The year 1977 finally admitted to the honour roll of A.J.C. Derby-winning trainers, the man who was commonly regarded as the finest trainer of stayers in Australia in the second half of the twentieth century: James Bartholomew Cummings! We first met the young Bart Cummings in the 1948 chapter of this book as the strapper of the 1950 Melbourne Cup winner, Comic Court, trained by his father, Jim. Intermittent appearances have come in later chapters, notably 1973 and 1975 when he trained the A.J.C. Derby runners-up, Leica Lover and Rafique respectively. However, it was in 1977 that Bart trained his first winner of the Randwick classic. So let’s recapitulate with a little history through the mouldy chronicle of time. The champion horseman was born on 14 November 1927, in the Waringa Nursing Home in Glenelg, South Australia, the third child in a happy Catholic family. Bart’s earliest memories were of his family’s house and stables. To quote from his autobiography “BART, my life”: “I must have been sniffing around the horses, shadowing Dad, almost before I could walk.” However, a career in stables almost never happened. At the age of six, it was discovered that Bart suffered from asthma and he often left his Dad’s stables coughing and wheezing. A doctor diagnosed the problem and the boy was advised to stay away from horses. Fat chance! He resolved to put up with it.
Bart attended the Marist Brothers’ Sacred Heart College in the Adelaide beachside suburb of Somerton Park. However, he was never interested in school and left at the age of fourteen to work with his father in the stables. It was there that his education really began. There never was a revolt against parental authority. Bart loved and respected his father and sought to emulate him. Again to quote from “BART my life”: “Dad wasn’t a joyless man, but he was less interested in making you laugh than in making you think. He always encouraged me to ask questions. I’ve been asking questions ever since.” Just how successfully the man came up with the right answers will be reflected in these pages. Bart Cummings became a licenced trainer in his own right in South Australia on the 29th May 1953. The application was necessitated by the fact that his parents had gone to Ireland for a six-month holiday and Bart was left in charge of the stables. It was in that same year that he met and married the love of his life, Valmae Baker. Jim Cummings upon his return, in recognition of his son’s new status as a married and licenced trainer, gave him the bottom set of stables on his Glenelg property.
While his father continued to train high-class winners including First Scout and Storm Glow, who won the 1953 Goodwood Handicap and 1955 Adelaide Cup respectively, Bart went almost two years without a city winner. It finally came at Morphettville in a transition handicap on 12 February 1955, with a horse named Wells. Patience, the quality for which the mature J. B. Cummings would become famous, was sorely needed during these barren years. However, 1958 was to prove a watershed. Not only was it the year in which he first crossed the Tasman Sea to the Land of the Long White Cloud, where so many of his future famous acquisitions of bloodstock would occur, but it was also the year in which he trained his first feature race winner – none other than Stormy Passage in the South Australian Derby, a race his father had won three times. It was also the year that Cummings registered his famous racing silks of ‘green and gold diagonal stripes’ – the Australian national colours. Moreover, 1958 was also the year of his first runner in a Melbourne Cup – Asian Court, owned by the Lee brothers of Comic Court fame. Slowly the bandwagon was beginning to roll. Bart began to think beyond the established and accepted parameters of stable life; he focused more carefully on pedigrees, diets and the latest developments in horse pathology. He befriended two veterinarians named Sykes: Percy, based in Sydney and who in the fullness of time would become the eminence grise of Tulloch Lodge; and Sykes Geschmey, who worked out of Adelaide and had supervised the cavalry horses for the Austro-Hungarian army during the Great War. Blinkers were something else with which the young Bart experimented, but more of that anon.
It was in the spring of 1959 that the eastern racing establishment became aware of the name ‘J. B. Cummings’ for the first time. It happened by virtue of a workmanlike bay gelding named Trellios, owned by a big Adelaide punter cum clocker, Dan Moriarty. Trellios, an Australian-bred son of Helios, won both the Underwood Stakes and L.K.S. Mackinnon Stakes and ran an impressive fifth in the Melbourne Cup in the hands of Ron Hutchinson. People began to sit up and take notice. One such man was 59-year-old Victorian grazier and future V.R.C. committeeman, Wally Broderick, who asked Cummings to look out for a yearling for him to race when he went to New Zealand in January. What a fine bit of horse-trading, Bart did on the opening day of the National Yearling Sales at Trentham in 1960 and Tuesday, January 19, would always be a red-letter day in the J. B. Cummings calendar.
On a day when his future great rival, T. J. Smith spent 15,100 guineas on seven lots the best of which turned out to be the future Moviegoer, Caught Out and Alpensea, Bart bought just two yearlings. The first came relatively early when he paid 2200 guineas for what he considered was “the nicest looking yearling colt at the sales”. Offered on account of the Trelawney Stud, he was by Summertime from Nereid. A half-brother to the 1956 W.R.C. Wellington Cup winner Fox Myth, he would win a host of races including the 1963 Caulfield Cup. Later in the day, Bart fulfilled his commission from Wally Broderick when he paid 1550 guineas for a brown colt by the French stallion Le Filou out of the Red Mars mare, Cuddlesome, offered on account of V. F. Dawson of Te Awamutu. Bart was already taken by the stock of Le Filou, a son of Vatellor, and while his progeny were generally slow developers, his first few crops had already produced the likes of Count Filou and Fair Filou. Gelded and registered as The Dip, in 1962 the horse would win The Metropolitan at Randwick.
However, as distinguished as the racing careers of Sometime and The Dip would prove, J. B. Cummings would not be their registered trainer at the time of their richest victories. An incident at Morphettville racecourse on Saturday, 25 November 1961 intervened to delay rather than derail the coming Cummings’ juggernaut. The horse was Cilldara, the jockey was Noel Mifflin, and the race was the Marana Handicap. The ‘field-shy’ Cilldara had been beaten badly in a race at Gawler just a few days before, but, fitted with blinkers, a relatively new gear-change under S.A.J.C. rules, the horse improved lengths to win easily. Apart from the dramatic form reversal, what bothered the stewards most was the significant plunge in on-course betting that accompanied it. The stewards charged connections under two rules dealing with inconsistent running and improper practices. The upshot was a twelve-month disqualification by S.A.J.C. stewards for Cummings, Mifflin and the owners. Cummings came to view the disqualification as a conspiracy by the Adelaide racing establishment, notably Wyndham Hill Smith, the chairman of the Port Adelaide Racing Club, but it is difficult to argue with the facts. Whether it be stewards or punters, ‘follow the money’ isn’t a bad precept in racing and the stable money had been plastered on Cilldara.
It is sobering to reflect on the lottery of life when one considers the future careers of the trainer and jockey of Cilldara that afternoon at Morphettville. Whereas Cummings, after a twelve-month pause would soon resume his stellar trajectory, Noel Mifflin would be dead at thirty. Yes, the talented jockey would enjoy a springtime of sunshine on the back of Tobin Bronze in 1965 including a victory in the Victoria Derby, but he would collapse and die in a sauna bath in Adelaide on 24th April 1971, as he tried to sweat off 6lb for an afternoon race meeting. Cummings’ disqualification saw Sometime, a placegetter in both the Caulfield Guineas and Victoria Derby, taken out of the stable by the Lee brothers and transferred to another South Australian trainer in Les Patterson. Among other races, Patterson would train the horse to win the 1963 Caulfield Cup. However, the Cummings’ family enjoyed more luck with The Dip. Jim Cummings at the age of seventy-six came out of retirement to train Bart’s team, which ensured that owners such as Wally Broderick remained as clients. Old Jim showed that age hadn’t wearied him nor the years condemned when he trained The Dip to win The Metropolitan by four lengths at Randwick with W. A. Smith in the saddle!
William Hazlitt, the famous English essayist, observed that the art of life is to know how to enjoy a little and to endure much. Bart Cummings knew what he meant during those long months of 1962 as he went about painting and repairing his horseboxes, planting his trees, and weeding his garden. Disqualification, as opposed to suspension, meant that he couldn’t be involved in training or attending race meetings. Still, The Dip was waiting for Bart when he again picked up the reins in his Glenelg stable after his year-long sabbatical ended.
The Dip looms large in any historiography of J. B. Cummings for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this son of Le Filou kept the Cummings’ name in the headlines throughout 1963 after a disqualification that might have ruined lesser men. That year The Dip won both the A.J.C. Chipping Norton Stakes and the A.J.C. Miller’s Lager Handicap, but it was his sound second to Maidenhead in the A.J.C. Sydney Cup that impressed sportsmen. The only horse ever to win the A.J.C. Metropolitan and Sydney Cup in the same season was The Barb in 1868-69, and yet The Dip went within a length and a half of achieving it in 1963 when finishing second. Moreover, he had conceded 22lb in weight to the Cup winner Maidenhead on the very heavy ground. It was the first really top class two-mile handicap in which Bart had been able to demonstrate his genius with stayers. Before the decade was out the template that he used to get The Dip to the post on that windswept day at Randwick would have returned the Adelaide maestro no less than three Melbourne Cups.
