There are vintage years for horses as there are for wines, and for Australasian racing, the 1936 foaling season proved to be one of the best. There are also years when a trainer flicks through the pages of a sales catalogue, and one pedigree in particular figuratively jumps from the page. Such was the reaction of Kogarah trainer, Jack Cush, when he perused the catalogue of yearlings offered for sale through William Inglis in the autumn of 1938. It confirmed that a bay colt by the imported stallion Marconigram out of the former race mare Gravure was to go through the ring as Lot 47 on behalf of Messrs A. E. Thompson and Sons of Bylong station at Rylstone. Cush’s relationship with Albert Thompson and the bloodlines of this bay colt went back a long way. After all, it was Encre, the mother of Gravure, who had first launched Cush on his successful career as a racehorse trainer in Newcastle some seventeen years earlier. It was the same black mare and her progeny who had been responsible for all of his major successes in the period since; lifting him from the status of a promising country trainer to that of an established metropolitan horseman in just a few short seasons. What a host of poignant memories must have flooded through the mind of Jack Cush as he studied that page of the catalogue!
Encre, by Kenilworth, was a half-sister to David, that mighty stayer of the twenties’, although she was better known to the sporting public as a sprinter. Bred by Albert Thompson in 1919, the prominent studmaster had leased the filly to Jack Cush as a yearling on the understanding that she would come back to Bylong station for matronly duties when her career on the racecourse was over. It was a pattern that was to be repeated with quite a few well-bred Bylong fillies down through the years. Altogether, Encre won fourteen races over five seasons for Cush and numbered among her victories were the 1925 R.R.C. Railway Handicap (in which she beat those good horses Valiard and Royal Dighton) and two Tramway Handicaps at Newcastle. As tough as teak, she had also twice won flying welters at Warwick Farm with no less than 9 st. 12lb in the saddle.
At the same time, Encre was in his Newcastle stable, Cush was fortunate to lease another handy galloper from Albert Thompson in the shape of the brown filly Maltiform, one of the last daughters of Maltster, and foaled in the same season as Encre. Maltiform was to be the winner of ten races in three years – all of them in the northern districts. Due to the performances of these two mares, Cush’s reputation gradually spread beyond the Newcastle district and other clients began to seek out his services, although Albert Thompson was to continue to supply most of his real horsepower. It was in November 1924 at Randwick that Cush scored his first double in the metropolitan area. Encre won the first flat race on the card, the Flying Welter, after which a considerable portion of the winnings went on her stablemate, Canema Queen – yet another leased filly from Bylong – in the following event, the Nursery. Canema Queen was a full sister to Linotype, the mother of David and Encre, and when she won at 7/2 to complement the 6/1 Cush had obtained about Encre, the Newcastle horseman had accumulated quite a grubstake in the space of just forty minutes.
During the 1920s the winners continued to run for Cush, and it was in early 1929 – in those extravagant months before the Great Depression so changed the economic landscape – that the trainer relocated to Sydney with that handy galloper Promptitude. He first rented stables from Herb Andrews at Cabramatta, and then in June 1929 took over the Kogarah stables of Mick Polson after Polson had moved to Randwick. Cush bought a house in French St, Kogarah, which was to remain home for him and his loving wife, Dorcas, to the end of their days. The Wall Street crash of October 1929 saw racing stakes plummet and there were moments when Cush pondered whether or not his relocation from the coalfields had been such a good career move after all. Whenever such doubts and introversion assailed him, however, it seemed that, serendipitously, at least one of the progeny of Encre would come to his financial rescue.
And so, it was with Gravure: the foal dropped by Encre in the Bylong paddocks in 1929. A brown filly, she was by the imported English stallion High Art, a well-performed and prepossessing son of Gainsborough, who sadly was uncertain with his mares. Nonetheless, though not a prolific foal-getter, High Art did get some smart horses here including Art, winner of the Moonee Valley Gold Cup. Given Cush’s previous success with the family and the friendship between both men, Albert Thompson again readily leased the filly to the trainer. As sound as a bell, Gravure was to race 56 times in just three seasons on the Turf and she did manage to supplement the Depression soup rations of the Cush family by winning three races at Canterbury Park as well as a welter mile handicap at Kensington. Retired at the end of the 1933-34 racing season, Gravure began matronly duties at Bylong; her first foal, a filly by Marconigram was dead at birth, and it was her second foal – now a handsome yearling colt – that was catalogued as Lot 47 at those 1938 Easter sales.
Jack Cush was under no illusion that the yearling would come cheaply and what made him certain was largely attributable to a brown colt by Treclare that Encre had thrown the year after foaling Gravure. However useful Gravure had been on the racecourse, Journal, Encre’s 1930 foal, was to be something else. A lightly-framed, tough gelding, Journal had also been leased to Cush as owner-trainer.
Journal won the 1934 Caulfield Cup, with H.R.H. The Duke of Gloucester making the presentation to Jack Cush, as well as some other useful races including the A.J.C. Winter Stakes, V.A.T.C. Toorak Handicap, Tattersall’s James Barnes Plate, Moorefield Trainers’ Cup and the Moorefield Handicap (three times). Even that list of wins doesn’t do Journal justice, for in 1934 he was also beaten a head by Waikare in The Metropolitan at Randwick.
