On Saturday, March 8, 1975, at Rosehill racecourse a stylish chestnut colt foaled in New Zealand in the spring of 1972, stepped out to contest the S.T.C. Magic Night Quality Handicap over 1200 metres. Battle Sign, the colt in question, was a home-bred, trained and part-owned by a septuagenarian Kiwi by the name of George Walton. Walton, who had boarded the horse at Fil Allotta’s Randwick stables, was trying to qualify this son of Battle-Wagon for the $126,000 S.T.C. Golden Slipper Stakes to be run over the same course and distance a week later. Despite being bred on sound staying bloodlines, Battle Sign had shown brilliant speed to win his previous three starts before leaving New Zealand, the last victory being over 1200 metres at Wellington on January 20. Despite the lack of recent racing and the disadvantage of having drawn the widest gate in the fifteen-strong field, Battle Sign was specked in late course betting at 20/1 after as much at 25/1 had been offered. It was no ordinary field of juveniles and included the S.T.C. Silver Slipper Stakes winner, St Louis Blue, and a subsequent Q.T.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes winner in Skirnir.
However, the main attraction in the race was a 15.2 hands daughter of Showdown possessed of strong hindquarters and perfect balance. Tommy Smith had picked her out of a paddock full of yearlings at Stockwell Stud some twelve months earlier and told the studmaster Ken Cox that he wanted to train her. Taking the tip, instead of consigning the filly to the Melbourne yearling sales, Ken Cox elected to race her in partnership with his son, Tim. Father and son registered the filly as Toy Show and despatched her to Tulloch Lodge. There was a time when it was touch and go as to whether or not she would ever make it to the racecourse at all. A niggling back problem that triggered intermittent lameness blighted much of her racing career. Indeed, it had delayed her racetrack debut until a midweek meeting at Canterbury on February 12, 1975, when she won a 1000 metres handicap for two-year-old fillies by five-and-a-quarter lengths.
However, with only $2,500 in stakes earnings, it was now a race against time to qualify Toy Show for the rich Golden Slipper Stakes. Hence the significance of her appearance in the Magic Night Quality Handicap and a clash with Battle Sign and company. Messrs Cox senior and junior, and Smith, needn’t have worried. Toy Show blindsided the field to win by four lengths and give Tommy Smith his 100th winner for the season while at the same time escaping a Slipper ballot. Battle Sign, in the hands of Gerald Shinn, was slowly away to be twelfth at the 800-metres and tenth on the turn, before running home nicely to take the minor placing. It might have been the end of George Walton’s Golden Slipper dream and the beginning of Ken Cox’s, but it was an impressive performance from this Kiwi interloper considering that he was conceding 7.5 kgs to both Toy Show and the runner-up, Aristocratic.
Battle Sign became dehydrated after his Rosehill exertions and it spelt the end of his autumn campaign. In his absence, Toy Show went on to prove just why Tommy Smith regarded this daughter of Showdown as the finest two-year-old that he had trained up to that stage of his career. Despite being drawn wide, Toy Show was backed into 2/1 favouritism for the Golden Slipper. Beginning brilliantly, Kevin Langby crossed the field to be sitting just outside the leader Classic Reward, who covered the first three furlongs on Slipper Day in a slick 34 seconds. Into the straight, Toy Show produced a second sprint to dash away and land the prize with two lengths to spare to her stablemate, Denise’s Joy, with the previously unbeaten Rosie Heir, for whom connections had paid the $5,000 late entry fee, in the minor placing. It was Smith’s fourth victory in the race in five years and the first time that any trainer had scored the quinella.
A fortnight later Toy Show stepped out for the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes at Randwick. This time the smart Melbourne colt Lord Dudley, trained by Bart Cummings and already the winner of both the V.A.T.C. Blue Diamond Stakes and the V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes, was in the field. There was a certain symmetry in the betting with the filly at 4/7 and the colt at 7/4. It was no match. In a majestic exhibition, Toy Show humbled Lord Dudley by five lengths and smashed the Randwick track record in the process. The victory of Toy Show established a new earnings record for a two-year-old of $108,200, eclipsing Baguette’s previous mark of $103,110 that had stood since 1970. In posting his earnings, Baguette had won the Sydney autumn triple crown of two-year-old races i.e. the Golden Slipper, A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes and the A.J.C. Champagne Stakes – something that was denied Toy Show because she had never been entered for the last of the treble. In a total misunderstanding, Smith had assumed Ken Cox had made the entry, while Cox assumed that Smith did. In her absence, Rosie Heir stamped himself as a colt of the highest class when he landed the $40,250 event over the Randwick 1600 metres, after hanging throughout much of the journey and giving the gun apprentice Malcolm Johnston an unenviable ride. Still, the colt – supported into 2/1 favouritism on course – proved much too good for Denise’s Joy (9/4) whom he beat by a half-length, with Lord Dudley (9/4) a length away third. Racegoers began to wonder whether this Sweet Moss colt, whose only defeat in five starts came when he blundered badly after leaving the gates in the Golden Slipper, might not be Derby material?
As seventy-five-year-old George Walton flew back to his Otaki homestead in New Zealand, he reflected on Battle Sign’s aborted Slipper campaign and the prospect for redemption over more ground in the A.J.C. Derby, come springtime. For the truth was that even on the verge of old age, George wasn’t ashamed to dream dreams and see visions. Moreover, the old man had chartered this journey before. Fourteen years earlier – back in 1961 – Walton had brought to Australia a strapping chestnut colt of his own breeding by Knight’s Romance, for the rich two-year-old races in Sydney. Both on the basis of appearance and performance the horse was appropriately named Commanding; and was the winner of five of his six starts and $7,490 in New Zealand, including the prestigious C.J.C. Welcome Stakes (6f) at Riccarton on January 14, 1961, when he ran a sensational 1 minute and 9 seconds to defeat a good field of two and three-year-olds. Considering that the Australian record for a two-year-old over the same distance then stood at 1 minute and 10 seconds, Walton’s confidence was understandable.
Alas, Commanding injured his leg on the boat while crossing the Tasman, which interrupted his program. A cold contracted shortly after arrival didn’t help matters either. Nonetheless, Walton persisted in his quest for Sydney’s triple crown for juveniles. Commanding was the first New Zealand colt ever to contest the S.T.C. Golden Slipper and he went to the post in 1961 at 9/4 with Bill Longworth’s Young Brolga, trained by Maurice McCarten, as the 5/4 favourite. As it transpired, the little Star Kingdom filly, Magic Night, gave her sire his fifth win in five years when she came from the back of the field to swamp the favourites. At the post, she had a half-length to spare over Young Brolga, with Commanding four lengths away third. The same three horses then filled the placings in the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes, only this time Young Brolga was victorious with Commanding the runner-up as the 7/4 favourite – beaten two-and-a-half lengths in a time of 1 minute 22.8 seconds, which bettered the race record of 1 minute 23.5 seconds established by Ajax back in 1937. Two days later, Commanding completed his two-year-old season when he ran the minor placing in the A.J.C. Champagne Stakes behind the high-priced Columbia Star and Young Brolga. On the boat transporting both he and Commanding back to Wellington, New Zealand, in April 1961, Walton planned a spring Derby campaign for his prized racehorse.
George Scott Walton, farmer and bloodstock breeder, was a Scotsman who had been born in Carluke, Scotland, in the heart of the Lanarkshire countryside in 1899. At the age of twenty-one, he had left his native Scotland because he claimed that the Scottish winters were too cold and bleak. Not for him the romance of billowing mists rolling down Scottish mountains. If cold weather was the only reason for leaving, then New Zealand seemed a curious choice of relocation, but I suppose cold weather is all relative. Initially, the family settled at Hokitika where George Walton farmed. Success brought him hotel ownership and it was in June 1935 that he took over the licence of the Pioneer Hotel at Hokitika. Moves to Nelson and Levin followed before in June 1943 he assumed the licence of the larger Central Hotel at Otaki with its eighteen guest rooms. As we have seen so often in this chronicle, the life of a publican often blended with that of farmer and hobby breeder, particularly in New Zealand. It was during the dark years of World War II and the depressed bloodstock market that George Walton decided that he wanted to breed, train and race his own horses. Exhibiting all the canniness for which the Lowland Scots are renowned, Walton managed to buy a bay mare named First Round for £350; she had been foaled in 1937 and was by Nightly, a son of Night Raid, out of Knock Out, a daughter of Winning Hit.
