The 1948-49 racing season brought forth a wonderfully talented crop of three-year-olds and none more so than Carbon Copy, winner of that year’s A.J.C. Derby. An ounce of luck is worth a ton of judgement in the breeding of a classic winner, an aphorism of the Turf that the brothers Abe and Hymie Silk were only too willing to acknowledge. The pair had made their fortune as fruit merchants in Melbourne before indulging in their love of thoroughbreds by establishing the Glen Devon Stud at Werribee, about twenty miles south-west of Melbourne. As small-time hobby breeders with only a modest budget, opportunity knocked during the last months of World War II when the one-time leading Victorian trainer Bill Burke sold them a rising nine-year-old broodmare named Havers. A daughter of Windbag out of a Comedy King mare, Havers was a half-sister to the dual St Leger winner, Gay Lad, and had carried Burke’s own colours in her five seasons on the Turf without ever attracting much attention. Her only success had been at a Wednesday Packenham meeting, when as a four-year-old with the featherweight of 6 st. 7lb, she won a modest handicap over nine furlongs. Although Havers did manage to run second the following year to the good horse Velocity in an open handicap (12f) at Flemington, Burke retired her to the stud early in her six-year-old season.
Bill Burke was a shrewd man with horses and holds the unique distinction of not only winning the Victorian trainer’s premiership in his own right – the second time in 1938-39 – but also tutoring his son, Phil, to take the same title twenty years later. But even old Bill couldn’t see the full stud potential of Havers when he agreed to sell her cheaply to Abe and Hymie Silk. The brothers immediately sent the bay mare to the Warlaby Stud to be served by Helios, an imported son of Hyperion, who was then enjoying just his second book of mares. In electing to send their matron to the untried Helios, the brothers had chosen wisely – just how wisely time would reveal. While the resultant chestnut colt was foaled at Warlaby, he was reared at the Glen Devon Stud of his owners. Abe and Hymie Silk named the little fellow Carbon Copy because they believed he looked so much like his grandsire, Hyperion.
Such, then, was the lineage of the colt to which famous Victorian jumps trainer, Des McCormick, was now introduced, and in whose hands the horse was destined to soar higher on the flat than any of the great jumpers McCormick had previously prepared for brush or steeple. Born in the Wangaratta district of north-eastern Victoria in 1905, Des had been associated with horses almost from the time he could walk. He and his three-year-older brother, Hugh, better known as Roy, had grown-up on a small farm near Wangaratta, a town with a reputation of producing both quality horses as well as quality horsemen such as the likes of Mark Whitty and Fred Hoysted. Des and Roy were mere lads when they first began to train ponies for the many such meetings in the surrounding districts of Wangaratta. However, unlike his brother, Des never pursued a career in the saddle and upon leaving school entered the stables of another Wangaratta identity in Bert Hoysted, to learn his training craft. Later he spent some time training racehorses at Holbrook where he met with modest success. It was soon after the Wall-street crash of October 1929, and the first effects of the Great Depression hit Victoria that the brothers Des and Roy McCormick ventured to Melbourne to follow their racing dreams.
Des arrived at Mordialloc, a comparatively unknown young man from the bush with two jumpers named Rose Stella and Whaka, and two ponies named Melton Lass and Fairy Queen. He soon showed that he was no mug from the back blocks and after setting-up in Melbourne won his first race, the Trial Hurdle at the Mornington Gold Cup meeting in January 1930 with Whaka and brother Roy in the saddle. While Des won plenty of races with the ponies, it was with horses over steeples and hurdles that he began to make a name for himself. The brothers enjoyed multiple success in 1931 with Melton Star who won over the fences at Sandown Park, Caulfield and Williamstown. When not busy with horses in training, the brothers turned their attention to breaking-in thoroughbreds and in this direction were assisted by Jack Holt and Fred Hoysted. Des became good friends with his Mordialloc neighbour, and what he didn’t know about training horses when he left Wangaratta, he picked up from Jack Holt who watched his career develop with interest. He even trained a horse or two for Holt’s sisters in rather comical circumstances. Holt had promised to lease his two spinster sisters a horse, and from that time until the lease was signed, there was much discussion among the womenfolk on the subject. Accordingly, Jack called the horse, All Talk. Although their brother was the leading trainer in Melbourne, the sisters thought it would be bad luck if he both owned and trained the horse which they had leased and their choice fell upon McCormick. Thais was another galloper that Des trained for the Holt sisters. I might observe that it was on Holt’s recommendation that young Des McCormick picked up some of his early clients, including members of the Niall family. Another leading trainer quick to recognise McCormick’s nascent talent was the redoubtable James Scobie who gave him a horse or two to train. Indeed, it was ‘Mac’ who trained the last winning horse with which that grand old man shared an interest – Dollar Bill when he won a maiden at Moonee Valley just a few weeks before Scobie died in October 1940. But I get ahead of myself.
It was at the Mornington Charity Races at Warrnambool in April 1932 that Roy McCormick suffered the severe fall involving head injuries and a broken collarbone that effectively ended his career as a jockey. Riding Ortegus in the Hurdle Race, he was brought down by Propaganda, who had fallen in front of him. For a time it was thought that Roy might not recover at all, but he did so and reluctantly relinquished the saddle and turned his hand to training. Whereas Des prepared his team at Mordialloc using the old Epsom course as his training ground, Roy leased premises at the famous Allendale Stock Farm on the lower Dandenong-road at Mentone, once home to Heroic, before later moving to premises in Moorabbin-road. The brothers were close both geographically and emotionally, but whereas Des was destined to triumph, Roy was destined for tragedy.
Some six weeks after Roy McCormick’s near-fatal fall, brother Des opened his winning account as a metropolitan trainer with a double on the King’s Birthday weekend at Flemington in early June. On the Saturday of the meeting his Call Bird won a division of the Rothsay Trial and on the Monday the Lancashire Handicap. Despite such success, it was brother Roy that began to overshadow him in the training ranks. He might have commenced his training career later than Des, but in many ways, he made his mark sooner. In his first year with the stopwatch, he got that useful miler, Eagle Eye, and another horse with which his name became most associated, that great jumper, Sarakos. Other good ‘uns came along later including the smart sprinting mare, Studio, who won many races for J. M. Niall. At stud, she threw that top three-year-old, Chanak, trained by Jack Holt for K. M. Niall, and who, as we saw in our previous chapter, was narrowly beaten in the Victoria Derby. Other notable gallopers trained by Roy McCormick included Dark David, a son of David, for the Niall family, a horse that ran second in the 1939 V.R.C. Australian Cup behind Pageant; and the Gilt Edge filly, Lovable, for Les Aldridge of Kismet Park, with whom he won the Debutante Stakes at Caulfield.
The first really high-class racehorse given to Des McCormick to train was the 1932 Moonee Valley Cup winner, Yarramba and it came well after that horse’s sensational defeat in the 1932 Melbourne Cup. Hailed as the winner of that race after taking the lead at the entrance to the straight, Yarramba was overhauled on the line by Peter Pan who won by a neck. McCormick made his first trip to Adelaide in 1935 with Yarramba and won the A.R.C. Alderman Cup. McCormick went back to Adelaide the following year, too, and with Highardo took out not just a second successive Alderman Cup, but the A.R.C. Birthday Cup as well. Despite those successes in the City of Churches, the horse was a tad unlucky, finishing runner-up in both the 1936 and 1937 Adelaide Cups. Until the coming of Carbon Copy, Des McCormick rated Highardo, a gelded son of High Art, whom he trained for B. J. Wilson, the best flat racer to pass through his hands and other good races the horse won included the 1934 Benalla Cup and the 1935 Mornington Cup. The McCormick bandwagon was beginning to roll and the good-natured rivalry with brother, Roy, went up a notch or two. However, despite such successes on the flat, Des’s heart remained with his cross-country charges. It was with old Etymology that he scored his first major jumping success when he won the 1936 A.V. Hiskens Steeplechase at Moonee Valley.
It is interesting to speculate just which of the two men would have had the more distinguished training career. Interesting, but fruitless. Tragically, a promising training career was cut short when Roy McCormick shot himself with a small calibre rifle in January 1940 after borrowing the gun from a neighbour claiming that he intended to shoot rabbits. He left a widow, a promising young apprentice rider in his son, George, and two daughters aged sixteen and eleven. Upon his death, the apprenticeship indentures of young George were transferred to Des, along with some of Roy’s clients and horses. While Des McCormick would have recoiled from the fact and found the circumstances abhorrent, his training career was boosted by his brother’s death. Indeed, in the winter of 1940, Des McCormick would win the 1940 Australian Steeplechase with none other than his brother’s Dark David. While many trainers were contemptuous about jumpers at the time, McCormick won no less than ten races and £6,750 in stakes during the 1940-41 season with horses over timber.
McCormick was a relatively modest betting man, but in an interview with The Sporting Globe in February 1941 he claimed: “I’d rather lay odds on in a jumping race than one on the flat. For one thing, jumpers run more true to form, and even if they do get into trouble, they can generally get out of it.” There was one very good reason for McCormick’s success with cross-country horses. He never produced one that had not been well-schooled and well-tried. His minimum requirement was that the horse must have jumped at least a hundred hurdles. “I do not believe in trying to teach a jumper in races”, he said. “For one thing, unless they have been well-schooled, a mishap in a race due to inexperience could, and quite frequently does, ruin a promising hurdler.”
McCormick first began training horses for Abe Silk in the mid-1930’s, the pair having been introduced to each other by that colourful character of the Turf, Eric Connolly. The first horse Silk placed in his care was the New Zealand-bred King Colossus, who had won the Fielding Cup among other races across the Tasman. In Australia, he proved a failure on the flat when trained by Lou Robertson and eventually the horse was banned from racing in the metropolitan area. Abe Silk had an idea that King Colossus might make a good jumper and he was able to buy the horse for 280 guineas when he came up for auction. Although he wasn’t a class hurdler, Des McCormick trained him to win five hurdle races and run some useful placings as well. King Colossus eventually met his death after a fall at Williamstown in March 1937 when the horse in front of him baulked and King Colossus collided with him, fracturing his spine and was destroyed.