The second reason that The Dip looms large in any Cummings’ historiography is that he led directly to Bart’s first Melbourne Cup winner. Returning to New Zealand for the National Yearling Sales in 1963, Bart was particularly interested in examining The Dip’s younger yearling sister, a small but stylish chestnut filly, whom her breeders, Molly and Fred Dawson, wished to retain as a broodmare and had already registered as Close Embrace. While the Dawsons weren’t prepared to sell, they were prepared to lease. Wally Broderick had no hesitation agreeing to the terms of the lease and the filly was thus destined to carry the same ‘white, royal blue spots and cap’ as The Dip. Once the filly was in Australia, Broderick changed her name to Light Fingers and as a three-year-old filly, she won a slew of fillies’ classics including both the V.R.C. and A.J.C. Oaks, before going on to win the Melbourne Cup in a head-bobbing finish with her stablemate Ziema the following season. As a five-year-old, Light Fingers also ran a courageous second in the 1966 Melbourne Cup to another stablemate in Galilee.
Light Fingers certainly helped Wally Broderick in his quest to become a V.R.C. committeeman and she encouraged him and Bart to buy more of the Le Filou stock. Other good ones that he later raced and Bart trained included The Sharper and Voleur. Le Filou in French translates as the thief or the swindler and it can be seen that Broderick was fastidious in his choice of names. It is difficult to recapture the impact that Bart Cummings had on Australian racing beginning in the mid-1960s but at the time, the stallion Le Filou was certainly his sire of choice. Le Filou would go on to sire no less than forty-nine individual stakes winners and those among them that bore the ‘J.B.C.’ imprimatur, apart from the aforementioned, would include Big Filou, Fulmen, Gay Poss, Glad Rags, Peculator, and Bart’s third Melbourne Cup winner, Red Handed.
Light Fingers was the first of three successive Melbourne Cup winners (1965/66/67) that Bart trained and she was followed by Galilee and Red Handed respectively. I should mention that in two of those Cups, Bart trained the runner-up as well, for Ziema, a son of Summertime, had finished a close second to Light Fingers while in his year Galilee became only the sixth horse to take out the Caulfield Cup-Melbourne Cup double. Both Ziema and Galilee were owned by Adelaide builder Max Bailey and his wife, Venice. I might add that the following autumn, Galilee stepped out to win the Sydney Cup with 9 st. 7lb by six lengths from Prince Grant. Referring to Galilee in his autobiography published in 2009, Cummings remarked: “I can’t play favourites, but in fifty-six years I’ve not trained a better horse.” By now Cummings was operating at the very highest level. He had perfected the art and arts of training racehorses. Nothing seemed beyond him – including comedy. When asked what it took to win a Melbourne Cup, Bart quipped: “A horse that can stay and an owner that can pay.” Sadly, for a man who modelled his life and vocation on his beloved father, old Jim Cummings never lived to see the start of his son’s sequence of successes at Flemington on the first Tuesday of November beginning with Light Fingers, Galilee and Red Handed. Old Jim died at the age of seventy-nine, eight months before Light Fingers’ Melbourne Cup.
It wasn’t just Melbourne Cups that Bart was winning by the mid-1960s, as so many of the other major races fell to the Adelaide horseman as well. Just five months after his first Melbourne Cup, he won his first Golden Slipper Stakes with Storm Queen, owned by his brother, Pat. The trickle was becoming a flood. Just consider the rich list of races that fell to the Cummings’ onslaught before the decade ended: Melbourne Cup (Light Fingers, Galilee, Red Handed); Caulfield Cup (Galilee and Big Philou); Sydney Cup (Galilee and Lowland); V.A.T.C. Invitation Stakes (Joking); M.V.R.C. Moonee Valley Stakes (L’Orage Boy and Storm Queen); South Australian Derby (Ziema, Peculator, Paradigm); Caulfield Guineas (Storm Queen); Toorak Handicap (Galilee); V.A.T.C. One Thousand Guineas (Anna Rose); V.R.C. Maribyrnong Plate (Native Statesman, L’Orage Boy); V.R.C. Oaks (Light Fingers); V.R.C. George Adams Handicap (Storm Queen); V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes (Storm Queen); V.R.C. Australian Cup (Arctic Coast); A.J.C. Oaks (Light Fingers, Lowland); A.J.C. Champagne Stakes (Storm Queen); S.A.J.C. Adelaide Cup (Fulmen); and the Q.T.C. Brisbane Cup (Fulmen). And that list only goes to December 1969.
Bart Cummings won his first South Australian trainers’ premiership in 1965-66, a feat he repeated the following season, but the constant travel to the east coast and the number of prominent Sydney and Melbourne owners beating a path to his door meant that re-location to the eastern seaboard became only a matter of time and the availability of suitable stables. Meanwhile, the Glenelg operation continued to expand until it encompassed some eighty boxes and almost one hundred acres of property. Bart’s early clients in Adelaide included the Lee family, Max Bailey, Vic Peters, Mal Wuttke, Hubert Harvey, Bill Wylie, Wilbur Joynt and even for a brief time, a young Rupert Murdoch who shared in the ownership of Arctic Coast, winner of the 1968 Australian Cup. It was shortly after that victory that Cummings bought the old Roy Shaw stables that fronted Fisher Parade, near Flemington racecourse, together with a block next door. Later that year he won the first of his five Victorian trainers’ premierships.
Cummings continued to expand his training quarters and some years later, in 1974, would also acquire the Leonard Crescent stables formerly occupied by Des Judd. The establishment of training stables in Sydney became a more drawn-out affair. During the late 1960s and early 1970’s his horses would generally occupy boxes in the Newmarket complex of the auctioneers, William Inglis and Son. However, the uncertainty of tenure there eventually saw Cummings accept an A.J.C. offer of twenty-five boxes at Warwick Farm during February 1975, until additional High St stabling was completed by the A.J.C. on Randwick racecourse in June 1975. It was then that Bart moved into the twenty-box High-street complex, which in August, he christened as Leilani Lodge. Some journalists expressed surprise that the Adelaide horseman hadn’t opted for the name ‘Light Fingers Lodge’. However, for a man who already had a reputation for being close with money, the connotations of such a name might well have challenged fastidious clients upon receipt of their monthly training invoice.
Virtually from the time of Light Fingers’ Melbourne Cup, members of the eastern racing establishment jostled with each other to place a horse in his stables. Finding owners that could pay was no longer an issue. After all, nothing succeeds like success. While Bart generally retained his original clients such as Wally Broderick, Max and Venice Bailey, and Vic Peters, other prominent racing men came on board the Bart express including Tom Trevaskis (Century), Charles and George Gawith (Alrello, Big Philou), Ian Rice, Andrew Peacock (Leilani), John Kelly (Invade), Ken Cox (Tontonan), Sir Maurice Nathan, Lloyd Foyster, Ron Dabscheck, Doug Reid (Maybel Mahal), J. B. Hardie (Sun Sally), R. J. Lipman (Cap d’Antibes), Cliff Vincent (Jewel Flight), Ralph Gard (Asgard), David Hains, Hugh Gage, and of course, Dato Chin Nam. However, Bart was too much the professional to allow the beau monde to ever become a distraction from the compelling focus of his work, save for the extent that they might open their wallets in the late summer and early autumn at the various Australasian yearling sales.
Just how much the J. B. Cummings’ stable prospered in the new decade of the 1970s as it extended its reach to the eastern seaboard is revealed by its big-race successes up to the time of its first A.J.C. Derby. ‘Tis true that there was a six-year drought before Bart won his fourth Melbourne Cup with Think Big, but when he did so he achieved his third quinella in the race when the gallant mare Leilani finished second with 55.5 kg. In that 1974-75 racing season, Leilani was the best horse racing in Australia. A lightly-framed daughter of Oncidium, Bart once observed: “She has the exquisite figure of a French ballerina.” She did, too, with all her fragile strength and lithe grace and balance. When clashing with the males of her species, she danced her own version of the nutcracker suite in a spring season of superb performances at Flemington and Caulfield that included the Turnbull Stakes, Toorak Handicap, Caulfield Cup and L.K.S. Mackinnon Stakes, before finishing a brave second to her stablemate on that first Tuesday in November. And then just four days after the Cup, Leilani again stepped on to the stage to claim the Queen’s Cup. Was it any wonder that Bart later christened his Randwick stables Leilani Lodge and his 53-foot motor cruiser MV Leilani? Bart Cummings’ crown of the ‘Cups King’ was further burnished the following year when Think Big became the first horse to emulate Archer’s achievements of successive Melbourne Cups in 1861-62 when he won Australia’s richest handicap again and beating yet another stablemate, Holiday Wagon, into second placing.
