Horseracing slowly returned to normalcy throughout 1947 after the massive dislocation of the War years. It wasn’t until early March that Randwick for the first time in years conducted an eight-race-card. Transport problems, so it was claimed, would not have enabled such a lengthy programme before. More than thirty-three thousand people attended that particular fixture. At the Sydney Easter Yearling Sales, 467 lots changed hands for an aggregate 256,286 guineas resulting in an average price of 548 guineas. This aggregate was some 6195 guineas below the previous year despite the sale of thirty-three more lots. Nonetheless, bloodstock breeders together with William Inglis and Son through the auctioneer, Reg Inglis, pronounced themselves generally satisfied. However, one man that wasn’t satisfied was W. J. Smith of the St Aubin’s Stud, who withdrew thirty-one of his original draft of fifty-four lots catalogued, claiming that buyers didn’t appreciate the true value of the yearlings submitted.
The highest price paid for a colt at the sale was 3500 guineas, and this amount was paid twice by Azzalin Romano: firstly, for a brother to Shannon; and secondly, for a half-brother to On Target by Mr Standfast. The former, registered as Bernbrook, would win the 1949 A.J.C. Doncaster Handicap and other good races; the latter would sink without trace. The highest price paid for a filly throughout the sales was 3200 guineas for the yearling by the English sire, Pay Up, from the English mare, Port Dombey sold on the last day. She was got in England but foaled in Australia to Australian time and was offered on behalf of Aluinn Stud. Registered as Susan Nipper, she did nothing either on the racecourse or at stud. One of the problems created by the increased number of yearlings being sold was the lack of stable accommodation, particularly at Randwick. The municipal ban on the erection of new stables during the War had created shortages, and many of the old ones were now being demolished for flats and houses.
Sportsmen in attendance at Randwick on Derby Day 1947 noticed some changes on the racecourse since Concerto had taken the classic twelve months earlier. It was at this meeting that it first became compulsory for all one hundred bookmakers operating in the Paddock to field with betting boards; post-war shortages and production restrictions, however, meant that insufficient boards were available to ensure a similar compulsion in the Leger and Flat Reserves. For a fee of £1 per day, each bookmaker had the board and multi-coloured umbrella canopy erected on his stand ready for operations. The fielder was merely required to twiddle the knobs. The betting boards had already been operating successfully on Melbourne racecourses, as well as Wentworth Park dogs, for some time. Just before the boards were introduced, the club had established the notion of ‘rails’ betting at Randwick at the mid-September fixture, although its origins catered more for the comfort of the members’ side than that of the general public.
It wasn’t long before many big punters were lamenting the introduction of the boards. It soon became apparent that price patterns were invariably fashioned by the big men on the rails while the lesser fielders would have spies positioned in the ring with binoculars to call the doings on the rails. The moment that a rails bookmaker laid a horse and altered the odds, bookmakers up to a hundred yards away were apprised of the fact. Punters soon realised the futility of rushing from the rails to the ring proper in the quest for a better price. It was true that in the old days before the boards it was possible for a stable commissioner to secure top odds with a whole series of bookmakers before ‘runners’ had time to inform the bagmen what was happening. Occasionally commissioners in former times were stopped by bookmakers who recognised them and upon being approached, would either quote shorter than ruling odds or effect a shut-out by announcing: “It’s laid!” As disgusting as that state of affairs was, many commissioners declared it was preferable to the telegraphy associated with the betting boards.
Fixed starting stalls were also first used at Randwick in 1947, although it would be another few years before mobile stalls were introduced and a Derby-start affected by the new technology. The newly formed Sydney Turf Club was already experimenting with stalls well before the Australian Jockey Club, but tubular stalls were erected at the milepost at Randwick and first used on Doncaster Day, 1947. It was hoped that the debacle associated with the likes of Shannon and that infamous Epsom start would become a thing of the past. Another set of fixed stalls was later established on the course at the five-furlong start. It was because these stalls were not portable that the start of most races, including the Derby, continued to be done with the old barrier strands. Along with the introduction of stalls at Randwick on Doncaster Day 1947 came the photo finish, or in the quaint language of the time, ‘the magic-eye’ camera.
