1877 was remarkable for the presence of two very high-class three-year-olds – each amongst the best gallopers to race in Australia in the nineteenth century – in Chester and First King. At that time in Australia’s history, nothing added spice to the game of racing more than a dash of inter-colonial rivalry conducted across the banks of the Murray River. Given that Chester hailed from New South Wales while First King came from Victoria, opinions on the merits of each colt varied markedly according to geography. The two colts each happened to make their racing debut on New Year’s Day, albeit one at Randwick and the other at Flemington.
Chester was a fine big raking son of Yattendon from the imported English mare Lady Chester, a daughter of Stockwell, and one of a number of beautifully-bred English broodmares that Edward King Cox was then accumulating at his Fernhill Stud. On Tuesday afternoon, 18th April 1876, Chester was one of a number of Yattendons offered by Cox at the regular annual sale of yearlings held on Randwick racecourse the very day after Robin Hood had won the A.J.C. St Leger there. The sales, with over 100 lots on offer, were conducted conjointly by George Kiss and Thomas Clibborn and attracted a large attendance and healthy bidding. While George Kiss led off proceedings, it wasn’t until after the luncheon break that Clibborn offered the first of the yearlings consigned by Yattendon and it happened to be Chester. The correspondent for the Evening News waxed lyrical about him trilling: “No grander yearling was ever seen at Randwick whilst his condition, and likewise all that offered from the same stud, showed that neither expense nor trouble had been grudged in bringing them to market under the most favourable auspices.”
After some spirited bidding, the colt, who had been a mid-October foal, was knocked down at 490 guineas to the Hon. James White. While he was the most expensive of the Yattendons sold that day, he wasn’t the most expensive of the yearlings, being eclipsed by two other lots by Maribyrnong. Towards the end of the sales, James Wilson, hoping to reprise the success that he had briefly enjoyed with Richmond, paid 800 guineas for a bay filly by Maribyrnong from The Fawn, and thereby a sister to that champion colt; and Samuel Gardiner paid 610 guineas for a brown colt by Maribyrnong out of Cremorne. The sales, having started just after noon, were all over by half-past five as many in the crowd wended their way back to the city.
James White bought two other yearlings that day viz. a bay colt by Yattendon out of Lilla, and hence a brother to both Commodore and Javelin, for 325 guineas; and the yearling by Kingston from Avalanche for which he paid 160 guineas. While White settled the bill on those two yearlings, the Chester sale actually fell through. Something happened after Thomas Clibborn’s gavel had fallen. Perhaps Lady Chester’s yearling failed a veterinary inspection or James White changed his mind but whatever it was, the colt went into the Lower Randwick stables of trainer Sam Harding under the ownership, not of the Hon. James White, but of his breeder, E. K. Cox. Sam Harding, who trained his horses out of Bert Cornwell’s old stables in ‘Struggletown’ nearby Harry Rayner and Tom Payten, had won his reputation when he presided over the large training premises at Essendon and prepared the home-bred Haricot to win the 1874 Melbourne Cup for the brothers, Andrew and Thomas Chirnside. Harding’s other claim on racing history was that the great Bob Batty had graduated from his stables when he trained out of Moonee Ponds. As we shall see, James White would eventually secure ownership of Chester, but he would have to outlay a lot more than his original 490 guineas for the privilege.
The running of two-year-olds was a question which came up for discussion during the 1870s in Australia, perhaps more than any other question connected with the sport. Various had been the schemes brought forward before the Jockey Club in England for regulating the running of youngsters in the matters of time of year, weight, and distance, until at last legislation in 1873 seemed to have left two-year-old racing very much where it found it some thirty years before. It was at a meeting of the Jockey Club held on 23 October 1873 that the rule which prohibited the running of two-year-olds before the first of May was rescinded. Assimilating our rules and regulations to those of England, the A.J.C. then followed suit and legislated for the earlier running of two-year-olds. By comparison, the V.R.C. had for some years adopted a more relaxed attitude as both the V.R.C. Maribyrnong Plate (1871) and the V.R.C. Flemington Stakes (1868), conducted at the spring and summer meetings respectively, indicated. Many regarded this latest legislation by the A.J.C. as retrograde, fearing the premature tax imposed on immature youngsters by training and running them so early. The debate, of course, continues to this very day but let it be said that the future careers of both Chester and First King were in no way impaired by their racecourse debuts on New Year’s Day.
