A lone grey horse in any field seduces the eye, but it is also a seduction of the heart when the horse in question serves it up boldly from the front. In all the world of racing, I don’t think there is a finer sight than a big horse that attacks from the start, challenging the clock and opponents alike with every stride. In that glorious Sydney spring of 1959 Martello Towers did just that, becoming the only horse up to that time to complete the clean sweep of winning the Hobartville Stakes, the Canterbury and Rosehill Guineas, and then the A.J.C. Derby. The phrase ‘a colourful racing identity’ is one that racing writers employ as a euphemism in describing some of the more disreputable and dubious habitués of the racecourse. It is a phrase applied to people, not to horses. And yet if we accept both its literal and figurative meaning, surely no racehorse deserved the epithet more than our Derby hero of 1959.
It wasn’t just the winning alone or the buccaneering style in which he did it that accounted for his hold on the public imagination. The colour of his coat had much to do with his popularity – a grey that turned a whiter shade of pale with the passing of the seasons – at a time when such a colour was far from commonplace on an Australian racecourse. One must also remember that the coming of Martello Towers coincided with the coming of television to Australia. And on black and white television screens, grey was the only colour that did stand out in race replays shown in the evening news programme. Moreover, there was poignancy and pathos to his adventures and misadventures alike, which spilt over beyond the sporting pages to the non-racing public at large. He was a horse that was seldom out of the headlines. In the wake of his Derby laurels, the life of Marty or the Grey Flash, as he became affectionately known, was not one untrammelled course of glory; his fall from grace was as dramatic as his ascent. But in the true romance of fairytales, after losing his way, the colt managed to redeem much of his reputation in his final season on the Turf before retiring to become a successful stallion in the golden West.
Although George Ryder and his Woodlands Stud, together with John Gilbert, the head of the Sydney motor firm that bears his name, are generally given credit for breeding Martello Towers, they, in fact, purchased the colt in utero. Nidhauli, the dam of Martello Towers, was already in foal to Gaekwar’s Pride when she was auctioned to Gilbert for 750 guineas at the dispersal sale of F. W. Hughes’s Kooba Stud in March 1956. Gilbert then entered into a partnership with Woodlands, where Martello Towers was subsequently foaled. F. W. Hughes had bred Nidhauli to race, but the old wool magnate died before the filly could carry his colours on a racecourse. She passed into the ownership of Hughes’ confidante and beneficiary, E. A. Coghlan, and went into the stables of Jim McCurley.
In thirteen starts during her two seasons on the Turf, the best Nidhauli could do was win a division of a lowly maiden handicap at Kembla Grange in the hands of Bill Cook. Retired to stud in the spring of 1952, Martello Towers was her third foal, for she had missed in the season before being served by Gaekwar’s Pride. Although the colt was catalogued at the 1958 Sydney Yearling Sales, he failed to reach his reserve, and afterwards was bought privately by Sydney businessman Ted Cochrane and his son for 1000 guineas. The Cochranes were enjoying a fair measure of success at the time with the colt’s half-brother, Pinchgut, and only a month or two before the sales, big brother had easily landed a stakes race at Rosehill at the juicy odds of 10/1. Ted Cochrane had set the resultant winnings aside deliberately for the acquisition of this, the younger member of the family.
The cost seemed rather modest considering the prices that were being paid for some lots. It was at those same 1958 Newmarket sales on the first day that the long-standing record price for a yearling of 6750 guineas established way back in 1928 for the horse that raced as Dominant, was finally broken. Aluinn Stud at Roxburgh paid the new Australian record price of 7100 guineas for a bay colt by the English Derby winner, Pinza, from the English mare, Method, subsequently registered as Matinee Idol. The background to the colt’s sale as a yearling was intriguing. Sir Frank Packer, an A.J.C. committeeman, had been the breeder responsible. The broodmare Method was impregnated by Pinza in England to Australian time and thence brought to Australia by Packer where she foaled at the Aluinn Stud. Sir Frank then sold Method, with Matinee Idol as a foal-at-foot, in May 1957 for 6000 guineas. The studmaster Ray Bowcock was the successful bidder. Eleven months later Ray Bowcock offered Matinee Idol amongst his yearling draft and Sir Frank Packer, through the good offices of the Aluinn Stud, squared the circle by buying the colt back for a record 7100 guineas! How often have we seen it – a future classic winner unable to attract even his reserve while a prancing fancy Dan with no galloping ability whatsoever has buyers falling over themselves to part with a king’s ransom?
When it came to the Cochranes registering their latest colt, the name Martello Towers suggested itself. Nidhauli’s dam had been a mare called Fort Denison, and as most Australian schoolchildren well know, the small round fort in Sydney Harbour of that same name had historically been known as Pinchgut. Such lateral thinking upon names had already proven lucky for Ted Cochrane. Given that these stone constructions were architecturally known as ‘Martello Towers’, it seemed a natural choice. The designation had originally referred to the series of such forts once built along Britain’s coasts as a defence against Napoleon’s projected invasion. The towers were never really threatened by Napoleon or anyone else for that matter and remained invincible to the end. And for some weeks during 1959, it seemed that Australia’s equine version of those towers was invested with a similar aura of invincibility.
