On the road towards Oberon, not far from Kelso in the Bathurst district of NSW, there once stood a single-storey brick homestead built in the year 1872 that was an integral part of Australia’s Turf heritage. Not that any pioneering spirit from that bygone era would necessarily have recognised it years later – had they returned from the dead. The homestead in question, Leeholme, changed much over the years – most noticeably in the 1920s when an original second storey was removed – and, in truth, with it went much of the languid charm of the place. But by then, of course, the original owners had long departed, and the property’s once redolent association with the Turf had almost been extinguished. But let it not be forgotten that it was here at Leeholme that the famous George Lee bred Nellie, the Derby heroine of 1879 from his wonderful broodmare, Sappho, and thereby guaranteed the continuation of perhaps the greatest bloodline in the history of the Australian Stud Book.
No man has stood higher on the Australian Turf than Etienne de Mestre did after Chester’s Victoria Derby – Melbourne Cup double in the spring of 1877. It was his fourth Melbourne Cup – he had owned his previous winners – and in landing the rich double, de Mestre had won a fortune in wagers. What more, then, could any man want from the Turf? The answer: to own a world-class thoroughbred-breeding establishment at Terrara on the banks of the Shoalhaven River. It was something he had coveted for years, having prepared horses on behalf of some of the most successful breeders in the land. Now he wanted to do it for himself. Ambition, Shakespeare tells us, is the sin by which the angels fell, and it was de Mestre’s vaulting ambition to not only own and train, but also to breed the great classic and Cup winners, that would sow the seeds of his own tragic fall. But I get ahead of myself. Who was this man that by 1877 had climbed to such a pinnacle and how had he got there?
1877 was remarkable for the presence of two very high-class racehorses – each amongst the best gallopers to race in Australia in the nineteenth century – in Chester and First King. At that time in Australia’s history, nothing added spice to the game of racing more than a dash of inter-colonial rivalry conducted across the banks of the Murray River. Given that Chester hailed from N.S.W. while First King came from Victoria, opinions on the merits of each colt varied markedly according to geography. The two colts each happened to make their racing debut on New Year’s Day, albeit one at Randwick and the other at Flemington.
In the 1869 chapter, I related the early story of the foundation of the Maribyrnong Stud. Its dispersal in April 1866 saw the property, and much of the stock, transfer from the hands of the Stud’s founder, Hurtle Fisher, into those of his brother, Charles Brown Fisher or ‘CB’ as he has become known to generations of the Australian sporting public. Curiously enough, the brothers, for all of their closeness in pastoral intrigues, never seemed to have been long-term partners in their Turf pursuits, although they could always manage to come to some arrangement with each other when it suited. Charles Fisher, like his brother, was one of a small group of Australia’s privileged and exclusive squattocracy, who though in a land quite different to England, persisted in adopting English styles of dress and custom common to the squirearchy of the old country.
So well established was the reputation of James Wilson senior and the St Albans stable for shrewdness in horse-trading by 1874, that it seems strange to relate that in that year a champion was inadvertently sold out of the yard. The story begins in April 1874 when Andrew Town offered six of his Hobartville yearlings for sale at Randwick. Among the batch was a little dark brown colt by his resident stallion, Maribyrnong, out of The Fawn.
Early on a Sunday evening in June 1872, the R.M.S.S. Nubia steamed into Sydney Harbour bearing an important cargo; its arrival from England signalled the quickest passage on record for a steamship of its size – just twenty days! Onboard was none other than Sir Hercules Robinson, the fourteenth Governor of N.S.W. and the man chosen to succeed the Earl of Belmore as the first citizen of the colony. When the government barge disembarked His Excellency the following day for the official greeting at Prince Alfred Stairs, it was estimated that around 15,000 people crowded along the foreshores of Circular Quay and the official route to Government House. Few of the crowd realised it, but the arrival of this Sir Hercules was to be every bit as important to the colonial sport of horseracing as was that of his namesake, the sire of Yattendon and The Barb, all those years before. Very much a populist figure, Sir Hercules Robinson during his relatively short stay was to embrace the Turf and the Hunt with gusto; his vice-regal patronage would do much to elevate the social standing of racing in the colony of New South Wales and attract the wealthy classes into the ranks of ownership.
The names of some famous broodmares are scattered throughout the pages of the Australian Stud Book, but the name of one stands out as pre-eminent. It is that of Juliet. We first met her in our 1869 chapter when her son Charon won the Derby, but in the 1873 renewal of the classic, Juliet’s influence was to be even more profound for not only did another of her son’s in Benvolio win the race, but a grandson from her daughter, Sylvia, also ran the minor placing. At the time of Charon’s Derby victory the greatness that lay in store for the several foals of Juliet could only be guessed at, but by the time Benvolio came along, it was already apparent that a most remarkable strain of bloodstock had stolen upon the scene.
One of the wonders of 19th-century racing in Australia is how the mighty St Albans stable of James Wilson Sr failed ever to win the A.J.C. Derby. The closest it came was in 1872 with an aristocratically-bred colt named King of the Ring. And thereby hangs a tale.
Ah, the morn and liquid dew of youth, as the Bard once famously put it! Many and many a talent has announced itself at the precocious age of twenty. The vigour of manhood is almost at the flood, tutelage has been cast aside, and inexperience hasn’t even allowed self-doubt to manifest itself. As a result, a Mozart, Byron or Picasso appears. Now, what is true of the various branches of the arts is also true of the various branches of sports. The 1871 chapter of our Derby chronicle introduces a 20-year-old youth in the guise of Joe Burton, who was destined to become one of the great trainers on the Australian Turf in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Luck’s a fortune in life, and so it proved for the 20-year-old Burton when the famous Bathurst breeder, Thomas Lee, passed a well-bred Yattendon colt into his hands to be broken in during the winter of 1870. So satisfactory was Burton’s work with the colt that the 44-year-old Lee decided to permanently entrust the young man with the horse’s training, the first horse the lad was to prepare in a long career that would eventually span more than fifty years and countless triumphs on the greensward.
One of the more unfortunate importations from England onto the Australian Turf in the nineteenth century was the declaration rule, whereby any owner starting more than one horse in a race was able to declare publicly for one in particular and have his others pulled to accommodate the desired result. Such an arrangement may have had a place in the old days on the heath when racing was restricted to the aristocracy and side wagers between owners the only form of gambling, but it was an arrangement open to abuse once bookmakers emerged upon the scene and betting on a large scale by the general public became popular.