Permit me to quote the famous monologue from William Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’:
‘All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances. And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.’
This 1940 chapter of our chronicle introduces one of the most controversial and divisive figures ever to have strode across the Australian Turf: John Wren. Few men in Australia’s colonial history have been as revered or reviled as Wren. His life was an integral chapter in the social history of Melbourne. Perhaps the image of John Wren that younger readers have – if they have one at all, is the infamous one derived from Frank Hardy’s celebrated historical novel ‘Power Without Glory’ published in 1950 – the book the Wren family sought to suppress by an unsuccessful Court challenge. Hardy was tried for criminal libel in 1951, but he was acquitted by a jury in a case that attracted enormous publicity. Indeed, it was the last prosecution for criminal, as opposed to civil libel in Victoria. Older readers might remember the excellent 1976 ABC television series based on the book and starring Martin Vaughan. However, even without the literary or cinematic musings of Frank Hardy, a reputation for Machiavellian malfeasance clung to Wren throughout his life. So let us set about discovering this man, who in his time, played many parts, although whether his acts amount to seven ages, I shall leave to the reader’s discretion.
The third son of illiterate Irish immigrants, Wren was born in April 1871 in Gold-street, Collingwood, a suburb of Melbourne that took its name from one of England’s famous admirals. Wren’s father was a labourer who had emigrated from County Clare, Ireland, in 1848 at the age of fifteen. Wren’s mother, Margaret, also from Clare, arrived in Melbourne six years later. They were married in St. Francis Church, Melbourne in August 1864 and each marked the register with an X. Dirt poor and Catholic – facts that need to be stressed to understand Wren’s place in that very sectarian colony of Victoria at the time. Melbourne then was a narrow-minded society, parochial and hypocritical. The Yarra River was a social frontier. A vast gulf yawned between the classes, not to mention the gulf between Catholicism and Protestantism itself. The Wren marriage produced no daughters but three sons, with Joseph two years older than Edward Arthur, who was two years older than John.
Leaving school at the age of twelve, John Wren worked, in turn, wheeling firewood in a wood-yard for 5/- a week, and then at Whybrow’s boot factory as a boot clicker, i.e. one who cuts the uppers for boots or shoes from skins of leather. There was a family dynastic dimension to the boot and shoe industry in those days. Sons unquestioningly followed fathers into the boot factories just as coal miners’ sons followed their fathers underground into the collieries around Cessnock and Kurri. The ambitious Wren was determined to break with that tradition. His natural flair for arithmetic and his puritan disdain for beer, tobacco and smut set him apart from his environment. His one ‘sin’ was an Irishman’s love of gambling but even as a lad he realised he needed to stack the odds in his favour. Early on he supplemented his 7/6d weekly wage by circulating betting cards, bookmaking and small-time usury. Physically, Wren was short and wiry – around 5′ 4″, ten-and-a-half stone, and bandy-legged, the result of an ill-set fracture – but nonetheless, in his youth, he was a handy sportsman, a useful cricketer and prospective Collingwood footballer – cocky and feisty and possessed of an Irish pugnacity and doggedness. In short, he stood ready to cock a snook at anyone who got in his way.
Something of the character and circumstances of the family can be captured from the first time it made it into the newspapers. In 1889 John’s older brother, Arthur, was sentenced to flogging and imprisonment, in commutation of a death sentence, for aiding and abetting the rape of Emma Riley on the banks of the Yarra in January 1889. Even by then, Arthur had served sentences for housebreaking, larceny and assault. John Wren largely stayed out of the newspapers, at least until the year 1893. For it was in that year that his famous ‘shilling’ Collingwood totalisator at 136 Johnston-street began to turn over significant sums of money. Laid off work as the 1890’s economic depression began to bite, Wren rented a shop front and under the guise of a tobacconist started up his illegal gaming operation.
Wren always claimed that he launched the enterprise with a stake won on Carbine’s 1890 Melbourne Cup, and it was from that year we perhaps should mark the Shakespearean second age of Wren. He claimed to have backed Carbine before the Cup weights were issued in June 1890 and he secured good odds in doing so. Wren attended Flemington on that famous first Tuesday in November. Slumming it in the Flat, John Wren had more reason than most to cheer Carbine on to victory. In the words of Maurice Cavanough in his book ‘The Melbourne Cup’: “Flemington has seen some demonstrative receptions in its time, but never before or since has a Cup crowd gone as wild with joy as it did when it became apparent that Carbine had the Cup won.” John Wren claims to have won £180. He wasn’t quite twenty.
However, there is a persistent story that Wren may have obtained the seed capital for his tote from quite a different source. Let us spool the reel forward to the year 1913 when John Wren refused to accept a rich legacy of some £20,000 from one Eliza ‘Granny’ Foster, who died in Clifton Hill on 22 July 1913. Foster, like Wren’s parents, hailed from Ireland and had owned the shop and dwelling in Johnston-street and the two cottages directly behind in Sackville-street, that delineated the site of Wren’s tote. It was rumoured that Foster and Wren had been closely associated in business ventures and she had appointed Wren as the sole executor of her will in 1908. Upon her death, Wren discovered he was the sole heir. Refusing to accept the bequest, he divided the estate between Foster’s three sons and three daughters. It is an interesting subplot to the tote story.
However it came about, Wren, at last, in 1890 had his grubstake, which he later claimed he augmented in the next couple of years with some clever wagering. It had come just in time. In 1891 Australia’s economic barometer was falling fast. As noted before in this chronicle, the abuse of credit in the preceding decade was to take a terrible toll. Between July 1891 and August 1892, no fewer than forty-one land and finance companies folded in Melbourne and Sydney. The collapse of the land boom saw five Melbourne banks suspended in the first two months of 1893. Thousands of workers were laid off, John Wren among them. Still, cometh the hour, cometh the man! Wren had a plan. During his youth, Wren had read with fascination the story of George Adams, the English immigrant who came to Australia with his impoverished family as a sixteen-year-old lad in 1855 and who in the 1880s launched his famous Tattersall’s sweeps. In so doing, Adams had catapulted himself into untold riches amidst a drab society of bleak Puritanism and sanctimonious humbug. Yes, the law, in response to religious lobbying, had chased Adams too, forcing him to relocate his enterprise first from Sydney to Queensland, and thence ultimately to Tasmania. However, Wren had his role model, and onto a sea of hope, set against a grey sky of economic depression, Wren tentatively launched his notorious craft: the Collingwood tote.
The Irish-Catholic culture has always welcomed horseracing and with it accepted modest gambling in a way quite at odds with the humbug of evangelical Protestantism, which has always branded it as sinful. Accordingly, Wren’s new vocation was hardly a surprise. His tote was set in just an ordinary backyard paved with brick and stone. The site itself was a two-story brick shop where Johnston-street in Collingwood drops rather steeply on to the river plain of the Collingwood flats. It was only a few yards from the simple cottage where Wren was born. In its formative, humble beginnings, punters entered from Johnston-street and were admitted by raising a flap in the counter of what, to all intents and purposes from the front, seemed a tobacconist’s shop. But behind the shop lay the tote room. Later on, betting was conducted in a large yard behind the dwelling, and by then there was an entrance from Sackville-street which ran parallel to Johnston-street. A solid fence twelve-feet high, reinforced with iron stanchions secured the Sackville-street frontage. A second fence of heavy timbers formed an inner-defence rampart. Once inside, tote clerks handled all betting transactions behind the counter.
In whatever manner the tote was initially funded it soon became a going concern. It is one of the ironies of human nature that gambling often occurs most when gamblers can afford it least. It is a matter of despair as much as hope. This was certainly true of the Collingwood shilling punters during the 1890’s economic depression. The year 1893 saw a series of police raids on the shop beginning in May and August but with the most comprehensive assault coming on the Monday evening before Tarcoola’s Melbourne Cup. A posse of eleven policemen under the guidance of Sub-Inspector Connolly descended upon the tobacconist shop and arrested fifty-five people lodging them in the local lock-up amidst great excitement.
John Wren, however, wasn’t among the number although he was subsequently fined £50 or three months’ imprisonment in default. In those early days, the tote often proved an elusive concept, for it could vanish inside a minute flat with nothing much left other than a few scraps of paper and a little small change. Wren proved quite feline and secretive in his movements, not unlike T. S. Eliot’s Macavity and invariably when the police raids happened “Macavity wasn’t there!” Notwithstanding the many police attempts subsequently made upon the establishment and the hefty fines inflicted on John Wren, the nefarious business flourished, being much too profitable to be given up. Wren wasn’t the only such proprietor – Samuel Levy in Simpson-road, Fitzroy, was another – but he was easily the most successful.
The Melbourne Cup Eve raid so incensed the proprietor of the Bendigo Independent that in an editorial under the banner headline “Raiding The Shilling Gamblers”, the paper let rip with some empurpled language: “The Victorian law authorities are adept at that most ancient of feats, straining at gnats and swallowing at camels. Had they been contemporaries they might at the game have given odds to the old-time Pharisees. The shilling and half-crown totalisators of Collingwood they cannot stomach, but, bless you, they make not the slightest difficulty with the gambling clubs of Bourke and Collins streets.
The working man may not sally forth of an evening during the Cup week to put his shilling or half-crown on a Collingwood totalisator but that he is in danger of spending the night, and sometimes does spend it, in the lockup like a rogue and a vagabond, whereas the merchant who cannot meet his trade engagements may take himself to one of the more pretentious betting clubs and gamble away the money of his creditors, preparatory, as in a not very remote case, to his compounding with the said creditors for the third or fourth time for a few pence in the pound. Or the managing clerk or cashier of a business house, or bank, or professional firm may liberally help himself to his employer’s money, and if he takes not the direction of Collingwood and the totalisators, he may, with the greatest safety, and with the utmost appearance of respectability, transfer the booty to the pockets of the very large and increasing tribe whose business it is to look out for the coming of such ‘flats’, and profit by their folly and dishonesty, whilst the ‘flats’, not the receivers of the stolen money, have to expiate their treacherous breaches of trust within the walls of Pentridge.
For some inscrutable reason, the Victorian Crown Law department is during the present gambling saturnalia making an unusually dead set upon places where totalisators are suspected to be in operation.” The newspaper then addressed the nub of the matter: “Now we do not wish to pose as the defenders or the apologists of the totalisators or of any other forms of gambling. There are far too many chevaliers d’industry as it is to wish that the numbers of this undesirable class should be increased, but does it not savor (sic) of hypocrisy of the rankest that such complete toleration and immunity should be shown to one class of gamblers and their patrons, whilst those of another class are treated as criminals?”
The sentiments of the Bendigo Independent were very much the sentiments of the working-class people of Collingwood – an inner-city suburb mistrustful of police and possessed of a passion for gambling. The tote was to be the seed of Wren’s future fortune and by the time the law eventually caught up with it, Wren, this underworld figure with an eye for the main chance, had transitioned into legitimate lines of business. Wren set up elaborate defences for the Johnston-street establishment: an iron gate and an escape trapdoor and tunnel; slip-panels and ladders; ‘fixing’ witnesses in gaming cases; bribing the police; recruiting ex-criminals and thugs as henchmen. It was still the age of the wowser, of course, but the lessons of history are seldom understood by the narrow-minded, as Wren well knew. Closing places of gambling have never served to protect public morality, only to divert its breach elsewhere. As early as 1895 Wren was brazenly advertising in the Sportsman newspaper his mammoth doubles of £230 to 1/- the two Cups with correspondence to be addressed Wren, Collingwood, with a promise of prompt attention. Investments – a delicious euphemism – from a shilling to a century together with straight out betting and S.P. doubles.