First Round proved a jolly reliable producer getting Walton four individual winners viz. Jimmy Wild (12 wins), Qualify (8 wins), Decisive (6 wins) and Franlyle, a good winner on both sides of the Tasman. It was Qualify, her filly by Balloch, who dropped Commanding in the paddocks of Castlehill Farm, Otaki during the spring of 1958. However, Commanding wasn’t the only high-class racehorse bred by George Walton in that season and curiously enough, the other one, Castlerae, was also by the Levin-based stallion, Knight’s Romance, besides being a grandson of Arena, a mare Walton had also bought for 600 guineas during the War years. Arena, foaled in 1929, was by the English horse, Cockpit, and won eight races in Walton’s colours, but it was as a matron that her real value emerged. She would be responsible for a plethora of winners including Castlebrae, The Stormovik, The Champ, Lady Nahleen, Lady Myrtle and Castle King. As early-season three-year-olds, Commanding and Castlerae were nigh unbeatable. Although the pair were officially listed as being trained by L. M. Lewis, in reality, George Walton prepared them and they were only under Lewis’s name because George believed it would assist the younger man to establish a reputation. Kept apart by Walton, Castlerae won both the Wanganui Guineas and the Hawkes Bay Guineas (after losing lengths at the start), while Commanding won four races on the trot including the Great Northern Guineas and the Wellington Guineas, which saw the giant colt promoted to short-priced favouritism for the New Zealand Derby.
However, it was after the Wellington Guineas that Commanding returned a positive urine sample to thiamine. Although not a prohibited drug according to the doping regulations, the New Zealand Racing Conference had cautioned that excessive use of it could lead to charges being laid. Thus began an interminable legal challenge. Given that Commanding became ineligible to run in the New Zealand Derby, George Walton switched Castlerae from his Stewards Handicap engagement to become the stable’s representative in the classic, a race and distance for which the horse had not been trained. As it transpired, Castlerae managed to run second to the favourite Burgos, a galloper that Commanding had easily beaten in the Wellington Guineas.
Of course, it is impossible to know whether Commanding would have won that Derby, but Walton had no doubts, for he had tried Commanding to be a stone better racehorse than Castlerae, who nonetheless won the prestigious Jockey Club Handicap and Churchill Stakes later at the same Riccarton meeting. There was another measure of consolation when George Walton’s filly, Fair Symbol, impressively won the New Zealand Oaks at the same time. Soon after, however, New Zealand racing authorities disqualified Walton for three years. Commanding and Castlerae were subsequently sold to the Californian racing identity, Rex Ellsworth, for an undisclosed amount and never raced in New Zealand again. When this turbulent history is taken into account, was it any wonder that in 1975, Walton sought Derby salvation in his impressive chestnut colt by Battle-Wagon?
George Walton was no stranger to Australian shores. While Commanding might have been the classiest racehorse he’d ever campaigned this side of the Tasman, he’d been successful on previous Australian visits with quite a few lesser gallopers bred and owned by him, including some of Battle Sign’s maternal forebears. However, Walton’s first successful foray here came during June 1950 with a 50/1 outsider at Moonee Valley named Castlebrae, a son of Arena. Why bookmakers took such risks, given that he had won some twelve races in New Zealand including the Telegraph Handicap and was the current six-furlong record holder at Trentham, is anyone’s guess? But the prize money and winning wager paid for George and Eileen Walton’s Australian holiday. It was a holiday the happy couple would reprise regularly almost every other year over the next twenty-five years to escape the harsh New Zealand winters, provided at least one or two of their homebreds seemed good enough to transport across the water. Given the currency restrictions in New Zealand in the years after the war, it also made sense to campaign a horse in Australia and then sell it here if the price was right. After all, farming was Walton’s business and racing his hobby. Unless he sold some of his stock, he risked racing becoming his business and farming his hobby.
One horse that George Walton campaigned at Randwick was Franlyle, a daughter of First Round, and the maternal granddam of Battle Sign. In April 1956 he brought her over the Tasman, and with Jack O’Sullivan in the saddle, he won a couple of races at Randwick including the A.J.C. Princess Handicap at 16/1. Walton even sent her around in the A.J.C. Adrian Knox Stakes a few days later, a race in which she was prominent to the home turn before tiring to finish fourth behind that year’s Melbourne Cup heroine, Evening Peal. It proved a profitable A.J.C. autumn for Walton that year for his horse Decisive also won the Final Handicap with Jack O’Sullivan in the irons, after picking up third prize money in the Doncaster.
Then, in the wake of that A.J.C. autumn carnival, Franlyle got up in the last stride to beat Straight Draw, another future Melbourne Cup winner, in a three-year-old handicap over a mile at Randwick. Success on Sydney racecourses was something that Franlyle’s daughter, Castle Heather – the future dam of Battle Sign, also enjoyed. George Walton crossed the Tasman with her as a maiden in the winter of 1969 and in September of that year she won Graduation Stakes at both Canterbury and Rosehill, each time partnered by Arthur Lister. Castle Heather returned again in 1970 but without much luck and shortly after a fall at Rosehill during June with Neil Campton in the saddle, she was returned to New Zealand and retired to stud.
In casting about for a stallion with which to mate her in the winter of 1971, one stallion, in particular, appealed to George Walton: Battle-Wagon. Bred by the National Stud in England in 1962, Battle-Wagon was by the 1954 English Derby winner, Never Say Die, a son of Nasrullah, out of Carrozza, a sister-in-blood to Landau, who had proven such a good stallion for Ted Underwood at Digger’s Rest. Carrozza, who was out of a full sister to the great Sun Chariot, had herself narrowly won the 1957 English Oaks in the colours of Her Majesty The Queen. Despite such distinguished lineage, Battle-Wagon had been a somewhat pedestrian stayer in England and in four starts had only returned a paltry £528 sterling in prize money to The Queen, derived from a lowly win in the York Fountain Stakes (1 -1/2 miles) and a second in the Newmarket Zetland Stakes over the same distance. Nonetheless, with a heavy infusion of Nearco blood further back in his pedigree, he appealed to the Grasslands Stud in New Zealand as a stallion prospect. He quickly made an impact. In 1969-70 Battle-Wagon was the top first-season sire and the following year, with only two crops racing, he finished second in the New Zealand Sires’ List. Accordingly, in the spring of 1971, George Walton sent Castle Heather to be matched with Battle-Wagon and in August of the following year, Battle Sign was foaled.
Particularly after the frustrations with Commanding, George Walton’s dream for years had been to breed, own and train a Derby-winning colt. However, for one of those three ambitions, Battle Sign came along a season or so too late. At the age of seventy-five, George no longer had the energy or drive to both oversee his Otaki farm and train a stable of horses, let alone campaign one of those horses for the better prize money on offer across the Tasman. Although unheralded at the time, Walton’s visit to Sydney during the autumn of 1975 represented his last hurrah as a trainer in his own right on these shores. When he made that trip with Battle Sign, Castlebrae and Bush Nymph he had already surrendered his New Zealand trainer’s licence. Moreover, he was stabling his trio of gallopers at Kilmore in country Victoria with a young man who was just then emerging as a very talented racehorse trainer in his own right.
Terry Millard, the tyro in question, prepared his small but expanding stable on his family’s 3000-acre farm at Kilmore. Earlier that year, during the month of January, Millard had gone to New Zealand to inspect yearlings prior to the Trentham and Waikato sales. During that same visit, he had also checked out some tried gallopers that were on the market and available at the right price. One such customer was Battle Sign. For the septuagenarian Walton, the call of the greensward of the local bowling club rather than the greensward of the local race club was beginning to hold more allure. Millard partnered Battle Sign in a track-trial at Otaki and liked what he felt. Upon dismounting, the deal was done at an undisclosed price, although whether Walton agreed to an outright sale and only later, upon reflection, scaled it back to a half-share is now a moot point. Either way, the responsibility for training the son of Battle-Wagon for the A.J.C. Derby now passed to the self-assured young man from Kilmore.
There was a crackle of excitement in the air at Warwick Farm for the running of the A.J.C. Hobartville Stakes when the leading colt, Rosie Heir began his new season in mid-August. This neat bay son of the imported English stallion Sweet Moss out of Jambo Rose was a triumph of hobby breeding. Two friends, Messrs J. O. Scott and L. J. Leigo, had successfully raced Jambo Rose, initially through the Canterbury stables of H. J. McNamara and later with the trainer, Blan Beck. A speedy daughter of Jambo, she proved most proficient around the tight Canterbury circuit where she was initially trained and won two races there during her 1956-57 juvenile season. As useful as Jambo Rose proved on the racecourse, however, it was in the breeding barn that she was exceptional. Included among her progeny before Rosie Heir came along were those two classy sprinting full brothers by Good Brandy, Rosie Sun and Western Ballad. Rosie Sun, in particular, was an exceptional weight-carrier, winning good races at Rosehill and Warwick Farm with more than 10 stone in the saddle. Whereas Messrs Scott and Leigo owned Rosie Sun, their wives owned Western Ballad. Indeed, in April 1964 the two horses scored a memorable double for their owner/breeders winning races on the same Rosehill card when trained by Beck and ridden by Athol Mulley.
