A lone grey horse in any field seduces the eye, but it is also a seduction of the heart when the horse in question serves it up boldly from the front. In all the world of racing, I don’t think there is a finer sight than a big horse that attacks from the start, challenging the clock and opponents alike with every stride. In that glorious Sydney spring of 1959 Martello Towers did just that, becoming the only horse up to that time to complete the clean sweep of winning the Hobartville Stakes, the Canterbury and Rosehill Guineas, and then the A.J.C. Derby. The phrase ‘a colourful racing identity’ is one that racing writers employ as a euphemism in describing some of the more disreputable and dubious habitués of the racecourse. It is a phrase applied to people, not to horses. And yet if we accept both its literal and figurative meaning, surely no racehorse deserved the epithet more than our Derby hero of 1959.
While the report of Flight’s death when foaling at Woodlands Stud in early October 1953 was no exaggeration, the obituaries that dismissed her as a failed matron were decidedly premature. It is a curious phenomenon of racing folklore within this country that unless a champion race mare throws a foal whose deeds on a racecourse closely match her own, she is often dismissed as a disappointment at stud.
When Tommy Smith first took the A.J.C. Derby in 1949 with Playboy he was a young man with his way to make in the world; by the time Tulloch gave him his second success in the classic eight years later, the boy from Jembaicumbene had well and truly arrived. Indeed, as the man himself observed: “Playboy made me; he really got me going. People started giving me horses to train.”
Somewhere in the course of the 1950s for me at least, this history starts to slip the confines of the State Library’s archives and the research facilities of the A.J.C. offices. The names begin to have faces and personalities; the races themselves stir memories. I recognise them as belonging to the playground of my own experience. I think it is the year 1956 that marks the first emergence of this consciousness in me for the winner of the Derby that year was Monte Carlo. It was a name that was bound to resonate with any child of those times and in my naive infant imagination, it seemed so right that my first champion racehorse should happen to be named after my favourite sweet biscuit. It was a year or two before I came to realise that the name had a far more sophisticated derivation and one altogether appropriate for the racecourse – after all, it was W. Somerset Maugham who had once famously described Monte Carlo and its principality Monaco as “a sunny place for shady people.” However, there was nothing shady about the two principals responsible for this colt’s rise to prominence, for Frank Dalton and Jack Thompson were two of the finest characters ever to venture upon the Australian Turf. One of the most successful trainer-jockey partnerships during the 1940s and 1950s in Australian racing, for all of their success in winning premierships and major races, the pair had never been linked together with a major classic contender until that 1956-57 racing season when Monte Carlo arrived upon the scene.
Among the most popular fixtures of the season for the real racing aficionado, are the two-year-old barrier trials held at Randwick in mid-September. Juveniles that have been seen galloping in the home paddocks, or sold at the fall of the auctioneer’s hammer just months before, carry silk for the first time. It is an occasion only for the racing purist, with no bookmakers and no betting, and although the amenities of Randwick racecourse are freely available, the attendance is never large. Such trials have been a part of the club’s traditional racing calendar for many years but rarely has the fixture ever been more keenly anticipated than in 1954. For some weeks before the trials that year there had been a real excitement abroad as the cold, sharp days of winter mellowed and lengthened into spring. And the reason for it was the early promise being shown by a small group of colts and fillies by a first season stallion recently imported into Australia by Stanley Wootton. The stallion’s name was Star Kingdom.
By the time of the Easter Yearling Sales in April 1953, Delville Wood, with only three crops racing, was well on his way to winning the title of Champion Sire of Australia for that season – the first of five consecutive titles in that glorious reign of the new King of Kia-Ora. Buyers at those yearling sales on the quest for a prospective Derby winner were inclined to look no further than the various lots on offer by the champion stallion. The man whose fortunes on the Turf had become most closely aligned with the progeny of Delville Wood was Ernie Williams; and he had already enjoyed the satisfaction of seeing his livery sported on the likes of Hydrogen, Forest Beau, Lord Forest and Electro. Was it any wonder then that Williams spent many hours poring over the Kia Ora offerings in that year’s sales catalogue?
At 10 a.m. on Tuesday morning of 15 April 1952, the firm of William Inglis and Son Pty Ltd commenced their Sydney Easter Sales of yearlings at their Newmarket stables in Barket-street, with the auctioneer, Reg Inglis on the podium. It was an attractive catalogue of 750 lots to be sold over the course of four days. One man with a particular interest in bidding on that first morning was 39-year-old Ernie Fellows jr, an emerging trainer who had only been granted his No 1 licence eight months earlier. The yearling for which Fellows was determined to bid was Lot No. 32, a bay or brown colt by Gaekwar’s Pride out of the mare Sincerity and was one of three yearlings being offered on the first day by Arthur Meehan’s Marylands Stud at Castle Hill. Ernie Fellows frequently visited the stud to inspect the mares and foals and had taken a shine to the little fellow when he was just a few months old and grew even more enamoured of him as he matured into a yearling. However, while Fellows won the bidding at 1050 guineas, he was forced to go much higher than intended and beyond the budget of the person for whom he had the colt in mind. The client wasn’t prepared to pay that much for the progeny of such an unfashionable stallion as Gaekwar’s Pride.
The great, unfulfilled ambition of Adolph Basser on the Australian Turf was to win the A.J.C. Derby. Each year at the Sydney Yearling Sales he bought well-bred and expensive colts, especially for this purpose. His first starter in the race had been the Midstream horse, Streamford, who had run unplaced in 1942, while in 1950 his promising three-year-old, French Cavalier, had failed to stay the journey. But, of course, the closest that Basser had come to success was with Delta in 1949, when the champion colt had been desperately unlucky in the race won by Playboy. It came as no surprise, therefore, when the younger full brother to Delta was on offer by Kia Ora Stud at the 1951 William Inglis Yearling Sales, speculation was rife that Basser would be the likely purchaser. But there was a complication. It was Basser’s habit that every two years he would embark on a sea voyage to England and the Continent as a means of relaxation and that year the cruise happened to coincide with the 1951 Easter Sales. Although the great man wouldn’t be there in person, before departing he managed to find the time to inspect the Midstream – Gazza yearling and he liked what he saw. Just a few days before the sale he sent a cable to his trainer, Maurice McCarten, with instructions to bid for the colt.
In the stillness and silence of an early autumn morning at Randwick racecourse in 1950, the trainer, Ted Hush was observing his horses work out. The prominent owner, Ernie Williams, approached him and expressed his admiration for the condition of his charges. Hush, as was his habit, was chewing a lolly at that appointed hour. It was one of his more unusual behavioural traits that, being neither a smoker nor a drinker, he was seldom without a bag of sweets in his pocket. Williams asked for one. Hush obliged, and Williams said: “Why don’t you ask me to give you a horse to train in return?” Hush did, and from such a simple exchange of pleasantries was a most fruitful collaboration on the Australian Turf to emerge, one that matured into a genuine friendship that lasted until Hush’s death.
What is a man to do when he selects a yearling from a sales catalogue purely on pedigree, only to find that upon inspection the horse in question has a physical deformity? To bid or not to bid – that is the question. The answer, at least insofar as veteran Victorian trainer Fred Hoysted was concerned at the Sydney Yearling Sales in 1949, was to bid anyway and hope for the best. And in the end, that is what he got – the best juvenile of the year in Australia and a horse which was to mature into the country’s outstanding staying filly the following season.