The world of horse racing can seem small sometimes and with it the random collision of remarkable talents. It is a fact of which I’m reminded by the unlikely hero of our 1974 Derby chapter. In that year or two before the lingering effects of the Great Depression gave way to the frenzied activity of World War II, a young man guided a cart horse pulling a bread van around the beachside streets of Glenelg and the shores of Holdfast Bay in Adelaide. George Maxwell Hanlon, at the age of twenty-one, didn’t want the job but it brought him a living wage. And as a child of the Depression, he understood the value of money. On his rounds, he indulged his dreams of becoming a racehorse trainer.
History is lived forwards but is chronicled backwards, i.e. upon reflection. As such, we know the ending before we can ever truly appreciate the beginning and we can never wholly recapture the moment when it was to know the beginning only. And at the beginning of that 1972-73 racing season, there was Imagele. Even now, across the divide of some forty years and more, Imagele and what he promised still engender bittersweet memories for me. Permit me to take up the story on that April day in 1962 when the Gundagai grazier, Edwin John ‘Jock’ Graham, decided that he liked the look of a particular daughter of Nullabor at the Sydney Yearling Sales. Graham needed no trainer to second guess his choice, but when it came to bidding for her, he deputised the shrewd Johnnie Donohoe, for the grazier had a solicitor’s appointment to keep before the filly came into the ring.
On Friday, 10 September 1971, a special charter plane arrived at Sydney airport after an arduous eight-hour flight from Auckland, New Zealand. On board was a valuable cargo of six racehorses, and all were destined for the rich Sydney and Melbourne spring meetings. Three of the thoroughbreds, Classic Mission, Classic Nature and Crown Law hailed from the Woodville stables of leading New Zealand trainer, Syd Brown, who accompanied his team on what had proven to be a long, dramatic and turbulent journey. There was a further delay in disembarkation even after touchdown due to difficulties with the airport’s offloading facilities. However, all of this was to be as nothing compared to the turbulence and protracted drama that one of that cargo was about to visit upon Australian racing officialdom.
In the winter of 1965, Tommy Smith again made his regular pilgrimage to Europe, this time in the company of Ken Cox, the proprietor of the Stockwell Stud, Victoria. Cox was in the market for a well-bred English stallion, one with speed in his pedigree, and he was relying on Smith’s expertise to make his choice. Their itinerary included taking in the glamour and excitement of Royal Ascot, and it was there that Smith was struck by the four-year-old Infatuation stallion, Showdown, in finishing second in the prestigious Queen Anne Stakes (1m). After the event, Smith approached the horse endeavouring to obtain a close view of his conformation and physique only to be rebuffed by an overzealous panjandrum acting as gate-keeper. Nonetheless, the master horseman had seen enough. After inspecting several more prospective stallions over the next few weeks, his mind kept coming back to Showdown, and he recommended that Ken Cox make an offer for the showy chestnut son of Infatuation by Nearco, and who was out of the wonderful European broodmare, Zanzara, a granddaughter of Fair Trial. Cox offered $80,000 but was unable to close the deal, and while Smith continued on his holiday, the owner of Stockwell Stud returned to Australia empty-handed. It wasn’t until three months later with Showdown still unsold and Cox persisting with his offer through the British Bloodstock Agency, that a settlement was finally agreed and the horse transported to Australia.