Jambo Rose continued to produce metropolitan winners to stallions other than Good Brandy and not all of the progeny were retained by the breeders. Top Double, a son of Ruler and Jambo Rose’s 1964 foal, was knocked down to trainer Jim Barker at the Inglis Yearling Sales for $6,300 and proved successful. High Moss and Royal Union, by Sweet Moss and Ruler respectively, were other foals that raced in their breeders’ ownership and each won races at Randwick. Morrie Anderson, who trained the pair at Rosehill following upon the retirement of Beck, was also a part-owner. High Moss was considered worthy of taking his place in the field for the A.J.C. Champion Stakes won by his stablemate Latin Knight, while Royal Union was considered by the Leigo family as potentially the best of the lot before breaking down prematurely. All things considered, it had been quite a thrilling adventure for Jambo Rose’s hobby breeders even before Rosie Heir came along. Included in the ownership of Rosie Heir were S.T.C. directer and former Lord Mayor of Sydney, Reg Bartley, and Jim Marr of Vic Cooper’s Hatter in the Royal Arcade, Sydney.
Beaten but once in six starts and that blemish coming in the Golden Slipper when he almost came down on his nose shortly after the barriers opened, Rosie Heir had resumed from a spell in late July to trounce an open field of older sprinters at Randwick in a very fast time. The following day the V.R.C. handicapper issued his Melbourne Cup weights and it was hardly a surprise that he’d rated Rosie Heir the best three-year-old of the entries with a handicap of 46 kg. Accordingly, it seemed fitting that he went to the post before a Warwick Farm crowd of 21,150 people as the even-money favourite. Taken to the front early by Malcolm Johnston, the colt was brilliant in defeating Silver Shadow by three-quarters of a length with the same margin to Crimson Cloud in the minor placing. At a subsequent stewards’ inquiry, Johnston was fortunate to escape a suspension for tightening near the 1000-metres crossing.
Infractions of jockeyship rules and discipline were to become an all too familiar feature of mercurial Mal’s riding style in the years ahead, and his ‘whatever it takes’ philosophy soon put him on intimate terms, both with the austere decor of the stewards’ room in general and with the A.J.C. chief steward, Jim Meehan, in particular. Ah! The intemperance of youth! Three weeks later, Rosie Heir and Mal Johnston were even more impressive when the pair did it at both ends of the Canterbury Guineas (1850 metres), run that year at Rosehill, relegating Crimson Cloud and Cheyne Walk into the minor placings. Arthur Sowden, who trained Rosie Heir at Rosehill, had first learned his horsemanship as a trainer/driver in harness racing before transferring his skills across to thoroughbreds. He had been Morrie Anderson’s stable foreman when Anderson prepared Latin Knight for the A.J.C. Derby and after the Guineas, Sowden declared Rosie Heir the better three-year-old. Many racegoers agreed and in those last weeks of winter and first weeks of spring, it was a triumph of youth as Rosie Heir, partnered by the champion apprentice, Malcolm Johnston, captured the public imagination. Sowden began to eye off the W.S. Cox Plate and even booked tentative stable accommodation with Geoff Murphy at Caulfield. But scenarios for three-year-old racehorses can change quickly during the month of September.
Next stop was the Rosehill Guineas. It was the race that brought Rosie Heir and Battle Sign together for the first time. While Rosie Heir had been cutting a swathe through the early season three-year-old ranks in Sydney, Battle Sign, who had done extraordinarily well during the winter, had revealed his true mettle in Melbourne at his two most recent starts. The Battle-Wagon colt had finished runner-up to Wave King in the Liston Stakes at Sandown and then defeated a good field at Caulfield in the Memsie Stakes to give former Queensland jockey, Doug Messingham, his first win, albeit in a photo-finish, in the southern capital. The public rallied to the local colt in the Rosehill Guineas, and Rosie Heir (4/5 favourite) was being ridden for the first time by John Duggan. Duggan, like Malcolm Johnston, had been indentured to Rosehill trainer, Theo Green, that remarkable master of apprentices. Arthur Sowden and the owners of Rosie Heir had opted for the riding switch not just because of Duggan’s greater experience but also for the fact that Johnston, the boy wonder, would have involved carrying too much dead weight. On Rosehill grass that was on fire, it proved a cracking contest between the two colts and had the crowd of 18,486 on their feet over the last furlong. Rosie Heir fought back doggedly, after appearing likely to be beaten easily a half-furlong out, to go down narrowly in a time of 2 minutes 1.7 seconds. The two horses did come together inside the last furlong but there were no grounds for protest as it was Rosie Heir that was guilty of boring out under pressure.
It might have been only by a half-head that Battle Sign contrived to win, but the performance had the A.J.C. Derby written all over it. One and three-quarter lengths away in third placing was the Bart Cummings-trained Rafique. Both Battle Sign and Rosie Heir bettered the course record for 2000-metres set earlier in the afternoon by Americano in the Rosehill Cup. Three days later the connections of Rosie Heir declared their intentions of by-passing the Derby and challenging for the Epsom Handicap instead. It was a tall order. The only three-year-old to win that famous mile handicap since the turn of the century had been Stanley Wootton’s Noholme, while only three others of that age group had turned the trick back in the nineteenth century viz. Atalanta (d.h. 1873), Espiegle (1884) and Daredevil (1892). Given the fine margin in the Guineas at Rosehill, it seemed a telling judgement by Arthur Sowden on the suspected absence of stamina in Rosie Heir’s pedigree and a ready acknowledgement of its presence in Battle Sign’s.
The 1975 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions are set out in the table below:
Rain leading into Derby Day delivered up a slow track and the classic took place under an overcast sky with a biting, icy wind sweeping across the Randwick course. It was perhaps unsurprising that only 31,881 people made the pilgrimage to headquarters. In the fourteen-strong field, the betting market suggested that there were only three serious chances in this renewal of the Derby and for once the betting was to prove spot on. The sporting public relished the prospect of an inexperienced newcomer in Terry Millard tossing the gauntlet to the powerful Cummings and Smith stables. Battle Sign went to the post a warm 13/8 favourite, fractionally shorter than the Bart Cummings-trained Rafique, with the Tommy Smith colt, Gold Pulse, as the next fancy. The other eleven runners were quoted at cricket-score odds.
Rafique, like Gold Pulse, was a son of the all-conquering stallion, Oncidium, who had produced the previous year’s winner, Taras Bulba. A $40,000 yearling, he was just one of the ten lots that Bart Cummings had bought for an aggregate $253,500 on the second day of the New Zealand National Yearling Sales in January 1974. Amie, the dam of Rafique, was a daughter of the outstanding Le Filou, the stallion that first put Bart Cummings on the training map, and his attraction wasn’t hard to understand. Trained by Bill Sanders, Amie had been a high-class race mare who had established a New Zealand record for ten furlongs when winning the Te Awamutu Cup in 2 minutes 1 – 1/5 seconds. It’s true that she had failed over the two miles of the Auckland Cup, but she had been good enough to run Udare to a head when beaten over twelve furlongs in the Asian Racing Conference Handicap in the New Zealand record time of 2 minutes 27 – 1/4 seconds, although that record itself was to be broken in a matter of days. Amie had even managed to run the minor placing in the prestigious weight-for-age Trentham Stakes behind Ben Lomond.
Rafique boasted more size and strength than many Oncidiums and his racing debut had been delayed to allow him to grow into his frame. It came in June 1975 when he finished second to Bonfield over 1000 metres at Victoria Park in Adelaide. Only sparingly raced before the A.J.C. Derby, Rafique’s prominence in the betting derived from the fact that the colt had finished full of running in the Rosehill Guineas, coming from a wide fifth on the home turn to claim the minor placing. Such was the promise the colt had shown Bart Cummings at home early in his two-year-old season that the famous Adelaide trainer had returned to the New Zealand National Yearling Sales the following year to buy his younger full brother, who had been registered as Ashbah. And the year after, Bart went back to buy the next foal, Ruzzeel, for $35,000. Both Rafique and Ashbar carried the famous ‘white jacket, brown circles’ of Vic and Lila Peters.