There were other notable milestones for the Australian Jockey Club in the year of 1947. A modern laboratory was erected on Randwick racecourse, and Miss Jean Kimble (B. Sc.) was appointed as the laboratory analyst or ‘dope tester’ as the newspaper Truth put it. The first shot fired in the A.J.C. campaign against the doping of horses came on Villiers Stakes Day when swabs or saliva tests were taken on two Villiers runners, Native Son and Dutchman. There were changes of note to the A.J.C. committee as well. In April the former chairman, George Main announced his retirement from the committee and he was succeeded by Tom Baillieu, aged forty-nine, who had held the rank of wing-commander in World War II and had won the Distinguished Flying Cross in World War I. He was a nephew of ‘Prince’ Baillieu, the breeder of Ajax. In November 1947 Rodney Dangar, the owner of Peter Pan, resigned from the A.J.C. committee after ten years of service, owing to ill-health. Samuel Hordern, the 38-year-old son of Sir Samuel Hordern, was elected to the vacancy unopposed, after having been nominated by George Main and seconded by Frank Underwood.
The lead-up to the 1947 A.J.C. Derby was to some extent overshadowed by the drama and sensation of the so-called Huamight case – the form reversal of the horse of that name in winning the Spring Handicap at Randwick on Tattersall’s Chelmsford Stakes Day, September 13, 1947. It came with the accompaniment of hoots and howls from the racing public as the horse had finished an inglorious last at Canterbury the previous week. I shall leave the telling of this story to the 1959 chapter of my chronicle as it directly affects one of the Derby principals of that year. Let it be said here, however, that the A.J.C. stewards initiated their first retrospective inquiry in almost three years, which ultimately led to the disqualification for one year of Huamight, his owners, trainer and jockey. However, that case, and the circumstances surrounding the revocation of jockey Athol Mulley’s licence on Villiers Stakes Day the previous year, once again attracted unwanted headlines from newspapers such as Truth and The Mirror as to the ‘Star Chamber’ methods of the A.J.C. committee in conducting such inquiries.
It was in January 1935 that an amendment had been made to the Australian Jockey Club Act, to strengthen the club’s power and authority in banning undesirable characters from the racecourse. The amendment, which received royal assent in April 1935, had been made necessary by the N.S.W. Supreme Court finding in favour of that colourful scoundrel, Rufe Naylor, in his long battle waged with the club through the legal system. The amendment vested in the A.J.C. a power to warn-off any person from the Turf without giving the accused person any explanation for such warning-off, and without giving the accused person any right to defend himself or submit evidence on his behalf, in any shape or form whatsoever. As a result of some high profile cases, this power, or right, now seemed to many entirely contrary to all tenets of the rights of man under the Australian Constitution.
Accordingly, in 1947 the Parliamentary Labor Caucus of the State Government passed a majority resolution that in future members of the racing public were to be protected from secret trials and a Caucus sub-committee recommended the Government authorise an independent Racing Appeals Tribunal. Such a body would determine appeals from decisions of the A.J.C. committee. A District Court Judge might preside on the tribunal, and it would be open to the press and public alike. Such a change would have required an amendment to the Gaming and Betting Act. Ultimately this proposal wasn’t accepted by the cabinet, but in 1948 an Act was passed confirming the right of appeal to the A.J.C. committee of any person warned-off or disqualified requiring the committee to hear such appeals in public. Subsequent appeals often became more protracted affairs as a result with frequent recourse to legal counsel, but the nature of open appeals at least blunted much of the criticism that the committee was flaunting ‘due process’ in discharging its quasi-legal responsibilities.
