One of the wonders of 19th-century racing in Australia is how the mighty St Albans stable of James Wilson Sr failed ever to win the A.J.C. Derby. The closest it came was in 1872 with an aristocratically-bred colt named King of the Ring. And thereby hangs a tale.
The nineteenth century is tinged with an aura of sepia-tinted antiquity. The familiar portraits taken in the period are generally stiff and formal affairs with the subject glowering at the camera, a face replete with a biblical beard, set against a grim background. And the few photographs of the mature James Wilson taken in the late nineteenth century to have survived down the years are faithful to this template. They show a man of rare strength and determination; with bullhead squatting on a powerful set of shoulders and a face hewn and hardened like the dark millstone grit of his native Yorkshire. Through hooded and impassive eyes, James’s expressionless face looks past the inquisitive camera and out onto the world through a copious hedge of grey whiskers. There is nary a smile to be seen; indeed, his mouth seems accustomed to silence.
The man who was to become Victoria’s greatest trainer in the second half of the nineteenth century was born in Yorkshire in around 1828 and came to Australia as a lad of just sixteen. He might have departed the northern county of England when merely a stripling, but the wild and remote harshness of the Yorkshire moors and dales were already firmly etched into his character. When young James sailed for the adventure of a lifetime to the colony of Victoria, he brought with him across the seas more than just a Yorkshireman’s broadacre vowels, defensive crankiness and a love of good ale and cricket. He was already a knowledgeable horseman. The Yorkshire of the 1830s and 1840s which served as the crucible of James Wilson’s formative years was also for a brief time the real heart of the British Turf.
Never mind that it was at Doncaster, Yorkshire in 1776, that the first St Leger was run – the world’s oldest classic race named after Anthony St Leger, a local sportsman who lived at Park Hill near Doncaster. It is now too quickly forgotten that for much of the nineteenth century the Middleham region in Yorkshire, Northern England, was one of the genuinely great horse training and breeding centres. It was the epoch of the immortal Agnes and Alice Hawthorn; of The Flying Dutchman and Voltigeur. The towns of Richmond and Middleham were great rivals in those days not to mention the stables of John Scott and William I’Anson at Malton. Mundig (1835), Attila (1842) and Cotherstone (1843) were three winners of the English Derby that John Scott trained out of Malton during James Wilson’s youth, and John’s younger brother, William partnered with each of them.
Until the end of his life James Wilson, whose love of the racehorse began in Yorkshire all those years before, never tired of singing the praises of either John Scott or the great Alice Hawthorn. It was no accident that when James Wilson came to register his racing colours in Australia, he chose the black jacket and white cap, the very same livery carried by the Earl of Derby’s horses in England. John Scott had trained for the fourteenth Earl, who was twice Prime Minister during Queen Victoria’s reign, and he had won numerous races in the north of England for his patron during James Wilson’s early years. One of the last horses Wilson had seen carry those celebrated colours before leaving England was Ithuriel, and while not distinguished on the racecourse, the horse was to become the great-grandsire of Musket. Soon after arriving in Australia, James Wilson was engaged at Deep Creek to work with horses, and it was there he looked after a galloper named Paul Jones that was successful on the primitive Flemington course in 1847. In 1851 James Wilson married Mary Ann Jamieson, and it was about this time that the couple settled in the Hamilton district.
Horse racing was quite popular in and around Hamilton by the time it was formally declared a township in 1851, and it seemed to the young couple an ideal place to launch their married life. James’s horsemanship and practical skills ensured regular employment in the mostly sheep-grazing district, while he both rode and trained steeplechasers on the side. In the days when James Wilson wore colours a steeplechaser had to be ridden to the ground: to be thrown out of the saddle spelt disgrace. It was hazardous employment, but Wilson was justifiably proud of his saddle craft. A measure of his talent may be taken from the fact that he won the Great Western Steeplechase on his own grey Dayspring in 1859 and 1860 over the four miles and forty fences on the Hamilton racecourse. It was a dangerous sport that brought a grim camaraderie in its wake and among James’s personal friends was the five-year-younger Adam Lindsay Gordon, who had migrated to Australia in 1853. The pair rode in many races together, both in Victoria and south-eastern South Australia. It was just as well that James was winning money in the saddle for by the time he won that second Great Western Steeplechase he already had five children to feed. All were born during his years in Hamilton beginning with James junior in 1856, and then came Emma (1857), Sarah (1858), William (1859) and Sarah Jane (1860). James and Mary Wilson’s last child, Mary, came along in 1862.
Down through the centuries, the Ridings of Yorkshire have bred a sturdy race, canny in commerce, tough in deal-making, and mostly devoid of sentiment in matters of business whether in wool, coal or horses. James was a real son of his native soil for he had a shrewd eye for a good horse in the rough and was a tough negotiator when it came to price. Much of his income in those struggling days came from horse trading. It was one deal in particular, however, that laid the foundation of his racing empire. The horse in question was Dinah, a likely-looking daughter of the imported English stallion Gratis out of Rous’s Emigrant mare, herself a daughter of a Bay Camerton mare. In those pre-Australian Stud Book days, the lineage of many a well-bred stock horse was lost in the mists of time. Dinah reputedly had been bred in 1844 by George Wyndham at Dalwood, just as the economic recession of the 1840s began to bite. George Wyndham’s stud was mostly renowned for the production of stock horses, and it was in this context, so the somewhat romantic story goes, that James Wilson acquired Dinah. A mob of store cattle from New South Wales had been brought down to the Western District for sale, and the drover-in-charge was riding Dinah. Wilson had bought horses from Wyndham before, most notably Buckley, a good galloper that Dinah had thrown a few seasons earlier, but on this occasion, he successfully negotiated for the mare herself.
James Wilson sent this so-called drover’s hack to The Premier and bred three racehorses Eleanor (1856), Ebor (1858) and Musidora (1859). All of them could gallop, and the six-year-old stallion Ebor gave Wilson one of his first significant training triumphs in the Adelaide Cup of 1865 when burdened with 10 st. 4lb. Ebor won many of the big handicaps in Victoria carrying similar weights besides, although it was the bonny mare Musidora upon whom the crusty and querulous Yorkshireman was to build a racing empire. When she was fit, she ran true, and when Wilson knew her to be so, the bookmakers became acquainted with the fact soon after. Musidora was as tough as old fencing wire; she raced into her seventh season as an aged mare, and her career record was that in 46 recorded races she won 18 times.
At two, Musidora won twice including the Victoria Jockey Club’s Sires’ Produce Stakes; while at three, she won the Hamilton St Leger and the Kyneton Town Plate. At four, she won the Victoria Jockey Club Cup and ran second in the 1863 Melbourne Cup behind Banker, and took out the Queen’s Plate the very next day beating Victoria’s best horses. Later in the season, she ran second in the Australian Cup. At five, she ran second in the Champions’ Race behind Panic, conducted that year at Launceston and again was second in the Australian Cup. Thus, among her performances it can be seen she ran second in the Melbourne Cup and Australian Cup (twice) as well as won the main two-year-old race of her year. She ran in five Melbourne Cups in all. When it is remembered that in 1861-63 the only country railways were from Melbourne to Geelong and Melbourne to Woodend, the amount of travel Musidora did was remarkable. For her first Melbourne Cup alone, she had to be walked up from Hamilton – a distance of 220 miles. Still, as profitable as Musidora was on the Turf, she proved far more valuable off it – a veritable fountainhead that launched the legendary St Albans Stud – but I get ahead of myself.
The season in which James Wilson’s genius for training racehorses first became obvious, to discerning Victorian sportsmen at least, was that of 1868-69. It was mainly thanks to two well-bred daughters of Fisherman in My Dream and Gasworks, each of whom he prepared on behalf of John Moffatt, the well-known squatter of Hopkin’s Hill. Moffatt, the proprietor of the Leigh Stud, near Shelford, was one of the first of the influential owners to patronise Wilson and both My Dream and Gasworks were out of good-class English matrons. My Dream, a dark bay mare of 15.3 hands was the better of the two, and Wilson prepared her to win both the 1868 V.R.C. Oaks and the Victoria Derby run a few weeks later on New Year’s Day, 1869. The Oaks might have been a hollow victory given that My Dream only had one opponent in Ragpicker, but it was the manner of her galloping that engaged the crowd. With odds laid on her, Mr Moffatt’s filly came away and galloped home a hundred yards in advance. There was a minor contretemps at the weighing-in when Joe Morrison fired in a protest against Duffy, the rider of My Dream, for stepping out of the scales to receive his bridle, but the stewards quickly dismissed it.
