And now we come to the year in our Derby chronicle that, more than any other seems almost like a fairytale – a true romance of the Turf. With shades of Dick Whittington, a penniless fourteen-year-old boy leaves his humble bush home of dirt floors to seek his fortune in the city. Dick Whittington dreamt of a city paved with gold; our hero was to find racecourses paved with the stuff. After a series of misadventures as a jockey, a strapper and a punter, he eventually decides to become a horse trainer. He manages to buy a colt that nobody else wants and enters it in the A.J.C. Derby. The horse itself is a maiden but the young man – now thirty-two years of age – declares to all who will listen that the horse, like himself, is very much underrated. He backs the colt at long prices at Tattersall’s Club to take the classic, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The 1948-49 racing season brought forth a wonderfully talented crop of three-year-olds and none more so than Carbon Copy, winner of that year’s A.J.C. Derby. An ounce of luck is worth a ton of judgement in the breeding of a classic winner, an aphorism of the Turf that the brothers Abe and Hymie Silk were only too willing to acknowledge. The pair had made their fortune as fruit merchants in Melbourne before indulging in their love of thoroughbreds by establishing the Glen Devon Stud at Werribee, about twenty miles south-west of Melbourne. As small-time hobby breeders with only a modest budget, opportunity knocked during the last months of World War II when the one-time leading Victorian trainer Bill Burke sold them a rising nine-year-old broodmare named Havers.
Horseracing slowly returned to normalcy throughout 1947 after the massive dislocation of the War years. It wasn’t until early March that Randwick for the first time in years conducted an eight-race-card. Transport problems, so it was claimed, would not have enabled such a lengthy programme before. More than thirty-three thousand people attended that particular fixture. At the Sydney Easter Yearling Sales, 467 lots changed hands for an aggregate 256,286 guineas resulting in an average price of 548 guineas. This aggregate was some 6195 guineas below the previous year despite the sale of thirty-three more lots. Nonetheless, bloodstock breeders together with William Inglis and Son through the auctioneer, Reg Inglis, pronounced themselves generally satisfied. However, one man that wasn’t satisfied was W. J. Smith of the St Aubin’s Stud, who withdrew thirty-one of his original draft of fifty-four lots catalogued, claiming that buyers didn’t appreciate the true value of the yearlings submitted.
At the beginning of spring in 1946 the man generally acknowledged as the finest trainer of stayers in Sydney, had never won a Derby either at Randwick or Flemington. The figure in question was the 71-year-old Dan Lewis. A Derby victory might have been missing from his curriculum vitae, but he already had four Sydney Cups to his name. A true gentleman of few words, and those few spoken in a soft and courteous manner, Dan Lewis had cut a distinctive figure on Sydney racecourses over many years with his trademark bowler hat, bow tie and pipe. He was to remain reticent throughout a training career crowded with success in which his best two years were still to come, although he never did manage to top the Sydney trainers’ premiership.
The war ended in Europe on May 8th, 1945 and while victory in the Pacific didn’t come until the surrender ceremonies aboard the battleship Missouri on September 2nd, Australian racing had burgeoned throughout the year. Nearly all of the wartime restrictions had been abolished by Derby Day, including those on interstate transport before the spring meetings; but a persistent drought contributed to a fodder shortage, and as a result, the numbers of horses permitted to race in Victoria and NSW were drastically reduced. It was one thing for wartime restrictions to be lifted, it was another to return to normalcy after the upheaval of wartime legislation. A number of controversial issues confronted the Australian Jockey Club.
On a midsummer’s day in 1943, Peter Riddle happened to be at the Newmarket yards of William Inglis and Son when the yearlings from Kia-Ora Stud were being unloaded from the horse float. In those days, the yearlings arrived at the yards well before Easter to be prepared for the sales, and the Kia-Ora stock was generally the first, some three months before the auction. Although Peter Riddle’s brother, Bert, was the manager of the stud at the time, Peter hadn’t been given any privileged information concerning this particular batch. But for a reason which he later had difficulty explaining, he took a liking to one little colt as he emerged from the float.
