At the beginning of spring in 1946 the man generally acknowledged as the finest trainer of stayers in Sydney, had never won a Derby either at Randwick or Flemington. The figure in question was the 71-year-old Dan Lewis. A Derby victory might have been missing from his curriculum vitae, but he already had four Sydney Cups to his name. A true gentleman of few words, and those few spoken in a soft and courteous manner, Dan Lewis had cut a distinctive figure on Sydney racecourses over many years with his trademark bowler hat, bow tie and pipe. He was to remain reticent throughout a training career crowded with success in which his best two years were still to come, although he never did manage to top the Sydney trainers’ premiership. Born in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1875 the son of Henry Lewis, a publican, Dan came from a large and well-educated middle-class family that numbered among his brothers both a doctor and a solicitor. The young Dan was the only son ever attracted to horse racing.
Lewis came to Australia in his early twenties and first started to train horses around the Western districts of country NSW. It was here that he made the acquaintance of the wealthy Forbes grazier, J. J. Leahy, who conducted a thoroughbred breeding operation on his Manor Park stud farm and who was to play such a significant role in Lewis’s later training career. As well as training a few horses, Dan sought his fortune as a layer of odds, going into partnership with the colourful Newcastle sportsman, Bert Bowser. In his bookmaking capacity Lewis eventually moved to Randwick, and while running a billiards room on the side, resided in the landmark establishment of that locale, the Coach and Horses Hotel. It was a fortuitous choice of lodgings, for it was here that Dan met his wife Annie, whose parents owned the hotel. Dan continued both as a hobby trainer and bookmaker, fielding on all A.J.C. courses until the early 1920’s when the rules of the A.J.C. changed to forbid the pursuit of such conflicting activities. Lewis relinquished his book and pencil and instead concentrated his energies on the conditioning and training of racehorses.
His first significant success came in the 1921 Doncaster Handicap when he prepared the lightly weighted three-year-old filly, Speciality, a daughter of Persian Knight, for J. J. Leahy and some heavy backing at the eleventh hour on the course resulted in a substantial win for the stable. On that memorable occasion, Lewis was resplendent in a bowler hat, and it was to become his trademark during his rise to prominence. There was eventually established a racecourse rumour in later years that whenever old Dan sported his bowler, he fancied the chances of his horses that day. Just six months after that Doncaster, Speciality gave Lewis his second significant success when she took out The A.J.C. Metropolitan. A first-class mare, she later won an Autumn Stakes at Randwick by a neck from the great David, on a day when there was no pace on for the favourite; and to the extent that any one horse sets up a trainer, Speciality was that horse in the life of Dan Lewis.
By the early twenties,’ the bandwagon was beginning to roll. In 1924 Lewis trained Leahy’s filly, Valdoona, to win the Adrian Knox Stakes while The A.J.C. Metropolitan also fell to Lewis again thanks to Polycletan, ridden by the trainer’s own apprentice, the highly successful Tom Farthing. In fact, this highlights another facet of Lewis’ horsemanship: his ability to produce successful apprentices. The unfortunate Jack Crowley was another, together with Jack Jones, Harold Hanley, Peter Burkhardt, Ted Doon and Keith McCarthy. As much satisfaction as Lewis derived from those early victories in the big races, lesser feature races also afforded much pleasure. The month of December 1926 provides two such examples. The A.J.C. Villiers Stakes that year was looked upon as a shoo-in for Ned Moss’s Vaals, and he went to the post a warm 5/4 favourite. However, Lewis specked Queen Alwyne at 25/1 from his own stable, who just happened to be Vaals half-sister and she landed the prize while still a maiden. When I say that she was a maiden, I use that word in its racing rather than breeding sense. For Queen Alwyne was that rare horse – a winner in foal. It seems that while spelling, she had been surreptitiously served by an excited stallion and returned to Dan Lewis’s establishment without anyone being the wiser. In due course following her success in the Villiers, she did produce a foal, but unfortunately, it didn’t live long.
The second low-key feature race that afforded pleasure to Lewis in December 1926, came just twelve days after St Alwyne’s Villiers. It was Grecian Orator in the 1926 Tattersall’s Carrington Stakes at Randwick. The son of Demosthenes was 14/1 in pre-post betting, and Canny Danny thought him a good thing. Let the trainer himself tell the story: “Imagine my joy when, the day before the race, I received communication that somebody had drawn him in Tattersall’s Sweep and wanted to ‘lay’ me a big amount of money if he won. Grecian Orator hit the front in the last furlong and looked a certain winner – but just then his saddle slipped. Jimmy Simpson was aboard him, and I just can’t realise how he ever kept his seat. Grecian Orator’s saddle didn’t just slip – the girth and surcingle snapped, and the saddle slipped from my horse’s back. Simpson wriggled back and passed the judge a winner, riding bareback with the saddle under Grecian Orator’s flanks.”