Indeed, Wren was one of the originators of the long-priced doubles. Wren always maintained that the Victorian law against off-course betting in the mid-1890s didn’t cover betting in a shop, a club, or a private home. And so often he was proved right as the Collingwood tote story unfolded and that windbag barrister, David Gaunson M.L.A., invariably got Wren off. Gaunson was a specialist at defending Irish scallywags, although he didn’t always succeed, as he had also defended Ned Kelly at his last trial in 1880. Down through the years, Wren’s tote flourished, and it became renowned for its scrupulous dealings with the working man who liked a bet. Wren became something of a local hero and would eventually earn some £20,000 a year from the tote’s operation. By 1901 John Wren was even an influential wire-puller in Labor Party politics at both State and Federal elections, commissioning his horde of tote ruffians to attend the public meetings of his chosen Labor candidates to both swell the ranks and to maintain order. The Irish/Catholic link with Labor was strong, and Wren readily identified with it.
There was a de facto demonstration against Wren’s tote in Melbourne Cup week of 1903. Detective D.G. O’Donnell, Wren’s bête noir, under the official supervision of Superintendent Sharp marched an army of police to Collingwood after midnight and took possession of the place. The team of police remained in possession of the old premises for some days while Wren’s business was discharged elsewhere under some difficulties. The city of Melbourne laughed. The farce continued for some nine weeks, the police numbers in charge being gradually reduced from twenty men down to one. One evening that sole constable in charge walked from the tote-yard to the adjoining wood-yard, which served as a private approach to it, and there he was seized by several masked men and pushed violently out of the gate leading to a public thoroughfare.
In short, the tote had been recaptured. The ejected constable duly appeared at Melbourne City Court to charge four men, including Wren, with having accomplished his ejection. All four defendants were found innocent of any legal offence since the police were trespassers on the sacred precincts of the tote. Retaining David Gaunson as his legal brief, the system of Wren appeals eventually brought home the truth that Victorian law wasn’t adequate to convict the notorious law-breaker. The following three years were a period of uninterrupted prosperity for the tote with agencies in all directions beyond Collingwood and a brigade of intermittent criminals touting for orders. Supported by his regular income of shilling business, Wren was able to lay big wagers to the legitimate bookmakers seeking to lay off large liabilities, or to stable commissioners who had money to invest.
Wren’s tote tax was 10% plus the ‘odd pence’. Dividends were rounded down to the nearest sixpence. Flushed with a healthy income, in 1903 John Wren established his City Tattersall’s Club in Bourke-street, Melbourne, a natural corollary to the Collingwood tote and another gambling club to compete with its counterpart across the road, Sol Green’s Melbourne Tattersall’s. Both clubs offered rather spartan appointments and only nominal membership fees, but they provided the poorer working class with an avenue for gambling that had long been available to the wealthy in the plush, upholstered environs of the Victorian Club. That Wren dispensed some of his largesse to the Catholic Church and the poorer people in the community served only to enrage his more enlightened critics in society such as those two Methodist humbugs, William Judkins and Henry Worrall.
Judkins, in particular, was scathing, describing the tote as being operated “by the filth and off-scourings of the jails”. It was “a Vesuvius of carnality and greed…a seething mass of flaming animalism…tainting the community, corrupting the youth, luring to destruction the week and the foolish, and scattering among the hard-working, clean-living people the seeds of crime, debauchery and miserable poverty.” Judkins observed that throwing a few coins to the needy as a means of blunting social criticism had always been a favourite ploy of those self-serving practitioners of the illegal arts. Action against the illegal ‘totes’ was foiled by flawed legislation and corruption (Isaac Isaacs’ anti-gambling bill in 1898 failed by one vote) and by the time the more prescriptive Lotteries Gaming and Betting Act of 1906 came into effect, Wren was already a millionaire who had diversified into more legitimate enterprises. Like Clive of India, when Wren looked back on his career and considered his opportunities, he was proud of his self-restraint.
It was in 1902 that John Wren purchased Studley House from the estate of the squatter, James McEvoy. At the time he was recorded in Kew rate books as a bookmaker with his office in the Colonial Mutual Life Building, Collins-street when he bought Studley House at 15 Nolan Avenue. Wren had married Ellen Mahon, four years his junior, on December 31, 1901, in St Patrick’s Cathedral. Wren was awkward with women, but he made a good match with Ellen, a convent-educated girl who had been born at Casterton in western Victoria. After a honeymoon in New Zealand, Wren moved his new bride into Studley House as soon as it became available. From around this time, he began to move his growing fortune into real estate and more legitimate businesses.
Studley House was eloquent testimony to how far he had come so quickly since tentatively launching his backyard tote just nine years earlier. The house Wren bought had nine rooms, plus a kitchen, pantry, scullery and bathroom. In 1919, after the Great War, Wren rebuilt Studley House into a mansion, at least when judged from its external appearance. Caustic critics declared that its size and unimaginative interiors were its major features, for Wren was never ostentatious in any material sense. It’s true that twice in his life he owned a Buick, but he usually walked the four miles from Studley House to the city. He never did indulge himself with either expensive paintings or antiques for Studley House. Indeed, Wren was something of an ascetic and his most prized possession was his family, and six of the nine children of John and Ellen Wren were born in the house.
John Wren’s first foray into racehorse ownership came in December 1900 at the famous St Albans sale when he paid 500 guineas for the distinguished ageing broodmare, Melodious, by Goldsbrough, with a colt at foot by Bill of Portland and served by the same stallion again. It was a significant sum to pay for an 18-year-old broodmare, but after all, she had produced the great Wallace eight years before. Not that she did Wren much good, although her days of producing first-class progeny weren’t quite over. Wren bred two decent racehorses from her. Tom Moore, her 1903 foal by Grafton, proved useful and won the 1906 V.A.T.C. Holiday Stakes in other ownership; while Kerlie by Stepniak, foaled in 1905, went on to win the 1910 Moonee Valley Cup as well as a Williamstown Cup, but not in John Wren’s ownership.
The first significant acquisition of a racehorse by Wren came in 1903 with Murmur. A former Tasmanian galloper, he was bred by Mr H. Field at Woodfield, a property near Cressy in Tasmania. The trainer, Alf Jordan, brought him across to the mainland with a reputation of being a useful sprinter having won the 1903 T.T.C. Newmarket Handicap. Even though his sire was the 1886 Melbourne Cup winner, Arsenal, Murmur’s previous owners didn’t believe the horse was capable of getting a distance. Wren thought he might and bought him cheaply, for £200 so it was said. Murmur won the Moonga Handicap on the middle day of the 1903 Caulfield Cup meeting but then ran unplaced as the favourite in the Yan Yean Stakes at Flemington.
On the basis of these efforts, the V.A.T.C. handicapper let Murmur into the 1904 Caulfield and Melbourne Cups with just 6 st. 12 lb. The horse’s Cups preparation was entrusted to Caulfield trainer, Frank Musgrave, who galloped him very hard and very publicly. Musgrave reported that on his track gallops and with his light weight, Murmur was a real chance in the Caulfield Cup. Wren began backing Murmur as soon as the weights were issued in June at prices ranging from 100/1 to 50/1. Agents made the bets not only in Melbourne but in Sydney, Adelaide and Perth as well. When Murmur won the Balaclava Stakes on the opening day of the Caulfield Grand National Meeting in August, and then carried 8 st. 6lb to an easy victory in the Heatherlie Handicap at the same course, his Cup odds shortened dramatically.
Thirty runners started for the Caulfield Cup that year, and a piquancy was added to the betting on the event by the fact that Wren’s great Bourke-street rival, Sol Green, owned the 7/2 favourite, Gladsome, while Murmur went to the post at 10/1. In a cleanly-run race, Murmur, partnered by jockey S. D Fisher, swooped on the leaders in the last half-furlong to win by three lengths from the future Melbourne Cup-winning mare, Acrasia, with the enigmatic Emir in the minor placing. Sol Green’s Gladsome ran a gallant fourth but found herself overburdened with her 8 st. 13lb. Apart from the stake and the immense satisfaction of beating Sol Green, John Wren collected £51,000 in winning wagers. In the wake of such largesse, this working-class Catholic hero of Collingwood could afford to be generous. And he was. As Maurice Cavanough records in his book ‘The Caulfield Cup‘: “Typically, Wren gave his trainer two-thirds of the £2,500 prize money, and gave the other third to his jockey. He gave the Mayor of Collingwood £500 to distribute to the needy, and instructed two publicans in Collingwood to dispense open house at his expense on Cup night.” I might mention that the sling for the 26-year-old jockey, S. D. Fisher, proved fortuitous as it enabled him to buy a property at Glenhuntly. Sadly, within seven years the jockey would be dead after suffering from valvular disease of the heart and leaving behind a widow and children.
Wren backed Murmur to win as much as £35,000 in the 1904 Melbourne Cup too. However, an injury prevented the horse being trained properly in the ensuing fortnight and this, together with the 10lb penalty for his Caulfield victory which anchored him, saw the horse finish down the running in the race won by Acrasia. Within weeks of taking the Caulfield Cup with Murmur, Wren had bought the 1904 New Zealand Cup winner, Grand Rapids, formerly owned by G. G. Stead. Although only a gelding, the purchase set Wren back well in excess of 500 guineas and again the horse went into Frank Musgrave’s stable but was never destined to win a race in Wren’s ownership. Wren followed up this purchase at the dispersal of James Wilson’s stud which went under the William Yuille and Company’s hammer in March 1905. He paid 1650 guineas for Blinker, a promising three-year-old colt by Pilgrim’s Progress who had finished third behind Acrasia and Lord Cardigan in the Melbourne Cup the previous spring.
Wren might have demurred in his purchase of expensive bloodstock had he only known the V.R.C.’s intentions. The bombshell came at a committee meeting on Thursday, 29 September 1905, when the club officially announced the rejection of Wren’s nominations for various races at the forthcoming Flemington meeting in the first week of October. Given that the running of Wren’s horses had never been questioned and the man himself had escaped the attention of stewards, it seemed clear that this rejection had everything to do with his betting shop. In due course, the V.A.T.C., the A.J.C. and the S.A.J.C. followed suit. Wren then proceeded to lease his horses to his Caulfield trainer, Frank Musgrave. The good burghers on the V.R.C. weren’t mollified by this action and asked both men to appear before them to explain their relations and the general character of the lease, which had been executed in transferring the horses. After cross-examination, the committee declined to entertain the proposed transfer as it didn’t appear to the committee that Wren was absolutely ceasing his connection with the horses.
