A recurrent dream among bloodstock breeders in the Australian colonies in the late nineteenth century was that of producing a racehorse capable of challenging for the rich prizes on the hallowed English Turf, including the biggest prize of all, the English Derby. To the ordinary man, it seemed nothing more than the preposterous dream of a disordered fancy, but to those privileged few with the requisite resources, it beckoned as an irresistible crusade – a crusade that first involved a journey of 14,000 miles by sea, in an age when sea travel remained precarious.
No family was more involved with the development of the Australian bloodhorse in New South Wales during the nineteenth century than the Reynolds family of the Hunter Valley. Charles Reynolds and his brother Richard were born into a landed Devonshire family and were already well versed in bloodstock and livestock, particularly Hereford and Devonshire cattle before they ever came to Australia in 1840. It was in 1844 that 38-year-old Charles Reynolds signed a lease for £500 per annum with the Sydney merchants, Caleb and Felix Wilson, for the 4600-acre property, Tocal, on the Paterson River. The name Tocal, derived from the Aboriginal word meaning plenty, referring to the surfeit of food in the wetlands and surrounding rainforest – and a land of plenty it would prove to be for the Reynolds family.
Overlooking Camden, on the banks of the Nepean River about thirty miles south-west of Sydney, there stands a historic mansion, now known as Camelot. It is a large, two-storey, brick homestead, built around 1887 to a design by Australia’s leading architect of the day, John Horbury Hunt, which was described at the time as ‘a French-inspired fairy castle’. It is a place of haunting charm, casting a spell upon any visitor with its romantic silhouette of jumbled turrets and chimney stacks, its piles of glorious gables and projecting bays, all set off by the grandness of an elegantly arched verandah. The very name itself, Camelot, conjures up splendid visions of Arthurian legend: of swirling mists, as, trumpets sounding, colours are unfurled, and gallant men and steeds joust in stirring battle. Nor are such beguiling imaginings entirely one’s fancy. For this is a place with just such a history if one accepts that thoroughbred racing is at once both a battle of sorts and a colourful, dramatic pageant.
Few subjects on the Turf are more engrossing than that of the performance of younger brothers or sisters of champion racehorses, relative to their cost of acquisition. This matter of famous siblings is a recurring theme, although it is fair to say that many a hopeful buyer in parting with a hefty sum for a blood relation has often had cause to rue their impetuosity. But then every once in a while, there comes along a brother or sister than proves the rule. Until the 1886 racing season perhaps the best pair of siblings to grace the Australian Turf had been Petrea and First King bred at St Albans by James Wilson senior, although the brothers Richmond and Bosworth, produced at the Hobartville Stud of William Town, weren’t much inferior. The question of just how much a younger brother to a champion racehorse was worth, arose again on the very day before the running of the 1884 Victoria Derby when W. C. Yuille and Co. of Melbourne conducted their second annual auction of Etienne de Mestre’s yearling stock. In all, there were nineteen lots on offer at the firm’s Newmarket saleyards that adjoined the famous Pastoral Hotel, and many of the rich and powerful sportsmen gathered in the Victorian capital for the Flemington Spring Meeting went in quest of a bargain.
In this day of international shuttle-service stallions worth millions of dollars, petted and pandered like royalty, it is easy to forget the struggles and humble origins of some of their nineteenth-century predecessors. The great Musket, the sire of Carbine and our 1885 Derby hero Nordenfeldt among other champions, is a fine example. A son of the English Derby favourite and runner-up, Toxophilite, from an un-named mare by West Australian, Musket was a big awkward customer as a young horse and very slow to develop. Lord Glasgow, his rather ruthless breeder, suffered neither fools nor slow horses gladly: the former he ignored; the latter he had shot. A piece of lead from his namesake was to be Musket’s fate too, purportedly as a consequence of a disappointing gallop against another two-year-old. That the fateful trigger was never pulled must forever remain a cause of celebration for New Zealand bloodstock breeding, although the precise facts surrounding the matter are a tad obscure.