Grecian Orator was later to tragically lose his life when he slipped in the quagmire that passed for the Randwick course in Don Moon’s Doncaster the following year. He was the second good horse that Dan Lewis lost at Randwick, Speciality having collapsed and died on the track while working one morning. Nonetheless, the bookmaking fraternity soon learned to respect horses trained by their former confrere in the ring and Lewis’ speciality, if you will forgive the pun, soon came in landing tidy wagers with lightweights in major staying races. The Lewis’ betting gambles often proved successful at good prices and one of the reasons the odds were so good was that Dan confided in so very few people; his philosophy was akin to that of Brer Rabbit, i.e. ‘lay low and say nothin’. It was a philosophy he extended to the hearth, and as much as he loved his racing, he seldom talked it in the family home.
Lewis’s list of Sydney Cup winners remains the best performance by a trainer in that prestigious race and each of them was weighted at less than weight-for-age and had plenty of racing after Christmas to fit them for the big handicap. The record would have been even better had Winalot been missing from the 1928 Cup field. Dan trained the runner-up that year in Tangible, a four-year-old chestnut gelding by Lilyveil, on behalf of his old patron, J. J. Leahy. Lewis’s first winner of the race came two years later in 1929 with Crucis and represented the initial big race success for jockey Billy Cook and served to boost Cook’s career. It should also have boosted the bank balance of Dan Lewis by more than it did. In the week before the Doncaster, he and his good friend Jerry Carey had shared in a double coupling Karuma, trained by Jerry Carey, in the big mile, with Crucis in the Sydney Cup for £5,000.
It wasn’t until settling day after both horses had won their respective races and Lewis turned up to collect his wager that he discovered the bookmaker in question, Mannie Lyons of Melbourne, had struck the wrong note and booked the double as Gesto and Crucis. Lyons had issued the necessary confirmatory voucher in the usual manner; but unfortunately, Lewis hadn’t bothered to collect the voucher from the letter rack of Tattersall’s Club until after the Easter weekend, and the error wasn’t discovered until it was too late. Lewis was notoriously secretive about his betting transactions, but the reason this became such a celebrated case is that Lewis appealed the matter to the Tattersall’s Club committee. However, given the evidence brought before them, the committee had no option but to find in favour of the bookmaker; they agreed that it was apparent that Lewis intended taking the winning double but the original note of entry made by the bookmaker was clearly Gesto and Crucis. No such misfortune, however, attended Lewis’s next three Cup winners, which all met with stable support viz. Akuna (1935) on behalf of his old patron J. J. Leahy, Contact (1936) – which Lewis part-owned, and L’Aiglon (1938).
Mention of Jerry Carey and his friendship with Lewis brings to mind a humorous exchange as retailed by Clive Inglis. The characters of Carey and Lewis were quite different, the one garrulous and extroverted, the other reserved and introverted. Early one morning at Randwick trackwork just before Easter, Dan observed to Jerry: ‘If I get a yearling at the sales next week who is by Magpie, I shall call him Carey.’ Carey, not to be outdone, turned to the old master and said: ‘Yes, and if I get one by William the Silent, I’ll call him Lewis.’ It was this quality of discretion and sense of exclusive loyalty to owners that attracted no end of distinguished patrons to Lewis’s High Street stables over the years, including the likes of E. J. Watt, Leslie Wallace, Walter Digby, Cyril Ives, H. G. Whittle, Percy Reynolds and the Kelly family. The stables of Dan Lewis – numbering eighteen boxes – were located in High Street, adjoining the establishment run by Jack Jamieson, and later by Maurice McCarten. The Lewis family home ‘The Glen’ was at No 10 Arthur St. Dan traditionally worked his horses out of the sheds at the half-mile, walking the horses through the sand hills at the top of Randwick.
In the autumn of 1945 and with the end of the war clearly in view, there was an unprecedented boom in the number of yearlings on offer and the amounts brought by them in the sales ring – it was a boom that would continue into the following year when prices soared, and turnover broke all-time records. Among the clients that had approached Dan Lewis to purchase on their behalf at the Easter Yearling Sales of 1945 were W. Morrison, one of Sydney’s biggest food caterers and the colourful Frank Spurway, who had previously gone close to winning the A.J.C. Derby with Soorak back in 1922; and when Dan Lewis studied the William Inglis catalogue the trainer was seeking strains of stamina that might give him yet another Sydney Cup winner, not to mention his first Derby.
Among the yearlings that he purchased at those sales, was lot No. 169, a bay colt offered by the Alma Vale Stud in Queensland, by Mr Standfast out of a daughter of Spearfelt who traced all the way back to the celebrated imported mare Chand Bee Bee. The dam had won in open company in Queensland and was closely related to Adrift, a winner of an Oakleigh Plate. Bought for 1150 guineas on behalf of W. Morrison and his partner J. Goldstein, he was later registered as Prince Standard. The horse was a lucky buy because Morrison had initially asked Lewis to bid for a Midstream colt earlier in the day, but that yearling went for more than Morrison and Goldstein were prepared to pay. It was a lucky miss, for the Midstream colt remained a maiden long after Prince Standard was winning classics.