The committee decided to allow Wren’s nominations for the 1905 Derby and Cup to stand because of the extent of public pre-post betting on those races, but all other entries by his horses were rejected. In announcing the decision, W.H. Croker informed Wren that “there was not the slightest reflection or imputation on him as regards the manner in which he had run his horses. The members of the committee had arrived at their decision on other grounds.” Croker didn’t state the grounds although in time the club would concede that it was because of Wren’s connection to betting clubs and his Collingwood totalisator, which were keeping people away from Flemington and Caulfield. At the time his horses included the expensive Blinker, as well as Grand Rapids, Pius, Murmur, Bob Roberts, Gapon, Winchester and Tom Moore. Wren objected that his young horses had cost him as much as £4,000 and he had backed one of them – Gapon – to win a fair sum in the Debutant Stakes and Maribyrnong Plate. Such was the sectarian and political division existing at the time that this cavalier approach of the V.R.C. committee led to the Victorian Legislative Council discussing the merits of the case at length.
In mid-November after the Melbourne spring meetings were over, Wren reluctantly disposed of most of his racing stock through William Yuille and Company at Newmarket. Grand Rapids sold for £400 to Western Australia while others mostly went to Frank Musgrave or some of his stable’s other clients. But for Wren, this was war. For some weeks Wren had under offer before him the option of taking over the management of the pony racecourses of Ascot, Richmond and Fitzroy. Unlike, say, the Kensington track in Sydney, these courses had been struggling. Ben Nathan, another working-class lad, born in Collingwood of immigrant stock, owned them all, but with pony racing in the doldrums and in need of an infusion of funds, he had invited Wren to join him in the enterprise. In late November 1905, Wren announced that he was assuming management of the courses.
Angered by the action of the V.R.C. and in turn the V.A.T.C., within months Wren gave the smug committeemen their comeuppance when in February 1906 he wrote a letter to the Premier of Victoria, Sir Thomas Bent, offering to lease Flemington racecourse at £25,000 a year. His offer stated that as the racecourse was public property, it should return something in the nature of a fair dividend to its owners, the people and that he was prepared to give the annual rental stated above and pay two years’ rent in advance as a guarantee of good faith. Wren further noted that he would run at least two meetings a year in the interests of charity and that he would enter into a legal bond to increase the stakes in all-important races. Moreover, he would increase the Melbourne Cup stake to £10,000 – making it the richest horse race in the world.
Wren maintained that the V.R.C. had forfeited the confidence of the public by its glaring mismanagement of racing and had broken the terms of its Flemington lease from the state. Consequently, it should be stripped of its controlling power of racing. The fact that this letter itself was addressed to a Liberal Premier who is described in the Australian National Dictionary of Biography as one of the most colourful and corrupt politicians in Victorian history renders the exchange even richer in irony. Premier Bent – bent by name as well as nature – enraged the smug, sanctimonious and supercilious members of the V.R.C. committee by appearing to toy with the offer- for a few days at least – before turning it down.
In that same month of February 1906, Wren also fired off another whiff of grapeshot at the V.R.C. when he announced the details of his grand scheme for the revitalisation of the sport of pony racing at Richmond, Ascot and Fitzroy. All three pony courses were miniature by accepted standards, but Wren set about the cleansing of the Augean stables with gusto. He spent £24,000 in improving Richmond racecourse alone. Having re-organised both Richmond and Ascot, Wren re-opened the Fitzroy course in May 1907. Wren increased stakes giving new hope to the breeders and owners of ponies and at the same time lowered charges for admittance to his racecourses, thereby emerging as a new and awkward competitor for the established race clubs. Horse cabs ran patrons to the ponies at Richmond for a threepenny fare; ‘two bob’ got you into the Leger; and 6/- to the Stand with ladies less than half-price at 2/6d. Wren promoted his three tracks as “the workers’ courses”.
There were plentiful warnings-off on Wren’s tracks including the notorious Squizzy Taylor. No bookmaker was allowed to engage a ticktacker or to signal to anyone off the course. All the inquiries by stewards at his courses were thrown open to the Press. Indeed, Wren, by his very appointment of independent stewards, was way ahead of the established race clubs. The appointed stewards could replace a jockey if there were unusual trends in the betting ring. Before the middle of 1906, the Victorian Pony and Galloway Racing Clubs with John Wren as manager were drawing larger crowds than pony meetings had ever known in Melbourne. Wren’s courses began to keep more and more prospective punters away from Flemington and Caulfield. And the Collingwood tote and City Tattersall’s continued to prosper.
In his first year in charge, Wren announced the Ascot Thousand, to be run during Melbourne Cup week and the stake was the biggest offered by a proprietary racing club in the country. Wren increased the riding fees for jockeys who patronised his courses and provided a fund for distressed or disabled riders, which met medical and nursing fees. Wren’s rules for proprietary racing were sanctioned by the Chief Secretary and the Governor-in-Council, which placed no impediment in the way of Parliament licencing the Richmond, Fitzroy and Ascot racecourses, the same as the racecourses controlled by the V.R.C.
By September 1906, John Wren had even won accolades from Premier Bent, that Falstaffian figure of girth and mirth and no friend of the businessman. Bent observed: “To do him justice he has done much to purify pony racing and eliminate some of the disreputable things that had been associated with it in the past.” It’s true that Wren initially failed to overcome the V.R.C.’s ban on horses running on unregistered courses, but even by 1908, the governing body was forced to recognise pony racing officially. Slowly the V.R.C. came to a state of accommodation with Wren. Much of it could be credited to the common sense of the V.R.C. chairman, R. G. Casey as a level of reciprocity began to exist between the senior club and the proprietary courses.
If a jockey was disqualified on the registered courses, he need not expect to ride at Fitzroy, Richmond or Ascot; or, if banned at those three courses, then his licence with the V.R.C. would be revoked. There was even a commonality between the two organisations’ raceday officials. Godfrey Watson and W. A. Menzies, starter and handicapper respectively at the V.R.C., began to discharge the same duties at proprietary courses. In time, Ben Nathan and John Wren together reaped a fortune from their pony courses and gave the sport an additional thirty-year lease of life. I might mention that while Wren possessed Studley House as his family home, Ben Nathan could boast of his as the famous Rippon Lea mansion in Elsternwick, which he first acquired in 1910 and remained in the family until the early 1970s.
John Wren’s purchase of racecourses wasn’t restricted to Melbourne. In 1911 he bought Albion Park, in Brisbane, for £31,000. It was a clever and audacious gamble from Wren, and overnight he became a central figure in Queensland racing and guaranteed his political influence in that state. Albion Park at that time had some forty-five meetings a year allotted to it, mostly on Saturdays and Wednesdays, but it was still losing money. As had happened with his pony courses in Victoria, Wren transformed Albion Park, grading the course and improving the turns and public amenities; and increasing the stakes. In the months before World War I, Albion Park was returning a profit of around £30,000 a year.
During this transformation, Wren also acquired the Sandgate course and transferred their allotted meetings to Albion Park. Early in 1914, Wren and Nathan bought Kedron Park racecourse as well from J. B. Sharpe for £18,000 and in 1919-20 the pair acquired a site from an investment syndicate that was to become Doomben racecourse. During the 1920s the agitation against proprietary racing was everywhere but was particularly strong in Queensland and Wren decided to quit before he was legislated out of business. Accordingly, in 1923 the relatively newly formed Brisbane Amateur Turf Club agreed to pay £450,000 for Albion Park and the Doomben racecourse site. I should mention that Wren also leased Belmont Park racecourse in Western Australia for a time, beginning in 1912, conducting it on a proprietary basis but under Western Australia Turf Club rules.
Chutzpah was never lacking in Wren’s taciturn character, but when he stepped forward and placed a series of advertisements in Melbourne’s daily newspapers proclaiming himself the champion of clean pony racing and offering to do the same for the sport of trotting, the rich irony was too much for many. The advertisements provoked as much laughter as they did excite indignation. Still, there is much to be said for putting a fox in charge of a henhouse, provided the fox isn’t too hungry. The Lone Hand magazine, however, couldn’t resist a riposte. A monthly sister magazine to The Bulletin and founded by J. F. Archibald and Frank Fox, in its first edition of May 1907, it printed an excoriating analysis of the character and history of John Wren under the headline “Wren And His Ruffians – A Notorious Bird of Prey”.
The issue sold out its print run of 50,000 copies in just three days. The second issue sold out in one. The offending advertisement from Wren read as follows: “The sporting public is well aware of the tremendous task I undertook in the purification of pony racing – of the desperate efforts and drastic methods necessary to elevate that sport to the position it now holds in the public esteem. Give me, but a continuation of public confidence and support, and Trotting under the stern supervision of stipendiary experts will speedily become as popular with our sports-loving Victorians as it truly deserves to be.” It was a breathtaking boast from a man of Wren’s history, but much of it came to be true. In 1907 a Melbourne Trotting Club existed but was very much on the slide when John Wren was invited early in that year to a meeting at the Orient Hotel on the corner of Bourke and Swanston streets to discuss the sport’s future.
Wren had the foresight to imagine the profits that could be made from trotting if the sport was put on the right footing and in Richmond racecourse he had the means for doing so. The Melbourne Trotting Club already enjoyed an allocation of twenty racing dates a year from the government, and to Wren, this was particularly attractive. Wren was the driving force behind the decision to wind-up the Melbourne Trotting Club and in its place establish the Victorian Trotting Association, with himself in complete control. The meetings were transferred to his Richmond racecourse, a mere threepenny horse-cab fare from the city. The first meeting was held on 11 May 1907 and, curiously enough, the opening event was won by a horse driven by Lou Robertson, who would ultimately become one of our leading racehorse trainers and in due course include Caulfield Cups and a Melbourne Cup among his prizes. John Wren was to be closely associated with trotting for some thirty years as it boomed and he kept a close eye on the sport through his brother, Joseph, who was employed in senior management by the Victorian Trotting and Racing Association for years.
Boxing was yet another sporting, commercial venture that Wren promoted. He wanted to ‘discover’ an Australian heavyweight champion of the world, and for a time he thought he’d found one in Bill Squires. Prize fights had been staged in Melbourne long before John Wren ever came along. However, Wren ‘elevated’ the sport – if that is the correct word – onto an altogether different plane with richer purses for the boxers themselves (and their promoter!) and more razzle-dazzle publicity. His immediate problem, once he had decided to promote pugilism, was to find a suitable indoor venue. Initially, Wren used the iconic Exhibition Building, not without controversy, and expended extravagant sums on advertising. He even staged a major fight at Ascot Racecourse, laying on special trains to transport fight fans to the nearest station. At Richmond Racecourse, he packed in 13,500 people for the Squires-Williams fight. When gathering political pressure effectively closed the Exhibition Building to him, he assumed control of the Cyclorama, in April 1907, and refurbished and renamed it as Wren’s Athletic Pavillion.
Even if much of the world seemed against him, Wren found solace in an incessant activity. As if the above range of investments in various sports wasn’t enough to satiate the appetite of one man, in 1908 John Wren broadened his entertainment investment portfolio to include live theatre. In that year he went into partnership with Sir Rupert Clarke in bankrolling the entrepreneurs, Clyde Meynell and John Gunn, to lease the Royal in Melbourne and the Criterion in Sydney. The financial support saw the new management for a time challenging the supremacy of J. C. Williamson’s Productions until a ticketing price war began to impoverish both companies. It only ended when each combined in 1911 with Meynell becoming a Williamson’s board member.
