When the A.J.C. began to transfer its attention to Randwick in 1858, the old trysting ground at Homebush was forsaken and fell into desuetude for some years. Despite the newfound splendour of Randwick in those early years, however, the holidaymaking public failed to engage with the new course as a place to combine the enjoyment of racing with that of a picnic. It was to satisfy this yearning for the atmosphere of a fete champetre that Homebush enjoyed a brief resurgence in the mid-1860s. Thomas Dawson had become the lessee of the old estate and in association with some other zealous sportsmen began to resurrect the site. A new and much better course was laid out; an excellent grandstand, commanding a view of the entire proceedings, was erected; a saddling paddock and weighing yard fenced-in, and the whole course enclosed within a high fence. Altogether the finished article came to be recognised as the second leading racecourse in the colony behind Randwick itself. It was fitting, therefore that in only the second year of this reconstituted Homebush course, it became the scene for the debut of the best racehorse Australia had seen up to that time, and, except for Carbine, who came along some 22 years later, our finest of the nineteenth century.
The horse in question was The Barb. A distinguished black colt by the imported stallion Sir Hercules, he was bred by the Lee family of Bathurst and sold as a yearling to John Tait for the sum of 200 guineas plus contingencies. Despite the colt’s small stature, Tait was taken by his extraordinary muscular development. When the time came to send The Barb to Sydney to join Tait’s formidable stable the colt was taken there by Ned Ingersole, the well-known horsebreaker and trainer who had been connected with the Lee family since boyhood and who always had charge of the Leeholme and Yaralee yearlings. At the same time the brothers James and Joe Kean were taking some horses down on behalf of Edward Lee; and Ingersole joined the little party attempting to ride the black son of Sir Hercules, who bucked for most of the journey over the mountains from Bathurst to Parramatta. For years afterwards Ingersole and the brothers Kean would relate the wild time they had in bringing the black demon to the metropolis. It was Jimmy Ashworth, John Tait’s fidus Achates, who ultimately had responsibility for schooling the colt.
Throughout his racing career, The Barb was never much more than 15 hands 1 ½ inches’ high and was perhaps best described as a little, big horse. Possessed of a plain head, inclined to be Roman, on a short neck set into deep and very powerful shoulders, The Barb was short in the back but lengthy in his quarters, which were well let down with very muscular thighs and gaskins; and he boasted capital legs to the knees and hocks. Perhaps his only fault in conformation was his rather flat feet, but at a gallop, he moved with a long, sweeping stride. The Barb’s other notable physical trait was a rather roguish eye when excited – a trait he exhibited to the full in his first public appearance, which came at the Homebush course on the first Monday in April 1866, just six weeks after he had been broken in.
A measure of the patronage enjoyed by Homebush during these few brief years of revival can be gleaned from the fact that an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people were in attendance on that day, many having travelled to the course by rail. The multitude might have been in the presence of the next A.J.C. Derby winner when the first race on the card was conducted, but few would have thought so. For the son of Sir Hercules gave a buckjumping exhibition that suggested his schooling had been quite inadequate. He dislodged young Stanley, the stable jockey before he and the rest of the field were despatched at the second attempt. Despite both his truancy and being unwanted in the betting, The Barb narrowly missed the minor placing in the race won by Mr Baldwin’s Blondin.
The fact is that in April 1866 the true racing cognoscenti in Australia believed they knew exactly the right place to find the next A.J.C. Derby winner and it wasn’t at Homebush. Maribyrnong seemed a far more likely spot, and the racehorse in question was a magnificent two-year-old bay colt named Fishhook. A full brother to the V.R.C. Derby and St Leger winner, Angler, Fishhook was by the all-conquering English stallion, Fisherman, out of the English mare, Marchioness, the heroine of the 1855 English Oaks. Fishhook had won the Ascot Vale Stakes at his racecourse debut, only to lose the race in the stewards’ room to his stablemate Seagull for going inside a post. His next appearance came on New Year’s Day when he won the Essendon Stakes at Flemington, and by the time he snaffled the Flemington Stakes at the V.R.C. Autumn Meeting, Fishhook was being hailed in the press as the finest racehorse in the colonies.
Hurtle Fisher, the founder of the Maribyrnong Stud, raced Angler and Fishhook, having imported both their sire and dam into Australia; but he had shocked the racing establishment here when in February 1866 he announced his intention to dispose of his entire stud and racing stock, including Fishhook. I shall leave the story of the Maribyrnong Stud and the Fisher family to later chapters. However, a measure of the strength of the stud’s two-year-olds that season is the fact that Fishhook apart, the auction included the Ascot Vale Stakes and future V.R.C. Derby and Oaks winner in Seagull, as well as the next champion stallion Maribyrnong, not to mention Budelight and Siren.