In some years the Derby is better than others; and in some years, it is not very good at all. 1947 was just such a year. The boom galloper of the juvenile season had been the flying Temeraire, a very well-developed chestnut son of Felcrag, trained by Fred Cush and ridden throughout his two-year-old season by Bill Cook. Temeraire had been bred by his owner, Mrs H. E. Rudd at Richmond, N.S.W. and catalogued at the Sydney Easter Yearling Sales. However, at the last moment, Mrs Rudd decided against submitting him for sale and withdrew the colt. It was a fortuitous change of heart. A winner of the A.J.C. Breeders’ Plate at his first start by eight lengths, Temeraire proceeded to remain unbeaten in a sensational season that saw him win in succession the Kirkham Stakes (by ten lengths), December Stakes, Macarthur Quality, and the Sires’ Produce Stakes and Champagne Stakes at Randwick. Moreover, the colt seemed at home in any state of going. To the end of his days, Bill Cook maintained he was the fastest two-year-old he ever rode. When Temeraire retired to his winter quarters in 1947, he was commonly regarded as holding a mortgage on the A.J.C. Derby provided he could stay.
The aura of invincibility remained just as intimidating after Temeraire resumed from a spell to take out the Hobartville Stakes by eight lengths at his first start in the new season. Indeed, only one Paddock bookmaker dared to compile a ledger on that event, and the colt’s nominal starting price was fifty-to-one on! Such extravagance generally betokens a fall, and it wasn’t long in coming. How often have we seen it? A horse that is indomitable in sprints, only to be cruelly exposed the first time of asking over a bit of ground. The first bitter taste of defeat came in the Canterbury Guineas when Temeraire was sent to the post deeply in the red, only to be run down in the straight and beaten a length by The Groom, a son of Hua bred by W. J. Smith at his St Aubins Stud at Scone.
Anybody that supposed the eclipse of Temeraire had been a chance happening was disabused of the notion a week later with the complete rout of the flying colt in the Chelmsford Stakes. Thereafter the previous season’s speedster quietly slipped from the Derby radar screen. Given the defection of Temeraire, there seemed little gold among the dross of the remaining Derby aspirants and, for a time, favouritism for the race was more akin to a game of musical chairs, as hot prospects came and went with the passing of each Saturday fixture. The collapse of Temeraire and the absence of an outstanding staying colt rendered the Derby even more of a puzzle. Anyone examining the likely prospects through a looking glass could have been forgiven, just like Alice, for crying: “curiouser and curiouser”. Indeed, the landscape tempted quite a number of owners to engage Don Quixote-like, in tilting at windmills and trying for the Derby when otherwise they wouldn’t have bothered. On paper, it appeared the most open classic for a decade. Alas, this willingness to compete didn’t extend to the best of the staying colts in Victoria or South Australia in Chanak and Beau Gem respectively; each was reserved for the Victoria Derby instead. Much post-war reconstruction was ongoing, and fuel shortages and the like still meant that the easy carriage of people and livestock hadn’t returned to pre-war levels.
The 1947 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions are set out in the table below:
In the end, the public elect for the Derby was Karachi, from the first crop of the imported Hyperion horse, Neptune. A half-brother to the 1939 English Two Thousand Guineas and Derby winner, Blue Peter, Neptune was standing at the Cranleigh Stud at Maxwell in the Wanganui district of New Zealand. Karachi’s dam, Sudan, was by Beau Pere out of a daughter of the great Desert Gold. A massive bay, Karachi had been bought at the New Zealand Yearling Sales by the distinguished studmaster Maurice Grogan for 1900 guineas on behalf of Mr L. A. (Alf) Bowler, the managing director of Tattersall’s Bloodstock Ltd and the youngster was a combined Birthday/Christmas present for his wife, Kathleen. Grogan had been in charge of the Westmere Stud in New Zealand when both Beau Pere and Chief Ruler stood there in the 1930s.
Karachi raced in the same colours of ‘white, dark blue spots, red sleeves, dark blue cap’ of another good New Zealand galloper, Barwon, who had such an unlucky trip to Australia in the previous spring. Karachi had first been placed in the Victoria Park stables of the veteran trainer, E. E. Byrnes, and made his racecourse debut in a juvenile handicap at Randwick in January. Hopelessly placed at the top of the straight by his jockey, Val Faggoter, a 3lb claiming apprentice, Karachi came with a whirlwind finish that day and only just failed to run down Prince Mohican. After the race, Kathleen Bowler refused an offer of 3000 guineas for her horse.