Chester’s came at the annual Tattersall’s Club meeting at Randwick in the Two-Year-Old Stakes over five furlongs, a race of one hundred sovereigns added to the seven sovereigns collected from each of the eleven starters. It wasn’t until 1874 that the Tattersall’s Club inaugurated a specific race for two-year-olds at their New Year’s Day Meeting. Prior to that year, N.S.W. didn’t have a legitimate two-year-old race earlier in the season than the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting, which, as we have seen, was then held in May. A long, dark bay or brown colt standing nearly sixteen hands, with proportionate power all around, albeit with a rather plain head, Chester had already impressed the few Randwick regulars that had seen his trackwork. Chester went off as the 5/2 favourite that day, Harding having made little if any mistake in his diagnosis of Chester, who was a tremendous pot and almost landed it.
The big Yattendon colt led into the straight, only to be claimed by Sir Hercules Robinson’s Viscount in the run to the post to be beaten by a head. Viscount, at least, enjoyed the significant advantage of prior racing experience having run fourth in the V.R.C. Maribyrnong Plate. Nonetheless, Chester created a big impression. The Stockwell blood was legendary, and considering the colt’s size and scope, astute racing men concluded that he merely needed time to furnish into the best horse in the land. The Governor of N.S.W., Sir Hercules Robinson ruefully came to the same conclusion, despite his own Viscount’s victory. The irony was that Robinson had been offered Chester as a yearling upon his own terms, but His Excellency had thought Chester rather coarse at the time.
Despite Sam Harding getting Chester to the post in fine fettle for his racecourse debut, by the end of the same month the son of Yattendon had been transferred into the Terrara stables of Etienne de Mestre. Just what prompted Cox’s move can’t be determined for certain at this distance in history. Still, one suspects that Cox realising what he held in Chester wanted someone other than a journeyman trainer to prepare the colt for the autumn two-year-old classics and quite possibly the Derbies and Cups in the spring. History affirms that it was a judicious choice. Etienne de Mestre was then in his mid-forties, already casting a giant shadow across the Australian Turf and boasting three Melbourne Cups, two with Archer and one with Tim Whiffler. Before the year was out, Chester would give him his fourth.
De Mestre trained his horses at Terrara, down in the Shoalhaven district of New South Wales and he lost no time in taking Chester in hand and setting his course for the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting in April. I might add that after losing Chester, Sam Harding continued to train at Randwick but mostly concentrated on jumpers, many of which he rode in races himself. However, a bad smash in a hurdle race on Wrangler at a Sydney Turf Club meeting in September 1881, saw him largely retire from the saddle. Early in the following year, Harding moved to Brisbane where he was a familiar figure at Eagle Farm when jumping was in vogue there. Harding, much later in life, settled in Flaxton in Queensland, where he died at the age of ninety in July 1926.
If Chester had beguiled the Sydney racing public with his one brief appearance, then First King no less bewitched their Melbourne brethren. The first son of King of the Ring to appear either in a paddock or on a racecourse, this homebred from the St Albans stable of James Wilson was a half-brother to the former champion two and three-year-old filly, Maid of All Work. As a yearling, it was believed First King was owned by Joseph Thompson who owned his sire, but after the spectacular breach between the leviathan and Wilson, the latter retained ownership until he sold St. Albans to John Crozier. First King brought with him from St Albans a reputation as the best youngster ever trained at that notable establishment. The colt had gone amiss prior to the V.R.C. Maribyrnong Plate in the spring and when he finally made his debut it came in the V.R.C. Two-Year-Old Stakes (5f) on New Year’s Day. He was despatched at the skinny odds of 4/6 – money having been ladled on him in the days leading up to the meeting. A bay boasting a bold intelligent head distinguished with a large white star and a white hind foot, when stripped for the race, it could be seen that in character, First King took after his sire, although better moulded, while he bore some resemblance to his distinguished sister, Maid of All Work. A smallish horse certainly when compared to Chester, First King stood over a lot of ground and had such a commanding carriage that it was a long time before he was ever referred to as a little horse. But for having a hip knocked down, he would have been very handsome.
