Anyone attending early morning trackwork at Randwick racecourse in the late 1980s might have come upon a kindly little man performing the humble job of gateman. First-time visitors to the course wouldn’t have given the shuffling figure a second glance, but the regulars well knew both his history and his character, which was stamped of nature’s noblest metal. The diminutive individual in question was none other than Thomas Walter Hill, who, before tragedy intervened, had been one of Australia’s leading jockeys and trainers. Even more significantly for our purposes, however, he had been one of the two central characters in perhaps the greatest drama ever played out in a major race in Australia. The race in question was the 1961 A.J.C. Derby.
Born at Mackay in Central Queensland in 1927, Tommy Hill was the son of a successful pony jockey who plied his trade on courses such as Kedron Park. A contemporary of George Moore who was also a native of Mackay, the pair became close friends during childhood and champion junior show riders in the district. It was Moore who was responsible for securing Hill an apprenticeship in the training academy of Jim Shean, who, apart from Moore, also had Neville Sellwood on his books at the time. Although race riding opportunities were initially in short supply in such distinguished company, Hill eventually got his chance when Moore and Sellwood were called up for National Service. Hill rode his first winner, Air Raider, in May 1943 at Albion Park, the only course to operate in Brisbane during the War. At nineteen he became Brisbane’s leading apprentice, but his career, too, was interrupted when he was conscripted into uniform.
Though Tommy Hill won the 1950 Rosehill Guineas for Fred Hood on Careless, his visits to Sydney were very infrequent in the years immediately after the War as he set about establishing himself as a successful Brisbane jockey. His permanent residence in the Harbour City came about directly through his friendship with Moore. Hill and his wife were holidaying with the Moore family in Sydney in August 1953, when one night, trainer Leo O’Sullivan telephoned to engage George for Gay Vista in the Hobartville Stakes. Moore held a prior booking for the Tom Smith trained Castillo, and so suggested to O’Sullivan that Hill, be substituted in his place. Moore provided the riding gear, and Hill the riding talent; as the substitute steered Gay Vista into second placing. O’Sullivan was impressed and offered Hill a position with his stable. It was the beginning of a very successful partnership that over the years would prove to be the scourge of Sydney bookmakers.
A brilliant front-running rider, although equally adept at patiently nursing stayers back in a field, Hill’s early victories were largely restricted to the provincial courses, as Leo O’Sullivan retained his first loyalty to his own brother-in-law, Bill Cook. Of course, in those days not all Hill’s mounts came on O’Sullivan’s horses, although the majority did. Indeed, it is instructive to study that period of the 1950s and realise just how few metropolitan mounts a jockey of Hill’s ability garnered in those days when racing was conducted on a far more limited scale. Just two months following upon that holiday with George Moore found Hill aboard Flying East in that notorious Maiden Six at Hawkesbury. It was the race that ultimately saw Moore disqualified for three years in the blackest episode of Moore’s life on the Turf. I might mention that Gay Vista, Hill’s first mount for O’Sullivan, was to mature into a quality galloper and Hill’s successes on that grand weight carrier were to mark his accession to be leading rider for the stable as Cook entered the twilight of his career, although his ultimate retirement didn’t come until July 1959.
The mention of Gay Vista reminds me of just how important one family of thoroughbreds can be to a small stable. Gay Vista was by Port Vista out of the good-producing mare Gay Fault, who was ineligible for the Australian Stud Book, despite being a daughter of that magnificent New Zealand racehorse Defaulter. Stan Crick and his friend and colleague in the motion picture business, Charles Munro, bought Gay Fault from Mick Moodabe to use as a broodmare and Gay Vista, racing in the ownership of their wives, was the first of her produce to make it to the racecourse. Leo O’Sullivan trained the gelding to win a string of races in 1954 and 1955 including the Tattersall’s Carrington Stakes and the Challenge Stakes at Randwick, and the Lightning Stakes at Flemington. Gay Vista was subsequently sold to race in America and Tommy Hill even enjoyed a brief riding stint over there for Ted Clifford’s stable into which Gay Vista had gone. Gay Fault’s 1951 foal, Gay Confessor, by Confessor, was another good servant to O’Sullivan and Hill, winning his way through the grades to highweight handicaps.
Charles Munro’s death in 1953 saw Gay Fault sold through William Inglis and Son in July 1954 and in arrangement with Stan Crick, O’Sullivan called the successful bid of 350 guineas. Crick’s own death in 1955 then saw all his bloodstock interests sold at Newmarket in July 1956. Gay Fault’s yearling colt – a full brother to Gay Vista – went for 2300 guineas on a bid by Frank Selkrig, who was acting on behalf of Leo O’Sullivan, while Gay Fault herself went for 525 guineas. O’Sullivan registered the colt as Gay Port, and he, too, did the stable proud winning among other races the Theo Marks Quality and Civic Handicaps with Tommy Hill in the saddle. I might mention that Gay Fault’s distinguished progeny didn’t end there. As the age of seventeen, and following her second mating with the stallion Star Kingdom organised by the well known Newcastle racing writer Tom McLauchlin, she foaled that smart sprinter which carried the journalist’s name and was the winner of 18 races and over £22,000 for the Jack Denham stable. It is touching to think that only four years after producing McLauchlin, Gay Fault was sold-off for a paltry 37 guineas at Scone!
There were other useful horses under O’Sullivan’s charge during the late 1950s apart from the progeny of Gay Fault, and these included the likes of Belbeiys and Teranyan. In March 1957, Tommy Hill rode his first metropolitan double on horses trained by Leo O’Sullivan when he partnered Woodland Stream and New Spec at Canterbury. Later that same year with George Moore absent overseas, Hill won the prestigious S.T.C. Theo Marks Quality Handicap on Teranyan for O’Sullivan and even picked up the winning ride on Monte Carlo in the City Tattersall’s Cup from Frank Dalton. When Bill Cook finally retired, Hill’s opportunities increased and a measure of his talent in the saddle may be taken from those other trainers who sought his services including Dick Roden, Fil Allotta and a young Bart Cummings. When Cummings, at the very beginning of his wonderful career, brought Trellios across for the 1960 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting, it was Hill that won the ride. In the winter and early spring of that same year, Hill enjoyed a series of victories on the New Zealand galloper Waipari for trainer Jim Wickliff, including the S.T.C. Winter Cup and Hill Stakes, and the Warwick Farm Spring Cup. Waipari, with Hill in the irons, went to the post as the short-priced favourite in The A.J.C. Metropolitan later that spring only to be beaten by the outsider Red Wind. In retrospect, it can be more easily seen that it was in that 1960-61 racing season that Tommy Hill as a jockey began to come into his own.