Thus, it wasn’t sentiment alone that attracted Cush to Lot 47; it was a good family and Cush, convinced that few good trees produced bad fruit, marshalled the bids in the early afternoon of that cool Tuesday in April 1938. A September foal, this latest grandson of Encre had a reserve of 150 guineas and Cush’s prize client, the Sydney hotelier Gordon Luscombe, was forced to go to 400 guineas to secure possession of the neatly-made bay colt.
Gordon Luscombe, let it be said, knew his way around a racecourse. The popular Boniface of a number of Sydney hotels, including the McMahon’s Point Hotel and the Royal Standard in Castlereagh-street, Luscombe also held the rights to the bar trade at the Royal Agricultural Society in Sydney and the Victoria Racing Club at one time. Luscombe was as equally adept at placing punts as pouring pints, as for some years he had held an A.J.C. owner-trainer permit and prepared some of his own horses. These included the controversial Jeanie McNeish, Lady Joy, and Gold Digger to win on metropolitan courses in the early thirties, although the pressures of his hotel trade eventually saw him relinquish the permit. Luscombe had been both a friend and client of Jack Cush over a number of years. In agreeing to buy this son of Marconigram, he was acquiring the best racehorse ever to carry his colours. In turn, he sold a half-share to his good friend, ‘John’ Manusu, a stock and station agent at Mendooran, near Dunedoo. When it came to choosing a name for the colt it all seemed too easy. After all, a Marconigram was a message sent via radio while “gravure” was a method of printing. Reading seemed as logical a name as any to register with the A.J.C.
When Cush first put this fellow into work at Moorefield, it didn’t take him long to realise that this latest grandson of his old favourite had inherited that same spark of celestial fire all trainers look for in a good horse. Reading made his debut in late November at Rosehill to run a minor placing and then proceeded to win at his next two starts at Canterbury Park and Rosehill. The colt completed his summer campaign by filling the minor placing in the prestigious December Stakes. Cush’s intimate knowledge of the family, together with the revelations of the colt in early morning trackwork, infused the trainer with rare confidence that in Reading he possessed the genuine staying article.
If anything, Reading’s performances during the summer over unsuitably short distances had taken Cush by surprise, and as the Kogarah horseman imbibed his Christmas cheer that year, he plotted an autumn campaign for his rising star that concentrated solely on the Sires’ Produce and Champagne Stakes at Randwick. Reading resumed from a three-month spell to win a minor juvenile event at Rosehill in the hands of Darby Munro. So impressed was Munro with the Marconigram colt that he booked himself the ride for the balance of the season, even though when he did go to the post for the Sires’ Produce Stakes he started at the despised odds of 14/1. Much of the reason for the bookmaker’s assumed philanthropy on that sunny April afternoon of the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting was the presence in the nine-strong field of a giant bay colt from New Zealand who dwarfed his opponents in the saddling yard and was expected to do the same on the course.
This outstanding juvenile and the colt with whom Reading was fated to clash in so many famous contests over the next two seasons was, of course, High Caste. Let us pause for a moment to consider this giant’s journey to the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes and how he came to hold such a mortgage on Randwick’s richest two-year-old race of the season. A massive specimen of a racehorse with a tremendous depth of body and widely sprung ribs, he was so heavy that a set of racing plates only lasted him three or four runs. A son of the Blandford horse, Bulandshar, out of The Begum, High Caste was a half-brother to that good performer Stretto, who also raced in Australia. High Caste was originally trained in New Zealand by the former leading rider, Stan Bagby, on behalf of his popular owner-breeder of Te Awamutu, Mr A. J. (Jack) McGovern. McGovern had enjoyed considerable success both on the racecourse and in the paddock with The Begum, a mare he had bred himself, and High Caste wasn’t offered for sale as a yearling.
The winner of three races from four starts as a two-year-old in the Shaky Isles, including the Great Northern Foal Stakes and the Royal Stakes at Ellerslie, Bagby brought High Caste across to Australia on the Wanganella in January 1939 for the prestigious juvenile races at Flemington and Randwick. High Caste came in the company of Stretto and Disdain, and all three horses put up initially at Jack Jamieson’s Randwick stables before travelling on to Melbourne. As we have seen, Bagby was apprenticed to Jamieson during his riding days, and he wasn’t shy about singing the praises of his latest charge to his old boss. In sheltering the big colt at Randwick for just a few days, Jamieson had the opportunity of gauging his quality for himself. He didn’t take much convincing. No sooner had Bagby and High Caste departed for Caulfield than Jamieson jumped a plane for New Zealand and made overtures to buy the colt from Jack McGovern. In so doing he was acting on behalf of stable client Harry Tancred, the managing director of one of Australia’s biggest and richest wholesale butchering businesses, which was just as well, for, in the end, Jamieson had to go to 7000 guineas to secure the prized son of Bulandshar.