It was a similar story on New Year’s Day when Wilson ran both of Moffatt’s fillies for the Victoria Derby, and the owner declared for My Dream. She didn’t let Moffatt down either, establishing a commanding lead shortly after the start and going on to win with ridiculous ease by at least half-a-dozen lengths. Mr Moffatt’s pair could have run the quinella but for young James Wilson junior, who partnered Gasworks, having been instructed by his father not to push her so long as My Dream was in front, as she was engaged in the next race, the Midsummer Handicap. She won it, too. It is worth quoting an observation on My Dream from the correspondent for The Australasian on that Derby Day: “The winner’s condition was not admired at starting, as it was thought she was a great deal too fine-drawn – but no horse ever carried off a Derby in an easier manner, the time being the fastest ever made over the Flemington course. Gasworks trained by Wilson then came out and won the Midsummer Handicap showing that Wilson has got into the right method of training the Fisherman stock.”
Trainers were very severe on their horses in those days and none more so than James Wilson who made his charges stand up to the collar; he liked to get to work in particular on light-fleshed horses with staying potential, and the best of Musidora’s progeny fitted that category perfectly. He would turn each animal out looking as thin as a lath but as tough as nails. If that spring and summer belonged to My Dream then the autumn suited Gasworks; she proceeded to win the Australian Cup, St Leger and Town Plate on the Flemington course. James Wilson’s virtuosity with the thoroughbred that season and his ability to deliver on the day when the money went down won the respect, if not the admiration, of many bookmakers in general and one in particular – that flamboyant showman of the Flemington hill, Joe Thompson.
The Australian Turf in the nineteenth century belched forth some colourful characters and none more so than this bloated, self-basting figure. Born in March 1838 in London he was the son of a Jewish tobacco manufacturer named Samuel Solomon. Given the anti-Semitism of the period, it was perhaps no great surprise that Joe substituted the surname of Thompson when he shipped before the mast in 1854 bound for Australia and the Gold Rush. It was while at Sandridge, Victoria, that he was supposed to have deserted ship by hiding in a water cask that was off-loaded, and from where he proceeded to the diggings at Ballarat.
Perhaps the method of his disembarkation was apocryphal; after all, there were no independent witnesses to the stunt, and it was old Joe himself telling the story years later. But in spirit at least it rang true and was altogether in keeping with the balance of this born salesman’s life. Joe would eventually strike gold in the Victorian colony, but it wouldn’t be while digging for the precious metal on that particular trip. After an unrewarding year spent fish hawking among other odd jobs, he went back to sea and returned to England only to find that his parents had gone to America. Young Joe wasn’t fussed about following them but resolved to work his return passage to Sydney and by 1857 was back on the Victorian goldfields, first at Ballarat and then later at Ararat and Pleasant Creek.
Later in life, Thompson claimed that it was at Ararat in 1857 as a nineteen-year-old that he made his first book, although more objective sources suggest that it was later at Beechworth races in 1861. Whatever the truth, that first occasion Thompson made a handsome profit on doubles and proceeded to make himself sartorially resplendent by purchasing flash Crimean knee boots, a spanking new cabbage-tree hat, and a crimson sash with tassels hanging on each side to encircle his waist. The flamboyant showman, who invariably sported a beautiful rose in his buttonhole, was beginning to assume the familiar guise that has come down to us through the years. After winning and losing large sums at Randwick and various New South Wales country meetings, Thompson returned to Flemington hill in time to field at the 1862 Spring Meeting. The fixture augmented his fortunes, and henceforth it was at Flemington that his shrewdness, guile and cunning were to meet their reward; and with the encouragement and sanction of the profligate Captain Frederick Standish saw him gain official acceptance. A cunning purveyor of the odds, Joe Thompson was to emerge, along with Humphrey Oxenham, as the most prominent bookmaker in Australia during the last half of the nineteenth century.
The Australian Turf in those years offered seemingly endless opportunities for a prominent stable, in league with a leading bookmaker, to manipulate betting markets. It was in this spirit that the coming together of Joe Thompson and James Wilson seemed inevitable. Apart from being able to execute large stable commissions furtively, under cover of the bookmaker in question laying-off bets with his fellow fielders, there were other variants to the game. What about the trainer suddenly and unnecessarily scratching a fit and fancied horse from, say, a Derby or Melbourne Cup, and yet that scratching being delayed until the last moment, to rely instead either on a stablemate previously supported at a longer price or on a well-backed horse from another stable entirely?
Or, on the other hand, the nefarious practice of leaving a lame horse – but one highly fancied by the public – engaged in a major race to be run weeks later. Meanwhile, the bookmaker in league with the stable was accepting large bets (at prices significantly more generous than those offered by his bookmaking brethren) knowing full well that the horse would be withdrawn at the last moment, and the public would forfeit their money. Of course, such opportunities were most fruitful when the stable in question sheltered more than one good thing of the Turf. These were the sort of thimble-and-pea tricks for which the newspapers often accused the Wilson-Thompson confederacy and which saw their reputation for ruthlessness begin to spread.
The first significant betting sting that this newfound uneasy alliance attempted to bring forth was on Lapdog in the 1870 Melbourne Cup. Several young sportsmen from Adelaide sent the horse across to Wilson, although he raced that year in the nominal ownership of a Mr J. Gilbert. As we shall see, a number of the horses used by the cabal to stalk the betting ring were sourced from Adelaide, and Lapdog was but the first of them.
When the animal arrived in the depths of a grey Geelong winter, James Wilson remarked that he looked more like a hairy dog than a racehorse, but the trainer soon changed his mind as the iron horse responded to his demanding regimen. Lapdog was backed down from 33/1 into 5/1 equal favourite by race day, with Joe Thompson and his fellow metallician, Phil Glenister, working the stable commission. The plunge failed but only by a mere half-head when the so-called ‘dream’ horse Nimblefoot – ironically once briefly owned by Thompson – prevailed. Mind you, there were many on the course that claimed the plunge hadn’t failed at all, but that influence had been brought to bear in the judge’s decision – an occupational hazard when betting in those rough and tumble days before the photo-finish camera.
Old and tried gallopers like Lapdog, were one thing; young and well-bred yearlings another! George Petty conducted his first sale of yearlings at the Maribyrnong Stud on Wednesday, 4 January 1871. Only five colts and one filly were on offer, and yet they collectively realised the astonishing sum of £3,496/10/-. Joe Thompson was keen to acquire a couple of them, and James Wilson’s practised eye alighted on two sons of the imported Irish stallion, Ace of Clubs, a son of the all-conquering Stockwell, one of the most famous names in the General Stud Book. South Australian breeder William Gerrard was responsible for bringing Ace of Clubs out to Australia but, alas, the horse only stood here for two seasons before succumbing to an accident in January 1869. Joe Thompson got both of his yearling bay colts that day. He gave 900 guineas for the first, a fetching youngster out of Rose de Florence, who had already produced Fenella, Ferryman, and Maribyrnong; and paid 330 guineas for the second, a son of the well-performed Lady Heron, winner of both the Ascot Vale Stakes and Victoria Oaks.
Old Joe wasn’t the only bookmaker that bought yearlings at George Petty’s initial offering – Mr Wallis was another – but he was a controversial figure. On the morning after the sale, the Melbourne Argus came out with an article deprecating the practice of bookmakers becoming owners of racehorses. In somewhat caustic terms the writer deplored the degeneracy of the Victorian Turf, pointedly observing that there was a time when “racehorses belonged almost exclusively to gentlemen, and when the disreputable tricks which have made the turf well nigh as degraded as the ring were almost unknown.” Moreover, the newspaper in suggesting a reform noted: “The simple remedy for so undesirable a monopoly of racing business would be the imposition by racing clubs of a rule prohibiting a known bookmaker from racing a horse in which he had either direct or remote proprietary interest.”
Leaving aside the difficulties of policing such a rule, The Australasian rightly remarked that whatever undue influence the mystic agency of the ring had brought to bear on racing, it was invariably exercised by bookmakers on other people’s horses rather than their own. Besides, the paper argued, surely it was better for Victorian bookmakers to acquire such well-bred yearlings rather than see them go interstate. Joe Thompson, however, wasn’t to be appeased and proceeded to take legal action against the Melbourne Argus for defamation. In recognition of the furore excited by the Argus, Thompson subsequently named the 330 guineas colt, Argus Scandal; but the leviathan bookmaker needed no such incident to suggest a name for his more expensive acquisition. From the moment that the auctioneer’s gavel had fallen, he had always immodestly intended to name the Rose de Florence colt after himself. King of the Ring it was to be.
These two impressive colts were put out to pasture while James Wilson and his confreres plotted their intrigues on the 1871 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting. Undoubtedly, the hope of the side for that excursion north of the Murray was Mermaid, a four-year-old mare by King Alfred out of a granddaughter of Wilson’s beloved Dinah. Mermaid was in cracking form that autumn week, and with James Wilson junior in the saddle, she won the Sydney Cup, the City Handicap and the Randwick Handicap while Romula helped out by claiming the third prize in the Sydney Cup and winning another race as well. The stable won over a thousand pounds in prize money alone on that visit, but it was the money taken from the ring that prompted most discussion. The manipulations of the stable concerning which of Romula or Mermaid was the intended horse for the Sydney Cup prompted The Australasian, not for the last time, to make certain veiled insinuations in an article entitled “Will the Coming Man Bet?”.