Success with King Colossus led to Abe Silk buying quite a few more hurdlers to be trained by Des McCormick. Kevastar, a son of the successful stallion Gay Lothario, was a case in point. Silk initially raced the horse on the flat but it was only when McCormick switched him to hurdling that he found his true metier. Kevastar credited Silk with the 1940 Australian Hurdle at Flemington, when as the outsider in the small field and Jack Maher in the saddle, he led all the way to establish a record for the three miles, ensuring that the race favourite, Cheery Jack, carried his 12 st. 9lb all the way. Like so many hurdlers, Kevastar later broke down in the suspensory ligament of his near foreleg. Despite, or perhaps because of the sadness induced by his brother’s death just months before, that winter of 1940 proved a most successful jumping season for Des McCormick, and Kevastar apart, as previously noted he won the Australian Steeplechase with Dark David together with wins from Atticus, Mamillius and Highland March, resulting in £4,500 in prize money. Still, the best horse to pass through McCormick’s hands prior to the advent of Carbon Copy, was the great steeplechaser, Winterset. Originally trained by Roy Shaw, later of Aquanita fame, Winterset won flat races for him before ‘Mac’ took over to win a string of good steeple races culminating in the 1945 Great Eastern Steeplechase at Onkaparinga when he carried 12 st. 10lb. The champion jumper eventually retired as the winner of £11,035 in prize money. Winterset’s departure from the Turf almost directly coincided with the coming of Carbon Copy.
Despite Kevastar and one or two others, over the years Abe Silk had got a rather poor return for the money that he had put into hurdlers and chasers. Nonetheless, he retained great faith in Des McCormick’s patience and horsemanship. McCormick did train Eudunda to win the 1947 Grand National Hurdle but by and large it was a forgettable year. How the Silk brothers and their loyal trainer must have wished for a change of fortune on the flat as a dreary and clouded 1947 drew to a close! Little did the trio know it, but the swallows were already on the horizon and the climate was about to change. The new year ushered in Carbon Copy’s racecourse debut in an ordinary five-furlong handicap at Ascot, although in finishing eleventh the son of Helios gave no presage to classic glory just ten months later. A similar lack of pretension attended the colt’s next four assignations when he singularly failed to earn a penny towards his upkeep. It was only when stepped up to a distance that the ungainly and field-shy juvenile of the early season cast aside his inhibitions and discovered his wings, the first inkling coming when he was beaten a mere half-head in the prestigious Gibson Carmichael Stakes at Flemington in early March, after being badly served by the starter. It was at his next start that Carbon Copy finally broke his maiden status with a narrow victory in the W.R.C. Easter Stakes (7f) at the same course and McCormick realised he had a pur sang Derby colt in the making. As the scarlet and russet colours of autumn darkened into winter, McCormick put the precious colt aside.
Carbon Copy resumed racing after a four-month spell on the last day of the season in a sprint at Moonee Valley, looking as burly as a sub-branch president of an R.S.L. club and moving just as sluggishly. It was a different colt a fortnight later, however, when he opened his three-year-old season with a victory in the Chatsworth Plate (8f) at Caulfield. The stable backed him that day as if defeat was out of the question. And it was. After a nice second in a mile back at the Valley at the end of August, McCormick brought the son of Helios across to Sydney. In his first start in the clockwise direction, Carbon Copy went within a head of causing a boilover at 50/1 when he narrowly went down to Bernbrook in the Chelmsford Stakes at the Randwick Tattersall’s Club meeting. The colt’s final Derby trial came in a slowly-run Rosehill Guineas, which that year was conducted for the first time over ten furlongs. Carbon Copy, who was last in the big field going down the back of the course, ran on nicely in the straight and although never threatening the place-getters, the son of Helios lost none of his Derby admirers and garnered a few more. Carbon Copy continued to thrive during the days between the Guineas and the Derby, and in the rhythm of his hooves in one Thursday morning gallop, in particular, McCormick thought he recognised the song of victory.
Sixty-two-year-old Jim Cummings had other ideas. A natural horseman with a lifetime of racing experience behind him, Cummings had spent his years in quest of a champion racehorse. By the winter of 1948, he firmly believed that he had finally found one in the shape of a rising three-year-old colt named Comic Court. James Martin (Jim) Cummings was born in November 1885 in the South Australian town of Eurelia, located on the east side of the Flinders Ranges and just over 160 miles north of Adelaide. His birth came on the second Tuesday of November, exactly a week later than the date that in the fullness of time would come to be forever linked with the Cummings’ name. The eldest son in a large and staunchly Irish Roman Catholic family, he took to horses early. Patrick Cummings, the patriarch of the family, lived a somewhat itinerant life working in mines around the country, which threw even greater responsibility onto the eldest son. Such responsibility became even more onerous at the age of eighteen when Patrick Cummings died, probably from food poisoning, at a mining site at Black Range, Western Australia. Suddenly, Jim Cummings was the man who had to put food on the family table.
Eurelia was a dry, dusty outback town that enjoyed little rainfall. Jim Cummings failed as a buyer for a battling wheat company before journeying to Ellery Creek in the Northern Territory where an uncle, James, maintained a property. It was here that Jim really began what was to be a lifetime’s education in racehorses. Uncle James helped organise match races in Alice Springs, and it wasn’t long before young Jim was riding some of those horses to earn money on the side of his regular duties of droving cattle and rounding up brumbies on the surrounding properties. He even moonlighted as the relief driver on the Birdsville mail coach between Bloods Creek and Alice Springs. After a few years at Ellery Creek, Jim Cummings became restless and wanted out. His meal ticket was an aged mare named Myrtle that his uncle promised him after competing at the Alice Springs Christmas Meeting of 1909. The meeting constituted two good days of racing and Myrtle was topweight for both the Flying Handicap over six furlongs and the McDonnell Ranges Cup over a mile-and-a-half. The mare ran second in each race, conceding the winner 25lb in the Flying and 12lb in the Cup. As obscure as the meeting might seem in those far-off days, the results were faithfully recorded in the South Australian Chronicle and Observer newspapers.
Cummings left his uncle’s employ and, together with Myrtle and another thoroughbred gelding, made his way back to Eurelia. He took out a trainer’s licence with the South Australian Racing Club in 1911. Cummings plied his trade on the country circuit of race meetings north of Adelaide – around Burra, Port Pirie and Jamestown. Myrtle even ran at Cheltenham and picked-up second place money, the first ever monetary return for a Cummings-runner at a metropolitan race meeting. Nor did Jim restrict his training to horses on the flat. Like Des McCormick and so many others, he chanced his hand with jumpers too, and he partnered his own horse, Vanardo, carrying 9 st. 4 lb into third placing in the 1916 Adelaide Racing Club’s Grand National Hurdle over two-and-a-half-miles won by Hobgoblin. Only three months prior, Cummings had broken his collarbone when he fell from the same horse in a hurdle race at Victoria Park. Vanardo was an individual study to Jim Cummings, like every racehorse that passed through his hands, whereas the public in general, and some trainers in particular, are apt to think of them as a corporate body, like a troop of cavalry.
The first good horse that Jim Cummings had was Opera Bouffe, a daughter of the imported Melbourne Cup winner, Comedy King. It was to be the beginning of a lifetime love affair with progeny, direct and indirect, of the stallion and was to have a profound influence on the Cummings’ family fortunes. Opera Bouffe was originally owned by the prominent Victorian sportsman, J. N. McArthur, who for so long was identified with the Camperdown Racing Club and who served on the committee of the Victorian Amateur Turf Club. James Scobie trained Opera Bouffe as a two-year-old but upon McArthur’s death at the age of fifty-nine from heart failure in March 1917, the filly came up for public auction. Cummings got her for 250 guineas. Although the daughter of Comedy King had been a failure in the rarified air of Flemington and Caulfield as a juvenile, the country circuit north of Adelaide was quite another matter entirely. Opera Bouffe was the horse that proved if fortune dealt Cummings good cards, he was a man who would know how to play them. He won a Novice with her in August 1917 at the Spring Meeting of the Kadina and Wallaroo Jockey Club. However, it was the filly winning three races within three weeks at Balaklava, Victoria Park and Cheltenham in March 1918 that really augmented the Cummings’ bank balance. The stakes might not have been that flash but the money from the ring was, and the winnings enabled Cummings to consolidate and purchase two properties. The first involved acres of land at St Leonards, west of the city of Adelaide, which he used as an agistment and breeding farm. The second property consisted of house and land on Sturt Creek, near Glenelg. It was close to Morphettville racecourse. Cummings had only recently married a young lass, Annie Whelton, from Rosscarbery in County Cork, Ireland, and accordingly, he named the property, Rosscarbery. It was to be the Cummings’ family residence for thirty years and more.
