During the years immediately after World War II, racecourse rumours were rife in Australia about the prevalence of horse doping. Some believed the stories to be highly coloured and imaginative; others saw dark conspiracies lurking whenever a short-priced favourite was beaten. That there was some doping taking place was certain and the problem, of course, was not confined to Australia. It was within this context that, after extensive consultations with the Jockey Club in Great Britain and other racing clubs around the world, the A.J.C. decided to engage its own analyst and establish a drug-testing laboratory. Accordingly, in 1947 the club appointed Jean Kimble, a science graduate from Sydney University, as Australia’s first full-time drug tester. In 1948 the A.J.C. constructed its own laboratory funded by £5,500 received from the liquidator of the Rosehill Racing Club and on Villiers Day 1947 the A.J.C. began to drug test horses at random.
It wasn’t until the twenty-eighth test that a horse returned a positive swab and it came from Frontal Attack, trained by Raymond Denham after it had finished a very close third in the James Barnes Plate on 8th May 1948. It was later in the same month that A.J.C. stewards announced the disqualification of both horse and trainer for life. Although the A.J.C. committee dismissed the subsequent appeal, it eventually lifted the life disqualification and a penalty of three years substituted instead. Other incidents were to follow, and by January 1949 four trainers had been debarred after traces of benzedrine and caffeine were found in the bloodstreams of horses they trained. Later that year the A.J.C. decided to enhance its drug-testing policy by swabbing every winner while continuing to test other horses at random. It seemed that the issue of drugs had been resolved, at least for the time being, when no further positive swabs emerged during the next two years or so. Then came the dramatic aftermath of the 1953 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting!
At that meeting, the respective winners of the Doncaster Handicap, Tarien, and the Sires’ Produce Stakes, Cromis, returned positive swabs. Tarien, an imported mare trained by Tom Smith, was owned by prominent N.S.W. sportsmen, R. O. Cummings and David Chrystal junior; and Cromis, a Victorian colt trained by Bob Sinclair, was part-owned by none other than Ted Underwood, the vice-chairman of the V.R.C. and proprietor of the Warlaby Stud. Underwood was one of the most prolific patrons of the Turf in Australia and raced his horses throughout the land. Bob Sinclair trained most of his big team at Flemington, although Maurice McCarten had kept some horses for Underwood in Sydney since the late 1940s. Although the connections of the doped horses appealed, the appeals were dismissed in August 1953, and Triclinium and Royal Stream respectively were duly promoted as the winners of the Doncaster Handicap and Sires’ Produce Stakes. At the time of the dismissed appeals, A.J.C. chairman Alan Potter declared that the club was under no illusions as to the need for constant vigilance in its anti-doping crusade.
Tracing the five-year history of the campaign, Potter observed: ‘At first it was caffeine; next it was benzedrine, and now, after a lapse of two years during which no positive reactions were found, we find a sudden outcrop of doping by coramine.’ In the written findings of the appeals, the A.J.C. committee reprimanded Tarien’s trainer Tom Smith for leaving the horse unsupervised by anyone other than a part-time employee attendant for some fifteen minutes shortly before the race. It was the closest Smith came to a career-threatening disqualification in these his emerging years. The A.J.C. committee resolved that the respective owners were entitled to have the benefit of the stewards’ findings in favour of their trainers, Tom Smith and Bob Sinclair. The fallout from the affair was considerable. Apart from the negative publicity retailed in the newspapers and on wireless broadcasts, some of the Victorian racing establishment refused to bring horses over for the Randwick Spring Meeting.
Despite all of the damage done to the public image of horseracing by the affair, the relegation of Cromis in the Sires’ Produce Stakes refused to alter the general perception that Ted Underwood’s colt was the best juvenile of his year. Although the horse had won only once in nine outings, he had run second in both the Sires’ Produce Stakes and Ascot Vale Stakes at Flemington before his being first past the post in the controversial race at Randwick. At the end of the 1952-53 racing season, for the first time in Australia weights were issued on a notional Free Handicap for rising three-year-olds.