There were many distinguished sportsmen – particularly those from NSW – who doubted the bona fides of the Maribyrnong auction, which took place at the property on Tuesday, April 10, 1866. Many suspected that it was primarily an elaborate ploy for Hurtle to weed his stud of superfluous and undesirable lines at inflated prices while retaining all the best bloodstock within the family. Nor were such suspicions entirely assuaged either by the spurious bids from Messrs Fitt and Shee or when the pick of the stud happened to fall into the hands of Hurtle’s brother, Charles Fisher. Much speculation had swirled about the prices that the auction would bring beforehand, but it was widely conceded that an amount of 2000 guineas was the full extent to which buyers would go for anything on four legs. Imagine, then, the public reaction to the staggering news that Fishhook had changed hands for the fabulous sum of 3600 guineas. Bidding on the colt had opened with a nod from Pat Keighran at 1500 guineas, but was quickly swamped by a succession of competing nods from John Moffatt and Charles Fisher, with the latter’s final hundred guineas securing the prize.
Many sportsmen in the colonies ridiculed the notion of any horse in Australia being worth the price that Fishhook brought, and contended that Charles Fisher would never yield an adequate return. When, less than a fortnight later, William Filgate booked passage for the ‘Hook on board the Alexandra bound for Sydney, one newspaperman went so far as to speculate why any vessel was necessary? After all, surely any colt worth 3600 guineas could walk on water. Miracles or not, the prepossessing son of Fisherman was coming to fulfil his three engagements during the A.J.C. autumn fixture viz. the Two-Year-Old Stakes on the opening Saturday; the Champagne Stakes on Thursday; and finally the Nursery on the last Saturday. Accompanying Fishhook was another promising two-year-old by Fisherman in Budelight also owned by Fisher.
One man serenely unconcerned with this influx of Victorian interlopers, and prepared to test their faith to the full, was John Tait. In the days since the Homebush fiasco, The Barb had been clocking smart times on the training ground at Randwick; and in one trial over ten furlongs The Barb gave weight to both Falcon and Warwick, two of Tait’s proven older gallopers, and yet beat them easily. Little wonder then that the stable strongly supported the colt in the ante-post betting for the juvenile race to be run on the first day of the meeting, regardless of the presence of the Melbourne wunderkind at level weights. Never mind that the two Fisherman colts looked giants running against mere ponies. In a field of nine, Charlie Stanley partnered with the black demon. Despite being fractious at the start – The Barb was well in the running until near the distance post when Budelight swerved and drove him across the course, thereby costing any chance of victory. Fishhook went on to win the race by a neck from his stablemate with The Barb filling the minor placing three lengths adrift. John Tait was none too impressed by the interference and, though The Barb’s greenness more than contributed, felt it was a matter of the Maribyrnong stable winning ‘by hook or by crook’.
The Barb wasn’t entered for the Champagne Stakes run on the second day, which attracted a field of just four when again Charles Fisher’s pair dominated the event with Fishhook proving victorious by a neck. Impressive as the expensive son of Fisherman had been in those two outings, Tait was pleasantly surprised when weights were declared for the Nursery (6f) on the final Saturday to discover that the handicapper had let The Barb in with just 7 st. 12lb – Fishhook was conceding him a stone in weight. There wasn’t a juvenile in the land that could give that kind of poundage and a beating to the little black, and he knew it. However much the public still preferred the visitor, the Tait confederacy recouped all of their ring losses from the first day and then some when the little son of Sir Hercules proceeded to make the entire running to win comfortably from Fishhook without once being touched with the stick. Moreover, the time was a speedy 1 minute 19 seconds – much faster than Fishhook’s win over the same course and distance earlier in the week.
Waiting for his colt to return to be unsaddled, Honest John was musing to himself about The Barb’s worth given Fishhook’s price tag of 3600 guineas, when a newspaperman posed the very question. Came the authoritative pronouncement: “5000 guineas at least!” That last day of the meeting was notable for the fact that the Messrs Lee’s stud was responsible for all of the winners, bar one, and that Tait himself claimed six winners over the course of the week. But there were no prizes for guessing which of them had given him the greatest satisfaction. Mischievous hyperbole his quip to the pressman as to The Barb’s true value may have seemed on that crisp May afternoon, but time would prove that even Tait was yet to take the full measure of this quite remarkable thoroughbred in his midst.