Jim Cummings now found himself in a position to buy better bloodstock, although he still had to watch his pennies. But the quiet, thoughtful horseman possessed of rare insight, now knew what he hadn’t quite known before and that was that he had an eye for a racehorse. The Adelaide newspapers would soon start referring to him as ‘Clever Jim’ Cummings and his next instalment of cleverness came at the 1921 Adelaide Yearling Sales. He spied a colt by the imported St Frusquin horse, St Anton, out of a Pistol (G.B.) mare. St Anton even by then had achieved impressive results in the stallion barn at J. H. Aldridge’s Richmond Park and Cummings was drawn to the colt. In his autobiography ‘Bart, My Life’, Jim’s famous son relates that the youngster had a suspect knee but his father looked past that deformity to buy the colt at a bargain price. Mind you, he didn’t bid for the horse himself but disguised his interest by bidding through a third party, one Mr Rasheed. In his autobiography, Bart wrote: “It was a lesson I would learn to my great good fortune: many buyers in the sale ring are looking for the perfect horse, and you can use other buyers’ caution to your advantage.” It is a good story but I suspect that memory might have been playing tricks on the grand old man. It often does when facts and emotions collide. The St Anton colt sold in 1921 wasn’t cheap, at least not by the standards of that particular sale. A total of thirty-four yearlings were sold that day by Barker Brothers at their John Bull Bazaar in Adelaide and at 200 guineas the St Anton colt was the most expensive of them all! Indeed, of the thirty-four yearlings on offer, only five sold for three-figure sums. By way of comparison, that same year Milroy of the Sydney Mail published a table of the combined Sydney Yearling Sales of both William Inglis and Son together with H. Chisholm and Company, and it revealed that from a total of 521 lots sold in in that year of 1921, the overall average was 204 guineas. Moreover, it was the highest Sydney average for more than twenty-five years. So, let’s not be diverted by spurious claims of bargain prices.
Nonetheless, the St Anton colt that Jim Cummings purchased did turn out to be very well bought at the price, considering he went on to win some £4,400 in stakes including victories in the 1922 Port Adelaide Guineas and South Australian Stakes. In the latter event, Jim Cummings even rode him. But for a mishap when the horse’s hoof got caught in the railway tracks at the South Australia-Victoria border when travelling over for the Victorian Spring Meetings, Anton King may have had an even better record. In those days the respective rail gauges were different, and it was in changing trains that the incident occurred. It cost the colt valuable trackwork, and yet he still managed to finish just behind the placegetters in the Caulfield Guineas and was a fast-finishing third behind Whittier in the Victoria Derby. He was the first horse that a member of the Cummings family had campaigned at the Victorian Spring Meetings, but he certainly wasn’t the last! Anton King broke down the following year, and Jim Cummings retired him to stud.
The real significance of Anton King to this instalment of our chronicle isn’t so much his deeds on the racecourse but rather his deeds at stud. For he makes up one half of the lineage of the filly and eventual broodmare that changed the course of Jim Cummings’ life forever. The other half was acquired by ‘Clever Jim’ on Tuesday, November 13, 1928, at a sale that he attended of racehorses, untried two and three-year-olds, stallions and broodmares conducted by William C. Yuille and Company Pty Ltd at Newmarket, Melbourne. The timing of the sale is significant because it came just five days after Cummings had taken out the V.R.C. Oaks with a filly of his own breeding at the juicy odds of 20/1. The filly’s name was Opera Queen, and she was by Anton King out of none other than Jim Cumming’s first favourite, Opera Bouffe.
It was a deserving victory in the Victoria Oaks, too, for only three years earlier in the same race Cummings had saddled-up the 4/7 favourite, another St Anton filly in Ethelton. Alas, Ethelton despite winning both the Adelaide and Port Adelaide Guineas and the South Australian Derby, went under by a head to E. M. Pearce’s Redshank. Prize money for running second that year was a mere £200, but his payoff in 1928 was much more remunerative. Indeed, that Victorian spring was a particularly profitable one for Cummings, as Ethelton landed a substantial stake when she won the Werribee Gold Cup in October. I might also mention that back in the Rosscarbery paddocks that same spring, Opera Bouffe dropped a colt foal that three years later, registered as Opera King, would give Cummings another South Australian Derby by leading all the way in record time. But let’s stick to 1928 for the moment. Now, there’s nothing quite like an Oaks victory to convince a trainer that a particular cross represents a special nick in bloodstock breeding and Cummings now believed that Comedy King mares, such as Opera Bouffe, nicked wonderfully well with Anton King. And it was happenstance that just such a suitable Comedy King mare was being offered that day at Newmarket.
The horse in question was a five-year-old named Miss Comedy, who had been bred and raced by the prodigal E. M. Pearce. Pearce who ran his horses under the nom de course of ‘Mr Melrose’ conducted a stud at Melrose, near Mornington. Pearce was leaving on a trip to England and was disposing of some his stock. As far back as her two-year-old days, Miss Comedy had been brought across to Adelaide by her Epsom trainer, A. Mortimer, to run in the prestigious Dequetteville Stakes, one of the first races of the season for two-year-old fillies. On that trip, Mortimer happened to stable his horses at the Family Hotel in Glenelg. Cummings saw and admired the filly and never quite forgot her, for although wayward at the barrier, she exhibited plenty of pace in her races. The headline act of those William C. Yuille sales on that mid-November day was Spearfelt, the former Melbourne Cup winner who had gone amiss during the V.A.T.C. Spring Meeting and was now being sold. Mr Jennings got Spearfelt at 1300 guineas for his Queensland stud, and as we have seen in the 1924 chapter of this chronicle, he proved a wonderful bargain. However, it was the modest outlay of just 35 guineas by ‘Clever Jim’ Cummings to obtain Miss Comedy that would ultimately prove the biggest bargain of them all.
Although Cummings bought Miss Comedy for her potential as a broodmare, he did give her a few starts during the summer and autumn of 1929. The best she could manage was a minor placing in a Third Class Plate at Gawler. In the spring of that year, Cummings mated her with his own stallion, Anton King, and some eleven months later, in August 1930 at his Glenelg stud, Miss Comedy dropped a beautiful chestnut filly that Jim Cummings described to the Register-News as “the best foal I have ever seen”. The new arrival was trotting around the sand patch at his stud about an hour after her birth. Now, I fear I may have trespassed upon your patience far too long in retailing the life and bloodstock adventures of Jim Cummings thus far, but I beg your indulgence for just a little longer. After all, given the distinguished paternal sire line established by the ‘Cummings’ name through three generations in Australian racebooks, a firm foundation should be laid. Let me say this. If the great British film director, Alfred Hitchcock, had made a biopic on Jim Cummings, the MacGuffin or plot device that he would have employed could be summed up in two words: Witty Maid! For that was the name by which this chestnut filly would be registered. And consistent with so much of the Hitchcock oeuvre, this particular heroine’s course to glory would be both dramatic and suspenseful. So enamoured of both mare and foal was Cummings that he exhibited the pair at the Royal Agricultural Show at Wayville in the month following the birth and was awarded a special commendation.
Witty Maid proved a good racemare, winning four races in Adelaide from five furlongs to seven furlongs including the Lightning Handicap and Oaklands Plate, besides running third in the S.A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes. Moreover, she wasn’t spared, having fifty-two starts. Witty Maid’s first assignation in the stallion barn was with the Windbag horse, Barracker, which Jim Cummings stood for a time at his Rosscarbery Stud. The winner of some good-class flying handicaps when trained by R. Brown at Flemington, Barracker proved worthless as a stallion. However, it was on Thursday, August 1st 1939, just a month before Australia declared war against Germany that Cummings with the help of a wealthy patron, secured a new stallion. The horse in question was Powerscourt, a ten-year-old son of The Night Patrol out of that brilliant racemare, Traquette, and as such was a half-brother to the 1918 V.A.T.C. Futurity Stakes winner and established stallion, Salatis. Salatis had been in the Wellington Lodge Stud for some years and had done well. At the time of Powerscourt’s sale, Salatis had sired the winners of some £27,213 among them being the Goodwood Handicap winner, Panka, and the Birthday Cup winner, Celotex, who also won the Port Adelaide Cup. Powerscourt descended from that wonderful taproot mare of the Australian Stud Book, Sappho. Powerscourt had previously stood stud duty in the Corowa district at a service fee of just five guineas but was yet to make his mark.
If Powerscourt, raced in partnership by Merson Cooper, had not gone amiss at the end of his two-year-old days, he would almost certainly have made a first-class reputation as a racehorse. In his first season, he won three races including the V.R.C. Ascot Vale Stakes besides running second at 33/1 to Vauntry in the Maribyrnong Plate at Flemington. Powerscourt was given a long spell and did not race as a three-year-old. However, reappearing as a four-year-old, he struggled to regain his juvenile brilliance, but nonetheless was defeated by only a neck in the Farewell Handicap at Flemington over nine furlongs, and later beat the subsequent Newmarket Handicap winner, Count Ito, in the Royal Handicap at the same course. The wealthy patron who had purchased Powerscourt and leased the horse to Jim Cummings, was M. B. Wilson, a retired Victorian businessman who had a holiday cottage on Glenelg beach. The sale was effected in conjunction by the Victorian Bloodstock Agency and Messrs Coles Bros of Adelaide. Newspaper advertisements were taken out declaring Powerscourt available to outside mares at Rosscarbery and clearly identifying Wilson as the owner and Cummings as the studmaster. Cummings believed in Powerscourt as he had few other stallions. And he would be the sire that over the years would prove that Cummings was something of an Elijah, an Isaiah, a prophet.
Within a few weeks of his arriving at Cummings’ Rosscarbery Stud, Powerscourt was mated with the year-younger Witty Maid. The result was a colt registered as Witty Lad that failed to win for Cummings in ten starts. The following year Witty Maid wasn’t served, but in 1941 she went to Powerscourt again which resulted in the filly named Witty Lass, who, trained by Cummings, won a couple of races in Adelaide and a couple in the country. It was an improvement, but thus far Witty Maid’s progeny weren’t exactly shooting the lights out. However, all was about to change in a quite remarkable set of circumstances. There was no foal in 1943 because Witty Maid hadn’t been served the previous year and by the time she dropped her next foal to Powerscourt in 1944, neither Witty Maid nor her unfaithful stallion consort was owned by Jim Cummings. It was in March 1942 that the conservative Playford Government in South Australia introduced a ban on horseracing, ostensibly for manpower reasons, although no other state saw fit to follow suit and Thomas Playford did enjoy a well-deserved reputation as a wowser.