It brought the country into line with England and France by providing an official comparison of the leading juvenile colts and fillies before their classic year. Until then the only guide offered to the public of the handicapper’s opinion had come with the first release of weights for the big spring handicaps, the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups, although with three-year-olds usually grouped there between 7 st. 6lb and 6 st. 7lb, the spread had been too narrow to be an effective guide. Cromis was accorded the honour of top weight of 9 stone in this inaugural year of the notional race over one mile framed within a maximum of 9 st. 7lb and a minimum of 7 stone. Cortauld (N.Z.) and Royal Stream were ranked next, both on 8 st. 13lb. Prince Morvi, the eventual winner of the A.J.C. Derby, was weighted on 8 st. 10lb. or equal seventh in the handicap.
Once again bookmakers reduced a big field for the A.J.C. Derby on the opening day of the 1953 Randwick Spring Meeting to one or two likely winners; the local colt, Prince Morvi, installed a warm favourite. However, Royal Stream, the Midstream horse that was the beneficiary of the positive drug test from Cromis in the Sires’ Produce Stakes in the autumn, also met with spirited betting on the course. Prince Morvi was a big powerful colt by Gaekwar’s Pride and trained by Ernie Fellows at Warwick Farm. Backward and lazy at two, Fellows delayed the colt’s racecourse debut until late March when, after a couple of educational runs in Sydney, he was taken north for the Q.T.C. Autumn Meeting and created a big impression winning his only two starts there, including the Sires’ Produce Stakes by four lengths. Since resuming from a spell, Prince Morvi had easily won the Canterbury Guineas landing some big wagers, before being controversially and narrowly beaten when an odds-on favourite in the Guineas at Rosehill.
In that race, won in a photo finish by the 100/1 Victorian interloper, Silver Hawk, jockey Allan Thompson on Prince Morvi had seen his horse fail narrowly after chartering a somewhat maladroit course in the straight – an error of judgement that resulted in the substitution of Neville Sellwood for the Derby. Sellwood had previously partnered the colt in Queensland and the Canterbury Guineas, but at Rosehill had been required to ride the Maurice McCarten-trained Cortauld (later Prince Cortauld), who after a disappointing performance there, wasn’t persevered with as a Derby prospect. Royal Stream, trained by the veteran Fred Cush, owed his market prominence both to his juvenile form and his annexation of the weight-for-age Chelmsford Stakes earlier in the spring. Moreover, his pedigree suggested he would stay, as he was a direct descendant of Bob Sievier’s celebrated mare, Sceptre, his dam being an import by Colombo from a half-sister to Tiberius, winner of an Ascot Gold Cup.
Silver Hawk, the massive grey colt by Star of Baroda, trained by veteran Harry Telford, was third elect. For many people, watching Telford saddle-up Silver Hawk stirred memories of another giant three-year-old the trainer had sent out in the same race almost a quarter of a century before. Australia’s leading owner, Ernie Williams, had two representatives in the field in Electro and Castillo while the Singaporean millionaire, Rumne Shaw, had the well-named Krakatoa engaged in the race trained by Tommy Smith, who also prepared Castillo. Another in the field – although not seriously considered – was the Maurice McCarten-trained Nargoon, who at 6500 guineas, had brought the top price at the 1952 Easter Yearling Sales. McCarten’s other representative, High Forest, out of a sister to Shannon, had also been an expensive yearling, setting Adolph Basser back 4,500 guineas at the same sales. Queensland and New Zealand were represented respectively by Callide River, the minor place-getter in the Rosehill Guineas, and Emphatic.
With an eye on the approaching visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Randwick in February 1954, the A.J.C. committee had appealed to its members to adopt formal dress on Derby Day, intending the occasion as something of a dress rehearsal. Very few responded to the committee’s unequivocal leap back to the Dark Ages, although some younger members compromised with bowlers and homburgs. In balmy spring weather the elderly that had accepted the committee’s sartorial challenge of tails and top hat, soon doubted the intelligence of their sacrifice. The question of dress fashion wasn’t the only controversy that concerned the committee on that first day of the meeting. The seeds of what would be the sensation of the carnival were sown even before any of the feature races had been run. It had come to the attention of the A.J.C. chairman, Alan Potter, that because of ‘doubles betting’ considerations, the public’s favourite horse Carioca, who had been heavily supported for both the Epsom and Metropolitan, might not start in the latter race if he failed to win the former.
