Every so often there comes along a racehorse that happens to capture the public imagination. The reasons for the fascination may vary, although in all such instances the ability to gallop is paramount. But many horses win more than their share of prestigious races yet never attain that charismatic aura with the crowds. There need to be other qualities at work as well. It might be the horse’s flashy looks or style of racing that grabs the public, or sometimes it might be the flashy looks and style of racing of the horse’s rich and famous owners. In fact, all of these ingredients were at play in the spring of 1963 when there emerged racing’s quintessential glamour horse of the ‘sixties in the shape of a sleek and dapper black colt from Todman’s first crop. Truth be told, the aura of romance began on a crisp autumn day in April earlier that same year, when the colt went under the auctioneer’s hammer at the William Inglis Easter Sales.
Author: Ian Ibbett Page 2 of 11
In the spring of 1963 the New Zealand-based stallion, Summertime, achieved what no other sire had in the one-hundred-year history of the A.J.C. Derby. When Summer Fiesta passed the post first at Randwick on that sunny afternoon to give Tommy Smith his fourth win in the race, he also gave his sire a hat-trick of victories in the classic. In retrospect, the decades of the 1950’s and 1960’s came to represent a golden epoch for influential British and French stallions imported into New Zealand. It was an era that resonated with distinguished names like Ruthless, Fair’s Fair, Faux Tirage, Count Rendered, Le Filou, Alcimedes and Agricola. Let it be said that Summertime was up there with the best of them.
Occasionally we need reminding that the unlikely pageant of history was itself once everyday life. I was reflecting on this truism on a Saturday afternoon in 2009 when I deliberately strolled down Eleanor Street on my way to a race meeting at Rosehill. It is a quiet street on the south-western fringes of the racecourse itself, which terminates in a dead-end near to where that busy and modern thoroughfare, James Ruse Drive, verily pulses with noise and speeding traffic.
Anyone attending early morning trackwork at Randwick racecourse in the late 1980s might have come upon a kindly little man performing the humble job of gateman. First-time visitors to the course wouldn’t have given the shuffling figure a second glance, but the regulars well knew both his history and his character, which was stamped of nature’s noblest metal. The diminutive individual in question was none other than Thomas Walter Hill, who, before tragedy intervened, had been one of Australia’s leading jockeys and trainers. Even more significantly for our purposes, however, he had been one of the two central characters in perhaps the greatest drama ever played out in a major race in Australia. The race in question was the 1961 A.J.C. Derby.
A tall, shapely and attractive young blonde with good legs and elegant comportment is guaranteed to turn heads wherever she goes. It has always been thus. And this universal truth was demonstrated yet again at the 1959 William Inglis Yearling Sales when a light chestnut filly with flaxen mane and tail stepped gracefully into the Newmarket auction ring. She was a daughter of the first season French stallion, Wilkes, from the outstanding race mare Golden Chariot, bred by John Kelly at his Newhaven Park Stud, Boorowa, northwest of Canberra.
A lone grey horse in any field seduces the eye, but it is also a seduction of the heart when the horse in question serves it up boldly from the front. In all the world of racing, I don’t think there is a finer sight than a big horse that attacks from the start, challenging the clock and opponents alike with every stride. In that glorious Sydney spring of 1959 Martello Towers did just that, becoming the only horse up to that time to complete the clean sweep of winning the Hobartville Stakes, the Canterbury and Rosehill Guineas, and then the A.J.C. Derby. The phrase ‘a colourful racing identity’ is one that racing writers employ as a euphemism in describing some of the more disreputable and dubious habitués of the racecourse. It is a phrase applied to people, not to horses. And yet if we accept both its literal and figurative meaning, surely no racehorse deserved the epithet more than our Derby hero of 1959.
While the report of Flight’s death when foaling at Woodlands Stud in early October 1953 was no exaggeration, the obituaries that dismissed her as a failed matron were decidedly premature. It is a curious phenomenon of racing folklore within this country that unless a champion race mare throws a foal whose deeds on a racecourse closely match her own, she is often dismissed as a disappointment at stud.
When Tommy Smith first took the A.J.C. Derby in 1949 with Playboy he was a young man with his way to make in the world; by the time Tulloch gave him his second success in the classic eight years later, the boy from Jembaicumbene had well and truly arrived. Indeed, as the man himself observed: “Playboy made me; he really got me going. People started giving me horses to train.”
Somewhere in the course of the 1950s for me at least, this history starts to slip the confines of the State Library’s archives and the research facilities of the A.J.C. offices. The names begin to have faces and personalities; the races themselves stir memories. I recognise them as belonging to the playground of my own experience. I think it is the year 1956 that marks the first emergence of this consciousness in me for the winner of the Derby that year was Monte Carlo. It was a name that was bound to resonate with any child of those times and in my naive infant imagination, it seemed so right that my first champion racehorse should happen to be named after my favourite sweet biscuit. It was a year or two before I came to realise that the name had a far more sophisticated derivation and one altogether appropriate for the racecourse – after all, it was W. Somerset Maugham who had once famously described Monte Carlo and its principality Monaco as “a sunny place for shady people.” However, there was nothing shady about the two principals responsible for this colt’s rise to prominence, for Frank Dalton and Jack Thompson were two of the finest characters ever to venture upon the Australian Turf. One of the most successful trainer-jockey partnerships during the 1940s and 1950s in Australian racing, for all of their success in winning premierships and major races, the pair had never been linked together with a major classic contender until that 1956-57 racing season when Monte Carlo arrived upon the scene.
Among the most popular fixtures of the season for the real racing aficionado, are the two-year-old barrier trials held at Randwick in mid-September. Juveniles that have been seen galloping in the home paddocks, or sold at the fall of the auctioneer’s hammer just months before, carry silk for the first time. It is an occasion only for the racing purist, with no bookmakers and no betting, and although the amenities of Randwick racecourse are freely available, the attendance is never large. Such trials have been a part of the club’s traditional racing calendar for many years but rarely has the fixture ever been more keenly anticipated than in 1954. For some weeks before the trials that year there had been a real excitement abroad as the cold, sharp days of winter mellowed and lengthened into spring. And the reason for it was the early promise being shown by a small group of colts and fillies by a first season stallion recently imported into Australia by Stanley Wootton. The stallion’s name was Star Kingdom.