The fame of Gold Pulse was predicated on a rather different set of premises. For when this colt was knocked down for $100,000 on the second day of the New Zealand National Yearling Sales he became the first yearling in Australasia to break the five-figure barrier. The winning bid came from Sydney’s dominant trainer, Tommy Smith, who was acting on behalf of the Kashmiri-born shipping tycoon, Ravi Tikkoo, owner of the world’s largest fleet of super-tankers. Tikkoo already owned an extensive stable of thoroughbreds in England with the former Australian jockey Scobie Breasley as his trainer, and he was beginning to make his presence on the Turf felt all around the globe. The best horse to carry his colours up to this time was unquestionably Steel Pulse, with whom he won the 1972 Irish Sweeps Derby when ridden by the Australian, Bill Williamson. Bought as a yearling for 4000 guineas, it was in the traditional post-race interview after the Irish Derby success Tikkoo revealed that in sixteen years of ownership, Steel Pulse was the first racehorse that he had bought entirely on his own judgement. No doubt, Tikkoo came to regret that he didn’t exercise that same judgement Down Under rather than rely on Tommy Smith’s when it came to his Australian purchases. The $100,000 price tag on Gold Pulse was prohibitive although the horse did boast an impressive pedigree. The sire was Oncidium while the dam was Bridesmaid, by Agricola, and she was the last of thirteen live foals borne by Sunbride at the picturesque Te Parae Stud, east of Masterton.
Sunbride was the first horse to be twice-named the New Zealand Broodmare of the Year, an award inaugurated in 1953. Sunbride won it in both 1961 and 1968. On the racecourse, Sunbride’s daughters were disappointing while some of her sons, such as Straight Draw, Ilumquh and General Command were outstanding. However, it was at the stud that the daughters of Sunbride came into their own and Tommy Smith was hoping it would again prove true with Bridesmaid. Gold Pulse made it into the Derby on his very first preparation. The expensive and much-ballyhooed youngster had debuted over 1400 metres in late July when runner-up to Red Kiwi. Thence followed minor placings in restricted events over 1400 metres and 1600 metres at Warwick Farm.
The first suggestion that Gold Pulse might be a Derby prospect came when he ran Leica Lover to three-quarters of a length in the Tattersall’s Chelmsford Stakes at Randwick, although in that race, as in his previous starts, he dissipated his chances by racing greenly. At his most recent appearance, despite negotiating the home turn awkwardly, Gold Pulse had shown more tractability and finished strongly from the rear of the field to claim fourth place in the Rosehill Guineas, albeit a few lengths behind the place-getters.
Outside of the leading three Derby candidates in the betting market, perhaps the best chances among the others were the Victorian colt Valadero, and the Queensland galloper Our Cavalier. Valadero was trained by Tom Hughes at Flemington and was a good style of a horse by Agricola. The colt had won a 2000 metres race at Flemington during the winter and Hughes was hoping he would stay the Derby trip. Our Cavalier was trained at Ipswich by Ted Bell, and this gelded son of Pandour had earned his place with a late, swooping run to win a 2000-metres Graduation Stakes at Rosehill just the week before.
Now, rarely does it happen in a Derby that the top three colts in the betting market fill the placings in precisely the correct order but such was the case in 1975 when Battle Sign, Rafique and Gold Pulse, finished first, second and third in the classic. Doug Messingham on Battle Sign was conscious that, on the rain-affected going, he didn’t want to be giving any starts to anybody – least of all Higgins or Langby. Hailing from Queensland, and regarded as an outsider at Randwick, he looked for no favour or indulgence from his rival jockeys. Battle Sign was drawn in eight while his two most obvious rivals, Rafique and Gold Pulse, were in stalls twelve and five respectively. Inclined to be restive in the barrier, Battle Sign nonetheless jumped smartly and Messingham quickly had the son of Battle-Wagon running second. Meanwhile, as the field went out of the straight both Rafique and Gold Pulse were also racing in the leading division. At the back of the course, it seemed clear even from a mile out that Battle Sign and Rafique would dispute the finish. Battle Sign, who had been in second placing behind the 33/1 leader Skirnir from the 1200 metres to the turn, raced to the lead on straightening. Skirnir quickly compounded. Rafique joined Battle Sign topping the rise and, with Roy Higgins riding vigorously, even snatched a narrow lead. But the Battle-Wagon colt responded courageously and at the winning-post had a half-length to spare, with Gold Pulse a further length and a quarter in third placing. Good Bond, an $18,000 yearling by Alcimedes raced by the Ingham brothers, finished best of the rest.
Horse and jockey returned to scale amidst a wonderful storm of applause. Terry Millard and George Walton were a study in contrasts in the official enclosure as they awaited Battle Sign.
While old George was coolness itself as he conducted post-race interviews, young Terry could hardly talk as his eyes welled with tears and his voice filled with emotion. Walton declared to the pressmen: “I’ve seen too many horses and too many races to be excited.” The canny Scotsman had told anyone who would listen before the race that Battle Sign was a stone certainty. His only regret, as he ruefully reflected on the New Zealand yearling sales held earlier in the year, was that he had sold the Derby winner’s half-brother by Sovereign Edition for $10,000. “How much more would he bring now?”, he asked rhetorically in a manner faithful to his Scots lineage!
Meanwhile, having relegated Bart Cummings and Tommy Smith to supporting roles in the drama that was the 1975 A.J.C. Derby, Millard observed: “This is a big step for me, as I’ve always wanted to be a leading trainer. It is my life.” Forty minutes after the Derby and with the weight of history against them, Rosie Heir and Malcolm Johnston went off as the 11/2 second favourite in the $100,000 A.J.C. Epsom Handicap. Only the Bart Cummings-trained four-year-old mare, Leica Show was preferred in the betting in the twenty-strong field. Despite carrying just 50.5 kg, Rosie Heir failed to race truly and could only finish eighth in the race won by the Smith-trained Authentic Heir, who narrowly beat the Cummings’ second-string mare, Cap D’Antibes. Perhaps we should spare a thought for Bart Cummings at this stage in his Sydney career. The A.J.C. Spring Meeting was emerging as something of a hoodoo for the Adelaide horseman who would come to have such an immense influence on Australian racing. By 1975 he had never won any of the three rich spring plums at Randwick i.e. the Derby, Epsom or Metropolitan. And Rafique’s Derby second followed upon that of Leica Lover in 1973, while Cap D’Antibes was the fifth Cummings’ galloper to finish runner-up in the big mile.
Doug Messingham joined an illustrious company of Queensland jockeys to win the A.J.C. Derby including George Moore, Neville Sellwood, Tommy Hill, Darby McCarthy and Noel McGrowdie and for the itinerant horseman it had been quite a journey. Born in the English town of Winchester in 1946, Messingham came to Australia in 1954 with his parents and sister as assisted immigrants. The son of a tiler, the prospect of the lad becoming a leading jockey, at the time of his ship landing in Sydney, would have been remote for at the time of leaving England he had never even sat on a horse. However, his small stature together with a developing interest in the sport of horseracing in his new homeland suggested the possibility of a career in the saddle.
The Messingham family eventually settled in Brisbane and Doug started his apprenticeship with the Deagon trainer, Norm McCarroll, although in the course of just a few years his indentures would pass through the hands of a number of trainers. This restlessness was to be a harbinger of his peripatetic life as a fully-fledged jockey. Messingham’s first winner came on the tight and treacherous circuit of Albion Park – a course on which so many top Queensland riders had mastered their craft – on December 22nd, 1962, when he landed the 80/1 shot, Little Callide. The following month would see him and his master, Kevin Wallen, disqualified for a year for not allowing Gay Dot to run on her merits at Eagle Farm. However, rather than serve the full sentence, the visit of The Queen to Brisbane in February 1963 saw all such disqualifications halved.
When Messingham resumed his indentures, it was with Harry Hatten of Prunda fame, with whom he remained until he had outridden his allowance. So often when an apprentice can no longer claim, riding opportunities dry up and it was for this reason that Messingham transferred the last eighteen months of his apprenticeship to Brisbane trainer, Graham Ramsey. From the leading apprentice, Messingham graduated to be one of the best lightweight jockeys in Queensland. Graham Heagney, who had trained the great Tobin Bronze, persuaded him to relocate to Adelaide in 1967 but homesickness saw him return to the Gold Coast and become stable jockey for the former Victorian trainer, Alf Sands. It was during his time with Sands that he became associated with the good galloper, Golven.
It was also on the Sands-trained Ocean’s Own that Messingham landed that remarkably well-planned betting coup at Eagle Farm in January 1970 in the Brighton Maiden when the horse was backed in from 50/1 to 7/2, not having raced since May the previous year. Terry Millard met Doug Messingham in Queensland when he was campaigning the seven-year-old Baghdad Note there for the 1973 Q.T.C. Brisbane Cup in which he filled the minor placing. Like many other trainers, Millard was impressed with Messingham’s judgement of pace, perhaps best demonstrated in the jockey’s all the way win on the Canterbury-trained Bonnybel when the Sydney filly won the Q.T.C. Oaks in 1974. It was after Millard had secured Battle Sign for his stables that the trainer approached Messingham to relocate to Victoria and become his stable jockey. “Go south, young man,” was the advice, and Messingham took it.
