that seemed to be confirmed by his latest failure in the Rosehill Guineas. The only other runner considered by the market was Aeolus, a colt originally owned and trained by Peter Riddle. The former trotting man had won the Hobartville Stakes before selling him for 1600 guineas to the Gove family, for whom he had then won the Rosehill Guineas, albeit narrowly. During the week before the opening of the spring meeting, the A.J.C. denied Geebung, owned and bred by Dan Seaton, a place in the classic owing to Seaton neglecting to register the colt’s breeding at the proper time. There was no question concerning the bona fides of his breeding but due to the oversight, the horse was ineligible for inclusion in the Australian Stud Book and hence the Derby. I might mention as an aside that Geebung was to enjoy his moment of glory at Randwick on Derby Day but it wasn’t until the next year and the race in question would be the Epsom Handicap. Another three-year-old with some real ability that failed to make the field was Mildura, trained by George Price for E. J. Watt. A well-bred son of Manfred, time beat Price for any Derby preparation and the colt on Derby Day went around in the Kensington Handicap instead. Still, the colt in the fullness of time would make his presence felt at A.J.C. Autumn Meetings in the next few years, when, he together with Gold Rod, would give their owner three Doncaster Handicaps on the trot.
The running of the 1938 Derby was of little incident, apart from the fact that Sir Harold in crossing to the rails shortly after the start interfered sufficiently with Nuffield to cause the offending rider, Ted McMenamin, to be censured by the stewards. It was the only moment of anxiety that supporters of the heavily backed favourite were to suffer in the entire race. Thereafter, Munro was content to slip Nuffield in behind Sir Harold, who adapted to the role of the pacemaker, as if it were the very reason for his place in the field. After a sluggish first furlong or so, Sir Harold proceeded to cut out the journey in good time. Nuffield was within a half-length of the leader at the half-mile and headed him on the home turn.
There was a moment near the furlong post when Aeolus looked like he might challenge, but Munro wielded the whip on the favourite and Nuffield won as he liked. Aeolus was second and Respirator, three lengths further back, a plodding third. Aeolus was slightly disadvantaged during the running by a shifting saddle, but Cook rode with too much vigour in the straight to suggest that it had made much difference.
Nuffield won the race in 2 minutes 32 seconds, a time that had only ever once been bettered, and that by Phar Lap in 1929. The fact that rain during the end of the preceding week had taken a little life out of the track and that the pace was really only on from about the mile, further served to emphasise the merit of Nuffield’s performance. It was a high-class effort by a colt possessing both brilliant speed and no ordinary stamina, and although it might have been a lean year, he was going right away from the field in the last fifty yards. Perhaps the only disconcerting aspect of this otherwise glittering display was that Nuffield raced bandaged on both front legs, symptomatic of the congenital weakness there that would terminate his career on the Turf so prematurely. It represented the third win in the A.J.C. classic for both trainer, Jack Holt, and for the jockey, Darby Munro, while it was the second for owner Charlie Kellow, following on Hall Mark five years earlier with whom the same three principals had been involved. Although at times Kellow had paid big prices for yearlings by Heroic, the best two horses to carry his colours, excluding Heroic, were sons of that stallion that he had bred himself. There always seems to be more of the true spirit of sport about racing a horse whose early days have been passed in home paddocks than there can be when possession has been acquired by the fall of the auctioneer’s hammer.
Before passing from Derby Day 1938 I might mention that it was the last A.J.C. Spring Meeting covered in the pages of the John Fairfax Sydney Mail. The newspaper which had begun in July 1860 as a 16-page weekly resume of the Sydney Morning Herald priced at threepence, soon matured into a high-quality magazine format in its own right printed on glossy paper that afforded excellent reproduction of photographs and lithographs. Sporting historians down through the years have good cause for rueing its passing. Nonetheless, it seemed entirely fitting that in the very last year the Mail covered Randwick’s blue riband, the race was won by a colt truly worthy of the honour, although as time would prove, the horse’s racecourse longevity wasn’t to extend much further than the pages of the Sydney Mail itself.
As the racing writer, Les Carlyon has observed, slow racehorses emerge unscathed from train wrecks and bounce off barbed wire fences; fast ones are like delicate and valuable Sevres porcelain – given to chip and crack rather easily. Nuffield is a case in point. He only raced once in the following autumn, when he finished unplaced at Williamstown in the Orr Stakes. In his absence, the star three-year-olds of the autumn proved to be Mosaic, who won both the A.J.C. St Leger and Sydney Cup, and the New Zealand champion, Defaulter.
Afterwards, Nuffield was troubled by a suspensory ligament. He was sent to Tarwyn Park Stud in the hope that a long spell might enable him to again stand training. I think he even served a few mares while he was there. Jack Holt had another crack at him as a five-year-old and although he managed to get the cranky fellow to the racecourse twice, his performances were so disappointing, Holt recommended that Kellow retire the horse for good. The Wizard of Mordialloc always maintained that Nuffield was one of the finest horses he ever had through his hands and that the public never really saw the best of him. Charlie Kellow arranged with his good friend Herbert Thompson for the son of Heroic to do stud duty at Tarwyn Park. Despite his impressive bloodlines, both his conformation and temperament were against Nuffield as a stallion; he only ever got one really good horse in Field Boy, which Peter Lawson trained to win the Sires’ Produce Stakes and Villiers at Randwick for the Cloros family. However, Nuffield did manage to sire several useful performers among them being Bestow, Field Captain, Cadet and Coalition. Eventually bought by the Alabama Stud, Nuffield died there in January 1948.
