Jefferson Airplane’s wild and psychedelic rock music might be caught up in the time warp of San Francisco’s LSD summers but the in-crowd quip of band co-founder Paul Kantner – “if you can remember anything about the ‘60’s you weren’t really there” – has achieved a life of its own in nostalgic reminiscences about the period. Why do I mention this? Well, I can remember Derby Day at Randwick in 1968 and very clearly – because I really was there. It’s just that I wish I hadn’t been. I made the annual pilgrimage on that Saturday in October believing Always There to be a good thing in the classic and bet accordingly. For weeks I had rioted in the imaginary opulence my winnings would bring; indeed, I was so sanguine as to my expectations that I had purchased myself a new suit and hat. Rather than harbouring any romantic reminiscences about the stylish chestnut and Geoff Lane’s unimaginative ride that day, I still suffer sleep deprivation whenever it comes to mind.
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It all began simply enough – the idea was to buy a present for his wife. Stan Fox was sixty-one and his beloved wife, Millie, had recently lost her mother. He figured that a beautiful racehorse might be just the thing to lift her spirits and get her out of the house. It hardly seemed an extravagant gift. After all, the retired coal industrialist was worth a fortune having spent most of his adult life building up a coal mining and haulage company from scratch, and Millie had helped him every step of the way.
1966 represented something of an annus horribilis for the A.J.C. insofar as public relations were concerned. As we have seen, the sport of horse-racing had gradually lost its attraction for the masses in the 1950s, a trend that accelerated during the decade of the ‘swinging sixties’ – a time of massive cultural and social revolution. It was a time of distortion and upheaval in existing habits and traditions; a time of change which crumbled the cement of old standards into disused rubble and where the fissures between the old and the new generations widened. A permissive rather than a repressive age, it moved to the sound of a new beat. Perhaps it was no coincidence then, that 1966 was also the year the famous nightclub, Romano’s, so inextricably linked with the fast and the loose of the racing set, closed its doors for the last time. The end came so suddenly that hardly anybody knew it, although the saddest part was that hardly anybody cared.
In January 1964 Tommy Smith again made his annual pilgrimage to the New Zealand Yearling Sales at Trentham and, as Bob Dylan reminded us that same year, the times they were a-changin’. The early 1960’s was a period in which New Zealand studmasters consolidated their domination over their Australian counterparts in acquiring bloodlines of stamina. These were the years in which clear fault lines began to emerge between the two countries, as Australian studmasters became infatuated with the blood of Star Kingdom and Wilkes – fundamentally influences for speed in a pedigree, whereas New Zealand saw the confluence of stout bloodlines with the emergence of fine, young, imported stallions such as Summertime, Le Filou and Alcimedes. In the high summer of 1964 it seemed to anyone intent on buying that elusive Derby winner, Trentham was the place to be; and given that Summertime had sired the three previous winners of the Randwick classic, his was the blood to buy. It wasn’t surprising, therefore, that both in his discerning analysis of the sales catalogue, and detailed physical inspection of yearlings, the stock of Summertime came in for careful consideration by the Master of Tulloch Lodge.
Every so often there comes along a racehorse that happens to capture the public imagination. The reasons for the fascination may vary, although in all such instances the ability to gallop is paramount. But many horses win more than their share of prestigious races yet never attain that charismatic aura with the crowds. There need to be other qualities at work as well. It might be the horse’s flashy looks or style of racing that grabs the public, or sometimes it might be the flashy looks and style of racing of the horse’s rich and famous owners. In fact, all of these ingredients were at play in the spring of 1963 when there emerged racing’s quintessential glamour horse of the ‘sixties in the shape of a sleek and dapper black colt from Todman’s first crop. Truth be told, the aura of romance began on a crisp autumn day in April earlier that same year, when the colt went under the auctioneer’s hammer at the William Inglis Easter Sales.
In the spring of 1963 the New Zealand-based stallion, Summertime, achieved what no other sire had in the one-hundred-year history of the A.J.C. Derby. When Summer Fiesta passed the post first at Randwick on that sunny afternoon to give Tommy Smith his fourth win in the race, he also gave his sire a hat-trick of victories in the classic. In retrospect, the decades of the 1950’s and 1960’s came to represent a golden epoch for influential British and French stallions imported into New Zealand. It was an era that resonated with distinguished names like Ruthless, Fair’s Fair, Faux Tirage, Count Rendered, Le Filou, Alcimedes and Agricola. Let it be said that Summertime was up there with the best of them.
Occasionally we need reminding that the unlikely pageant of history was itself once everyday life. I was reflecting on this truism on a Saturday afternoon in 2009 when I deliberately strolled down Eleanor Street on my way to a race meeting at Rosehill. It is a quiet street on the south-western fringes of the racecourse itself, which terminates in a dead-end near to where that busy and modern thoroughfare, James Ruse Drive, verily pulses with noise and speeding traffic.
Anyone attending early morning trackwork at Randwick racecourse in the late 1980s might have come upon a kindly little man performing the humble job of gateman. First-time visitors to the course wouldn’t have given the shuffling figure a second glance, but the regulars well knew both his history and his character, which was stamped of nature’s noblest metal. The diminutive individual in question was none other than Thomas Walter Hill, who, before tragedy intervened, had been one of Australia’s leading jockeys and trainers. Even more significantly for our purposes, however, he had been one of the two central characters in perhaps the greatest drama ever played out in a major race in Australia. The race in question was the 1961 A.J.C. Derby.
A tall, shapely and attractive young blonde with good legs and elegant comportment is guaranteed to turn heads wherever she goes. It has always been thus. And this universal truth was demonstrated yet again at the 1959 William Inglis Yearling Sales when a light chestnut filly with flaxen mane and tail stepped gracefully into the Newmarket auction ring. She was a daughter of the first season French stallion, Wilkes, from the outstanding race mare Golden Chariot, bred by John Kelly at his Newhaven Park Stud, Boorowa, northwest of Canberra.
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.