On a Flemington track made moist from drizzling showers and ridden by Billy Yeomans in a field of nine colts, First King was in the front rank from the start and won effortlessly by two lengths. He followed it up by taking out the Barwon Plate, a handicap for two and three-year-olds run over a mile at the Geelong Racing Club’s annual two-day meeting in late January. On this occasion, the colt was partnered by Tom Hales while none other than Andrew Chirnside waved the starter’s flag. Carrying 7 st. 2lb, First King as the even-money favourite won very cleverly by a length and a half and covered the mile in 1 minute 47 seconds, a fast time, all things considered. Eased in his work, First King was then brought back to honour his final engagement of the season in the V.R.C. Ascot Vale Stakes. Reunited with Billy Yeomans and with 9 st. 1lb in the saddle including a 5lb penalty, First King won a half-length. Alas, any clash with Chester was not destined to occur until the Victoria Derby as James Wilson had not nominated First King for any of the two or three-year-old classics at Randwick, and Chester wasn’t slated amongst de Mestre’s team to represent Terrara at the autumn gathering at Flemington. The absence of any reward to the breeder of the Sires’ Produce Stakes’ winner at either Flemington or Randwick in those days, often led breeders to fail to nominate stallions, and the races became less competitive as a result. First King retired to his Geelong winter quarters having impressed the public with his indomitable gameness.
In turn, First King’s absence enabled Chester to rout the opposition at the Randwick Autumn Meeting and leave a huge impression among racegoers. The A.J.C. Autumn Meeting in 1877 was conducted over four days beginning on April 2 with the running of the Champagne Stakes, St Leger and Doncaster. The second day of the meeting was Wednesday, April 4 with the Breeders’ Plate and Sydney Cup while the third day was Friday, April 6 with the All-Aged Stakes, Sires’ Produce Stakes and Cumberland Stakes. The meeting then closed on the fourth day, Saturday, with the A.J.C. Plate. The fields were large; the racing of a high class; and the starting the best ever seen at Randwick. Chester raced on the first three days, winning each time. The club paid away £7,600 in stakes and Edward King Cox, Chester’s owner, came away with the largest share.
The Champagne Stakes (5f) on the first day, not only brought together the largest field of two-year-olds – seventeen starters – that ever faced a flag at Randwick, but also the most pretentious lot of youngsters that ever stripped here, including both Habena and Expectation, who ran first and second for the V.R.C. Maribyrnong Plate. A host of other well-bred ones were in the field as well, including Viscount, Chester’s conqueror from New Year’s Day. Rumour had it that now he was supposed to be even better than Habena. Nonetheless, Chester went into the race as the pronounced 2/1 favourite, and, after leading into the straight, won by nearly six lengths from Expectation and Royalty in the fast time of 1 minute 5.1 seconds. Only six ran for both the Breeders’ Plate (6f) and the Sires’ Produce Stakes (7f) on the second and third days.
While Chester easily annexed the Breeders’ Plate, he was destined to be stretched in the Sires’ Produce Stakes by Waterford, a plucky little chestnut colt by The Marquis owned by H. T. Bowler. On that occasion, Waterford, with Billy Yeomans in the leathers, led into the straight and was challenged by Chester at the distance. The pair ran together to the Leger Stand, where Chester appeared to be drawing away, but the chestnut came again, and Donnelly had to ride Chester out to win by the shortest of necks. It was a grand race with both horses running gamely to the end. Cap-a-Pie, a stablemate of Chester and the horse who made most of the running, finished within a length of the other pair, thereby suggesting that de Mestre would be a major player in the Derbies come springtime.
So impressed was the Hon. James White with Chester’s running during that week that he offered Edward King Cox the princely sum of £2,000 to transfer ownership. It was an offer that Cox could not refuse. White was just then beginning his extraordinarily rich foray into thoroughbred ownership. Indeed, so taken was White with the pedigree that during the same week at Messrs Clibborn and Company’s annual sale of yearlings, he also paid 1150 guineas to Cox for Chester’s full brother, the appropriately named Roodee, then the highest price ever given for a yearling in Australia. Despite rumours to the contrary following the sale of both Chester and his little brother, both colts were despatched by a special steamer to Terrara to be prepared for the spring.
The man in the saddle who steered Chester to that hat-trick of victories at the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting was George Donnelly. Given the significance of Donnelly in Chester’s life and as a Randwick identity of the period and for some years afterwards, it is perhaps appropriate here and now to sketch his profile. Born at Jamberoo in the Illawarra in July 1843, Donnelly demonstrated an affinity with horses from a young age and rode in races quite early around the Shoalhaven. Eleven years younger than Etienne de Mestre, and each hailing from the same district, it was always likely that a professional relationship might result. Donnelly had his first ride for the trainer when he partnered with that useful horse Marksman in the 1868 A.J.C. Champagne Stakes won by Maribyrnong’s sister, Fenella. Upon Tom Lamond leaving de Mestre’s employment the following year, Donnelly became the main jockey/travelling foreman for the stable.