In winning his fifth Melbourne Cup and fourth quinella in the race, Cummings was named as the 1975 ABC Sportsman of the Year in early January the following year. It proved a somewhat controversial choice with Australia’s national broadcaster being inundated with critical correspondence. Much of it alluded to the fact that despite developing many champion swimmers and tennis players, no Australian swimming or tennis coach had ever been so honoured, so why was a portly Bart accorded this sporting award. In truth, the ABC hadn’t chosen Bart – that had been done on a national scale by sporting editors of metropolitan dailies and ABC sporting supervisors. However, the ABC had put the name of Cummings on the long list of candidates from whom the judges could choose. In the wake of the criticism, an ABC spokesman observed: “The interesting point is that Cummings won by an extremely wide margin.”
A controversial choice he may have been but just look at this list of Bart’s big-race triumphs from 1970 up until A.J.C. Derby Day 1977 and marvel: V.R.C. Ascot Vale Stakes (Century, Taj Rossi); V.A.T.C. Marlboro Cup (Cap D’Antibes); M.V.R.C. Moonee Valley Stakes (Century, Taj Rossi); A.J.C. Epsom Handicap (La Neige); S.A.J.C. Derby (Dayana, Prince of All, Vacuum, Stormy Rex); V.A.T.C. Caulfield Guineas (Kenmark); V.A.T.C. Toorak Handicap (Leilani); V.A.T.C. Caulfield Cup (Leilani); W.S. Cox Plate (Taj Rossi); V.R.C. Derby (Dayana, Taj Rossi, Stormy Rex); V.R.C. Craven ‘A’ Stakes (Century, Maybe Mahal); V.R.C. Melbourne Cup (Think Big twice); V.R.C. Oaks (Sandarae, Leica Show); V.R.C. George Adams Handicap (Taj Rossi, Skyjack, Maybe Mahal); W.A.T.C. Derby (Dayana, Asgard, Bottled Sunshine); W.A.T.C. Australian Derby (Dayana, Leica Lover, Lloyd’s Gold); W.A.T.C. Perth Cup (Dayana); V.A.T.C. Blue Diamond Stakes (Lord Dudley); V.A.T.C. Oakleigh Plate (Alrello, Tontonan); V.A.T.C. Futurity Stakes (Silver Spade, Martindale); V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes (Century, Skyjack, Lord Dudley, Bold Zest); V.R.C. Newmarket Handicap (Crown, Century, Cap D’Antibes, Maybe Mahal); V.R.C. Australian Cup (Gladman, Leilani, Lord Dudley, Ngawyni); S.T.C. Golden Slipper (Tontonan, Vivarchi); A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes (Tontonan); A.J.C. Doncaster Handicap (Tontonan, Just Ideal); A.J.C. Australasian Champion Stakes (Asgard); A.J.C. Oaks (Gay Poss, Leilani); A.J.C. Champagne Stakes (Vivarchi); S.A.J.C. Marlboro Plate (Wise Virgin, Kenmark, Romantic Dream); S.A.J.C. Adelaide Cup (Tavel, Laelia); Q.T.C. Derby (Bottled Sunshine); Q.T.C. Brisbane Cup (Herminia); and the B.A.T.C. Doomben Ten Thousand (Maybe Mahal).
Perhaps the only major races to elude him during that 1970-77 epoch were the V.A.T.C. One Thousand Guineas and the A.J.C. Metropolitan Stakes and Sydney Cup. If there was a common denominator in Cummings’ training syllabus for sprinters and stayers, it was that he had no wish to see them breaking records on the tracks. Nor did he send his horses out to work too hard, too often. There are three dimensions to the above list to which I draw your notice. Firstly, that it covers stayers and sprinters, two-year-olds and older horses, handicaps and weight-for-age races. While Bart was revered as a trainer of stayers and first won national fame in that capacity, by the 1970s he was doing it all. Secondly, the sheer quality of the bloodstock involved. Wealthier clients betokened more expensive bloodstock and while in his early years, Cummings could attend yearling sales, his budget was circumscribed in terms of both numbers and price. Few such restrictions applied now. And thirdly, how relatively unsuccessful he had been during this period when it came to the rich handicaps at Randwick.
This is the lacuna in the above list. Although he had won the Sydney Cup twice in the 1960s, he hadn’t won it since Lowland in 1969. And while he had won the Doncaster Handicap twice, he didn’t land his first major at an A.J.C. Spring Meeting until La Neige (100/1) won the 1976 A.J.C. Epsom Handicap. Admittedly, he had been unlucky. As we have seen, Cummings had finished second twice in the A.J.C. Derby and no less than five times in the A.J.C. Epsom Handicap (Galilee, Joking, Alrello, Martindale and Cap D’Antibes). In the year 1977, all that began to change as the A.J.C., anxious to promote some serious competition with the leading trainer T. J. Smith, granted Cummings more on-course stabling, despite the jealous opposition of some elements in the N.S.W. Trainers’ Association. Between April and August of that year, the number of horses Cummings had in work at Randwick almost doubled.
In January 1976 Bart again made his annual visit to the National Thoroughbred Yearling Sales at Trentham, that year celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. Some 366 horses changed hands during the two-day sale for an aggregate sum in Australian dollars of $A3,361,583. Whereas Cummings splurged more than $NZ339,000 on some seventeen selections, his great rival Tommy Smith was somewhat more restrained in outlaying $NZ225,500 in his purchase of fifteen yearlings. Cummings bought the progeny of several different stallions including Oncidium, Sobig, Reindeer, Decies, Wandering Eyes, Imperialist, Mellay and Mr Swallow, although a common element to many of his yearling purchases was that they were from daughters of Le Filou. Whereas Cummings’ most expensive purchase was $NZ44,000 for the bay colt by Imperialist out of Annie Oakley, who raced as the undistinguished Royal Bank, Smith’s most expensive purchase at $NZ35,000 was for the brown filly by Sobig from Paris Flight that raced with a similar lack of distinction as Misty.
It is quite touching, at times, to witness the faith that many wealthy clients place in the judgement of their trainers at yearling sales. The ability to train a horse doesn’t necessarily imply any matching ability to spot potential value in yearlings. It is, of course, a gloriously expensive lottery, something of which trainers (but not always owners) are only too aware. Neither Smith nor Cummings ever chanced much of their own money on top-priced yearlings over the years, but they could be quite extravagant with the money of clients. Although Smith was eleven years senior to Cummings, both men in their own ways had been deeply affected by the Depression and the dark years of World War II. Cummings’ formative years coincided with the worst years of the Depression and perhaps he never fully mentally recovered from the habits of economy inculcated by his mother. Apron strings and purse strings can be closely entwined and he was certainly not alone on the Australian Turf in sometimes being parsimonious out of context.
Perhaps it was just as well in January 1976, for not one of the seventeen yearlings that Cummings purchased at those National Yearling Sales ever won a principal race on the Australasian Turf; nor did any of the fillies amongst them drop a listed or group race winner. However, Bart’s purchases through the sales ring weren’t the only New Zealand bluebloods with which he returned across the Tasman. The man’s peerless reputation as a trainer and conditioner of stayers prompted some of New Zealand’s leading bloodstock breeders such as Ian McRae to make available to him some of their best-bred fillies, retained for breeding, for lease. Cummings would arrange the racing leases with favoured stable clients, with the fillies being returned to their various studs for breeding purposes upon each lease’s termination. Among the equine aristocrats acquired in such a manner during that trip were sisters to Wood Court Inn, Leilani, Sanderae and Gold Pulse. The South Australian horseman would go on to win the A.J.C., Victoria, South Australian and Western Australian Derbies in 1977 but not one of them would come with any of his New Zealand acquisitions.
Curiously enough, the horse that was to give Bart Cummings his first A.J.C. Derby was offered at public auction by his breeder Mr F. H. Fairweather at Waikato just the week before the New Zealand National Yearling Sales and failed to make his reserve when only a derisory $700 was bid. Perhaps it wasn’t altogether a surprise that he was spurned by buyers. The bay colt in question was an early November foal and lacked the size and scope of some of his contemporaries in the sales ring that day. Moreover, he was a son of the undistinguished English stallion, Belmura, and thus a grandson of Mossborough, while Fairaleana, the colt’s dam, a St Puckle mare, was disappointing on the racecourse although she did win over five furlongs in New Zealand as a two-year-old. Perhaps the one redeeming feature of the yearling’s pedigree was that he carried some rich New Zealand staying blood through his dam, being of the same family as that good stayer, Llanisfair. It was only after the Waikato sales that a group of friends, led by David Morison, David Sadlier and Cec Speed, clubbed together to buy the colt for a reported $5,000. Registered as Belmura Lad, he began his racing life in the Warwick Farm stables of Clarrie Conners.