‘What, when drunk, one sees in other women’, the critic Kenneth Tynan once intoned, ‘one sees in Garbo sober’. It was the ultimate paean to a screen heroine – those transcendent qualities of beauty, strength and courage. In the dark years of World War II when the austere and hard times robbed the racecourse of any glamour, another of the fair sex was to win the hearts of a generation. Hers might have been a different kind of beauty, strength and courage, but, like Garbo, she too, wanted to be left alone to enjoy her own company – both on and off the racecourse. It was in races, however, that her aloneness captured the public imagination when doing what she did best – setting the pace and daring others to catch her.
It was during the hard times of the Depression in 1932 that Brian Crowley first assumed responsibility for the sheep property ‘Oreel’ at Merrywinebone, near Moree. As he oversaw the property back to prosperity and the years of economic gloom recede, Crowley began to take an interest in thoroughbred breeding and racing in the local Moree district; in time he became chairman of the Collarenabri Race Club. It was in 1942 that Crowley decided to journey to Sydney on the North-West Mail to attend both the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting and the Easter Yearling Sales. The idea was to buy a cheap filly for racing with the prospect of ultimately using her as a broodmare on his property. It was about 11.30 on the morning of Tuesday, April 7th, 1942 that one of the great bargains of the Australian Turf went under the hammer at the Barker Street stables of William Inglis and Sons. An early September foal, Lot No. 11 was a bay filly being offered by C. H. Schmidt from his ‘Mirridong’ property at Manildra, N.S.W. by his nondescript stallion, Royal Step, out of a broodmare imported from New Zealand named Lambent. Schmidt was a man that often retained his homebreds for racing – he had won the Sydney Tattersall’s Gold Cup as far back as 1925 – but with the Japanese threatening Australian shores and the future of racing precarious, he had decided to part with this filly along with some others.
Schmidt had raced Royal Step, a son of Heroic whom he had bought out of the yearling ring for 625 guineas. Trained by Bill Ross, the horse had some ability, but troublesome legs prevented him from rising above welter class, although he had won ordinary handicaps at Randwick and run a placing in the James Barnes Plate at the Tattersall’s Club Meeting. Schmidt had retained the horse to stand at his own property and provided him with a few mares to test his worth. Lambent, the dam of the bay filly for which Brian Crowley was about to bid, was a chestnut mare bred in New Zealand in 1927; she had only raced at three and failed to run a place in all five of her appearances on a racecourse. However, she had left a few foals in New Zealand before coming across the Tasman in 1937, and included amongst them had been Sparkle, winner of both the Dunedin and Winton Cups among other races. Now it is easy enough to justify almost any pedigree in hindsight, especially when the bearer develops into a champion, but the maternal line of Lot No. 11 did stand up to scrutiny. Or at least the scrutiny of Brian Crowley, which was all that mattered on that crisp autumn morning in April, for she descended from the legendary Chelandry, one of the most famous mares in the whole of the English Stud Book. While Lambent herself might have besmirched the family honour on the racecourse, other members of the clan hadn’t. Lambent’s dam, Dazzling Light, had been runner-up in a New Zealand Oaks and was the sister of those two great New Zealand fillies, Razzle Dazzle and Affectation.
The 1942 Inglis sales catalogue was a very thin volume by usual standards, with breeders voluntarily cutting their offerings by half, given the Federal Government’s wishes to restrict race meetings and the difficulties of wartime transportation. The doubts that haunted the vendors as to the short-term future of Australian racing preyed upon the minds of many buyers as well. Moreover, this particular yearling had arrived at Newmarket straight out of the paddock only a few days before the auction and lacked the elegance and comportment of her sales yard rivals who had been groomed for sale months before. Still, the bay filly did have good legs, and Crowley was able to secure her for just 60 guineas. As she left the ring, one of Brian Crowley’s country acquaintances jokingly asked him: “What made you buy her?” His response has become famous in Australian Turf folklore. “Oh well, if she’s not good enough for down here she might win a race in the bush’ Crowley replied.
The filly, of course, was Flight. Just a couple of years before, Brian Crowley had retained a local man at Gunnedah named Frank Nowland as his private trainer and he now sent this latest yearling to him to be broken-in. A quiet little man, Nowland was one of the old school of successful pony trainers, who twenty years before, had trained a small team on the unregistered courses; his best performer during those grafting years had been Lady Baeda, a smart all-height sprinter. Nowland’s association with Crowley was about to lift him onto an altogether different plane, and the pair had already enjoyed a modest measure of success in town with horses such as Hilarious, Arahura and Amazing, but this filly was to prove something else altogether. After being broken-in, the as yet unnamed filly was returned to Crowley’s property ‘Oreel’ where his daughter proceeded to ride her about the place; and it was about the same time that his son enlisted in the Air Force. When it came time to register a name for the filly to race under, Flight seemed the perfect fit.