Potter and the club secretary, W. N. Parry-Okeden, approached ‘Duck’ Hoysted, the trainer of Carioca, and informed him that the club expected he would keep faith with the betting public regardless of the Epsom result, provided the horse was fit and well. Burdened with 9 st. 7lb in each race, Carioca ran third in the Epsom after leaping a fallen horse and was subsequently declared fit to take his place in The Metropolitan by a panel of four veterinary advisers. After a magnificent duel with Hydrogen, Carioca triumphed in the rich staying handicap as a warm favourite. The pressure applied to Hoysted by the A.J.C. committee was the subject of considerable press coverage at the time and came to represent a celebrated if controversial precedent on the respective rights of owners vis-à-vis the authority of race clubs. It eventually prompted the A.J.C. to determine that all scratchings from major races after the declaration of acceptances would be at the behest of stewards. No such controversy attended the Derby, either before or after its running.
The 1953 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions are set out in the table below:
In the race, Prince Morvi enjoyed a glorious journey. Sellwood ensured the bone-idle colt was fastest away at the gate, but with a genuine pace provided by others, he was able to restrain the big fellow back in fourth place in the run to the milepost, just behind Electro. He was content to remain thereabouts until coming to the home turn when the colt was still on the steel. Sellwood elected to take charge just below the distance, and after a brief tussle with Electro held on to win by three-quarters of a length from that horse, with a further length-and-a-half to High Forest, who was ridden back in the field and ran on fairly without ever threatening the first pair. The time for the race was the fastest since 1942, and the equal third fastest in its history, although still 2 ¾ seconds outside Beau Vite’s course record for the distance. Considering the overall time, the last half-mile in 49 ¾ seconds was rather slow for a Derby and didn’t suggest much of a staying future for any of those horses that had raced back in the field during the first mile. In winning, Prince Morvi managed to deny the new Kia Ora stallion, Delville Wood, his first Derby, relegating that stallion’s three representatives into second, third and fourth places. If the win provided heartburn for the Kia Ora studmaster on that score, it proved a tonic for big-betting owner Joe Harris, who remained at home, confined to bed with influenza, although he did manage to listen to the race on the radio. Harris was no stranger to winning, having raced Spear Chief many years before. In his enforced absence, his co-owner Stephen Blau organised a celebratory party at Romano’s that night.
Prince Morvi, by Gaekwar’s Pride, derived his name from the Maharajah of Morvi, an Indian prince who emerged onto the racing scene in England in the years after World War II. Immensely wealthy, the prince relished a tilt at the ring and thought nothing of wagering £20,000 on a horse. Edgar Britt supposed him to be the biggest punter for whom he ever rode. In the circumstances, it seemed to Harris and Blau a singularly apt name for a racehorse that would afford them both ample opportunities for a profitable dash at the men of Tattersall’s. Prince Morvi was the first of two A.J.C. Derby winners to be sired by Gaekwar’s Pride, who initially stood at the Marylands Stud of Arthur Meehan at Castle Hill. A bay horse bred in England in 1942, Gaekwar’s Pride had been the winner of nine races there, including eight handicaps over a mile. A son of Fair Trial and a half-brother to Ruthless, a successful sire in New Zealand, he was closely related to The Two Thousand Guineas winner, Garden Path, and Watling Street, the last of the 17th Earl of Derby’s three English Derby winners. A good weight carrier, Gaekwar’s Pride had once carried 12 st. 5lb to victory in a mile handicap at Salisbury. His first yearlings sold in March 1951 and Prince Morvi was amongst his second crop bred at the Marylands Stud.