Belmura Lad made his racecourse debut on his home track in the first week of November 1976. The race was the A.J.C. Hoxton Park Handicap for two-year-old colts and geldings. Ridden by Tony Marney, Belmura Lad was unwanted in the betting market and unsighted in the race. It was the colt’s only start for Clarrie Conners. Sent to the spelling paddock immediately after the race, it was during Belmura Lad’s sabbatical that Conners incurred a six-month disqualification from A.J.C. stewards. It followed upon an inquiry into the identity of a horse that the trainer had started in a Warwick Farm barrier trial. With Conners unable to train Belmura Lad and not wishing the horse to be absent from the racecourse for the period of Conner’s disqualification, the four principals that raced Belmura Lad then approached Cummings to effect a stable transfer. When Belmura Lad resumed racing at the end of April, ‘J. B. Cummings, Randwick’, was the listed trainer in the racebook.
Conners, as we shall see, in the fullness of time would flourish as one of Sydney’s leading trainers but back in 1976-77, he was still struggling to establish himself. He wouldn’t train his first group-one winner until Victory Prince annexed the 1984 A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes. For Conners, Belmura Lad was the one that got away. Now, as a rule, $700 weanlings and rejected yearlings were not usually the stuff of the Cups’ King and Leilani Lodge. However, two things about the horse attracted Bart. Firstly, having watched Belmura Lad gallop on the track he liked him as an individual. Secondly, he perceived real stamina in the horse’s pedigree and not just on the distaff side, as Belmura, his sire, had won up to two miles in England. Moreover, having recently secured Randwick stabling with the promise of more to come, Bart had a spare horsebox or two.
As we have observed through the course of this chronicle, almost every season there comes a precocious two-year-old hailed by racing journalists and the sporting commentariat alike as the fastest juvenile of the century! Occasionally such fulsome praise does have some foundation in fact as in the case of, say, 1957 with Todman and 1969 with Vain. 1977 was to be another year when the stars aligned. The horse in question was a handsome chestnut colt with a splayfoot, named Luskin Star. He was from the fourth crop of the brilliant Star Kingdom horse, Kaoru Star, who stood at Lionel Israel’s historic Segenhoe Stud at Scone, in the heart of the Hunter Valley. Promising, the dam of Luskin Star, was an Idomeneo filly purchased in 1970 by the trainer, Les Bridge, as a yearling in New Zealand for $1800. Unable to find a client for her, Les Bridge raced Promising himself, winning a couple of provincial races before selling her as a broodmare for $3,000. Luskin Star was her first foal.
An early September foal, Luskin Star was bred by Jim O’Neill at his Luskintyre Stud in the Hunter Valley and was offered for sale in the 1976 Newmarket Easter draft. Prospective buyers weren’t prepared to look past the colt’s turned out off-foreleg and with the hammer not falling, the little fellow was led out of the Inglis sale ring with bidding stuck at $6,500 and not having reached the reserve. One man present at Newmarket that day who witnessed the aborted sale of the colt was the Broadmeadow trainer, Max Lees. A former jockey, Lees had been compelled to hang up his saddle after a nasty fall from a horse called Romanoff at Canterbury in March 1971. Granted a jockey’s licence on the first day of the 1971-72 racing season, Lees trained a Randwick winner the very next day when he saddled up Cardiff Prince to win the Corinthian Handicap. However, the next few years had proven rather lean with only occasional city winners such as Captain Hawa, Colisee Rose, Just A Gamble and Sunny Cadet. Such modest success hadn’t exactly seen a world of wealthy owners anxiously seeking his services.
Accordingly, as much as Max Lees liked the look of the Kaoru Star yearling, he couldn’t afford him himself and he had no willing client waiting to stump up the cash. Lees was familiar with the horse long before he had been slated in the Newmarket draft. The Luskintyre Stud was only some twenty miles from Lees’ Broadmeadow stables and on a visit to the property months before, he had seen the youngster running with other yearlings in a paddock. However, after the colt was passed-in at Newmarket, Lees had forgotten all about him. That was until a few weeks later when John Balcomb approached Lees and asked him to negotiate on his behalf for one of the yearlings that had failed to sell. Lees immediately recalled the Kaoru Star colt. He went back to Luskintyre for another look. The chestnut yearling by then had been broken-in and seemed so much more mature and athletic than his contemporaries. Lees sealed the deal with $8,000. Registered as Luskin Star in obeisance to his place of birth, when it came to the colt’s first serious gallop, Lees couldn’t believe his stopwatch!
Luskin Star’s juvenile season was consumed in a blur of speed. At the official Canterbury two-year-old trials, this seventeen-hands son of Kaoru Star won the sixteenth heat in the second-fastest time of the day, bettered only by Star System, a colt owned by Jack and Bob Ingham and trained by Pat Quinn. The Breeders’ Plate that year was broken into two divisions, given the number of acceptances. And it came as no surprise when Star System won the first division of the race impressively at the prohibitive odds of 2/5. However, it was the second division of the Breeders’ Plate that rocked the grandstands. Luskin Star (5/4) streeted his ten opponents to win by twelve lengths in the hands of John Wade, who was to partner the colt throughout his first season, in a race-record time of 58.8 seconds for the 1000 metres. Three weeks later and despite missing the start and racing three wide, the colt equalled the race record of 52.6 seconds when winning the Silver Slipper Stakes (900m) at Rosehill by four-and-a-half lengths on a slow track. Suddenly there was excitement in the air. After only two race starts Luskin Star was already being compared to Todman as the handsome chestnut went to the spelling paddocks to await the autumn.
Luskin Star’s only defeat in nine appearances that season came when he resumed in the N.J.C. Northern Slipper Stakes on a heavy track at his home course of Broadmeadow. Mistress Anne, a Vain filly trained by D. E. Wilson at Coffs Harbour and a mudlark to boot, beat him by three-quarters of a length after Wade relinquished his whip before the race. Thereafter, it was an unbeaten sequence of wins in the S.T.C. Todman Slipper Trial; the Golden Slipper by seven lengths in a race record time of 1 minute 10 seconds; the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes and Champagne Stakes; and the Q.T.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes and Marlboro Stakes. It rounded out a remarkable season for the popular Newcastle trainer, Max Lees and his stable jockey, John Wade. For not only had they enjoyed triumphs with Luskin Star but another horse in the stables, Top Wing, had won five races on the trot during the same season, culminating with the 1976 A.J.C. Villiers Stakes. In so doing, Top Wing had become the first three-year-old since the Bert Bellingham-trained Mercury in 1951 to annex the prestigious Randwick mile. Moreover, he had only cost Max Lees $2300 as a yearling. Clearly, the respective careers of the battling trainer and jockey from the coalfields were beginning to gather momentum.
There was a charisma about Luskin Star that few horses possess. Exhilarating speed is an intoxicating potion at any time, but when it is exhibited by a particularly handsome chestnut colt and one both trained and ridden by relative battlers from the provincial circuit, the admixture is heady indeed. The public flocked to the racecourse to see the champion and by the end of his two-year-old season, he had earned $196,100 in prize money, displacing Vivarchi ($141,520) as the highest juvenile stakes winner in Australia. Luskin Star became only the second horse to win Sydney’s two-year-old triple crown following Baguette’s example seven years earlier. However, when Baguette achieved the honour, the third race in that crown, the A.J.C. Champagne Stakes, coming after the Golden Slipper and the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes, was run over six furlongs. The club altered the distance in 1972 to a mile and then the following year, with metrication, it became 1600 metres. Thus Luskin Star was the first two-year-old to claim the Triple Crown and in so doing extend his speed to 1600 metres. That the son of Kaoru Star could cover the mile was again demonstrated at his final start of the season when he won the Q.T.C. Marlboro Stakes and smashed the Eagle Farm record for the distance into the bargain. Despite his seemingly purely sprinting pedigree, it looked plausible that the W.S. Cox Plate and perhaps 2400 metres might not be beyond him in the spring.
Eleven days after Luskin Star had completed his Triple Crown triumph in the Champagne Stakes, Bart Cummings produced one of his latest recruits in a modest 1200-metre maiden handicap at a midweek Canterbury meeting. Again Belmura Lad failed to fire despite being sent to the post as the second favourite. Nonetheless, the Adelaide horseman was quietly impressed with this unfashionably-bred son of Belmura and genuinely believed the bay colt would be a handy accretion to his Randwick stable which was enjoying its best season yet and offering the first real threat to Tommy Smith’s crown in years. At the time, Cummings had fifty horses in training at headquarters with plans for expansion, together with the thirty-five in work in Melbourne and forty in Adelaide. Belmura Lad had joined a stable that sheltered such high-class gallopers as Ngawyni, Romantic Dream, Vivarchi, Ming Dynasty, Leica Lover and Just Ideal.