William Filgate was regarded as a better stud manager at Maribyrnong than a trainer of racehorses. It was partly to address this shortcoming that in May 1866, and only a month after buying the stud from his brother, Charles Fisher entered into an engagement with Joe Morrison, who had been successfully acting as both trainer and jockey to Philip Dowling’s Caulfield stables for some years. After the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting, both Fishhook and Budelight had been left in Sydney, enjoying a winter spell at Richmond, before being trained for the Derby at Andrew Town’s establishment away from the prying eyes of the touts. Consequently, it was difficult for the general public to know how much the expensive son of Fisherman had improved during his furlough. No such doubts surrounded The Barb whose coterie of admirers included a few prominent pressmen who waxed lyrical as to the physical strengthening of the black since the A.J.C. autumn gathering.
Nonetheless, The Barb’s flame might have been snuffed out even before it began to flare so brightly when he narrowly escaped death in a fire at John Tait’s stables in Upper William-street South one Thursday evening in early July. The whole of the stabling and its contents, several tons of hay, valuable harness and rugs were entirely consumed in the conflagration, which could be seen from most parts of the city because of the site’s elevation. Happily, Jimmy Ashworth’s quick thinking had enabled him to rescue the four horses, including The Barb and Volunteer, from their boxes and they were at once removed to the stables of Messrs Burt and Co. John Tait’s residence, which adjoined the stables, was only saved using watering and covering the roof with wet blankets.
In little more than a half-hour, the Insurance Company’s Brigade manual engine was on the spot and stayed the flames, and although the same company’s steam engine and the engines of the 1st and 2nd Volunteer Companies arrived shortly afterwards, their services were not required. Incendiarism was suspected, especially when Tom Ivory’s stables – a couple of miles away – also suffered a fire on the very same evening. Speculation on Sydney horseracing was big business by 1866 and Tattersall’s room was much more active than its counterpart, the Albion, in Melbourne at the time. Apart from straight-out wagering – doubles, trebles and the Calcutta were now the common-fare, and there would have been no shortage of candidates to profit from the demise of The Barb in a stable fire.
Randwick itself wasn’t the most appealing of environs at that period of its history. In May 1866 the racing correspondent for The Australasian had written: “– “When I have said that, as a racecourse, Randwick is a credit to the sportsmen of Sydney, I can go no further, for you must not go to Randwick for anything but the actual racing. Beyond that it is chaos. A more wretched-looking, hungry, inhospitable place you never saw; nothing but barren sand-hills and stunted bushes, without a blade of green grass beyond the ‘couch’ and other English grasses sown on the running ground”.
The 1866 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions appear in the table below:
Randwick was in splendid order on Derby Day although the original thirty-five nominations for the race had dwindled to just six – all colts – at flagfall; and except for one, Judge Cheeke’s Sir John, either Fisherman or Sir Hercules had sired each of the runners. Despite the disappointing number of starters, seldom had any race at Randwick excited so much public anticipation. Fishhook retained his favouritism to the end although a series of impressive gallops on the training grounds by The Barb in the week before the race saw the colt firm to within a whisker of dislodging him as the public elect. The leaden skies leading into the meeting gave way to sunshine on Saturday afternoon, and a large attendance including His Excellency the Governor and Lady Young was the inevitable result. Certainly, the portents seemed promising for John Tait when his horse Warwick won the opening race on the card. William Filgate only returned Fishhook from Richmond two days before the classic and Victorian visitors expressed disappointment at the colt’s soft and flabby appearance in the paddock and his lack of muscle definition, which was in direct contrast to John Tait’s charge. For The Barb appeared a black demoniac presence: one almost expected him to snort fire, sprout wings and vanish in fire and brimstone. And in a sense, he did – once the starter dropped his flag.
It was a one-horse contest from ‘go to whoa’. The Barb was drawn on the inside, and after the best start of the afternoon young Stanley sent his charge to the lead and after that rode a brilliant waiting race from the front to win without any apparent effort. Stanley had left his spurs at home, and he might well have left his whip there also for all his need of it. The time was none too flash but could have been much improved upon had he ever been challenged. Fishhook never showed up from start to finish, and although Joe Morrison – who was having his very first ride at Randwick – persevered to the end, even Bylong managed to deny him second prize. The result was a particular triumph for the Lee family who had bred the first two colts at their Bylong Stud. The runner-up would emphasise the class of that Derby field when he came out on the second day of the meeting to win the initial running of the Great Metropolitan Stakes (2m), admittedly with the featherweight of just 5 st. 6lb, beating the great Yattendon from whom he received over four stone in weight.
All this notwithstanding, the Melbourne sporting press and the general public took Fishhook’s fall from grace in the Derby particularly hard. “If the third horse in the Australian Derby is worth 3600 guineas, what may be the value of number one?” asked The Australasian. Overnight the Fisherman stock was dismissed as being all size and no substance while William Filgate’s perceived shortcomings as a trainer were expatiated upon in newspaper columns at length. Joe Morrison’s credentials as a jockey were not questioned, but the failure of the Maribyrnong stable to have provided him with an opportunity to canter around the course before the Derby was. Moreover, Morrison had only arrived at Randwick a week before the meeting and was thus unable to have any real influence on Fishhook’s preparation.