Sincerity, the dam of Prince Morvi, was a brown mare by Beau Pere from an imported matron in Rossolis, and was bred and raced by Fred J. Smith who cloaked his racecourse activities under the nom de course of ‘Mr Constable’. As a two-year-old, Sincerity scrambled in to win a nursery handicap at Rosebery in the hands of Jack Thompson while the next season she ran a series of placings at Rosehill and Randwick before being sold by Smith in April 1944 for 800 guineas. While her racing record left something to be desired, Sincerity boasted a valuable distaff pedigree; her grand dam was a half-sister to the legendary matron, Scapa Flow, the dam of Fairway and Pharos. Retired to the Marylands Stud in the spring of her five-year-old season, Prince Morvi was Sincerity’s fourth foal. Generally, a Derby winner brings great distinction and prestige to a stud, particularly where the stud owns both sire and dam. Arthur Meehan didn’t enjoy the benefits that breeding a Derby winner usually bestows. The land of Marylands Stud was becoming much too valuable for bloodstock breeding, which saw the stock dispersed in September 1955, with the last of the stud’s yearlings sold at the April 1956 Yearling Sales; after that, the property was used mainly for dairying. The younger racegoers of today probably marvel that residential Castle Hill was ever the site of a successful thoroughbred stud as recently as the 1950s.
But while Arthur Meehan was an active studmaster at Marylands, the Warwick Farm trainer, Ernie Fellows, frequently visited the place to inspect the mares and foals and how he came to buy Prince Morvi makes for an intriguing story. Fellows took a shine to the little fellow as a foal and grew even more enamoured of him as he matured into a yearling. Ernie Fellows was determined to buy him at those 1952 Sydney Yearling Sales. The bay or brown colt was one of three lots offered by the stud on the first day of the sales that April but at 1050 guineas Fellows was forced to go much higher for Lot No. 32 than he intended. Although he did have a buyer in mind, the client wasn’t prepared to pay that much for a colt by the unfashionable stallion, Gaekwar’s Pride. The trainer was making his way to the auctioneer’s rostrum to determine whether Meehan was prepared to go halves in the colt when he ran into the popular sporting figure of Joe Harris, who had just entered the William Inglis premises.
Harris and his partner, Stephen Blau (who raced under the nom-de-course of ‘H. Tanks’) had only the day before won the Sydney Cup and a fortune in bets when their horse Opulent ploughed through a sea of mud at Randwick to beat the hapless Dalray by a head. Although the prize money for the Sydney Cup was £10,000, it represented less than a quarter of their total winnings from having backed the Doncaster-Sydney Cup double of Prelate and Opulent. Harris and Blau generously proceeded to distribute some of their windfall amongst Sydney’s leading charities while at the same time buying a couple of yearlings at the Inglis Sales. When Fellows explained his dilemma to Harris, the latter agreed to take ownership of the Sincerity colt on behalf of himself and his partner, and leave Fellows to do the training. Although Prince Morvi was big and lazy and hadn’t earned any prize money by the time the following year’s Easter Yearling Sales came around, he had shown Fellows enough in private trials to convince the trainer to outlay 1800 guineas to acquire his younger brother on behalf of the same owners.
Taken to Melbourne after his Derby victory, Prince Morvi ran a most respectable race in the W.S. Cox Plate, despite a bad draw, when beaten a length into second place by Hydrogen, with Cromis, Victoria’s best three-year-old, relegated to third. This race then set up a wonderful return match between the two minor-place-getters one week later in the Victoria Derby. Cromis had been given just one run other than the W.S. Cox Plate to fit him for his tilt at the classic, and yet he staged a magnificent duel down the Flemington straight to go under to the Sydney colt by a head with the balance of the field trailing in their wake. That ended Prince Morvi’s highly lucrative spring campaign, which saw him ranked as the best-staying colt of his year.