Joe Thompson promptly fired off a letter to the newspaper claiming that he was “one of the most abused men connected with the Victorian turf”. It continued: “you speak of ‘the uncertainty with regard to Mermaid or Romula, as to which would eventually go for the money’ in a manner which would lead the public to believe that there was some ‘collusion’ in the matter; but let me disabuse your mind by informing you that both horses were backed heavily by me (my own for most money), both horses went on their merits, and that the best horse won.” Thompson ended his diatribe thus: “Believing that the strictures passed by you were unmerited, I, as a member of the ring, and also an owner of horses, raised my voice against the wholesale abuse of a class of men who are more sinned against than sinning…” Methinks that old Joe protested too much. The powder trail that was laid, starting with the Lapdog affair, had made him infinitely more combustible in public. I might observe that there is an old Mozambique saying that the pile of manure is always the same and only the flies are different. In this instance, the flies seemed the same too.
The money that the stable won on Mermaid’s string of victories at Randwick, added to the bankroll creamed from the Victorian ring over a previous couple of seasons, was enough to finance James Wilson into new premises. Wilson had been contemplating for some time just such a move into an expansive private stud and training stables. It had been during the latter half of the 1860s that the canny Yorkshireman had first relocated from Hamilton to stable accommodation at Geelong and prepared his team on the Geelong common. Although the common in those days was a capital place for the preparation of racehorses, the spring of 1870 with Lapdog, and the autumn of 1871 with Mermaid, had brought home to James Wilson the difficulties of training a ‘smokey’ in full view of the general public and the touting fraternity. After all, substituting differently-weighted saddles on different days on different horses, only provided so much cover in working gallops. Hence, in the winter of 1871, fresh from his Randwick triumphs, he opened negotiations to purchase a property. It was initially and tentatively on land at picturesque Point Henry, a peninsula jutting out into Corio Bay, but finally and definitively on a farm and surrounding pastures near the sparsely -populated village of St Albans, on the outskirts of Geelong.
It was mostly virgin land on the banks of the River Barwon, although daisies and buttercups grew there in profusion and the Barrabool Hills provided a pleasant backdrop. The little village of St Albans itself had only sprung up around 1852. The initial set-up of the St Albans Stud might have been spartan, but it was to mark the beginning of a new epoch on the Australian Turf. For it was from this isolated and seemingly humble plot of land that over the next thirteen years the giant and grey-bearded figure of James Wilson, with all the fire and damnation of an Old Testament prophet, fashioned and hurled the thunderbolts that so shook the ring. From the beginning, it was to be very much a family affair with the girls helping their mother perform domestic chores as well as help establish a vegetable garden, while the two boys, James junior, aged fifteen, and William twelve, began to do more of the stable riding.
Nor was the first sensational betting plunge long in coming from this secluded hamlet. The horse in question was Flying Scud, and the occasion was the 1872 Geelong Cup meeting. Flying Scud hailed from South Australia and had run second to Nimblefoot in a good race in Adelaide the previous year. It was after that performance that he had been purchased from his then-owner for a moderate sum and brought across to Victoria very quietly and secreted down at St. Albans. The money came with a rush for the horse a day or two before the meeting, which saw his price tumble from 20/1 into 3/1 for both the Geelong Handicap on the first day and the Cup on the second.
Even up to within a quarter of an hour of the start for the handicap it was denied that he was in James Wilson’s stable, but when the public observed the proprietor of St Albans superintending the saddling, further denial was useless, and the price firmed even further. The mount was entrusted to young Billy Wilson at 5 st. 10lb in the saddle and he landed the coup in the Geelong Handicap by the shortest of heads. Just to prove it was no fluke, the combination pulled off the Geelong Cup on the second day with 3lb more. It seemed clear even then that the St Albans experiment would be an overwhelming success. However, despite the money taken from the ring, there were dark mutterings that the Flying Scud commission had been worked more in favour of the bookmaking ring than for the benefit of the Wilson clan, and the silver finding its way to St. Albans was less than expected.
E. S. Chapman (‘Augur’ of The Australasian), intrigued by the successful plunge, visited the St. Albans Stud in May 1872 just before James Wilson left to campaign some of his team in Adelaide, and reviewed the state of development. Within a few years, the place would be obscured by the mists of legend but at this stage, it was just a developing stud farm, and the proprietor was still seen as a mortal. Ebor was standing there as a stallion then, although James Wilson had resolved to sell him given that he was too closely related to most of his broodmares. Although the shrewd Yorkshireman had only taken possession of St. Albans a matter of months before, he had already constructed a line of sheds and several loose boxes to accommodate his horses in work, amidst a beautiful plantation at the centre of the training ground. Moreover, he had cleared the scrub and gorse to form the first mile of his ambitious training gallop.
Some thousands of loads of sand, tan and seashells had been used in its construction, and the portion that had been completed had been laid down with couch and ryegrasses, supplemented by clover and buffalo. Before leaving for Adelaide, Wilson had agreed on terms with the contractor to complete the gallop before his return, although its use would be deferred until after the Sydney spring meeting to allow the grasses to obtain purchase on the ground. James Wilson was not a sentimental man, but he had arranged for a neatly-kept grave for his celebrated steeplechaser, Darkie, who had died only weeks before. Besides the horses, including the odd trotter, a dozen shorthorn cattle roamed the paddocks. The thriving township of Geelong was a logical place to base a racehorse training and breeding establishment in 1871. After all, the Geelong Racing Club was in the midst of major development, constructing a new grandstand, which would be opened in February 1872, as well as re-modelling the saddling paddock and erecting stylish new stewards’ and jockeys’ rooms.
That initial sale of yearlings by George Petty coincided with the studmaster’s decision to put up 300 sovereigns for the inaugural running of a two-year-old stakes race at Flemington, to be known as the Maribyrnong Plate. Only two-year-old thoroughbreds sold by the Maribyrnong Stud were eligible to race for the prize. The first running produced four starters including Thompson’s pair, and as luck would have it, they ran the quinella with Argus Scandal coming in first after Thompson had declared him. The racing correspondent for The Australasian, however, maintained that but for the declaration, King of the Ring would have proven an easy winner. Argus Scandal was cast in a larger mould than King of the Ring, who, however, had lengthened nicely and shaped like a stayer of promise. And the result – the fastest five furlongs on record in the colony of Victoria – augured well for the two and three-year-old classics. So much interest was taken in that first Maribyrnong Plate, despite the lack of numbers, that the V.R.C. permanently retained the race on its spring programme, with the club in due course putting up all the money. The event soon became the most important juvenile race on the calendar.
That 1871 V.R.C. Spring Meeting proved a mixed blessing for the newly ordained St Albans stable. Apart from the Maribyrnong Plate, on the first day, the stable also took out the Essendon Stakes with Mermaid, a great-granddaughter of Dinah; and the Victoria Derby with Miss Jessie, the first of Musidora’s foals to reach the racecourse. Argus Scandal and Miss Jessie were each ridden in masterly fashion by the young James Wilson junior. However, set against that glorious treble was the fact that the dark machinations of Messrs Wilson and Thompson came narrowly unstuck in the Melbourne Cup on Thursday, the second day of the meeting. That year the St Albans Stud had three horses aimed at the Cup, viz. Mermaid, Lapdog and a largely unknown four-year-old mare, Romula, handicapped on 7st. 10lb.
For weeks, nay, months before the race, the St Albans clique had allowed the rumour to circulate that Lapdog was the choice of the stable until the horse had been supported by the public into the almost unprecedented price of even money against the field. Reports of extraordinary trials had been circulated – 3 minutes 35 seconds it was said had been broken at St. Albans for the two miles – and the Cup was as good as won. Then the story began to change; it seemed that any one of the three horses was capable of taking the prize and, given the secrecy and isolation that enveloped the stable, who could gainsay the rumours? The infatuated public would not be denied and ‘St. Albans must win the Cup’ became the mantra of the day. Only at the last moment, after the juiciest odds had been secured did it become apparent that Romula, with James Wilson junior in the leathers, was the stable pea. The multitudes that had supported Lapdog were in despair! In the end, it was the unlikely figure of John Tait, cast in the guise of a public benefactor, and his despised 100/1 outsider, The Pearl, that rescued the men of Tattersall’s. The result gave the public a universal measure of satisfaction and ultimately cost the St Albans clique a pretty penny at settling at Kirk’s Bazaar.