Despite winning the classic, race conditions at the time enabled John Tait to start his charge again in the Maiden Stakes run over the Derby course on the Thursday of the meeting. In those days all that was required were that horses be maidens at the time of entry for the race. Ironically, The Barb was left to play second fiddle to the year-older Bulgimbar in a major upset. The Barb’s lacklustre performance was later blamed on the fact that, unlike in the Derby, the little horse ran in plates. Perhaps the explanation was something of that sort, for, on Friday when the shoes came off again, he emphasised his class by carrying the famous Tait colours and 9 st. 3lb first past the post in the Bruie Stakes, beating Fishhook, to whom he conceded 7lb, easily by three lengths. Moreover, the time for the race was a very smart 1 minute 50 seconds, and no three-year-old had ever before carried such weight and recorded such time in the history of the colonies. Even the Melbourne newspapermen now began to speculate as to whether a new wonder horse had arrived Down Under? John Tait already knew. In the wake of the blue riband, the wily Scotsman had backed the black in a series of big bets for both the Melbourne and Sydney Cups.
John Tait proceeded to ship The Barb, in the company of Volunteer, Falcon and Warwick, to Melbourne where he was entered for the Cup and other races. Shipping an immature three-year-old was fraught with risk in those days, but with John Tait accompanying the horse, The Barb was landed in Melbourne seemingly hale and hearty despite a rough sea passage when nearing port. It is a sorry commentary on the state of the Victoria Derby in those years that neither The Barb nor Fishhook was ever considered by their respective stables to bother contesting the race – such was the paucity of the prize money. In the event Seagull, a daughter of Fisherman also owned by Charles Fisher, easily won it from her only two opponents. Nor was Fishhook entered for the Melbourne Cup either, being preferred for the Champion Race on New Year’s Day, given the handsome bonus of £1,000 added by the club to the sweepstakes for that event.
Meanwhile, The Barb was considered such a good chance for our biggest betting race of the year that he quickly headed the market quotations after the dramatic withdrawal of Yattendon. However, a few weeks before the Melbourne Cup the black colt, who was stabled at Flemington, suffered a severe illness and as a hedge, some of the stable money was piled on his stablemate Falcon instead. It proved to be a wide betting market on the course with The Barb eventually despatched a 6/1 favourite over Falcon. The Barb was allowed to go out 2lb overweight at 6 st. 11lb with Davis in the saddle, Stanley having been preferred for Falcon.
After about a half-mile The Barb went to the front and then simply refused to surrender the lead when challenged by Exile down the straight, winning a splendid finish by a head while Falcon was three lengths further back, although controversially, not placed by the judge who refused to declare any horse third. This rather novel interpretation of the rules of racing might have imparted a delightful Gilbertian touch to proceedings insofar as the unaffected public was concerned, but those close to the Tait stable, who had invested heavily on the stablemate for the place, were indignant. It wasn’t until 4 o’clock the next afternoon that the V.R.C., after a belated inquiry, declared Falcon officially third. After the celebrations, it was left to The Barb to complete his engagements that spring by running second in the All Aged Stakes, after losing much ground at the start.
When The Barb won the twelfth running of the Champion Race (3m) before 30,000 people on New Year’s Day 1867 at Flemington racecourse in 5 minutes 38 seconds, it was the quickest time for that distance ever recorded south of the line. There was no race about it, as the little black, shepherded by his stable companion, Volunteer, took the lead from the jump and was never afterwards approached. Fishhook, who had been expected to offer some opposition, bolted immediately after passing the Stand and was placed last. The Barb’s victory came at a price, however, for he raced without shoes and badly bruised his feet. The damage precluded any assault on the autumn Launceston Champion Meeting, and Tait rested the colt in Melbourne for two months, allowing the growth of new frogs to his hoofs before arranging his shipment back to Sydney in mid-March for a crack at the A.J.C. St Leger.
Meanwhile, the enforced absence of The Barb offered some prospect of redemption to his archrival Fishhook. William Filgate crossed the Tasman with the son of Fisherman and managed to snaffle the rich Launceston Champion Cup, beating John Tait’s highly fancied Volunteer, and taking out their St Leger as well. Returned to Melbourne, Fishhook then won the V.R.C. St Leger in a canter. Rather than training off, as some of the scribes had suggested, Fishhook was very much training on! Suddenly the A.J.C. St Leger and a renewal of his rivalry with The Barb was a prospect to be savoured, although whether or not Fishhook would be sporting the urbane Charles Fisher’s colours in the A.J.C. red riband remained a moot point. In early February, Fisher had announced his determination to dispose of his racing stud and henceforth devote his attention to breeding alone. The sale was set down for March 20th, 1867, to be held at the Maribyrnong Stud Farm itself after the Flemington autumn fixture.