A troublesome foreleg marred Prince Morvi’s subsequent career on the racecourse following that brilliant spring. The problem, which was variously diagnosed as a form of arthritis, caused Fellows to miss the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting, and particularly the A.J.C. St Leger, with the horse. But even without the services of his crack colt, the St Leger that year proved a triumph for the small Warwick Farm stable when Fellows won the red riband with his second string, Monarch. Monarch, who landed a nice touch in the ring, was ridden in the race by brother Billy, who had made a comeback to the saddle after surrendering his trainer’s licence only a couple of months before. Prince Morvi’s delayed preparation induced Fellows to freshen up the Derby winner for a crack at the Q.T.C. Stradbroke Handicap. The trainer did manage to get Prince Morvi to the racecourse for two flying handicaps in late May although he failed to run a place on either occasion. Taken to Brisbane, the horse had been the subject of good wagering for the Stradbroke, only to be withdrawn on the Thursday before the race because of a recurrence of troublesome arthritis. Even the best of friends can fall out over the joint-ownership of a top racehorse, and a difference of opinion between Harris and Blau as to whether or not to retire Prince Morvi or persist on the racecourse saw the horse go under the auction hammer in August 1954.
Joe Harris was determined to retain possession of his Derby winner, albeit in his wife’s name, and McCarten, who was doing his bidding, was forced to go to 7800 guineas to get him in a lively session at the Inglis Sales. As circumstances panned out, it didn’t prove a bad bit of business for Harris. Maurice McCarten experienced difficulties in keeping the big horse sound with his leg splint, but he managed to get him to win four of his remaining eleven starts in Australia over the next two seasons, wins that included the S.T.C. Rawson Stakes, A.J.C. All-Aged Stakes and George Main Stakes. His last start here came in the A.J.C. Craven Plate at the 1955 Spring Meeting in which he ran second to the real star of McCarten’s stable that spring, Prince Cortauld. A little more than a week later Joe Harris announced that the big horse had been sold for an undisclosed price to an American agent acting on behalf of Frank Rand, a New York-based shoe manufacturer. Rand was the owner of a large string of racehorses in the U.S.A. prepared by a private trainer. In a period when an increasing number of Australian racehorses were finding their way onto American racecourses, Prince Morvi held a special appeal for American buyers because his dam was by Beau Pere, who had become a celebrity in America as the sire of their great champion, Swaps.
Air freighting horses all the way to America was a relatively new concept in 1955. The successful journey with Prince Morvi involved covering a distance of 16,000 miles in nine days, albeit with breaks in Singapore and London but it did open the way for a significant increase in the transporting of bloodstock by aircraft. Prince Morvi arrived in first-class condition and proceeded to win a few races on American soil, perhaps most notably the Sussex Turf Handicap at Delaware Park. Retired to stud, Prince Morvi promptly injured himself and had to be destroyed very early in his stallion career. Nonetheless, Prince Morvi’s racecourse successes encouraged Frank Rand to seek more bargains in Australian bloodstock, and his dealings with Joe Harris led to the latter acting as his Australian agent and brokering a number of deals.
Harris sourced quite a few of his purchases from McCarten’s own yard including the good horse, Knave, which carried Rand’s livery to success in the United States. Rand later emulated John Blois de Wack’s example with Deep River, and started to purchase well-bred Australian yearlings through Harris – Australian Star was an example of this policy, where the horses first proved their merit here with Maurice McCarten before incurring the additional cost of being transported to America.
Prince Morvi wasn’t the only good three-year-old from that season to find his way to stud in the States. Electro, runner-up in the A.J.C. Derby finished over there as well. After an eventful career that included winning a Sydney Cup and numerous weight-for-age races, as well as finishing second to Rising Fast in a Caulfield Cup, he was sold to Ferd Calvin as an eight-year-old stallion. Ted Underwood also collected a tidy sum for Cromis when he sold him to the well-known Californian, George Bucknam.