Up to this time Harry Tancred, unlike his older brother George, had not taken an active interest in the Turf. Born in Balmain in May 1897 and one of six brothers in a household of ten children, he was educated at St Joseph’s Catholic Boys College at Rozelle, before the family – who were even then involved in the meat trade – moved to New Zealand during Harry’s youth. Big, strong, and a natural athlete, Harry was a good footballer who was soon playing first grade for one of the Wellington clubs at the age of just seventeen. So good was he in fact that in 1919 and 1921 he represented New Zealand on Rugby League tours to Australia. It was after that second tour that Harry Tancred decided to stay in Australia, and in 1923, during a visit by a representative Maori team, changed colours and played as a forward for N.S.W. I might mention that most of the Tancred clan returned to Sydney at around the same time to build their family’s meat business and Harry’s younger brothers, Jim and Arnold, each later toured Great Britain with the famous 1927 Waratahs Rugby Union team.
The foundation of the Tancred brothers’ wealth came with the butchering business originally started by their grandfather, Stephen Tancred, after he migrated to Australia during the 1840s. All of the brothers were active in the enterprise, but it was Harry who understood the meat industry best of all. After leaving school at thirteen, Harry began as a drover at his father Thomas’s instigation and worked his way up understanding most facets of the trade. He acted as a beef and mutton slaughterman before actually assuming the management of the business, which had significant establishments on the Northern Rivers and in the Bourke district of N.S.W. Later Harry was to serve for an extended period as a member of the Australian Meat Board.
It was brother George, however, who had first established the critical connection with trainer Jack Jamieson – their shared New Zealand experiences helped forge the bond – and during the thirties’ George Tancred emerged as one of Australia’s most spectacular punters, usually plunging on horses only owned by himself or Jamieson. Or in the empurpled prose of a turf correspondent for The Truth newspaper: “‘Twas a great day for George Tancred when bullocks were invented. That great judge of meat, who’s made grand upon grand out of anything from veal to prime steers, has slapped it on in thousands when a Jamieson-trained cuddy has been stepped out with the idea of lassooing those bellowing bookmakers.” As we have seen, George was one of the three principals – along with Jamieson and jockey Ted Bartle – who was ousted for twelve months by V.R.C. stewards in November 1935 over the form reversal of the horse Country Party. Harry Tancred, by contrast, had maintained a relatively low public profile on the Turf, largely on account of the series of rather moderate gallopers that had hitherto carried his registered colours of ‘pale blue, black sash, red arm-bands, red cap’. That was now about to change in rather dramatic fashion with the acquisition of this mountain of a racehorse.
High Caste was distinguished not just by his size but by the peculiar roan colour that flecked his rich, red coat and gave rise to his sobriquet of the “Strawberry Bull”. The colt cut a swath through Melbourne’s best youngsters with easy wins in his only three appearances in the Alma Stakes at Caulfield and the Sires’ Produce Stakes and Ascot Vale Stakes at Flemington. Those three wins gave bookmakers an early taste of Harry Tancred in the betting ring. He could fairly plaster it on at times, and when he got to work a horse could tighten like a fat woman’s corset. Was it any wonder the ring served High Caste up at 4/9 for the Sires’ at Randwick? At least it enabled Jack Cush and his close associates to get 14/1 and better for their money about Reading.
The death of the Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons, might have dampened the pomp and ceremony and lessened the vice-regal razzmatazz usually associated with the opening of the A.J.C. autumn racing carnival, but Reading and High Caste proceeded to give an exhibition that more than compensated. The Sires’ showed the Demon Darb at his best when he dashed to the lead early in the contest, and Ted Bartle aboard High Caste was unable to run him down, going under by a half-length. As was so often the case in their history, this meeting of the colts was perhaps more dramatic than decisive for it was a different story four days later in the shorter Champagne Stakes, when, with both horses burdened by 9 st. 6lb, but High Caste better built to carry it, Reading went down by a half-neck to his great rival. Even then Reading did much to beat himself, having attempted to savage High Caste and getting one his reins in his mouth near the post.
Now the juxtaposition of opposites often throws into bold relief the essential qualities of each. Whether in bloodlines, conformation, or temperament, Reading and High Caste were undoubtedly opposites. While each colt descended from a sire line boasting of stamina, the distaff side of Reading’s pedigree was more suggestive of classic success at three. Whereas High Caste was a massive specimen of a racehorse standing over 16 hands, Reading was much smaller and more compact, at a shade under 15.3 – albeit of abundant length below. And insofar as temperament was concerned, High Caste was something of a gentle giant who’s willing and hardy constitution saw him go to the post no less than 72 times in just four seasons.
Reading, on the other hand, would prove far less robust. He could be cranky and ill-tempered at times with a propensity to savage his opponents, traits that became more pronounced as he aged as a stallion and all of which served to mar his career. Still, as disparate as their respective characters were, these two colts would clash in the next couple of seasons in a series of close finishes that would come to fascinate the Australian racing public. As exciting as the A.J.C. Sires’ and the Champagne Stakes had been, it was only in retrospect that sportsmen understood that those races did not stand alone. Rather, such were mere instalments that could only be fully appreciated as separate acts in a singular saga – a saga that would last another season and more. Bested as he might have been in the Champagne Stakes, Cush harboured no doubts that with the very stout blood coursing through Reading’s pedigree, his Moorefield stable sheltered a Derby colt. Jamieson for his part merely speculated as to whether High Caste could extend his stamina to the Derby distance. And so, the curtain fell on the first act of this strange and eventful tale of two quite remarkable racehorses.