Less than three weeks later, in a field of sixteen and under slate-grey skies on a heavy track at Warwick Farm, Belmura Lad returned his first pay-cheque when running second in a 1400-metres handicap and doing his best work at the finish. The horse then finished off his first season on the Turf with a hat-trick of wins at Randwick (twice) and Rosehill with Neville Voigt in the saddle. Through the sequence, the horse stepped up in distance from 1400 metres to 1600 metres and thence on to 1850 metres. Cummings’ Sydney foreman, Ron Dawson, was responsible for supervising Belmura Lad for most of June when this improved form developed, as Bart was on his annual European jaunt, taking in The Derby at Epsom as well as an Italian pilgrimage to the Eternal City.
The English Derby held more than a passing interest for Cummings that year because he part-owned one of the runners, Night Before, trained by Peter Walwyn. Alas, the colt reportedly burst a blood vessel in his lungs shortly after the start and was pulled up after 400 metres by jockey Pat Eddery in the race won by The Minstrel. Cummings only flew in from Singapore at 8 a.m. on the morning of Belmura Lad’s last winning appearance as a two-year-old. Again the son of Belmura showed his penchant for soft ground by winning easily. Cummings immediately announced that the horse would be eased in his work for a month before returning to be set for the spring classics. When pressed by the sporting journalists present, Cummings conceded that Belmura Lad might well be his best A.J.C. Derby prospect although at the time he still harboured hopes about a couple of others in Leilani Lodge.
Cummings’ best two-year-old that season had been a small but stylish chestnut colt by the ill-fated Newhaven Park stallion, Bold Minstrel. Registered as Bold Zest, he carried the green and gold diagonal striped silks of his trainer although he raced in the name of Bart’s good friend from Adelaide, Malcolm Wuttke. Bold Zest had won the V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes by a neck from King of the Stars before he was brought up to Sydney to match strides with Luskin Star in Sydney’s rich triple crown of two-year-old races. While the Golden Slipper proved a much too nippy affair, Bold Zest did manage to finish second in the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes and third in the A.J.C. Champagne Stakes at Randwick behind the colt from the coalfields. During the winter, Cummings had high hopes that Bold Zest might be able to extend his speed to the classic distance.
The trainer’s only other Derby prospects as the new season opened seemed to be Storm Cidium, a son of his initial Golden Slipper winner, Storm Queen; Winbig, a son of Sobig and a half-brother to Shaitan raced by C. H. Kellion; and Ruzzeel, a brother to Ashbah and Rafique that carried their same colours and cost Vic Peters $35,000 at the N.Z. National Yearling Sales. Into the new racing season, Cummings pursued the conventional first-up appearance for Derby prospects in the Hobartville Stakes with both Belmura Lad and Bold Zest. Whereas the underdone Bold Zest (20/1) surprised many by finishing second, beaten two lengths behind the Merv Richie-trained Lord Silver Man from New Zealand, Belmura Lad pleased Bart by just missing a place after being blocked for a run in the straight. Shortly afterwards Bold Zest suffered a setback in training which derailed any chance of his starting in the A.J.C. Derby and Bart sent him to Melbourne instead for the later three-year-old classics down there. However, the colt never did recapture his two-year-old form. Meanwhile, Belmura Lad was going from strength to strength. Although the tight Canterbury circuit did not suit his bold galloping style, Belmura Lad stepped out a fortnight later on a raw day to win the S.T.C. Canterbury Guineas in race record time despite his jockey, Neville Voigt, almost being dislodged from the saddle after copping a clod of mud in the face on the home turn. It was a performance by both horse and jockey that resonated with class but not everybody recognised it. Belmura Lad’s final appearance before the Derby came when he finished a slightly disappointing fifth in the Rosehill Guineas behind the impressive Victorian interloper, Lefroy, although Belmura Lad was forced to track wide on the home turn.
Sixteen horses faced the starter for the 1977 A.J.C. Blue Riband and three of them were trained by Bart Cummings viz. Belmura Lad, Ruzzeel and Winbig. While Belmura Lad reigned as the 9/2 second favourite, the other pair were relative outsiders. The race favourite and the horse that Cummings most feared was the Rosehill Guineas winner, Lefroy. An imposing chestnut colt bred in New Zealand by the American millionaire Nelson Bunker Hunt, he was by Decies out of a French mare, Beaute De L’Or, and was trained by Geoff Murphy at Caulfield. Owned by a syndicate of four friends who paid only $7,000 for him as a yearling in New Zealand, Lefroy took his name from a mining town in Tasmania, the birthplace of the syndicate’s principal owner, Ian Kitto.
A September foal, Lefroy’s racecourse debut had come at Caulfield in November in the Gwyn Nursery over 1000 metres, in which he had run a respectable third. In twelve starts as a juvenile he had won twice at Sandown and once at Flemington over distances ranging from 1200 to 1400 metres. Murphy had thought highly enough of Lefroy to campaign him in Brisbane during the winter although a stone bruise there impaired his program. Nonetheless, the horse had been placed in each of his three Brisbane races, including finishing second in a quality handicap with 59.5 kg. Lefroy had resumed racing in the new season with yet another minor placing, at Moonee Valley, before easily winning the Warriston Handicap (1800m) at his home course. Brought across to Sydney, Lefroy had annexed the S.T.C. Rosehill Guineas after a faultless ride by the leading New Zealand jockey, Brian Andrews, who had supplanted Alan Travena as the No.1 rider for the G.T. Murphy stable.
Tulloch Lodge accepted with four runners in the A.J.C. Derby viz. Flirting Prince, Marceau, Canadian Bay and Sangeo. Flirting Prince was the only August foal in the race, the most fancied of the team, and the preferred mount of the stable jockey Kevin Langby. A son of the ill-fated Bold Minstrel who stood just one season at John Kelly’s Newhaven Park Stud, Flirting Prince had cost $14,000 as a yearling at Newmarket. He had possessed enough speed to win both the A.J.C. Canonbury Stakes and the V.R.C. Byron Moore Stakes at two and enough stamina to win the Tattersall’s Chelmsford Stakes at three. At his most recent start, Flirting Prince had finished a gallant fourth in the Rosehill Guineas. While there were justifiable doubts about Bold Minstrel’s stamina, Flirtatious, the dam of Flirting Prince had won the 1970 S.T.C. Winter Cup over a mile-and-a-half.
Marceau, Tommy Smith’s second string, out of the good-producing mare, Humour, was a full brother to Zasu, a filly that Smith had trained for Thomas Hoban and friends to win the A.J.C. Champagne Stakes and Q.T.C. Oaks amongst other good races. A $25,000 yearling at the Newmarket sales, Marceau, who raced in similar ownership to Zasu, took his name from the French master of mime, Marcel Marceau. The Frenchman, sans words, possessed a remarkable talent for dramatic gesture and expression in the visual performing arts, a talent that his equine namesake would demonstrate before large audiences on racecourses on a number of occasions. The colt had been precocious enough to be placed in the Breeders’ Plate over 1000 metres and strong enough to win the Fernhill Handicap over 1600 metres at Randwick before ending his first season as runner-up to Luskin Star in the A.J.C. Champagne Stakes – albeit, six lengths in arrears. Placed in the Guineas at Canterbury but unplaced in the Rosehill equivalent behind Lefroy, many racegoers doubted he had the requisite stamina for the Derby trip.
Canadian Bay was yet another son of Bold Minstrel and his maternal granddam a full sister to Wenona Girl. Owned in partnership by Tommy Smith and Lloyd Williams, Canadian Bay had cost $17,000 at the Inglis Newmarket sales. The bay gelding was the recent winner of the A.J.C. Club Handicap over 1400 metres at Randwick. T. J. Smith’s fourth representative in the race – the despised outsider Sangeo – was the only one of his expensive New Zealand yearling purchases to make it into the field. An interesting runner in the race was the South Australian gelding, Pelican Point, bred and raced by the Narrung Stud and trained by L. J. Irwin. A son of the English stallion Mariner and not offered for sale as a yearling, he was the recent winner of the S.A.J.C. Hill Smith Stakes and the Port Adelaide Guineas.
The most expensive horse in the classic was Jazidium, attempting to give trainer Terry Millard his second A.J.C. Derby in three years following his success with Battle Sign in 1975. A son of Oncidium out of the 1967 New Zealand Derby winner Jazz, this colt was the highest-priced yearling at the 1976 New Zealand National Yearling Sales when he sold for $NZ62,250 ($A75,000) to Max Fremder. Jazidium had only broken through for his first win the previous Saturday at Rosehill in the Yaralla Handicap, a 2000-metres race for three-year-olds. Another runner that attracted more than a modicum of interest was the grey Bensynd, a son of Gunsynd that had cost Clarrie Conners $10,000 as a yearling. Placed in the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes and a fair fourth in the A.J.C. Champagne Stakes, Bensynd was on the fourth line of Derby betting.