The ban wasn’t lifted until October 1943, and during its term of operation, the course of many people’s lives changed profoundly. Jim Cummings was such a one, and he was forced to close his stables and work in a munitions factory. Moreover, he lacked the money to sustain his breeding enterprise through such unpredictable and turbulent times and accordingly was forced to sell off most of his bloodstock, including Witty Maid and his interest in Powerscourt. In March 1944, Cummings sold both Witty Lass and Witty Maid for the derisory sum of 110 guineas to Mel Bowyer, who conducted the Bowe Neire Stud at Normanville. So tight was money at the time that the respective parties came to an arrangement whereby a deposit of 25 guineas was put down with the balance to be paid in instalments. Powerscourt was sold to new owners in Victoria. It was in the paddocks of Bowyer’s stud in the spring of 1944 that Witty Maid dropped the brown colt that would really get the bandwagon rolling. Registered as Comedy Prince, he had a couple of runs in the Bowyer colours, including a win at Morphettville before he dramatically changed hands for £2,100 just fifteen minutes before the Balcrest Stakes at Cheltenham Park in mid-September, 1946.
The dramatic intervention came by virtue of Arthur J. Lee one of Australia’s best-known hotelkeepers and his bloodstock adviser cum trainer, none other than Jim Cummings. The Lee family, including the sons Bob, Bert and Jack, had made the acquaintance of Cummings through Dan Moriarty, the clocker at Morphettville racecourse. As Adelaide racing emerged from the myopia of World War II, Arthur Lee was looking for a distraction from his business interests and his sons had suggested ownership of racehorses. The sons were seeking a distraction as well, and two of the brothers had been distinguished and decorated soldiers in the 2/27th Australian Infantry Battalion during World War II. Now, the slightest hint that any man with money might be in the market for a racehorse was all that most trainers needed to throw the switch to salesmanship. Jim Cummings waxed so eloquently on the merits of the bloodlines and appearance of Comedy Prince that day at Cheltenham Park to Arthur Lee that he did the deal there and then with Bowyer. Comedy Prince then proceeded to carry the ‘all white’ colours of the club to a famous victory in the Balcrest Stakes in race record time, despite a dreadful start when he was cannoned into by another horse. Comedy Prince would go on to win twenty races in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney including the S.A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes and the A.R.C. Adelaide Guineas.
As good as Comedy Prince proved to be, however, it was his year-younger full brother, Comic Court, that was to prove the best of them all and a focus of this chapter. The colt made his racecourse debut in the colours of his owner-trainer, H. W. Bowyer in the A.R.C. Fulham Park Plate, bouncing away from the starting ropes and having the race won from the first furlong. Cummings was convinced, as was the Lee family. A more solid customer than Comedy Prince, it was a case of deja vu in the days leading up to the A.R.C. Balcrest Stakes when the Lee family made Bowyer an offer he couldn’t refuse on Comic Court. £2,300 secured possession although this time, it was in the name of the three Lee brothers, Arthur’s sons. It wasn’t complete deja vu, however, because Comic Court as the 7/4 favourite couldn’t emulate his older brother, and was beaten a half-length in the Balcrest by Parlez Vous. Comic Court raced six more times that season for three wins including the V.R.C. Ascot Vale Stakes and P.A.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes in his two final appearances. Despite the dominance of speed in his horse’s pedigree, Cummings believed that in Comic Court, with his athletic conformation and low head carriage at galloping speed, he had a genuine stayer on his hands. So, while the horse potted about the paddocks of Rosscarbery during the interminable weeks of winter, Jim Cummings plotted nothing less than a double assault on the A.J.C. and Victoria Derbies!
Jim Cummings brought both Comic Court and Comedy Prince over to Sydney in early August. It was the first time that most of the racing correspondents of Sydney had met the man from Adelaide and most were struck by the soberly dressed, softly spoken trainer with the dignified manners. More than most trainers, he was free from petty jealousies and personal vanities. Like many, he had his own superstitions on a racecourse, and for example, he usually saw to it on St Patrick’s Day that his horses sported a green rosette in the bridle. A reserved man, Cummings kept his own counsel, and while never divulging much information, he was invariably polite in response to press inquiries. Rather than meet the dashing sprinter, San Domenico, in the Hobartville Stakes at Randwick (Warwick Farm was still closed after the War), Comic Court, following a Moorefield barrier trial, made his Sydney debut in a three-year-old handicap at Canterbury over seven-and-a-quarter furlongs. Starting as the 7/4 favourite despite being burdened with 9 st 11lb and drawing wide, the colt in Jack Thompson’s hands, was never on the course. Similar disappointment attended his next effort when although handy, he failed to finish on in the Canterbury Guineas won in bold front-running style by the 7/4 favourite, Riptide, with the apprentice, Ron Coles, in the saddle.
A fortnight later Comic Court ran a slightly improved race but again disappointed to finish sixth in the Rosehill Guineas won by Royal Andrew. Nonetheless, Cummings declared him to be a Derby starter. Sydney’s racegoers, who had heard so much about the colt before he came to the Harbour City were distinctly underwhelmed. Now, though familiarity may not breed contempt, it may, as William Hazlett observed, take the edge of admiration. In truth, the public’s disenchantment with Comic Court wasn’t entirely the horse’s fault and had more to do with the demands of nature. During the weeks of late August and September, the horse was experiencing growing pains. After trackwork, he would eat ravenously and then be listless for several hours. Indeed, during these days, he seemed to be outgrowing his own strength. This notwithstanding, his A.J.C. Derby mission was being further complicated by uncertainty regarding a jockey booking. Jack Thompson was initially offered the ride, but after the colt’s first two Sydney failures rejected the mount in favour of Snowstream. Noel Best, the crack Queensland apprentice then committed to the horse and rode him in the Rosehill Guineas, only to break his leg in a race fall at the same track just a week before the classic. It was only on the Thursday before the Derby, after his final track gallop, that Arthur Ward accepted the mount.
Thus far in this chapter, I have concentrated on just two colts, Carbon Copy and Comic Court, vying for the 1948 Derby prize, and the two men guiding the fortunes of these colts, Des McCormick and Jim Cummings. Of course, the Derby picture was far more complex than that and by no means did this pair dominate the betting, let alone the race. Indeed, Comic Court’s poor form leading into the A.J.C. Derby saw him ease in course betting from 33/1 and go to the post at odds of 50/1. The 1948 A.J.C. Derby was the first to be worth £10,000, and it was appropriate that the quality of the field was worthy of the generosity of the prize. By way of comparison, the 1947 V.R.C. Melbourne Cup had been only worth £10,300. It was a season in which the whole racing world was to be stirred by some really high-class colts. So often just one or two horses seem to dominate the race, but on this occasion, six horses were quoted at single figures in a very open betting market. Curiously enough, none of the place-getters from the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes accepted for the classic, the first time that this had occurred since 1926. Riptide, the horse who had easily won the Sires’ Produce Stakes and was commonly regarded as the best juvenile of the previous season, had won the Canterbury Guineas but then failed to stay in the Rosehill Guineas and a Derby programme was abandoned by his trainer Arthur Croall.
The 1948 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions are set out in the table below:
Favourite for the classic was the somewhat unfashionably pedigreed, Royal Andrew, a brown colt that the prominent rails bookmaker, Jack Mandel, had bred. Mandel dabbled in bloodstock breeding in a modest way and had won races with both the sire and the dam of Royal Andrew; he had then given the subsequent foal to his daughter and son-in-law, Mr and Mrs Horace Abbott. A fine upstanding colt built upon generous lines, Royal Andrew was trained by J. W. Cook and had shown promise the previous season, although he had failed against the best in the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Randwick. However, his early three-year-old form was consistent: he was a good thing beaten in the Hobartville Stakes and then went down in a photo finish for the Canterbury Guineas before winning the Rosehill Guineas. The next most fancied runner in the race, after Carbon Copy, was Ungar, prepared by Melbourne’s leading trainer, Fred Hoysted, although his son, Bon, had been doing much of the legwork with the horse since he arrived in Sydney. A son of Law Maker, Ungar had enjoyed a brilliant juvenile season on the Turf, winning his first six races culminating with both the V.A.T.C. Merson Cooper Stakes and V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes. Bernbrook, a younger brother to Shannon that had cost Azzalin Romano 3500 guineas as a yearling was well in the betting as a result of his success in the Chelmsford Stakes; he was trained by Harry Plant. The Dan Lewis stable had two representatives in Vagabond and Foxzami, each of whom had been given a thorough preparation.
The 1948 Derby is remembered not only for its depth of class and the fact that it included two subsequent Melbourne Cup winners, but also the controversy occasioned by its close finish. From the moment the photo-finish camera had been installed in Sydney, racegoers believed that the horse finishing on the outside was favoured despite a series of tests proving the contrary. Even today the Randwick angle is deceptive because of the placement of the winning post vis-à-vis the two main grandstands. In the public stand, racegoers view horses going away from them at the winning post, while those in the members’ reserve enjoy a slightly head-on perspective. A furlong after the start, Foxzami raced to the lead turning out of the straight while Darby Munro moved Vagabond into second placing to avoid the inevitable scrimmaging in the middle of the field. Carbon Copy who had drawn nicely in gate four, was quickly into his stride, although Breasley was in no hurry aboard the chestnut, and content to race in about eighth place for the first half-mile. Meanwhile, Arthur Ward had Comic Court, who had been drawn in gate twelve, running fifth to the mile and fourth thereafter, although trapped wide for much of the journey. It was passing the four that Carbon Copy came off the bridle, although he was still well out of his ground in about tenth position. Foxzami remained the leader as the field raced to the home turn with Vagabond still second, and the favourite, Royal Andrew tucked in on the rails, about a length further back. Munro kept Vagabond alongside Foxzami until well into the straight, and then dashed away to what appeared a winning lead. The tempo of the race had been moderato rather than allegro, and the prospect of a swooper con fuoco from the back of the field seemed improbable.