Martello Towers’ first trainer was the tragic figure of Arthur Croall. The biblical injunction from the book of Revelation about death on a pale horse holds a special significance in relation here. As we have seen, it was Croall who had prepared Magnificent for his Derby triumph in 1945 and throughout his career, and it was he who was instrumental in the Cochranes’ purchase of the grey colt that would win the 1959 Derby. Croall had selected Pinchgut for the Cochrane family when he was first approached with a commission to buy a couple of yearlings for the Sydney businessman. The Rosehill trainer had successfully prepared that horse to win three metropolitan races by the time of his half-brother’s sale. Martello Towers showed real ability from the moment Croall tried him on a racecourse and very early on the old trainer declared that he was a horse that could win the Derby. Produced at the official two-year-old barrier trials in late September, Martello Towers was responsible for sharing the second-fastest time of all the heats at Randwick, while at Rosebery a week later, he was just as impressive in winning again.
Whereas Ray Selkrig had partnered the grey at Randwick, George Podmore rode him in the Rosebery trial and thereafter wouldn’t be off his back until well after the horse enjoyed cult status. It was just two days after the Rosebery hit-out that Martello Towers, along with Pinchgut and three other horses that the Cochranes owned, was removed from Croall’s Rosehill stables. It broke the old man’s heart. After that, the black ice of depression never melted for poor old Arthur, and he was to take his own life before his Derby prophecy was realised. When Martello Towers first sported silk in a race, Peter Lawson was his trainer. I might mention that another colt to win a heat that day at Rosebery was an impressive bay colt by Marco Polo II trained by Tommy Smith named Travel Boy. No one was to know it at the time, of course, but these two youngsters would dominate the classics the following season.
Martello Towers looked a serious contender for the Breeders’ Plate, but shortly after the official trials, he contracted a severe stomach complaint, which kept him off the racecourse for the best part of his first season. The delay in the start of his racecourse career was probably a blessing in disguise as it enabled him to grow into his frame and furnish into a rather striking individual when he was put back into work. His first start came at the City Tattersalls’ Meeting in April, and those who saw the rangy grey finish unplaced on a heavy track at the despised odds of 33/1 might have dismissed him as being of little account. If so, it was a premature judgement, as the colt then proceeded to win three of his final four races as a youngster, and in style, which stamped him as a genuine classics contender. It was the last of those wins in a six-furlong two-year-old handicap at Rosehill in mid-June that suggested he might trouble the best of his year; he lumped 9 st. 2 lb and came away in the straight to win by three lengths thereby justifying the odds laid on him.
Fine and Dandy was rated the best juvenile of the season and accorded the honour of topping the Free Handicap with nine stone when weights were released, being rated 5lb better than Travel Boy. Noholme, the winner of the Champagne Stakes, was rated 8 st. 3 lb while Martello Towers at 8 st. 2 lb was ranked in eighth place. Fine and Dandy had won seven of his eight races that season. His only ‘failure’ had come in the A.J.C. Breeders’ Plate when he lugged badly from the start to the home turn yet still only went under by a head to his stablemate Front Cover. Apart from victories in the Golden Slipper Stakes and the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes, two of his wins that season came against older horses in open class handicaps. Fine and Dandy won the Q.T.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes at his final appearance for the season and in so doing managed to eclipse Tulloch’s stakes-winning record for a juvenile with £19,014. Although many considered that he was too precocious to stay the Derby trip, it was an issue that remained theoretical because muscular soreness in his near shoulder kept the big chestnut gelding sidelined for the better part of his three-year-old season.
And what of that record-breaking priced yearling bred, sold and then bought back by Sir Frank Packer at the 1958 Inglis Easter Sales? Where did he rank in the Free Handicap? The simple answer was that he didn’t. Placed in the Randwick stables of Charlie Cullen, Matinee Idol’s racecourse debut came at Rosehill in late October 1958 in a two-year-old Maiden Handicap for colts and geldings. Despite his price in the Newmarket yearling sales ring, his price in the Rosehill betting ring that day was something quite different. Rumours of the colt’s ‘ability’ had leaked out to bookmakers and racecourse touts alike. With Norm Munsie in the irons, Matinee Idol went to the post at 100/1 in an eighteen-strong field.