Karachi subsequently failed in the Havilah Handicap at Randwick when the odds-on favourite but another runner had badly interfered with him at the start. The son of Neptune made amends with a runaway win in a two-year-old race at Rosehill in late April 1947 although it was after this race that the horse was transferred to trainer Maurice McCarten at Randwick. Maurice Grogan, who represented the racing interests of the Bowler family was good friends with McCarten, and both men hailed from the Wanganui district of New Zealand. McCarten then sent the horse for a spell and he resumed in the new season to win a mixed stakes race, a relatively new concept, over seven furlongs at Rosehill on the first Saturday in August. Karachi now stood more than seventeen hands, but he was not ungainly for his size; his only blemish was a joint enlargement on one leg although it never affected his galloping action. A much-improved colt from his juvenile days, Karachi had been racing most consistently with minor placings in both the Canterbury and Rosehill Guineas, and in the Derby enjoyed the services of Neville Sellwood.
Karachi was one of two horses that McCarten had engaged in the race, the other being Lysander, a brother to Shannon for whom Ernie Williams had paid 4000 guineas at the 1946 Sydney Yearling Sales. That 1946 Easter catalogue of yearlings sold by William Inglis and Son, had been the greatest sale in the history of Australian bloodstock up to that time. At 4000 guineas, Lysander had been an expensive yearling but not the most expensive of those sales. 434 yearlings had been sold that year resulting in an aggregate 262,480 guineas, with 55-year-old Reg Inglis at the rostrum. The American film magnate, Louis B. Mayer paid 4300 guineas for the Ajax-La Rasade colt, which equalled the amount Azzalin Romano paid for a half-brother to Modulation, by Le Grand Duc from Vocal. Neither colt ever amounted to anything. The average yearling price at the sales was some 704 guineas. By comparison, the ten lots by the leading stallion, Ajax, averaged just over 2000 guineas, although nothing sired by Ajax made it into the Derby field.
Although Lysander had dead-heated to win a three-year-old handicap at Rosehill at his most recent start, he wasn’t regarded as a serious challenge. The horse best supported to beat Karachi was Conductor, the colt that had lowered his colours in the Rosehill Guineas. Trained by Clyde Cook at Victoria Park initially for Herman Singer, who was one of the principals outed by the A.J.C. over the Huamight case, Conductor was a fine-looking specimen by Marconigram and had enjoyed quite a reputation even before he made his racing debut. Alas, his juvenile season proved to be somewhat disappointing. Nonetheless, the colt’s powerful finish to win the Rosehill Guineas in the hands of Ted Fordyce – after conceding the leaders quite a start – had seen him catapult to near Derby favouritism. The two colts that shared the next line of betting in the Derby, Marine Victory and The Groom, were each trained by Jack Mitchell at Randwick. The Groom had lost caste after winning the Guineas at Canterbury with an indifferent display at Rosehill behind Conductor; while Marine Victory had won a three-year-old handicap at Rosehill in late August easily beating Karachi, among others.
One interesting runner in the race was Valiant Crown trained by the unfashionable Alf Doyle from his Prince St premises at Randwick, although the stable worked their horses at Victoria Park. As a two-year-old, this son of Valiant Chief was thought worthy of a start in the A.J.C. Breeders’ Plate although he was never a possibility in running. Later that season he won twice, including the George Rowe Handicap on the Wednesday of the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting after surprising many when he managed to beat all but the place-getters, Temeraire, Deep Sea and The Groom, in the Sires’ Produce Stakes on the previous Saturday. In resuming from his winter recess, Valiant Crown had excited Derby speculation when he won in open company at Randwick, only to sully his reputation in two subsequent appearances.
At his latest outing, Darby Munro, after declaring 2lb overweight, had attempted to lead all the way on the colt in the Rosehill Guineas, only to be run down in the straight to finish third. That performance had convinced Munro that Valiant Crown would not get the mile-and-a-half and consequently he had accepted the mount on The Groom instead. Noel McGrowdie was substituted in his place. Although Munro’s misgivings saw the bay go to the post quoted at double-figure odds, it wasn’t before some bettors behind the stable had helped themselves to as much as 15/1 in the ring. Alf Doyle certainly turned out the bay son of Valiant Chief in superb condition on Derby Day – a picture of subdued energy in every fibre of his frame as he paraded. Many noted racing journalists, among them, Fred Imber, had long praised Doyle’s presentation of his charges on race day.