On Derby Eve, Cummings conceded the Geoff Murphy-trained Lefroy as Belmura Lad’s main danger. The two men shared a somewhat common history in relation to the A.J.C. Derby. Neither had won the race and yet both had finished runner-up twice, Cummings with Leica Lover and Rafique, and Murphy with Blue Era and Longfella. Moreover, Murphy was hoping that his Rosehill Guineas-winning hoodoo was about to end too, having twice before won that semi-classic only to see his winners, Fashion Beau and Longfella, fall short at Randwick. Neville Voigt, who had established himself as Belmura Lad’s regular jockey enjoyed one significant advantage over Brian Andrews on Lefroy. Whereas Belmura Lad had drawn barrier four, Lefroy was the widest drawn runner in the race in barrier sixteen.
On a fine day and a fast track, Voigt rode the perfect race. Whereas Andrews pressured Lefroy early to overcome his bad gate, Voigt chose to ride Belmura Lad back in the field despite the horse beginning quickly from his inside draw. Bart’s cardinal stricture to his jockeys, particularly on stayers, was to get their mounts balanced, relaxed and comfortable – a bit like the man himself – before making demands. It was an instruction that to some at times seemed perversely counterintuitive, particularly when afforded a favourable barrier draw. Still, the man’s record spoke for itself. While Lefroy was running fourth or fifth for most of the race, Belmura Lad was among the last five horses until the home turn. The first 1200 metres went by in a leisurely 1 minute 20.3 seconds with Marceau, Bensynd and Flying Flag the leading trio. Once into the straight, however, Belmura Lad came with a powerful run and while challenged by Pelican Point and Marceau topping the rise, surged away to win by a length from the South Australian colt, with Marceau a mere head further back in the minor placing. The relatively slow pace didn’t suit Lefroy, who seemed to have spent his force and only plodded in the straight to finish seventh behind a winning time of 2 minutes and 33 seconds.
Belmura Lad was jockey Neville Voigt’s second winning mount in the A.J.C. Derby following upon his success on Silver Sharpe seven years earlier. He would not win the race again but always considered himself fortunate to secure the mount on the son of Belmura. Roy Higgins had been Bart’s jockey of choice since the early spring of 1964 and the start of his association with Light Fingers. Accordingly, on Bart’s temporary visits to the Harbour City before establishing a permanent base here, Higgins generally flew in for the Cummings’ mounts. However, upon setting up his Randwick stable Cummings announced that John Duggan, the former champion apprentice, would be his first jockey in Sydney while Roy Higgins would retain a similar status in Melbourne. How, then, was Duggan relegated to Ruzzeel, Cummings’ 20/1 second string in the Derby, while Voigt enjoyed the plum ride on the second favourite?
The answer lies in the fluctuating fortunes of Derby prospects early in a season. At the beginning of August Duggan believed, as did Bart, that Bold Zest was probably the stable’s best classic prospect. Duggan did ride Belmura Lad in his first race for Cummings but was singularly unimpressed with the horse’s unplaced effort. At Belmura Lad’s second run for the stable, Duggan preferred the mount on Azandra, a New Zealand bred gelding in the same race from the Arthur Sowden stable at Rosehill that was also being set for the Derby. Voigt thus got the ride on Belmura Lad by default and, as we have seen, after finishing second on that occasion, proceeded to win a hat-trick of races on the bay through the winter. Clearly, he understood the horse and both Cummings and the syndicate of owners were happy to keep Voigt in the saddle on that first day of October.
Anyway, back to Derby Day. It was a sad commentary on the state of racing, and a bitter disappointment to A.J.C. officials that, despite kind weather, only 27,804 people attended the first day of the A.J.C. Spring Meeting. So few bothering to make the pilgrimage to Royal Randwick to sit down to a smorgasbord of high-class racing? For it was a day, let us remember, that not only served up the Derby, but also the $100,000 Epsom Handicap in which the imported grey horse, Raffindale led throughout to post a new Australian record for 1600 metres, not to mention the fruits of Denise’s Joy’s victory over Hyperno and Battle Heights in the Craven Plate. Still, it was reflective of the four-day Spring Carnival as a whole for the total attendance overall was a mere 77,873 people. Time was when those numbers would have been at Randwick on the first day alone and not all that many years before. The times they were a’changin’!
To quote Bart himself, Belmura Lad would “mature into one of the country’s best and most versatile gallopers in the next few years.” However, before he did so, the balance of the horse’s three-year-old career would prove to be distinctly underwhelming. Taken to Melbourne immediately after the A.J.C. Derby, Belmura Lad failed in the $150,000 W. S. Cox Plate at his next start. A Derby winner he might have been, but the three-year-old that the Moonee Valley crowd came to see that day was Luskin Star. Although beaten in a bobbing finish upon resuming by Romantic Dream in the S.T.C. Canterbury Stakes, Luskin Star had then brilliantly won both the N.J.C. Cameron Handicap at his home course and the rich Caulfield Guineas. The W.S. Cox Plate was the colt’s moment of truth against the older horses over a middle distance. Sent to the post as the 7/4 favourite, he failed. The pressure was on from the start and while Luskin Star had no trouble taking the lead from his wide barrier, he changed strides several times on the tight circuit. Luskin Star finished ninth while Belmura Lad passed the post two places ahead of him but still well beaten behind the winner, Family Of Man.
The performance of Luskin Star might have scuppered any thoughts of a Victoria Derby start the following Saturday, but Belmura Lad took his place in the Flemington blue riband. However, the son of Belmura suffered the indignity of being spurned by Bart’s stable jockey, Roy Higgins, in favour of the stablemate Stormy Rex. Bold Zest, who never did recapture his two-year-old form, was the one raceday scratching from the Victoria Derby after failing ignominiously as the favourite in the Geelong Derby Trial just a few days before. That, in opting to ride Stormy Rex, Higgins claimed his fourth Derby at Flemington, perhaps owed more to the jockey’s artistry than the horse himself. In a thrilling three-way finish to the race reminiscent of the year before, Higgins drove Stormy Rex along the fence to beat Jury by a short half-head, with Lefroy a short head away third. It was classic Higgins with Melbourne’s leading jockey wielding the whip in his famous windmill style. Belmura Lad, in the hands of Harry White, could only finish eleventh.
Stormy Rex, like Belmura Lad, emphasised the vagaries of bloodstock breeding. Although the big, powerful brown gelding had previously won the South Australian Derby, he really possessed a sprinter’s pedigree. However, it was a pedigree that Bart Cummings understood only too well. Back in the mid-1950s, Jim Cummings together with Bart’s brother, Pat, had bought a mare named Storm Gleam (Sun Storm-Crown Appeal). Bart had also bought her full brother at the 1957 Adelaide Yearling Sales, and, registered as Stormy Passage, as we have seen, he was responsible for giving the young Bart his first Group One winner when he took out the 1958 South Australian Derby. No single broodmare was more responsible for establishing Bart Cummings as a leading trainer than Storm Gleam. She struck up a remarkable series of trysts with the imported Irish stallion Coronation Boy who stood at Claude Haigh’s venerable Balcrest Stud, Balhannah, in the Adelaide Hills.
In the period of just six years and successive matings to Coronation Boy, Storm Gleam produced four individual stakes winners of no less than seventeen stakes races and all of them were trained by Bart Cummings. The first to come along was the brilliant filly Anna Rose, who realised the top price of 3400 guineas when sold by Pat Cummings at the 1962 Adelaide Yearling Sales. Bought by J. F. Reid, a grazier on the Eyre Peninsula, who was making his first foray into racing, she won him the V.R.C. Bloodhorse Breeders’ Plate and the V.A.T.C. One Thousand Guineas in 1963. Reid bought her year-younger brother, too, and racing as L’Orage Boy he won both the 1963 V.A.T.C. Debutant Stakes and the V.R.C. Maribyrnong Plate. The best of the lot came along in 1963 in the shape of Storm Queen, winner of ten principal races in the colours of Pat Cummings, including the 1966 S.T.C. Golden Slipper Stakes. Two years after Storm Queen came Storm Ruler, winner of the 1968 V.R.C. Gibson Carmichael Stakes and the sire of Stormy Rex. Stormy Rex himself had been bred by Kerrie Nelligan, whose property was located on the York Peninsula in South Australia. When the horse failed to reach his $5,000 reserve as a yearling, Nelligan leased him to Len Slade and Maurie Wake, two clients of the Cummings’ stable in South Australia.