The son of Pinza certainly began his racing career in the same manner with which he intended to go on with it! He finished last of the eighteen starters that took part in the race. No doubt Sir Frank was looking for improvement at Matinee Idol’s next appearance a week later over the same course and he got it when this time the colt managed to finish twelfth in a field of fourteen. In all, Matinee Idol was to have seven starts as a juvenile and fail to return Packer a penny in prize money in any one of them. Retired to the Willow Tree Stud at Penrith the following season and standing at a fee of 100 guineas, Matinee Idol proved an equally ignominious failure in the stallion barn. However, perhaps it was fitting that the first of (the very few of) his progeny to win, Shall We Dance, carried the colours of none other than Sir Frank Packer. Mind you, the purse for an A.J.C. Juvenile Stakes in May 1964 was a rather meagre return on the 7100 guineas spent six years before.
In fact, the nominal favourite for the Derby throughout the winter was the T. J. Smith trained Travel Boy; a workmanlike bay colt bred in New Zealand by the imported stallion Marco Polo out of Mere-Ana, a Foxbridge mare. Purchased for 1750 guineas at the New Zealand Yearling Sales by Smith, the client for whom he was originally intended declined the horse upon inspection, so the trainer resolved to retain a half-share in the horse on behalf of his wife and passed the other half on to another stable client, F. W. Green. Unexpectedly for a colt boasting such a stout pedigree, Travel Boy showed enough early speed to be placed in the Breeders’ Plate at his racecourse debut in October and later that same month won a stakes race at Randwick over five furlongs. It was after this success that the death of Mr Green precipitated the colt being put up for auction at the William Inglis Sales for tried horses in December.
Tom Smith, eyeing him as a likely Derby winner, was anxious to retain the colt and was forced to 4000 guineas in the face of spirited bidding from among others, Jack Green. That the price wasn’t exorbitant was soon demonstrated with two high-class performances at Flemington in the autumn. Travel Boy revelled in the heavy going to easily win the Sires’ Produce Stakes despite sitting three-wide for most of the journey. Four days later at the same meeting, he almost threw away the Ascot Vale Stakes when baulking at the two tan crossings on the course, before regaining his rhythm to win by a head. Brought back to Sydney for the A.J.C. Autumn Carnival, Travel Boy lugged badly at Randwick in the Sires’ Produce Stakes, a race in which only four runners went to the post. In a wonderful contest, Fine and Dandy fought back valiantly after being headed by Travel Boy to win narrowly. The torrid struggle in the Sires’ enervated the valour of Travel Boy for the Champagne Stakes four days later, his final start for the season, in which he finished down the course in the race won by Noholme.
It was unusual for a Derby colt to be racing as late in his two-year-old season as Martello Towers did, but his rate of improvement was such that he had caught Lawson slightly unawares. The 59-year-old trainer eased the colt in his work in late June and freshened-up Martello Towers for his three-year-old seasonal debut in the time-honoured Hobartville Stakes. Curiously enough, he didn’t start favourite. That honour fell to Travel Boy, who resumed racing in the distinctive colours of Sir Frank Packer. The media mogul, desperate to win a Derby and flush with the gifted profits of his relatively new television station, TCN9, had bought a share in the colt from Tommy Smith during the winter. However, not for the last time that season, did the son of Gaekwar’s Pride lower both Packer’s colours and expectations.
A fortnight later it was the Canterbury Guineas, and again Travel Boy overshadowed him in the market, but it was for the last time. Always travelling easily in front for Podmore, Martello Towers won comfortably from the long-priced filly, Spacewise, with Travel Boy third after a troubled passage. It was a performance that resonated with class and afterwards the prominent breeder, George Ryder, managing-director of Woodlands Stud where the grey was bred, offered £25,000 for him on behalf of American interests. Ernie Cochrane, however, had waited a lifetime for a horse of his calibre, and he wasn’t about to jump off the bandwagon now. The Rosehill Guineas a fortnight later confirmed Cochrane’s faith when ‘Marty’ again practically led all the way to beat Travel Boy and Fire Flair.
A field of nine paid up for the A.J.C. Derby in a year that, apart from the leading two contenders, seemed light on for genuine classic horses. The absence of Fine and Dandy, and Noholme, who was preferred by Maurice McCarten for the shorter Epsom Handicap, left Martello Towers and Travel Boy to dominate the betting. Third elect in the race was Pique, a well-performed New Zealand filly by the stallion Summertime out of a New Zealand Oaks winner prepared in Sydney on this trip by the veteran trainer, John Donohoe on behalf of his brother Frank and the filly’s breeder, Ralph Holden from Poukawa, New Zealand. A well-conformed and medium-sized filly with a beautiful action, Pique, after running the minor placing in the Hobartville Stakes, had created quite an impression by becoming the first filly in more than forty years to win the weight-for-age Chelmsford Stakes. In so doing, she had given her veteran trainer his second victory in that race having won it with Garlin forty-four years earlier.