In the first half of 1960, the economies of New Zealand and Australia were strong and that strength was clearly reflected in the prices achieved at the major yearling sales conducted at Trentham and Sydney respectively. Trentham enjoyed a record average of 916 guineas on the first day of sales in January when 133 yearlings sold for an aggregate 121,865 guineas. The highest price at those sales also came on that first day when the Melbourne trainer Joe Mulcahy paid 5000 guineas for the Marco Polo II – Cuban Fox colt on behalf of Alfred Griffith, who had raced Lawrence and Leonard among other good horses. The price equalled the New Zealand yearling record paid for Dalray’s half-brother, Dalstar, back in 1953. Tommy Smith was the underbidder for the Cuban Fox colt, who later raced as Marco Khan, and while he might have missed out there on that opening day, Smith still spent 13,500 guineas for just 6 yearlings on that first day and another 7400 guineas for 5 more yearlings on the second. The Trentham returns were sound and quite a few of the yearlings sold would turn up in the 1961 A.J.C. Derby. The Newmarket returns in Sydney a few months later were equally sound and would turn up the A.J.C. Derby favourite.
Those 1960 William Inglis Yearling Sales at Newmarket were to provide two remarkable moments in the history of Australian bloodstock. All told, out of the 573 yearlings originally catalogued, 477 lots were sold over the three days, resulting in an aggregate return of 399,215 guineas at an average of almost 837 guineas per lot. While the aggregate fell below the record of 415,915 guineas established in 1958, the average was 130 guineas more than the record average set in that year. One feature of the sales was the rapid decline of the Kia Ora Stud offering. Percy Miller would have turned in his grave at the small and unimpressive lots served up by his once-great nursery. The headline act by 1960 was, of course, the sensational stallion Star Kingdom and some of his seventh crop were on offer. Prior to the sale, bloodstock agents widely expected that his chestnut son out of the mare Confection in the draft of the Fairways Stud would top the bidding. And so he did – in rather spectacular fashion.
It was at 4.10 pm on Tuesday, April 11, that this handsome colt stepped into the ring. The Fairways Stud, established in the late 1940s, was a relatively boutique operation conducted at Muswellbrook by R. F. (Reg) Moses, the 60-year-old former A.J.C. committeeman and part-owner of Star Kingdom. He was the son of F. A. (Frederick) Moses of Arrowfield Stud fame who, together with his brother was responsible for bringing the champion stallion Valais to these shores. What was so special about this Star Kingdom-Confection yearling that had potential buyers agog? Two things actually: his conformation and his pedigree. The colt was a fine, upstanding individual – on type one of the best Star Kingdoms thus far to pass through a sales ring, bearing in mind that so many of the Star Kingdoms in those days were retained by their breeders. Moreover, this yearling’s pedigree was distinguished. While Confection, a daughter of Confessor, had never raced, she was a half-sister to the good stakes winners Starover and Far Out, each by Star Kingdom, while her first foal Kateena had been placed in the A.J.C. Gimcrack Stakes.
It wasn’t so much the fact that this yearling colt topped the sales, it was the price that he yielded that beggared description. Bidding began at 5000 guineas and the Newmarket crowd gasped as offers climbed to 9000 guineas in increments of a thousand. It was at 10,000 guineas that the bidding became a duel between trainer Maurice McCarten and Ian Caldwell, a motor company director from Bondi. When the price reached 14,500 guineas, the auctioneer John Inglis relieved the tension and raised roars of laughter when he turned to Mr Moses, and with a poker face inquired: “Is he for sale?”
He was. And at 15,500 guineas no less, more than double the previous Australasian record price for a yearling sold at public auction shared jointly by Matinee Idol and Noble Star. Never mind that those two previous joint record-holders had won a trifling £25 between them at the time of this sale. Such open knowledge of bloodstock sales history seems rarely to disturb buyers’ minds. Still, I suppose a great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion runs deep. It seemed fated to end badly and as we shall see, after a momentary detour, it did. In this case, the successful bidder was Caldwell whose only previous yearling purchase had been a Le Grand Duc colt bought in 1943 for 500 guineas. That horse, registered as Titled, failed to win a race in Sydney but had been a useful country performer. Caldwell was hoping for something better this time. He already had a name for the colt even before the gavel fell. It was to be Columbia Star, and as with Titled, the handsome chestnut went into the Randwick stables of Cec Ryan.
Such was the demand for the progeny of Star Kingdom at those 1960 Sydney Thoroughbred Yearling Sales that, even had the Confection colt been withdrawn, his three-quarter brother-in-blood from the broodmare Mirrilee, would have broken the Australasian record price. He was bought for 8100 guineas by Maurice McCarten on behalf of Monsignor Frawley of the Scarborough Convent, Brisbane, who sought the colt as a prize in the annual Scarborough Art Union. Registered as Illuminous, he was somewhat unsound and in nine starts on the racecourse failed to win at all. Better luck was had by trainer Harry Plant who paid 2400 guineas for the Star Kingdom filly out of Betrothal offered by R. W. Moses. Registered as Magic Night, she would cause an upset in winning the 1961 S.T.C. Golden Slipper. All told, fourteen Star Kingdom yearlings were sold for an aggregate 65,750 guineas in 1960 at Newmarket, a record average of 4696 guineas. While McCarten’s judgement might have been awry on the Mirrilee colt, it was sound when he encouraged Bill Longworth to outlay 2800 guineas for a stylish chestnut colt from the second crop of Wilkes. Not that Longworth needed much encouragement after having bought Wenona Girl from Wilkes’ first crop.