After a long spell of dry weather that had seen many of the horses in training at Randwick, including both Reading and High Caste, galloped on the tan in preference to the grass, the heavens opened in the week preceding the start of the 1939 Spring Meeting, and the Randwick course received heavy rain. Derby Day was October at its worst and seemed more like a dreary, dismal day borrowed from July; it was overcast and cold with the result that the crowd was just fifty-one thousand. Nor was the dull and sombre mood merely a reflection of the elements; the glitter and colourful pageantry that had brightened many of the Derbies between the Wars was now eclipsed by the dulling shadow of Nazi conquest in Europe and the heavy prominence of khaki as Australia girded itself for battle. Just seven colts accepted for the A.J.C. Derby including both Reading and High Caste, but neither horse headed the betting quotations. That particular honour fell to the New Zealand colt, Beau Vite. A son of the all-conquering stallion Beau Pere, who had once carried the colours of King George V, out of a Martian mare, Beau Vite had won three races as a juvenile including the North Island Challenge Stakes at Wellington.
Trained at Trentham by the well-known horseman, Tommy George, Beau Vite opened his three-year-old season with an unplaced effort behind High Caste in the Hobartville Stakes, a race in which Reading was also unnoticed. The following Saturday Beau Vite won the weight-for-age Canterbury Stakes from a field that included Gold Rod and the week after that he almost brought about the defeat of the year-older and odds-on favourite, Defaulter, in the Chelmsford Stakes at Randwick. Defaulter, a magnificent racehorse, was then at the peak of his powers having won 20 of his 26 starts and was the reigning Melbourne Cup favourite and yet Beau Vite – albeit in receipt of 19lb – went within a whisker of defeating him. Both Reading and High Caste were among the also-rans. After that performance, then, there wasn’t much doubt as to the identity of the Derby favourite, a fact that was confirmed a fortnight later when Beau Vite easily relegated both Reading and High Caste into the respective minor placings of the Clarendon Stakes (9f). Just the week before, in Beau Vite’s absence, High Caste and Reading had resumed their fierce rivalry in the Rosehill Guineas with High Caste winning by a mere half-head in race record time. However, given the subsequent Clarendon race, the Guineas’ form that year seemed to count for nothing in the minds of the fielders.
Rather, the second line of Derby betting was occupied jointly by Gold Salute and Wilson. Wilson, the minor place-getter in the Rosehill Guineas, raced in the familiar black and white livery of John Wren and had been purchased from the Mana Stud draft at the New Zealand yearling sales for 1050 guineas in January 1938. Wren had taken over the famous colours after the death of James Wilson junior and had registered this son of Siegfried in honour of the great man of St Albans and Queenscliff. Trained by Frank Musgrave in Melbourne, Frank McGrath had assumed responsibility for his Derby preparation.
Gold Salute was owned and trained by George Paul in New Zealand, and the decision to bring the colt across the water for the Derby was a belated one. A son of Lord Warden out of a sister to the Oakleigh Plate winner, First Money, Gold Salute had won once from eleven starts as a juvenile, a minor handicap at Dunedin with nine stone. However, he had run some nice placings including a second, beaten a head, behind the great Beaulivre in a Wellington Nursery. Placed at his first appearance at Rosehill, Gold Salute had then won successive races, a Warwick Farm handicap for three-year-olds, and the Rowley Mile, conducted that year at Rosehill. After witnessing an impressive gallop at Rosebery on the Friday before the Derby, Alan E. Cooper impetuously bought the colt for a reputed £10,000 only an hour or so before the Derby itself. Bert Ellis, the New Zealand jockey who had been riding Gold Salute was unceremoniously jocked off and Fred Shean, who enjoyed a retainer from Cooper, was substituted for the Derby.
The 1939 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions appear in the table below:
At the start of the classic Wilson was squeezed out and Reading was the first to break the line from Gold Salute, High Caste, Beau Vite and Dashing Cavalier with Bonny Loch tailing the field – a position he maintained to the very end. Gold Salute made the running for most of the journey with Reading handy, followed by High Caste and Beau Vite. Convinced that his colt would stay the trip better than both High Caste and Beau Vite, Munro didn’t wish to be conceding an advantage to either rival on soft ground. Munro, whose soul was made to fear danger less than uncertainty, surged Reading to the front when Gold Salute weakened two furlongs from home, with Bartle on High Caste giving chase.
Now, there were few better grandstand riders than Jack Cush in his day and when Munro made is move and High Caste tailed him, Cush’s vocals could have been heard in the Flat. Within a hundred yards of the judge, it seemed that the Strawberry Bull’s charge would be rewarded, but Munro was by now a master of disguising just how much more his mount had to give. Though the grass flew beneath High Caste’s hooves, it was in vain, for Reading – under vigorous persuasion – managed to prevail by a half-neck, with the Victorian colt Wilson a length-and-a-half away in third place. Beau Vite failed to show the least amount of dash at the finish. Technically, it was a virtuoso performance from both horse and rider and once again the two-year-old form of the previous season had played itself out with remarkable accuracy.