Pique was bred in the purple and one of the most valuable fillies in the New Zealand Stud Book. Sweet Nymph, her dam, was a daughter of Neptune and had been the best filly of her year in New Zealand having won the Great Northern Derby, New Zealand Oaks and the Gloaming Stakes at weight-for-age in Wellington. Moreover, Sweet Nymph was a sister to Sweet Spray, herself the leading filly of her year having won the Great Northern Derby and New Zealand Oaks and finished runner-up in both the Great Northern St. Leger and Auckland Cup. At stud, Sweet Spray had already produced the New Zealand St. Leger winner Hot Drop. Pique’s distinguished pedigree and racecourse performances saw her go to the post for the Derby at 8/1. Nonetheless, the weight of history was against her as no filly had won the classic since Tea Rose in extraordinary wartime circumstances in 1944.
Another interesting runner in the race was Polo Prince, a son of Osborne and a descendant of the famous broodmare Eulogy, who had been bred by James Ashton of polo fame. Not to be confused with the 1964 Melbourne Cup winner of the same name, he had cost Bill Bradshaw 1100 guineas at the Sydney Yearling Sales and was trained by Stan Lamond Junior, who had won Bradshaw his first Derby in 1954 with Prince Delville. A sparingly-raced colt who had difficulty standing up to hard racing, Polo Prince’s only win had come as a juvenile over six furlongs at Randwick on Anzac Day. However, at his most recent appearance, he had finished strongly to just miss a place in the Rosehill Guineas.
A fascinating feature of the £10,000 Derby was that the club itself had the Melbourne gelding Polo Bay running for one-third of the prize money. The explanation for this apparent anomaly derived from the fact that the horse was raced on lease from the Melbourne trainer, Les Bloom, who was serving a twelve-month disqualification and the terms of the lease entitled him under normal circumstances to one-third of any stakes. However, under the rules of racing a disqualified person isn’t allowed to have an interest in a horse and the rules provided that any prize money won reverted to the club conducting the meeting. Polo Bay was being trained by Phil Burke and ridden by Ron Hutchinson and at his most recent appearance, ten days earlier, had won in open company over eleven furlongs at Warwick Farm.
In the race itself, Martello Towers was allowed to stride to the front soon after the start, although it was obvious in the first few furlongs that Neville Sellwood on Travel Boy was not going to allow the grey too much leeway and he soon had the son of Marco Polo closer than in either the Canterbury or Rosehill Guineas. Travel Boy was always within three lengths of the favourite during the race. The first mile was run in 1 minute 45 seconds with Podmore showing a masterly judgement of pace. The field closed upon Martello Towers coming to the turn where Travel Boy on the rails, and Ringleader on the outside, were about two lengths behind. Polo Prince was moving up on the outside but already coming under pressure. In the straight, the two favourites singled away from the rest of the field. Sellwood applied the whip on Travel Boy before the furlong post and in the finish, was driving him desperately without making any impression.
Spontaneous applause burst forth from all enclosures half a furlong from the winning post when it was clear that Marty had the Derby in his keeping. The big grey was timed to run his final half-mile in 47.4 seconds and won by three-quarters of a length from Travel Boy with a further four lengths to Polo Prince. The win gave the imported stallion, Gaekwar’s Pride, a son of Fair Trial, his second success in the race following on from Prince Morvi in 1953. Gaekwar’s Pride had originally stood at Mr Meehan’s Marylands Stud, near Castle Hill, but when that stud was dispersed in September 1955, he transferred briefly to Kooba Stud before again being sold for 2700 guineas when that enterprise was broken-up in March 1956. Derby Day proved a rare one for three-year-olds that season when Noholme led most of the way to becoming the first of that age group to win the Epsom since Daredevil in 1892.
In winning the Derby, Martello Towers was the first grey to do so in the ninety-nine runnings of the race. The colour was something of a rarity on Australian racecourses up to the 1950s, a trend that only began to change with the importation of Nizami, the grandsire of Martello Towers, into this country. Of all the coat colourings of horses, it is perhaps the most interesting. For a horse to be grey, it must have one grey parent; yet statistics show that the mating of two greys only yields a grey roughly three times in four. All this is in contrast to the colour chestnut, which is the inevitable outcome of two chestnuts. Martello Towers owed his coat colour to his dam, Nidhauli – a daughter of Nizami, who was a son of the legendary Mumtaz Mahal.
When one considers that Nizami died prematurely at the age of thirteen in March 1950, his influence for grey in Australian bloodstock is rather surprising. His splendid winning offspring of that colour included a Melbourne Cup (Hiraji) and a Caulfield Cup (Grey Boots), as well as Nizam’s Ring and Grey Nurse in the V.R.C. Oaks. Greys often do not appear that colour at birth – frequently they fall as chestnuts. In time the grey gradually overwhelms the other colour after the foal is cast, often taking twelve months or more for the true grey colouring to come through, and with the advancing of years, the grey fades to white. Martello Towers was a case in point, and the yearling sales catalogue listed him as a chestnut. Though in the early generations of thoroughbred breeding in England there were many grey sources, only two of them survive as ancestors down to the present day, namely Alcock’s Arabian (perhaps better known as Mr Pelham’s Grey Arab) and the Brownlow Turk.