Ernie Fellows, who was responsible for first discovering Prince Morvi and trained him in his classic year, was eventually destined to find fame and fortune in faraway France. Sydney-born Ernie Fellows and his brother Billy, sons of a struggling trainer who also earned a few extra shillings teaching the trumpet at the Conservatorium of Music, each started life on the Turf as jockeys before becoming trainers themselves. Whereas Billy, apprenticed to “Roley” Griffiths, was the more successful in the saddle – his most famous victory being Foxzami in the 1949 Melbourne Cup, it was Ernie who was to shine in the training ranks. Ernie started his apprenticeship with William Kelso at Orville Lodge before transferring his indentures to Joe Cook and coming out of his time in September 1932. Never a particularly successful jockey in a most competitive era, increasing weight saw him gravitate to Harry Telford’s Braeside property in Victoria during the 1930s where he was one of Telford’s trackwork riders.
The Braeside experience proved to be a transition to the training ranks, and Ernie took over his father’s establishment in Dowling St, Kensington in 1937, and younger brother Billy finished his apprenticeship with him. Granted a No. 1 licence at the start of the 1951-52 racing season, Ernie Fellows eventually relinquished Randwick in preference for the then semi-rural environs of Warwick Farm. Before Prince Morvi, the best horse to pass through his hands had been Melhero, whom he trained for Bill Hogan; Melhero was runner-up in a Rosehill Guineas, but his nervous disposition precluded an appearance in the Derby. Prince Morvi was the first horse Fellows had saddled up in the classic, and the colt served to bring much well-deserved attention to this most capable of horsemen. It was to Fellows that Maurice McCarten and Stanley Wootton turned for help when Todman broke down. Fellows’ Warwick Farm stables were close to the Georges River and the astute trainer determined upon a swimming programme to assist Todman’s convalescence. The same regimen was applied to another of McCarten’s crocks, Indian Empire, whom Fellows nursed to win the Festival Handicap at Rosehill in 1957. It was the subsequent friendship with Wootton during and after the Todman episode that saw Fellows, at the age of forty-six, leave Australia in August 1960 to try his luck in England, initially working for Wootton at Treadwell House.
It wasn’t an easy decision to leave Australian shores, for at the time he was preparing a rising two-year-old from Edmundo’s first crop, who was showing considerable promise on the training tracks and for whom he had paid 2000 guineas as a yearling. Her name was Indian Summer. But leave Australia he did, with his lovely wife, Mavis, and 13-year-old daughter, Susan, and 10-year-old son, John. During that visit, a serendipitous trip across the Channel to see George Moore, who was then riding for the Aga Khan in France, was to change Fellow’s fortunes. Impressed with Fellows’ skills, a prominent French owner invited the Australian to take over control of a small stable he was conducting at La Morlaye, four miles out of Chantilly. His success was immediate and thus begun Fellow’s brilliant career on the European Turf. Very soon his clients included among others Winston Guest (Sir Winston Churchill’s American cousin), Howell Jackson and Eric Coupy.
By 1964 Fellows had thirty-six racehorses in work for no less than seven different millionaires and success saw him residing on Chantilly’s swanky Avenue de Joinville at No.29. It was one of the best addresses in Chantilly with the racing headquarters of Prince Karim, the Aga Khan, very nearby and at the back of the Fellows’ home was the base of Marcel Boussac, a leading French owner and head of French racing’s famous Societe d’Encouragement. For a time, Neville Sellwood lived together with his family right next door. Having made a move across the globe, Fellows never looked back. French racing had boomed in the years after World War II, and the all-Tote system of betting applying in France ensured that prize money remained buoyant. Not that Fellows ever felt homesick for long.
There seemed to be a constant stream of visitors to No. 29 Avenue de Joinville from the Antipodes including Billy Pyers and Athol and June Mulley, while George and Iris Moore lived nearby with their family during the period of George’s retainer with the Alec Head stable. Such was the frequency of Australian visitors to No. 29 that Mulley nicknamed it ‘Australia House’. In 1964 Ernie Fellows won The Two Thousand Guineas at Newmarket with Baldric II and The King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes in the same year with Nasram II, each owned by Mrs Howell Jackson of the famous Bull Run Stud in Virginia. The Australian jockey, Bill Pyers was to establish his European reputation riding for the Fellows’ stable. Indeed, when Pyers partnered Baldric II in the classic at Newmarket it was his first win in Europe. Fellows’ son, John, later became a leading trainer in his own right in France.