Messingham had been impressed with Millard’s understated manner and his success with Baghdad Note after most racing men had dismissed the former Melbourne Cup winner as a crock. “When I told Doug that I had a future Derby winner in the stable, he knew I was not making an idle boast.” Millard was attracted by Messingham’s patience and strength on a horse, qualities that were to the fore as the Queensland hoop matched it with Roy Higgins in the last furlong of the Derby. Given the success that Millard and Messingham enjoyed in Sydney that spring with Battle Sign, and the relative youth of the two contemporaries, one might have imagined that this trainer/jockey partnership would become a permanent feature on the Australian Turf. It wasn’t to be. Messingham’s restless spirit and ‘have saddle will travel’ philosophy saw him continually looking for greener pastures. To the extent that he was content in any place for very long that place was Queensland. Moreover, as Millard’s training career prospered, he was happy to freelance with different jockeys rather than retain a dedicated stable rider. It is significant that when he won the W.A.T.C. Perth Cup less than three months later with the lightly-weighted Philomel, Brian Gilders was in the saddle.
Following up on their success with Battle Sign, the only other significant winner that Messingham rode for Millard was Jazidium when that horse won the $10,000 1977 Geelong Derby Trial Stakes for the owner, Max Fremder. Soon after that victory, Messingham was on a short-term riding contract in Singapore and Malaysia although he was back in Brisbane the following winter to win the B.A.T.C. Rothmans’ Hundred Thousand on Blue’s Finito. Messingham’s career record of big-race wins never proved to be as comprehensive as it might have been following his partnership with Battle Sign during the spring of 1975 although in 1979 he did win the Q.T.C. Brisbane Cup on the Jim Atkins-trained Grey Affair at 50/1. There would be his association with controversial trainer George Way and occasional forays to Sydney to ride Queensland-trained gallopers. The latter were often accompanied by activity in the betting ring as was the case when Messingham partnered the Danny Duke-trained Breakfast Creek to win the 1988 A.J.C. Liverpool City Cup. As the years passed by and winning opportunities became fewer, Messingham was eventually forced to quit riding in 1996 after being diagnosed with throat cancer. Although the cancer was halted, thereafter Messingham could only talk by utilising a ‘voice-aid’. Nonetheless, he proceeded to put something back into racing by educating aspiring young jockeys at the Apprentices’ School in Deagon.
When Battle Sign went past the winning post at Randwick on that October afternoon in 1975, Terry Millard became one of the youngest men ever to win an A.J.C. Derby. At thirty-two, married, and the father of four young children, Millard was even younger than Tommy Smith when he took the Derby with Playboy in 1949. A former wool-classer and cattle-breeder on his family’s 3,000-acre property at Kilmore, Millard had spent much of his life around horses and was a very capable horseman in his own right. Moreover, he understood racing from both sides of the ledger, being a son of the well-known Melbourne rails bookmaker, Ray Millard. Terry himself combined training racehorses at Kilmore with fielding at greyhound meetings from Sale to Olympic Park in his early years with the stopwatch. Millard first announced his presence in the training ranks in 1972 when enjoying success with well-bred, tried racehorses suffering niggling leg problems. His small stable set amidst the rural countryside of Kilmore afforded him the time and the place to work on such ‘crocks’ in a manner that was neither practical nor rewarding for a leading city-based trainer with a large string. In February 1972, Millard won the Seymour Cup with Darling Beware, a half-sister to those three brilliant fillies, Flying Fable, Flying Gauntlet and Sparkling Red, collectively the winners of two A.J.C. Flight Stakes, an A.J.C. Oaks, a V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes and an A.J.C. Princess Handicap.
Millard’s next successful foray with the betting ring came when he trained Cadet to land some winning wagers in the V.R.C. Royal Handicap at Flemington in June 1972. Cadet, a six-year-old brown gelding by Better Boy and a full brother to both Pterylaw and Tolerance, had been purchased for $5,750 as a tried racehorse with problems, some twelve months earlier. Millard more than doubled his money with him. In winning that Royal Handicap, Cadet denied another impeccably-bred racehorse the prize, namely the speedy Tattenham, a full brother to both Biscay and Star of Heaven. The next horse that pitched Millard into the headlines was the 1970 Melbourne Cup winner, Baghdad Note. Baghdad Note had troublesome forelegs but Millard leased the grey gelding in the name of his wife, Carmen, after the horse changed hands in late 1972. Millard’s patience and dedication saw Baghdad Note make a triumphant return to the racecourse winning some five races including the V.A.T.C. Sandown Cup and about $40,000 before old Baggie bowed his tendon in the 1974 W.A.T.C. Perth Cup and was retired for good, later becoming a popular mount for the Clerk of the Course at Flemington for a time.
Reflecting on that 1975 Derby Day, Bert Lillye wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald on the Monday after: “Sydney, I fear, has lost its wonderful sporting heritage. I never thought I’d see the day when only 31,881 people would be in Randwick’s Paddock and St Leger enclosures to watch the historic Epsom and Derby. Don’t tell me that there were transport troubles and that the sky was overcast early in the day. It won’t wash. My father and his mates would rather have walked barefooted through the rain to Randwick rather than say they had missed Derby day. Then it was a sporting tradition to be at Randwick when the best horses clashed…Today, I fear, our sporting legend is being smothered to death by the TAB dollar and the beer can.” It was a telling comment and racing was beset by a number of issues at the time. The A.J.C.’s startling admission of a $530,000 loss in the previous financial year had highlighted the parlous state of the industry. Yes, the iniquitous supplementary tax, increased racing costs generally, and widespread inflation all contributed to the club’s financial imbroglio but at the heart of it was the absence of crowds.
It was always more difficult to measure the quality of the springtime A.J.C. Derbies and the ability and potential of the young contestants on the day, when the race was conducted on soft rather than firm ground. For one thing, the clock became largely irrelevant and for another, as we know, not all racehorses act in such going. Many racegoers believed the 1975 A.J.C. Derby had resolved nothing as to whether or not it was a vintage year for three-year-olds. Accordingly, the focus switched to Melbourne where a more representative class of colts awaited, not to mention the richer weight-for-age events and handicaps against the older horses. Not one of the placegetters in the A.J.C. Derby contested the V.A.T.C. Caulfield Guineas seven days later, won that year in atrocious weather by Sou’Wester, trained by Jim Moloney. And not one three-year-old contested the V.A.T.C. Caulfield Stakes the next week either. It wasn’t until the $116,500 V.A.T.C. Caulfield Cup on the following Saturday that a more expansive measure of the quality of the A.J.C. Derby form could be taken when Battle Sign was saddled-up to challenge the older horses.
Strongly supported in the betting market into 5/1, Battle Sign went to the post a warm second favourite behind the lightly-weighted Suleiman, a four-year-old from New Zealand trained by Bill Winder. Suleiman with just 50.5 kg went off at 6/4 on the strength of a 12-length win in the V.A.T.C. Herbert Power Handicap on the opening day of the meeting. In the long sweep of history since 1879 when the Caulfield Cup was first run only four horses had ever started at 6/4 or shorter viz. Eurythmic (1920), Manfred (1926), Tulloch (1957) and Tobin Bronze (1966). It was a rarefied company. Alas, a deep cut and a pulled muscle in his off hind leg incurred during the running prevented Suleiman from showing his best and he could only manage the minor placing behind Analight and Leica Lover. Battle Sign in finishing a disappointing seventh had no such excuses, although he had been fired up before the race and pulled hard during it. It was the colt’s last run of the campaign. He succumbed to a virus that was then raging through Millard’s stable and was a shock omission when second declarations were made for the Victoria Derby.
The following Saturday after the Caulfield Cup, the rich W.S. Cox Plate at Moonee Valley was conducted. The race was even richer that year because the Moonee Valley Racing Club saw fit to increase its prize money from $75,000 to a very generous $125,000. This was a major re-alignment of springtime stakes and as such, it became the second richest race in Victoria, eclipsed only by the Melbourne Cup which that year was worth $150,000 plus trophies valued at $5,600. For a couple of years or so the V.A.T.C. vainly tried to match the largesse of Moonee Valley, but it was to be an unequal struggle against the determination of the M.V.R.C under its enterprising chief executive, Ian McEwen.
From that moment on the Caulfield Cup lost much of its historic lustre as so many of Australia’s top weight-for-age horses skipped the race, their trainers preferring a rendezvous with destiny a week later at the Valley, with its smaller fields and richer prize. Bart Cummings was one such trainer and Rafique went to the post for the W.S. Cox Plate well-supported on the second line of betting at 7/1. Anyone who was present at Moonee Valley for the 1975 W.S. Cox Plate never forgot the experience, including H.R.H. Princess Margaret, with raincoats, umbrellas and goloshes at a premium. Rain bucketed down so badly that as soon as the signature weight-for-age event was over the stewards declared the track unfit to continue and the last three races were abandoned. Jockeys rode blind for much of the main event and it was left to the champion New Zealand mudlark, Fury’s Order to storm home to victory in the hands of the boom seventeen-year-old apprentice, Brent Thomson. Rafique, together with the other three-year-olds in the race, got lost in the wash.