A second Lewis acquisition later that same day was lot No. 197, this time on behalf of Frank Spurway. A bay colt, he was by the imported French stallion, Actor, a lightly-raced horse that had been runner-up in both the Prix Lupin and French Derby before Sol Green purchased him to serve in Australia; and this particular yearling was closely related to Foxlaw, an Ascot Gold Cup winner. Knocked down at 800 guineas, Spurway subsequently named him Proctor. These two yearlings were to form part of a stable triumvirate of three-year-olds that were to give Lewis an unforgettable racing season in 1946-47. The third member of the triumvirate and the colt that would give Lewis his only Derby success at Randwick, Concerto, wasn’t acquired at the fall of an auction hammer at all. Rather, the brothers George and Jim Fleming of grocery retailing fame, having failed to buy a classic winner through the sales ring during their seven years’ dalliance in racing, had instead tried to breed one on their Koorawatha Stud farm in the Lachlan Valley. The little fellow that resulted was presented to their wives to celebrate V.P. Day – the day the Allies officially won the Pacific War. The Mesdames Fleming had then deliberately sought out Lewis to prepare the youngster for racing.
Prince Standard was the most precocious of the three horses, and after easily winning his only two barrier trials at Victoria Park, Lewis set him for the Breeders’ Plate. He went to the post, a well-backed second favourite, only to be beaten by the unsound Havoc, a son of Ajax trained by Bayly Payten.
Further seconds followed in the Canonbury and Kindergarten Stakes before the son of Mr Standfast broke through to easily win the prestigious Kirkham Stakes at his fourth start in late November. Coincidentally, in that race, Prince Standard relegated his stablemate, Concerto, a winner at Canterbury Park at his previous start, into second placing.
Third prize in the race went to the odds-on favourite, Persian Prince – a son of Manitoba trained by Frank Dalton that had cost Sid Field 4000 guineas as a yearling. If nothing else, the race confirmed that old Dan Lewis at least had two good ‘uns in his stable. While it was the only win in ten starts that Prince Standard enjoyed that season, the colt kept the best of company. Lewis thought highly enough of him to run for the Federal Stakes and Merson Cooper Stakes in Melbourne, as well as the Sires’ Produce Stakes and Champagne Stakes in Sydney. However, it was only in the last-named event that Prince Standard managed to attract the judge’s attention when he ran third to Persian Prince, a horse that had begun to justify his high price tag toward season’s end.
Meanwhile, after his easy reduction by Prince Standard in the Kirkham Stakes, Concerto had run a frustrating series of placings in minor juvenile handicaps before Lewis afforded this son of Midstream his chance in the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Randwick too, although, like his stablemate, he finished down the course. Meanwhile, Proctor, the third of Lewis’s colts to have revealed true staying potential on the Randwick gallops, completed his first campaign. Less mature than the other pair, and a delicate colt that required a more sympathetic training regimen than that generally associated with Lewis, Proctor’s racecourse debut was delayed until January. After finishing unnoticed in his first three outings, the son of Actor confirmed his staying potential with an eye-catching fourth behind Two Grand in the Fernhill Handicap at the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting.
The consistency of form was more honoured in the breach than in the observance in the rich Sydney and Melbourne two-year-old races that autumn, and the season concluded without a dominant juvenile. Bold Beau had been the crack Victorian colt and winner of the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Flemington, but he had failed badly in the four races in which he ran at the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting; and his much-anticipated clash with Chaperone, the brilliant daughter of Ajax trained by Bayley Payten, in the Sires’ had floundered in a muddy fiasco when neither was able to handle the exceptionally heavy ground. Flying Duke, a colt by Le Grand Duc trained by Maurice McCarten for leading breeder Percy Miller, had won the race landing a tidy sum in bets.
This colt was one of a handful of yearlings that Miller did not submit for sale in his final yearling draft of the war years when he was endeavouring to build up his numbers again. And it was as a result of the stamina displayed by Flying Duke on that miserable autumn afternoon that he wintered as the Derby favourite. Nonetheless, although he had failed to land any of the rich plums, as the autumn shadows lengthened into the grey pall of winter, Lewis realised that the gods had dealt him a full hand in prospective classics candidates for the coming season. Prince Standard and Concerto might have only won one race apiece, but Lewis knew the best was yet to come. With such an array of talent available, the trick now would be the order in which the old master chose to play his cards in the spring. And few men who had ever chanced a gamble on a racecourse were more skilled in that department than the man in the bowler hat.
When once again all three colts were brought back into work, it was still Prince Standard that shone most brightly in early season gallops. The colt was in cracking form in the weeks leading up to the A.J.C. Spring Meeting. After a quiet run in a flying handicap at Canterbury Park upon resumption, Prince Standard recorded three wins in succession. The first of these, a three-year-old handicap at Rosehill in late August, was shared with Hiraji; then followed an easy win in the Hobartville Stakes – again run that year at Randwick – before the colt completed the hat trick, unwinding a brilliant run to win the Rosehill Guineas. That Guineas was the first conducted by the newly constituted Sydney Turf Club and attracted a crowd of almost thirty thousand to the refurbished suburban course.