Albert Thompson, a brother of Alf, who had a separate stud of his own at Canema, Kerrabee, bred Reading and the colt’s victory piqued interest in his spear line. Marconigram, the sire of the Derby winner and a son of Abbot’s Trace, had been bred and raced in England by the late Lord Dewar. Marconigram’s racecourse debut was delayed until late in his two-year-old season when he was beaten narrowly in a race at Lingfield. It was his only start as a juvenile but the next year he won three times including the Coombe Plate at Sandown Park and the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood. His last race came in the St. Leger in which Lord Dewar preferred him to his better-performed stablemate, Sunny Trace. Alas, though he ran well to finish sixth, he was so badly cut about the tendons that he never raced again. Marconigram was then sent to the sales as a four-year-old with a number of Lord Dewar’s horses, and Clarence Hailey was able to purchase him on behalf of Paddy Wade for 820 guineas in 1930. Marconigram’s pedigree held particular interest for Australia and New Zealand, as his dam was a half-sister to the successful stallion, Limond.
Wade owned the Borambola Park Stud, consisting of around sixteen hundred acres and located about twenty-five miles out of Wagga in the direction of Tarcutta. A most symmetrical horse of good size and standing about sixteen hands, Marconigram stayed there for about three seasons but was only lightly used before the stud itself was dispersed when the Depression began to bite. Nonetheless, among the stallion’s first crop were the Melbourne Cup winner, Marabou, and the Sydney Cup winner, Contact. Given that his stock was showing definite promise when the dispersal sale occurred in July 1934, the Thompson cousins were forced to go to 3050 guineas to get the stallion, and after that, he shared his time between the Widden, Tarwyn Park and Sunnyside studs. Marconigram was never to be as successful again as he had been at Borambola Park, however, and Reading was to be the best horse he sired after he went into the Thompsons’ ownership. Still, he holds the distinction of having sired a Melbourne Cup winner in Marabou, who in turn, got another Cup winner in Skipton. Marconigram was destroyed in November 1946 after breaking a hind leg at Tarwyn Park.
Not everybody at Randwick on Derby Day was convinced that the better colt won, and such doubts were fortified when High Caste stepped out later at the meeting to easily win both the Craven Plate and Clibborn Stakes. Reading, on the other hand, was rested and transported directly to Melbourne. Thus, it was that the next clash between this by now celebrated pair occurred under leaden skies for the Guineas on the Caulfield heath. At a distance short of his best and on a left-handed course for the very first time, Reading, after adopting the role of the pacemaker, was run down by High Caste. When the Strawberry Bull defeated Reading again four days later at weight-for-age in the Caulfield Stakes (9f), the massive son of Bulandshar was promoted to the head of the market for the Victoria Derby.
The classic at Flemington was undoubtedly there for the taking by High Caste. The giant horse was as fit as Jamieson could get him; the track conditions were suitable, and he enjoyed a glorious run throughout. But not for the last time the famous racing maxim “that a good big horse will always beat a good little one” was knocked on its head; and those sportsmen who had abandoned Reading again figured without that colt’s genuine stamina, fighting qualities, and Munro’s brilliant front-running ride. High Caste did make his customary challenge in the last furlong, but at the post, the Marconigram colt was going away from his arch-rival to give Munro his third dual success aboard the same horse in each of the A.J.C. and V.R.C. Derbies, following on from the doubles of Hall Mark and Nuffield. Unlike Hall Mark, Reading’s campaign ended with an unplaced run in the Melbourne Cup won by Rivette. In so doing, Rivette became the first mare to win the Caulfield-Melbourne Cups double thereby setting-up her breeder, owner and trainer, Harry Bamber for life.
Given the quality of the three-year-olds on offer, sportsmen anticipated the autumn racing more keenly than they had done in years. High Caste and Reading appeared to threaten the supremacy of Ajax who had reigned for so long. Whereas High Caste resumed at Randwick in late January to win the A.J.C. Challenge Stakes, Reading was floated directly to Melbourne where he was stabled at Flemington and resumed in the C. F. Orr Stakes at Williamstown on February 10. The conditions of that race had been altered from weight-for-age to a handicap with a maximum weight of 9 st. 5lb. It was therefore generally considered to be merely an exercise gallop for Ajax. Not so. As it transpired, Ajax suffered the worst defeat of his career but one when High Caste and Manrico beat him into third place.
Only once before in three years of racing had Ajax finished worse than second and that was in the 1937 V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes. High Caste’s victory, after an electrifying finish, stamped him as a champion. His time of 1 minute 23.25 seconds for the seven furlongs clipped 1.25 seconds from the course record and was within a quarter of a second of the Australian figure held jointly by Mohican and Lough Neagh. Reading, looking in badly need of the run, came home powerfully after escaping a pocket to run a promising fifth. However, the big racing story that day had nothing to do with the heroics of High Caste or Reading and didn’t emanate from Williamstown. Rather it had occurred fifty minutes before and over five hundred miles away at Randwick.
The race was the A.J.C. Ingleburn Nursery, the horse was Passport, and the jockey was Billy Lappin, arguably the most promising apprentice that Australia had ever seen. It was the third event on the card and Lappin was moving Passport up on the inside near the three furlongs mark when the horse appeared to blunder and young Billy was thrown. Half the field passed over him. Little more than two years before – and very near the same spot – little Maxie Papworth, another apprentice just making his reputation, had fallen in a Novice field and died in hospital a few days later. Lappin died in Sydney Hospital just two hours later. The news of his death became known shortly before the last race of the day and it stunned the crowd. Only the Saturday before Lappin had ridden a treble at Moorefield and on the very day of his death had partnered Pennywise to victory in the opening event for trainer Peter Riddle.