Such was the potential shown by Flight as well as a number of the lesser horses Nowland was now preparing for Crowley, that, together with wartime restrictions on horse transport, Nowland decided to relocate to Sydney. With Crowley’s assistance, he moved from Gunnedah into stables in Botany Street, Kensington, at the beginning of the 1942-43 racing season. Although Flight had only been in work ten weeks, Frank Nowland was confident of a bold showing when he produced the filly for her first public appearance in a five-furlong nursery at Randwick on Villiers Day in late December. The trainer had booked Roy Carter for the ride, a former apprentice of Bayly Payten, who hadn’t saluted the judge in Sydney for several years. Bayly actually had one in the same race, Van Eyck owned by Sir Sydney Snow, and the stable rather fancied it.
The field included the speedy Estborough, and in early betting as much as 33/1 was quoted about Flight. Nonetheless, apart from Brian Crowley and Frank Nowland, she had found no new friends by the time the field picked their way to the start. While the public didn’t realise it at the time, what happened next would come to be seen as a paradigm for the filly’s courage over the next few seasons. Flight jumped to the front and simply refused to surrender the lead; she had nothing left to give at the post but had managed to win by a length from Bayly Payten’s Van Eyck. Perhaps the story is apocryphal as so many good racing yarns are, but as Payten waited in the saddling paddock for the horses to return to scale, he allegedly quipped to Snow: “I’ll bet it’s the last time she’ll ever beat him!” It wasn’t long before Payten together with the entire Sydney racing public were dramatically re-assessing the abilities of this most unfashionably bred filly.
Flight was a filly that improved steadily throughout her first season on the Turf winning five of her eight races, although it wasn’t until the Randwick autumn meeting that sportsmen really began to recognise her remarkable ability. This myopia was partly explained by the fact that no one – including her different jockeys – had yet realised that here was a free spirit that chafed at restraint. Rather than be ridden back in a field, she was at her best when allowed to run. It was an insight not entirely lost on Fred Shean who partnered her in the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes after her former jockey Ted McMenamin had preferred the mount on Mayfowl. Starting a 16/1 outsider, Flight, after being second early, led from the half-mile and was only caught in the last few strides to be beaten a head by Mayfowl. McMenamin acknowledged after the race that only his respect for Flight had enabled Mayfowl to beat her, as he understood the importance of stalking the filly. At least Flight in defeat had avoided a penalty for the Champagne Stakes and a week later, with McMenamin back in the saddle, she swung for home as full of running as Mussolini’s legions, galloping the colts off their legs over the six furlongs in a time that had only ever been bettered in the race by Manfred and Pandava. It was after this bubbling Champagne performance that pressmen began to ask: “Is this Flight another Valicare?” Little did they know, but they were still selling her short! The daughter of Royal Step was then turned out for a spell on her owner’s Merrywinebone Station.
After a three-month break, Flight resumed racing on the last day of the old season in a nursery at Randwick restricted to fillies. Despite being burdened with 9 st. 7lb and being drawn wide at the tapes, Ted McMenamin was applying the brakes long before the winning post. Flight’s trajectory towards the Derby then involved just three races in the new season, i.e. the Hobartville Stakes, Rosehill Guineas and the weight-for-age Craven Plate. In defeating Tribal and War Eagle in the closest of finishes in the first of these races, Flight – for the first time in the hands of Jack Thompson after McMenamin had again preferred Mayfowl as a spring engagement – displayed all the grit and courage for which she was quickly becoming famous.
Three weeks later Flight again made the running in the Rosehill Guineas, but when both Moorland and Mayfowl ran past her in the straight, it seemed to many that the Derby was mission impossible for the filly. What gave the sceptics pause for reflection, however, was Flight’s performance at her very next start – in the prestigious Craven Plate, which, due to wartime restrictions on race programming, saw the race run on the opening Saturday of the A.J.C. Spring Meeting, just a week before the Derby. Moorland was the favourite, with Flight freely quoted in double figures in a contest that included older horses the likes of Katanga, Veiled Threat and Yaralla. Persistent rain had delivered up a heavy surface and with another three-year-old in Tribal prepared to act as pacemaker and Flight able to enjoy a slipstream, the daughter of Royal Step caused quite an upset. Until then, Crowley, although preferring a Derby start for his filly, had been toying with the idea of the Epsom instead. There were no doubts now.