For the successful Derby jockey Neville Sellwood, France was in due course to assume a much darker significance. Prince Morvi was Neville Sellwood’s second successive winner of the A.J.C. Derby, having been victorious on Deep River the year before. Prince Morvi wasn’t the jockey’s only winner on a memorable day, for he combined with Silver Phantom to take out the Epsom and with Hydrogen to win the Colin Stephen Stakes, thus sweeping the three feature events of the day. Sellwood was eventually to win six Sydney jockey premierships in all, including establishing a post-war record of 87 wins in the last of them during the 1959-60 racing season, but he was never destined to win the Derby again. During an era when there were far fewer race meetings, he captured the headlines on many occasions including riding five winners at one Randwick meeting in February 1954, all trained by Maurice McCarten, while at the 1960 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting he won ten races. It was a most lucrative career and one that enabled him in 1957 to pay £37,000 for an 840-acre property at Barragan Creek, Cudal, about 30 miles from Orange, which he used mainly to run sheep, although it was there that he also bred a few racehorses on the side.
In 1961 with little more to prove in the saddle in Australia he again considered the prospect of demonstrating his talent on European racecourses and accepted an offer from Alec Head, who trained in France for the Aga Khan among others. It was a strong stable, although that season lacked a champion. He returned to Europe the following year and in that 1962 season by a stroke of good fortune, the Irish trainer Vincent O’Brien offered Sellwood the mount on his second string at Epsom in the English Derby, the 22/1 outsider Larkspur. In a rough and tumble affair that saw seven horses lose their riders on the long downhill sweep to Tattenham Corner, Sellwood deftly managed to avoid the carnage to secure the prize on the Irish colt who was owned by Raymond Guest, the American Ambassador to Ireland. Post-race film footage showed just how close the Australian jockey had come for his mount to succumb in the pile-up.
Nevertheless, as fortunate as Sellwood had been at Epsom in June to avoid the melee, death was stalking him. The divine messenger came with quick but noiseless tread on the rain-sodden ground at Maisons-Laffitte only five months later. Sellwood was riding a filly named – ironically enough – Lucky Seven, owned by Madame Alec Head, in the last race on the card on November 7th. Through the mists and the vapours, by late afternoon the ground had become fairly muddy, and the filly had travelled about a thousand yards when, without any crowding, she crossed her legs and fell to the ground crushing Sellwood under her weight. The jockey was carried unconscious to the hospital but pronounced dead on arrival. He was just 39 and with 1,860 winners to his credit had been riding at the peak of his powers. That season, Sellwood, who had ridden 102 winners, seemed certain to be presented with the golden whip, the annual prize awarded to the French champion jockey, and he would have become the first foreign rider to win the coveted title. In fact, Sellwood had initially intended to return to Australia earlier in the week in which he died, to ride in the Melbourne Cup and only decided to stay on in France to make sure of the jockeys’ title.
As it was, the great French rider Yves St Martin went on to take it, but the Frenchman forwarded the whip to Neville’s widow, Alwyn, in a generous and moving tribute to his fallen colleague. Sellwood’s death deeply affected Ernie Fellows, and their firm friendship had continued in France where they had been neighbours at Chantilly. The jockey left an estate valued at £59,687, bequeathing his 840 acres property at Cudal to Alwyn, who for some years after continued to breed thoroughbreds there. An excellent ambassador for Australian racing, Neville Sellwood always exuded a certain glamour and won a lot of admirers both in Australia and during his brief visits to Europe with his friendliness and easy-going charm. An accomplished after-dinner speaker, he was keenly sought out for such engagements. An indication of the loyalty and friendship Sellwood was able to inspire, is that Adolph Basser, on his own death two years later in October 1964, bequeathed his collection of racing trophies to Sellwood’s son, Neville John, who was also Basser’s godson. Sellwood’s premature death was a sad ending to the life of a man who had made such a significant contribution on the Australian Turf.