Perhaps never in the front rank of jockeys of the period and inferior to the likes of Colley, Yeomans, Morrison and Stanley, Donnelly nonetheless won a number of prizes in the saddle. A tall, heavyweight jockey, Donnelly’s opportunities were circumscribed to weight-for-age and set-weight races or to the relative topweights in handicaps. As we saw in our previous chapter, he won both the V.R.C. Derby and A.J.C. St Leger on Robin Hood, although perhaps Donnelly’s greatest claim to fame in the pigskin came in winning the A.J.C. Plate five times in six years viz. with Tim Whiffler (1870, 1871), Dagworth (1873, 1874) and Lurline (1875). Donnelly’s domestic arrangements changed markedly in April 1875, when he married Mary Dillon, the widow of the jockey, John Cutts Dillon. John Dillon, of course, is best known to posterity as John Cutts and as the man who won the first two Melbourne Cups on Archer, that famous son of William Tell, and Etienne de Mestre’s champion stayer of the early 1860s.
After retiring as a jockey, Cutts and his wife took over the licence of the Half Way House Hotel on Sydney Road, Randwick, opposite the racecourse gates. It was an establishment much favoured by the racing fraternity given its proximity to the racecourse and its stabling facilities, accommodation and hospitality. Given his previous association with Cutts, de Mestre usually stabled his horses there when he sent them up from Terrara, and it followed that George Donnelly, as his travelling foreman stayed there too. A genuine friendship developed between Donnelly and Cutts, cut short when the latter died prematurely at the age of forty-three in September 1872. Ill for the last eighteen months of his life, and unable to properly administer the Half Way House Hotel, Cutts left his wife, Mary and five children, largely destitute.
Indeed, a subscription was raised through the good offices of Mr O’Brien of the Tattersall’s Hotel and the sporting editors of The Australasian and The Town and Country Journal. At the Tattersall’s settling over the A.J.C. Spring Meeting some two weeks after Cutts’s death, almost £120 was subscribed that night alone, with de Mestre contributing £10, and John Tait and Jimmy Ashworth contributing £5 and £3 respectively. It all helped Mary Dillon keep the Half Way House, although what helped most of all was George Donnelly’s support and ultimate proposal and marriage two and a half years later in April 1875. Thereafter, while Donnelly continued his one-sided battle with the scales in a bid to keep riding, he left the Shoalhaven district and relocated permanently to Randwick. It was in this role of Mine Host of the Half Way House Hotel that he received Chester when he returned to Sydney in late July to continue his A.J.C. Derby preparation.
In the wake of the V.R.C. and A.J.C. meetings, sportsmen on both sides of the Murray were acclaiming it the best crop of two-year-olds ever seen out in the same season in the colonies. Immediately after Chester’s exhibition at the 1877 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting, bookmakers installed the son of Yattendon as short as 7/2 for the A.J.C. Derby, a price that continued to shrink as the winter deepened. As good as Chester looked, however, when the Melbourne Cup weights came out in mid-June the V.R.C. handicapper rated First King as the best two-year-old of the season with 7 st. 1lb, while his Sydney rival was rated 3lb inferior on 6 st. 12lb. Whatever the handicapper may have thought, associates of the Terrara stable soon busied themselves in heavily supporting Chester for the rich spring plums – and not just the A.J.C. Derby, but the Victoria Derby – Melbourne Cup double as well.
The 1877 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions appear in the table below:
Ten horses were declared for the A.J.C. Derby. George Donnelly remained Chester’s jockey in the race, but at thirty-four years of age, was nearing the end of his active life in the saddle. In the late 1870s, there were far fewer race meetings held, and in taking the mount on Chester, Donnelly had done little or no race riding since the previous Randwick fixture. As a result, during the winter months, Donnelly had put on considerable weight. When he belatedly learned that despite the change in Chester’s ownership he was still to retain the mount, Donnelly had to strip more than half a stone from his frame in the course of little more than a week or so. It left him in a somewhat weakened state and unable to do full justice to Chester, particularly in the dramatic last furlong of that memorable Derby.