Perhaps no single incident in Charles Fisher’s long career on the Victorian Turf damaged his credibility as much as that abortive ‘sale’. Long before it was conducted doubt as to its bona fides were expressed. Whatever the arrangement between Charles Fisher and his brother Hurtle when the Maribyrnong Stud and stock changed hands less than twelve months before, it was now widely recognised that the prices obtained then, were wholly out of proportion to either the stakes available or the depth of the betting markets in Australia. Such sums were more in keeping with standards on the English Turf. Fishhook’s recent improvement notwithstanding, how Charles Fisher must have regretted that the colt hadn’t become Mr Moffatt’s property twelve months earlier. Now the cognoscenti were curious as to what the son of Fisherman might realise the second time around. It was widely conceded that Fisher erred badly when, before this latest sale, he advertised it as a positive auction and failed to intimate that he had placed any reserves on his horses. Moreover, Fisher’s own valuations, particularly for his older, tried horses, were puffed to a level the public didn’t share.
There was a bogus attempt to inflate the bids for the stock on the rumour that a mysterious Mr Lewis who was present was acting as a buyer for the China market. The sham was easily seen through, and it came with the very first lot when Fishhook walked into the ring during a heavy shower of rain. Perhaps Fisher, Lewis and their confreres believed that many of the public had come down in that very same shower when Fishhook was knocked down for 1900 guineas to someone in the crowd who no sooner could be found once the gavel dropped. The colt was again put up and sold to the previous underbidder, the ubiquitous Mr Lewis, for 1800 guineas. This elaborate charade persisted for a few more lots until an abashed Fisher himself called a halt to proceedings. The multitude dispersed from Maribyrnong that day in darker humour than that pertaining upon arrival, while Charles Fisher, with the whiff of opprobrium swirling about him, proceeded to book passage for Fishhook to Sydney on the ‘City of Melbourne’ and to arrange some stabling at Johnny Cutts’s establishment.
Few A.J.C. autumn meetings had been anticipated like that one. Two champion racehorses – arguably the two finest three-year-olds Australia had ever produced – and each colt satisfying colonial parochialism by hailing from different sides of the Murray. The Barb’s only pipe opener before the fixture came when he ploughed through the mud at Homebush to effortlessly beat his one rival for the Maiden Plate with the result that he firmed into 100/15 favourite for the St Leger-Sydney Cup double, while odds were laid on him for the first of the double. Those who succumbed to the short price in the A.J.C. St Leger knew their fate quite a long way out. Joe Morrison on Fishhook wasn’t prepared to let Stanley have his own way in front that day, and the two of them went hell for leather for the first half-mile. Even before reaching the rocks Stanley’s whip could be seen in the air. Having seen off the favourite, Morrison rode a masterly race for the rest of the journey, keeping just enough up his sleeve to frustrate the fast-finishing Blair Athol by a head on the post.
In the wake of The Barb’s sensational defeat, he was immediately scratched from all remaining engagements at the fixture. In his absence Fishhook proceeded to give Charles Fisher his greatest week in a lifetime spent on the Turf. Weighted with 6 st. 10lb in the Sydney Cup against a field that included the likes of Yattendon, Tim Whiffler and Tarragon, Fishhook went off favourite with young Davis substituting for Morrison – who couldn’t do the weight – and won by three lengths. The son of Fisherman then crowned his achievements at the meeting by winning the Queen’s Guineas (3m w-f-a) on the last Saturday. Redemption for either horse or owner had rarely been sweeter, and at the conclusion of that week, Charles Fisher went home with over £1,300 in prize money, a much greater sum in winning wagers, and a gold cup valued at £150.
Maturity had at last enabled Fishhook to prove himself the great horse he really was, although his exploits could not easily be matched against The Barb’s wins in the Melbourne Cup and Champion Race at Flemington earlier in the season. After all, in the Melbourne Cup, The Barb as a spring three-year-old had carried 6 st. 13lb and defeated a field of twenty-seven, while Fishhook six months later in the Sydney Cup against an inferior field had carried only 6 st. 10lb, or 17lb under weight-for-age. However, to Fishhook’s credit it needs to be remembered that in reeling off those six straight victories beginning with the Champion Race in Launceston, the colt had to undertake three sea voyages – an uncertain and arduous form of travel in the mid-nineteenth century.