It was also the first occasion on which the quaintly termed ‘magic-eye camera’ deliberated on close finishes, a technological advance that the more conservative A.J.C. would not adopt for another year. Dan Lewis was briefly hospitalised during the late winter, and it fell to his good friend and fellow trainer, Jack Scully, to superintend the stable for a time. While Prince Standard was firing with all guns, the prospects of his other two classic contenders seemed decidedly mixed. Proctor suffered a minor setback that proved fatal to a Derby start at Randwick and saw his campaign switched to the Melbourne spring meetings, while Concerto struggled to find form. It seemed that the change in racing colours instigated by the Mesdames Fleming, from the ‘orange and purple hoops’ carried by Concerto in the autumn to the new strip of ‘pink, tartan sash and cap’ were nothing more than a jinx. In five starts in the new season before the Derby, Concerto managed just one minor placing.
The 1946 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions are set out in the table below:
Randwick presented a different aspect on Derby Day 1946 to that of twelve months before. It wasn’t until November 1945 that the Army completely vacated the course and the task of properly assessing the damage caused by four years of occupation began. While the buildings in all reserves, but especially the Flat, required much renovation and painting, it was the lawns and grounds where the most damage had been done; the Saddling Paddock itself resembled a dust bowl. Major renovations were impossible because of the immediate post-war shortage of materials and, while it would take until 1947 to restore the course to its former glory, at least by the spring of 1946, it was beginning to bloom again. Moreover, certain innovations were benefiting the racecourse patrons, such as the fixation of a loudspeaker to one of the Moreton Bay fig trees near the corner of the betting ring where bookmakers operated on Melbourne events, which brought forth the mellifluous tones of Eric Welch and his live running commentary from Victoria. A reciprocal arrangement similarly saw the Derby broadcast to Victoria.
A dozen colts accepted for the 1946 Derby and Flying Duke had retained the public’s faith despite a Derby preparation troubled by cracked heels. McCarten had only been able to give the horse two outings before the classic, running a sound third in the Hobartville Stakes and an eye-catching second in the Rosehill Guineas. Darby Munro, who had partnered him in his Sires’ Produce victory, retained the ride. Prince Standard remained firm in the betting as the horse best backed to beat him. Monogram trained by E. A. Halcroft was third fancy for the race and was a colt bred and owned by the man responsible for Flight, and like her, a son of Royal Step. Monogram made his first appearance in a race at Randwick in January only to lose his rider. He was then rested until August when he resumed winning a maiden at Moorefield and later that same month defeated Concerto by a neck in a mile handicap at Randwick.
On the next line of betting came Two Grand, another Mr Standfast colt that was a half-brother to Spear Chief. This fellow, trained at Canterbury by Ossie Pettit, had won the Fernhill Handicap in the autumn and during the weeks leading into the Derby had been runner-up in the Hobartville Stakes and Chelmsford Stakes, as well as filling the minor placing in the Rosehill Guineas. Concise was Bayly Payten’s only representative in the race. A 20/1 chance, he was the winner of the A.J.C. December Stakes and more recently a minor place-getter in the Canterbury Guineas behind Decorate. At 33/1 Concerto was the rank outsider of Dan Lewis’s pair.
Lewis had been well served in the draw for post-positions with Concerto getting the rails and Prince Standard out in five. Jack Gaxieu got the field away to a more successful start than he did the Epsom forty minutes later, although Flying Duke was disadvantaged on being drawn in the middle. After being trapped about five horses wide in the race to the turn out of the straight and fighting for his head, Munro on Flying Duke was forced to lie up second behind Denali, which was setting a plodding pace, with Concerto and Prince Standard well placed in third and fourth positions. The first half-mile took 56 seconds, while the mile was put by in a pedestrian 1-46 ½ – so slow that Munro could have kept a diary of the trip. However, it wouldn’t have made satisfying reading in retrospect, for Munro after kicking on Flying Duke at the turn and looking the likely winner, was outstayed by Cook on Concerto in a head-bobbing final furlong.
Monogram, which had challenged briefly at the St. Leger, finished third – a half-length behind the other pair. Prince Standard, the horse that Lewis had believed would give him his first classic, finished a well-beaten sixth in the race, with the lack of pace blamed for his failure. The Derby was a complete reversal of form for Concerto, whose last win had been at Canterbury in November 1945. At his two previous appearances, Concerto had trailed the field throughout to finish last in the Canterbury Guineas after swinging around when the tapes rose at the start; and then was always well back before finishing a disappointing eighth in the Rosehill Guineas won by his better-fancied stablemate. Despite the 33/1 on offer in the betting ring, the one shard of hope for Concerto’s owners had come from his final track trial at Rosebery on the Thursday before the Derby, when he led Prince Standard. In winning, Concerto had brought the Mesdames Fleming the honour of being the first women to own the Derby winner at Randwick. I might also observe that Concerto’s victory meant that a colt bred at Kia-Ora Stud did, in fact, win the Derby even if it wasn’t the one the betting ring expected. That, at least, was some compensation for Percy Miller, after the narrow loss of his favourite and runner-up, Flying Duke.