Heavy rain had fallen at Randwick in the week preceding the opening of the A.J.C. Spring Meeting that year and a soft track awaited the ten that confronted Mr Want’s flag. Anybody looking at Chester in the saddling paddock on Derby Day and told that he was a four-year-old, would not have disputed it without looking into his mouth. Given his size and strength allied to his racecourse performances, Chester easily retained his hold on the public’s imagination right to the death, while the best-backed horse to beat him was Woodlands. A son of Maribyrnong, Woodlands failed to attract the judge’s attention in his only two juvenile outings but had emerged as a genuine contender by winning the Maiden Plate and Hawkesbury Guineas at the Clarendon course upon resumption. The only other colt under double figures was the sole Victorian challenger, Salisbury, trained by Bob Sevior at Flemington. It was disappointing that more horses from Melbourne hadn’t ventured north but the fact that the railway on the NSW side didn’t extend to Albury, and the risks inherent in a voyage by sea rendered the journey quite difficult. De Mestre’s stable had a useful second string to its bow in Cap-a-Pie, a minor place-getter in the Sires’ Produce Stakes in the autumn on the same course. Andrew Loder started two representatives in the race, Black Eagle and The Dean, both sons of Yattendon; with Black Eagle the more fancied of the pair on the strength of his second in the Hawkesbury Guineas. Michael Fennelly’s stable hope was the long-priced, roguish Ingomar, while Byron Lodge started Amendment.
In cold and miserable weather, the horses were walked to the Derby start in blankets, with the jockeys following on foot. After an even start, Salisbury, drawn on the extreme outside, promptly took up the running, a role that he fulfilled for the first ten furlongs of the trip and which for much of the time he was pulling his jockey out of the saddle. Meanwhile, Donnelly held Chester in a good position on the outside. As the field climbed the hill at the back of the course, the lead of the Victorian representative was considerably reduced and as the field tightened Cap-a-Pie cannoned into Amendment, costing that horse three or four lengths. After Salisbury compounded passing the ten furlongs post, Chester and Cap-a-Pie raced towards the lead with Woodlands challenging on the extreme outside and joining the Terrara pair at the Leger. In an exciting last furlong, the race remained in doubt until the last stride when Woodlands just managed to prevail. The finish was so close, however, that several telegrams announcing Chester’s success were despatched from the course before the judge hoisted the number 6, much to the relief of the fielders. No sooner had the result been announced, than the public recriminations against Donnelly’s inept handling of the favourite began. It was just about the last mount that the hapless Donnelly ever accepted in a race. Never reckless with his earnings, he later became the licensee of the A.J.C. Hotel at Randwick, and for a few years quite successfully trained a small team of horses on the side.
The winner of the Derby was a dark brown colt standing about 15.1 hands, a son of the wonderful stallion Maribyrnong from the good-producing mare, The Alpaca. Mr Thomas Lee had bred him at Bathurst, and Joe Burton had broken in the colt. The Alpaca was a mare by Kingston from Lilla, the dam of the 1871 Derby winner Javelin, and Commodore, winner of the 1873 St Leger at Randwick. Thus, in victory Woodlands had proved himself a worthy scion of a classic-winning family. The Alpaca belonged to a very old Lee breed and descended from a mare that was supposed to have been bred at Camden Park and was said to have been thoroughbred. Bought from his breeder as a youngster by the well-known Sydney bookmaker, Joe Silberberg, Woodlands had already passed through the hands of two trainers before entering the Sydney stables of Joe Cook.
James Wilson, the master of St Albans, prepared Woodlands for his racecourse debut in the Maribyrnong Plate in which he ran badly. A dispute then saw the colt transferred to Sevior’s Flemington establishment, although without any marked change in his racing fortunes, for at his next appearance he proceeded to get lost in the Champagne Stakes at Randwick won by Chester. It was after that autumn meeting that Silberberg decided to leave the colt in Sydney to be trained by Joe Cook. Silberberg won a poultice on the result; he was a tremendous gambler who had risen from the ranks and climbed into money rapidly, and no one but a desperate speculator would have risked a parcel of money on any colt to beat Chester that day.