A week later and seven colts were declared to run against Flight for the Derby prize. It might have been the darkest chapter of the War but more than 80,000 people, including 10,000 freely-admitted service men and women, crowded into the racecourse surging and milling around bookmakers and tote windows alike. Totalisator revenue for Derby Day was to be £155,207/10/-, surpassing any Melbourne Cup Day, and an Australian record for one day’s takings. Five of the eight Derby starters were quoted at 7/1 or less, with Moorland offered up as the favourite at no more than 2/1. Here I think was the definitive proof of the Orwellian theory on bookmakers, i.e. that all bagmen offer poor prices but that some offer poorer prices than others. That Moorland remained at the top of the market despite finishing a well-beaten fourth in the Craven Plate surprised many. However, the colt’s inability to act in the rain-softened going had been accepted as the reason for that failure with Ted Bartle merely nursing the horse in the straight when it was clear he was beaten. Before that Moorland’s form had been first class, having won both the Canterbury and Rosehill Guineas at his only other appearances in the season and landing good betting plunges in both races.
MacArthur and Mayfowl shared the second line of betting. MacArthur was a son of the imported Irish stallion Golden Sovereign, whose progeny had commanded the highest prices at the previous Sydney Yearling Sales; his breeder Herbert Thompson had retained him to race in partnership with his good friend Percy Basche and placed the colt with Bayly Payten. Backward as a two-year-old, MacArthur had burst upon the scene just seven days before with an eight-length triumph in the A.J.C. Clibborn Stakes. Mayfowl, a son of the by now internationally acclaimed stallion Beau Pere, was owned by the celebrated and colourful Australian expatriate Alex Higgins, who had made his name, first as a jockey and then as a trainer in India.
Trained at Rosehill by Mick Webster, Mayfowl had wintered as Derby favourite following his narrow victory over Flight in the Sires’ Produce Stakes but had been deposed by Moorland after the latter had relegated him into second placing in both Guineas. Flight came next in the betting at 5/1 despite the fact that no filly had won the race since Picture in 1898, while the slashing War Eagle, unbeaten in every show ring in which he appeared, and owned by colourful Sydney restaurateur Jim Bendrodt, was the only other horse under double figures.
The key to the race was always going to be the pace and whether any horse other than Flight might be prepared to do the honours. Nowland and Crowley had been bitterly disappointed when the George Gorrie-trained Tribal had been withdrawn only days before the Derby as a result of a track accident at Rosebery. They had been hoping that, as in the Craven Plate, Flight would be relieved of pace-making duties and thereby able to conserve her energy for staying the mile-and-a-half journey. In the circumstances, Crowley succumbed to the belief that it was impossible for any horse to lead all the way in a Derby at Randwick – and least of all a filly. Accordingly, he pressed jockey Jack Thompson to either surrender the role of front-running to another, or, if nothing took Flight on, hasten slowly.
In retrospect therein lay the reason for Flight’s defeat, for the race was run in a time slower than many flat races for steeplechasers. Taken to the lead after the field settled down, Flight slowed down proceedings to 58 seconds for the first half-mile and for a time pulled hard against Thompson. The next two furlongs went by in 25 ½ seconds with Flight enjoying a little more leather, but it wasn’t fast enough for the favourite Moorland. It was between the six and seven that Ted Bartle made his famous move in dashing the son of Felcrag to the front to lead clearly and after that Flight and the rest of the colts couldn’t run him down. Considering the race took a leisurely 2 minutes 37 ¾ seconds to run – the slowest Derby since 1916, conceding a start to Moorland made Flight’s task well-nigh impossible. It was left to Mayfowl to run on into third place.
Moorland, a first-season son of the imported English stallion Felcrag, had been bred by the venerable Percy Reynolds at the famous Hobartville Stud and provided one last faint, nostalgic, echo of greatness from that historic homestead and paddocks, a place that had once meant so much to Australian bloodstock in the nineteenth century. The 87-year-old Percy was at Randwick to witness Moorland’s victory, and it was a beaming studmaster that entertained pressmen afterwards. Born at Tocal, Percy Reynolds had come to Hobartville in 1900 after the tragic demise of William Long; and had actively bred bloodstock there in all the years since, but until now had never got a Derby winner. Old Percy had seen Carbine race many times and firmly believed in the prepotency of the Musket blood.