This colt, like Wenona Girl, was being offered by the Newhaven Park Stud and was out of the Midstream mare Satara, a full sister to Euphrates – the winner of a Q.T.C. Queen’s Cup, B.A.T.C. Doomben Cup and other races. Satara herself had been a Randwick placegetter when raced by the Kelly family through the Dan Lewis stable. Registered as Young Brolga, this flashy chestnut would be adjudged the best two-year-old of his year upon the issue of the Free Handicap. It is hard not to get the impression that money was sloshing about everywhere during the three days of those 1960 Inglis Yearling Sales. The leading breeder George Ryder withdrew a full brother to Sailor’s Guide from the sales when he received a record offer for the colt from America. While Ryder wouldn’t disclose the ultimate purchase price on the Lighthouse II – Jehane yearling, he did reveal that it topped the 15,500 guineas paid for the Star Kingdom youngster.
There was further activity from America in the sales ring as well, with a whiff of Hollywood glamour when actor Gregory Peck, through the agency of Melbourne trainer Stan Murphy paid 3400 guineas for a Wilkes – Credulous colt. Only the year before Murphy had bought two yearlings for Fred Astaire, and the two actors had been in Australia making the film ‘On The Beach’. These extravagant prices paid for bloodstock down through the years have been severely arraigned on a regular basis by the moralists amongst us. However, given the imperfect state of society, such extravagances, whether proceeding from vice or folly, at least keep the money going around. Moreover, in Australian racing at least, a redistribution of wealth has generally been the happy outcome because so very few of the extravagantly priced yearlings ever seem to return their purchase price. Still, there are expensive yearlings in some years where the rule is honoured in the breach and 1960 was to be a case in point.
Columbia Star is that rare example in Australia of a record-priced yearling who actually won an important race. Produced at the official two-year-old barrier trials at Randwick in mid-September as burly as a country town mayor, Columbia Star could only run fourth in his heat. Perhaps the most impressive of the fifteen heat winners that day was Bill Longworth’s colt Young Brolga who won by five lengths in 49.75 seconds, after being off the course all the way and extremely wide around the home turn. While Young Brolga went on to win the A.J.C. Breeders’ Plate pulling-up by six lengths in record time, shin soreness and minor ailments delayed Columbia Star’s race debut until the last Saturday in March. It happened a week after the outsider Magic Night had relegated the top colts Young Brolga and Commanding into the minor placings in the S.T.C. Golden Slipper Stakes. However, Columbia Star’s debut, when it did finally come, was most impressive. The race was the A.J.C. Wentworth Handicap over the Randwick six furlongs and the top-priced chestnut, despite losing ground at the start, came away to win by eight lengths in the smart time of 1 minute 10.45 seconds. Trainer Cec Ryan quipped after the race: “I promised Ian Caldwell that I would win first-up with the colt, but I had to wait a year to do it.”
Seven days later, Young Brolga, in the absence of Columbia Star, resuscitated his fallen reputation as a result of his Slipper loss by winning the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes at Randwick in race record time. The same three horses that had filled the Slipper placings, filled the Sires’ placings, although this time Commanding ran second and Magic Night third. Young Brolga in running 1 minute and 22.8 seconds for the seven furlongs confirmed his reputation as the best two-year-old of the season, as he eclipsed Ajax’s long-held race record of 1 minute 23.5 seconds. Young Brolga and Columbia Star met for the first time just two days later in the A.J.C. Champagne Stakes. The race conditions meant that Columbia Star was in receipt of 10lb from both Young Brolga and Commanding, with Tipperary Star and Cymbal the only other acceptors.
Despite his slowness to leave the barrier and being rushed to the front, Ian Caldwell’s chestnut, with Jack Thompson in the saddle, maintained his unbeaten record, beating Young Brolga by a length-and-a-half. When the weights were issued for the Free Handicap (1 mile) in early August by the Bloodhorse Breeders’ Association of Australia, it was found that Young Brolga was at the top of the list with 9 st. 3lb, giving 3lb to Columbia Star, with the New Zealand colt Commanding next on 8 st. 11lb. Then came two Melbourne gallopers: Valala on 8 st. 10lb and Blue Era on 8 st. 9lb. Emblem, a full sister to Wenona Girl and the winner of the V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes, was the top-rated filly on 8 st. 9lb. For those sportsmen with a keen eye and a knowledge of bloodlines, a New Zealand-bred colt named Summer Fair was remarkably prominent with a handicap of 8 st. 7lb.
Tommy Hill’s first association with Summer Fair – the horse that would credit both him and Leo O’Sullivan with the 1961 A.J.C. Derby – came on soft ground at Randwick on the first day of July that year when the pair combined to win a two-year-old handicap easily over seven furlongs. The colt, resuming from a six-month spell, was having his first start for O’Sullivan following his transfer from the stables of fellow Rosebery trainer, Sid Nicholls, and landed some good bets after being specked at 14/1 in the ring. How O’Sullivan came to get the horse at all, offers an interesting insight into human nature and how the perceived self-interest of an owner and a trainer can sometimes clash on a racecourse.
Summer Fair, a colt by the imported Precipitation horse, Summertime, from the New Zealand-bred mare Reuter, was purchased in New Zealand for 1050 guineas by veteran Kiwi trainer George Walton, was acting on behalf of Wollongong businessman, Roy Pierce. Pierce, a committeeman on the Kembla Grange Racing Club, had gone into racing after selling out of a large trucking business. At the time Walton selected the colt, Summertime was poised to win the first of his two titles as the leading stallion in New Zealand, while the mare Reuter had produced only one foal before, and that was the Randwick winner Ticker Tape trained by Dick Roden. Pierce hadn’t gone to New Zealand to inspect any prospective yearlings in person but had chosen to place his faith in Walton’s judgement. A couple of years earlier, Roy Pierce had bought a horse called Aggressive, who had been bred in the Dominion by Walton and the horse had won quite a few races in Sid Nicholls’ hands. It wasn’t surprising, therefore, that Pierce was prepared once again to trust Walton with the purchase and Nicholls with the training of this, his latest gamble in bloodstock. Neither man was to let him down.