At the same time as indulging in live theatre promotions, Wren launched a National Opera Company, bringing out various distinguished conductors and soloists from Europe. Ever the publicist, at one performance Wren even had his Caulfield Cup winner, Murmur, galloped onto the stage. Later on, Wren purchased the freehold of the Criterion Theatre and the Criterion Hotel in Park Street, Sydney, marking one of his relatively few investments in the Harbour City. It proved a good investment, too! As James Griffin relates in his biography of Wren, in 1927 when the Labor-controlled City Council opened up the Bathurst to Park Street block to cope with traffic flows, the Criterion Theatre was demolished, and Wren paid £267,000 compensation, which some critics considered was about £80,000 too much.
Thus, in those years before the First World War, Wren began to develop a diversified and geographically scattered business portfolio which down through the years expanded alongside his racing and boxing promotions. However legally dubious the source of his first fortune, Wren subsequently demonstrated with his diverse and successful investments that he was an entrepreneur and financial investor of the first order. Moreover, he was no mere chance speculator or ruthless asset stripper of our more modern age. Wren understood how to build a business. However, apart from his later mining interests in Fiji, Wren’s commercial investments were very much domestic. Indeed, apart from his honeymoon to New Zealand and a trip to Fiji, Wren never travelled overseas. But when it came to his Australian enterprises, particularly in entertainment, Wren had an international flair. John Cain Jr., the 41st Premier of Victoria, considered Wren at one stage ‘arguably the most innovative and audacious showman in Australia’.
Despite the V.R.C. and V.A.T.C. rejecting race nominations for horses registered in his name, Wren never did entirely absent himself from ownership during this turbulent period. However, it required greater subterfuge than merely attempting to race them in the name of his trainer. Perhaps the best example relates to the top New Zealand mare, Solution, originally campaigned by the successful Wellington bookmaker, R. W. Paterson, who had given 100 guineas for her as a yearling. A daughter of Soult, Solution was a blood-bay mare standing about 15.3, and she came across the Tasman in the spring of 1906 with her trainer, John (Cocky) Lowe and a big reputation. She had won 17 races including the Wellington Stakes, C.J.C. Stewards’ Handicap and the Hawke’s Bay Cup. Lowe had much to be cocky about on that trip as Solution proved to be in cracking form winning the Rawson Stakes, A.J.C. Metropolitan and the Craven Plate. The mare was immediately installed at the head of quotations for the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups, and yet her owner let it be known that she was for sale at the right price. The price turned out to be 4000 guineas!
Harry Chisholm brought Sir Rupert Clarke and Mr Paterson into contact, and a transaction was tentatively agreed provided Clarke’s trainer, James Scobie, was satisfied upon inspection. Sir Rupert was ambitious to win a Melbourne Cup, and Scobie wanted to please him, but upon examining the mare, Scobie advised against the purchase. Now, John Wren had been at Randwick for the spring meeting and had liked what he had seen when Solution had beaten Poseidon by five lengths in The Metropolitan. John Wren arranged for P. H. Reynolds, a well-known Melbourne racing man and publican of the Cathedral Hotel in Swanston-street, to telegraph him authorising Wren to act as his agent and make Paterson an offer of 4000 guineas. The offer was duly made but wasn’t accepted until both the horse and her owner landed in Melbourne in mid-October, and a cheque was paid over. Lowe was retained as Solution’s trainer until the closing of her spring engagements.
Reynolds, or rather Wren, received an instalment of £400 on his purchase price at the first time of asking when Solution won the V.A.T.C. Caulfield Stakes. Whereas Solution had carried only 8 st. 2lb when she won the A.J.C. Metropolitan and conceded Poseidon a half-stone, in the Caulfield Cup she was asked to carry 9 st. 5lb, meeting Poseidon on 18lb worse terms. It came as no surprise when the mare could only finish fifth behind the champion three-year-old of that season. However, at her next start, she came back to win the V.R.C. Melbourne Stakes on the first day of the Flemington Spring Meeting, which saw her go to the post as the 7/2 favourite for the Cup on the following Tuesday. Again, despite being in front at the home turn, she finished out of a place behind the mighty Poseidon. Wren might have had the dubious honour of owning a Melbourne Cup favourite, but she was dearly bought at the price. Solution never won another race. Indeed, the mare broke down on the opening day of the 1907 Caulfield Cup meeting.
John Wren’s subsequent rapprochement with the V.R.C. saw him make a more public return to the ranks of ownership with his next major bloodstock purchase. It came with his attendance at the A.J.C. Spring Meeting of 1914. After St Carwyne won the A.J.C. Spring Stakes on the first day of the meeting, Wren offered 2000 guineas plus half of the winning stake for the A.J.C. Metropolitan if the horse was successful, but no business resulted. Thwarted in that direction, he made an offer for the three-year-old Garlin, after witnessing him win the A.J.C. Clibborn Stakes. A promising colt by the imported stallion, Linacre, Garlin had finished second to Portrush in the A.J.C. Epsom Handicap and was trained and part-owned by Mark Thompson and James Barnes. The price was £2,000 plus a contingency of one-third of any prize money the horse might win in his existing engagements. This time the offer was accepted readily, perhaps no surprise, given that Garlin had cost just eighty guineas as a yearling.
Wren entertained visions of landing another Caulfield Cup, reviving memories of his triumph with Murmur a decade earlier although the colt was two years younger and yet only had 1lb less on a handicap of 6 st. 11lb. Johnnie Donohoe brought the horse to Melbourne, but there was to be no reprise of Murmur’s heroics, as Garlin was badly cut on the off-hind leg coming towards the home turn, although he still managed to finish seventh. However, the injury forced Donohoe to put the scratching pen through his name for his remaining spring engagements including the Victoria Derby and Melbourne Cup. Impartial observers may have concluded, given developments, that Garlin was expensive at the price paid by Wren. Such an observation was to prove very much awry.
Garlin developed nicely during his enforced spell and Donohoe, and Wren laid plans for a betting tilt at the A.J.C. Doncaster Handicap in the autumn of 1915. They pulled it off, too, to the tune of about £20,000. Such was Wren’s largesse in the wake of the sting that he directed C. W. Cropper, the secretary of the A.J.C. to pay the total prize money for the Doncaster (£2,236) into the Belgian Relief Fund, given the part those brave allies had played in the Great War. Garlin was ridden in the Doncaster by the 20-year-old Melbourne jockey, Lawrence Fisher, brother of the late S. D. Fisher, who had partnered Murmur in her Caulfield Cup victory. It was typical of Wren’s loyalty to people and families who were loyal to him. Doncaster Day happened to coincide with Wren’s 43rd birthday, and it was the first time that his new racing colours of ‘black jacket, white stripe’ had been carried past the post first in a major race. Wren had given his previous colours of ‘brown, blue hoops and cap’ to Matt Ellis during his exile from ownership. Wren’s new colours reflected the black and white of his beloved Collingwood football team.
The years of World War I and those leading up to the outbreak of World War II were industrious years for John Wren. It was an epoch in which he continued to consolidate his empire but also wrapped himself in the flag. It should be remembered that these were the years when the patriotism of Irish-Australians was most called into question, particularly against the backdrop of the 1916 Easter Rebellion. At the age of forty-three, Wren joined the A.I.F. Many of his critics viewed it as a cynical exercise in self-promotion, knowing as he did that he would be declared medically unfit for active service, which indeed proved the case. Wren’s service in the A.I.F. lasted no more than one hundred and three days but generated quite a bit of publicity, something that he was always clever at exploiting when it suited his interests. The carnage of Verdun and the Somme and his own antics in khaki notwithstanding, throughout the War years Wren never missed an opportunity to make money. In 1915 together with Ben Nathan, he purchased the Daily Mail newspaper in Brisbane, which gave him a platform for promulgating his enthusiasm for the Great War in general and conscription in particular.
In 1916 for only the second time in its history, the Melbourne Cup was postponed. Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland sustained one of the wettest springs on record that year. We have already seen in our 1916 chapter that the A.J.C. Derby twice had to be postponed. Although the V.R.C. was able to conduct Derby Day at Flemington on schedule, the rains returned both the following day and on Cup Eve worsening the flooding from the Maribyrnong River. Following an early evening walk around the track by the V.R.C. chairman, Lauchlan Mackinnon, and fellow committeeman, E. L. Baillieu, and the Secretary, Byron Moore, an emergency committee meeting was summoned, and the Melbourne Cup deferred until the Saturday. Of course, it was too late to cancel the public holiday on Cup Day, and John Wren saw an opportunity too rich to resist. He brought forward his Wednesday Ascot meeting by a day and thereby enjoyed a glorious betting and attendance windfall! Another poke in the eye for the self-basting panjandrums of the V.R.C.
At the same time, Wren was busy consolidating ‘Snowy’ Baker’s boxing empire, which he had purchased earlier in the same year, with his own boxing investments. It saw him emerge as the owner of three stadiums in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane and guaranteed his status as the leading fight promoter in the land for years to come – particularly during the golden age of boxing of the inter-war years of the 1920s and 1930s. The famed lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, once famously intoned that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. Something of that indignation excited Wren’s critics on St Patrick’s Day, 1920, when Wren masterminded and funded a considerable marching demonstration in Bourke-street, Melbourne, with no less than fourteen individual Victoria Cross winners, mounted on white horses, forming a guard of honour for the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix. Wren argued that the purpose of the march was to demonstrate the loyalty of Irish-Australians whose patriotism had been called into question by some during the so-called Great War. Throughout his lifetime, Wren lost few opportunities to promote the Catholic faith.
Wren’s most significant racing triumph during the inter-war years came with The Rover in the 1921 V.R.C. Australian Cup. A plain-looking chestnut gelding by Sea Prince and out of a daughter of First King, he was bred by James Wilson junior and trained at Bonny Vale. As a two and three-year-old, he didn’t appear in public. Wren backed The Rover for a fortune of some £30,000 in the 1920 A.J.C. Doncaster Handicap but the horse got away badly to spoil whatever chance he had in the race won by Sydney Damsel. Two days later, James Wilson turned him out for the Sydney Cup where he met with a share of stable support but could only run eighth behind Kennaquhair in Australasian record time.
Nearly twelve months elapsed before The Rover again made an appearance, but when it came, the gelding landed a tidy plunge in the Australian Cup for which he started favourite after 16/1 had been bet in early markets. Vic Sleigh, the 15-year-old apprentice boy who partnered The Rover that day was later given £500 by Wren – far more than the statutory percentage – and the money went towards a home for the young jockey’s widowed mother. In the spring of 1921, Wren supported The Rover for the Melbourne Cup but could only run second, going under by less than a length to the three-year-old filly, Sister Olive. The year 1921 was also unlucky for Wren in relation to the A.J.C. Epsom Handicap. Wren bought Dunwil as a tried two-year-old for 2000 guineas and shortly afterwards won the A.J.C. Easter Stakes with him under the training of Frank Musgrave. A chestnut son of Cooltrim, he subsequently proved disappointing. However, the horse was set for the 1921 Epsom Handicap and backed as a lightweight chance but found one too good in Beauford. When Wren cleared out Dunwil from his stable after a succession of disappointing performances, he received a mere fraction of what the horse had cost him initially.