It was this that had prompted him in December 1938 to import Felcrag, who descended from Carbine via the Felstead-Spion Kop-Spearmint line of English Derby winners. Felcrag was only lightly raced but had managed to win two undistinguished races at Doncaster and Pontefract in his two seasons on the Turf. He was bred on the same lines as the highly successful young stallion Double Remove, both being sons of Felstead, from a daughter of a son of Hurry On and a daughter of Hurry On respectively. Bower Belle, the unraced dam of Moorland, had been bred by Percy Reynolds in 1927 and was by the imported British sire Bernard, who enjoyed some success in Queensland in the mid-twenties, from a daughter of an own sister to Prince Bardolph, winner of the 1916 Sydney Cup. Bower Belle had already produced two modest winners in the brothers Silver Charm and Silver Bower from seven successive matings to the disappointing Silverburn.
A mid-August foal, Moorland cost 210 guineas at the 1942 Sydney Yearling Sales and had been sold just a few hours after Flight went under the hammer; he had been the most expensive of the seven yearlings offered by the Hobartville Stud at those sales. Ironically, Randwick trainer, Dan Lewis had bought Moorland on behalf of one of his long-term clients, Arthur Murrell, who raced under the nom de course of ‘M. Lundern’. A wealthy Sydney fish merchant based in Oxford Street and a big punter, Murrell had raced horses – many in partnership with Lewis – for more than ten years. Lewis had inspected Moorland at the Hobartville Stud before the colt had been sent down to Newmarket as part of Percy Reynolds’ yearling draft, and the canny trainer had suggested to Murrell that he would mature into a nice type and was worth a bid – at least up to a thousand guineas. Lewis got him on the nod rather cheaply and then set the son of Felcrag for the A.J.C. Breeders’ Plate on a day when our big-betting fish merchant disregarded Moorland’s wide draw and trawled the ring to land a mighty fine catch! Moorland came down the middle of the course to win running away by four lengths!
However, the problem with big-betting owners is that they are apt to view their relationship with any trainer through the refracted prism of the betting ring and the opportunities provided therein – and not just with their own horses but rather those of the entire stable. It seems that the cause of the falling-out between Lewis and Murrell was the win of Easter Time – trained by Lewis for a lady client – in the last race at Randwick in early January 1943 at the lucrative odds of 15/1. Murrell wasn’t on and thought he should have been. The upshot was a letter delivered to Lewis the following Tuesday peremptorily ordering him to hand Moorland – who was back in work – over to Stan Lamond at Victoria Park, together with all the owner’s gear. And there ended a beautiful friendship. Acclaimed as the best two-year-old of the season on his Breeders’ Plate performance, Moorland was produced by Lamond to land two juvenile handicaps upon resuming, but the colt then failed to run a place in the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Randwick when a prohibitive favourite. In his last race that season Moorland could only manage third behind Flight in the Champagne Stakes when again sent to the post as the favourite. The failures were later attributed to the horse not having properly recovered from having two teeth extracted just before the meeting. Punters who had supported him knew how the horse felt!
Moorland’s Derby victory gave Stan Lamond junior – a third-generation member of one of Australia’s best-known racing families – his first win in the race with his very first starter. It was hardly surprising that he proceeded to christen his residence in Ingram St, Kensington, as ‘Moorland’. Stan’s grandfather, Tom Lamond, had won the race four times, the last being with Charge in 1896. Young Stan had originally been apprenticed to his grandfather, and his first win in the saddle had been at Randwick with a horse, Copper Top, that old Tom prepared for millionaire owner, Walter Hall. The occasion was the Members Handicap, run on the last day of the 1907 A.J.C. Spring Meeting.