While Travel Boy remained in Sydney to score a hollow victory by leading all the way in the Craven Plate later at the A.J.C. Spring Meeting, Martello Towers was taken to Melbourne to contest the Caulfield Guineas. Few horses over the years have proved capable of coming back in distance so soon after the Derby and Martello Towers was no exception when he found his long stride frustrated and his speed blunted on the tricky Caulfield circuit, in a race in which he started a heavily backed favourite. He faded in the straight to finish fifth to the Victorian colt Prince Lea. Misfortune marred his next appearance in the Victoria Derby. Quite out of character, the big grey lashed out madly when loaded into the starting stalls. The V.R.C. starter Mr A. A. Armstrong hesitated before eventually releasing the field. After the race, George Podmore was quite critical that the horse had even been allowed to start after he finished down the course. In the race Travel Boy again showed his predilection for Flemington with a bloodless victory winning by five lengths.
Upon returning to scale it was found that Martello Towers had taken patches of skin from both hind hocks and blood flowed freely from lacerations to his off-hind canon. Slight swelling and scarring remained there for the balance of his career. Peter Lawson immediately relieved the colt of his Melbourne Cup engagement and returned him to Sydney. Travel Boy afforded a yardstick to the staying talent of the three-year-olds that season by running a respectable seventh in the Cup won that year by Macdougal. Travel Boy meanwhile completed his program by easily accounting for the Q.T.C. Derby late in November at Eagle Farm in a race that had been postponed because of heavy rain. The race proved to be Travel Boy’s last success on the Turf. He broke down in the autumn after striking himself in the V.R.C. St Leger, although he still managed to run second in the race won by Nilarco. There was a weakness in the horse’s suspensory ligament, which invariably spells the end of a racing career. Smith persevered with the colt and did manage to get him back to the racecourse for one appearance as a four-year-old in an unsuitable sprint race at Canterbury. He was specked in the ring that day, at long odds too, but upon pulling-up was again found to be lame and retired. In a career of just 21 starts, Travel Boy won 6 races and earned £21,024 in stakes.
In the absence of both Martello Towers and Travel Boy in the autumn of 1960, the Melbourne colt, Nilarco, briefly emerged as the leading three-year-old. A bay gelding by Nilo and the second foal of his dam Redeswood, a sister to Prince Delville et al and herself the winner of a Flight Stakes, Nilarco was trained by R. G. Chapman for the Melbourne businessman, R. A. Cappey and his wife. Unlike most of the Nilo stock, Nilarco was a late developer and the Derbies came too soon for him. However, the gelding was in cracking form that autumn, winning the V.A.T.C. Stanley Plate the week before he took out the V.R.C. St. Leger and a few days later the Queen Elizabeth Stakes by a narrow margin after a dour struggle with Lord and Dhaulagiri. Brought across to Randwick, he failed in both the Centenary Invitation Stakes and the Sydney Cup, in which he started a warm favourite. Although Nilarco failed at Randwick on that trip, he compensated in the next couple of seasons by winning the Craven Plate, Autumn Stakes and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at A.J.C. headquarters.
The fortunes of Martello Towers also followed an erratic path that involved a veterinary operation. When Peter Lawson returned the big colt to training in January 1960, he was found to have developed a wind infirmity, emitting a whistling sound when put under pressure in track gallops and races. Although he managed to win a flying handicap at Canterbury, he wasn’t the same horse as in the spring. The same bold front-running style was there but he was succumbing in the final furlongs of his races; he had become something of a grey deceiver. The public still rallied to his cause though, and he was sent to the post as one of the favourites for the Doncaster, leading the field to the top of the straight before compounding under pressure. It was after his failure in the weight-for-age Hill Stakes as a four-year-old when he ran last on a heavy track, that the School of Veterinary Science of Sydney University subjected the horse to a comprehensive series of tests and ultimately an operation for paralysis of the larynx. Although the operation succeeded in removing the noise while he galloped, it failed to restore his dash. After a series of failures culminating in the 1961 Doomben Cup, his owners announced their intentions to retire the horse for stud purposes.
It was at this moment that Tom Smith intervened, approaching the Cochranes and seeking for the horse to be transferred to his stable, believing he could resuscitate Marty’s fallen reputation. Smith, together with the renowned veterinary surgeon, Percy Sykes, thought the problem lay in the horse’s nervous disposition and the blood supply to the heart. Given a thorough biochemical examination and oxygen after his gallops, the brilliant grey enjoyed a brief but remarkable run of success under Smith, winning the N.J.C. Cameron Handicap, Theo Marks Quality, and the A.J.C. George Main Stakes, the latter in which he broke the track record. There was even a suggestion that Marty might be sent to America to contest the rich Laurel International Stakes, but in the end, nothing came of it. It was after that 1961 spring campaign that Martello Towers almost drowned when caught in freak floodwaters engulfing the Richmond district and the Lowlands Stud Farm on the banks of the Nepean River where he was spelling. Pictures of the bedraggled grey horse standing hungry and knee-deep in the mud were splashed across newspapers and television screens at the time.