Still, the undoubted potential of his two crack juveniles offered a salve to the wound, especially when Argus Scandal in the hands of young Jim won the All-Aged Stakes on the final day, with King of the Ring relegated to third. Argus Scandal might have won these opening clashes by default, but as the season progressed it became quite evident that King of the Ring was the great classics hope of the stable. A few months later both colts came out for the Ascot Vale Stakes on the opening day of the V.R.C. Autumn Meeting – and what a day of racing that proved to be! It is now best remembered for the remarkable occurrence of two dead heats on the same programme between the same two horses – Saladin and Flying Dutchman for the Australian Cup. In the end, Saladin eventually won the third and deciding heat by a long neck.
The Ascot Vale Stakes was always likely to prove poor fare in comparison with such drama, but it nonetheless added to the excitement when Joe Thompson’s two colts ran first and second – though in the reverse order to that declared by their voluble owner. But for once there was no hint or suspicion of subterfuge as young Wilson on King of the Ring, afraid that Philip Dowling’s Blue Peter was going to upset the declared Argus Scandal, was forced to rally his mount inside the distance to retrieve the fat from the fire. There was an even bigger upset in the nursery on the second day of the meeting when the supporters of the St. Albans stable stuck to Argus Scandal. This, despite evidence that his stablemate Belphegor, yet another of Musidora’s progeny, owned by James senior and with young Jim up, was being backed quietly by people who seemed to know what they were doing. As it transpired, Belphegor beat the Scandal by a neck and much to Joe Thompson’s chagrin, James Wilson senior had landed his plunge. There were suggestions it was payback for the one-sided benefits derived from the hot Flying Scud sting at Geelong.
Whether it was his smarting pride as a result of the Belphegor incident and a petulant mistrust of his trainer, or that he felt the need to parade his virtues in public, Joe Thompson surprised the Turf world when he put his horses up for sale at Kirk’s Bazaar in the wake of that V.R.C. Autumn Meeting. Certainly, the calumnies in the press as to bookmakers owning racehorses had stung Joe to the quick, but few took his intention to sell his crack juveniles seriously. It is true that Romula changed hands for 310 guineas but when King of the Ring was started at 500 guineas, the auctioneer, Mr Bowes refused to accept the bid. Similarly, Argus Scandal was retained after James Wilson started him at the same price. Like many first-rate charlatans, Joe Thompson had the capacity for temporary belief even in the illusions he spun himself. He quite convinced himself that his horses never brought bids because of the public’s ardent desire to see him continue to take an active part on the Victorian Turf. Thus, Joe grandiloquently announced in the wake of the aborted ‘sale’ his intention of again racing the horses, and that both the King and the Scandal would be withdrawn from their autumn engagements at Randwick and returned to St. Albans for a spell. Thompson had his eye on a tilt at the glorious A.J.C. Derby.
The 1871-72 racing season was one of those when inter-colonial rivalry across the Murray came strongly to the fore. Melbourne might have boasted King of the Ring and Argus Scandal; but Sydney had the outstanding juvenile, Lecturer, a sturdy grey by Kingston and the first of the progeny of that wonderful matron, Sappho, to make his mark on the Turf. Little did the racing cognoscenti at the time realise just what a tribe of top-class gallopers would come from her loins. George Lee of Bathurst bred Lecturer, and whereas Lee leased or sold most of his horses, he kept this colt and raced him in his short but brilliant juvenile career. At the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting in 1872 Lecturer created a big impression in easily winning both the Champagne Stakes and Sires’ Produce Stakes in quick times. So much so that John Tait approached Lee and bought the colt for £800 at the end of the Randwick gathering. There was a rumour at the time that in so doing Tait was acting on behalf of Joe Thompson – a rumour regarded as fact with the passing of the years. Thompson harboured a passionate ambition that year of winning the Derby with his namesake, King of the Ring, and late in the season Lecturer had emerged as a genuine threat. What better way of neutralising the risk posed than by assuming ownership? The story went around that, when Thompson asked Tait to buy Lecturer, he never had any intention of running him at Randwick.
John Tait had Lecturer on the training grounds as early as June to get him ready for the classic. The Victorian challengers from the St. Albans stable arrived by the steamer Macedon in early July putting up at Cutts’s Hotel. For a couple of weeks at least, it seemed that the much-anticipated clash of the colonies would come to pass; that is until Thompson on his arrival in Sydney went out to Byron Lodge to see Lecturer and directed Tait to scratch the horse. The respected racing journalist, William Cook (‘Terlinga’) of The Australasian told the story of the subsequent dispute between the two men in the pages of that newspaper in January 1912 – almost three years after the death of Thompson and almost twenty-four years after Tait’s own death. It seemed that ‘Honest John’ together with some of the stable associates, without Thompson’s knowledge, had backed Lecturer rather heavily for the classic, and Tait intended to see that they all got a run for their money. Cook alleged that at a moment when Tait was distracted, the imperious Thompson proceeded to pick up an axe handle that was lying about the stable yard, and going into poor Lecturer’s box, administered a tap on the back tendon which settled his chance of winning that particular Derby or for that matter, any race thereafter. Thompson was then supposed to have turned towards Tait and said: “Now, John, will you scratch him?”
It is true that by late July Lecturer was showing puzzling signs of soreness to the track watchers, pulling up lame one day and walking home in a similar state only to return to the track the next morning seemingly as fresh as a lark. Tait delayed asking the hard question as long as he could, but on the Tuesday afternoon before the August deadline for general entries at the A.J.C. Spring Meeting, Tait sent him on a vigorous gallop over the Randwick course only for the sturdy grey son of Kingston to pull up so lame that Tait called for the scratching pen. It was a sorry end for this high-priced colt that had given Tait no end of trouble during his short career on the racecourse. Whether or not the source of Lecturer’s lameness was a gratuitous tap on the leg courtesy of his new owner, or Cook’s scribblings were merely the posthumous mischief-making of a disgruntled journalist against an unsavoury character with a penchant for suing newspapers, we’ll never know.
William Cook claimed to have sought confirmation for the story from Thompson in later years. Thompson was evasive but responded by saying: “You are telling the tale; not me. But I will say this: John Tait said he would start Lecturer for that Derby, and if you look up the Turf Register you will see that he didn’t.” There is, of course, now no way of corroborating Cook’s allegation, but the fact remains that the brilliant colt never sported silk again after his all-conquering juvenile season. His defection from the Derby field and that of Argus Scandal, who also went amiss on the Randwick training grounds, left Thompson’s preferred choice, King of the Ring, as the popular fancy. Even as late as mid-August, on the eve of the Hawkesbury Race Club’s second annual meeting and the first gathering of the new season, the likely composition of the Derby field was largely a mystery.
The A.J.C. had made a good many alterations in the spring programme consisting primarily of heightened sweepstakes and increased sums of money given by the club. These improvements together with delightful spring weather were still not enough to get more than about 6,000 people in attendance on Derby Day. More than just the races entertained a Randwick crowd back in those days. ‘Punch and Judy’ put in an appearance, and amusements such as roulette and ring the knife provided mild dissipation, and many were no doubt carried away by the extraordinary success of the mysterious gentleman who hovered around the tables. The cardsharpers and dice throwers endeavoured to catch the unwary, and in the bush at the back of the Saddling Paddock, a good deal of business was done. Minstrels and acrobats performed near the booths and stalls in front of the Leger Stand, and Aunt Sally was not without energetic admirers. It was a scene worthy of the brush of William Frith. The Leger and Derby enclosures were well patronised, but of course, the majority of the leading sporting men were to be seen in the Grand Stand and Saddling Paddock. The new Governor of the Colony of New South Wales, Sir Hercules Robinson, and Lady Robinson and suite were among those in attendance.
The 1872 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions appear in the table below:
Only six colts were accepted for the classic. On the strength of consistent market support and a couple of impressive morning gallops at Randwick, the Newcastle-owned and trained colt Loup Garou had displaced King of the Ring as race favourite during the final week of betting. Joe Thompson’s horse remained a firm second fancy with Commodore, a full brother to the previous year’s winner, Javelin, on the next line of betting. Commodore, like Javelin, was owned by Thomas Lee of Bathurst and trained by Joe Burton, and was also to be ridden by the successful jockey of the previous year, Joe Kean. Following the withdrawal of Lecturer, John Tait was left with the winner of the Hawkesbury Derby, McCallum Mohr, to represent him. In winning his race at Hawkesbury this son of New Warrior had been forced to survive a protest, and even with the presence of Jimmy Ashworth in the irons, the bay garnered little support. No better fancied was the latest of Rose of Denmark’s progeny, Horatio, who had been bred at Maribyrnong by Mr Petty and sold as a yearling to Etienne de Mestre for 650 guineas. Despite the richness of his pedigree, Horatio seemed well-held in the form book.