For Cook the Derby represented his first important training success; he had begun stable life as a headman for Tom Lamond at Waterloo soon after Lamond moved to Sydney in the early 1870s. In fact, it was only a short while before Woodlands’ Derby that Cook had even decided to strike out on his own and the manner in which he produced the son of Maribyrnong at both Hawkesbury and Randwick suggested a promising career was in store. Never overseeing a large string, Cook in the years that followed made a name for himself from his Waterloo stables. Apart from Woodlands, his best horse was arguably Little Bernie with whom he won both a Metropolitan and a Summer Cup in the early nineties. Cook was the first of three successive generations of the family to win big staying races at Randwick. His son Joe junior owned and trained Amounis at the very start of his career and a little later won a Sydney Cup with Winalot. Joe junior’s son, Clyde Cook, was to prepare Persian Lyric to win the 1960 A.J.C. Derby, while Clyde’s daughter married the high-profile race broadcaster, Ken Howard.
The subsequent form of the Derby colts on the remaining three days of that 1877 A.J.C. spring fixture suggested that it was a quality year for three-year-olds. On the second day of the meeting, Amendment won the Great Metropolitan Stakes while Woodlands made it four wins in a row when he took out the Maiden Stakes. On the third day, Chester – with the rising young jockey Paddy Pigott replacing Donnelly in the irons – got his revenge on Woodlands when he comfortably won the Mares’ Produce Stakes (10f). It was then on to Melbourne and that much-awaited clash with First King.
De Mestre arrived in Melbourne in late September with Chester and five other horses, stabling them initially in boxes at the Racecourse Hotel at Flemington before venturing out to Williamstown where the horse did his final gallops away from the general body of touts. The Terrara stable had learnt the lesson of matching an unfit jockey with a very fit horse and Piggott had been retained for all of Chester’s Melbourne engagements. Woodlands arrived in Melbourne about a week after Chester, and Joe Silberberg made no secret of the fact that he wasn’t anxious to try his luck against either the Hon. James White’s putative champion or Melbourne’s wonder colt in the Victoria Derby. Silberberg had backed Woodlands heavily for the Melbourne Cup and preferred his chances in that race at the weights, given that his colt received 19lb from Chester and even 3lb more from First King. As it turned out, Woodlands almost missed the entire Flemington meeting when he was the subject of a bungled nobbling attempt on the previous Saturday evening. Malefactors managed to open the window of his box and throw half a beer bottle, jagged-edged, as well as several large oyster shells onto the floor in a bid to inflict injuries if the colt happened to tread or roll on the objects. But apart from a few scratches on his quarters, he emerged relatively unscathed.
There were also disquieting rumours concerning the well-being of First King out at St. Albans, although given the absolute secrecy that surrounded the workings of that stable nobody could be sure. The truth was, however, that a split hoof had severely interrupted First King’s Victoria Derby preparation. The problem compelled him to run in plates while Chester ran barefoot. First King’s shelly feet would prove a constant problem for James Wilson throughout the colt’s racing career and many of his preparations consisted of swimming in the Barwon River. Anybody comparing the two colts as they were saddled to do battle couldn’t help but be struck by their difference in formation. Chester, standing considerably taller, had an altogether more powerful look and impressed one with a conviction that he would stay like a bailiff and that weight-carrying would be his forte. First King, on the other hand, though refined and elegant, failed to fill the eye. Each colt retained his army of supporters and as the money went down in handfuls, it seemed to the parochial New South Wales and Victoria colonists that it was The Barb versus Fishhook all over again!
Visitors to Flemington could observe the improvements made since the last meeting. There was the new stand in the saddling paddock and a lengthening of the saddling paddock itself, rendering it the most spacious in Australia. Sir Hercules Robinson drove up the straight in his four-in-hand accompanied by Lady Robinson. They were soon afterwards followed by Sir George Bowen with Lady Bowen and family, and Sir Frederick Weld, the Governor of Tasmania. By the time the Derby was run, it was estimated that there were 23,000 people in attendance. Woodlands was a defection from the Derby with Silberberg preferring his chances against Robinson Crusoe and company in the Melbourne Stakes, the opening event on the card. The signs were good for the de Mestre stable when his Vulcan won the Maribyrnong Plate, the third race on the card. Woodlands, against the older horses at weight-for-age, went off the favourite in the nine-horse field but was beaten into second placing by Robinson Crusoe.