However, Breasley on Carbon Copy was having none of it. Those that dismissed the chances of the son of Helios at this stage of proceedings were mistaking the hesitations of strength with the weakness of stamina, and upon entering the straight, the horse’s circumstances changed dramatically. While Vagabond finished on the inside of the course, Breasley ceased loitering with intent and, spurning the dangerous favour of an inside passage through a congested pack, elected to give his mount a hundred yards of fresh air. The baldy-faced colt simply flew inside the distance. There had never been a last furlong in the Derby like it. It was pitiless. It was remorseless. It was also utterly unpredictable at the winning post because of the width of the course separating the combatants. The angle of the grandstands vis-a-vis the course and the finish line conjured a tromp l’oeil every bit as effective as any French master’s brush had ever committed to canvas. However, the A.J.C. judge, Claude Martin wasn’t deceived. After examining the photograph, he semaphored Carbon Copy as the winner, narrowly but emphatically beating Dan Lewis’s two stablemates, Vagabond and Foxzami. The margins being a nose and neck respectively, with Comic Court a close-up fourth despite covering so much extra ground. Interestingly enough, Arthur Ward never rode Comic Court again. Sadly, for those that supported him, the race favourite, Royal Andrew, didn’t quite run out the trip.
While Carbon Copy returned to the enclosure with dilating nostrils, blood red and straining fiery eyes after his last-furlong exertions, some of the punters who had rallied to the cause of Munro and Vagabond with their money betrayed similar physical distress. They lined the official enclosure and shouted derisively at Claude Martin. Shocked when Vagabond did not get the decision, owner Frank Spurway said: “I had so little doubt my horse had won that I thought there was no need to call for a photo.” Munro himself thought, or rather perhaps hoped, that he might have just lasted. It wasn’t to be the only disappointment the jockey would suffer on the back of Vagabond that spring. Spurway reminisced: “Back in 1922 when there was no camera to decide finishes, Rivoli beat my horse Soorak, whom I had backed for £36,000. Today I backed Vagabond for £25,000. Again the decision went against me.” At the winning post, the photograph clearly showed Breasley looking across, and a jockey does that when he thinks that he has won. Munro, on the other hand, was riding Vagabond as a jockey does when he fears defeat. Riders are apt to recollect their mid-race actions, as poets do emotions, in tranquillity, implying calculation and measurement where often there is just tumult and shouting. Scobie, on this occasion at least, was honest enough to admit that luck had gone his way in those last three furlongs.
Carbon Copy was to be the only success enjoyed by Arthur Edward ‘Scobie’ Breasley in the A.J.C. Derby and it came at his third attempt, but he rode in the classic on just four occasions. Born in the N.S.W. country town of Wagga Wagga in May 1914, he was one of seven children. His father was a horseman who combined sheep-droving with the training of a few horses on the side for the local country race meetings. Very early on young Breasley manifested both his attitude and aptitude for the saddle and a friend of the family, observing the boy’s passion for horses, bestowed upon him the nickname that would last a lifetime, that of ‘Scobie’ after the great Ballarat trainer, James Scobie. After a brief stint as a stable lad with Stanley Biggins, Breasley was indentured to Melbourne trainer Pat Quinlan at thirteen years of age. Quinlan was the private trainer to the wealthy businessman J. P. Arthur, and the stables and accommodation were located in the grounds of Arthur’s luxury Melbourne mansion.
Officially, Breasley’s first winner came at Werribee in 1928 on a horse called Noogee although he’d previously won some races at the various unofficial picnic meetings around the country. His first big success came on the lightweight, Cragford, in the 1930 A.J.C. Metropolitan Handicap at Randwick, a horse, prepared by his master, although the occasion wasn’t entirely celebratory. Stewards objected to Breasley’s crossing to the fence too sharply (a love affair with the rails would remain a feature all his years in the saddle) and although he was allowed to keep the race, he was suspended for two months. Regular visits to the stewards’ room seemed de rigueur for Breasley in his younger days, for at times there was a dangerous impetuosity to his passions and he wasn’t always amenable to counsel. Entrusting the ride on Cragford in such a rich race to a 16-year-old lad might have initially attracted the ire of the Sydney racing press, but Breasley’s cool judgment in the race itself assuaged the critics.
A natural lightweight, Breasley was a superb judge of pace and a rider of extraordinary patience and bravery. His come-from-behind waiting style was reminiscent of that other Australian jockey who conquered European racecourses, Rae Johnstone. Breasley became the premier jockey in Victoria for the first time in the 1943-44 racing season with 23 wins and then proceeded to retain the title for the next two years, although after that he never again won the Victorian premiership. The restrictions implicit in the years of the Depression and World War II limited Breasley’s excursions on Sydney racecourses. Apart from Cragford and the A.J.C. St Leger in 1946 on Gay Lad, all his other big race triumphs in N.S.W. derived from his partnership with Carbon Copy. It was on the racecourses of Melbourne that Breasley was supreme, and his curriculum vitae includes no less than five Caulfield Cups. Unfortunately, the Melbourne Cup was to elude him. Perhaps the best horse with which his name is associated with big race success in Australia, apart from Carbon Copy, was that champion chestnut mare, Tranquil Star.
It was Scobie Breasley’s business manager, Harry Ford, who was instrumental in firing up the jockey’s enthusiasm for an assault on the British Turf. Breasley packed his saddles and travelled to the Old Country for the 1950 English racing season to become stable jockey to the trainer, Noel Cannon, who prepared a large string for flour millionaire J. V. Rank at the famous Druids Lodge Stables on Salisbury Plain, not that far from the mysteries of Stonehenge. ‘It would be difficult to think of anywhere more unlike Melbourne,’ Scobie observed years later, ‘but Druid’s Lodge was a wonderful place to train horses. The gallops were magnificent and so varied, and we had all that space, all that wonderful old downland turf, to ourselves.’ Breasley won on his first two mounts on English Turf, and the little Australian was immediately taken to heart by the British racing public. Breasley’s first season in England yielded him 73 wins including the prestigious Royal Hunt Cup at Ascot. He returned the following season to Druid’s Lodge and continued on his merry way winning the first of his four English classics when he partnered Ki Ming in the 1951 Two Thousand Guineas. Breasley was to become champion jockey of England on four occasions, the first non-British jockey to achieve that honour since the American Danny Maher in 1913, and the first Australian since Frank Wootton in 1912. His first title came in 1957, and he subsequently won it again in 1961, 1962 and 1963 after some fascinating jousts with a young Lester Piggott. He won The Derby twice, on Santa Claus (1964) and Charlottown (1966) and enjoyed that memorable European partnership with Ballymoss in 1958.
It is worth observing that the two English trainers who tried hardest to retain Breasley once he had committed himself to an English career in 1953 were Noel Murless, who unsuccessfully sought him to replace Gordon Richards when he retired; and Gordon Richards himself, when the great jockey set out as a trainer in 1956, and for whom Breasley rode for the last twelve years of his career. No greater names have resonated on the British Turf. Breasley retired from the saddle in 1968 and established himself as a trainer at Epsom in England where he demonstrated a marked aptitude for his new profession. Later on, he trained successfully in France and the U.S.A. on behalf of the international shipping tycoon, Ravi Tikkoo. Perhaps the greatest compliment to Breasley as a rider came from his adopted state in the country of his birth. In 1996 when Victorian racing authorities decided to institute an annual award honouring the outstanding rider at Melbourne metropolitan race meetings, the award was simply called the Scobie Breasley Medal. The great jockey died on 21st December 2006, having suffered a stroke a few days before.
Too often a blanket finish in a Derby betokens an average season of evenly matched three-year-olds, rather than an exceptional one of outstanding three-year-olds. Many racing journalists at the time suggested it was the former. However, 1948 was to prove the latter. Two men who weren’t prepared to concede the three-year-old crown to Carbon Copy just yet were Dan Lewis and Jim Cummings. When Lewis walked off Randwick racecourse at the close of that Derby Day, he knew that in Vagabond and Foxzami, if he didn’t have the Victoria Derby winner, he at least had two gallopers that would command headlines and perhaps even win a Melbourne Cup. He was right on both counts. Cummings, meanwhile, knew that in Comic Court he had a horse that, while not handsome, was maturing into a wonderfully athletic type and the trainer now had his eyes firmly on the Victoria Derby. Cummings received an additional fillip two days later when the only other horse he had brought to Sydney, Comedy Prince, won The A.J.C Shorts. The debate over the Derby finish and some jockeys’ tactics in the race might have lingered, such that the dogs were still barking, but the caravans now moved on to Melbourne.
Carbon Copy and Comic Court next clashed three weeks later at Moonee Valley in the W.S. Cox Plate. Not only did they meet some of the best of the older horses in that race, but the best of the other Melbourne three-year-olds as well. Harold Badger imparted the discipline down the reins of Carbon Copy at Moonee Valley that day. Breasley was hors de combat following a fall in the V.A.T.C. One Thousand Guineas, although even before that incident he’d foregone the mount on Carbon Copy and preferred another son of Helios. Indeed, it was this other son of Helios, Phoibos, that went to the post as the 6/4 race favourite although now in the hands of Bill Williamson. Phoibos had been bred at Ballarat by E. W. Craig of the Shady Acres Stud and was bought as a yearling for 1500 guineas by trainer Pat Quinlan on behalf of P. J. Concannon, a retired hotelkeeper of Port Adelaide. In a thrilling contest, Carbon Copy got up on the line to beat Phoibos a neck, with Beau Gem a game third and Comic Court a close and unlucky fourth. Alas, the finish didn’t tell the whole story. Had it not been for a fortunate run through on the rails halfway up the straight, Carbon Copy would not have won. Near the five-furlong post, Beau Gem was badly stripped on both hind legs but apparently did not feel the pain until the pressure came on at the entrance to the straight. He ran off the course at the turn carrying Phoibos and Comic Court with him, thereby giving Carbon Copy the saloon passage on the fence. As a result, Carbon Copy firmed into 7/4 favouritism for the Victoria Derby while Comic Court, unwanted by the public, blew out to 25/1.