So much, then, for the lowdown on the showdown: what happened next surprised everybody. Valiant Crown had drawn eighteen at the barrier, and McGrowdie saw only one way of getting across from there. Best to observe those famous instructions: ‘Jump in front and keep improving your position’. Accordingly, McGrowdie emulated Munro’s tactics at Rosehill and when the barrier was released rushed Valiant Crown to the front and onto the fence. Now ’tis often said that fools rush in where wise men never go, but wise men rarely ride outsiders in Derbies, so how are they to know? Rushing to the lead in that Derby was an inspired moment of horsemanship from McGrowdie. He got there cheaply and then proceeded to play up his winnings. And one of the advantages in taking a long-priced horse to the lead is that rival jockeys are rarely anxious because they expect the outsider to stop.
It was at the mile that McGrowdie dashed Valiant Crown well clear. The pursuing riders then wasted the next three furlongs in blameable inactivity. Mrs Beeton, in her famous cookery book, began the recipe for a jugged hare with the rather sensible advice: ‘first, catch your hare’. It was an injunction that McGrowdie’s rivals might well have heeded as they sat and waited for Valiant Crown to stop and come back to the fold. This particular hare, however, with McGrowdie giving him the rounds of the kitchen, never looked like stopping. The colt had the race won as far out as five furlongs where he enjoyed a ten-length break over his nearest rival. In the straight, although the margin was significantly reduced, he was never in the least danger of being caught and ran out an easy winner from Conductor and Sovereign. As is so often the case when a horse leads all the way, the winning time taken for the race of two minutes and thirty-five seconds was rather ordinary.
Valiant Crown was bred at the Redbank Stud at Scone by Laurie Morgan, one of Australia’s most colourful sportsman. Moreover, it was he who had selected and recommended the horse for his owner, C. F. Baker. Born in February 1915, Morgan spent most of his formative years on his family’s farm in Yea, north-west of Melbourne, and is now best remembered, not for his breeding exploits as a smalltime studmaster, but rather for his equestrian skills. The latter culminated in him winning two gold medals at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. The captain of the Australian equestrian team, Morgan won the individual and the team three-day event on his horse, Salad Days, a former racehorse. He became the first rider in Olympic history to receive maximum bonus points for cross-country and endurance and was forty-five at the time of his Olympic triumph. In 1961, again on Salad Days, he won the Badminton title in dressage. Before returning to Australia, he presented Salad Days to the Queen as a gift. It still wasn’t enough for this rugged adventurer, who indulged his love of steeplechasing by competing in many races in Great Britain including riding around the Grand National course in the Aintree Fox Hunter’s Cup, which he won on College Master. Morgan won 22 of his 33 starts as an amateur steeplechase jockey in England.
Laurie Morgan was also an accomplished polo player, winning many trophies, while as a very young lad he once held the Victorian amateur junior heavyweight boxing championship. All this notwithstanding, between 1937 and 1939 he played thirty-four games as a ruckman with the Fitzroy Football Club. Morgan was also a champion rower and was selected to row for Victoria in the King’s Cup. However, this is a chronicle about racehorses, and perhaps I should stick to the main subject. It was in September 1943 that Laurie Morgan purchased the Redbank property on Dartbrook Creek, Moobi, near Scone in the Hunter Valley from the Badgery family. Morgan developed the place into a successful thoroughbred stud. A few months earlier he had purchased the broodmare, Bandrol, for 150 guineas at the dispersal sale of the Toolamba Stud in Victoria. At around the same time, he acquired the Heroic horse, Valiant Chief, who he then installed as his resident stallion at Redbank. The A.J.C. Derby winner, Valiant Crown, was the happy result of the subsequent mating of Bandrol with Valiant Chief during Morgan’s first weeks at Redbank. I might add that Port Vista also stood at Redbank for a time, before burgeoning at Ron Barr’s stud at Windsor.