Sid Nicholls only trained a small team, but Summer Fair was the stable hope from the first moment that he galloped him at Rosebery. His unplaced debut in a midweek maiden at Canterbury Park in November offered no favourable presage to classic success the following season, although it did teach the colt some racecourse etiquette. That he benefited from the lesson was shown when he improved to run minor placings at his next two starts, before Jack Thompson partnered him to win twice at Randwick during December. The son of Summertime was then sent to the spelling paddock to allow him to mature before beginning a Derby preparation in the late autumn. It was while Summer Fair was out of training that Aggressive clashed with his stablemate Sea Hound in a welter handicap at Warwick Farm in March. Owner Roy Pierce had backed Aggressive and saw him go the lead at the half-furlong only to be run down by Sea Hound and another horse near the judge’s box. It wasn’t a result calculated to please all patrons of the Nicholls’ stable. The upshot was that an unhappy Roy Pierce transferred Aggressive to Brisbane while the recumbent Summer Fair went to Nicholls’ fellow Rosebery trainer, Leo O’Sullivan.
Following O’Sullivan’s first-up victory with the colt in July, Summer Fair made it four wins on end when, as an odds-on favourite, he ran a race record to land the Macarthur Quality (7f) at Rosehill in the hands of George Moore three weeks later. Such was the improvement in the colt that he was rated equal eighth in the Free Handicap. As we shall see, none of the leading colts that season was to figure in the Derby the following spring, an increasing trend that was to become a feature of Australian racing in the years ahead. The influx of speed stallions into the country’s leading studs, and the revolution in race programming occasioned by the obscene prize money offered for races such as the Golden Slipper, militated against juveniles of stouter blood ending their first season as leading money winners.
The top two colts of the previous season resumed their rivalry on soft ground at level weights in the Hobartville Stakes at Warwick Farm in the third week of August. Although Columbia Star went off the 5/4 favourite on the strength of his win against older sprinters at Randwick upon resumption in late July, Young Brolga (6/4) prevailed by a neck. Although neither colt was bred to stay the Derby distance, the hope of a blue riband springs eternal in any racing owner’s breast. Neither Bill Longworth nor Ian Caldwell was yet prepared to cash in their classic chips, although those more objective observers present at Warwick Farm that day couldn’t help but be more impressed from a Derby perspective with the brilliant but erratic finish of the Melbourne galloper, Blue Era. As the last days of a miserable Sydney winter drearily expired in rain, Messrs Caldwell and Ryan concluded from Columbia Star’s trackwork that the high-priced colt was purely a sprinter. Longworth and McCarten took a little longer to be convinced about Young Brolga but his tame effort after being pocketed in the S.T.C. Canterbury Guineas likewise saw a Derby programme aborted. In truth, the future of both colts was already behind them. Neither horse would win another major race although Columbia Star would go very close in the rich A.J.C. Daily Telegraph Stakes, also run on Derby Day at Randwick when beaten a neck in 1 minute 9.7 seconds, after attempting to lead all the way.
It was Columbia Star’s last hurrah as a star. As if Ian Caldwell needed reminding of the follies of the risks of racing. Following a series of substandard performances that had critics wondering how the colt had ever won a Champagne Stakes, Columbia Star was destroyed after a collision at morning trackwork in April 1962. This valuable son of Star Kingdom, with Jack Thompson in the saddle, suffered broken legs after crashing into an unraced two-year-old named Gold Trio. Both horses were subsequently destroyed by lethal injections administered by a veterinary surgeon. In his short life, Columbia Star had 13 starts for just 4 wins and gross earnings of £7,035. Caldwell at least had the colt insured for £10,000 and while this together with his earnings exceeded the horse’s purchase price, when other outlays were considered such as training costs, insurance premiums, trainer/jockey percentages etc, Columbia Star represented a net loss. Still, racing owners aren’t renowned for faint hearts. Just two days after Columbia Star’s demise and with the insurance cheque burning a hole in his pocket, Ian Caldwell paid 7000 guineas at the Inglis Easter Yearling Sales for the prepossessing Star Kingdom-Persist colt which later raced as Columbia King. Although less than half what he had paid for Columbia Star two years before, it was the highest-priced lot sold at Newmarket that year. However, I digress.
Meanwhile, Summer Fair had kicked off his three-year-old season with a minor placing in the weight-for-age Warwick Stakes behind Sky High and Kilshery, before his final Derby trial in the Rosehill Guineas. The Guineas that year was run on a dead Rosehill surface and in light rain. It was a race in which a new Derby favourite emerged in the shape of King Brian, who managed to lead all the way after being hard ridden from the barriers. Summer Fair chased the winner throughout the race in second place before marring his performance slightly by racing erratically in the straight. I might note that there was a significant change in tradition at the 1961 A.J.C. Spring Meeting, with the club transferring the Epsom Handicap to the second day of the fixture, to be run on the same programme as The Metropolitan. Its place on Derby Day was taken with the inaugural running of the rich Daily Telegraph Stakes. For the first time in the club’s history, four £10,000 races were to be run on the same weekend although it was the Derby that remained the showpiece and attracted the greatest crowd. One man in attendance at Randwick on Derby Day and taking more than a cursory interest in the performance of Summer Fair was the colt’s breeder, Bob Miller; he had made a special trip from New Zealand to see him run. Miller had previously negotiated the sale of Summer Fair’s dam, Reuter, for 2000 guineas with fellow Kiwi, Ray Neville, the owner of Dalray, and the sale was contingent upon her son winning the classic.
A feature of the classic that year was that more than half the field had been bred in the Dominion. However, the favourite for the race remained the local horse King Brian, a small but compact bay colt by the newly imported English stallion, Lepidoptic, prepared by Basil Andrews. King Brian, who had cost only 550 guineas as a yearling on the second day at the Newmarket sales, had earned his high ranking by his all the way win in the Rosehill Guineas although jockey Keith Smith’s instructions for the Derby were to ride the horse further back in the field. The formidable interstate challenge consisted of two fine colts, both bred in the Dominion, in Sometime and Blue Era.