What a remarkable run of success Bart enjoyed that spring and early summer! Not only did Stormy Rex almost give the Glenelg-born horseman a clean sweep of all the Derbies, but he walked off with his fourth Caulfield Cup and sixth Melbourne Cup with Ming Dynasty and Gold And Black respectively. When on the Thursday following the Melbourne Cup, T. J. Smith landed the $75,000 V.R.C. Oaks with Show Ego by three-quarters of a length from the Bart Cummings-trained Sun Sally, Tommy, alluding to Bart’s domination, quipped: “I had to get a few crumbs from the rich man’s table.” Whereas Belmura Lad was put aside until the autumn after the Victoria Derby, Stormy Rex was transported to Perth for the summer carnival and a profitable trip it was too! The son of Storm Ruler won both the Western Australian Derby and the Marlboro 50,000 on the Ascot course before going under to Show Ego in the $140,000 W.A.T.C. Australian Derby.
Cummings could have been forgiven for thinking that with two such horses as Belmura Lad and Stormy Rex in his stables, the rich autumn three-year-old races were at his mercy. Not so! In running second in the Australian Derby, Stormy Rex sprained his off-fore fetlock – an injury that forced his scratching from the $100,000 Perth Cup and saw the horse pin-fired and relegated to a spelling paddock for more than six months. It was a case of yet another good thoroughbred succumbing at the end of a long campaign to the hard, sun-baked Ascot course. The golden prizemoney on offer by the W.A.T.C. during that brief interregnum when the club sought to rival the east came at a heavy price for the combatants. Had the directors of the W.A.T.C. been seeking an anthem to beguile the punters and promote their summer carnival of racing in those years, the good burghers of the West could have done worse than appropriate to themselves the Queen hit “Another One Bites The Dust”. Indeed, the career of Stormy Rex as a first-class racehorse was effectively over. Although he had thirty more starts after that fateful summer of 1977, Stormy Rex suffered from recurring back problems and only won two more races, both in Adelaide. His biggest pay-cheque post the W.A.T.C. Australian Derby came with the $20,000 he earned by finishing second to Manikato in the 1979 Futurity Stakes. Stormy Rex was finally retired after breaking down in 1980 A.J.C. Warwick Stakes.
Belmura Lad’s post-Derby fortunes offer a less cautionary tale, although for the balance of his three-year-old season he, too, appeared to have lost his way. All told, in his fourteen starts that season after winning the A.J.C. Derby, the son of Belmura won only one more race – the B.A.T.C. Uhr Quality Handicap (2020 metres). Briefly, the balance of his three-year-old season can be described as follows. Brought back into work after a brief summer spell, Belmura Lad was set for the Australian Champion Stakes at Randwick in April. Alas, on the slow ground both Lefroy and So Called proved too good for him, although he was beaten less than a length. Cummings saddled up Belmura Lad again the following Saturday in the A.J.C. Queen Elizabeth Stakes in which he started a 2/1 equal favourite with his stablemate Ming Dynasty.
The rain served up a quagmire that day and Ming Dynasty ploughed through the mud to win by thirteen lengths with Unaware beating Belmura Lad for second money by a neck. A quick trip to Melbourne followed, where the son of Belmura could only finish sixth behind So Called in the V.R.C. St. Leger and the same position behind Clear Day in the Moonee Valley Cup. A Brisbane campaign rounded off Belmura Lad’s three-year-old season, where apart from winning at Doomben, he ran second behind Lefroy in both the Q.T.C. Grand Prix Stakes and Queensland Derby and then finished just behind the placegetters in the Brisbane Cup. It was unusual for Cummings to make great demands on an immature three-year-old as he did with Belmura Lad and the penalty for it was a forgettable spring four-year-old season in which the gelding failed to run a placing in all nine starts, culminating with a thirteenth in the Melbourne Cup. That spring belonged to another of his age group in So Called. The Colin Hayes-trained son of Sobig dominated the weight-for-age events winning the J.J. Liston Stakes, J.F. Feehan Stakes, Underwood Stakes and the W.S. Cox Plate before going off the 9/2 favourite in the Melbourne Cup in which he finished fifth. Sadly, So Called only started one more time, bowing his near-side tendon when resuming the following autumn in the C. F. Orr Stakes at Sandown.
It was only as an autumn four-year-old that Belmura Lad, at last, began to fulfil his early promise. A big, heavy-topped horse who hit the ground hard, Belmura Lad occasionally suffered percussion in his joints. Accordingly, Cummings took to swimming him a lot. Swimming had always been an important element in the training regimen of Jim Cummings on slow mornings, and it was a habit that his son inculcated. Though a gelding, there was often a dignified swagger to Belmura Lad when he entered the saddling paddock. And in his races as an older horse, there was something of the ‘cut and come again’ character about him. When the whips were cracking he didn’t show the feather. Who could forget his hat-trick of wins in the Doncaster Handicap and All Aged Stakes at Randwick, and the Canberra National Stakes? The horse was then taken to Queensland, where, after an unplaced run on the Gold Coast, he came out to take the P. J. O’Shea Stakes at Eagle Farm at his last appearance for the season. The Doncaster was particularly famous because of the dramatic forty-eight hours proceeding the race. When Belmura Lad and Peter Cook raced away to an easy win before 41,075 racegoers that day, Bart was nowhere to be seen. Just two days before he had lost control of his stables following the failure of his appeal to the V.R.C. committee against a three-month suspension over the Lloyd Boy affair.
Bart had stayed at home and listened to the Doncaster on his radio. Many had gone to Randwick that day to watch the champion Manikato in his bid to set a weight-carrying record for a three-year-old in the famous race. In the end, Manikato could only manage a dead-heat for third with Marjoleo. Not for the last time, Belmura Lad (20/1) upset a class field in a major race when he ran the 1600 metres in 1 minute 33.7 seconds, which was the fastest metric ‘mile’ ever run at Randwick up to that date. Mind you, he had to survive a serious protest from Mal Johnston on the runner-up, Joyita. There was at least some familial satisfaction for Bart, as he reclined next to his swimming pool listening to the dulcet tones of Johnny Tapp on 2GB. He knew that Belmura Lad had been saddled-up by his 23-year old son, Anthony, who had transferred across to become a member of staff under the control of 57-year-old Mal Barnes, Belmura Lad’s nominal trainer. An indication of just how hurried and last-minute was the transfer of trainers on the eve of that carnival, the official A.J.C. racebook showed a blank where Barnes’ name should have been.
Belmura Lad never again achieved that level of consistency as an older horse. Indeed, at one stage he almost died from a virus and colic attack and a veterinary surgeon told the owners that he might never race again. But he did and although he was a gelding, Belmura Lad became more cantankerous about the stables with age: biting and lashing out with his legs at his strapper, Geoff Borger, later a trainer in his own right, became de rigeur. Not for nothing did stable staff refer to him as ‘the old bastard’. In ‘BART, my life’, Cummings wrote: “Dad taught me first and foremost that horses are not machines, they’re personalities. They are highly intelligent creatures and they understand affection and love.” Belmura Lad sorely tried Bart’s patience. Perhaps the gelding as he got older did receive love and affection but it wasn’t reciprocated. Cranky the horse may have been but his days of winning rich and important weight-for-age and handicap races weren’t over. At the 1980 V.R.C. Spring Meeting he won the L.K.S. Mackinnon Stakes with Harry White aboard when he collared Family Of Man in the shadows of the post. Only the week before the son of Belmura had been controversially balloted out of the W. S. Cox Plate. Belmura Lad made it back-to-back victories when he landed the 1981 L.K.S. Mackinnon Stakes as well, outsprinting Kingston Town to win by a length-and-a-half.
However, Belmura Lad’s finest hour for mine came earlier at the 1981 A.J.C. Spring Meeting when Bart set the seven-year-old bay gelding for the rich and audacious Epsom-Metropolitan double. It was a feature double rarely tried in modern times. Back in the nineteenth century, Circassian (1869) and Masquerade (1882) had successfully won both races in the same year but in the twentieth century none had pulled it off. Auto Filou came close when he finished third in each race in 1967; while Carioca, handicapped with 9 st 7lb on each occasion, had also finished third in the Epsom before winning the Metropolitan. Still, Bart had been re-writing the history books on the Turf ever since he had first broken into the game, so why should the 1981 Randwick spring carnival be any different? The stable supported Belmura Lad heavily too! How unlucky they were not to collect.
In the Epsom Belmura Lad and John Marshall all but fell at the start when the horse lay on the side of the barrier and stumbled out when the gates were released. Seventeenth on settling, squeezed at the 1200-metres, Belmura Lad flashed home to finish fourth in the race won by Gold Circle. Two days later and with the 33-year-old ‘comeback’ heavyweight jockey, Larry Olsen substituting in the leathers, it was a different story. Led onto the course by his old stablemate Ming Dynasty, who was now the mount of the Clerk of the Course, Belmura Lad completely outstayed his opposition to win the Metrop. by three-and-a-quarter lengths! By the grace of the gods, those fearless doubles bookmakers had been spared financial incontinence. Belmura Lad’s last race came in the 1981 Melbourne Cup when he finished seventh. Brought back into training in January 1982, Belmura Lad bowed a tendon and was immediately retired to the life of a hack at Joe Manning’s Cootamundra property, where he had spent most of his holidays when away from training. Few Australasian racehorses have won more valuable feature races than this son of Belmura but he was never acknowledged as a champion. His 66 starts had yielded 13 wins, 12 seconds and 8 thirds for prize money totalling $444,025. Not bad for a $700 weanling who couldn’t even realise his reserve when offered as a yearling!
