Fame so widely diffused nearly always melts into the mists of legend. And so, it is with Phar Lap. The horse that is generally acclaimed to be the greatest ever foaled in Australasia stepped into the birdcage at Trentham racecourse to be sold as a yearling at around 5 o’clock on the afternoon of 24th January 1928; he was the last lot offered. Earlier in the day, the New Zealand record price for a yearling had been broken when 2300 guineas were given on behalf of George Greenwood for a Limond colt, but there was very little interest in this last fellow, Lot No. 41. There were only two serious bidders, Hugh Telford and Sid Reid, and Reid was bidding on behalf of an absentee client who had quit the sales early because of a heavy cold. In the circumstances, Reid didn’t feel comfortable continuing to up the ante and withdrew from the duel. It was in this way that the big and gangling youngster became the property of Hugh Telford for just 160 guineas.
The real story behind the 1928 A.J.C. Derby began on a Tuesday morning in August 1926 and the dispersal sale of E. G. Blume’s Woodlands Stud. Blume, originally from Queensland, was a prominent dealer in livestock and at one time had held extensive properties on the Thompson River. In his first forays on the Turf, Blume had raced under the pseudonym of ‘F. J. Craven’ and in 1911 struck the jackpot with Lady Medallist, whom he bought as a tried horse and later that year won both the Craven Plate and Caulfield Cup with her. It was then that he decided to start a stud, buying the old Woodlands homestead on the middle Hunter where the late Henry Charles White had bred horses so many years before. Set amongst the limestone bluffs and the rich, alluvial soils of the Hunter Valley, Woodlands was and still is, one of Australia’s historic thoroughbred nurseries.
Our chapter on the 1917 renewal of the A.J.C. classic narrated the early history of the Melton Stud and the emergence of The Welkin as Australia’s leading stallion. As we have seen, over the years The Welkin sired some wonderful youngsters and older middle-distance horses, and Ernest Clarke, who owned him, retained many of them to race in his colours. But when Clarke sold Gloaming as a yearling, he lost the best horse The Welkin ever got, and the only one to win an A.J.C. Derby. It seemed rather fitting, therefore, that when Ernest Clarke finally did manage to win the Derby at Randwick, it was with a homebred colt by Cyklon, the stallion that succeeded The Welkin at his famous stud. Cyklon’s history, and how he came to be installed at Melton Park, is worth relating.
When Joe Brien (nee O’Brien) established the Kingsfield Stud, near Aberdeen on the Upper Hunter in 1913, he entertained high hopes for his dual Derby winner, Beragoon, as a prospective stallion. Beragoon joined Malt King there and, great performers though they were on the racecourse, neither stamped their progeny with their own particular quality. Consequently, in 1921 on a visit to England, Brien was on the market for a prospective stallion to boost his stocks, provided he could secure him at the right price. Just how fortunate he was in acquiring the black St Frusquin stallion, Rossendale, for 600 guineas on that trip was not readily apparent at the time.
In 1923-24 Valais won the first of what was to be five successive Australian sires’ premierships, and he did it with just two crops racing; in that season he had 15 individual winners of 29 races, and £28,379 in stakes. No single statistic is more telling of either his dominance or the immediacy of it. Apart from Heroic, his second crop included the brilliant Fuji San (A.J.C. Doncaster Handicap and All Aged Stakes; V.R.C. October Stakes); Metellus (winner of the A.J.C. Epsom Handicap; V.A.T.C. Toorak Handicap); and Valiard (winner of the V.R.C .Newmarket Handicap), as well as numerous other good class horses. It was little wonder that at the 1924 Sydney Easter Yearling Sales the more discerning buyers, or at least those with big cheque-books, were keen to secure a colt or filly by this wonder stallion. Will and Fred Moses consigned eight yearlings for sale through the offices of William Inglis and Son on the first day, Tuesday, April 22nd, 1924. What a wonderful day’s selling it was when one considers that no less than three outstanding champions of the Australian Turf went through the ring.