It was widely conjectured at the time that The Barb had been nobbled before the St. Leger. Certainly, John Tait thought so. People were suspected of tampering with the stable, a fact which Tait made public at Tattersall’s rooms a couple of evenings before the race. Immediately after the St. Leger, The Barb showed signs of great distress and still had not recovered by the time he left the paddock. Two days later when Tait tried to gallop him, The Barb ‘blew like a porpoise’ and had to be pulled up after going a mile. Before the St. Leger, he had taken his gallops three times the distance and at far greater speed without breathing so much as would blow a candle out. Whatever the cause of his defeat in that St Leger, our Derby hero went into winter quarters under quite a cloud; and for a long time after the horse manifested symptoms of broken wind. Tait himself despaired of ever getting his grand champion back on the racecourse and was forced to bypass both the Randwick and Flemington spring meetings later that year.
Ironically, it wasn’t The Barb whose racecourse career was ruined by nobbling, but Fishhook. Whereas neither horse raced again in 1867, each was being trained for the Port Phillip Stakes (w-f-a 3m), a race that had replaced the Champion Race and which was to be run at Flemington on New Year’s Day, 1868. Just days before the much-awaited clash, Fishhook was scratched, having been struck down by a mysterious illness, the result of which reduced him to a bag of bones. It came at a time when a spate of poisonings was blackening the public reputation of the Turf in this country and was starkly illustrated by the dramatic collapse and death of Exile when returning to scale after winning the 1867 Ballarat Cup. That Fishhook was nobbled was subsequently confirmed in February 1871 when the wife of the miscreant responsible, came forward with information. Although Fishhook later put in an appearance in the 1868 Sydney Cup, he broke down during the running and was sold to Mr Hunter, reportedly for £1500 to stand at his Woodstock Stud on the Plenty River; his full racecourse record being 16 starts for 10 wins, 2 seconds, and 1 third.
If one ignored the Ascot Vale Stakes, which he won but was subsequently disqualified, Fishhook’s only two unplaced runs came in the 1867 Champion Race when he bolted, and in the 1868 Sydney Cup when he broke down. William Filgate remained loyal to his old champion to the end of his life, and in a letter to The Australasian in December 1892 took umbrage at the claims in that journal that The Barb was the better performer. Filgate hinted darkly at other forces at work concerning Fishhook’s poor performance in the A.J.C. Derby when he observed: “To me, this race was a mystery I was unable to account for until many years afterwards for the horse was never better.” Sadly, Fishhook’s reputation wasn’t enhanced by his stud career; the horse was laid low by an early accident which prevented him serving many mares, and he died prematurely in June 1871 from an internal malady with his credentials as a sire of quality bloodstock largely untested through lack of numbers. His only notable progeny was The Hook, who won the 1879 Doncaster, but even with him just how much credit can be apportioned to Fishhook is debatable, particularly when one considers his partner in the production was that wonderful matron Juliet (G.B.).
When The Barb resumed racing on New Year’s Day 1868 at Flemington in the Port Phillip Stakes, Stanley renewed his partnership. The black horse hadn’t grown during his enforced lay-off but had measurably thickened and strengthened, and in the absence of Fishhook, he was untroubled to beat his only four rivals in the presence of H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh among others. Queen Victoria’s son was then in the midst of a tour of the Australian colonies that on March 12 would see himself shot in the backside in a failed assassination attempt while picnicking in the Sydney beachfront suburb of Clontarf. Given the not inconsiderable ante-post betting obligations of certain Tattersall’s men on The Barb before both the Launceston Champion Meeting and the forthcoming Sydney Cup, no doubt there was a wish among many that there might be a similar attempt on the life of the great racehorse.
Although The Barb failed in the Champion Race that year due to bad feet that prevented his being trained properly, Tait won the race nonetheless with his stablemate, Fireworks; but the Master of Byron Lodge had the little black well and truly primed for his Sydney Cup engagement in the autumn. The Cup was a fascinating contest that year for, during The Barb’s furlough, the year-older Tim Whiffler had emerged as a real star. ‘Tim’ had won both the A.J.C. Metropolitan and V.R.C. Melbourne Cup in the spring of 1867, and in that first of The Barb’s two Sydney Cups, was widely expected to put down the demon. Despite being burdened with 8 st. 12lb, The Barb put the parvenu in his place, winning in a time of 3 minutes 40 seconds.