Confirmation that there might be rather less to Gold Pulse than met the eye came in the Geelong Derby Trial Stakes. Backed as if unbeatable by a gullible public, Gold Pulse started the even-money favourite in the hands of Gary Willetts but could finish only ninth. Even the stewards were aghast and ordered a veterinary-surgeon to inspect the colt. When nothing abnormal was found, the stewards ordered Gold Pulse to be swabbed. However, the missing element when it came to Gold Pulse i.e. lack of ability to match his pedigree, was never going to show up in any swab. Just how do you explain to one of the world’s richest and most successful owners that the record price paid for your yearling colt was money squandered? Best let the self-evident truth emerge slowly over time but meanwhile retain the client for as long as you can. Ironically, the winner of the Geelong Derby Trial Stakes was Camino Real, who sold for just $3,500 on the very same day that Gold Pulse realised $100,000. I might mention that at least the other six-figure colt from those 1974 Trentham Yearling Sales bought and trained by Colin Hayes did amount to something. The son of Oncidium and Chantal was registered as Inceptor and won three principal races on the Turf including a Werribee Cup before becoming a useful stallion in Western Australia where he sired five individual stakes winners of eleven stakes races.
The strength of the A.J.C. Derby form was beginning to look suspect, an impression that became even more distinct after the running of the Victoria Derby. With both Battle Sign and Gold Pulse hors de combat, Rafique was the only place-getter from Randwick to contest the Derby at Flemington for which he went to the post as the 9/2 second elect, shaded for favouritism a half-point by his stablemate Romantic Archer. Rafique had the services of jockey Roy Higgins, while Romantic Archer was partnered by Gary Willetts. In an upset result, the South Australian colt Galena Boy with John Letts in the saddle, outstayed Romantic Archer to win by a length and a quarter, with the future Melbourne Cup winner, Gold And Black (10/1), six lengths away third. Rafique was a major disappointment in only being able to finish fourth after being given every chance and looking the likely winner at the top of the straight. Galena Boy revived memories of the 1960s champion Tobin Bronze, carrying the same ‘purple, white spots and cap’ of the Brown family who bred him.
Offered for sale as a yearling and expected to fetch up to $10,000, a callous on his near fetlock joint deterred potential buyers. He was passed in at $4,500 and the Brown family decided to retain him to race themselves. Galena Boy was by the imported English stallion Boysie Boy, out of Raw Metal, a full sister to Tobin Bronze although unlike that great horse, the Victoria Derby was the only major race Galena Boy ever won. Historically, the real significance of that Victoria Derby was the identity of the 26-year-old winning trainer – John Hawkes. In winning, this former jockey and relative newcomer to the training ranks had relegated the great Bart Cummings’ three starters into second, third and fourth placings. And so the spring racing season drew to a close with no three-year-old even bothering to contest the Melbourne Cup.
It is fair to say that the quality of the 1975 A.J.C. Derby field had been seriously compromised by the end of that calendar year. Battle Sign never did regain form. He didn’t appear as an autumn three-year-old and when he did resume racing in late July and August 1976, he was but a shadow of his former self. After three unplaced runs, the last being in the Liston Stakes, Battle Sign was again sent to the paddock. Brought back as an autumn four-year-old, Battle Sign again failed to find form and went around in the 1977 V.R.C. Australian Cup, won by the Bart Cummings-trained Ngawyni, at the cricket score odds of 100/1 in the hands of Doug Messingham. It was the end of the road for the one-time promising son of Battle-Wagon and the chestnut was retired to stud. Although Terry Millard did train some of his progeny e.g. Win A Battle, none of them proved of much value. Battle Sign’s only principal winner, Sunny Cheval, who took out the 1982 S.A.J.C. Wylie Handicap came along in his first crop of 1978.
Rafique’s record subsequent to the Victoria Derby was equally disappointing. The son of Oncidium did resume in the autumn to run minor placings in both the C. F. Orr Stakes and the St George Stakes at Caulfield, performances that saw him elevated to favouritism for the V.R.C. Australian Cup. However, Rafique was subjected to a particular bumpy passage in the St George Stakes that resulted in injuries to his near front fetlock joint. Initially, the Cummings stable downplayed the seriousness of the problem and the horse’s scratching from the Australian Cup was delayed while stable money went on to his stablemate, Lord Dudley. Belatedly, Rafique was withdrawn and thrown out of training while Lord Dudley went on to win the Cup. Brought back in the spring and aimed at the 1976 Melbourne Cup, Rafique proved unsound and by the time Van Der Hum ploughed through the mud at Flemington to win on that first Tuesday in November, Rafique’s racing career was already behind him.
The third placegetter in that 1975 A.J.C. Derby presents an even more cautionary tale, particularly as to the pitfalls of purchasing expensive bloodstock. Subsequent to his failure at Geelong, Gold Pulse incurred a stone bruise and developed an infection that saw him miss the V.R.C. Spring Meeting entirely as he was sent to the spelling paddocks. Brought back into training the following autumn and set for the A.J.C. Australasian Champion Stakes, Gold Pulse broke through for his maiden victory in a lowly Graduation Stakes (2000 metres) at Rosehill in February at his ninth start. It proved a false dawn. The following month at the ludicrously short price of 3/1 on, Gold Pulse exhibited rare pusillanimity on his home course when he failed to run a place over 2400 metres in the A.J.C. Randwick Stakes. Indeed, the run was so inglorious that trainer Tommy Smith didn’t even materialise for the usual post-race interviews. Gold Pulse did eventually take his place in the Champion Stakes field but went around at 125/1 to finish twelfth of the fourteen starters in a race won in an upset by his 80/1 stablemate, Cheyne Walk.
Rather than turn Gold Pulse out for a spell after the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting, Smith pushed on with thoughts of a winter campaign in Brisbane until Gold Pulse failed utterly at Warwick Farm on May 1st when the 11/8 equal favourite. It was the fifth time in twelve starts that the colt had been beaten when a short-priced favourite and at this stage of proceedings he had won only one minor race and $18,785 in stakes. Mind you, even that was the most money returned by any of the six Oncidium yearlings Tommy Smith had bought in New Zealand in 1974. The six had cost a collective total of $231,000 and just for the record, the names of the other famous five were Rue Coronne, Barbarossa, Dambuster, Ready O’Ready and Billy Bunter.
A touching if faintly ridiculous fact of life on Sydney racecourses during these years was the fealty of the general public towards an expensive racehorse from Tulloch Lodge, particularly one that was continually being spruiked in the afternoon tabloid newspapers, The Sun and Daily Mirror. Despite all racecourse evidence to the contrary, the punting public would blindly invest their faith and dollars in what they believed to be superior knowledge and superior bloodlines. And yet the simple truth is that some racehorses, conjured up by St Columba, the patron saint of bookmakers, are put on this earth merely to bankrupt owners and punters alike. Who was it that said a racehorse is the only animal that can take several thousand people for a ride at one and the same time? Whoever it was, I’m sure that he had a horse like Gold Pulse in mind when he said it. Still, by October 1976 even Ravi Tikkoo, an impulsive owner with bottomless reserves of wealth, cried enough and put his string of tried racehorses up for auction through the Newmarket stables of William Inglis and Son. As the writer, H. H. Munro might have observed: “He was a good owner as good owners go, and as good owners go, he went.”
It is perhaps too easy to forget the extent of Tikkoo’s largesse to bloodstock breeders in this corner of the globe for a couple of years at least in the mid-1970s. Nonetheless, his first bloodstock transaction involving Australian breeders had proven to be extremely lucrative for the shipping magnate. I refer to his sale of Steel Pulse to an Australian syndicate of breeders headed by Fred Peisah, which paid £370,000 for the privilege of standing the son of Diatome at Peisah’s Lomar Park Stud, Werrombi. The horse might have had a Timeform rating of 135 but the amount Tikkoo received for Steel Pulse as a stallion was precisely £365,800 more than the colt had cost him as a yearling! But selling is one thing; buying another. And when it came to Tikkoo buying overpriced Australian and New Zealand bloodstock, Gold Pulse was merely primus inter pares.