How often does it happen? A betting market is framed on the basis of race form established on firm tracks, only for the very contest itself to be conducted on rain-sodden ground? Such were the circumstances surrounding the running of the 1948 Victoria Derby. The Melbourne weather on the day before the three-year-old classic was cold and unsettled and then on the opening Saturday to the V.R.C. Spring Meeting, rain set in shortly before the first race and continued throughout the afternoon. The Derby at 3.40p.m. was the fourth race on a six-race card, and by the time the starters filed on to the Flemington course, the ground was very heavy. Jim Cummings and the Lee brothers had walked the track on the previous afternoon and the instructions to jockey, Ossie Phillips, were to use Comic Court’s speed at the jump, quickly cross to the rails, and stay there until the entrance to the straight. Phillips accepted the instructions with alacrity and despatched them with dexterity.
In a cleanly run race such as they so often are on muddy ground, Ossie Phillips’s only concern was that, at times, Comic Court was going too well. George Moore tried to steal the race on Royal Andrew but was caught soon after the turn into the straight. As the field sloughed its way to the home turn, Royal Andrew lugged out, and the rest began to pitch and flounder in the going. Comic Court dashed clear and opened up a break that his rivals were unable to bridge. Carbon Copy didn’t enjoy the best of runs under the guidance of Harold Badger. Going down the back of the course, the favourite was trapped three-wide, and a slight check on the home turn didn’t help matters either. Comic Court won comfortably by two-and-a-half lengths from Foxzami, with Carbon Copy back in third place. Because of the state of the track and Moore’s cagey frontrunning tactics, it was the slowest Victoria Derby since Theo took the classic in 1934. It was the triumph of a lifetime for Jim Cummings and the Lee brothers although the race was only worth £6,500 in total in comparison with the £10,000 of its A.J.C. equivalent. Alas, rain was falling heavily when Comic Court returned to scale, and in the grey melancholy of a losing afternoon, few people seemed to take much interest in the victory. The Lee brothers backed Comic Court well at the odds of 25/1 but not nearly so well as they might have done if their father’s colt, St Comedy, the year-younger brother to Comic Court, had won the Maribyrnong Plate for which he went off the even-money favourite earlier in the day. Comic Court cleaned out his manger upon his return to stables that evening, and both he and Carbon Copy each went round in the Melbourne Cup on the following Tuesday, with Comic Court still at the longer price of the pair. Comic Court, carrying 7 st. 6lb or weight-for-age for a three-year-old, finished a very creditable fourth and Carbon Copy (7 st. 8lb) eighth. The two colts were then turned out for their summer spell with the opinions of racing men divided as to which was the better.
Carbon Copy resumed racing in the new year a week before Comic Court, for an unplaced run behind Comedy Prince in the William Reid Stakes at Moonee Valley. Comic Court returned with a nice fourth at Caulfield over six furlongs in the Barton Handicap at the end of January and then won the Devonshire Handicap over a mile at Moonee Valley on the following Saturday. Two races later on the same card, Carbon Copy ran unplaced in the six-furlong Chelsea Handicap. The first of what was to be five classic clashes between the two putative champions that autumn came a fortnight later at the same course in the ten-furlong Gisborne Handicap at set weights. Although Carbon Copy went off the 7/4 favourite, Comic Court with his now regular jockey, Jack Purtell, in the saddle, proved too good by a length. A week later came the weight-for-age St George Stakes at Caulfield over nine furlongs, and this time Carbon Copy won by a short-half-head.
Next came the V.R.C. St Leger. Only four horses accepted for the race – Clement and Rocket Gun were the other two – but it proved a two-horse affair nonetheless. Carbon Copy’s chances of winning the event were smudged when he was forced into the unaccustomed role of pacemaker thereby exposing him to the finishing sprint of Comic Court, who won by three-and-a-half lengths with Clement six lengths further away in the minor placing. Jim Cummings almost won a prestigious double that day when, three races earlier, St Comedy was beaten in the last stride in the Sires’ Produce Stakes by Iron Duke. Indeed, as Wellington himself might have observed of the occasion, it had been the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life! Whereas, the St. Leger ended Comic Court’s commitments at the V.R.C. Autumn Meeting, Carbon Copy went around in the King’s Plate on the following Wednesday, and although he and Russia started co-favourites, Carbon Copy defeated the 1946 Melbourne Cup winner with contemptuous ease.
The action now moved to Randwick. Carbon Copy opened his northern campaign with an understated win in the Chipping Norton Stakes in which he beat De La Salle, winner of the previous year’s Epsom Handicap and George Main Stakes, by a neck. Carbon Copy was always a better horse on the clockwise racecourses of Sydney than Comic Court, who had a predilection for the Melbourne way of going, something that the son of Helios proved overwhelmingly in their last two clashes of that memorable autumn viz. the A.J.C. St Leger Stakes and the Sydney Cup. The A.J.C. St Leger, like its Victorian counterpart, cut up into a field of four, only on this occasion, the bit players consisted of Bubille and Snowstream. Not that it mattered. It was always a two-horse race. Going into the event Carbon Copy and Comic Court had clashed eight times in all and, ignoring unplaced runs, the honours were even. Conducted in glorious autumn weather and on a fast track, just when the red riband might have become a two-horse war, Comic Court veered out under the whip in the straight, and Jack Purtell had to stop riding to prevent his mount from striking the outside running rail. It was the first time that Purtell had applied the shillelagh to the colt and the horse clearly didn’t like it. While Comic Court put on this rodeo act to the amusement of patrons – or at least those that hadn’t supported him in the betting ring – Carbon Copy raced truly to win running away by four lengths.
The big betting brigades behind both stables had worked the ring assiduously that day, but Comic Court carried more money at the finish and went to the post an even-money favourite. Carbon Copy was 10/9, with 10/1 and 66/1 offered about Snowstream and Bubille respectively. Breasley gave his fellow Victorian, Purtell, a lesson in tactics in that A.J.C. red riband. Having been forced to lead in the V.R.C. St Leger, Breasley was afforded the luxury of bowling along in second place behind Bubille, with Comic Court and Snowstream trailing. The pace was funereal, and, alive to the danger of Comic Court outsprinting him, Breasley drove Carbon Copy to the front between the seven and six and quickly had Purtell at sixes and sevens when presented with a four-length deficit to make-up.
It was always going to be difficult for Comic Court to run him down from there and in truth, he was a tiring horse and beginning to roll about when he put on the rodeo act in the straight to finish under the judge’s box. Punters heckled Purtell upon his return to scale, but Jim Cummings realised that Comic Court was a beaten horse at the time. Carbon Copy immediately firmed into 4/1 favouritism for the Sydney Cup while Comic Court blew in the betting.
A few hours after the St. Leger was run, Des McCormick received a telephone threat that his horse would be maimed before the Cup. Bernbrook, the long-time favourite for the Doncaster Handicap and winner of the big mile, had exposed doubles bookmakers to as much as a £500,000 payout if Carbon Copy took out the Cup. Doubles bookmakers bemoaned the fact that their liabilities were even greater than in 1926 when Valicare won the Doncaster as the 4/5 favourite. On that occasion, Pilliewinkie was the Sydney Cup favourite although the fielders finished in seventh heaven that year when the two-mile event was won by the 200/1 outsider, Murray King. The Sydney Cup field of 1949 wasn’t of great depth, something emphasised by the fact that the good miler and middle distance horse, De La Salle, was supported into equal favouritism. Carbon Copy weighted at 8 st. 5lb was handicapped to receive 3lb from Comic Court, while another three-year-old in the race, Vagabond, was to carry 8 st. 2lb.
A crowd estimated at 85,000 people came to the racecourse to celebrate a great social and sporting contest amidst effervescent glamour and the autumnal splendour of a golden afternoon. The leaves were turning, and the air was soft. There was a sense of expectation. And the Cup didn’t disappoint. Scobie Breasley’s only moment of anxiety came at the ten when the field slowed and tightened, and Carbon Copy received a check. Thereafter, Breasley remained about tenth on the rails to the half-mile before moving his mount up on the outside. There was an unrestrained fury about Carbon Copy’s finish beginning at the Leger that was just too powerful to withstand. The son of Helios swept majestically past the winning post a half-length in front of Vagabond, with Benvolo a further three lengths away in the minor placing. On that day and at that moment, Carbon Copy seemed a colt for all seasons. In a race whose history had hardly been dominated by three-year-olds, it was notable that that age group filled all three placings. Carbon Copy’s handicap of 8 st. 5lb was the most weight any three-year-old had carried to victory since Lord Cardigan won with 8 st. 7lb in 1904. Vagabond’s performance was particularly meritorious as was Dan Lewis’s mastery in getting the horse to the post at all. On Saturday, Vagabond had finished runner-up in the Doncaster, despite losing a racing plate and a portion of his nearside forehoof during the running. A special plate to protect the hoof had been fashioned by Lewis to enable the horse to start in the Sydney Cup. Vagabond’s owner, Frank Spurway, had backed Vagabond-Carbon Copy for £70,000 to win the Doncaster-Cup double and while he had known his fate on Saturday, Vagabond’s sterling finish in the last furlong invited speculation as to what might have been had the horse not suffered the accident in the Doncaster. After leading for the first three furlongs in the Cup, Comic Court remained prominent throughout, but in the straight was anchored by his 8 st. 8lb and just plodded at the finish to run fifth.