It wasn’t the Sydney Cup that proved the controversial clash between Tim Whiffler and the black demon at that A.J.C. fixture, but rather the Queen’s Plate on the fourth day. Reduced to a match race between the pair, it was run in the heavy rain with The Barb again proving the better stayer, winning by two lengths in quick time despite the appalling track conditions. Stanley rode The Barb while John Driscoll partnered Tim Whiffler. Favourite at 4/6 the cheering was loud when Tait’s champion returned to the paddock, but the enthusiasm was short-lived. Stepping onto the scales young Stanley failed to pull the weight by two pounds and the race was awarded to Tim Whiffler. Never before in the history of Randwick had a shortfall in poundage created such controversy! Although the club conducted a most exhaustive inquiry and Tait went so far as to offer a £100 reward, the matter was never satisfactorily explained. If John Tait wasn’t disingenuous when he proffered that reward, then perhaps he was somewhat more enlightened almost three years later when Davis’s integrity was stained indelibly over the Florence affair; but we shall defer discussion of that particular incident to its proper place within this narrative.
Impressive as he was in that abbreviated four-year-old season, as a five-year-old The Barb was invincible: the black stallion went through the season undefeated in seven starts. In the spring he won the Great Metropolitan carrying 9 st. 10lb, beating Tim Whiffler, handicapped on the same weight, by a length after an excellent race all the way up the Randwick straight. Each of these great gallopers had been allotted an equal top weight of 10 st. 4lb in the Melbourne Cup that year and The Barb was subject to some heavy betting by the public in the days after the A.J.C. meeting.
Ante-post betting on that Melbourne Cup showed the marked advantage accruing to a leading stable in that laissez-faire era before the advent of genuine Turf reform. The Machiavellian machinations in market manipulation demonstrated by John Tait in the days leading up to the Cup were unsurpassed. Having loaded a ransom onto the stablemate, Glencoe, at extended odds while The Barb dominated the betting with the gullible public, ‘Honest’ John promptly scratched the champion on the Thursday before the race. While Glencoe, who had run a distant third in the Great Metropolitan, was untroubled to win Australia’s greatest handicap, The Barb was eating oats back in his stable box. Yes, standards of probity were much less exacting in those days.
It wasn’t as if The Barb couldn’t carry a huge weight and win a testing two-mile handicap – something he proved in the autumn when he won his second Sydney Cup with the massive weight of 10 st. 8lb – a ‘church’ as Hotspur described it in The Australasian – and had the race won half a mile from home. The Barb ran the same time as he did the previous year and behind him were the likes of Tim Whiffler, Glencoe, Fireworks and others. It was universally acclaimed as the greatest feat ever performed on a racecourse in the Australian colonies. Two days later he completed his season with a hollow victory in the Queen’s Plate (3m) on the last Saturday of the meeting. Hailed as the greatest racehorse seen in Australia – a distinction he maintained until Carbine appeared upon the scene just on twenty years later – The Barb was retired from the Turf at the end of that season. Panegyrics in the press drew favourable comparisons between the black demon of the colonies and the likes of The Flying Dutchman, Gladiateur and Blair Athol on the British Turf. Tait had already come to an understanding with Charles Reynolds of the famous Tocal Stud prior to that 1869 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting, the horse having been sold for a reported £2,000 with ownership changing hands only after racing commitments had been met. The career of The Barb on the racecourse showcased John Tait’s genius for the training and placement of his team.
We are afforded an insight into Tait’s training syllabus by the subsequent comments of two young men who worked in Tait’s stables during the closing months of The Barb’s career and who later became legendary trainers on the Australian Turf themselves in Walter Hickenbotham and Isaac Foulsham. Both men acknowledged how hard Tait was on his horses, a severe man but one who fed them well. Sporting writers of the day would describe Tait’s team as having ‘coats of burnished brass’. Sometimes on a warm morning, Tait would put rugs on his horses and work them all three or four miles. It was the equivalent of a man having a Turkish bath. When they returned to the stables they would be scraped down and their skins, when they dried off, would shine and feel like silk. In the words of Ike Foulsham: “The Barb was a marvellous horse to look at. He had a back like a bridge and quarters like a bullock. He was a wonderful weight carrier.” Yet Foulsham, in later life looking back on his early years, added, “I think, however, the best-looking horse I have ever seen was Tim Whiffler, owned by de Mestre.”
How the breeders, John and George Lee must have regretted allowing The Barb to slip through their hands as they looked on proceedings at Randwick on that Derby Day in 1866. At least the early revelation of the black demon’s greatness afforded George the opportunity to retain the younger sister that was a rising yearling at the time. How fortunate that decision proved to be, when, registered as Barbelle, she carried Lee’s colours to victory in the Doncaster Handicap and then proceeded to lead all the way in the Sydney Cup at the 1870 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting as well as being successful in some other good races throughout a distinguished career. Nor was she George Lee’s only consolation among the siblings to The Barb. Lee also retained the full brother to the champion foaled in 1866. Registered as Barbarian, he was strongly fancied for the 1869 A.J.C. Derby but was withdrawn from the race due to injury.