When the saddling bell rang, 5/4 was the best on offer about the favourite. The horses were at the post for nearly a quarter of an hour before a start, after three or four breaks, but when Mr William Gannon of the Oxford Hotel finally waved the red flag, it was a very good start indeed. The first to show was Commodore and then The Abbot, but soon after settling, Loup Garou on the inside went to the front, and he led past the stand at a cracking pace. Next came Commodore, with McCallum Mohr and The Abbot a half-length further back, and Horatio and King of the Ring in the rear. The horses maintained the same positions around the tan-turn, past the seven-furlong post and on to the back of the course, where the big horse increased his lead to half-a-dozen lengths. It was the story of the race. Although in the straight young Jim Wilson junior brought King of the Ring with a wet sail to go past the others, he never got within lengths of the favourite who was landed the easiest of winners by Tom Brown on behalf of his former master. Perhaps it might have been better for Thompson if he had let Tait have his way with Lecturer after all.
Loup Garou was a big, leggy son of the imported stallion Lord of Linne from Hebe, bred by the Hon. E. K. Cox at his famous Fernhill Stud, near Penrith, a place that had been used for horse breeding as early as the 1850s. Bred in England in 1859, Lord of Linne was imported to Tasmania in 1864 by Mr Hartnell and for a time was raced here before going to stud, winning a handicap with nine stone at Launceston. He failed to get anything of note at the stud in the Apple Isle, but at Fernhill, although he wasn’t used much given the presence of Yattendon, he managed to do better. Loup Garou was probably the best of the stallion’s progeny, although he later got the smart two-year-old Hyperion (A.J.C. Champagne Stakes) and Hyacinth (V.R.C. Newmarket Handicap) and that good Randwick performer Baronet. The nick of both stallion and dam was to be a happy one, for two seasons after dropping the Derby winner, Hebe threw Nea – a filly that, like Hyperion, carried the colours of the Governor of New South Wales with distinction and later on at stud got a Caulfield Cup winner in Cremorne. Lord of Linne died at Fernhill in May 1879 in most unusual circumstances. A stag – one of many on the property in those days – attacked the stallion and he subsequently succumbed to the injuries.
Loup Garou stood fully 16.2 hands and was a great mover getting all, or nearly all, his power from behind the saddle. A slashing type, he would probably have gone no faster under a stone less. Mr Winch purchased him from his breeder at George Kiss’s sale of yearlings for just 66 guineas. The colt first appeared in public at Bathurst, where, in the Nursery Stakes he ran a bad last to Commodore and Lecturer. At the Randwick meeting afterwards, Loup Garou ran a dead heat for third behind Lecturer in the Champagne Stakes – the fastest-ever run at Randwick. The horse’s finishing manner on that occasion suggested he might make up into a classic colt the following season. However, when he was later beaten off in the Sires’ Produce Stakes, his reputation became somewhat tarnished. Winch himself must have been disillusioned with that performance, for soon afterwards he was offered for sale at Kiss’s Bazaar but was withdrawn after the highest offer was a trifling thirty guineas. Talk about a Derby winner going begging! In May Loup Garou carried silk at Newcastle to win a Trial Stakes but was then beaten on the second day of that meeting in a Maiden Plate. A few days afterwards he mixed his form at Maitland, before disappearing from the scene until just a couple of weeks before the A.J.C. Derby.
Loup Garou started the favourite for the Derby after strong support in the closing days of August and before he had even appeared in the new season. His trainer was known to have experienced some anxious moments with the big horse’s suspect forelegs, and his failure to show for the Hawkesbury Derby prompted bookmakers to take some liberties. Some quiet betting, however, forced his price into 6/1 even before he had set out by steamer from Newcastle. Loup Garou’s departure from the coalfields was delayed a few days because of low tides and the wish to avoid an accident. But it was evident upon his arrival at Randwick that he was primed to run the race of his life. He created quite a stir when he did finally put in an appearance with his unusual colouring and the breathtaking propulsion of his stride that reminded many of the successive bounds of a kangaroo. Once seen, he enjoyed strong support for the blue riband right up to flagfall. Derby Day was a memorable one for the winning owner, William Winch, for another of his horses, Julian Avenal, won the President’s Handicap, the second race on the card and the one immediately preceding the Derby.
The leading Derby colts were destined to clash again before that A.J.C. Spring Meeting had ended. On the second day, Thursday, Loup Garou, none the worse for his Derby gallop, was started for The Shorts over six furlongs only to lose by a neck, although the race served as a warm-up for his main mission later the same day, the Spring Metropolitan Maiden Plate over the Derby course. Despite a 7lb penalty, he was untroubled to go to the front and again beat Commodore and Horatio. On Friday, the third day of the meeting, King of the Ring got some measure of revenge for both his Derby defeat and his fast-finishing fourth behind Dagworth in the Great Metropolitan Stakes. It came in the hands of James Wilson junior when he easily beat both Commodore and Loup Garou in the Mares’ Produce Stakes (10f). Of course, Loup Garou again carried a 7lb penalty – and this time on the heavy ground.
At the settling at Tattersall’s Hotel in Pitt-street on the following Monday evening, Mr Winch received a sum of £880/10/- having finished second on the list of winning owners at the meeting. But the largest part of the sum had already been spent. Earlier that same day Winch had taken the opportunity to buy Commodore for 600 guineas when he was put up for auction at Kiss’s Bazaar. It was to be money well spent, as later in the season Commodore won both the A.J.C. St Leger and Autumn Stakes – a rare case of the same owner winning the club’s two classics in the one season with different colts. William Winch, the successful owner-trainer of Loup Garou, had raced horses in England before coming over to Australia and settling in Newcastle, where for a time he kept the Great Northern Hotel. Committee meetings of the Newcastle Jockey Club were often held in Winch’s hotel. Unlike James Wilson, conspicuous failure marked his first years on the Australian Turf, and he didn’t enjoy metropolitan success in his adopted land until Rainsworth, a son of Cheddar, came along and won races in the good old days of Homebush and Randwick. The horse later sired two winners of the Brisbane Cup.
The versatile Circassian came next and won Winch both the Epsom and the Metropolitan Stakes at the 1869 A.J.C. Spring Meeting. Given the brilliant manner in which Circassian led all the way to win the Metropolitan, the six-year-old stallion was sent to the post as a hot favourite for the Melbourne Cup that year but proved most disappointing. William Winch would pay good money when he wanted a horse, and he got Croydon into his stable in 1870 and won a second successive A.J.C. Metropolitan. A couple of years after winning the Derby with Loup Garou, Winch fancied that the climate in New South Wales didn’t agree with him and he transferred to Victoria, building a fine house and stabling at Ascot Vale near Flemington and being one of the first to do so. Alas, five months after winning the 1874 V.R.C. Hotham Handicap with Newbold and a few weeks after a particularly rough crossing of the Tasman Strait to attend the Launceston meeting, this popular sportsman was dead.
For jockey Tom Brown, it was only fitting that William Winch provided the first of his two successive winning rides in the A.J.C. Derby. For it was Winch who had first recognised his young fellow Novocastrian’s remarkable horsemanship. Brown grew up in Campbell’s Hill, Maitland, where his father Thomas Brown senior was the owner/publican of the Royal Oak Hotel during the 1850s. The elder Brown was one of the old-time mail coach drivers and when he settled down at Campbell’s Hill, it was the house of call for all old identities. Close by the sale yards were the trio of boys – Thomas, Joseph and John – brought up. Hotels and their stables in those days were the natural milieus of ostlers and it was hardly surprising that the three young Brown boys were all fine horsemen but Tom the most complete of all.
William Winch was much taken with Tom Brown when he witnessed his winning the 1869 Homebush Autumn Cup, a memorable meeting as it was attended by H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh. Indeed, Brown on Mr Driscoll’s lightweight Albany, carrying just 6 st. 7lb, beat Winch’s Karoola in an eight-horse field. William Winch already had the promising Circassian in his stable and lost no time in recruiting young Tom Brown to be the rising six-year-old’s new racecourse partner. Brown announced himself to the racing world by winning both the 1869 A.J.C. Epsom Handicap and the Great Metropolitan Stakes on Circassian, the latter with a brilliant front-running ride. Circassian afterwards went to Melbourne and was sent out as the 2/1 favourite for the Cup that year with young Tom retaining the ride. Alas, he could only run eighth in the race won by Warrior. I might add that Tom Brown again sported Winch’s violet and white livery to a second victory in the A.J.C. Great Metropolitan Stakes the following year when he partnered with that son of Lord Of The Hills, Croydon.
Loup Garou was not to enjoy a long career on the racecourse. At the V.R.C. Spring Meeting, he did manage to win the Victoria Derby and the All-Aged Stakes, but by the autumn he was a spent force. He failed badly as a short-priced favourite behind his stablemate, Commodore, in the A.J.C. St Leger and ran a poor last in the All-Aged Stakes on the third day of the Randwick fixture. Leg problems prevented Loup Garou from being trained after that, and he retired to stud, although he proved a dire failure in that capacity. The field for the 1872 Derby seemed to lack depth on paper, and subsequent form confirmed that reading, but at least Horatio repaid the money outlaid for him as a yearling by Etienne de Mestre when with 7 st. 3lb he won the 1873 Great Metropolitan Stakes at Randwick. It was the only good race Horatio did win, and despite the superiority of his bloodlines, he proved no more successful as a sire than Loup Garou when he stood at Alfred Page’s Woodland Stud, near Melton Mowbray in Tasmania.