Lappin, who had turned eighteen the previous May, was indentured to the Randwick trainer Mick Poulson and had been one of the outstanding jockeys of the last three years. Indeed, he was that rare thing – a natural. Moreover, as A.J.C. stewards and trainers alike would attest, the young man’s conduct both on and off the racecourse was exemplary. He’d actually only completed two full seasons of race riding in that period and yet in the metropolitan and provincial areas had ridden 132 winners and four dead-heats for first. In the 1938-39 racing season, Lappin had been pipped on the post for the Sydney Jockeys’ premiership when Maurice McCarten rode a winner on the last day at Moorefield. Poulson attested that there was almost £3,000 in the young apprentice’s trust account and he was on target to have had as much as £10,000 when he completed his indentures. Lappin’s body lay in Kinsela’s Chapel at Taylor Square on Sunday, and many racegoers made a pilgrimage there in his honour.
The funeral took place at St Jude’s Church, Randwick, on the following Monday. Unticketed crowd numbers are notoriously difficult to estimate but police believed some ten to twenty thousand people crowded the streets outside St Jude’s and along the route of the cortege. Indeed, so great were the crowds that motorcycle police, helped by fifty constables on foot, were required to keep the lane clear. The route took the cortege past the home of his master in Cook-street where he was a frequent visitor and where a momentary halt was made. At the cemetery itself, over two thousand people gathered. Five extra trams from the city proved inadequate and many of the mourners had to walk. The Reverend Buck, Presbyterian Minister from Ryde, conducted the service and he had been Lappin’s Sunday School teacher in Newcastle five years before.
The pallbearers were a roll-call of Sydney’s greatest jockeys viz. McCarten, Cook, Coutts, McMenamin, Bartle and Munro. The A.J.C. committee was represented by its chairman, George Main, together with Messrs R. C. Allen, A. W. Thompson, P. H. Osborne and Dr L. Utz and the club’s secretary, G. T. Rowe. There was a terrible grandeur to it all and it represented an unprecedented outpouring of grief in a world that would become only too familiar with the Grim Reaper as the years of World War II unfolded. And yet Billy Lappin’s funeral distilled a strange moment in time when racing was not so much the Sport of Kings but rather the King of Sports. Somehow racing touched everyone’s lives then in a way that it never would again. War changes everything. As the thousands of Sydneysiders stood bareheaded in the sultry summer heat on that February afternoon and watched the coffin go by, they mourned not just the passing of Billy Lappin but the passing of a world that no longer was, and would never be again.
That autumn Reading became the first horse since Phar Lap to add both St Legers to his brace of Derbies and claim the season’s four classics. Bookmakers and punters alike were slow to learn and reluctant to believe when it came to the respective merits of the two colts. A series of sub-standard performances, including two losses to High Caste in the C. F. Orr Stakes at Williamstown and the St George Stakes at Caulfield, saw Reading despatched as the second favourite to the 4/6 High Caste in the red riband at Flemington. However, the performance of Marconigram’s son in setting a race record that day convinced most of the wiseacres to switch allegiance and even Harry Tancred and Jack Jamieson had come to their senses by the time of the red riband at Randwick. High Caste ran as the unplaced favourite for the Doncaster instead.
Relieved at last of the tedious society of the Strawberry Bull, Reading easily defeated his only two rivals, Dashing Cavalier and Bronze Flight, for the A.J.C. St Leger at the shutout odds of 14/1 on! At the close of his three-year-old season, a rewarding future in weight-for-age and distance handicaps seemed to beckon Reading. Instead of sending the colt to the customary spelling paddock during the winter, Cush kept Reading in his stables to run an eye over him and to superintend the dressing of his hind fetlocks, which were beginning to cause problems. No one knew better than Gordon Luscombe and John Manusu the lengths to which Cush had gone to ensure Reading’s legs stood up to the rigours of his three-year-old season. And it was during this furlough that the two men agreed to admit Cush into one-third ownership of the horse.
This rather generous gesture never reaped the rewards to which it was entitled, for alas, Reading’s later performances on the racecourse were vitiated by a certain distemper and truculence, aggravated by that nagging heel problem that never really responded to treatment. From his earliest gallops, Reading had an unfortunate habit of getting down on his hind fetlock joints at full flight. Even with Cush’s precaution of bandages reinforced by rubber, inevitable wear and tear manifested itself that worsened over time and rendered the remainder of Reading’s days on the Turf something of a twilight zone, a mere epilogue to a glorious drama that had already climaxed. In sixteen starts as a four-year-old Reading failed to win a race, finishing second on four occasions and unplaced in the other twelve.