Given the benefit of hindsight, it can be seen that the 1977 A.J.C. Derby field largely lacked depth and quality with the exception of the place-getters and the favourite. Despite Lefroy winning the Queensland Derby in race-record time and his triumph as an autumn three-year-old at Flemington in the Queen Elizabeth Stakes, this fine and powerfully-built Decies colt was never a genuine 2400-metre horse. Indeed, his four-year-old season was to prove disappointing and apart from the Queen Elizabeth Stakes, he only won one other race – the V.R.C. Turnbull Stakes – from his 17 starts that season. Lefroy’s last race came in the 1979 A.J.C. Sydney Cup when he managed to beat only one horse home in the event won by Double Century. His complete racing record was: 47 starts, for 13 wins, 8 seconds and 7 thirds and $255,070 in stakes. An entire, Lefroy stood at the Noonamah Stud, Echunga, in South Australia but failed as a stallion.
Perhaps the most unlucky galloper to contest the 1977 A.J.C. Derby was Pelican Point whose shelly feet denied him the chance to realise his full potential in later seasons. Nonetheless, the chestnut gelding affords a most romantic postscript to that 1977 classic. Pelican Point lost his way for the balance of his three-year-old season, apart from his placing behind So Called in the S.A.J.C. St Leger, while as a four-year-old his only significant victory came in S.A.J.C. Spring Stakes. The horse went through a succession of different trainers. Exasperated at the loss of form and seemingly insoluble problems in shoeing the horse, the principals of the Narrung Stud sold out for $25,000 to a Gold Coast sportsman, Colin Wells, who was prepared to take a gamble. The new owner’s original intention was to race Pelican Point in Tasmania but when the horse showed some of his old ability on the track, he was sent on a whim to Brisbane trainer Henry Davis.
The man who shod Davis’s team of horses was Gary Jaenke, a Brisbane farrier who had grown up with Davis, and the pair were good mates. As it transpired, Pelican Point failed to respond to Davis’s methods, although Jaenke believed it was because Henry was rushing the horse and not giving his hooves a chance to mend. After all, if a horse can’t walk, he certainly can’t run. Davis, with a large team of horses, had neither the time nor the patience to spend on just one troublesome galloper like Pelican Point and when Jaenke expressed an interest in approaching the owner, Davis happily passed on his address. Upon visiting Wells on the Gold Coast the latter told Jaenke: “If you can win me a race with that horse, I’ll give you a half-share and I’ll draw up the transfer papers now.” A confident Jaenke replied: “I’ll win you three or four races.” He did, too.
Transferred to trainer Bill Wehlow, who first put the polish on the great Gunsynd, but with Jaenke looking after the horse’s feet, Pelican Point was shod every two weeks whether new shoes were wanted or not. The treatment worked and Pelican Point proceeded to win the Queensland Cup, B.A.T.C. Haig Handicap and Doomben Cup as well as a couple of other races. Moreover, Colin Wells was true to his word. As soon as Pelican Point won his first race for Wehlow, the relevant change in ownership was registered. The 1981 Doomben Cup was the highlight of the gelding’s resurgence if for no other reason than in winning it, Pelican Point in the hands of Brisbane’s leading jockey Gavan Duffy, relegated his Derby conqueror Belmura Lad, into second placing. Mind you, the Derby winner was conceding 7.5 kg to his contemporary. Nonetheless, that result was particularly galling for Bart Cummings because two years before the horse had been under offer to him by the Narrung Stud, but the Cups’ King didn’t seize the opportunity of acquisition.
However, the Derby colt that was to make the biggest impression on the Australian Turf from the class of 1977, apart from the winner, was Marceau. Time would prove that he was worth every cent of the $25,000 paid for him as a yearling at Newmarket. Never a genuine 2400-metres horse, Marceau nonetheless put together an impressive series of wins before breaking down in the early April of his four-year-old season. Smith certainly didn’t spare the son of Kaoru Star in the wake of the A.J.C. Derby, pursuing spring and early summer campaigns in both Melbourne and Perth. Despite starting at odds of 100/1, Marceau ran a fine fourth in the W. S. Cox Plate won by Family of Man, before finishing fifth in the Victoria Derby. Although he failed to run a place in either the W.A.T.C. Western Australian and Australian Derbies, sandwiched between those performances came victories in both the Pinjarra Guineas and the Caris Diamond Quality Stakes.
Marceau then went for a short spell but was back in action early the following autumn when he won the S.T.C. Rawson Stakes. Alas, for much of that autumn campaign the son of Kaoru Star suffered from intermittent lameness. Although he could only run fourth in the A.J.C. Champion Stakes and third in the Q.T.C. Derby, Marceau finished off his three-year-old season in style by establishing a new course record in winning the B.A.T.C. Doomben Cup. Under the favourable handicap conditions, he was asked to carry just 51 kg with Tommy Smith’s former apprentice, Peter Leyshan, in the saddle. Marceau remained sound enough to endure fifteen more starts during his four-year-old season in spring and autumn campaigns that saw him win three races viz. the S.T.C. Hill Stakes, V.A.T.C. Carlyon Cup and the S.T.C Rawson Stakes at his very last racecourse appearance. The Carlyon Cup was a celebrated affair as it came to him after the horse that had finished first past the post, Lloyd Boy, trained by Bart Cummings, was subsequently disqualified after returning a positive urine sample for the anti-inflammatory, painkilling drug, Oxyphenbutazone.
Three days after winning his second Rawson Stakes and while being prepared for the S.T.C. Tancred Stakes, Marceau pulled-up sore in the near fore-joint after trackwork and was immediately retired to stud. The horse’s complete racecourse career consisted of 42 starts for 11 wins, 4 seconds and 6 thirds, and stakes of $193,985. In truth, negotiations for the purchase of Marceau by the New Zealand Bloodstock Agency had been ongoing for the previous two months and Marceau’s premature breakdown merely hastened their completion. Patrick Hogan, the owner of the Cambridge Stud, headed the successful syndicate. At the time, Hogan stated: “I think it is accepted in New Zealand that we need an infusion of top speed bloodlines into the country. There is no better blood than Star Kingdom, Marceau’s grandsire.” Marceau’s attraction as a potential stallion went beyond the spear side of his pedigree as his distaff side was just as impressive.
Humour, Marceau’s dam, had been bred by Lionel Israel at his Segenhoe Stud and was by his stallion Pirate King out of his grand producing mare Real Delight. While eleven of Real Delight’s foals won races, a badly turned foreleg convinced Israel that Humour was neither good enough to put into any ring to be sold or any stable to be trained. But in the paddocks of Segenhoe, she proved a revelation. Humour dropped thirteen foals within eighteen seasons at the stud and four of them – Runyon, Zasu, Marceau and Joy Love – all became multiple black-type winners on the Australian Turf.
Acclaimed as one of the top broodmares in the Australian Stud Book, Humour had been named ‘NSW Broodmare of the Year’ for the first time in August 1975, a feat she repeated thanks largely to Marceau, on other occasions. While Thomas Hoban maintained a small farm, Linton Grange Stud at Noreen in Victoria, Marceau was always going to be too big a stud proposition for those confines. Hence the sale to Hogan. Marceau was given every chance at Cambridge and went on to sire ten individual stakes winners of fourteen stakes races including those outstanding brothers, Hula Chief and Hula Drum. Hula Chief himself was to have an even more distinguished career at stud than his sire, getting no less than fifteen individual stakes winners of thirty-seven stakes races including the great Brisbane galloper Chief De Beers. Marceau also proved a useful sire of broodmares as the likes of Martinet and My Marseillaise can attest.
I began this chapter with Bart and perhaps I should end it that way. Belmura Lad’s A.J.C. Derby was the first of five victories enjoyed by the great trainer in Randwick’s timeless classic, but the others would come after the race was transferred from the spring to the autumn. And just for the record, those autumn Derby winners were Prolific (1984), Beau Zam (1988), Ivory’s Irish (1995) and Roman Emperor (2009). It was no surprise that Cummings’ strike rate improved when the race was moved to later in the racing season. The Cups’ King was a very patient man when it came to preparing young stayers and he had always advocated that the Australian Jockey Club should defer its signature three-year-old classic. When the committee reached its historic decision to do so, there was criticism from both some sections of the racing media and some prominent bloodstock breeders. However, when it came to Leilani Lodge, the club was pushing against an open door.