In the autumn of 1962, while being prepared at Randwick for the Doncaster Handicap, Martello Towers broke down, and his owners immediately announced his prospective sale for stud purposes. From 37 starts the ‘Grey Flash’ had won 11 races and £22,403 in prize money. A week after his breakdown, Martello Towers came under the hammer at the Newmarket Sales to be knocked down for 3,600 guineas, a fraction of the price that had been proffered the Cochranes at the height of his glory. The purchaser was Stan O’Neill who conducted the Terringa Stud at Serpentine in Western Australia. The glamorous grey proved to be a wonderful acquisition for the bloodstock industry of that State. He sired eight individual winners of nine principal races, and his best progeny included Artello Bay (W.A.T.C. Perth Cup) and Castelet, Double Trust and Mystic Towers who each won the W.A.T.C. Belmont Park Cup. Some of his progeny came across the Nullarbor to win races in Sydney. Ernie Cochrane and his son showed faith in their old favourite, buying some of his offspring out of the sales ring, enjoying a measure of success with the likes of Young Marty and Marty’s Son.
George Podmore, the jockey who rode Martello Towers in the Derby and all but three of his wins, was the youngest in a family of six children – four boys and two girls – reared in the Sydney suburb of Chatswood. Upon leaving school at the earliest opportunity, young George was employed on a milk cart for two years before he followed his older brother Arthur in pursuing a career in the pigskin. Arthur was some nine years older although each was small-boned and a natural lightweight: Arthur weighing 6 st. 7lb at the time of his apprenticeship and George 6 st. 4lb. Whereas Arthur began his apprenticeship with Frank Woodham at Canterbury Park, before transferring to Keith Duggan, and finally completing his last months with Ted Hush, George served his apprenticeship with Bob Mead at Moorefield. Indeed, it was Arthur who suggested to Mead that he apprentice his little brother and there was one red-letter day in January 1947, while George was serving his apprenticeship, that brother Arthur rode no less than four winners for Mead on the same card at Gosford.
Alas, Arthur was never to rise to the heights of his chosen profession in the manner that his kid brother did. Nonetheless, even Arthur enjoyed his moments in the sun. In November 1941 he was the first jockey in Australia to win a race in Bing Crosby’s flamboyant colours when he partnered Miss Hua while included among his other victories was the 1954 A.J.C. Summer Cup on Pipe On for Cec Ryan. However, easily the highlight of his career came earlier in that year when he won the A.J.C. Queen Elizabeth Stakes on the Harry Darwon-trained Blue Ocean at Randwick in the presence of Her Majesty, The Queen. In a dashing ride, Arthur and Blue Ocean – the rank outsider at 33/1, lead all the way in a time that equalled Palfresco’s Australian record for a mile and a half of 2 minutes 27.75 seconds.
George Podmore may never have met The Queen but from the moment he began his apprenticeship with Bob Mead, he was destined for stardom and a total eclipse of his brother. Mead recognised his talent immediately and their relationship was more akin to father and son than that of master and apprentice. As Mead observed of Podmore in the early months of his apprenticeship: “He is one of those rare riders who can tell you exactly everything that happens in a race.” Mead reflected: “I gave Podmore every chance to learn to ride before putting him on one with a chance. This gives a boy a chance of looking round to see how races are won by good riders.” Podmore was to continue living with the Mead family long after he came out of his time and until his marriage at the age of twenty-five to the lovely Margaret McGlynn at St Jude’s Church, Randwick, in August 1950.
Bob Mead had watched a succession of promising apprentices quickly outride their allowance only to be forgotten by trainers and owners once the weight concession was lost; he determined early on that young George would not become such a victim of his own success. Still, it is a delicate trade-off when any master declines prospective early winners on behalf of an apprentice in a bid to retain the lad’s riding allowance for a longer period, thereby buying experience; but Mead guided Podmore’s career astutely. Podmore rode his first winner on Pension, a juvenile trained by his master, when having his first race start at a meeting conducted by the Ascot Racing Club at Rosehill on December 16th, 1944.
As an apprentice who was an excellent judge of pace, Podmore attracted the attention of among others F. W. Hughes and Richard Wootton. After the lad had won a handicap on Lady Marie in December 1945 for the 80-year-old Richard Wootton, Stanley Wootton, who was visiting his father at the time, observed: “The youngster has an uncanny judgement in distance races and he would go a long way against the best of English riders.” While still an apprentice he won the 1945 Newcastle Cup on Turn Again and the 1946 Summer Cup on Haxton and in the 1946-47 season won the Sydney Apprentices’ Premiership. He completed his time in May 1947 and within six weeks of his coming of age in the senior ranks, Podmore won the Doomben Cup on Dark Marne.