Both the sire and dam of the Derby winner proved wonderful investments for Morgan. Bandrol was a good matron, and the same season Valiant Crown won the Derby, his half-sister Bannerette by Solar Bear, won both the Port Adelaide and Australian Cups. Needless to say, with progeny like that her future offspring became much sought after. At the 1948 Sydney Easter Sales, Laurie Morgan sold a full brother to the Derby winner for 3300 guineas – the second-highest price of those sales – on a bid from Adolph Basser. Basser was in an extravagant mood that autumn in his search for a Derby winner, and while he found one at those very same sales, it wasn’t the Bandrol colt. Bandrol next dropped a full sister in Titian, who was to be a smart juvenile, winning the December Stakes at Randwick. Valiant Chief, a chestnut son of Heroic, was to prove almost as good a stallion as he had been a racehorse when trained by Jack Holt. Indeed, Valiant Chief was a particular favourite of Holt and his sisters around the Mordialloc stables.
At his best at around a mile and usually ridden by Keith Voitre, he had won both the Linlithgow Stakes and C.M. Lloyd Stakes at Flemington for the Victorian M.L.C., Archie Crofts. Apart from Valiant Crown and Titian, Valiant Chief got a number of useful gallopers, the best probably being the dual Moonee Valley Gold Cup winner, Valcurl. I might add that Laurie Morgan’s claim to fame as a studmaster doesn’t rest with the breeding of a Derby winner alone. He also bred the 1968 S.T.C. Golden Slipper Stakes winner, Royal Parma. Morgan owned both the sire, Parma, and the dam, Memory Time, of Royal Parma. He bought Parma in England for some £250 in 1962 when he was riding there in those cross-country events. The horse broke his near hind leg soon after arriving in Australia, but veterinary-surgeons managed to him up to serve restricted books of mares. While Royal Parma was the best of his progeny, other useful horses included On Par, Delrepar, Caveat Emptor, Positano, Mosman Bay and Mystic Glen. The good fortune to breed both a Derby and a Golden Slipper winner falls to very few studmasters, and even fewer with the relatively modest resources of a Laurie Morgan.
Journeyman Sydney trainer Alf Doyle had been able to purchase Valiant Crown privately as a yearling for 1250 guineas and was acting on behalf of retired Sydney businessman, C. F. Baker, who had been a senior executive at C.S.R. Ltd. The price wasn’t cheap, although, with the post-war euphoria, prices for yearlings had boomed and for the first time over one hundred were sold in Australia that year for 1000 guineas or more. Baker had raced very few horses before but had always taken a keen interest in the sport and his Alison Road home overlooked Randwick racecourse. Despite the relatively long odds offered about Valiant Crown for the classic, Baker was so sanguine as to the colt’s chances that he had made all of the arrangements on the preceding Thursday night for a celebration party at his home on Derby night.
The Derby was to be the pinnacle of Alf Doyle’s long career as a public trainer. Never regarded as a fashionable horseman, he was nonetheless well skilled in his craft. His father, A. J. Doyle senior had been one of those clever men who grafted a living, preparing gallopers on the notorious old pony tracks; indeed, he had been responsible for a number of A.R.C. champions including Toinette and John Porter. In those days when pony racing was flourishing and £1,000 Cup races used to be included in the programmes, Alf Doyle senior invariably had one in smoke to steal the show.
Granted a permit to train in the years before the War, Alf junior trained out of Kensington with his small team and for clients such as W. J. McDonald and Harry Whittle. Doyle enjoyed his best season since starting out as a trainer in 1940-41 when, with a cheap lot of yearlings such as Lord Pentheus, The Hussy and Peruvian, he won seven races. When The Hussy won a two-year-old handicap at Kensington in May 1941 in the hands of Maurice McCarten, Doyle enjoyed the best win of his life. The filly had been backed from 12/1 into half that price. However, as the War darkened and the McKell State Labor Government used a Government Gazette in January 1942 to ban mid-week racing, Doyle closed his stables and went to work in a munitions factory where he remained for some four years. When Valiant Crown won his first race, at Rosehill in mid-March 1947 at 33/1 with the apprentice, George Podmore in the saddle, it was Doyle’s first winner since Happy Bay took a trial handicap at Canterbury in May 1942.