Apart from the $100,000 splurged on the son of Bridesmaid, at those same 1974 New Zealand National Yearling Sales in Trentham, Tommy Smith also acquired on Tikkoo’s behalf a full brother to Sobar (Sobig – Miss Filou) for $70,000; and a son of Sovereign Edition out of the imported English mare Mail Train for $62,000 beside a number of other yearlings. Registered as Rhine Steel and Regency Head respectively, each proved racecourse failures and when sold as tried racehorses some 21-months later realised just $4,000 and $6,000 each. Nothing in this world depreciates in value quite as quickly as a well-bred failure on the racecourse. Nor did Tommy’s misdirected yearling cash splash on behalf of the Indian shipping magnate stop at Trentham in 1974. At the Inglis Easter Sales that same year, he paid an Australian record price of $90,000 for the daughter of Wilkes and With Respect. Registered as Honey Queen, she did at least win a couple of juvenile races at Rosehill and Randwick to return $9,520 to Ravi Tikkoo before being retired to stud. While Honey Queen might have been a relative failure for Tikkoo on the racecourse, in the paddock she proved a valuable broodmare in other hands, foaling no less than three individual stakes winners in Easter, Honey Be Quick and Mr Danamite.
But back to Gold Pulse. When Ravi Tikkoo decided to sell all his Australian-based horses, Q.T.C. committeeman, Peter Gallagher, at Tommy Smith’s urging bought Gold Pulse for only $13,500. Smith hailed it as a bargain, claiming that the horse was worth at least $50,000! Of course, he wasn’t, but Gallagher got a better run for his money than Tikkoo did. Within the month Gold Pulse had won a 2000-metres handicap at Rosehill and before the calendar year was out the chestnut had won the S.T.C. Christmas Cup in race record time for the popular Q.T.C. committeeman and his fellow syndicate members, after worrying Lazy Pat out of the first prize. However, Gold Pulse’s best performance on a racecourse came almost a year later when, with just 51.5 kgs and Malcolm Johnston in the saddle, he finished fourth behind the Bart Cummings-trained Gold And Black in the 1977 V.R.C. Melbourne Cup. Taken to Perth for the W.A.T.C. Summer Meeting, Gold Pulse broke down after one more run. There was no place for him at Tulloch Lodge after that and Gallagher transferred him into the stables of Jim Atkins on the Darling Downs, but the one-time record-priced yearling never stood another preparation.
So, what became of those other thoroughbreds that finished behind the place-getters in that 1975 A.J.C. Derby? The best horse to come out of the field was the Queensland stayer, Our Cavalier, trained by Henry Davis and later by the Toowoomba trainer, Pat Duff. As an older horse, Our Cavalier won five principal races including the 1977 S.T.C. Tancred Stakes, 1976 and 1980 B.A.T.C. Labour Cups and the 1980 G.C.T.C. Prime Minister’s Cup. Valadero, trained at Flemington by T. J. Hughes, was the unlucky galloper to emerge from that Derby. Although he did twice win the B.T.C. Ballarat Cup and a V.R.C. Duke of Norfolk Stakes, it was a series of second placings that haunted his owners including twice in the Duke of Norfolk Stakes, a Perth Cup and a Newcastle Gold Cup as well as an S.T.C. Hill Stakes. Insofar as the breeding barn was concerned, the best horse from that 1975 A.J.C. Derby was the Lloyd Foyster-owned Pirouette, one of the two fillies to go round in the race. At stud, she was to be the dam of two stakes winners in Noted and Twirled besides dropping those good-producing daughters Slick Dancer, Class and Entre Chat.
The 1975-76 racing season saw the debate continue as to whether Australia’s Derbies in general and the A.J.C. Derby, in particular, were conducted too early in the season. The autumn form displayed by Lord Dudley (V.R.C. Australian Cup and St Leger) and Cheyne Walk (A.J.C. Australasian Champion Stakes, Q.T.C. Queensland Derby, B.A.T.C. Doomben Cup) was superior to anything three-year-olds had produced in the spring. And while many pundits dismissed the entire crop as rather ordinary, there was one New Zealand-bred three-year-old who both re-ignited the subject of Derbies early in the season, and, as an older horse, showed Europe just what Australasia could produce. That horse was Balmerino.
Bred and owned by Ralph Stuart, a Waikato dairy farmer, the background to Balmerino’s conception is an inspiring story of serendipity. In 1951 Stuart paid a modest 60 guineas to acquire Caste, a 19-year-old broodmare at an auction at Claudelands. Caste had already produced nine foals but she captured Stuart’s attention for two reasons. Firstly, because she was a daughter of Cowl, the great broodmare who had foaled four smart sons – two pairs of brothers – in Rational, The Monk, Mask and The Masquerader. Cowl had also foaled Veil, dam of the great Veilmond along with two other stakes winners. Secondly, Caste was in foal to Revelation and Stuart was hoping for a filly. As it transpired, the Revelation foal was born dead but two years later, the aged Caste dropped a filly, Dulcie, following her mating with the imported Italian stallion Duccio.
Dulcie never raced but in 1976, two years after her death, she would be posthumously awarded the New Zealand Broodmare of the Year title, with no small thanks to Balmerino. However, years before Balmerino came along, Dulcie had established a most remarkable family. Gay Filou, her first foal by Le Filou, dropped in 1958 won 13 races including the 1962 V.A.T.C. Toorak Handicap and the 1964 Ballarat Cup. The following year to Le Filou she produced Micheline, a winner of 9 races including the Stratford Jubilee Gold Cup and the Wairoa Cup, but more significantly, herself a future New Zealand Broodmare of the Year after producing Surround and Purple Patch. In 1960 and 1961 came Court Victory and Court Duchess respectively, both by Final Court and both winners on the racecourse but not quite in the class of Dulcie’s earlier foals.
Returned to her first love, Le Filou, in quick succession came Fulmen, Pilfer and Fileur in the years 1962 to 1964. Le Filou was the stallion that first made Bart Cummings’ reputation, or perhaps it was the other way around. Either way, you get my drift. Each benefited from the association with the other. And while Pilfer didn’t amount to much in the ownership of Bruce Hedley and trainer T. J. Hughes, Fulmen and Fileur were two of the good early stayers that bore the Cummings’ imprimatur. Dulcie missed in 1965 and as she got older the quality of her offspring declined, but in 1972 came the best of them all in Balmerino. Ironically, he came along when Dulcie was nineteen and as a result of a tryst with the underwhelming French-bred stallion, Trictrac, the foundation sire at J. P. Atkins’ Middlepark Stud, who had proven to be a relative failure as a stallion.
Ralph Stuart’s policy was to sell the colts and retain the fillies – a sensible philosophy subscribed to by many breeders. And, indeed, Stuart did enter the Trictrac-Dulcie colt in the 1974 New Zealand National Yearling Sales at Trentham. However, haunted by the yearling’s soft splint and lack of inches, Stuart subsequently withdrew him, reflecting that the little fellow would diminish his own reputation as a breeder. Stuart decided to race the colt himself and entrusted his education to Brian Smith, a young man then at the start of his training career. Interestingly, Smith had been present at the moment Balmerino was conceived, for in his earlier life he had worked as a stud manager at the same Middlepark Stud. Given his small size, it was intended to delay Balmerino’s racecourse debut until his three-year-old season but he matured and strengthened so quickly that his first appearance came at a meeting of the Whangarei Race Club at Avondale in mid-March. He finished second – beaten a head – in a twelve-horse juvenile handicap over 1000 metres. Eleven days later on April Fool’s Day, over 1200 metres at the Te Rapa Racecourse, Balmerino won the first of his twenty-two races. After an unplaced run at Hawkes Bay and a poor third on a heavy track at Te Rapa, Balmerino’s first season ended.
Unlike the A.J.C. Derby when it was conducted on the first Saturday of the A.J.C. Spring Meeting and a number of entrants were still actual two-year-olds, no such immaturity issues marred the entrants for either the A.R.C. New Zealand Derby or the W.R.C. Wellington Derby. The New Zealand Derby is traditionally run on Boxing Day and the Wellington Derby some three weeks later. On the day that Battle Sign was being bedecked with the blue riband at Randwick, over 2000 kilometres away Balmerino was finishing second at Ellerslie in the Great Northern Guineas over 1600 metres. The Trictrac colt then proceeded to win his next eight races including the W.R.C. Wellington Guineas, the C.J.C. New Zealand Two Thousand Guineas, the Av.J.C. Avondale Guineas, as well as both the New Zealand and Wellington Derbies. Brought across to Australia for the S.T.C. and A.J.C. Autumn Meetings and the Q.T.C. Winter Meeting at the backend of his three-year-old season, Balmerino reminded A.J.C. officialdom just what had been missing in the Randwick Derby.