But the A.J.C. committee rudely interrupted the glorious prospects of a glittering career when in September 1947 Podmore was disqualified for a year over the notorious Huamight case. It is worth recounting the circumstances of that particular episode, which I think are unique. On Canterbury Guineas Day, 6th September 1947, Huamight, ridden by George Podmore, ran last at 7/1 in the nine-furlong handicap race. One week later at the Tattersall’s Chelmsford Stakes meeting at Randwick, Huamight, again ridden by Podmore, won the Spring Handicap over ten furlongs at 33/1. A curious aspect of the business was that Reg Ferris, the trainer of the horse, actually approached the stewards and asked whether they thought Huamight should run at Randwick. As a ruse, if that is what was intended, it ultimately failed, and the stewards’ response was predictable. Any decision to start the horse or support it in the betting ring was one for the stable alone. The stewards’ sole concern was that if the horse started, it be permitted to do its best. Now at first blush, a 33/1 starting price suggests that the horse wasn’t supported in the market, but to come to such a deduction is to ignore the extent and strength of S.P. betting at the time.
In the wake of the dramatic form reversal by Huamight, off-course bookmakers ignored their own illegality and penchant for privacy, and publicly aired their grievances in newspaper reports of a £20,000 sting in the well-executed S.P. coup. Stewards opened an inquiry but refused to accept any evidence related to the S.P. betting. The owners of Huamight, ‘Miss K. Waverley’ and her brother T. W. Trautwein, together with Reg Ferris, claimed that while they outlaid £700 on the horse at Canterbury, they hadn’t backed it at all the following week. In treating S.P. evidence as inadmissible, the stewards’ inquiry resulted in no action being taken against the principals. The book seemed to have closed on the episode when on Monday, 29th September the A.J.C. committee dramatically announced that from additional information that had come forward, the Huamight case was being re-opened. After a protracted inquiry, the committee disqualified for one year the horse, his owners, trainer and jockey. However, the disqualification served only as an interruption to Podmore’s career, and he quickly re-established himself when his second mount back, High Jip, won the A.J.C. Breeders’ Plate. Podmore never looked back thereafter.
The man who guided Martello Towers to his triumph at Randwick on Derby Day, and for all but the horse’s last season on the Turf, Eric Darvall Lawson – invariably called Peter, was a quietly spoken, modest man who was universally popular among his racing confreres. Initially apprenticed as a jockey to Harry Robinson who trained Poitrel to win the Melbourne Cup, Lawson transferred to the yard of Ernie Green just after that great colt Cetigne had been sold out of that establishment. Increasing weight eventually ended Lawson’s career in the saddle. He became stable foreman to Bob Mead, George Podmore’s ultimate master, before linking up with Dan Lewis.
Lawson was granted his own permit to train in 1927 and his first winner, appropriately enough considering his initial apprenticeship, was Poilena, a four-year-old bay mare by Poitrel. That same mare also gave the young Lawson his first Randwick winner when the ill-fated Jack Crowley partnered her in a novice handicap at the Tattersall’s Club New Year Meeting in 1928. Indirectly, however, it was Dan Lewis who did much to help launch Lawson’s training career. Lawson occasionally assisted Lewis in the education of a particular rogue galloper that work riders avoided. In return for the favour, Lewis arranged for one of his breeder-owners to lease Lawson an untried three-year-old. The horse was Curtius, and he proved something of a Kensington specialist, winning many sprint races for Lawson who both owned and trained him. Those successes were instrumental in winning promotion to a No. 1 trainer’s licence for Lawson at the beginning of the 1931-32 racing season.
Peter Lawson’s first success in Sydney in a major race came with Bachian in the 1934 Villiers Stakes. It was a race that Lawson won a second time in 1938 with the Magpie horse, Fakenham. The manner in which those two horses came into Lawson’s care, highlights the capricious hand of fate in one’s fortunes on the Turf. Bachian was initially brought from Brisbane in 1934 by his Queensland trainer to contest the A.J.C. Spring Meeting. But as a consequence of being sprayed at the border, the horse became so sick that he wasn’t able to fulfil his engagements at the big meeting. His trainer, E. Philp, returned to Queensland but left the horse in Lawson’s care, where he had been stabled during his stay. A few months later Lawson successfully turned him out for the Villiers. In the case of his second winner, Fakenham, Fred Williams initially trained the horse for C. P. Wilson of Barraba. When Williams surrendered his trainer’s licence, Wilson gave the horse to his daughter for the show ring. But Fakenham’s nervous disposition rendered him unsuitable for such exhibitionism. It was around this time that Lawson attended a Tamworth race meeting with a few horses. He ran into Fakenham’s owner and persuaded him to put the horse back into work under his care. The 1938 A.J.C. Villiers Stakes was the result.