Even with the end of hostilities in World War II, Doyle was in two minds whether or not to resume his old vocation. One of his main concerns, which he had articulated in an interview with the Daily Telegraph during December 1943 was the shortage of training quarters at Randwick. Before relinquishing his licence during the War, Doyle had been training his small team out of Jim Barden’s establishment. There was considerable excitement in the Doyle stable approaching the 1947 A.J.C. Spring Meeting as apart from Valiant Crown, it sheltered a very smart two-year-old filly by Felcrag called Silverfel, who had cost the stable client R. G. Potts 1150 guineas as a yearling. Such was her speed on the track and at the official two-year-old trials that she started the 5/4 favourite for the Gimcrack Stakes on the Monday following on the Derby. Alas, she could only finish third behind Midwise and Wattle although she redeemed herself before the year was out by winning the prestigious December Stakes in the hands of Arthur Ward at the A.J.C. Summer Meeting.
Valiant Crown was to be Noel McGrowdie’s only winning ride in the Derby from ten attempts but rarely in the history of the race had victory been so largely attributable to one jockey’s initiative. And yet there was speculation that he would be replaced as Valiant Crown’s rider in the Victoria Derby by Neville Sellwood. A natural lightweight, McGrowdie achieved a remarkable record in prestigious distance handicaps in Australia; he didn’t enjoy the same success in weight-for-age races, however, probably because of his lightweight and the preference of trainers for live rather than dead weight in such contests. Nor did McGrowdie ever figure prominently in the Sydney jockey’ premiership although this may be attributed to his preference for riding freelance. Born in Toowoomba in 1920, his father Charlie was a handy jockey who later turned to both training and hobby breeding. It was as a small-time breeder and owner that Charlie McGrowdie hit the jackpot when he acquired the mare Lotchen, by Advance. As a broodmare, she became the dam of his two Queensland Derby winners in Kingslot (1922) and Serelot (1924). It was after winning the Q.T.C. Guineas, Q.T.C. Derby and the Queensland Cup that Charlie McGrowdie sold Kingslot to Sir Samuel Hordern for £2,100 – a small fortune in those times. It was hardly surprising that Charlie McGrowdie had named his house and stables ‘Kingslot’.
Noel McGrowdie was on horseback at a very young age, and his attitude and aptitude for the business of a jockey were soon manifested with his exhibitions both in the show ring and droving on the Darling Downs. McGrowdie was fourteen when he entered his apprenticeship with Les Roberts at Toowoomba, but when that trainer was disqualified, his indentures were transferred to the premier Brisbane trainer, George Anderson. McGrowdie rode in Sydney as a midget sixteen-year-old for a time in 1936 without success, but the experience helped him to eventually become Brisbane’s leading apprentice jockey when he came out of his time in 1941. Classed as unfit for military service, McGrowdie was nevertheless manpowered to work on the Brisbane wharves to assist the war effort, and it was here that he first attained the sobriquet ‘Digger’ that stuck throughout his riding career.
Dissatisfied with work on the docks, McGrowdie managed to secure a release and moved to Sydney to continue his career in the saddle, beginning his first full season of riding here in 1943-44 at the age of twenty-four. Within a matter of weeks, he was fortunate enough to secure the ride on Maurice McCarten’s lightly-weighted Kiaree in the Epsom Handicap when Ted Bartle, the stable jockey, was unable to do the weight. Although a 40/1 outsider, McGrowdie gave a masterly exhibition to land the prize for the woollen mills proprietor, Stirling Henry. It was to be a season that not only started with a bang but closed with one as well for McGrowdie when he piloted Abbeville to victory in the Cameron Handicap at Newcastle. It was after that race that McGrowdie reported to stewards he had been offered an inducement to stop his horse. The subsequent inquiry led to the disqualification of jockeys Andy Knox and Fred Shean for ten and two years respectively.