There were other Wren attempts to win the Melbourne Cup. In 1926 he started the lightweight Beedos in the race after the horse had won the V.R.C. Hotham Handicap on the Saturday before, but he ran unplaced. Ditto, Muratti, a horse that as a yearling was a prize in a raffle that Wren subsequently purchased from the winning ticket holder. Muratti carried Wren’s colours in Phar Lap’s Melbourne Cup. Perhaps the best galloper he owned around this time was Toper, a son of Tippler with whom he won the 1929 Hobartville Stakes when ridden by Billy Cook for his master, Johnnie Donohoe. In that race, they upset the odds laid on Holdfast.
There was a particularly close bond between Wren and Donohoe, given that Wren had been close friends with the trainer’s father, Jim. Donohoe had selected Toper as a yearling at the cost of 220 guineas. Donohoe remained Wren’s most trusted trainer in Sydney until his later relationship developed with Frank McGrath. The decade of the Great Depression saw Wren, along with many others, cut back on his racing outlays and by and large the runners that he did have representing him didn’t amount to much. Spear King was a case in point. Purchased as a yearling for 1050 guineas, the colt showed early promise but managed to win only one race for Wren. Sold, the horse proceeded to carry off five victories on the trot. Another to frustrate expectations was Soltoi. One of a batch of Irish yearlings sent to Melbourne for sale, Soltoi was initially raced by Messrs Hogan and Fell before Wren got hold of him. Placed in the stables of Pat Kelly, the horse won the Eclipse Stakes at Ascot for Wren but proved difficult to train. Sold for stud purposes, Soltoi did get some useful winners in Adelaide.
It is a curious feature of John Wren’s long life on the Turf that his two best Derby prospects came along in successive seasons. In our previous chapter, we saw how Wilson, a colt owned by Wren filled the minor placing in the A.J.C. Derby behind those two great three-year-olds, Reading and High Caste. As we have seen, Wilson was trained in Melbourne by Frank Musgrave but was prepared by Frank McGrath for his tilt at the A.J.C. Derby. Wilson, a colt by Siegfried, had been purchased as a yearling in New Zealand on Wren’s behalf by Charles Wheeler for 1050 guineas. Given the promise that Wilson showed early on the racecourse, Wren got Wheeler to pay 1400 guineas to secure the horse’s younger brother the following year at the 1939 New Zealand Yearling Sales.
Wren in musing about his prospects for winning the Derby in 1940 could have been forgiven for thinking that all of his hopes lay in this expensive son of Siegfried. However, Wren’s Derby hero was to originate much closer to home. Not that Wren had extensive breeding interests for a man of his means, but he did retain some better-performed mares for breeding purposes at his Moroco East station, near Deniliquin. They would be sent out to other studs to be served by outside stallions. One such mare was Credit, a daughter of that good stallion, Paper Money. In the spring of 1936, Wren had sent Credit to the Kia Ora Stud to be mated with Pantheon and the following year she dropped a rangy bay colt with a white blaze and three white feet. Wren subsequently registered the colt as Pandect.
At first blush, it appears to be a pedestrian name derived from the first three letters of the stallion combined with four of the six letters of the dam’s name. But Wren was a man who generally gave careful thought to the names of his horses and such was the case here. Pandect is a real word in the dictionary that means ‘a complete body of the laws of a country’. It was derived from a compendium of fifty books of the Roman civil law made by order of the Roman emperor, Justinian, in the sixth century. Given Wren’s not infrequent flirtations with the Victorian law in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, it was a name not without irony. Pandect was sent to the Caulfield stables of Frank Musgrave to be trained. Musgrave entertained high hopes for the colt as a few seasons before he had trained the colt’s older brother, Theodore, to win a three-year-old handicap at Moonee Valley. The horse showed real promise but later went amiss. That victory at the Valley in September 1936 was the very first time that Wren had used the late James Wilson junior’s famous racing colours of ‘white jacket, black sleeves and cap’ after Wilson had died in November the previous year.
Pandect made his racecourse debut on the last Saturday in January 1940 at Williamstown. The race was the second division of the Foundation Handicap over five furlongs for two-year-olds, and, unwanted in the market, he could only finish tenth. Another unplaced run followed in the V.A.T.C. Federal Stakes a fortnight later over the same course and distance. The first tangible sign of Pandect’s promise came just seven days later. The prestigious Alma Stakes that year cut up into a very large field, and the V.A.T.C. was forced to split it into two divisions. Pandect ran in the first division and showed a marked improvement when, at 50/1, he finished fourth behind the promising Sun Valley. A 525-guineas yearling trained by Fred Hoysted, Sun Valley landed a substantial plunge that day and would prove a worthy challenger for the classics in the following season. Musgrave then decided to test Pandect against the best colts and fillies of the year in the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Flemington, although starting at 25/1, he was never prominent. The race was won by Trueness, the Bayly Payten-trained daughter of Harinero, who had shown speed to burn in the spring with wins in the Gimcrack Stakes at Randwick; the Debutant Stakes at Caulfield; and the Mimosa Stakes at Flemington. In winning the Sires’ for her owner, Mrs M.J. Mackay, a relative newcomer to racing, Trueness was the first filly to do so since Nedda in 1929.
However, that V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes was significant in that it marked Pandect’s first clash with Lucrative, the Harry Freedman-trained colt who finished runner-up that day, beaten a length, and would be Pandect’s greatest rival in the three-year-old classics the following season. Lucrative was a son of the all-conquering stallion, Gay Lothario, who had been imported to the St Albans Stud at Geelong by Messrs H. G. (Guy) Raymond and H. B. Ranken. An extraordinarily consistent stallion, he was used with great moderation during his stud career. Each season he seemed to have fewer representatives on the racecourse than his contemporaries, but he invariably ended each season very near the top of the winning sires’ list.
Gay Lothario was a son of Gay Crusader, Magpie’s conqueror in that famous wartime 1917 English Two Thousand Guineas, who went on to win both the Derby and St Leger. Bred in the purple, Gay Lothario’s dam, Love in Idleness, won the 1921 English Oaks. Gay Lothario, who raced in the colours of Lord Glanely, failed to flatter his distinguished pedigree on the racecourse and after winning his only start at two and a couple of middle distance efforts the following season, was retired. The stallion’s initial stud fee was 75 guineas although this quickly climbed with his success, and he never had a more successful foaling season than 1937 when he produced not just Lucrative but the great mare, Tranquil Star, as well.
Lucrative’s dam was Balkan Star, a daughter of the imported English horse, Great Star, out of the mare, Balkan Rose. Balkan Rose had been the outstanding broodmare of the St Albans Stud in its most recent reincarnation dating from 1926. Before the coming of Lucrative, the best of the family had been Balkan Prince, beaten less than two lengths into the minor placing in the 1936 Melbourne Cup behind Wotan and Silver Standard – a fact that augured well for Lucrative as a stayer. Lucrative had been bought on the first day of the Melbourne Yearling Sales for 450 guineas by Messrs Roy McLean and Fred Levin. Both men took a fancy to the colt, and trainer Harry Freedman suggested that instead of bidding against each other, they should race him in partnership.
Lucrative wasn’t a cheap yearling – after all, the sales average was 215 guineas and the top price at those Melbourne sales of 1150 guineas was shared by another Gay Lothario colt and a Manfred colt, neither of which did much on the racecourse. Out of the 197 yearlings sold, only five colts topped the 1000 guineas mark. I might mention that the future Tranquil Star was knocked down for 600 guineas on the same day that Lucrative was sold. McLean and Levin had the pleasure of seeing Lucrative win his first race in their colours – a division of the Maribyrnong Trial Stakes. However, after two poor performances in the Debutant Stakes and Maribyrnong Plate, in which Lucrative was unplaced, Levin suffered buyer’s remorse and sold out his interest for £500 to McLean, in whose sole ownership the horse was to prove a goldmine.
Lucrative, like Pandect, continued to improve throughout that autumn as he matured and the distances of the races he contested got longer. Each colt appeared once more during that 1940 V.R.C. Autumn Meeting. On Thursday Lucrative ran the minor placing in the Ascot Vale Stakes while Pandect broke through for his first victory in the Gibson Carmichael Stakes over seven furlongs, defeating the future champion mare, Tranquil Star, by a length. John Wren had won the Gibson Carmichael Stakes the year before with the Siegfried colt, Wilson, and he was convinced that his homebred Pandect was even better. The impressive performances of both Lucrative and Pandect during the Flemington meeting persuaded their respective trainers to journey to Randwick and contest both the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes and Champagne Stakes.
The glamour horse of the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes that year and the 5/4 favourite for the event was Flying Knight. A 600 guineas yearling, he was a son of the imported English stallion, Medieval Knight, owned and trained by E. Hunter Bowman at Victoria Park. The colt had created a big impression when he led all the way to win the Breeders’ Plate at Randwick early in the spring and had franked that form in his most recent appearance at the same course when an easy winner of the colts and geldings division of the Fairfield Handicap. Trueness ran as the 9/2 second favourite, with 11/2 Lucrative and as much as 20/1 available about Pandect. Lucrative, always handsomely positioned from the start, was afforded a classic rails-run in vintage McCarten style, dashing clear at the distance to win by two-and-a-half lengths from a fast-finishing Pandect, who got up to beat Trueness by a neck into the minor placing. However, Pandect represented a hard-luck story.
Indeed, the A.J.C. stewards questioned Harold Badger’s ride on the colt and subsequently issued a report that read: “Pandect attempted to run down the tapes at barrier rise and lost ground.” It was an understatement, to say the least. Usually, a slow beginner, circumstances compounded habit in that race when the machine went up for Pandect had turned half side on and was some fifteen lengths behind the leaders after the first furlong. The colt’s brilliant finish excited the multitude. Jack Shaw, the former leading bookmaker who by now had metamorphosed into a newspaper columnist, was one who was mightily impressed by Pandect’s barnstorming finish and in his Daily Telegraph column gave readers a long-range tip for the next A.J.C. Derby. On the following Wednesday much the same field of juveniles saddled-up for the Champagne Stakes over the shorter six-furlong course. Both Pandect and Lucrative suffered interference in the race won comfortably by John, with Lucrative and Flying Knight in the minor placings.
Whereas Pandect was twice blocked in the straight to finish fourth, Lucrative, who started the favourite despite his 10lb penalty, was held in a pocket for more than a furlong and cannoned into the running rail. McCarten’s well-known love affair with the rails didn’t always result in bliss and on this occasion Lucrative returned to scale with a big lump on his stifle. The winner, John, who finished on strongly from last at the straight entrance, was trained by Bayly Payten and owned by his breeder, Mrs Pat Osborne, whose husband was a member of the A.J.C. committee. Mrs Osborne had bred John’s dam, Mince Pie, as well, a placegetter in both the A.J.C. Summer Cup and Tattersall’s Cup, and a winner of the Bond Cup at Caulfield. The breeding of the colt was very much a family affair as John Buchan the sire of John had been imported from England by Pat Osborne. The Champagne Stakes marked the end of the two-year-old season for both Pandect and Lucrative. The fact that four different horses had won each of the four major autumn two-year-old races suggested perhaps that it was a mediocre year and there wasn’t a champion among them after all. Only time would tell.