But it wasn’t until the years after World War II that Lawson became established and during the best of those years, George Podmore was his stable rider. It was at the time that Peter Lawson was preparing Silver Phantom for the 1953 A.J.C. Derby that Podmore linked up with him. Lawson was somewhat miffed when Silver Phantom’s temperamental owner, Malcolm Campbell, insisted that Mulley replace Podmore, the horse’s regular track rider, in the Derby. That incident, however, served only to forge an even stronger partnership between the jockey and trainer that saw them combine to win some of Australia’s richest races over the years.
Throughout his career, Lawson was to enjoy an impressive reputation with fillies and mares. Evening Peal was the most famous example of the fairer sex to pass through his hands, and he trained the champion mare throughout her career in which she won among other good races, the Oaks at Randwick, Flemington and Eagle Farm, and the following season, the Melbourne Cup. George Podmore, who was Lawson’s stable rider, partnered the grand mare in each of those victories. When she retired in the spring of 1957, Evening Peal was second only to Flight on the mares’ list of record earnings in Australian Turf history. But there were some other good ladies over the years that Lawson trained and he won the A.J.C. Flight Stakes on no less than four occasions (French Fable, Bush Chapel, Amneris and Redeswood).
Martello Towers represented only Lawson’s third runner ever in the A.J.C. Derby and his first success, the trainer having previously saddled up Burlesque (1933) and Silver Phantom (1952). He retired from training in 1969. The inexorable march of progress had exacted its toll on the Jane Street environs from where he had prepared his team since 1935. For years Lawson had been able to walk his string of horses to Randwick racecourse for training, but by 1969 the build-up of traffic and the attendant risks had forced him to transport them the short distance on horse floats. It was the final straw. Lawson felt it was time to call it a day. He died during June 1976, at the age of 74.
The retirement of Lawson together with other changes on the Sydney racing scene in 1969, saw George Podmore venture to Singapore/ Malaysia that year on a short-term riding contract that proved so successful it ultimately extended to a stay of 13 years, riding, for among others, Ivan Allen. Rheumatoid arthritis, a legacy of the many race-falls, saw Podmore forced to hang up his saddle in January 1983, and he eventually retired to live at Mermaid Waters on the Gold Coast. Apart from the Derby on Martello Towers, Podmore enjoyed great success in distance handicaps at Randwick, winning the Metropolitan three times (Beaupa 1955; Duo 1966; and General Command 1967) and the Sydney Cup once (River Seine 1965). He was twice runner-up in the Sydney Jockeys’ Premiership – in 1961-62 and 1962-63, each time to George Moore. George Podmore died following a long illness on July 10, 2005, at a Gold Coast hospital. He was survived by Margaret, his loving wife of 55 years, and their three children.
In hindsight, the 1959 A.J.C. Derby field lacked depth apart from the first two placegetters and the filly Pique. Of the other six starters, only Bill Bradshaw’s Polo Prince won a principal race, that being the 1960 Tattersall’s James Barnes Plate, although he was unlucky to lose the S.T.C. Lord Mayor’s Cup in the same year when beaten a short half-head by Compass. But before I sign off, permit me a word on the filly. Pique claimed her moment of glory post-Derby when she won the Adrian Knox Stakes before 51,000 people on Sydney Cup Day in April 1960. In a brilliant Neville Sellwood ride, Pique took the lead soon after the start and was never headed – easily beating the V.R.C. Oaks winner Mintaway (4/6 favourite) by a length and a quarter, with Weeamara ten lengths away third. The Adrian Knox Stakes was Sellwood’s tenth win in twenty-eight rides at the four-day A.J.C. Autumn Carnival, which eclipsed the previous record held jointly by Darby Munro and Billy Cook. And on that last day, he won all three feature races, the other two being the All-Aged Stakes on Noholme and the Sydney Cup on Grand Garry.
Alas, Pique did have a weakness in her off-forejoint and when she won the Adrian Knox Stakes was heavily bandaged well down past the fetlock joint. Pique didn’t race again as she was regarded as too valuable a broodmare to risk breaking down. Pique’s bloodlines ensured that she would remain in the headlines long after she went to the breeding barn. In January 1965, Ray Bowcock of Alabama Stud spent 50,625 guineas in less than half-an-hour at Trentham which included paying a New Zealand record price of 25,000 guineas for Pique as an eight-year-old mare, who was then in foal to Agricola. Bowcock had followed up the Pique purchase by outlaying an additional 18,750 guineas for the 11-year-old mare Pink Pearl, of which you will hear more, and 13,125 guineas for the six-year-old Honeybun. The previous highest price for a broodmare in Australia had been 7000 guineas, paid in 1953 by Lionel Israel of the Segenhoe Stud at Scone, for Regal Gem, a sister to the great racehorse, Royal Gem. Whereas as Regal Gem had been a good matron, Pique would prove a profound disappointment at the price. I might add that Risque, Pique’s first daughter by Wilkes, had realised a record 19,500 guineas when sold as a two-year-old filly in light training in January 1965 at the same sale. These were heady sums in those years.