Sometime, like Summer Fair, a well-performed son of the New Zealand based stallion, Summertime, was the first A.J.C. Derby entrant of an emerging young trainer from South Australia named Bart Cummings. Bart was the son of Jim Cummings, who had trained the great Comic Court, and Sometime carried the same colours as that former champion being also owned by the brothers Bob and Jack Lee. Cummings paid 2200 guineas for the colt at the 1960 New Zealand National Yearling Sales because “he was the nicest looking yearling at the sales.” Bart bought shrewdly at those sales, as his only other purchase at 1550 guineas was The Dip, a Le Filou horse that won the 1962 A.J.C. Metropolitan. In five starts as a juvenile, Sometime had managed to win three races on the trot culminating in the A.R.C. Adelaide Stakes by six lengths at his final appearance at that age. Before being brought across to Sydney the gelding had registered another hat-trick of victories in the new season, including the prestigious Port Adelaide Guineas. A fast-finishing third in the Hill Stakes at his only Sydney start had seen Sometime heavily supported in Derby betting.
Perhaps the most intriguing horse in the Derby, however, was the Victorian representative, Blue Era, a powerfully-built chestnut colt by Blueskin II being prepared by youthful Caulfield trainer Geoff Murphy, just then setting out on his own highly successful training career, having earlier served as stable foreman for Basil Conaghan. Blue Era had been offered as a yearling in New Zealand but a number of buyers had steered clear of the colt because of a swelling on his near foreleg that many thought to be ringbone. Murphy backed his own judgement, however, and found that he was preparing a potential Derby colt in his very first season as a public trainer. Blue Era ran six times as a juvenile winning four races. Despite being highly-strung he proved remarkably adaptable, winning at each of Melbourne’s major metropolitan racecourses, as well as on firm and soft ground. Blue Era first stamped his credentials as a Derby candidate when he scored an impressive victory in the Trenton Stakes (6f) at Caulfield, overwhelming his opponents with a powerful finish after having been seemingly hopelessly pocketed. Although he subsequently failed in the rich Merson Cooper Stakes behind Indian Summer, he underlined his potential at his final appearance as a juvenile by annexing the prestigious Ascot Vale Stakes.
Alas, in his three Sydney appearances thus far in the new season, Blue Era had raced most erratically. The colt had run off the course in the Hobartville Stakes, struck the running rail in the Canterbury Guineas, and then shied badly away from Mel Schumacher’s whip hand in the Rosehill Guineas, when the jockey was resuming that very day after serving a two months’ suspension. Geoff Murphy had experimented with blinkers in a bid to cure the colt’s waywardness in the fortnight after the Rosehill fiasco but abandoned the experiment when Blue Era pulled badly under their influence. Murphy needn’t have bothered. Some erratic behaviour would indeed cost Blue Era the classic, but the blame wouldn’t lie with the horse. The powerful Tommy Smith stable had two starters in the Derby in Kilshery and Moviegoer. Kilshery had won the Canterbury Guineas by virtue of a brilliant George Moore ride, but had a sprinting pedigree and wasn’t seriously expected to stay the trip. Moviegoer, a strong, well-developed horse, was yet another son of Summertime in the field and carried the famous colours of Chinese millionaire, Runme Shaw.
The 1961 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions appear in the table below:
Few races have had more drama, both on the course and in the stewards’ room afterwards, than this Derby. Summer Fair had drawn the inside gate in the twelve-horse field, and it probably won him the race. Although the pace was muddling – the first half-mile took 53 seconds – and Summer Fair didn’t always race kindly, Hill had the bay colt nicely placed throughout and never worse than fifth. Emboss led the field to the home turn in front of Blue Era, Kilshery and Sometime; while the favourite, King Brian, who was slowly away from his wide barrier, pulled hard but remained among the last three until the half-mile. Tommy Hill had Summer Fair fourth on the outside and poised to make his challenge as the field entered the straight while Schumacher on Blue Era, who had wanted to hang in for much of the trip, was about to get through on the fence. Coming up the rise, Summer Fair veered out and briefly caused interference to a tiring Kilshery, but remained genuine under Hill’s strong riding as Blue Era challenged on the fence to head him near the post. The camera declared an official margin of a short half-head in favour of the Victorian colt and to the packed crowd in the grandstands, it appeared that Blue Era had merely outstayed Summer Fair.
Upon returning to scale, an ashen-faced Hill lost no time in lodging a protest against the winner; but it was the grounds for the protest that beggared belief in the stewards’ room. Hill alleged that Schumacher, on the inside rail, had reached across with his left arm and grabbed his right leg in the last fifty yards of the race, and hadn’t released it until just on the winning post. Schumacher seemed to be up to the same stunt in the stewards’ room too, this time trying to pull the leg of the chief steward, Jack Bourke, by brazenly denying Hill’s allegation. Schumacher’s explanation of those last fifty yards was that Blue Era was hanging in and he had got desperate and gone for his whip. At least the part about getting desperate was true. The official head-on film footage, however, substantiated Hill’s basic allegation: Schumacher’s arm could be clearly seen reaching across. Having seen the grainy footage, Schumacher maintained that he didn’t ‘grab’ Hill’s leg, but rather clamped his wrist against Hill’s knee to gain an advantage.
It seemed to those watching the patrol footage that the jockey must have stuck some sort of Faustian compact to pass the post first. All too frequently with Schumacher, a blackguard recklessness of temper or impulse had ensued in his conduct on Sydney racecourses that rendered him incapable of turning to account what good the gods had provided. Perhaps the most fortunate aspect of the whole affair was Hill’s restraint when the foul occurred. The stewards wasted little time announcing their decision although sections of the crowd, unaware of the facts, hooted O’Sullivan and Hill during the official presentation of the Derby prize by the State Governor, Sir Eric Woodward.