Concerto was the first of two winners of the A.J.C. Derby to be sired by the great stallion, Midstream. A son of the legendary Blandford, Midstream was a strong-looking, sturdy, dark bay horse marked only by a white blaze and two white hind socks, and possessed of a temperament that would satisfy the most captious critic. Bred by Mr A. de Rothschild in England in 1933, Midstream had been a good-class miler in England winning six races and £4,432 sterling before being purchased for £3,675 at the December Tattersall’s Sales and imported in 1938 by Percy Miller to stand at his Kia-Ora Stud. He was the last horse imported by Miller before the War, and he crossed the ocean in the company of another English import in the shape of Emborough. Rather a distinguished pair to travel together, and each made their mark on Australian breeding in their own way.
Miss Una Clift, a well-known owner and breeder, bred Concerto’s dam, Sweet Harmony – a daughter of Magpie. The mare traced back to Queen Mary (GB), who was the dam of Blink Bonny, the heroine of Epsom in 1857 when she won the English Derby and Oaks. It was an interesting pedigree when closely examined, with stout staying blood on both sides and one that attracted the Fleming brothers when Sweet Harmony eventually came up for sale at the dispersal of the late Bill Booth’s bloodstock. The brothers picked her up for just 300 guineas. After having spent a tidy sum of money on yearlings during their previous seven years in the game trying in vain to buy a good horse, it turned out that George and Jim Fleming had bred one rather cheaply.
George and Jim Fleming had made their money in grocery retailing, opening their first shop at Mascot in 1930. The Depression years hardly seemed a propitious era in which to launch a retail enterprise but despite the difficult times, the brothers thrived. The pair eventually built-up a chain of some twenty shops, initially under James’s wife’s maiden name, E. L. Lakin. During the boom provided by World War II and its aftermath, the number of Lakin stores multiplied to well over a hundred. (It wasn’t until 1956 that the retail grocery stores were re-launched under the Fleming name as Fleming’s Fabulous Food Stores. Woolworths bought the company in 1960, thereby entering the grocery business for the first time.) The cash flow from their grocery empire easily afforded the brothers’ dalliance with the Turf. In the decade or so after the War, George and James maintained the Kilkee Stud at Koorawatha near Nowra, a run of some 4,000 acres. Initially, it was a sheep and wheat property but the brothers converted it to a thoroughbred stud. In the wake of Concerto’s Derby victory, the Flemings imported the English stallion, Nice Day, a son of the 1937 English Derby winner, Mid-Day Sun, to stand at Kilkee. In his first two crops, he got Maynard and Joy Lad, winner of the A.J.C. Breeders’ Plate, and looked to have a successful stud career ahead of him, but he died in August 1951. Other stallions that the Flemings stood at Kilkee were Rock and Rye and Berryland. The Fleming name continued to be prominent in racing for another generation, too, when James and Ella’s son, Jim, raced horses successfully for a number of years and served both on the committee and as chairman of the Sydney Turf Club.
Concerto was the second and last winner of the A.J.C. Derby to be ridden by jockey Billy Cook, his first having come on Pandect six years earlier. In all, he enjoyed twenty-five rides in the race. Somehow it seemed fitting that it was trainer Dan Lewis who supplied the mount. After all, It was Lewis who was responsible for kick-starting Billy Cook’s list of big-race wins when he booked him to successfully partner Crucis at 20/1 in that 1929 Sydney Cup. The six years that separated Cook’s two A.J.C. Derby winners had been both varied and fulfilling. Pandect had come along before World War II really began to dislocate racing and manpower shortages became significant. Much to Cook’s surprise, he had been initially rejected for military service because of flat feet. Although only 5′ 2″ and able to ride at around seven-and-a-half stone, Cook boasted a boxer’s physique and indeed was quite handy with the gloves. Despite the Army’s initial rejection, however, he enlisted in the militia on June 25, 1942, and was employed in the accounts office, Sydney. It wasn’t until August 2, 1944, that he was discharged with the rank of corporal.
Concerto’s Derby victory helped Cook to win the last of his six Sydney Jockeys’ premierships that season. It was a premiership that should have belonged to George Moore but he broke his leg and Cook managed to get up to beat Jack Thompson by one-and-a-half wins with Moore three wins further back in third place. Both Cook and Thompson acknowledged that because of the close struggle for the premiership, bookmakers would not take risks with any of their mounts in the closing weeks of the season and the pair lost a number of rides as a result. It was a salutary reminder of just how important betting was to making a stable pay in those days.