Unlike in England, War had not greatly affected the sport of horseracing in Australia at the time of the running of the 1940 A.J.C. Derby. Racing clubs throughout the Commonwealth were united in helping Australia’s war effort. Significant sums of money had been raised through race meetings, and the clubs were conducting their sport with the sole view of giving their profits to war funds. Thousands were employed in the thoroughbred industry, and many more thousands depended on racing for a living. Some cuts had been made in stakes. However, given that the Derby conditions had been promulgated before hostilities had broken out, the total prize money for the 1940 renewal of the Derby remained the same as before.
The top Victorian three-year-olds contesting the A.J.C. classic came to Sydney during August. Lucrative arrived in the middle of the month and went into Dan Lewis’s Randwick stables until Harry Freedman could make the trip. Pandect, on the other hand, arrived in Sydney on the last Thursday in August and immediately went into the Kensington stables of Frank McGrath, who was to have sole training responsibility for the colt’s Derby preparations. Eighty-year-old Frank Musgrave remained in Melbourne to oversee Ajax’s final preparation and willingly surrendered Pandect into McGrath’s hands. Indeed, the same policy had been pursued the year before with John Wren’s colt, Wilson. McGrath was hoping to go a couple of placings better with, this, his latest charge. McGrath’s stables were temporarily boosted by another class galloper that spring when the great Beau Vite also sheltered at Stormy Lodge.
A new judge’s box had been erected at Randwick since the running of the previous year’s Derby. Messrs Smith and Nicholson now judged from an elevated position to ensure that their view wasn’t interrupted by the Tote-House on the Flat enclosure. Communication of the finish was by use of overhead wire, and it had been employed since racing had resumed at Randwick at the end of August. A field of ten colts stood their ground for the 1940 Derby and on the strength of his Rosehill Guineas, Tidal Wave, trained by Jack Jamieson, was the firm favourite. A September foal, he was a powerful, strongly-built chestnut colt by Tiderace out of the A.R.C. Great Northern Oaks winner, My Own, and a half-brother to the New Zealand Cup winner, Yours Truly.
Tidal Wave had been purchased by Jamieson for 1450 guineas at the New Zealand Yearling Sales. On the dam’s side, Tidal Wave traced back to the great broodmare Chand Bee Bee and from this family had descended Amounis, Piastre, Chantress, Eurythmic and Furious among others. My Own, the dam of Tidal Wave, had won both the C.J.C. Metropolitan Handicap and the New Zealand Oaks, and she was also a half-brother to Runnymede (by King John), winner of the 1925 C.J.C. New Zealand Derby and G.G. Stead Gold Cup. Tiderace, the sire of Tidal Wave, was by Fairway and thus a grandson of the great Phalaris. Tiderace was only lightly raced in England and was being prepared for the Goodwood Cup when he was purchased for T. H. Lowry’s Okawa Stud in Hawke’s Bay.
Tidal Wave had shown promise during his first season in winning the Wentworth Handicap at Randwick in the autumn. Unlucky to be beaten a half-head by Ensign in the Canterbury Guineas, the chestnut colt made amends a fortnight later and landed some good wagers when he just lasted to win the Guineas at Rosehill. George Tancred, the gambling colossus behind the Jamieson stable, plastered the money on Tidal Wave in course betting on the Derby. Pandect shared the second line of betting with Scientist, a colt by Marconigram trained by Cecil Russell, and had won the Hawkesbury Grand Handicap (10f) in the hands of the up and coming young apprentice, Jack Thompson, only the week before at Rosehill. Munro now had the Derby mount.
Bimbil, the dam of Scientist, was 20-years-old when she threw him, and the mare with foal at foot had been purchased for just 85 guineas by owner Mrs E. G. Carroll. The colt had spent the first few months of his life in a backyard at Strathfield, a suburb of Sydney. Alas, he suffered from a moving splint in his near foreleg. Lucrative, Pandect’s conqueror in the Sires’ Produce Stakes in the autumn, occupied the third line of Derby betting. He had confirmed that he had regained his autumn brilliance when finishing a close third in the Rosehill Guineas. Victoria had quite a representation in the classic, for apart from Pandect and Lucrative, both Sun Valley and Fur Trader hailed from across the Murray. The wily Fred Hoysted had transported Sun Valley across to Sydney after winning the Moonee Valley Stakes, and he carried the colours of the Manton family, who had previously won the Derby with Salitros in 1920. The former top hoop, Bill Duncan, prepared Fur Trader.
Frank McGrath was convinced that Pandect would win over the mile-and-a-half because the colt was a genuine stayer. All that was required was a fast pace, and he instructed Cook to make his run at the half-mile. The start of the race was delayed some eighteen minutes when Nightbeam lost a shoe while parading and then slipped his bridle and broke away from the Clerk of the Course after Jack Coutts had dismounted. When the field was finally despatched, Pandect, drawn out in ten, was allowed to amble away from the tape and was last as the field turned out of the straight. The favourite Tidal Wave was the first to break from his inside draw and was the early leader although Fearless Fox, on whom the saddle had slipped, soon joined him. Meanwhile, McCarten had Lucrative nicely placed on the fence just behind the leaders. The field dawdled for the first quarter-mile and only marginally improved when Nightbeam slipped to the front. However, Pandect made a fast run on the outside from the rear of the field at the same time. It was the manoeuvre that would enable Cook to land the prize. The first five furlongs went by in a leisurely 71 seconds. Pandect was well -placed, but it was hardly the clip that McGrath had envisaged.
Coming to the five, Cook decided to wait no longer. He let Pandect rip, although Nightbeam went with him. The pair swept into the straight a length-and-a-half clear of Sun Valley and Lucrative. McCarten’s well-known love affair with the rails soured in the straight when Lucrative was momentarily hampered. It was only in the last hundred yards that Lucrative got clear, and although he finished fast along the fence, he failed to catch Pandect by a half-length. In taking third, Sun Valley ensured that Victorian-owned colts filled all three placings. The clock revealed just how vital was Cook’s initiative, for at 2 minutes 37 seconds it was the second slowest Derby at Randwick in twenty-five years. The heavily-backed favourite Tidal Wave finished just behind the leaders, and though George Tancred lost his string of big bets, the money didn’t stay in bookmakers’ satchels for long. Forty minutes later High Caste won the Epsom for the same stable with big George recouping his losses and more.
Pandect’s Derby victory aroused interest in the horse’s pedigree. Pantheon, his sire needs no introduction as we first met him in our 1926 chapter and as we have seen in our 1932 and 1937 chapters, the stallion had already sired two previous A.J.C. Derby winners in Peter Pan and Avenger respectively. Credit, the dam of Pandect, was a New Zealand bred mare foaled in the 1925 season, by the imported English stallion, Paper Money who stood at the Elderslie Stud at Oamaru. While Paper Money only topped the New Zealand Sires’ List once, in 1928-29, he remained a marvellously consistent stallion for many years.
A good two-year-old in England, Paper Money, owned by Sir Walter Gilbey, had run third behind Grand Parade and Buchan in the 1919 English Derby after leading at the distance. His progeny tended to be more sprinter/milers than stayers, though one of his colts, Wild Chase won a New Zealand Derby. However, Paper Money was to be a wonderful sire of broodmares, as Credit attests. Bought by John Wren as a yearling, Credit was trained in Sydney by J. A. Donohue soon after he was granted a licence to train. A good filly who enjoyed an abbreviated career on the racecourse, she did run second behind Ramulus in the A.J.C. Fairfield Handicap at Warwick Farm as a two-year-old in the hands of Bill Cook. There were two horses racing in Australia registered as Credit at the same time, and both were by Paper Money. However, the one that was the mother of Pandect descended from the broodmare, Stresa, originally imported into New Zealand by G. G. Stead.
Pandect was thirty-year-old jockey Bill Cook’s first of two A.J.C. Derby winners and curiously enough, his initial mount in the classic had come aboard the John Wren-owned Toper in Phar Lap’s year. Born in Sydney in January 1910, the second of five surviving children of parents born in N.S.W., as a boy, he used to deliver meat on horseback for his father’s butcher shop in Hornsby. Bill was also a regular competitor in riding events at the local St Ives show. It was after one such competition when he’d been adjudged “champion boy rider” that a friend of the family, Jack Bell, suggested to Bill Cook senior that his son might have a bigger future sitting on bloodstock, rather than carving up livestock. Cook senior enjoyed the Turf and was even a modest owner in his own right with a useful galloper named Tricolour in Joseph Brindon’s Kensington stable. Bell was good friends with Randwick trainer Johnny Donohoe, the pipe-puffing brother of Bill, who was in charge of proceedings at Victoria Park, and of Jim, the chief stipendiary steward with the Australian Jockey Club. Donohoe agreed to take the lad, and Bill’s apprenticeship began six months shy of his fourteenth birthday. It was to be a happy and successful apprenticeship, too, and the friendship between master and pupil was to last a lifetime. Looking back on those days years later, Cook observed: “His home was like a home to me, and I moved in with the family.”
Donohoe’s stable at the time was like many in the twenties, sheltering just a handful of horses, mostly ponies at that, and hoping to keep the bill collectors from the door by winning the occasional race with some good bets on the side. Cook’s first ride came on Donohoe’s champion 14.2 pony Little Marg, at Canterbury on July 24, 1925, to finish second; his first winner was on another Donohoe horse owned by John Wren, Pigeon Pie, a couple of months later at the same track on the last day in September. Times were hard for the next few years as young Bill plied his craft at such disparate courses as Newcastle, Wallsend and Cessnock. In those days, apprentices lost their claim after just thirty wins. During the years of Cook’s apprenticeship, Donohoe trained a very talented pony, Valora, of whom he entertained a high opinion.
A succession of wins on the pony tracks saw her elevated in the weights, and Donohoe sought permission from the A.J.C. to admit his gun apprentice to the select group of eight jockeys that were permitted to compete on both pony courses and registered courses in the period before the A.R.C. amalgamated with the A.J.C. It was a rare coterie of horsemen that the A.J.C. permitted young Cook to join, for the eight included Jim Pike, Jim Munro and Ted Bartle. However, much to Donohoe’s chagrin, while the A.J.C. committee permitted Cook, they did so without the benefit of any allowance, thereby not helping Valora’s cause at all. While the pony experiences sharpened Cook’s jockeyship, the lad found himself in the anomalous position of riding winners without the benefit of any allowance while at the same time those very winners served to count in the tally of thirty wins he was allowed before entirely losing his weight concession on A.J.C. courses.