Unquestionably the best horse to emerge from that 1872 Derby field was King of the Ring. After winning the Randwick Plate by more than a dozen lengths on the last day of the meeting, the Ace of Clubs colt returned to Melbourne but again had to lower his colours to Loup Garou in the Victoria Derby. If less brilliant than William Winch’s colt, he was at all events, the more consistent as he beat the dual Derby winner in the Royal Park Stakes and finished the Flemington meeting by polishing off Warrior, Dagworth and Horatio in the Queen’s Plate. All this hard work told on the King, and he was as stale as a post-horse and easily beaten later in the autumn.
Old Joe Thompson instructed Wilson to give the horse a long spell after those failures, which saw the horse miss his entire four-year-old season. King of the Ring might have been hors de combat at St Albans in the spring of 1873, but that didn’t stop Thompson from pulling off the biggest plunge of his Australian career, estimated at £25,000, when his horse Don Juan, trained by James Wilson, won the 1873 Melbourne Cup. The history books record the Cup winner as being owned by a Mr W. Johnstone and ridden by Billy Wilson, James’s second son. In truth, Thompson owned the horse, and Wilson senior had paid a Mr Johnstone a sum of £100 for the right to use his name on nomination papers in a bid to cover Thompson’s involvement while he went about laying a series of wagers. There was something of a hue and cry from the newspapers when the truth leaked out after Don Juan’s victory and a retrospective stewards’ inquiry opened after a protest; but following weeks of investigation, the result was ordered to stand. Out of his winnings on the horse, Thompson built Don Juan House in Albert-street, East Melbourne, where over the years he entertained lavishly. The house was demolished in 1966.
As glorious as Don Juan’s triumph in the Cup was for Thompson, the leviathan lost his horse only a matter of months after taking Australia’s richest handicap. The four-year-old stallion haemorrhaged and died after bursting a blood vessel in a track gallop at St. Albans in February 1874. It seemed the last straw in a series of misadventures with his racing team and prompted Thompson to quit the ranks of ownership for a time. He put King of the Ring and his other horses in the hands of William Yuille for sale the following month at his annual auction at the Pastoral Hotel, Flemington. Thompson must have had mixed feelings as he watched George Petty, the horse’s breeder, offer 900 guineas – the same price he realised as a yearling, only to be trumped by James Wilson with a bid of a hundred more. Wilson really bought the horse as a prospective stallion for St Albans but raced him briefly; he even went to the post as the equal favourite with Goldsbrough for the Melbourne Cup later that same year, and just finished out of a place.
The retirement of King of the Ring to stand duty at the St. Albans Stud ushered in a golden epoch for James Wilson. As we have seen, the Stud’s early success was principally attributable to the loins of Dinah and her daughter Musidora, but around this time another broodmare began to suggest beautiful possibilities, and that she might even surpass Musidora. Mischief was the mare in question, and, six years younger than Musidora, like her, she was yet another daughter of the imported English stallion, The Premier. Mischief’s bloodlines were not originally cast in pleasant places. Her maternal granddam was the Peter Finn mare imported from Tasmania, who was put to Rory O’ More, the result of the union being Maid of the Mill. James Wilson won races with her before matching her with his beloved The Premier. Mischief was the result. Mischief was a fast mare when trained by Wilson, but she seldom performed as well in public as she did in private.
Disappointing him twice, he determined to put her to stud, and as King Alfred had begotten Mermaid, he chose this excellent little horse for her mate. Maid of All Work, foaled in the spring of 1872, was the happy result of that mating, and this dashing filly won the V.R.C. Maribyrnong Plate, Ascot Vale Stakes and Sires’ Produce Stakes as a juvenile, and the following season pulled-off the V.R.C. Oaks as well. Those were the days my friends when the pastures of St Albans seemed to nourish a champion foal with the passing of each year. In 1873, as if in response to Mischief’s nascent challenge, Musidora threw the great filly, Briseis, fated to give James Wilson his second Melbourne Cup as well as a Doncaster, a V.R.C. Derby and a V.R.C. Oaks in 1876. Briseis was the last of Musidora’s good racehorses, and though she was mated with King of the Ring during her last few seasons at stud and got a useful horse in South Hamilton, it wasn’t to prove a magical nick.
Not so King of the Ring’s successive liaisons with Mischief. This daughter of The Premier was one of King of the Ring’s first love matches and to him in the spring of 1874, the year after Briseis was foaled, came the colt that was by common consent hailed as the greatest racehorse upon which James Wilson ever slipped a bridle – First King. As it turned out, he was the very first of King of the Ring’s progeny to race when he stepped out for his debut at Flemington on New Year’s Day 1877. First King was a larger edition of his sire, and even at that stage, the pre-race reports from St. Albans declared him to be the best youngster ever trained there. The stable put the money down too, and the colt was backed into odds-on and never looked like letting them down. First King was acclaimed the finest two-year-old of his season, and on the strength of his performances, James Wilson eventually made King of the Ring available to the public at a service fee of 40 guineas – which was a grand sum for a colonial sire in those days!
It was soon after First King had won his first Champion Stakes in January 1878 that Wilson conducted his initial public sale of yearlings. There might have only been five on offer – all by King of the Ring – but what a sale it was! The five youngsters sold in aggregate for 5000 guineas with Petrea, a full sister to First King, bringing in 1550 guineas – the highest price paid for a yearling in Australia up to that time. In fact, three of those yearlings eclipsed the previous record price. Petrea proved the best of them, of course, winning both the Ascot Vale Stakes and Sires’ Produce Stakes at Flemington as a two-year-old, and the following season capturing the V.R.C. Oaks, A.J.C. St Leger and Sydney Cup. The other four yearlings turned out to be Avernus, Caspian, His Grace and South Hamilton and all bar the last-named won principal races on the Turf. In the years after that, St. Albans produced a slew of first-class racehorses as the daughters of Musidora and Mischief, in turn, continued the success of the line. Some breeders spend a lifetime and a king’s ransom trying to make a success of it and still come up short; James Wilson achieved fame as a horse breeder in just a few years with relatively modest outlays.
However, King of the Ring’s sensational start at stud gave rise to expectations that he never quite fulfilled. Although other good progeny came along in later years including Royal Maid (V.R.C. Oaks and Sires’ Produce Stakes) and Rufus, the 1884 Victoria Derby hero, it wasn’t the rush of top gallopers that his first season or two had suggested. His stock was often small and weedy, particularly after a long illness severely debilitated him. Towards the end of James Wilson’s ownership of both King of the Ring and the St Albans Stud, the horse was only getting about ten to twelve mares a season, and he was eventually sold to stand at Murndal, near Hamilton, where he died in January 1893. Not that King of the Ring was the only decent horse trained by James Wilson to later serve as a sire at St. Albans. The Sydney Cup winner, Progress, was another although he proved a relative failure at the stud. However, perhaps the best stallion that James Wilson ever let slip through his fingers was the appropriately named St Albans, a son of Blair Athol.
Originally acquired by John Moffatt on that fateful trip to the Old Country from which the old squatter never returned to these shores alive, St Albans had been bred and sold as a yearling by the Middle Park Stud in England. Moffatt’s death at Galle, Ceylon, saw the then-unnamed colt come into the sales ring upon his arrival in Australia. Joe Thompson purchased him and registered the two-year-old in honour of James Wilson’s recently acquired stud farm. Although put into work by Wilson, St Albans never actually raced because of an injury sustained from a kick by a Clydesdale stallion. Given his bloodlines, the horse was always a likely stud proposition, but Thompson was no breeder, and Wilson already had King of the Ring. St. Albans thus found his way into the Calstock Stud of John Field in the Deloraine district of Tasmania where he proved a tremendous success, getting the likes of Malua and Sheet Anchor, each a Melbourne Cup winner, as well as Stockwell and the like.
Still, there was a curious twist to the St. Albans’ story. After James Wilson sold out his stud to John Crozier, the latter paid good money to return the horse St Albans to St. Albans. While perhaps not as successful after his relocation, the old sire eventually got as many as 21 individual stakes winners of 43 stakes races. Stallions notwithstanding, however, it was the quality of the broodmares that made the St. Albans Stud’s reputation in James Wilson’s day, and while Musidora and Mischief provided the foundation, which continued through their daughters and granddaughters, it wasn’t always untrammelled good fortune. Briseis, whose string of victories in 1876 did more than any other horse to build the Wilson family fortune, and from whom so much was expected at stud, died when being mated with King of the Ring in September 1879. While hobbled for the mating she reared up and falling back, fractured her skull.