Balmerino won the Rawson Stakes and Tulloch Stakes at Rosehill and the Grand Prix Stakes, P. J. O’Shea Stakes and Brisbane Cup at Eagle Farm. His only defeats on Australian soil that season came at Randwick when he ran an inglorious sixth in the Australasian Champion Stakes and when he finished runner-up to Taras Bulba in the Queen Elizabeth Stakes. Brian Smith was adamant that the horse had been nobbled in the former race and may well have been feeling the aftermath of the experience in the latter. However, at the end of the season, Balmerino topped both the Australian and New Zealand Free Handicaps for three-year-olds. In the Australian Free Handicap, Balmerino was allotted 59.5 kg, with Cheyne Walk on 58.5 kg and Lord Dudley a half-kilogram less. Battle Sign was ranked fourth top three-year-old on 57.5 kg. Balmerino’s achievements and the desire of the A.J.C. committee to realise their ambition for the Randwick Blue Riband to be recognised as the premium three-year-old classic on both sides of the Tasman kept the debate about transferring the race from the spring to the autumn very much alive. After eleven months of racing and the completion of the Q.T.C. Winter carnival, Balmerino and Smith indulged in a seaside sojourn at Coffs Harbour on the north coast of N.S.W. before the now four-year-old horse resumed racing.
Balmerino had matured into a strikingly masculine horse standing some sixteen hands and blessed with a temperament ideal for racing matched by a giant stride. Stuart remained unmoved by various generous international offers to buy his putative champion. He was an old man intent on enjoying what was left of his life’s journey rather than accumulating more money to spend on the journey itself. In a less demanding season than his three-year-old program, Balmerino started nine times for four wins and three seconds with victories coming in the A.R.C. Air New Zealand Stakes, Awapuni Gold Cup and the Ormond Memorial Gold Cup at Hawkes Bay – his last race on his native soil. His only win in Australia from five starts that season came in the A.J.C. Autumn Stakes when he humbled the future Melbourne Cup winner, Gold And Black. However, for much of the first half of that year, Balmerino was suffering from a back ailment suffered in a post-race sand roll that was only remedied after his return to New Zealand. It was after the Ormond Memorial Gold Cup that Balmerino set out on that famous transatlantic odyssey which saw him race in four countries viz. the U.S.A., England, Italy and France.
After an American program under Brian Smith’s tutelage that saw Balmerino win at Hollywood Park, the horse was transferred to the Arundel stables of leading English trainer, John Dunlop. While the son of Trictrac might have only won twice from eleven starts while stabled in Surrey, and both those victories coming at Goodwood, it was his series of placings in Europe’s richest races that emphasised his quality. Balmerino finished runner-up to the great Alleged in the 1977 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamps and was first across the line in Italy’s rich Gran Premio Jockey Club E Coppa D’Oro only to have the race taken from him after an erratic ride by the Australian Ron Hutchinson. At the height of the English summer, Balmerino finished second in the prestigious Coronation Cup at Epsom. Ralph Stuart’s great champion completed his racing career when unplaced in August 1978 in the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup on York’s Knavesmire.
Balmerino’s complete racing record was 46 starts; 22 wins; 11 seconds; and 2 thirds and approximately $NZ516,000. Following upon his extensive overseas travels, Balmerino returned to his native New Zealand to stand stud duty in the very place where it had all began – the Middlepark Stud. Balmerino proved a successful stallion, too, getting 29 individual stakes winners of some 80 stakes races; his best performers included Bounty Hawk, Delightful Belle and King Delamere. As a postscript to the Balmerino story, I might mention that exactly five days after Balmerino did New Zealand proud by finishing second in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe on the expansive stretches of Longchamps, an important announcement emanated from the Australian Jockey Club. It was on Friday, October 28, 1977, after a meeting of the A.J.C. committee that the club’s chairman, Jim Bell, declared that the A.J.C. Derby would not be run the following year but would be transferred to the autumn of 1979. It was an outcome that Balmerino’s heroics had helped bring about.
I began this chapter with George Walton and Terry Millard and perhaps I should end the same way. Neither man ever got another Derby winner. George Walton progressively wound down his hobby breeding operations at Otaki and after surrendering his training licence devoted his twilight years to another grass sport in lawn bowls. Like most of the challenges he accepted in life, Walton made a success of that, too. He never did establish a training dynasty. As much as he hoped that his daughter, Nahleen, might have become passionate about thoroughbred breeding and racing, her interests lay elsewhere in the arts. Nahleen Walton became a principal dancer with the New Zealand Ballet Company (later Royal New Zealand Ballet) and later managed the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. Walton took great paternal pride in his daughter’s artistic achievements.
And what came after Battle Sign for trainer, Terry Millard? On A.J.C. Derby Day 1975 at Randwick a long and successful career seemed to beckon the Kilmore horseman. Only months after Battle Sign’s blue riband, Millard trained yet another New Zealand expatriate to success when he won the W.A.T.C. Perth Cup with Philomel, a five-year-old mare by Zamazaan. This was a remarkable run of success for a young man from Kilmore with only a small string of horses. Millard’s next good horse, Waitangirua, was yet another New Zealand galloper that he bought as a tried racehorse. As was the case with Battle Sign, Millard rode Waitangirua himself in a private trial, when on a visit across the Tasman in search of bloodstock. Purchased for a reported $28,000, Waitangirua, a flashy chestnut with a baldy-face, finished third behind Stormy Rex in the W.A.T.C. West Australian Derby.
The Derby distance might have been beyond Waitangirua’s best but he was a horse that improved with age. After winning both the Kilmore and Werribee Cups in 1978, the following year Waitangirua landed some long-range wagers when he won the B.A.T.C. Doomben Cup by a short head in the hands of Peter Cook. Millard had managed to get the horse into the race with just 49 kg, some 8kg under weight-for-age. Late the following month Waitangirua brought home one of the betting plunges of the year in the J. J. Liston Stakes at Sandown, when, under the guidance of jockey John Stocker, he flashed home to relegate Ming Dynasty and Crepellox into the minor placings. As much as 50/1 had been bet about Waitangirua in early course betting, although by flagfall he had shortened into 14/1 after the stable commissioners had set upon the bagmen. The following season as a six-year-old, Waitangirua ran a dead-heat with Little Brown Jug in the V.A.T.C. Underwood Stakes to cap a lucrative career.
The decade of the 1980s opened for Millard with that very smart two-year-old bred in Western Australia and by Zvornik, Lead Role. Regarded as a serious chance in the 1981 S.T.C. Golden Slipper Stakes, he had easily won the Pago Pago Quality Handicap to qualify for the race but ultimately proved disappointing. The following year, Millard outlaid $120,000 for a brown yearling colt offered by Jim Fleming at the Inglis Easter Sales. Sired by Century and from the former speedy two-year-old, Rainbeam, the colt was registered as Centaine. For all of his early promise on the racecourse, Centaine’s racing record ultimately proved underwhelming despite winning six races, all in the hands of Harry White, and $120,350 in stakes. The horse had a predilection for soft ground and he never won either at group one or group-two level. Centaine’s most important victory came in the 1984 V.A.T.C. Autumn Stakes. However, as a stallion in New Zealand, he did superb service at Garry Chittick’s Thornton Park Stud, just a few kilometres from the Awapuni racecourse. Centaine went on to sire 58 stakes winners of 115 stakes races with Kinjite and Slight Chance the best of his progeny.
As the decade of the eighties wore on Terry Millard’s name became less prominent in the racing pages of the newspapers, despite maintaining stables at Flemington. There would be the occasional successful betting plunge such as Kaysiboy’s victory in the 1982 Mornington Cup and Segovian Rhythm’s success at Moonee Valley in the Dundonald Handicap. For a time in 1990, Terry Millard administered David Moodie’s Flemington stables, Hobson Lodge, after the Melbourne builder and owner of the Shirley Park Stud at Woodend had split with Steve Richards. However, it was a short-lived affair. Perhaps the last significant betting sting from a Millard-trained galloper in an important race came in the $50,600 Eclipse Stakes at Caulfield in 1991 with Luisant Bijou, ridden by the leading apprentice of the period, Damien Oliver.
In a sense, the times conspired against Terry Millard and his template for racing success. In a modern age of escalating costs and increased taxation, economies of scale became everything in maintaining a profitable racing stable. Size mattered and when it came to horseboxes, populate or perish became the catchcry. Moreover, for a betting stable as Millard’s was, the strength of the ring had markedly declined during the late 1980s and early 1990s, accelerating a trend that had been evident for years. Bookmakers were becoming an endangered species, but not because of successful plunges. Racing no longer held the same grip on the public imagination. International buyers had also pushed up the domestic price of Australia’s yearlings to international levels. In short, the prospects became difficult for a relatively boutique stable operation centred at Kilmore while maintaining stables at Flemington, reliant on betting stings to balance the books, and absent big-spending, international clients willing to bid for quality bloodlines. Terry Millard’s name gradually slipped from the racing broadsheets.