Acknowledged as among the very best of his profession in Australia, in 1949 Cook embarked on his first working visit to England with his family. In just over three months and thanks to the support of men such as the trainers Walter Nightingall and Fred Templeman, Cook rode forty-two winners. He quickly adapted to the varying contours of the English courses by lengthening his leathers two inches, although he retained the same length of rein. He never bagged a big race on that trip but did ride Barnes Park into fifth place in the English Derby behind Nimbus. Actually, no fewer than five Australian jockeys rode in The Derby that year including Rae Johnstone, Edgar Britt, T.F. Burn, and W.T. Evans. The champ returned to England again after the 1951 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting – this time without his family – and over the course of three months there rode twenty-three winners from one hundred and seventeen mounts. Unlike so many Australian jockeys in the post-war years such as Edgar Britt, Rae Johnstone, Bill Williamson and Scobie Breasley to name just a few, Cook couldn’t tolerate the cold weather and the constant grind of travel to England’s geographically scattered racecourses. However, he did have the honour of wearing the Royal colours on Gay Mood for H.R.H. King George VI as well as the ‘chocolate and pink’ of Winston Churchill, who was a patron of Walter Nightingall’s Epsom stables. India proved far more appealing in terms of climate to Cook and in four visits there – the first in October 1932 – he won the Bombay jockeys’ premiership when riding for the Maharajahs of Kolhapur and Baroda.
The sobriquet ‘Last Race Cookie’ was first bestowed on him in October 1938, when he rode the last winner on each of the four days of the A.J.C. Spring Meeting. Confirmation bias ensured that the phrase accompanied him to the end of his riding days. It is worth observing that he won the last race at each of the two meetings that preceded his stints in England, and perhaps even more remarkably won on his first ride after returning to Australia on each occasion. Only the week before riding Johnny Zero to victory at 8/1 in the A.J.C. Final Handicap at that 1951 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting, Cook had created a Randwick record by riding the winners of five races in succession including the All Aged Stakes (Achilles 2/1), Champagne Stakes (Ocean Bound 8/11), and the Cumberland Stakes (Freedom 2/1). Few jockeys rode Randwick as well as Cook and his big race victories there included three A.J.C. Metropolitans (1939 Feminist; 1949 Count Cyrano; 1953 Carioca) and two Sydney Cups (1929 Crucis; 1953 Carioca). However, he was just as effective on skittish and inexperienced two-year-olds as his record of five Gymcrack Stakes winners in eight years attests. Cook was equally effective on the long stretches of Flemington where, apart from his two Melbourne Cups, he won the Victoria Derby twice (Great Britain 1942; Pride of Egypt 1954) and the V.R.C. Oaks twice (Primavera 1941; Sweet Chime 1946). Cook’s artistry in the saddle owed less to strength and more to an impeccable sense of timing. Time and again he would nurse a horse through a race – particularly important at Randwick in those days with the rise in the straight – and then urge it to the front in the last few yards.
Gifted in the saddle, Billy Cook was a man of grace and charm out of it and the public warmed to his irreproachable character, humility, and the unassuming cordiality of his manners. Perhaps nothing demonstrated the man’s public standing better than the occasion of his last ride at Randwick before embarking on that first riding stint in England. Cook won the last that day on Burnley. Now generally the public bolted for the trams immediately the last race was over in those roaring days but not on that occasion. Despite the rain pelting down, the public delayed their exit in their thousands to give the diminutive hoop a rousing farewell he remembered to his dying day. It meant so much more to the one-time butcher’s errand boy than the very civic reception accorded him a few days before by the Lord Mayor of Sydney, E. C. O’Dea at the Sydney Town Hall.
Although Billy Cook enjoyed a career of some thirty-five years, winners proved less frequent towards the end of the 1950s. Following upon a training accident in which he broke his leg and his weight increased to 8 st. 10lb, competitive mounts became harder to come by and in 1959 he announced his retirement from the saddle. Despite his two Melbourne Cups and two A.J.C. Derbies, Cook’s favourite racehorse never won either the famous gold cup or a blue riband. Carioca, the horse in question, came along in the twilight of his career but Cook managed to win sixteen races from thirty-two rides on the bay son of Felt Yet including both the 1953 Sydney Cup and Metropolitan Handicap. Upon the retirement of Carioca’s lessee-owner-trainer, P.C. Hoysted, Cook had the great champion’s colours – red, white sash, dark blue cap – registered in his own name.
Cook had always lived in Randwick or its surrounding suburbs since his apprenticeship when his parents moved from Hornsby to Kensington and he had lived at Kingsford before selling his house to jockey Arthur Ward and relocating eventually to beachside Coogee. After relinquishing the pigskin Cook was a small-time owner and trainer of racehorses. However, the greatest satisfaction in his post-jockey years came vicariously through the saddle of his famous jockey son, Peter, who among countless other winners matched his father two Melbourne Cups on Skipton (1941) and Rainbird (1945), with two of his own when partnering Just A Dash (1981) and Black Knight (1984). Throughout his life, Billy Cook had given generously to various charities in the best Catholic tradition although it was the money he raised for St Margaret’s Hospital, Darlinghurst, that was perhaps most notable. Survived by his wife, Ray, and their three daughters and three sons, Bill Cook died on 29 January 1985, on the Gold Coast, Queensland, and was buried in the Allambe Garden of Memories Cemetery, Nerang.