Schumacher was asked to appear again before the stewards at the close of the day’s proceedings. The judgement came swiftly and unequivocally: the wages of his sin was to be a disqualification for life. There is a famous Fairfax photograph taken in the waning glory of that spring afternoon as the forlorn figure of the 24-year-old jockey departs Randwick in disgrace dressed in his business suit and carrying bag and baggage. On appeal a fortnight later, the A.J.C. committee reduced the term to ten years. Announcing the committee’s decision, chairman Sir Alan Potter said Schumacher’s record showed “his complete disregard for the rules of racing and the safety of his fellow riders. This was despite a long series of warnings.” Since May 1957 the enfant terrible of Australian racing had incurred eight reprimands, eight suspensions, three warnings and one fine.
There are some moments in history, which, seen in retrospect, seemed to command a wholly disproportionate amount of publicity at the time relative to their real importance. The 1961 ‘Leg-Pull Derby’ is just such a moment. Anybody of an age of consciousness who lived in Australia that spring would have been aware of the incident, and many would have seen the relevant footage of the stewards’ patrol film. The means of such widespread dissemination was, of course, television. And it was the confluence of both television’s introduction and the centrality of horse-racing and gambling in the Australian psyche of the period, which explains the ‘leg-pull’ publicity phenomenon. Remember, 1961 was still an age of innocence in Australia, and the cultural and social revolution that was to come with sex and the pill, Vietnam, illicit drugs, legalised off-course betting et al. were still a few years away. It was also a time when every hotel, barbershop or tobacconist would have race broadcasts blaring from a wireless on a Saturday. Indeed, such broadcasts seemed a de facto national anthem, background music as life unfolded in the suburbs and countryside. For years the sporting public had read about the many and varied nefarious tricks practised on the racecourse, whether through tabloid newspapers or Nat Gould novels. However, reading is one thing, seeing is another. And the wonder of television had broadcast Schumacher’s shenanigans directly into hearths and living rooms throughout the land.
Schumacher was both perpetrator and victim here. What he did within the shadows of the Randwick winning-post on that Saturday afternoon had been done many times on many Saturday afternoons before. Moreover, countless jockeys down the years had been guilty of arguably even more egregious and dangerous sins. Perhaps it was a matter of poking a whip’s butt under the tail of another jockey’s horse or throwing a leg across another jockey’s knee. It might even consist of grabbing the riding breeches of a rival to impede progress, as Darby Munro famously did to the young country jockey, Frank Delaney, in that desperate finish to the 1941 A.J.C. Breeders’ Plate. On that occasion, Munro even had the chutzpah to fire in a protest! The stewards threw it out of course, and the ripped right leg of Delaney’s pants was evidence of a gripping ride. The only difference with Schumacher’s transgression was the recent installation of a head-on camera at the top of the straight. In the impulsiveness of the moment, Mel either forgot about the camera or chose to ignore it.
Although Schumacher wasn’t destined to serve out his full disqualification, it had a devastating impact on his career. He had celebrated his twenty-fourth birthday only a month before, and 1961 had already seen him triumph in the V.R.C. Australian Cup on Dream King; the S.T.C. Golden Slipper Stakes on Magic Night; and the B.A.T.C. Doomben Ten Thousand on Aquanita. He was the most promising young jockey in the country, and the A.J.C. ban cost him the best years of his life. Schumacher later reflected: “I lost the best years in which I would normally have been expected to learn, to become the best. Facing ten years on the outside, I lost any chance I had of reaching the top.” During his disqualification Schumacher worked in the Brisbane markets, carrying fruit and vegetable boxes to keep himself fit. And every six months or so he applied to the A.J.C. for reinstatement. Such applications were rejected with monotonous regularity although he wasn’t alone in his fight.
Many respected sportsmen believed that the A.J.C. stewards and committee had over-reacted in the Schumacher case and some private representations were made to the club on Schumacher’s behalf. However, the incident that lent most impetus to these appeals occurred at Warwick Farm on November 12, 1965. It was on that day that George Moore and Des Lake fought out a desperate finish to the five-furlong A.J.C. Maltine Handicap. Lake was on Kentucky Gambler; Moore was on Golden Tod. There was a fierce rivalry between the two men, as for a brief time after arriving in Sydney from Victoria, Lake appeared a genuine threat to Moore’s dominance on Sydney racecourses. In the aftermath of the race, Moore fired in a protest. When the head-on patrol film was screened in the stewards’ room, the footage revealed the finish of the 1961 A.J.C. Derby all over again. Moore and Lake appeared to be vigorously jostling each other with their elbows. Jack Bourke observed: “You practically became locked together.” In the spirit of honour among thieves and in their own best interests, Moore and Lake insisted that it looked worse than it was. The stewards demurred and charged both jockeys with misconduct and fined them a derisory £100 each.
The Sydney newspapers, and particularly the afternoon tabloids, the ‘Daily Mirror’ and ‘The Sun’, joined the battle on behalf of Schumacher. If a fine was sufficient penance for Moore and Lake, then Mel should be reinstated immediately went the call. In due course, the vigorous press campaign proved successful but not before a further eighteen months had passed. The A.J.C. committee reviewed the case and announced in the closing weeks of 1966 that The Shoe’s disqualification would be commuted to a suspension from January 1st, 1967 and that his licence would be renewed on March 1st. In total, Schumacher served just five-and-a-half-years of what was initially a lifetime ban. Schumacher resumed riding at Canterbury Park on Wednesday, March 1st, 1967 and for a time became the main jockey for the T. J. Smith stable. Schumacher’s reinstatement happily coincided with George Moore accepting a retainer to ride for the leading English yard of Noel Murless thus opening an opportunity at Tulloch Lodge.
It wasn’t until his twenty-first mount back that Schumacher won a race – on the Smith-trained Redcap at Flemington. For a time the partnership proved successful with wins in some good races such as the 1968 V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes (Flying Fable); 1967 and 1968 A.J.C. George Main Stakes (Regal Rhythm). However, with Moore’s return, Schumacher eventually relocated back to his native Queensland in June 1969, initially as stable jockey for Eric Kirwan in Brisbane, where he continued to ride for many years. In 1974 he won the Doomben Ten Thousand on Charlton Boy for Tom Dawson. Schumacher rarely made forays south of the border but did so in 1984 to partner Goleen to victory in the A.J.C. Flight Stakes and later that spring in the V.A.T.C. One Thousand Guineas as well. He continued to ride successfully for a few years more in Queensland.
