There are vintage years for horses as there are for wines, and for Australasian racing, the 1936 foaling season proved to be one of the best. There are also years when a trainer flicks through the pages of a sales catalogue, and one pedigree in particular figuratively jumps from the page. Such was the reaction of Kogarah trainer, Jack Cush, when he perused the catalogue of yearlings offered for sale through William Inglis in the autumn of 1938. It confirmed that a bay colt by the imported stallion Marconigram out of the former race mare Gravure was to go through the ring as Lot 47 on behalf of Messrs A. E. Thompson and Sons of Bylong station at Rylstone. Cush’s relationship with Albert Thompson and the bloodlines of this bay colt went back a long way. After all, it was Encre, the mother of Gravure, who had first launched Cush on his successful career as a racehorse trainer in Newcastle some seventeen years earlier. It was the same black mare and her progeny who had been responsible for all of his major successes in the period since; lifting him from the status of a promising country trainer to that of established metropolitan horseman in just a few short seasons. What a host of poignant memories must have flooded through the mind of Jack Cush as he studied that page of the catalogue!
When Jack Holt saddled up Avenger to win the 1937 A.J.C. Derby, it was his second victory in the race from as many starters – Hall Mark having been the first back in 1933. Exactly seven days after Avenger’s thrilling victory at Randwick, the great Victorian trainer produced a small and lightly framed two-year-old chestnut colt, a very near relation of Hall Mark and one who sported the same famous colours, for his racing debut at the Caulfield Spring Meeting. It was one of the rare times that the horse in question, Nuffield, failed to win. For in the course of the next twelve months this colt would emerge as the best juvenile of his year and ultimately credit Holt with a hat-trick of Derbies at Randwick.
In the story of Australian bloodstock breeding during the first half of the twentieth century, one man and one stud stand supreme. The man was Percy Frederick Miller; the Stud was Kia Ora. Born in 1879, the youngest of eleven children, Miller started life in rather humble circumstances in the inner Sydney suburb of Leichardt. When only a boy he set out on man’s estate to earn a living by purchasing a few calves, slaughtering them himself at the old Glebe Island Abattoirs, and then selling the meat to Sydney’s retail butchers. From such modest beginnings, he eventually prospered to become one of the largest carcass butchers in Sydney, founding the firm of Miller Bros.
On June 6th, 1934 the champion imported stallion Magpie was destroyed at the Kia Ora Stud, Scone, and buried near the stud stables under an elaborate headstone; he was 20 years old and had been deteriorating in condition for some time. There have been few more impressive or influential stallions ever imported into Australia. At the time of his death, 210 individual winners of around 840 races and £269,000 in prize money had represented him. Foaled in England in 1914, Magpie’s racing career there had been limited to just six racecourse appearances, owing to the restrictions imposed by the Great War.
Racing in Australia has benefited enormously from its proximity to New Zealand over the years, regarding both the quality of horses and of the horsemen that have crossed the Tasman to strut their stuff. Many champions have variously found their way here from the Shaky Isles but few better than George Richard Price who decided to relocate to Randwick in July 1922. A native of Christchurch, ‘wee Georgie’ was born there in January 1878, the son of Henry Price, a hairdresser, and his English wife, Mary. Price’s most distinguishing physical characteristic from an early age was his lack of size – 4’ 11” no less – and it was this, as much as a love of horses, that made a career in stables seem inevitable. George became apprenticed at the age of fourteen, and his twinkle-eyed stoicism saw him transform himself into a singularly elegant horseman who in time became established as one of the leading lightweight jockeys in the Land of the Long White Cloud.
In January 1933 the colourful and flamboyant gambler Ned Moss accompanied both his trainers, George Price and Fred Williams, to the New Zealand National Yearling Sales. Moss was particularly interested in the progeny of Limond, the New Zealand based stallion that had become premier sire in Australia in the 1931/32 season, and he had asked each man to select him a colt by the stallion. The interest shown by Moss in this particular sire line wasn’t hard to understand given the success that he had already enjoyed in both St Legers and numerous weight-for-age races with Veilmond, one of the stallion’s best sons. He had his heart set on buying the chestnut colt by Limond from the great producing mare Homage, a daughter of Eulogy, but bidding was too lively, and when Jack Jamieson bid 1175 guineas, it was Fred Williams who cautioned restraint and urged Moss to look elsewhere in the catalogue for another Limond.
In 1933 the popular Victorian owner and former champion cyclist, Charlie Kellow, won the first of his two A.J.C. Derbies. Each was with a homebred, sired by his champion stallion Heroic, and each was a first-class racehorse. The story of how Kellow bred the first of these winners, the bonny little colt Hall Mark, who took the coveted race in 1933, is intriguing. Its genesis came in the late summer of 1926 when Jack Holt was preparing Heroic on behalf of Kellow, to win the V.R.C. Newmarket Handicap. Despite a handicap of 9 st. 8lb, Holt was very confident about the chestnut. At the same time, James Scobie had set Pilliewinkie, owned by Sir Samuel Hordern, to win the second leg of Flemington’s big autumn double, the Australian Cup. Now it is unusual for racing stables to share information about their so-called ‘good things’ to outsiders. But so confident were the respective stables of Holt and Scobie that each could appreciate the opportunities of synergy presented by the rich double.
In May 1930, in a far-reaching decision, the committees of the A.J.C. and the V.R.C. conjointly decided to debar geldings from future classic races from 1932 and beyond. Their issued statement read as follows:
|“The committees are of the opinion that if horseracing is to fulfil its primary objective, which is to improve the breed of horses, it is not likely to achieve that end by allowing geldings to run in such highly endowed races as the Sires’ Produce Stakes, for two-year-olds, and the Derbies and St Legers, for three-year-olds, and in a sense holding out inducements to owners to geld as young horses without trial fine individuals possessing the best of pedigrees, who may reasonably be expected to transmit their good qualities to their progeny.”|
As we shall see, it was a ban that was to last until 1956 and despite the laudable intentions of the good committeemen responsible for the decision, ultimately failed to achieve its purpose.
Ammon Ra, our Derby hero of 1931, provides us with yet another example of a bargain offered at those early New Zealand National Yearling Sales only to be scorned by potential buyers. The Trentham Sales were inaugurated as late as 1927 and that year Concentrate, bought for 800 guineas, proved the bargain. The second coming in 1928 produced the immortal Phar Lap. 1930 was to be the turn of Ammon Ra. A dark bay with black points and of a compact, sturdy build, Ammon Ra was a son of the outstanding English stallion, Limond, and was out of a mare that had already thrown two good stakes winners in Phaola and Prodice, full sisters by Catmint. However, the buyers at Trentham allowed themselves to be bluffed by an unsightly twist in this yearling’s near forefoot. As the great Banjo Patterson, who was writing for the Sydney Mail at the time, observed, it was mere bandiness. To quote Banjo: “When Booth was training Chatter and a stableful of horses mostly by Linacre, he wouldn’t have a Linacre with straight legs. He reckoned there must be something wrong with them. Bandiness is, therefore, no bar to greatness.”
Chance plays an extraordinary part in any man’s life but particularly one who essays onto the Turf to make his fortune. In the autumn of 1929, Cecil Battye was just another struggling trainer preparing a small team at Warwick Farm; he had spent most of his forty-six years making twopence do the work of a shilling. He hailed from an old N.S.W. family that had spent much of their time around horses. His grandfather was the Captain Battye who was Superintendent of Police in the Albury and Orange district in the days of the bushrangers when a fast horse was a matter of life and death. Finding a fast horse remained something a life struggle for Cec Battye all these years later.