Stan’s most notable achievement as a jockey came when trainer Frank McGrath asked him to partner Ungarie carrying 7 st. 2lb in the 1909 Sydney Cup and the pair ran the great Trafalgar to a head. Stan enjoyed only limited success as a jockey, however, and for some years had acted as assistant trainer to his father Stan Lamond senior at Zetland Lodge, who had taken over the stables upon the retirement of old Tom in November 1909. Stan Lamond junior finally took out a trainer’s licence in his own right in the 1924-25 racing season. While the elder Stan Lamond enjoyed success as a trainer, he never won the Derby, and it had taken his son in 1943 to restore the family connection with the race. It was a particularly memorable Derby Day for both Stan Lamond and Arthur Murrell for they also combined to win the rich Gimcrack Stakes with Scaur Fel, a daughter of Felcrag. And in a curious bit of symmetry, the unplaced favourite for that Gimcrack was Twice Royal, another Royal Step filly trained by Frank Nowland on behalf of Brian Crowley. Bookmakers had assumed – quite wrongly as it turned out – that she might be another Flight.
The wartime restrictions imposed by the Commonwealth Government on the carriage of registered racing stock, in the interests of conserving coal and fuel, circumscribed the immediate post-Derby programmes of the leading three-year-olds at least insofar as the Mebourne spring was concerned. In their absence, the Victoria Derby was won by the Precept, a son of Peter Pan. Whereas Flight was put by until the summer, Murrell directed Lamond to have a crack at the older horses in The A.J.C. Metropolitan with Moorland, in which the three-year-old was handicapped on 7 st. 8lb. Lamond had won the race a decade earlier with the four-year-old Regal Son, who carried 7 st. 6lb, and yet the year younger Moorland was being asked to carry 2lb more. Rarely had Derby colts attempted the race after the early years of the century and almost fifty years had passed since a three-year-old had won, such were the impossibilities of the handicap conditions. However, at least the wartime re-programming of the A.J.C. Spring Meeting meant the race came a week, rather than the normal two days, after the Derby.
That Moorland went so close to taking the prize – beaten a half-head by the previous year’s Derby winner, Main Topic, after kicking away inside the two – is a testimony to his ability on that day. Alas, for Murrell and Lamond, the massive son of Felcrag bottomed as a result of the exertion and was never the same horse again. He failed to find any form in the autumn and after Mayfowl won a hollow victory over him in the St. Leger, was scratched from the Sydney Cup, a race for which he had been a long-time hot favourite. Although Moorland raced on intermittently into his seven-year-old season, he was fated never to win another race. Offered as a stallion prospect at the William Inglis Sales in April 1948, Fred Kelly bought him for 525 guineas to stand at his Killarney Stud at Canowindra. Alas, Moorland didn’t attract many broodmares and didn’t last long at Killarney, being sold up the line to stand at the Kyle Stud, Young. Perhaps the best two of his progeny were Moorakyle and Gun Lad although his greatest distinction as a stallion was siring triplets in the spring of 1952 to an unnamed station mare at the Kyle Stud.
Flight’s post-Derby career bore an altogether more distinguished aspect. In the summer of her three-year-old season, she came back to win four races in succession at Randwick including the Adrian Knox Stakes before going on to be beaten a half-head by Goose Boy in the last stride of that famous A.J.C. Doncaster of 1944 when carrying 9 stone, with Easter Time, on the outside, another half-head away third. Owned by Colonel Rutledge and trained by Norman Dewsbury, the winner was an aged gelding to which Flight was conceding 12lb. The A.J.C. judge, Dudley Smith, later acknowledged that, but for the white overhead finishing cord that stretched across the track from judge’s box to the winning post in those days, he might have declared a triple dead-heat. Indeed, that wonderful black and white photograph of the trio flashing past the old wooden winning post at Randwick with Flight sandwiched in the middle was to be seen for years after in many a pub throughout the land. En route to that race Flight had incurred a 5lb penalty for winning a quality handicap just three weeks before, and she would have needed to set a new weight-carrying record for a three-year-old filly to win that historic mile. As a rueful Brian Crowley remarked after the race: “With her original weight, 8 st. 9lb., I think she would have landed the Doncaster with something to spare.”
Some of Flight’s best years coincided with the war’s worst. Restrictive race programming for all horses – let alone mares – and the transport ban meant that Crowley and Nowland had no option but to try for the rich handicaps on their home course. In the following spring the A.J.C. handicapper, Fred Wilson, allotted the mighty mare 9 st. 5lb, or 10lb over weight-for-age in the Epsom, but let her into The Metropolitan (13f) with 8 st. 10lb or just 1lb over. It was an invitation too good to resist even if the distance was unchartered territory. Up to that stage of her career, Flight had never been beyond a mile-and-a-half and had raced at that distance only twice – the first time in the Derby and the second time when she won the A.J.C. Colin Stephen Stakes a week before The Metropolitan.