1884 was the year in which the most prolific patron of the Turf that Australia has ever known finally won the Derby. It was the beginning of the era in which the Hon. James White bestrode the narrow world of the Australian Turf like a colossus. By any measure, whether of money spent or prizes won, by comparison, all other owners, as the Bard might have observed, seemed mere, petty men peeping about to secure racing’s less honourable laurels.
I closed the 1881 chapter of this chronicle with William Kent’s takeover of the Grange Stud at Ipswich in the wake of the death of Sir Joshua Bell. Among the yearlings galloping about those rich limestone paddocks in the autumn of 1882 was a robust, rugged bay colt by Epigram out of the imported English mare, Legend. Legend was a daughter of Cathedral, and one of those well-bred matrons acquired by the late Joshua Bell on his memorable health trip to the Old Country in 1873. Legend had already proven herself a proper matron having produced Lilla, Lord Clifden and Legerdemain, winners respectively of a Q.T.C. Moreton Handicap, Brisbane Cup and Queensland Derby, and all bred to different stallions. This yearling, her latest offering was a full brother to both Legerdemain, who had won the previous year’s Queensland Derby in the colours of his late breeder; and a foal born the previous spring that was destined as Legacy to win the 1884 Q.T.C. Brisbane Cup. Given the weakness of the Queensland bloodstock market and the increased interest in the blood of Epigram coming from N.S.W. and Victorian breeders in the light of Wheatear’s triumphs the previous spring, Kent resolved to send the colt down to Sydney to see if a sale at the right price could be affected.
At the end of the 1878-79 racing season, thanks to His Lordship’s Derby and Calamia’s Melbourne Cup, Etienne de Mestre had emerged not just as Australia’s leading trainer but as the leading owner as well. It had been a giddy rise to greatness. The 46-year-old Master of Terrara already had four Melbourne Cups to his credit as well as nearly every other race of importance on the Australian Turf, and he was just then realising his dream of transposing much of Charles Fisher’s famous Maribyrnong Stud from the banks of the Maribyrnong River to those of the Shoalhaven. As de Mestre lordly surveyed his burgeoning empire of over a thousand acres from the steps of his Terrara homestead, never had the rich pastureland seemed so green or the skies so cloudless. At that moment – on that bank and shoal of time – de Mestre stood at the very high-water mark of his life’s fortunes. Nor was it just his public life as a man of the Turf that was prospering, but his private life as well.
Up until the year 1881, no Queensland-bred horse had ever won the A.J.C. Derby; indeed, none had ever won a prestigious race at either Randwick or Flemington. Whereas the Turf in New South Wales and Victoria became established in the early years of colonisation, it wasn’t until the 1840’s that the Darling Downs was opened up to large leases of pastoral land. The Northern Australian Jockey Club was founded around 1860 with its headquarters at The Grange, Ipswich, and the racecourse was deemed significant enough by 1861 to host the Australian Champion Stakes – won that year by John Tait’s Zoe. Although there were other Queensland race clubs established by this time such as the Gayndah, it wasn’t until August 1863 that the colony’s premier club – the Queensland Turf Club – was formed. Its initial membership was fifty-three, and it secured from the Government a grant of land at Eagle Farm with the Governor, Sir George Bowen, agreeing to act as patron.
Sometimes the pedigree of a Derby-winning owner can be just as fascinating as that of the horse that lands the prize. William Alexander Long, the man who owned Grand Flaneur, the winner of the 1880 A.J.C. Derby is a case in point. Long was born in Sydney in July 1839, and both his father and uncle were convicts who had been transported to the colony of New South Wales for seven years. William Long senior arrived here as an eighteen-year-old on the Baring in September 1815 and his seventeen-year-old brother, Alexander, just over four years later on the Earl St Vincent in December 1819. Once emancipated in the fledgeling settlement of Sydney, both men prospered but particularly William. It is a tribute to his imagination and enterprise that by the age of just thirty-one he became the licensee of the Saracen’s Head at Miller’s Point and three years later had taken over the Commercial Tavern in George Street North, one of the most profitable hostelries in the city. William had established himself as one of the city’s most prosperous wine and spirit merchants in rapid time.