However, one of his minor placings did come in The Metropolitan of 1940, when, weighted with 9 stone, he was beaten two lengths by Beau Vite, who was carrying 4lb more. Such was Reading’s inconsistency in the early spring of 1941 that Cush was seriously contemplating a gelding operation for the horse. However, the stallion won a stay of execution by taking out the weight-for-age Canterbury Stakes in early September when for one last time he upset the odds laid on his famous rival High Caste, beating him by a half-length with Munro and Bartle again partnering their respective charges. It was one of the few occasions when Gordon Luscombe saw his horse win, as his catering commitments had precluded his presence at most of Reading’s classic triumphs. Six weeks after that famous victory Reading ran a great race in the Caulfield Cup with 8 st. 12lb when beaten a head by Velocity.
In that event, although Cush still trained him, he ran in the ownership of Hollywood film mogul, Louis B. Mayer, having been sold at auction in October 1941 for 2000 guineas, and almost immediately Mayer had recouped half of his purchase price with the Caulfield placing. Mayer was just then at the zenith of his international bloodstock spending spree and had a particular liking for Australasian bloodstock for he had also recently purchased the great Beau Pere, and was later to buy Bernborough. Reading’s final start in Australia came when unplaced in the 1941 Moonee Valley Cup. Reading’s complete Australian record was 53 starts for 10 wins, 10 seconds, and 8 thirds, and £19,521 in stakes.
It was W. J. Smith who had purchased Reading on Mayer’s behalf and it was Smith’s youngest son, Norman, who accompanied Reading to California. Mayer had explicitly bought Reading to win the Santa Anita Handicap but, disappointingly for him, owing to war conditions the authorities cancelled the race. Accordingly, Reading’s racecourse debut in the U.S.A. didn’t come until May 1942 in New York when he disappointed. However, he did manage later to win the US$5,000 Green Velvet Handicap (9 ½ f) at Arlington Park in which he ran a race record time. Retired to stand at the Ryana Ranch, outside of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley, Reading had no trouble filling his stud book at a service fee of US$1,000. The horse later moved to J. H. Ryan’s Northbridge Farms Stud and among his good winners there, was Blue Reading.
High Caste, like Reading, only raced until the end of his five-year-old season, although unlike his great rival, he simply got better with age. Indeed, this huge son of Bulandshar despite, or perhaps because of his heavy frame, seemed to thrive on hard racing – just like his burly owner. Invariably ridden by Ted Bartle, High Caste as an older horse tended to race back in the field and produce his brilliant speed at the finish. As a four-year-old, High Caste won among other good races, the A.J.C. Epsom Handicap with 9 st. 5lb in race record time and the V.A.T.C. Futurity Stakes with 10 st 6lb. In his final season, he won seven races of which no fewer than five were at weight-for-age including the A.J.C. Warwick Stakes, R.R.C. Hill Stakes and V.R.C. C.B. Fisher Plate.
Bartle believed the horse was never the same after his epic battle to dead-heat with Mildura in the Australia Day Handicap at Randwick in January 1942 when the pair clipped a half-second off the Australian record for seven furlongs. The Strawberry Bull only won one more race after that and was given a grand reception by the crowd when he retired to stud following his third in the 1942 All-Aged Plate at the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting, conducted that year at Rosehill because of the War. High Caste’s complete race record was 35 wins (including three dead-heats) from 72 starts and £35,678 in stakes. Marvellously consistent throughout his career, High Caste won in the best of company, over distances ranging from five to fourteen furlongs.
The day before his last race appearance High Caste had been auctioned for sale by William Inglis but the 4500 guineas final bid was adjudged insufficient. Shortly afterwards, however, Lionel Israel negotiated privately with Harry Tancred and High Caste began his stud duties at Segenhoe in the spring of 1942 with a full list at a fee of 100 guineas. Among the good horses he got while at Segenhoe were High Jip (1948 AJC Breeders’ Plate); Highlea (1952 BATC Doomben Ten Thousand); and Sir Pilot (1954 STC Cup). Nonetheless, Israel was disappointed with the son of Bulandshar and at the end of the 1949-50 breeding season, the stallion left Segenhoe and was leased to Tom Flynn’s Oakleigh Stud at Kerrabee. Among the best of his progeny at Oakleigh were probably Miss High Caste (1957 VRC Australian Cup) and Prince Kerdieil (1958 STC Canterbury Guineas). Although not distinguished as a sire of broodmares, one of his daughters did produce the winner of the 1959 Queensland Oaks.
It is instructive to quickly compare the respective careers of Reading and High Caste. All told the pair met in no less than twenty-nine races with High Caste winning ten of them and Reading five. If one ignores those events where both horses finished unplaced, then High Caste finished in front of Reading 17 times whereas Reading finished in front in just eight of them. On balance it is easy to see why High Caste is widely acclaimed as one of the true champions of the Australian Turf while Reading has become something of a back number. High Caste’s name and reputation were further embellished by the fact that he successfully stood as a stallion in Australia while Reading stood, not unsuccessfully, on the other side of the globe. How different it might all have been had Reading possessed a sound constitution and enjoyed a less excitable temperament as a young stallion.