However, back to 1946. Dan Lewis had begun the spring on a high note with Concerto, and the music wasn’t about to stop just yet. Proctor, whom the trainer had sent to Melbourne before the opening of the Randwick carnival, was unlucky to be beaten a half-head in the Caulfield Guineas seven days after the Derby at Randwick had been won. Coming from an impossible position approaching the turn, Proctor was in front a stride past the post and given that he had suffered in running, it was a performance that garnered the colt many friends for the Victorian blue riband. Meanwhile Concerto and Prince Standard had joined Proctor in Melbourne, although both found the older horses too good in the Cox Plate won by the tearaway Flight. There were excuses for Prince Standard, however, as the horse returned to the enclosure with white patches marking his flank, evidence of his almost having been put over the fence during the race, and yet he still managed to run fourth. Lewis remained confident about taking the Flemington blue riband, even if he was now unsure which of his charges would do the trick.
It turned out to be Prince Standard even though the public preferred five others in the betting, including Prince Standard’s two stablemates. While Proctor was a sound third, Concerto ran well below his Randwick performance in finishing out of a place in the Victoria Derby. Considering that Morrison and Goldstein had only recently entered the ranks of ownership together, with the purchase of Prince Standard and a couple of other horses, this was a sweet victory indeed. It falls to very few owners during a lifetime of racing to have their colours triumph in a Derby. However, Morrison had witnessed his newly registered ‘orange, green Maltese cross, green cap’ achieve the honour within just a few years of entering the ranks of ownership. It was just as well. Sadly, Mr Morrison died in January of the following year.
What a day of mixed fortunes it was for Billy Briscoe! In the Mackinnon Stakes, he had the fateful ride on Bernborough that was to be the great horse’s last race, and in the very next event, he partnered the Derby winner. In training both Concerto and Prince Standard, Dan Lewis became the first trainer since Tom Payten in 1889 to win the Derbies at both Randwick and Flemington in the one season with different horses. The two colts also assisted Lewis in winning another distinction. Rare is it for any trainer to get three horses into the Melbourne Cup field, and even rarer when the trio in question all happen to be three-year-olds, but that was the achievement of Lewis that spring. Proctor was the most highly fancied of the three in the Cup, although it was Prince Standard who ran much the best race, finishing a good fifth behind Russia.
How old Dan must have looked with relish upon the year 1947 with the St. Legers seemingly at his mercy, and three strong contenders for rich distance handicaps and weight-for-age races. But it wasn’t to be. Neither Prince Standard nor Concerto was destined to win another race. Bad legs precluded Prince Standard’s re-appearance that season and restricted the horse to just nine starts over the following three years before he passed out of Dan Lewis’s stable altogether. No such physical infirmity explained Concerto’s complete loss of form, however, and by the time the St. Leger came around at Randwick, of the stable duo it was Proctor that was preferred. While Concerto ran a bad last as the despised outsider in a field of five, Proctor ran respectably to finish second behind the Bayly Payten-trained Vigaro, ridden by Munro at his front-running best.
Spare a thought at this stage of proceedings for the hapless big-betting owner of Proctor, Frank Spurway. Since those palmy days with Soorak, Frank had owned a succession of costly but moderate racehorses, often with more than one trainer. Earlier in the year the poison of suspicion had seen him remove a horse from Mick Webster’s yard after it got under his guard and won, with Spurway none the wiser and the ring untouched. Assured by Lewis at the beginning of this season that in Proctor his colours were now being carried by a colt of no common ability, the rustle of autumn leaves was again reminding Spurway that the season was all but over and the cupboard still bare of silverware. Worse still, his betting ledger was awash with red ink. Never one to let his horses run loose, Spurway had backed Proctor in all of the season’s big races only to see him lose the Caulfield Guineas narrowly, place in the Victoria Derby, and disappoint in the Melbourne Cup. Even the consolation of the Batman Stakes had been denied him at the V.R.C. Spring Meeting when finishing second.
Undaunted Spurway plunged £3,000 on the son of Actor in the St. Leger at Randwick only to see his favourite fail by a length to catch the all-the-way leader, Vigaro. Frank had played and lost again, and it must have seemed that a vengeful god was mocking him from the night sky as he quit the precincts of Randwick racecourse after that first day of the 1947 Autumn Meeting. But fortune’s wheel was about to turn and in spectacular fashion. Saddled up with just 7 st. 10lb on the second day of the fixture and entrusted to the sweet hands of the stable jockey, Billy Briscoe, Proctor managed to last the distance in the Sydney Cup over the favourite Rainbird, giving Dan Lewis a historic fifth victory in the race and Spurway his first. The prize money alone totalled £5,000 not to mention the £250 gold cup and abundant harvest in ante-post bets that Spurway landed on his horse. What a difference a day can make in racing!