McGrowdie enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as a rider in staying races and Randwick was his favourite course having won the Sydney Cup and The Metropolitan there each on three separate occasions; his Sydney Cup wins were with Bankstream (1951), Opulent (1952) and Straight Draw (1958) while his wins in The Metropolitan were Nightbeam (1944), Murray Stream (1945) and Straight Draw (1957). It was Straight Draw, trained by Jack Mitchell that also gave him his only win in the Melbourne Cup. In 1960 Noel McGrowdie accepted an offer to ride in Malaysia. He was an immediate success, winning the premiership in his first season and seemed certain to win it again the following year when in September 1961, he was killed in a road accident near Ipoh in the north of Malaysia, en route to a race meeting at Penang.
Those who had suspected the 1947 Derby field at Randwick to be rather ordinary and believed the Melbourne colts superior, were proved right later that spring. Valiant Crown and the Derby runner-up, Conductor, were each taken to Melbourne. In the Caulfield Cup, a fortnight after the Derby, Valiant Crown finished second last in a field of twenty-six in the race won by Columnist. The Victoria Derby proved no more successful. That year there were two very good colts on the scene in the shape of Chanak and Beau Gem. The Hellespont colt, Chanak, had been Victoria’s champion two-year-old of the autumn and had continued on his winning way in the new season. After annexing the Moonee Valley Stakes, Chanak had been controversially beaten into second place in the Caulfield Guineas when Scobie Breasley dropped his hands near the post, with the race at his mercy. The lapse cost Breasley a month’s suspension. Chanak had then come out and won the W.S. Cox Plate and was sent to the post for the Victoria Derby a very warm favourite.
Next in demand came the South Australian-owned colt, Beau Gem, a half-brother to the outstanding racehorse, Royal Gem, and already the winner of the Port Adelaide Guineas. Valiant Crown was an 8/1 chance at barrier rise. It proved to be a cracking race with the two favourites drawing away from the field and racing head and head over the last furlong and a half. The camera was called upon for the first time in the event with Beau Gem declared the winner by a half-head in a time that was three-quarters of a second faster than the previous race record, shared by Phar Lap and a few others. Conductor did best of the Sydney colts filling the minor placing some five lengths behind the first pair, while Valiant Crown languished in fifth place.
It is fair to say that the fortunes of few Derby winners at Randwick have plummeted more spectacularly than Valiant Crown in the wake of their finest hour. In thirty-seven more appearances on a racecourse after his classic triumph, Valiant Crown was to win only one more race – the Woollahra Handicap over a mile at the 1951 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting and at the cricket score odds of 66/1! Alf Doyle retired the six-year-old at the end of that season. Valiant Crown’s Derby was to be the highlight of Alf Doyle’s training career, too. There would be other winners for other clients down through the years including Hurry Up for N. S. Cohen in the 1950 A.J.C. Plate and Apex for Messrs Pattinson and Ferguson in the 1953 A.J.C. Challenge Stakes, but nothing approaching another Derby colt.
Of those that had followed Valiant Crown home in the Derby, few amounted to anything. Karachi, the big horse that started as the favourite for the race, was subsequently gelded, and while that belated operation brought about some improvement, there was always rather less to him than met the eye. The only principal race that Karachi ever won was the 1948 A.J.C. Craven Plate having earlier in the same week run second with 7 st. 12lb to Buonarroti Boy in The A.J.C. Metropolitan. However, Karachi did make a significant contribution to the first of Maurice McCarten’s Sydney trainers’ premierships in that 1948-49 season, when with four victories he was the highest contributor to McCarten’s tally of thirty-one winners.
Lysander, Ernie Williams’ 4000 guineas yearling, proved expensive over his lifetime although he did give his owner the first of his many major trophies when with 7 st. 11lb, he narrowly beat the fast-finishing Silver Link in the 1948 City Tattersall’s Cup over the mile-and-a-half at Randwick. The Groom went on to become a high-class miler with wins in the S.T.C. Theo Marks Quality, A.J.C. George Main Stakes, Warwick Stakes and All-Aged Stakes. However, Conductor was probably the best of that 1947 Derby field, and although chronic rheumatism marred his career, he did manage to win The A.J.C. Metropolitan as a six-year-old when trained by Jack Green.