In winning the Sydney Cup, Carbon Copy became Australia’s highest stakes-winning three-year-old with £28,696 eclipsing the previous holder, Trivalve. In 1949 the A.J.C. had set aside £10,000 for the Cup plus a £500 trophy, but sweepstakes had increased the total prize money to £11,988 with all but £3,000 of that accruing to the son of Helios. A few days after the race, an offer came from the U.S.A. for the horse, but the Silk brothers already had plans to stand Carbon Copy at their Glen Devon Stud upon his retirement. Needless to say, Carbon Copy’s haul had ensured the brothers finished the season as Australia’s leading owners.
Thanks largely to Carbon Copy, his sire Helios topped the Winning Sires’ List in Australia for the 1948-49 racing season with stakes money of £71,297. It was a new Australian record eclipsing that of Valais, and Helios’s total was almost £26,000 ahead of the next horse, Midstream. Ted Underwood, owner of the Warlaby Stud at Oakland Junction in Victoria, imported Helios from England where King George VI had bred him in 1937. A son of Hyperion, the bay or brown horse had finished unplaced in his only three appearances on the racecourse in his native country. Undeterred, Ted put the stallion into training for the 1942 Melbourne Cup, but in an early morning track gallop Helios struck himself and fractured his near fore pastern. For a time it was by no means certain that he could even be saved for stud duties, but eventually, with the help of a special steel bar attached to the front wall of his hoof, sufficient support was lent to the leg to enable the horse some mobility. The contrivance relieved the leg strain by sharing any contact with the ground, and while Helios was unable to delight in the full freedoms of a stallion, he could be given walking and trotting exercise to maintain his condition. Carbon Copy wasn’t his first classic winner, he having got the Victoria Derby winner Beau Gem the year before as well as Cronides, winner of the 1948 A.J.C. St Leger. In the years to follow Helios would produce a stream of top-class gallopers including the likes of Wodalla, Bronton and Empire Link. The Warlaby Stud enjoyed a wonderful season in 1948-49, for another of their stallions in Dhoti, was just pipped by Midstream for second place on the Sires’ table.
Carbon Copy’s reputation never stood higher than it did at the close of his three-year-old season. He was never to assert the same dominance again. Though he managed to win both the A.J.C. Craven Plate and the A.J.C. Randwick Plate during the spring and the V.R.C. Carbine Stakes and A.J.C. Chipping Norton Stakes in the autumn, Carbon Copy’s four-year-old season, with only four wins from eighteen starts, was a dim afterglow of the refulgence of his classic year. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that his owners chose to retire him at the end of that season to their Glen Devon Stud, where he served about forty mares. What was surprising, however, was Abe and Hymie Silk’s decision to bring the horse back into training afterwards for an autumn campaign as a five-year-old stallion. It was a highly unorthodox manoeuvre with a horse of his quality, although there were a few parallels. Russia, the Melbourne Cup winner, served a brief season at stud as a spring eight-year-old and then came back to win weight-for-age races at Flemington and Randwick in the autumn in one final campaign. Perhaps a better example was that of Paddy Wade’s imported horse, Top Gallant, who served a full season at stud as a six-year-old and then came back to win the Futurity Stakes at Caulfield. By comparison, the comeback of Carbon Copy was to be rather less successful. So, why did Abe and Hymie Silk bring Carbon Copy back to the racecourse after just one season at stud? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the son of Helios was still such a young stallion with seemingly much to offer on the racecourse. Moreover, during his months in the stallion barn, he had matured into a physically imposing specimen. The other part of the answer to the question was the relative absence of outside quality mares that he attracted in his first stallion book at Glen Devon. Remember, this was a time when those magical three letters ‘imp.’ after a stallion’s name seemingly mesmerised broodmare owners. Australia’s cultural cringe was alive, and well and bloodstock breeders largely steered clear of domestic sires.
It was on December 12, 1950, that Carbon Copy went back to Des McCormick’s Mordialloc stable. Before leaving Glen Devon, however, the horse stood on the weighbridge at Werribee and recorded 1160lb. In eight weeks of training, McCormick took 102lb off his old favourite and, except for a barrier trial at Flemington on the Monday before his comeback race in the V.A.T.C. St George Stakes, he had not had a really hard gallop for nearly twelve months. Last, on the turn into the straight at Caulfield, Carbon Copy finished an impressive third, four lengths behind his arch nemesis, Comic Court, who defeated Iron Duke by a half-head after a battle royal in the straight. Despite the promising performance of Carbon Copy, it wasn’t altogether a happy occasion for connections. Stewards opened an inquiry into the horse’s running, and the outcome was a severe censure for jockey Bill Williamson over his easy handling of the stallion during the race. One interesting sidelight to the inquiry was the revelation that the Silk brothers some fourteen months before, after the 1949 V.R.C. Spring Meeting, had resolved never to bet again, a resolution that remained intact despite Carbon Copy’s comeback.
The brothers’ strength of character in relation to gambling wasn’t to be tested again – at least, not be Carbon Copy. A fortnight after his reappearance at Caulfield, the chestnut entire overreached himself in a Saturday morning track gallop and split his off fore-heel. He also wrenched his fetlock. The intention had been to run Carbon Copy in the V.R.C. King’s Plate at Flemington on the following Wednesday. Placed under veterinary supervision, the horse’s permanent retirement to the Glen Devon Stud was announced a week later. His full racing record stood at 45 starts, 14 wins, 10 seconds, and 6 thirds for £38, 194 in prize money. Carbon Copy’s second coming at stud proved surprisingly successful for an Australian-bred stallion and in his second crop he got Carbon Flight, who was rated the best filly in the 1955 Free Handicap. Undoubtedly his best performer was Grand Print, that good stayer of the early sixties who emulated his sire by winning the 1962 Sydney Cup as the 7/2 favourite carrying 8st. 8lb with Roy Higgins in the saddle. Carbon Copy did much to establish the Glen Devon Stud as a commercial venture for the Silk family, particularly after the brothers imported the Irish-bred Power House, a son of Royal Charger, in 1958 to supplement their champion’s waning potency. Quite a few of the daughters of Carbon Copy nicked nicely with Power House and the results included the likes of those good sprinters Jimeal and Maritana. The V.R.C. Oaks winner, Gypsy Queen, was yet another high-class racehorse foaled by a daughter of Carbon Copy.
Des McCormick had been most influential in persuading the Silk brothers to try Carbon Copy again on the racecourse after the horse’s initial season at stud. The fact that it turned out to be a one-race comeback left the Mordialloc trainer somewhat deflated and disillusioned. Would he ever again have a racehorse as good pass through his hands? McCormick could be forgiven for seeking another, different challenge as a distraction at this moment. And within three months of Carbon Copy’s last race, just such a challenge presented itself when he was offered a four-year-contract to train racehorses privately in California. The man behind the offer was Thomas F. Ryan, an American millionaire who just happened to be good friends with the Australian airline pioneer, Reg Ansett, and was on the board of Ansett Transport Industries Ltd. Ansett was a client of McCormick’s stable and in later years was to be his leading stable patron, with a penchant for jumpers. Ryan’s main stable in the U.S.A. was at his Three Rivers Ranch in New Mexico. McCormick was commissioned to buy some Australian racehorses to transport across the Pacific with him, and his choice fell upon Wessex and Longden, each promising young horses owned by W. R. Kemball. He negotiated to purchase Davey Jones, runner-up in the Doncaster Handicap, but the price was too steep. Instead, he bought a couple of yearling fillies by Great Britain and Great Legend on behalf of T. F. Ryan. When McCormick left for California in June 1951, his Epsom stables of twenty-six horseboxes were placed in the hands of his nephew, George, Roy McCormick’s son.
Des McCormick’s odyssey seemed doomed to failure from the start. Within weeks of relocating to the U.S.A., George McCormick was disqualified for two years over the running of the jumper, Student, owned by Abe Silk, in the Leamington Hurdle at Caulfield in July 1951. Although the V.R.C. committee later halved the disqualification on appeal, the contretemps upset Des McCormick’s plans in the sense that a number of racehorses and clients that George was overseeing in his uncle’s absence, were transferred to other stables. One such horse was Lady Havers, the three-year younger half-sister to Carbon Copy by Moondarewa, raced by the Silk brothers. Lady Havers was one of the best two-year-old fillies of her year, winning three good races on the trot and finishing a close fourth in the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Flemington. Des McCormick recognised her ability, and the filly weighed heavily on his mind when he opted to accept the American contract. However, with nephew George taking over the stable, Des reasoned that whatever success came to Lady Havers as a three-year-old, it would remain all in the family.
George McCormick’s disqualification changed that and Lady Havers went into the stables of P. B. (Pat) Quinlan for whom she won the V.R.C. Edward Manifold Stakes and the V.R.C. Oaks. I might mention that Lady Havers was the only really decent horse that Moondarewa ever sired. It harkens back to a more sporting, less commercial age. Moondarewa was a promising stayer when trained by Frank Dalton at Randwick and a one-time favourite for both the 1942 A.J.C. Metropolitan and the 1943 Sydney Cup. However, he flattered to deceive and never did win a race of any significance. Abe Silk eventually bought him as a potential hurdler and gave the horse to Des McCormick to train. Hence the Silk family’s patronage of him as a stallion. Of course, when the mating was made that produced Lady Havers, Carbon Copy was just an unraced two-year-old showing some promise on the Epsom training track, so Havers real worth as a broodmare hadn’t at that stage been revealed.