The break that every good jockey needs to crack the big time came for Cook at the 1929 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting when he won three races from twelve rides over the four days and included among the trio was the Sydney Cup on the Dan Lewis-trained Crucis at 20/1. Years later Cook recalled the occasion: “After the race, I left the course; had to go over to Victoria Park and lead a cow back home to be milked! There I was when the races ended riding along in jodhpurs and sweater, driving the cow through the crowd as they made their way home after the Cup. Not a soul recognised me either as I rode along after the cow.” However, perhaps his most celebrated victory in 1929 came aboard Mollison when he defeated Phar Lap in the Tattersall’s Chelmsford Stakes. Less than six months later Cook won the Oakleigh Plate on Donohoe’s flying filly, Figure, giving a dashing display in the saddle on a horse that was disadvantaged not just with 9 st. 9lb or 12lb over weight-for-age, but barrier 20 as well. In the spring of 1930, the twenty-year-old Cook won the Caulfield Cup on Amounis and the following season the first of his six Sydney jockeys’ premierships.
It was with his financial future seemingly assured that on October 19, 1933, at St Aloysius’ Catholic Church, Caulfield, Billy Cook surreptitiously married the pretty Ray (Rae) Fisher, the second daughter of Alvin Fisher, an American jockey who visited these shores. The pair had met some eighteen months before and become engaged just before Billy left for a riding contract in India. Two days after the wedding, which wasn’t made public until Melbourne Cup Day, Billy had ridden the lightweight Ruach in the Caulfield Cup. Ray, born in Bombay during one of her father’s riding stints there, was a well-known actress, who had played the role of Doreen alongside Cecil Scott in Frank Thring’s film ‘The Sentimental Bloke’ produced in the previous year. Ray lived in Melbourne, and for a time Billy relocated there. However, Sydney racing soon proved too much of a pull. It was a very happy and successful marriage producing three daughters and three sons, including another champion jockey in his youngest son, Peter.
Cook’s future success was to stand in marked contrast to that of his former master. Donohoe went most of the forties’ without training a winner until Prelate won a maiden at Canterbury in August 1950. And when he did so old Johnny had to talk his way past the gatekeeper, who failed to recognise him, in order to greet the horse. Prelate was to give Donohoe the 1952 Doncaster although his light weight precluded his former star apprentice from riding him. Donohoe, who handed in his No 1 trainer’s licence in August 1965 after holding it for 54 years, vicariously enjoyed the string of big-race victories that came the way of his protégé in the saddle, which included almost every major race in Australia, and in particular, two Melbourne Cups on Skipton and Rainbird.
Given the funereal first furlongs of the 1940 A.J.C. Derby and the maladroit course chartered by Maurice McCarten on Lucrative up the Randwick straight, the jury was still out as far as deliberations on the finest three-year-old of the year were concerned. Too often in the wake of a poor ride, wounded pride leads a jockey to excite expectations in the mind of an owner which can never be met. When McCarten returned to scale after that Derby, he openly confessed to being guilty of misjudgement on Lucrative to owner Roy McLean. Moreover, he vouchsafed that Pandect wouldn’t beat his colt again. However, in saying what he did McCarten wasn’t salving pride. He was stating facts. Seven days later the three Derby placegetters, together with the well-supported Tidal Wave and the best of the Melbourne colts that hadn’t bothered coming to Sydney, clashed in the Caulfield Guineas. Lucrative was the 7/4 favourite in a field where it was 7/1 bar one. As much as 10/1 was on offer about Pandect.
Part of the explanation for Pandect’s generous price was the fact that he had drawn seventeen at the mile start, and while the race was being run at Flemington rather than Caulfield due to the War, it was still a significant disadvantage. Moreover, an unfortunate experience in his transport back to Melbourne took something out of the colt. While Pandect left Sydney on Monday evening following his A.J.C. Derby triumph, upon arrival at Albury on Tuesday morning it was found that there was no box for him in the train to Melbourne and, with several other horses, he had to remain in Albury for about six hours. Taken to stables in the town, the horse wouldn’t settle down. Pandect’s Albury imbroglio notwithstanding, it was hard to believe that anything in that Guineas’ field could have upset Lucrative that day, and the horse gave McCarten an armchair ride. Nothing had a chance with the son of Gay Lothario as he finished with six lengths to spare over the stablemates Warbird and Velocity, both trained by Sid Ferguson, in a time of 1 minute 37 seconds. Pandect could only finish sixth, although there were extenuating circumstances apart from the draw, as the horse missed the jump badly and was last at the half-mile. Pandect was a long way out of his ground upon entering the straight but finished strongly.
Seldom was a horse beaten in the A.J.C. Derby backed into favouritism for the Victorian equivalent, but such was the case in 1940 when Lucrative went off the 11/8 favourite in the 87th running of the Flemington blue riband. The horse had thrived since his visit to Sydney and part of the reason was a change of diet. When stabled at Randwick, he had been given a brand of New Zealand feed mix and did so well on it that Freedman brought a supply back with him to Mentone. In a fourteen-strong classic field, Pandect was the second favourite at 3/1, and Tidal Wave was supported for a lot of money at fives. There was a controversy at the start when Pandect was coming into what would have been a perfect line when Warbird bluffed him. Pandect, instead of continuing his forward movement, backed away. Warbird did the same and cannoned into Pandect with the result that both horses were left floundering when the starter released the field with Pandect losing as much as fifty yards.
It ruined the classic of much interest. Lucrative made ample amends for the A.J.C. Derby when, well placed by McCarten all the way, he dashed to the front soon after entering the straight to win in excellent style by a length-and-a-quarter from the only filly in the race, Tranquil Star, with the 50/1 chance, Dark Felt, a stablemate of Pandect, a moderate third. It wasn’t an honestly run Derby and the pace only quickened from the six after the first half of the journey was put by in 1 minute 18 1/2 seconds. Cook wisely did not give Pandect a hard race after the starting debacle, and he allowed his mount to trail along at the tail of the field. In the straight, Pandect ran past a few beaten horses to finish in front of about four rivals on the line. The irony, of course, was that Dark Felt, who was left in the race to act as a pacemaker for Pandect, was able to claim the minor placing. Three years later, in other hands, Dark Felt starting as the equal favourite would win the Melbourne Cup.
Pandect and Lucrative, together with Tidal Wave, represented the three-year-olds in the Melbourne Cup that year, a race that took place against a dramatic backdrop. On the Wednesday before the Cup, there was a nefarious attempt to maim the short-priced favourite, Beau Vite. A gunman crept along the back lane to Jack Fryer’s Glenhuntly stables where Beau Vite sheltered. A hole had been previously bored through the rear wall of what was believed to be Beau Vite’s box, through which the gunman pushed a gun and fired at the horse’s legs, wounding the animal. However, the stable incumbent wasn’t Beau Vite but rather El Golea, a smart sprinter who, like Beau Vite, was a brown horse who wore a white bridle and was covered in a red rug. The gunman had mistaken the identity of the horse, and a hapless El Golea finished with bullets embedded in his off-hock and the bone below the near-stifle, although the injuries didn’t end his racing career. Such was the heavy betting liability on Beau Vite in the Melbourne Cup, particularly in doubles after Beaulivre had won the Caulfield Cup, that Melbourne bookmakers laid Lucrative’s owner, Roy McLean, 20/1 to run him in the Melbourne Cup – an unheard of price about a Victoria Derby winner.
Whereas Freedman and McCarten were keen for Lucrative to start, McLean wasn’t, ever since the horse was unluckily beaten in the A.J.C. Derby. McLean had backed the son of Gay Lothario to win £60,000 in the treble, i.e. both Derbies and the Cup. However, the philanthropy of the Melbourne bookmakers after the Victoria Derby to induce McLean to start the horse saw him accept a wager of £5,000 to £250 about his horse’s chances. As it transpired, the bookmakers were saved from their liabilities on the favourite but not by virtue of Lucrative or Pandect, but rather the efforts of a 100/1 plodder in the guise of Old Rowley. Beau Vite ran fourth while Lucrative, who was always well in the picture during the race, only walked in the straight to run sixth. Pandect finished further back in ninth placing. The best Cup effort by a three-year-old that year came from Tidal Wave who took the minor placing when beaten less than a length. Whereas most of the leading three-year-olds were sent to the spelling paddock after the Melbourne Cup, Pandect accepted for the Williamstown Cup in which he was a fast-finishing fourth, although he returned to the enclosure badly cut about his hind legs.
Pandect was slow to resume in 1941 – not returning to Musgrave’s Caulfield stables until late January and thereby missed the entire Flemington Autumn Meeting. Lucrative, on the other hand, followed a more conventional campaign with placings in both the C.F. Orr Stakes and Futurity Stakes en route to the V.R.C. St Leger. He had matured into a high-spirited and massive 16.2 hands racehorse who wasn’t averse to the odd bottle of beer regularly as an appetiser. On paper at least, it seemed that the Flemington St Leger was Lucrative’s to lose and he went to the post the 10/9 favourite. However, lose it he did. In a field of seven, Tranquil Star came from last at the three-furlong post to sprint around her rivals on the home turn and clear right out in the straight to win by no less than five lengths from Lucrative and Positron. In so doing, this 600-guineas yearling became the first of her sex to win the race since Furious was successful in 1922.
The action then moved to Randwick. In her first appearance in the Harbour City, Tranquil Star proved the V.R.C. red riband had been no fluke, winning the Chipping Norton Stakes by four lengths from High Caste and the odds-on Beau Vite, with both Pandect and Lucrative among the beaten brigade. It was on the strength of this form that Tranquil Star was despatched the 4/7 favourite in the A.J.C. St Leger a week later. Not for the first time that season the odds were upset in the three-year-old ranks. In a stirring finish, Lucrative narrowly defeated Pandect but probably would have scored on protest anyway. Nonetheless, Tranquil Star made the race a real test for the colts, for while Lucrative had taken charge at the winning post the first time, Shean, on Tranquil Star, dissatisfied with the tempo, dashed the filly to the front approaching the mile. Then it was on for young and old for she ran the last mile in a little worse than 1 minute 38 seconds, albeit pulling up in a distressed state in the humidity. At the turn when Pandect and Lucrative were closing in on Tranquil Star, there was a major scrimmage caused by the filly coming out and Lucrative attempting to come between her and Pandect and receiving the worst of it. Pandect, however, had his way and went past Tranquil Star only to be caught by Lucrative on the post and beaten a half-head.
Two days later Lucrative put the issue of the best three-year-old of the season beyond argument when, carrying 8 st. 2lb – some 4lb more than Pandect, he joined the select band of racehorses of that age to win the £7,000 Sydney Cup. And a cracking win it was, too! The colt smashed the two-mile record at Randwick by three-quarters of a second to give Harry Freedman and Roy McEwan their first win in the race and Maurice McCarten his second, having previously won on Contact for the trainer, Dan Lewis. Lucrative won the race by three lengths from Hope, the ancient of the field, with only inches to spare over Pandect in the minor placing. The Cup that year was truly run, with Lady Buzzard assuming the honours of the pacemaker. At one stage Lady Buzzard was some five lengths in front, and the first mile was put by in 1 minute and 40 1/2 seconds. It was a good quality field, too. Mosaic, the winner of the two previous Cups, ran a gallant race under his 9 st. 10lb to finish fourth; while Veiled Threat, the favourite, could only finish seventh but made up for his disgrace by winning the race twice in the next three years. Lucrative was well-supported by the Freedman stable, firming from sevens into fives and was never worse than second in the running.