Two of the most influential breeders of bloodstock in Australia in the first half of the century were the brothers Will and Fred Moses of Arrowfield Stud. The twins, as they came to be known, began at Combadello, their magnificent sprawling sheep property, about 25 miles from Mungie Bundie on the Sydney side of Moree. In the early 1890’s they had raced a few minor winners, although their involvement at that time with the Turf was somewhat desultory: rather than breeding horses, their real commitment was in breeding sheep. Nonetheless, the family had enjoyed a long-term association with the Turf, their father Henry Moses having been a steward of the Hawkesbury Race Club away back in 1871 in company with Andrew Town and others. The twins’ flirtation with the Turf deepened into an altogether more passionate affair when Courallie, sporting their own livery, won the 1896 Doncaster Handicap at Randwick and subsequently, Will and Fred Moses decided to establish a stud of mares on the fertile Combadello pastures.
Just before dawn on the last day of July 1923, the 5777-ton steamer Ulimaroa docked at No 3 Miller’s Point Wharf in Sydney. The vessel, regularly plying the trans-Tasman service, had shipped from Wellington and the cargo included four racehorses entered for the A.J.C. Spring Meeting. The horses in question were Urgency, a rising 5-year-old bay gelding by Clarenceaux together with his two-year younger half-sister, Zaragoza; and Murihaupo and Ballymena, two coming 3-year-old geldings each with entries for the A.J.C. Derby. Accompanying this contingent of horses to Sydney was their 38-year-old trainer, Fred Jones, and 20-year-old jockey, Maurice McCarten. Accommodation for the team was arranged at Chisholm and Company’s Randwick stables and in the chill early dawn, while the city slept, there seemed a hushed air of conspiracy as the horses walked from the ship onto the pier.
The year 1922 introduces us to one of the great unsung heroes of the Queensland Turf in the shape of that splendid stayer, Rivoli. How he ever came to be bred at all is a fascinating anecdote in itself. In many ways, Rivoli was the culmination of the bloodstock breeding efforts of four young pioneers from the ‘Old Country’ who did so much to develop the land around the Clarence and Richmond Rivers in northern New South Wales. The four men in question were Henry Barnes, Fred Bundock, Thomas Hawkins Smith, and his younger brother Henry Flesher Smith. Perhaps our story should begin with Henry Barnes, that renowned breeder of stud cattle and the thoroughbred racehorse, for it was his son that bred and raced the great Rivoli.
It was in the spring of 1912 that a 38-year-old country trainer by the name of Frank ‘Sandy’ Marsden of Doughboy Hollow, outside Murrurundi – Ben Hall country – bought rail tickets to Sydney. He had just sold out of his Bloomfield-street house and stables in Gunnedah for £300 and was prepared to gamble it all on a chance in the big smoke. Not that Marsden was entirely a stranger to the city. Although he was born in Murrurundi in 1874, as noted in an earlier chapter, when just a 14-year-old boy he had ridden a double at the very first race meeting conducted at Warwick Farm in March 1889. Moreover, a crack footballer later in his youth, he had represented the northern district of New South Wales in several big matches in Sydney. Increasing weight during his late teenage years soon put an end to any thoughts of a career in a jockey’s saddle, and Marsden had taken his horsemanship and gone a-droving instead before later turning to horse-training in Gunnedah.
When it comes to the training of racehorses, the good men emerge slowly over time; the great ones seem to arrive in an instant. It has always been thus. In the spring of 1885 when the health of Michael Fennelly failed, Tom Payten stepped into the breach at Newmarket and proceeded to win the Derby with Nordenfeldt, thereby launching his own successful career. In the spring of 1900 came the turn of Jim Scobie to step into the pages of history when he swept all before him with a stable brimful of champions, including victories in both Derbies and the Melbourne Cup with the likes of Maltster and Clean Sweep. The year 1920 marked the arrival of another man upon the scene whose genius for training, if not his thirst for ambition, warranted comparison with those two aforementioned greats. His name was Fred Williams.