Summer Fair was trainer Leo O’Sullivan’s first Derby winner, although 37 years earlier as a young strapper working for Cecil Godby, he had attended Heroic when that horse had taken out the classic. Born in 1902 and raised in Lewisham, an inner suburb of Sydney, he was one of ten brothers to attend the Lewisham Christian Brothers High School. He always remembered the symmetry of his size and weight when a 14-year-old at Lewisham: “I was 4’ 8” tall and 4 stone 9 lb in weight.” O’Sullivan had begun his working life as a cadet journalist covering the Turf for the Sydney Evening News; but as a natural lightweight, it wasn’t long before he had stopped writing about racehorses and began strapping and riding them. Serving his apprenticeship with both Alf Inkpen and Sid Killick at Newcastle, he was a failure in the saddle, although he could at least lay claim to having ridden the great Beauford in trackwork. O’Sullivan took out a training permit in 1933 and based in Stanley St, Randwick, first prepared his horses at Kensington before moving on to both Victoria Park and Rosebery as each course, in turn, was closed down.
Unable to attract wealthy clients at the start of his training career, O’Sullivan bought and raced his own horses for modest sums. These were hard times when he had to make twopence do the work of a shilling but he generally managed to square the ledger with successful forays into the betting ring. The critics would say that his horses often ran in and out, but when they won it was generally at a useful price. An element of deceptiveness was part of O’Sullivan’s nature, but then struggling trainers with a stake upon the board are not apt to play with their cards on the table. He may have deceived others, but as a trainer he never deceived himself.
Gilltown was O’Sullivan’s first big race winner with whom he managed to take successive Moonee Valley Cups in 1939 and 1940. After that, the winners began to flow, and other big races to come his way included the 1943 Doncaster (Kingsdale), 1951 Stradbroke (Aqua Regis), and the 1957 Doomben Ten Thousand (Teranyan). There were some near misses on the journey as well, as three successive seconds in the Oakleigh Plate from 1958-60 with the good sprinters New Spec and Gay Port attest. O’Sullivan also enjoyed some luck with older horses acquired from other stables. That good mare Amiable was a fine example. O’Sullivan got her as a six-year-old after a distinguished sprinting career in Melbourne carrying the colours of W. R. Kemball. Despite her age, O’Sullivan trained her to win both a C. W. Cropper Plate and a Frederick Clissold Handicap. Moreover, at stud, she produced Aqua Regis, a horse that is remembered not only for winning the Stradbroke for O’Sullivan, but also for winning two races for him on the same card in October 1949. The horses from his stable were trained to race rather than delight the critics in the paddock, and if they failed the day the money was on, it wasn’t from lack of fitness. Testimony to this fact was the performance of Gay Vista to win a welter at Warwick Farm in June 1956 with 11 st. 1lb. ‘Leo the Silent’ knew how to put it down when he favoured one of his own and rarely did he leave it there.
A curious symmetry was to attend the post-Derby careers of both Summer Fair and Tommy Hill. Taken to Melbourne immediately after the Derby, the colt partnered by Hill, ran third in the Caulfield Guineas, run that year in heavy rain and won by King Brian relishing the shorter trip. O’Sullivan then saddled-up Summer Fair for the Caulfield Cup the following week, although handicapped with only 7 st. 7lb, Hill was unable to make the weight. In his place, O’Sullivan called W. A. Smith into requisition. A lightweight Melbourne hoop, Smith was already compiling an impressive winning record in big races, including the rich Centenary Melbourne Cup the year before on Hi Jinx. Coming with a well-timed run in the straight, Summer Fair won the £10,000 first prize comfortably from Lord Fury and Dhaulagiri. Starting at a lucrative 20/1 for the race, O’Sullivan landed some tidy bets. With the Victoria Derby seemingly at his mercy and the Melbourne Cup a distinct possibility despite a further penalty taking his weight to 7 st. 13lb, Summer Fair developed a splint in his off-foreleg that prevented him from running in either race. Indeed, it kept him away from the racecourse for the balance of the season. In fact, the splint was to plague the horse for the rest of his racing career. As a four-year-old, he managed to face the starter on just three occasions although one of them came in the Craven Plate when he and Tommy Hill again combined for the victory.
It was to be Hill’s last significant triumph in the saddle. Just six months later, Hill’s implacable enemy (well, apart from Mel), the weighing scales, got their man and Hill reluctantly relinquished his jockey’s licence at the conclusion of the 1963 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting. It had been an unequal struggle for a long time. As far back as April 1961, Hill had been embarrassed when he had to forego the winning ride on Fine and Dandy in the Doncaster Handicap less than an hour before the race – indirectly as a result of wasting. In retrospect, the 1961 A.J.C. Spring Meeting came to represent the zenith of Tommy Hill’s fortunes in the pigskin. Two days after the controversial Derby, Tommy had completed the feature double at the meeting by winning The Metropolitan on Waipari, to make amends for his second placing on the same horse the year before when the race favourite.
Upon announcing his retirement from the saddle, Hill applied to the A.J.C. for a trainer’s licence and was immediately granted a No 1 ticket; his very first client was Roy Pierce. Many months before and unbeknownst to O’Sullivan, Pierce had promised to give Hill his old favourite Summer Fair to train. Hill began with just three horses including the Derby winner, and for a time rented a few boxes from William Inglis and Sons before moving into Reg Battersby’s stables. He was uniquely placed to superintend Summer Fair’s return to racing – if a return there was to be. After all, he knew the horse well and with such a small stable could devote the time required to rehabilitate the former champion. By then a rising five-year-old, Summer Fair hadn’t started since the Turnbull Stakes in the spring of 1962, but in his favour, was the fact that he was a workmanlike horse who never carried much flesh, even in the spelling paddock.