Charlie Kellow, after a full and colourful life, died of heart failure in his 71st year at his South Yarra home in July 1943. While Nuffield had been retained at Tarwyn Park until Kellow’s death, he was offered for sale the following Easter, at a time when his shortcomings as a progenitor had been well and truly exposed and he brought only 950 guineas on a bid from Ray Bowcock of Alabama Stud. In his later years, Kellow had become a pastoralist of some standing, owning, among other properties, the Gundaline Station on the Murrumbidgee where he ran large numbers of sheep and to which he often travelled by private plane. Kellow’s estate was sworn for probate at £147,229. Though his name will always be associated with the gallant deeds of Heroic, Hall Mark and Nuffield, there were other good horses that carried his famous gold and green silks, including the V.R.C. Oaks winner, Gallantic, and the Epsom Handicap winner, Metellus. But to offset these successful ventures, there had been some spectacular crashes along the road as well. When the 1935 Melbourne Cup winner, Marabou, was put up for sale in the wake of his Cup victory and the death of his co-owner, Kellow outlasted the competition in a spirited bidding duel that saw him pay 5500 guineas to secure ownership. But the horse broke down in the autumn of 1936, sustaining an injury to one of his tendons when he struck himself in Sydney. At the time it wasn’t regarded as particularly serious, but it was necessary to fire the tendon and Jack Holt succeeded in getting only one more race out of him.
The bond of friendship between Kellow and Holt that was forged on the racecourse lasted to the very end. During the course of many years, the two men regularly played poker each week at Holt’s Mordialloc cottage. The dominance that Jack Holt had over the Victorian Turf in the years between the Wars is evidenced by the fact that from 1918-19 to the 1934-35 racing seasons, he headed the Victorian Trainers’ List twelve times and was runner-up on three other occasions. He won his last premiership in that 1937-38 racing season when Nuffield as a juvenile contributed four wins to his tally, sharing the title with Fred Hoysted who was just then beginning to assume the mantle that had been Holt’s for so long. Perhaps those statistics don’t tell the whole story either. The lists of winning trainers in Victoria were not scrupulously kept before the 1918-19 season, and it is arguable that Holt had won three other titles before those official lists began.
Maurice Cavanough estimates that Holt trained about 1,000 winners and perhaps as much as £500,000 in stakes during his life. His horses won practically all of the important handicaps and weight-for-age contests in Sydney and Melbourne and he was as adept with a skittish juvenile as he was with a sour stallion. He had an innate empathy with horses, a love for them, and the skill to fit them for racing quickly and yet keep them up for months on end without any falling away in performance. Part of the secret lay in the pastoral serenity of his Mordialloc property. The best horses to come into his stables apart from those already discussed in the preceding pages, included among others: Easingwold, Eurythmic, David, Highland, High Syce, Lilypond, Maple, and Young Idea. The benefit of spelling horses in his home paddocks prevented them from falling into grossness as Holt could keep an eye on them. And as Cavanough observed: “The fact that he never permitted his horses to get too far out of racing trim was the main reason why Holt won so many early spring weight-for-age races. In Holt’s time, the first weight-for-age race of the season was the Underwood Stakes at Williamstown, followed by the Memsie Stakes at Caulfield, the October Stakes at Flemington, and the Caulfield Stakes. Holt had the extraordinary total of 33 wins in those 4 races.” Holt treated each horse as a special individual study. If I may quote Cavanough again: “This individual attention to each horse was extended to the training track. After a working gallop, Holt required the rider to trot his mount across to him so that he might test by hand its wind and condition. Many present-day trainers leave such an inspection of a horse until it is back in its box: by which time the examination is practically worthless.”
Yet for all of Holt’s success, he never aspired to social pretensions, remaining a contented countryman at heart, happy in the company of his sisters and his horses, with just a few close friends, of whom Charlie Kellow was one. Apart from racehorses and poker, his only other passions were golf and billiards, and he was canny at both games. It was generally considered that his denial of marriage was in deference to his sisters, for he undoubtedly enjoyed female company. Holt was never anxious about public popularity; chary of the press, he rarely provided newspapermen with any copy. The fact that he never installed a telephone at his Mordialloc cottage until very late in life, and only then after his greatest training days were behind him, further alienated the racing scribe. Despite his great wealth, his extravagances were few, extending to the dapper man of the Turf’s rich and ample wardrobe, together with a stylish Packard limousine, courtesy of Charlie Kellow.
After the death of Kellow and the disruption of the Second World War, Holt only kept a small team, largely to keep faith with old clients. Invalided after a heart attack in 1948, the V.R.C. committee accorded the veteran trainer the then rare honour of life membership of the club. Jack Holt died of a coronary occlusion in June 1951, his remains interred in a simple grave with those of his parents and sisters in Berwick cemetery. Confirmation as to the soundness of his judgement and the shrewdness of his betting coups came when his estate was proved at a staggering £228,815, of which he bequeathed £200,000 to St Vincent’s Hospital for the establishment of its School of Medical Research. No racehorse trainer in Australian history up to that time had even come close to acquiring such riches. Whatever his generosity in death, in life Holt’s philanthropy never extended to the betting ring, as many a bookmaker could attest. Much of the information in this chapter has been drawn from Maurice Cavanough’s excellent monograph ‘The Wizard of Mordialloc’, and it is fitting that the last word on Holt should be accorded him: “He was a modest and gracious man but proved that any calling is great if greatly pursued.”