The original St. Albans Stud was a modest affair compared to what it became with the passing of the years. The decade of the 1870s saw it enjoy its halcyon days and a transformation into the best racing and breeding stable in the land. It was in 1873 that construction started on the St. Albans homestead, a single-storey, thirty-roomed brick mansion designed by the leading Melbourne architect, James T. Conlan, in the fashionable polychromatic style of the period, replete with an ornate cast-iron verandah manufactured by Geelong foundrymen. The 1874 Maribyrnong Plate won by Maid of All Work, and the 1876 Melbourne Cup won by Briseis, provided James Wilson with the money to make further additions to the house in 1875 and 1878 respectively. And he significantly extended the stud itself. It seemed that with each succeeding victory in rich cups or handicaps the winnings were used to purchase extensive tracts of land in the stud’s vicinity, together with improvements of every kind. Apart from the beautiful dwelling house, which still stands today, large, handsome entrance gates were established; hedges were planted and a spacious garden was arranged. The paddocks were subdivided and seeded with the best English grasses, while more substantial stabling was constructed.
The training ground, where so many betting plots were hatched, was for a time the finest in the colony with both an inner and an outer surface encircling the best part of the estate with a natural inwards camber. The course extended over a mile and the outer gallop was composed of sandy loam while the inner was topped with tan; and within a short distance of the track, there was a large waterhole, from which the water was raised by steam power. With the aid of a large hose and an immense watercart, the running ground was kept in good condition in the driest of weather. Given the quality of horses and the importance of time trials at St. Albans, was it any wonder that James Wilson was rumoured to patrol the bushes with a gun in hand and a ready supply of charge number six destined for the seats of honour of any touts found lurking therein!
As a rule, James Wilson’s horses were well-schooled, and the trainer always adopted the wise system of allowing his horses to see as much of the public as possible, if not vice versa. When he had horses engaged at the Geelong meeting, for example, he would often bring non-starters to the course for the experience and a parade. In the weeks immediately preceding the rich autumn and spring meetings he would arrive at Flemington from St Albans with a group of older horses and two-year-olds all bearing evidence of having done plenty of work. That group would remain for a day or two and then be returned to St. Albans while another portion of the string visited Flemington the following week. Of course, weighted saddles and various other deceptions were employed to mislead the touts. Well-placed rumours and disinformation were also used to obtain extended odds.
I should mention that for a number of years when James Wilson senior brought his team of horses from Queenscliff, he lodged them at Flemington in the boxes of the ‘Jessamine’ establishment. Standing on Kensington Hill on Epsom road and overlooking the Flemington racecourse, it became one of the most famous racing properties in the district. The stables dated back to the mid-1870s and were originally known as ‘Wollamai’, having had that name bestowed on it by John Cleland, who built the property, and named it after the horse that won the Melbourne Cup for him in 1875. In those days, the house fronted Bayswater road, but when the property was purchased by James Wilson of Bonny Vale, he had a bigger house built, together with additional stabling, and it faced Epsom road.
Many a good winner was sent out from ‘Jessamine’ by the Wilsons – both father and son – and thus the place had a very real historic resonance. When James Wilson junior wound down his team in the years of World War I, ‘Jessamine’ fell into the possession of Harry Harrison and enjoyed something of a revival. Harrison, of course, specialised in jumpers and it was from the gates of ‘Jessamine’ that Obi strode forth to win his Second Grand National Hurdle. An even greater celebrity came along a decade later when the stable sheltered Mountain God – twice winner of the Grand National Steeplechase. Still, the march of progress saw the property disappear. Even during the early 1930s, portions of the land had been cut up into building allotments at the time that the title deeds had passed into the hands of the top jockey George Harrison, the nephew of Harry. The buildings remained standing a little longer until the years around World War II. But I digress.
One of the great betting plunges of James Wilson senior, came in the 1879 Sydney Cup. Bosworth was the race favourite until the evening before, when it became evident that certain statements purporting lameness to the St. Albans’ horse Savanaka were merely low inventions. The plan soon became apparent, for, while these statements were being made, William Branch, the leading bookmaker who was then in the confidence of the stable, was accepting all the proffered odds. Later in the evening, Herbert Power, the owner of Savanaka, walked into Tattersall’s after the market had been well-drained of Savanaka money and made an offer to accept 3/1 in thousands. The trick of rumour succeeded only too well when Savanaka won that Sydney Cup.
An entire chapter could be written on the betting adventures surrounding Savanaka alone, especially that famous Melbourne Cup plunge in 1877 when the then three-year-old, in the hands of young Peter St Albans, went under by a mere half-head to the great Chester. A similar ‘lameness’ to that affecting Savanaka had overtaken Don Juan on the eve of his Melbourne Cup too, only for it miraculously to disappear during the race. Not that the dirty tricks were all one way. On the eve of the 1875 V.R.C. Spring Meeting, there was an attempt to upset the train from Geelong bringing James Wilson’s horses, including Maid of All Work, one of the Derby favourites.
Ruses notwithstanding, raw horsepower refined by smart training was the main reason for the St. Albans stable’s pre-eminence in the 1870s and early 1880s, although adroit jockeyship was its natural complement. In this, James Wilson was extraordinarily fortunate given the natural athleticism and precocity of his two sons, James junior and William (‘Billy’) in the leathers. James junior was three years older than Billy and the first to make his mark. He finished second in successive Melbourne Cups on Lapdog and Romula in 1870 and 1871. Earlier in 1871, he accompanied his father to the Launceston Champion Meeting where he partnered with Romula to win the three-mile Champion Race, upsetting the odds-on Tim Whiffler.
Perhaps he was unlucky not to win the Melbourne Cup on Romula as well, as his mount received a crack over the head from the whip of the winning jockey in the tight finish. Young Jim never did win a Melbourne Cup in the saddle although his brother, Billy, did when successful on Don Juan in 1873. James won the first two Maribyrnong Plates on the St Albans’ horses Argus Scandal and Dagmar, and on the same day he won the Plate on Dagmar, he took out the Victoria Derby for his father on Miss Jessie. At that same 1875 V.R.C. Spring Meeting, Billy made it a real family affair by claiming the Hotham on Early Morn and the Royal Park Stakes and Queen’s Plate on King of the Ring.
James retired from the saddle at the ripe old age of seventeen, forced out by increasing weight, soon after winning the 1872 V.R.C. Oaks on Sunshine for his father. Billy rode on for a few more seasons before bowing out for the same reason as his brother, not long after winning the 1875 V.R.C. Oaks on Maid of All Works. It was an era in which a jockeys’ ring existed on the Victorian Turf, anathema to a betting stable like St Albans and the fact that James Wilson senior could place absolute trust in his sons was no small consideration in planning his betting coups. Yet no sooner had the brothers retired than the young Peter St Albans emerged on the scene. James junior tutored this young boy in the art of horsemanship and the rewards came when he partnered with the remarkable Briseis in that famous string of victories in 1876.
Chris Moore eventually came to succeed Peter, who moved on to ride for Sam Cook and Pytchley Lodge in the mid-eighties, and it was young Moore who partnered with William Branch’s Little Jack when he won the 1882 Caulfield Cup for the St Albans stable. I might mention in passing that the Wilson brothers’ athleticism came even more to the fore after the pair swapped their silks and breeches for football guernseys and shorts; each gave yeoman service to the nascent Geelong Football Club for a number of seasons and James even became club captain, leading the team to three Victorian Football Association premierships in 1879, 1880 and 1882. He was also the Geelong club’s president during 1887-88, succeeding his father in the role. Cricket was another sport the brothers played – perhaps inevitably given their Yorkshire heritage – and matches were occasionally hosted at St Albans, such as in the summer of 1874 when James Wilson organised a team drawn from jockeys and trainers to play against an eleven drawn from Victorian bookmakers. No ring-ins allowed. He was very fond of watching cricket, and before the Melbourne Cricket Ground stand was built, young Jim could usually be located under the old press box with a few of his friends when a good match was being played there.
By the early 1880’s the workload of conducting such a vast enterprise as St Albans no longer had the appeal for Wilson senior that it did in his younger and fitter days, particularly after he had been badly gored by a bull – an injury that for a time threatened his life and proved most troublesome, disrupting his sleep for the rest of his days; and neither of his sons, James or William, were prepared to step entirely into the breach. Moreover, the occasional run-in with officialdom had also sapped James Wilson’s energies. It was in 1884 that Wilson opened protracted negotiations to sell the stud to the South Australian pastoralist, John Crozier, and the deal, reportedly for £37,000, was eventually struck in 1885 following upon Crozier’s return from England, although not finally settled until some months later.