A few days after High Caste left his stable, Jack Jamieson, announced his own retirement from Australian racing. It had been a successful career, and other top horses that he trained that coincided with High Caste included both the good fillies Early Bird and Whisper Low, each of whom won the Adrian Knox Stakes at Randwick during the War years. I might mention that Jamieson was unlucky not to be the trainer of Mosaic, winner of the Sydney Cups in both 1939 and 1940 along with some other high-class staying races. Jamieson bought the Posterity colt for 310 guineas at the New Zealand sales in January 1937, intending him for a stable client. However, the popular Randwick trainer, Jim Abbs, cabled Jamieson in New Zealand to purchase a yearling on behalf of his own patron, Stan Crick.
The sales had ended by the time Jamieson received the cable, so he decided to let Abbs have the Posterity colt instead. Such is life. Jamieson didn’t know it but by the time High Caste had walked out of his Arthur Street stables for the last time, benevolent Fortune’s ebbing tide had already receded. Rocked by the death of his elder son at the age of just thirty in December 1941 and suffering the symptoms of a long-term kidney disease which the best medical advice couldn’t remedy, Jamieson returned to New Zealand, settling on a farm in Cambridge that he had purchased a couple of years earlier. Having dreamed of spending his twilight years farming and fishing, Jack Jamieson, the one-time scourge of Australian bookmakers, died aged sixty-four at Hamilton in June 1945.
Upon the retirement of High Caste and Jack Jamieson, Harry Tancred continued to retain his horses in the very same establishment, which was taken over by the former champion jockey, Maurice McCarten, just then setting out on his illustrious training career. For all the reflected glory derived from his ownership of High Caste, Harry Tancred’s best years on the Turf still lay ahead of him, albeit more in the role of racing administrator perhaps than a big-betting owner. In August 1943 he was named as an inaugural board member of the newly formed Sydney Turf Club by the NSW Premier, William McKell.
In April 1945 he was appointed Vice-Chairman and from January 1953 until his retirement in July 1959, he served as Chairman of the club. Tancred brought the same brusque “crash through or crash” philosophy to the administration of racing that had marked his footballing days and his career in the meat industry. It was during Tancred’s chairmanship that the first running of the iconic Golden Slipper occurred. Harry Tancred at the age of sixty-four died at his Bellevue Hill home in November 1961.
So much then for the connections of High Caste; what of the fortunes of the men associated with Reading? Neither Gordon Luscombe nor John Manusu ever had another top-class racehorse. Not so Jack Cush. Curiously enough, Reading’s loss of form virtually from the spring of 1940 onwards didn’t spell disaster for the small Moorefield stable, for it just happened to coincide with the coming of the last, really high-class racehorse to pass through Cush’s hands in the shape of the Double Remove filly, All Love. One of the most brilliant fillies ever to race in Australia, Cush bought her for just 250 guineas out of Percy Miller’s yearling draft on behalf of a retiring stable client, who cloaked his identity under the nom de course of “Charles Vixen”. In nine races as a two-year-old, All Love won no less than the A.J.C. Gimcrack Stakes, V.R.C. Maribyrnong Plate, V.R.C. Byron Moore Stakes, V.A.T.C. Alma Stakes, V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes and the A.J.C. Champagne Stakes. Jack Cush died suddenly on September 20, 1946, at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney after being admitted that same day. Although he had not been feeling well for some weeks, he had continued to supervise his Moorefield stables and was there that morning when he suddenly collapsed.
Before I leave the story of the 1939 A.J.C. Derby altogether, permit me a word on the subsequent career of the beaten favourite, Beau Vite. I began this chapter with the observation that the 1936 foaling season was a vintage one for Australasian thoroughbreds. As if High Caste and Reading weren’t proof enough. Beau Vite in later life proved superior to both. This colt was never really himself during that 1939 spring, something that was confirmed when he ran badly in all four of his races in Melbourne, including both the Victoria Derby and the Melbourne Cup. This son of Beau Pere really only emerged as a great racehorse during the latter half of his three-year-old season. Consider this statistic. Beau Vite ran in thirty-nine races after that 1939 Melbourne Cup failure right up to the end of his five-year-old season and won twenty-six of them for his owner Ralph Stewart. Beau Vite proved to be a brilliant racehorse under both handicap and weight-for-age conditions and among his victories were The Metropolitan of 1940 with 9 st. 4lb in which he set an Australasian record; and the 1941 Auckland Cup (2 miles) with 9 st. 6lb. When he beat his former rivals Reading and High Caste into the minor placings in the 1941 Craven Plate at Randwick, he established an Australasian record for ten furlongs that was to stand for sixteen years!
Even away from the racecourse, he figured in the headlines such as the attempt on his life in the days leading up to the 1940 Melbourne Cup for which he was the reigning favourite. Frank McGrath was training the horse during that Australian campaign and an intruder into the Caulfield establishment of Jack Fryer, where McGrath lodged his team, mistook El Golea for Beau Vite and fired a bullet into that horse’s leg instead, wounding him severely. Beau Vite had his last start when third with 9 st. 11lb in the 1942 Sydney Cup won by Veiled Threat; and less than a month later his owner died following a hospital operation in Wellington, New Zealand. Consequently, Beau Vite then retired to his trainer Tommy George’s Rosswood Stud near Masterton. Beau Vite’s complete racing record was 60 starts for 31 wins, 9 seconds and 5 thirds for £26,680 in stakes. Like both Reading and High Caste, Beau Vite proved a more than useful stallion getting a New Zealand Derby winner in his first crop.