If George McCormick’s disqualification and Lady Havers classic success weren’t enough to give Des McCormick heartburn and homesickness, some of the complications of his American sojourn did. Wessex and Longden both gave trouble after arriving in America and whether it was a failure to acclimatise or not, neither horse showed its true form. Nor did the yearling fillies come up to expectation. If that wasn’t enough, there were difficulties with American immigration laws and questions as to McCormick’s eligibility to train American horses. In the end, Des only served out a little over twelve months of what was originally a notional four-year contract, put the unhappy experience behind him, and returned to Melbourne and his Epsom stables in August 1952. Once again Abe and Hymie Silk proved to be his most steadfast clients, presenting him with no less than ten racehorses in work. However, it wasn’t until the end of December that he managed to win his first race when Semi Trailer won the Maiden Plate at Mornington. While McCormick proceeded to resume a successful training career, he was never again to scale the heights as he did with Carbon Copy. Perhaps the best horse that he trained after the retirement of the Derby winner was Van Perri, a specialist over the Moonee Valley steeplechase course and winner of the 1957 Hiskens Steeplechase with 11 st. 12 lb and over £15,625 in stakes upon retirement – the highest earnings by a jumper in Australia up to that time. There were other good winners too, Coltara comes to mind in the 1963 Grand National Hurdle. Yes, despite Carbon Copy, McCormick is now best remembered as the king of cross-country gallopers! Des McCormick died in Melbourne in 1969.
Yet as good as Carbon Copy was, it has to be acknowledged that the greatest horse to emerge from the 1948 A.J.C. Derby field was Comic Court. Whereas Carbon Copy cut a diminished figure on the racecourse after his three-year-old season, Comic Court went from strength to strength. Although a classic winner at two and three, it was only with full maturity that the horse revealed his true potential, dominating our best weight-for-age races at four and five and eventually retiring at the end of his five-year-old season having won 28 of his 54 starts over distances ranging from four furlongs to two miles and prize money of some £48,579. Undoubtedly, Comic Court’s best performance came in the 1950 Melbourne Cup when he carried top weight of 9 st. 5lb to victory in Australasian record time for the two miles, after leading for the last seven furlongs. Pat Glennon rode him that day after his regular jockey, Jack Purtell, had asked for a release to enable him to ride the W.S. Cox Plate and dual Derby winner, Alister. Glennon’s methods were always more persuasive than coercive and Comic Court clearly approved of the jockey switch. He was a thoroughly generous horse when allowed to run and he never showed that quality better than that first Tuesday afternoon in November at Flemington. A measure of his versatility came at his very next start when resuming from his summer spell in the William Reid Stakes at Moonee Valley. Against a field that included some of Australia’s best sprinters, Comic Court ran a course record to beat the lot over the short six furlongs course.
I might mention that the runner-up to Comic Court in that famous 1950 Melbourne Cup was none other than the champion mare, Chicquita. Trained by Tony Lopes at Flemington, Chicquita and Comic Court were to establish a wonderful rivalry during the spring and autumn of that 1950-51 racing season. A taste of their future duelling had come in February 1950 when the pair first met in the V.A.T.C. St George Stakes, which Comic Court won by a neck. The following season the two would meet on nine occasions and run the quinella no fewer than five times viz. the Craiglee Stakes, L.K.S. Mackinnon Stakes, Melbourne Cup, C.F. Orr Stakes and the V.R.C. Ercildoune Stakes. Of those races, while only the Craiglee Stakes fell to Chicquita, their clashes engendered an excitement and fascination that reached well beyond the borders of Victoria. Comic Court was retired from the racecourse at the end of that season and went into Ted Underwood’s Warlaby Stud in the spring of 1951 to join the likes of Dhoti and Helios. It was there that Comic Court and Chicquita were destined to meet once again. While Comic Court proved a somewhat indifferent stallion, it is hard to deny that together the stallion and mare enjoyed a special chemistry. Their one and only mating produced Comicquita, a handsome black horse and runner-up in the 1962 Melbourne Cup to Even Stevens. Comic Court only sired four stakes winners at stud viz. Asian Court, winner of the 1958 Werribee Cup and Bart Cummings’s first Melbourne Cup runner; Droll Prince (V.R.C. Cantala Stakes and Williamstown Cup); Gurney (V.A.T.C. International Stakes); and Harcourt (Tattersall’s S.A. Tatt’s Cup and S.A.J.C. Tatt’s Centenary Cup).
However, permit me for a moment, to return to the sire and dam of Comic Court. From 1939 through to 1954 with one exception, Witty Maid was mated with Powerscourt, and the matings produced Comedy Prince, St Comedy and Gay Comedy – all classic winners – as well as Comic Court. And the remarkable thing was that the Lee family owned them all! It was after buying Comedy Prince that Arthur Lee negotiated the right of the first option of purchase on the progeny of Witty Maid. The prices extracted by the Bowyer family weren’t cheap, but the rewards were plentiful. Comedy Prince would win 20 races including the S.A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes and A.R.C. Adelaide Guineas. St Comedy would win 22 races including the S.A.J.C. Goodwood Handicap, V.R.C. Ascot Vale Stakes and A.R.C. Adelaide Guineas. And Gay Comedy, who cost £3,000, would win 10 races including the S.A.J.C. Oaks and St Leger. I might mention that the progeny achieved a remarkable feat on Saturday, February 19, 1949, when three of them all won. The brothers St Comedy and Comic Court won at Moonee Valley, and their sister, Witty Lass, was successful at Victoria Park, Adelaide. After such protracted fidelity between sire and dam, it is interesting to note that both Powerscourt aged 27 and Witty Maid aged 26 were humanely destroyed on the same day in January 1957. But for the intervention of the War, Jim Cummings might have had the distinction of owning and breeding – as well as training – all of their remarkable progeny.
There is another dimension to Comic Court and his racing career to which I should make reference before I leave this chapter and that relates to the identity of the horse’s strapper on the day of that famous Melbourne Cup victory. Bart Cummings, Jim’s second son, was one week shy of his twenty-third birthday on that first Tuesday in November 1950. The young man had resolved upon following his father’s footsteps as a racehorse trainer long before that Cup, but the occasion fired his imagination and determination to one day train a Derby and Cup winner of his own. Comic Court contributed to Bart’s stable craft and education both directly and indirectly. Directly, in the sense that the son was able to observe first-hand the template that the father followed to get Comic Court to the starting gates at peak fitness for the Cup. And indirectly, in the sense that the son became responsible for the father’s Adelaide training establishment much sooner than would ordinarily have been the case. Bart’s promotion to acting trainer in charge of the Glenelg stables was a corollary of the fact that Jim Cummings spent many weeks in Melbourne and Sydney with Comic Court after the horse’s two-year-old season. Indeed, the last time Comic Court raced in Adelaide was when he won the P.A.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes in March 1948. Just how well Bart applied and improved upon Jim Cummings’ Cup-winning training template will be demonstrated in a later chapter of this chronicle.
Comic Court was by no means the last good horse that Jim Cummings had through his hands but he would always remain the best. Jim Cummings’ big race winners post Comic Court included among others First Scout (1953 Goodwood Handicap), Storm Glow (1955 Adelaide Cup); and Auteuil (1956 South Australian Derby). At the age of seventy-six, Jim Cummings even came out of retirement to train The Dip to win the 1962 A.J.C. Metropolitan and finish fifth in that year’s Melbourne Cup.
Before I finish this chapter of ‘Kings of the Turf’ I should comment on the two minor placegetters in the 1948 A.J.C. Derby trained by Dan Lewis viz. Vagabond and Foxzami. If Comic Court was the best horse to emerge from that race then Vagabond was surely the most controversial and it all came about at his very next start. The race in question was the Burwood Handicap run on Caulfield Cup Day when Vagabond went under by 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 lasted fifty minutes after the final event, the inquiry was adjourned to the V.R.C. office the following Wednesday. The racing public was rocked by the subsequent two-year disqualification imposed on the three principals for allegedly not allowing the horse to run on his merits. Later appeals by Lewis and Spurway were upheld but Munro’s punishment remained. The jockey denied pulling up the horse and with support from Lewis, described Vagabond as a rogue who seldom raced to his true ability.
The V.R.C. committee might have gratified their spleen but the disqualification effectively destroyed Munro’s career. As we have seen, something of Vagabond’s true ability was shown at the 1949 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting when the horse almost pulled off a long-priced doubles betting coup for Dan Lewis and his confreres in the Doncaster and Sydney Cup when he ran second in both races. It was one of those rare instances when three-year-olds ran the quinella in each feature event. In later races, the bay horse was consistently beaten and exasperated Spurway even more. Vagabond was to snap his off foreleg in soft going as he negotiated the home turn in the 1950 A.J.C. Metropolitan Handicap won by Conductor and was destroyed on the course. Frank Spurway was away in England with an Australian bowling team at the time of the accident to the most frustrating racehorse that ever carried his colours. Indeed, Vagabond was just about the last racehorse with which Spurway was involved on the Turf. A generous benefactor to worthy causes, in July 1960 he gave £100,000 to the Rheumatism Council for research.
If Vagabond provided Dan Lewis with exasperation, Foxzami provided exhilaration. Following upon the colt’s second in the Victoria Derby, his 75-year-old trainer, Dan Lewis, laid out a long-term scheme to win the 1949 Melbourne Cup with him. A neat, compact colt by the French-bred horse, Nizami, Foxzami was a genuine stayer but wasn’t built to carry weight. He had been purchased for 800 guineas as a yearling in New Zealand by his owner, Mr L. G. Robinson, a retired businessman and resident of Lord Howe Island, who had made his money in motor car accessories. In the autumn of 1949, Foxzami won a mixed stakes race at Canterbury and was transported to Melbourne for both the V.R.C. St Leger and the Australian Cup but a pelvic injury en route ensured he never started in either. Accordingly, Lewis turned him out and when he came back in the spring placed the horse very carefully in his races. He was scratched from both The A.J.C. Metropolitan and the Caulfield Cup and ran unplaced in both the Caulfield Stakes and Cox Plate. However, when he won the V.R.C. Hotham Handicap, Foxzami’s odds tumbled into 16/1 for the Melbourne Cup, and with Billy Fellows in the saddle, he duly landed the prize on the following Tuesday. Old Dan Lewis had trained no less than five Sydney Cup winners during his fifty years on the Turf, but Foxzami gave him his first and only Melbourne Cup. Here endeth the chapter!