It was the saltwater treatment at nearby La Perouse and Brighton that was to get Summer Fair back to the racecourse eventually. After three unplaced runs in unsuitable sprints, Hill nominated the horse for the 1963 weight-for-age Chelmsford Stakes and booked George Moore for the ride. Summer Fair finished second to Maidenhead, but Moore blamed himself for being beaten. Next came the Craven Plate. Moore preferred the mount on Sky High and Hill opted to give the ride on Summer Fair to the apprentice, D. O’Sullivan. The race marked a stunning return to form for Summer Fair, who relegated Sky High and King Brian into the minor placings. It was Tommy Hill’s first win as a trainer and with the very horse that he had ridden to victory in the same race just twelve months before. A few days later Summer Fair won the Colin Stephen Stakes by six lengths in race record time. Despite failing in the City Tattersall’s Gold Cup at his next start when burdened with 9 st. 7lb, Summer Fair was taken to Melbourne for the V.R.C. Spring Meeting. Reunited with George Moore and restricted to the two-main weight-for-age events of the Mackinnon Stakes and C.B. Fisher Plate, the son of Summertime won each with ease after being deliberately held up before producing his sprint. It was the high-water mark of his comeback.
The splint continued to prove troublesome to the horse, but in July the following year, Tommy Hill demonstrated that his time spent observing Leo O’Sullivan lay down betting coups, hadn’t been wasted. In a seemingly unsuitable six-furlong flying handicap at Randwick, and using Fil Allotta’s claiming apprentice, A. Lilley, reducing Summer Fair’s weight to nine stone, the horse was backed in from 33/1 to 12/1 to land the money in the last stride. Testimony to the respect in which the handicappers held the five-year-old came when the weights were released for the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups of 1964 and Summer Fair with 9 st. 6lb headed the lists in each of them although he was never destined to take his place in either. Summer Fair only won one more race, the weight-for-age Chelmsford Stakes a couple of months later; he pulled up lame at his next start when beaten a short-head in trying for a hat-trick of wins in the Craven Plate and was immediately retired to Wal Cochram’s Arundel Stud in Victoria. The horse was not a success as a stallion and failed to get the winner of any principal race. Perhaps his greatest claim to fame at stud is as the sire of Arcona, foaled in 1972, and who subsequently became the dam of Durbridge, our Derby hero of 1991.
Summer Fair wasn’t the only Caulfield Cup winner to emerge from that 1961 A.J.C. Derby field. Another son of Summertime in Sometime won the Caulfield Cup as a five-year-old in 1963. Indeed, given Summer Fair’s leg problems, Sometime proved to be the best-credentialled horse to emerge from that 1961 Derby in terms of racecourse achievements. He won a string of good weight-for-age contests from a mile to a mile-and-a-half including the M.V.R.C. Alister Clark Stakes (twice), the V.A.T.C. Caulfield Stakes and the V.R.C. Turnbull Stakes among others. However, Sometime didn’t win those races from the stable of Bart Cummings. Exactly two months after the 1961 A.J.C. Derby, the trainer incurred a 12 months disqualification on December 1, 1961, over the running of a two-year-old named Cilldara. Sometime was then transferred into the stable of Les Patterson, who had been foreman to his father John before applying for his own licence in the early 1950s. Given Patterson’s success with the horse, the Lee family remained faithful to him even after Bart’s return. Still, young Bart had taken careful measure of the Le Filou stock and understood the benefits of patience. After serving out his year’s sabbatical, the young man from Adelaide, with an unerring eye for a horse and a yen for the progeny of Le Filou, would return to Australian racecourses with a vengeance!
And what of Blue Era, the horse that was first past the post in that infamous A.J.C. Derby? The chestnut gelding was destined to share victory in an important race at Randwick but not before a lot of water had gone under the bridge. In seventeen starts as a three-year-old, he only won twice viz. the Derby Trial Stakes at Geelong in the spring and the Stanley Plate at Caulfield in the autumn. Soon after his victory at Caulfield, problems developed with the horse that threatened his career and he was off the scene for almost twelve months. When he did return, Blue Era managed to win a collection of Victorian country cups including the Sale Cup, Ballarat Cup and the Yarra Glen Cup. However, Blue Era’s most significant victory came in the summer of his six-year-old season when the horse was transferred into the Sydney stables of Cec Rolls. The general public widely believed that the A.J.C. Summer Cup was his mission, and it wasn’t until almost the eve of the race that the stable declared their intentions on the A.J.C. Villiers Stakes instead. Heavily backed by the Rolls’ stable, Blue Era came with a wonderful sprint down the outside to snatch a dead-heat with Gay Song on the post. And this time, there was to be no protest!
I began this chapter with Tommy Hill and it is only fitting that I end it the same way. Whatever his shortcomings as a stallion, Summer Fair, the unsound horse whose Derby triumph had given Hill his greatest moment as a jockey, had also assured Hill’s future as a racehorse trainer. In the wake of the horse’s successful comeback in Hill’s hands, a coterie of clients sought out his services and these multiplied over the years. By 1968, when Hill applied for his licence renewal, he had moved into a new stable complex on Randwick racecourse housing twenty boxes, which he christened Summer Fair Lodge. In the years to come, he would train the likes of Cyron and Rajah Sahib for Bill Stanley, as well as a host of lesser lights such as Kentucky Gambler, Watusi and Scheme for other owners.
It is easy to forget just how successful Tommy Hill was in the late 1960s and early 1970s when he won such races as the Australian Cup, W.S. Cox Plate and Caulfield Guineas but it ceased almost overnight when during 1973 Hill developed a brain tumour. The problem was an aneurysm or bursting of blood vessels in the brain requiring delicate surgery and extended convalescence. Among the horses that he lost from his stable as a result was Passetreul, who the following year would win The A.J.C. Metropolitan for Tommy Smith. A kindly, gentle soul, Tommy Hill never fully regained his health, although he did continue to struggle along training two or three horses in boxes that he rented from the A.J.C. His association with the Sport of Kings ended poignantly in that humble role as an early morning gateman at Randwick. Tragically, Tommy Hill died in July 1989 at the age of sixty-two after failing to recover from head injuries suffered in a motor accident, three months earlier, near his Rosebery home.