Although Barbarian never did win a principal race, he was good enough to run second in the A.J.C. St Leger, while at stud he sired the Melbourne Cup winner Zulu, and two other stakes winners in Surrey and Randwick. I might mention that confusion occasionally arises over the name of the mother of The Barb, Barbelle and Barbarian as in some texts it is shown as Fair Ellen and in others as Young Gulnare. The explanation lies in the fact that she was called Fair Ellen as a filly but George Lee later changed it to Young Gulnare – the same name as her own dam – when she went to stud. This repetition of names down successive generations wasn’t all that unusual during the period and was a particular idiosyncrasy of George Lee, who adopted the same approach when registering the great Sappho. I note that the online Australian Stud Book, however, has reverted to the original Fair Ellen.
The Barb was as sound as a bell when he retired; his record stood at 23 starts for 16 wins and around £7,500 in prize money. A measure of his greatness was the weight of 11 st. 7lb, which the V.R.C. handicapper allotted him for the 1869 Melbourne Cup – a race in which the limit was 5 stone 7lb. These were the years when the handicapper was unforgiving, and he was unforgiving to champions most of all. It was Richard Goldsbrough, the wool broker and close friend of John Tait, who entered The Barb in that Cup just to see what weight he would be allocated, although Reynolds, who by then was calling the shots, had no intention of starting the black. It was on the afternoon of Tuesday 20th July 1869, a couple of weeks after those Cup weights were issued, that the Sydney admirers of The Barb took leave of their hero when he held a levee at Kirk’s Bazaar prior to being loaded aboard the steamer Coonanbarra.
The ship sailed for Morpeth at 11 o’clock that night and John Tait, and Jimmy Ashworth accompanied the horse all the way to Tocal to hand him over personally to Charles Reynolds. The Barb began his first season at 15 guineas a mare. Much was expected of the champion, who traced back to the famous taproot mare, Cutty Sark (G.B.), yet despite being given every opportunity with matrons on the Paterson River, he proved a rank failure as a stallion. The colt Tocal, who went within a head of winning the A.J.C. Derby in 1876, was probably the best horse he got at stud, although had Electricity been more fortunate we might have had another just as good but more reliable. Apart from this pair, The Barb’s only other decent performers were Strathearn, with whom John Tait won a Brisbane Cup, and The Barber, winner of a Moreton Handicap.
So disappointing was The Barb at stud that – as hard to believe as it is today – a serious attempt was made by John Tait to train the horse for the 1877 Champion Race – some eight years after being retired to the paddock! A deal was negotiated between Tait and George Petty with the Reynolds family of Tocal, which saw the old champion replaced as a stallion by Goldsbrough, upon the latter’s retirement from the racecourse. The Barb thus briefly came back into Byron Lodge. The public was treated to another glimpse of their old hero on the last day of the 1876 A.J.C. Spring Meeting, and with Tait and Ashworth in attendance and the colours up, The Barb was given a canter round the course before the horses went to the post for the Steeplechase. To many, it seemed as if the black demon had returned from Hades itself. The old fellow showed such rare dash that Tait proceeded to give him a serious preparation for the Champion Stakes to be run in early January, only for the horse to break down in a gallop on the Randwick tan on the eve of his departure for Melbourne.
Tait then sold The Barb to his old mate George Petty, who for a time entertained the idea of again forming a stud. He soon abandoned the plan but not before taking the precaution of entering The Barb for the 1877 Melbourne Cup just in case he yet measured up. He didn’t, but that still didn’t stop the handicapper allotting the old bloke top weight of 9 st. 3lb in the big handicap – fully ten years after winning it! Such, then, was the reputation of what James Wilson once described as ‘the Shakespeare of horses’. Following the death of Petty later that year, The Barb was again sold, this time bringing 600 guineas. He changed hands once more in November 1883 through Messrs W.C. Yuille and Co, and this time the 20-year-old stallion brought a derisory 110 guineas and passed into the ownership of the Bowler family of Mitta Mitta on the Victorian border. The old champion eventually ended his life in oblivion at the Wheeler’s station on Coolac Creek, near Bringenbrong, dying there in January 1889 at the age of twenty-five. It was said that to the last he earned his tucker, being used to run in the milking cows and working horses; he was buried with a headstone marking the grave. But even then, there was to be a macabre twist to the saga. Peter Mitchell of Bringenbrong and the man who afterwards was to own the great Trafalgar, had the body exhumed to get one of the great champion’s hoofs, which he had mounted on an inkstand, with the black demon’s pedigree set out on a silver plate.