Human nature being what it is, an alliance between a leading trainer and a leading bookmaker, each separately enjoying a reputation for avarice and cunning, wasn’t calculated to last. Mutual suspicion was never far from the surface in the dealings between Wilson and Joe Thompson and when the split came as it did in a very public fashion – fisticuffs on the lawn in front of the grandstand at Flemington, just after the running of the hurdle on the opening day of the 1876 Autumn Meeting – it was caused more by a historic accumulation of actual and perceived grievances rather than any particular action on the day. Thompson was the aggressor and after a broadside of bitter invective, Wilson was speedily knocked down and, according to newspaper reports at the time, kicked when laying on the ground by some of the Thompson fraternity. The V.R.C. stewards investigated the matter and both parties were warned-off the course on the second day. Even in the Saddling Paddock old Joe was renowned for his bad language and the fracas led to the exclusion of bookmakers from the grandstand and lawn. No man was more fond of notoriety and self-promotion than Thompson and the incident with Wilson added to his portfolio of abusive incidents. Only three months later we find him settling out of court an action brought by the trainer Morris Griffin for defamation of character.
The two incidents that most eroded the trust and contributed to the ultimate rupture between Thompson and Wilson were the Flying Scud episode at the 1872 Geelong Cup meeting, detailed above, and the 1874 Australian Cup won by Protos. Joe Thompson claimed that Wilson had told him to back his horse Mentor for the latter race, which he did, only to discover later that a confrere of Wilson’s named Alderson, was, in fact, backing Wilson’s own horse, Protos. Thompson argued for letting Mentor win the race and reserving Protos for the Melbourne Cup. Wilson declined and the result was Protos first, Mentor second. Thompson’s judgement about the Melbourne Cup later that year proved spot on when Protos, burdened with extra weight for having won the Australian Cup, went down to the lightweight Haricot. The fallout was bitter. In 1878 when First King won his first Champion Stakes, James Wilson was reported to have made the biggest bet in his life. “Back him to win £5,000 for me” were his instructions to the commissioner, “and if you can, take it all from Thompson.”
Thompson’s departure from the ownership ranks of St Albans saw William Branch’s admission as the resident bookmaker of the stable. In his young days in England, Branch had been a pugilist of note and when only nineteen fought a determined battle with George Crockett. In the early days of bare-knuckle fighting in Victoria, Branch was a notes second. At ring tactics, he was a master. It was the goldfields that first attracted Branch to Victoria. His first connection with the St. Albans stable came when he owned Richmond, although he sold out the horse before James Wilson ever recognised his greatness. However, there were others that he owned that carried the ‘all-white’ including the likes of Progress, Mistaken and Little Jack – all good horses that won good races in James Wilson’s hands. British to his core, Branch was a quiet and circumspect bookmaker who paid with a smile and not a scowl, and whose geniality and discretion made him an ideal substitute for the combustible Thompson.
In 1884 Thompson together with his brother visited England where he was regaled as a prince; he returned to Australia for a few more years but in 1889 resolved to return to live in England together with much of the vast fortune that he had amassed in Australia. He left our southern city in March 1889 in Arcadia. Thompson proceeded to establish his new office in Jermyn-street, London and was soon as famous on the racecourses of England as he had been in Australia and mixing with the rich and famous. Alleged to have enjoyed an affair with Lily Langtry, perhaps it might have been an even more remarkable claim to fame if he hadn’t so indulged, given the lady’s propensity for putting herself about. Thompson was one of the first bookmakers there to promote doubles betting in a significant fashion, and he did a massive S.P. business alongside his attendance on the course.
Years later he did return to Melbourne on a visit, wherewith the good burghers, led by the Lord Mayor, put on a civic reception at the Melbourne Masonic Hall, decorating the building in Thompson’s tartan and orange racing colours. Never let it be said that in the high moral environment of local government, a politician allows an opportunity for self-promotion to pass by, regardless of the characters involved. It was on that last visit that a reconciliation of sorts was affected with James Wilson. Rancour and acrimony were forgotten, at least temporarily, as the pair toasted one another in an orgy of mutual regard. As late as 1909 this self-proclaimed King of the Ring was still betting extravagantly on his English stand. But in the early months of that year, in a bid to escape the northern winter, Thompson set forth on a holiday cruise to South Africa; he died of a sudden heart attack while on board the ship, near Madeira when returning to England. Said to be worth over £100,000 at the time he left for England in 1889 at the peak of the boom, he left an estate in Victoria valued at £45,000 in addition to £23,000 in England.
The subsequent history of the St. Albans Stud in hands other than James Wilson’s, as distinguished as it was, will be told in later chapters; it is the life of its founder that is of most interest to us here. Unsurprisingly, the sale of St. Albans didn’t mark the end of the great man’s training career but rather a discreet scaling-back. In July 1886 after John Crozier had moved into the famous establishment, we find James Wilson acquiring a small landholding, Kingston, at Queenscliff on Port Phillip Bay, ostensibly for his sons to convert into a breeding and training property. In 1879 the railway had been constructed from Geelong to Queenscliff, and by 1886 the paddle steamer was plying its trade between the maritime town and Melbourne. The winners continued to flow there for old James, although fewer in number. However, the death of his youngest son, William, from influenza in May 1890 at the age of just thirty-one, plunged the old man into a maelstrom of melancholy that saw him dispose of his Queenscliff estate to Donald Wallace just months later and finally sell all his stock and farm implements by auction. However, James could never entirely relinquish his life’s calling for any length of time, and it wasn’t long before he had established the Frankfort Stud at nearby Marcus.
This last stud might not have been conceived on the same grand scale as previously, or the canny 62-year-old Wilson overly ambitious in his schemes for the place, but the old man’s unerring eye for a good horse continued to serve him well. In the years that followed, James Wilson’s recognised colours would be seen less often but to good effect on the likes of Disfigured (1896 V.R.C. Melbourne Stakes), Nitre (1899 V.R.C. Oaks) and, for a season at least, the future A.J.C. Derby winner, Abundance, before he was injudiciously sold. Even in the twilight of his training career, James Wilson’s tribulations with racing authorities weren’t over, as the first day of the 1904 V.R.C. Spring Meeting was to prove. On two occasions that day the running of James Wilson’s horses, Roller and Blinker, both in the hands of jockey J. Conquest, were queried by stipendiary stewards.
The Blinker incident was the more serious of the two, for the colt created havoc in a Victoria Derby field of just seven horses. The erratic running of Blinker might have cost his rivals considerable inconvenience, but it didn’t do his own chances much good either, for he stormed home after the race was all over to miss a place narrowly. Well-tried for the Melbourne Cup, Blinker looked the likely winner when he entered the straight only to be run down by both Acrasia and Lord Cardigan. Both the Cup defeat and the stewards’ caution rankled with Wilson, and in March 1905 at the Newmarket yards of Messrs Yuille and Co., he once again sold by auction his several racehorses in training as well as his broodmares.
Blinker, ostensibly the cause of the sell-off, was knocked down to John Wren for 1650 guineas – the highest price brought at the sale. It proved a bad bargain. Blinker’s first appearance in his new owner’s colours came in the V.R.C. St Leger when he was unexpectedly beaten, and he broke down at his very next start in the Australian Cup. The catalogue of failures and disappointments from that dispersal sale didn’t end with Blinker either. The ten or so two-year-olds that were sold didn’t amount to much, and the broodmares proved either barren or wanting. The truth was that the rich vein of blood that had begun with Musidora and Mischief had largely exhausted itself with the passing of the years, and the timing of old James Wilson’s departure from active bloodstock breeding, like so much in his life, proved impeccable. There was the odd exception, of course, and the broodmares Amnesty, Reminder and Wink did later throw winners of useful races.
While the ageing James Wilson was to train a few horses in a desultory fashion over the next few years, he largely subsumed his own racing interests into those of his son, James junior, who had already established a remarkable career of his own. I think the last time James Wilson senior campaigned a horse in Sydney was at the 1910 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting when he brought over Mindful, having not visited the harbour city for many years. He was planning to run the mare in the Doncaster but changed his mind at the last moment and secured a young Jim Pike to ride her in the Flying, getting 8/1 for his money and winning by a neck. The third place-getter that day was a horse called Brilliant Boy, and he carried the stars and stripes of his owner, Noah Brusso, otherwise known as Tommy Burns, the ex-heavyweight boxing champion of the world.
James Wilson senior survived his one-time colleague and nemesis, Joe Thompson, by more than eight years, eventually dying after a short illness at the age of eighty-nine at Frankfort, Marcus, near Geelong, in November 1917. A man of a splendid constitution, he retained his faculties almost to the last. After a private funeral, he was buried in the Melbourne General Cemetery, and his pallbearers included John Wren, Herbert Power and Archie Yuille among other distinguished men of the Turf. ‘Tis true that ‘the paths of glory lead but to the grave’ but what a glorious path it had been for the grand old man of the Victorian Turf: two Melbourne Cups, four Sydney Cups, one Caulfield Cup, nine V.R.C. Oaks, three Champion Stakes, three Victoria Derbies, four Australian Cups, four V.R.C. St Legers, two A.J.C. St Legers and five Ascot Vale Stakes to name his more prestigious victories.