Brought back into training as four-year-olds, Pandect and Lucrative were each aimed at similar races, the A.J.C. Metropolitan Handicap and the Caulfield-Melbourne Cups. Placed in the R.R.C. Spring Handicap and the Hill Stakes, Pandect’s off-foreleg filled after running fourth in the A.J.C. Colin Stephen Stakes and he was a course scratching on Metropolitan Day. It is interesting to reflect that in the original weights for the Metropolitan, while Lucrative was handicapped on 9st. 3lb, Pandect was rated a half-stone inferior on 8st. 10lb. In the latter’s absence, Lucrative emphasised his class by running a gallant second in the rich Randwick staying handicap – beaten a half-neck with his big weight in the Australian record time of 2 minutes 41 1/2 seconds. In going under to the F. W. Hughes-owned Dashing Cavalier, Lucrative was giving the winner a year in age and 3lb in weight.
Returned to Melbourne, Lucrative won the V.A.T.C. Caulfield Stakes en route to running as the unplaced 4/1 favourite in the Caulfield Cup won by Velocity. Within days of his failure in the Melbourne Cup won by Skipton, it was announced that Lucrative had been sold to the former Australian trainer, Alex Higgins, then based in Bombay. Higgins campaigned his horses in Poona and after the season closed there, travelled across to the Royal Calcutta Turf Club’s meeting where races such as the King Emperor’s Cup and the Viceroy’s Cup were conducted. The price paid for Lucrative was never publicly disclosed but was rumoured to be something like £5,000. At the time of the sale, it was believed that Lucrative wouldn’t race on Australian soil again. However, owing to the difficulties of arranging wartime shipping transport, Lucrative, prepared by Frank Godby, honoured his engagement in the V.A.T.C. Eclipse Stakes. It was a race he won with ridiculous ease and in so doing, immediately returned Higgins £1,400 of his purchase price.
While Pandect raced on intermittently into his seven-year-old season, the fact is that he never won another race after his A.J.C. Derby triumph. Yes, there was the occasional flash of brilliance such as his second placing behind Tranquil Star in the 1942 W.S. Cox Plate, but his suspensory ligament continued to trouble him, and he was retired after being pulled up in the 1944 Moonee Valley Cup. The son of Pantheon was never going to be in demand as a stallion, but John Wren did stand him at his Moroco East station in the Riverina, where he sired a handful of ordinary winners such as Rebuke, Redden and Chidden – most of whom carried John Wren’s colours. When the station was sold in November 1950 so, too, was Pandect who realised just 200 guineas. I might observe in passing that the next time John Wren won a race at Randwick after Pandect’s Derby came with a horse called Entrust – a half-brother to Pandect. It was just a novice handicap in November 1949 in a big field of twenty-four, but the man who prepared Entrust for that victory was none other than Frank McGrath. While Wren engaged a number of trainers for his large string of horses during his lifetime, he was invariably loyal to all of them.
Undoubtedly the best racehorse to emerge from that 1937 crop of foals turned out to be the filly Tranquil Star. Given Pandect’s indisposition and Lucrative’s withdrawal to India, the ranks were cleared. Trained by Ron Cameron out of his Bond-street stables at Caulfield for Melbourne barrister, T. G. Jones, and his friend and business associate from Sydney, Richard Cobden, Tranquil Star emerged as one of the great mares in the history of Australian racing. Named after a rare species of Clematis, her racing colours of ‘mauve, cream band, sleeves, and cap’ derived from the colours of the decorative plant itself. Ron Cameron who plotted the mare’s career throughout had been born in the Hawkes Bay farming district of New Zealand and before taking up the stopwatch had been a successful and versatile jockey, winning the 1911 Melbourne Cup on The Parisian and the following year successfully partnering Queen of Scots in the Oakleigh Plate and Uxbridge in the Australian Hurdle. A sound and hardy animal, Tranquil Star raced for seven seasons and won twenty-three races over distances from five to fourteen furlongs. She enjoyed her best season as a spring five-year-old when she won the Caulfield Cup with 8 st. 12lb and the W.S. Cox Plate and then won the W. S. Cox Plate again the following season.
After Pandect’s retirement, Wren continued to be active on the Turf in the last decade of his life. Undoubtedly the best racehorse to carry his colours in the postwar years was Pure Fire – yet another example of just how scrupulous Wren could be in naming his racehorses. Pure Fire was a colt by Empyrean from Fate’s Decree and won for his owner both the A.J.C. and V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes in 1951. Perhaps the name doesn’t seem that clever at first blush until one realises that the empyrean is defined as the highest part of heaven and thought by the ancients to be the realm of pure fire. As we have seen, some of his horses were also named after his friends and colleagues such as Theodore, Wilson, Anstey and Nolan named after E. G. Theodore, James Wilson junior, Frank Anstey, the Labor politician and Bernard Nolan, a well-known Melbourne solicitor, respectively.
Anstey was another example of an expensive Wren failure having cost 2000 guineas, as were Murmuring (2000 guineas), Marcus (2500 guineas) and Qustar. The last-named was the cause of a very public falling-out between Porter and the trainer, Fred Hoysted. Qustar seemed a very promising two-year-old when Hoysted sold him to Wren. Porter, as an extensive patron of the Hoysted stable, believed that he should have been given the first refusal on the horse. In a fit of high dudgeon, Porter then removed his horses, including Sentiment and Prince o’ the Fairies to Theo Lewis’s establishment at Flemington. Qustar, at one time, considered an A.J.C. Derby prospect, at least won a race for Wren – at Moonee Valley in July 1950 – to break a drought of some two or three years since Nolan and Starred had been successful.
Yet these wins were in relatively minor races. Indeed, when Wren’s entire career as a racehorse owner is considered together with the money he spent, his spectacular successes were rather widely spaced. He failed to fulfil his ambition of winning a Melbourne Cup although he came close with The Rover in 1921. However, Wren could so easily have owned the previous year’s winner, Poitrel. As we have seen in the 1924 chapter of this chronicle, Poitrel was offered in the Arrowfield Stud draft at the 1916 Sydney Yearling Sales with a modest reserve of 330 guineas but failed to attract a bidder at that price. Wren instructed his Sydney agent, Jim Donohoe, to negotiate for him but Donohoe worried about the cost of transport, and in the end, the negotiations came to nothing. When Poitrel won that 1920 Melbourne Cup he did so in the famous livery of his breeders, Will and Fred Moses. After Pandect’s Derby victory, Wren was confident that the son of Pantheon would win him a Melbourne Cup, but as with so many of his promising horses, he broke down on the eve of a big race. Wren was still trying to win the Cup in his last years and had horses with various trainers apart from Frank McGrath, including Jack Holt and Harry Telford. At the time of his death, John Wren’s trainers included R. J. Shaw at Flemington; A. H. Lawson at Flemington; and F. W. Hoysted at Mentone.
There were considerable business deals done by Wren in those post World War II years. Ascot Racecourse had been taken over by the Commonwealth during the War for defence purposes. In October 1946 its seventy-seven acres were sold to the Victorian Housing Commission for £142,648 netting Wren and his partners a huge windfall. These were the years, too, where John Wren was active in Fijian gold mining companies such as the Emperor and Loloma mines and the controversy over not paying dividends to small shareholders. Wren remained involved behind the scene in politics as well. It was believed that he was active in destroying the Cain Labor Government simply because it introduced night trotting and removed control of the sport from Wren’s Victorian Trotting and Racing Association. Thereafter it was said that Wren transferred his allegiance and money to the Country Party. In May 1950 Wren contributed £5,000 towards a scholarship Trust as a tribute to Archbishop Mannix. But, of course, more than anything else the post-War years for Wren and his family were overshadowed by the publication of Frank Hardy’s novel, ‘Power Without Glory’ and the subsequent Court challenge in October/November 1950 and its High Court aftermath.
For almost sixty years Wren had been a devoted supporter of the Collingwood Football Club, which he endowed munificently. At the age of eighty-two, he attended the 1953 V.F.L. grand final between Collingwood and Geelong but over-exerted himself in struggling through the crowd at three-quarter time to position himself behind the goal his beloved Magpies were attacking. That over-exertion triggered a heart attack, and Wren was admitted to the Mount St Evin’s Hospital on September 29. He lay there for almost a month, too ill to even listen to the broadcasts of races which two of his horses – Tenet and Fascinating (V.R.C. Maribyrnong Plate) won. Death had to take him sleeping, for occlusion or not, if John Wren had been awake, there would have been a fight.
His sons, John and Joseph, and the hospital’s Catholic chaplain were with him when he breathed his last. He left a widow, Ellen, and five children, four other children having pre-deceased him. Wren’s Victorian estate was valued at £1,003,947 while his investments in other States exceeded £300,000. Unlike so many wealthy men, Wren exhibited no favouritism in the disposition of his estate. Rather, he was laudably egalitarian in bequeathing equal shares to his adult children or their offspring. I might mention that Wren’s death didn’t spell the end for the famous racing colours nor their association with the family. John Wren junior became a client of Tulloch Lodge in Sydney. Indeed, the top-priced yearling of the William Inglis Sales in April 1965, a colt by Wilkes from Foison that brought 11,000 guineas was bought by Smith on behalf of John Wren junior. Perhaps the best-known horse to carry those colours after Wren senior’s death was Cold Cuts, who ran unplaced in the 1963 A.J.C. Derby.
James Griffin in his book ‘John Wren – A Life Reconsidered’, claims that in 1950 Wren told Father William Hackett, the Rector of Xavier College, that he had given away some £2 million in his lifetime, most of it anonymously. Admittedly, Griffin’s book was written in cooperation with the Wren family, but the author believes the claim credible. However, he doesn’t clarify how much of the sum included bribes. Perhaps apart from politicians, Wren’s largest endowments were to St Vincent’s Hospital and Caritas Christi. The cynics scoffed that the donations were mere attempts to repurchase secular respectability. Not all historians have been as kind as Griffin. Manning Clark, perhaps Australia’s most celebrated though now diminished historian, was excoriating in his criticism of Wren’s character. Clark aligned Wren with John Norton, the notorious publisher of the Sydney newspaper, Truth. Clark maintained that while Norton was debauching Sydney, Wren was debauching Melbourne, i.e.” exposing the rottenness beneath the veneer of civilisation, without holding out the prospect of better things to come.” For Norton and Wren, life without God was a vaudeville of devils.
So, was Wren a man more sinned against than sinning? I’ll let you be the judge. The impartial historian, however, must confess with a sigh that at least when it came to the Turf, they were more colourful times. Wren in death might have taken his leave of the city but a number of landmarks remained in Melbourne to remind people of his life’s journey. The Collingwood Historical Society has placed a plaque outside of (now) 148 Johnston-street marking the location of Wren’s famous tote. Studley House was bought in 1966 by Xavier College and was subsequently renamed Wren House. Today it is an integral part of the Burke Hall campus, the preparatory school of Xavier College, where it is used as the music and art school. It remains one of Melbourne’s most famous historical buildings, a sentinel to a vanished and colourful age when Australia lost its innocence, and its one-time owner wore many masks.