The public rallied to her nonetheless, and when she dashed clear inside the two furlongs after disputing the lead for much of the journey, it seemed she had the race won. But the task of giving 22lb to the three-years-older Nightbeam proved too much, and she went under by a length. It was a similar story in the autumn when Flight contested the two-mile Sydney Cup with 9 stone. Way beyond her best distance, she went within a length of pulling it off when third behind the lightweight Craigee and Russia. Bookmakers were saved from payouts running into the hundreds of thousands of pounds on each occasion. It was during this four-year-old season that Flight had that series of famous clashes with Katanga, the savage black stallion trained by Bayly Payten; four times that season the pair secured the quinella in valuable weight-for-age races at Randwick with honours even and only once was the margin more than a head.
Flight enjoyed her greatest season as a five-year-old when she developed into one of the best weight-for-age horses in the land, and, with transport restrictions lifted, Melbourne finally got to see what all the fuss was about. Flight won no fewer than eight races that year including the A.J.C. Craven Plate, W.S. Cox Plate, V.A.T.C. St George Stakes and V.R.C. C.M. Lloyd Stakes. Flight’s six-year-old season was no less demanding than the others; she raced fifteen times and managed to win three times including another W.S. Cox Plate, which she won brilliantly after setting-up an eight lengths’ lead. However, it was the Mackinnon Stakes that she won at her next start that was perhaps her most poignant victory. It has been said that on that November afternoon at Flemington nobody actually saw her pass the post. Rather, all eyes were on the pathetic figure of Bernborough as he hobbled in pain near the home turn. A susurrus of dismay had rustled through the grandstands at the moment of his breakdown. It was one of life’s terrible moments on a racecourse as the great champion departed the scene. Nor was Flight’s departure from the racecourse to be long delayed either. It came at Randwick after she made all of the running in the weight-for-age Autumn Stakes at Easter, only to be run down by Russia in the last half-furlong.
The great mare retired to the paddock after winning 24 and being placed 28 times in her 65 starts, earning a record £30,667 in stakes for a mare, and eclipsing the previous earnings record held by Tranquil Star. It is interesting to reflect that Flight amassed her money through sheer consistency and hardiness in weight-for-age contests. As Peter Pring observed in his book ‘Analysis of Champion Racehorses’ in five seasons she never suffered an extended lapse of form. When one considers that she never won a major handicap and that the richest prize she ever earned was the £1,520 for the Champagne Stakes, her record haul of prize money is breathtaking. However, cold statistics alone do not explain how she managed to capture the hearts of the Australian people. It wasn’t just the matter of her winning but the manner in which she did it: in a word – courage. Once the secret of letting Flight run in her races had been stumbled upon, the challenge was laid down. Henceforth she would have to be caught; and then she would have to be beaten. The authorities might have impounded racing binoculars for the war effort, but who needed them when Flight was on the job.
Flight fought out finishes with some of the great horses of Australian racing – Bernborough, Shannon, Russia and Tranquil Star included – and she beat them all. Among the thousands of racegoers that thrilled to the sight of the little mare – all 15.2 hands of her – ears pinned back and defying the odds, many were servicemen in uniform on leave. Sacrifice and courage were qualities they understood only too well. In the closing years of the war, Australian and American troops serving in Darwin, New Guinea and the islands of the Pacific, received radio broadcasts of the great mare’s battles. Requests for photographs of Flight flooded into Army headquarters and newspaper offices alike; and she was idolised in the picture gallery of many an army hut or mess alongside those other fast ladies with good legs – Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable. Once wartime restrictions eased, and newspaper journalism returned to normalcy, some newspapers issued coloured supplements featuring Flight. One such example, albeit in black and white, is reproduced below:
There is another aspect of Flight’s racing life that needs emphasis. It is the longevity of it and, in particular, those years it embraced. Remember, it began during the darkest days of World War II when the very future of civilisation as we knew it was being called into question. And it was still going strong long after the desperate German Fuhrer had committed suicide in his Berlin bunker on that last day of April 1945. Never underestimate the significance of context and circumstance in the mythology of our heroes and champions, equine or otherwise. Just as the Great Depression embellished the Phar Lap legend, the Dark Age of World War II enhanced mythology of Flight. Whether it was a black stallion like Katanga attempting to savage her or the handicapper attempting to stop her, she was very much a heroine for the times.