Mind you, Billy Briscoe attributed much of the credit for that Sydney Cup to Darby Munro. The two men were good friends, and Munro was riding Russia in the race. Russia tired a mile from home under his big weight of 9 st. 12lb and it was at this stage that the Darb called out to Billy: “My bloke’s gone. If you want to win this, you ought to dash around them now and go to the front.” Briscoe was reluctant to make a move just then and told Darby it was too soon. “You’re mad if you don’t go now. I would if I were in your boots”, Darby yelled back. Bustling Billy took the tip, and the lightly-weighted Proctor managed to see it out. Burdened with the extra poundage earned by his Sydney Cup win, Proctor found life difficult in later seasons; although he did win a Chelmsford Stakes and later finished fourth in the Melbourne Cup won by Hiraji. While a physical infirmity explained Prince Standard’s loss of form after the spring of 1946, no such excuse was valid for Concerto. I think there might be a number of contenders for the worst horse to win the A.J.C. Derby since the war, but one could make a rather convincing case for Concerto. As his starting price of 33/1 indicated, few rated him highly before the Derby, and on the evidence of his record after the race, nobody would have had cause to revise their opinion. Following a poor performance in the 1947 Villiers Stakes at Randwick, the Mesdames Fleming sold Concerto to the Gunn family of South Australia, and after that, he was trained over there; although in eleven races for his new connections he only managed to redeem a paltry £65 of his purchase price. Concerto was eventually retired at the end of his six-year-old season.
Dan Lewis was to enjoy another good run with three-year-olds a couple of seasons after Concerto’s Derby. In the 1948 running of the race won by Carbon Copy, Lewis saddled up the two minor-place-getters in Vagabond and Foxzami, and each colt was to attract headlines after that albeit for quite different reasons. Vagabond, which was also owned by the colourful Frank Spurway, was a very talented, if wayward, son of Balloch, and gave his owner more anguish than pleasure throughout a chequered career. Beaten narrowly in the Derby at Randwick, Vagabond engulfed his connections in controversy at his very next start in the Burwood Handicap run on Caulfield Cup Day when the horse was beaten a head after being slow to leave the barrier. Frank Spurway, Dan Lewis, and Darby Munro were called before the stewards, and after a protracted hearing on the course which endured for 50 minutes after the last race, the inquiry was adjourned to the V.R.C. office the following Wednesday.
The racing public was rocked by the subsequent two years’ disqualification imposed on all three principals for allegedly not allowing the horse to run on his merits; although later appeals by Lewis and Spurway were upheld, Munro’s punishment remained. The jockey denied pulling up the horse and with support from Lewis, described Vagabond as a rogue that seldom raced to his true ability. The members of the V.R.C. committee might have gratified their spleen, but the disqualification effectively destroyed Munro’s career. Something of Vagabond’s real ability was shown at the 1949 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting when the horse almost pulled off a long-priced double betting coup for Dan Lewis and his confreres. Vagabond ran second in both the Doncaster and the Sydney Cup, in the Doncaster to Bernbrook and in the Cup to Carbon Copy. It was one of those rare instances when three-year-olds ran the quinella in each feature event. An exasperated Spurway saw Vagabond consistently beaten in later races. The bay horse later snapped his off-foreleg in soft going in the 1950 A.J.C. Metropolitan won by Conductor and was subsequently destroyed.
Foxzami, on the other hand, was the horse that finally realised Dan Lewis’s cherished dream of winning a Melbourne Cup, when the four-year-old son of Nizami took out the race in 1949. Lewis became convinced that Foxzami was a genuine Cup horse after he followed his minor placing in the Derby at Randwick by being runner-up to Comic Court in the Flemington equivalent, and Lewis only raced the horse lightly over the ensuing twelve months. Moreover, having failed to win either Derby, Foxzami got into that Melbourne Cup with a handy 8 st. 8lb. and landed a king’s ransom in winning bets for his trainer and owner, L. G. Robinson in a slowly run contest. Foxzami then suffered a fate common to many Cup winners, in that he never won another race, his last start coming in the 1952 A.J.C. Plate in which he ran a bad last.
I think the mark of character and integrity in a racehorse trainer is one that can attract the best kind of sportsmen as clients and have them stay the course of the years. Such was the case with Dan Lewis. His last major victory, appropriately enough, came at Randwick in a big handicap – the controversial 1953 Doncaster with Triclinium – which was belatedly awarded the race after Tarien was disqualified for returning a positive swab. Old Dan, at the ripe veteran age of eighty-one, won the Campbelltown Handicap with the same horse a season or two later. It was at the end of the 1956-57 racing season that the master resigned his trainer’s licence and the A.J.C. committee took the unusual step of issuing a public statement expressing its regret. He sold his stables to a young up and coming Dick Roden, who was just then seeking to transfer from Queensland. Lewis finally slipped the bridle on January 2nd, 1960 at the age of eighty-five, mourned by his many friends and admirers both on and off the Turf.
The most telling compliment that can be paid to a master craftsman is one that comes from a respected peer, and no man can ask more of posterity than to be greatly honoured by the great. Perhaps the last word on Dan Lewis, therefore, should be given to Tommy Smith: “When I started out as a stable hand I watched Dan. He put muscle on his horses, and they stood up to hard racing. I got my first real idea on the best way to feed a racehorse by watching Dan Lewis. He was a hard feeder…never went into boiled feed as much as other trainers. I rode trackwork as often as I could on Lewis’ horses; that way I could study his methods in training and I often gave a hand with the feeding to see what went into their stomachs. Old Dan just had the knack to train. He was great with stayers. They were worked over long journeys to get fit and stay fit. Right from the start, I resolved to take a leaf out of the Lewis book when I took on training.”
What more need be said?