Flight also made unlikely folk heroes out of Brian Crowley and Frank Nowland too. In yet another example of the reflected glory that a famous racehorse can bring to an owner seeking a seat on the committee of a race club, in April 1944 Brian Crowley was elected to fill the A.J.C. vacancy created by the retirement of Sir Samuel Hordern. He easily defeated his two opponents, Sir Sydney Snow and A. E. Stephen. And it was thanks to Flight (and, no doubt, newly elected committeeman Crowley) that Nowland was elevated to the status of holding a No. 1 trainer’s licence at the beginning of the 1945-46 racing season.
At stud, Flight produced five foals – four colts and one filly – yet only one of them, Morning Wings, a moderate colt by Helios, was a winner. Flight died while foaling in late September 1953 at the Woodlands Stud at Denman; an unusually big foal by Confessor caused a haemorrhage and the great mare died soon after foaling. At the time of her death, Flight seemed to be a failure as a broodmare and among others, Clive Inglis marked her passing in his weekly Truth column with the observation “she died this season at the age of thirteen without making any conspicuous contribution to posterity.” At the time it seemed a fair comment. Nor did her last foal – which was reared by hand – rescue her reputation, as he never made it to the racecourse. However, the last chapter of the story of Flight was yet to be written and the key to it lay in her one surviving daughter. Although the eponymous Flight’s Daughter failed to win on the racecourse in just four appearances as a juvenile, she earned immortality as the mother of two Derby winners in Skyline and Sky High. Their stories will be told later in this chronicle.
Looking back on that famous 1943 A.J.C. Derby years later, Jack Thompson believed the contest should have been much closer. Prior to the race, Brian Crowley had been plied with gratuitous advice as to how the filly should be ridden given the unenviable record of her sex in the race. Thompson recalled: “In those days it was the popular belief that it was impossible to lead all the way and win over the classic distance at Randwick. The speed of the race, as a result, was farcical. I led on Flight to the seven furlongs mark, going as slowly as possible. Then Ted Bartle took off on Moorland. The change of tempo pleased me, but when I put pressure on Flight in the straight she could not peg back Moorland. I know now that I would have been better off trying to lead all the way and make Moorland do the catching up in the straight; but thanks to Sir Brian’s many ‘experts’, I was tied down with instructions not to attempt to lead all the way.” Perhaps even Brian Crowley learned from the experience. I might observe that when Flight’s two grandsons carried the ‘orange and blue’ and avenged her in their Derby victories at Randwick and Flemington some fifteen years and later – they did so by being allowed to use their speed freely from the front.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” Thus the immortal Charles Dickens began his classic novel ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. In the spring of hope that was 1942, a 41-year-old Italian immigrant turned horse trainer, named Fillipo Allotta knew what the irrepressible Boz meant when he penned those lines in 1859. For a young man on the threshold of life as a professional horse-trainer to have within his stables the odds-on favourite in Australia’s richest classic, affords both the prospect of triumph and disaster – those twin imposters as Kipling once described them. If events proceed as expected and the horse wins, then a successful career is virtually assured; on the other hand, if the venture ends badly, a promising professional life might be snuffed out before it has barely begun. And this was precisely the circumstance in which Allotta found himself in that dark war-ravaged spring of 1942.
Permit me to quote the famous monologue from William Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’:
‘All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances. And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.’
This 1940 chapter of our chronicle introduces one of the most controversial and divisive figures ever to have strode across the Australian Turf: John Wren. Few men in Australia’s colonial history have been as revered or reviled as Wren. His life was an integral chapter in the social history of Melbourne. Perhaps the image of John Wren that younger readers have – if they have one at all, is the infamous one derived from Frank Hardy’s celebrated historical novel ‘Power Without Glory’ published in 1950 – the book the Wren family sought to suppress by an unsuccessful Court challenge. Hardy was tried for criminal libel in 1951, but he was acquitted by a jury in a case that attracted enormous publicity. Indeed, it was the last prosecution for criminal, as opposed to civil libel in Victoria.