A dozen three-year-olds mustered at the starting post for the Victoria Derby for which there had originally been 92 nominations. Chester went off the 4/5 favourite with 5/1 offered about First King. A good deal of trouble was experienced in getting them away but when they did so, Devilshoof cut out the work, leading the field along at a great pace with both Chester and First King lying well back. Pigott was on Chester with Tom Hales on First King. Chester went to the front at the far turn. As they came on in the straight Chester cleared away from the others with the greatest ease passing the post a half-length in front of Pluto with First King third. Considering that First King had been thrown out of work for almost three weeks because of problems with his feet and the fact that Wilson was obliged to run him in shoes, his minor placing was highly creditable. The winning time of 2 minutes 43 seconds made it the fastest Derby ever run on the Flemington course, being a quarter of a second faster than Briseis’s time. The Derby result had considerable influence on Cup betting and Chester was elevated to equal favouritism with Savanaka, the three-year-old grey colt that had been the subject of a sensational betting plunge by the St Albans confederacy.
Owned by the V.R.C. committeeman and steward, Herbert Power, Savanaka was a brother to Lecturer and Kingsborough – yet unlike either of that pair, he was a narrow and weedy type. James Wilson very early on concluded the horse wasn’t up to Derby weight but would be well suited in the Melbourne Cup under handicap conditions. His entire racing programme had been calculated to get this son of Kingston into the 1877 Cup with nothing on his back; he had only raced twice as a two-year-old, finishing unplaced in the Maribyrnong Plate and then, later at the same meeting, showing he could gallop by taking out the Flying Stakes. Within a matter of days of the Cup weights being declared, Savanaka had been backed to win over £40,000, and the bulk of the money was taken within just a few minutes on a June Saturday evening at Tattersall’s in Melbourne. There was a great attendance at Tattersall’s on the night preceding the Cup, and the Derby settling having been got through to the bookmakers’ satisfaction, attention focussed on the great event of the morrow. While Savanaka and Chester were all the rage, the weather was almost as anxiously discussed. In the event, the rains held off overnight and in the morning and didn’t arrive until after some 76,000 people had arrived on the course and the hill.
With so much money at stake, it was hardly surprising that the Melbourne Cup that year proved such a dirty business. The public had followed the St Albans stable lead in the betting ring supporting the colt into 5/1 equal favouritism with Chester and would have gambled more had they known that Wilson had tried the horse to beat Don Juan’s Cup record time on his private training track by fully three seconds. Chester brought the plunge unstuck, but only just – and not before a Cup brimful of incidents. The course remained greasy after the rain, and de Mestre elected to run Chester again without plates, although on this occasion he took the precaution of having a few nails hammered into the hooves to prevent the colt from slipping. Woodlands looked none the worse for his exertions on Derby Day, but the fact of his having a slight cough dissuaded support from the stable. When the numbers appeared on the board, it was discovered that the field was exactly the same as the year before i.e. thirty-three starters. As the horses left the paddock for the post, the rain temporarily eased and the preliminary canters were completed without the jockeys being compelled to don their overcoats.
When Mr Watson dispatched the field, Fisherman rushed to the front and rendered the pace a terrific cracker. In a genuinely-run contest, Chester won rather cleverly at the end, although the margin of a half-head over Savanaka could have been so much more, had Pigott not left off riding when he thought the race was won. Nonetheless, Savanaka was desperately unlucky, having suffered interference when a horse fell back on him sharply after passing the sheds and a stride past the winning post he was in front. Woodlands ran well to the distance but then dropped out of it. In winning, Chester became only the third horse – after Lantern and Briseis – to take the Derby/Cup double, although in Lantern’s year it should be borne in mind that the Derby was run after the Cup. Owner James White wasn’t present for the running of either race.
The press was not averse to giving the St Albans stable some criticism for the secrecy and plotting behind the Savanaka coup. The Australasian summed up the general mood when it commented: “Certain we are that with the general public there is a feeling of intense satisfaction that the clever party at St Albans, whose deeds are dark and ways mysterious, got bowled over for once and that de Mestre won the Cup for a man who races for sport, not money.” Herbert Power bridled at this sort of criticism, replying in a letter to the same paper that St Albans “is not a lounge for touts and sporting correspondents – an advantage I hope it may continue to have for many years to come.” Moreover, Power argued, he would like to know how it was that a supposedly non-betting owner (Hon. James White) came to be paid £10,000 by the bookmaker Joe Thompson on the Monday after the Cup. It is easy to understand Herbert Power’s bitterness in the circumstances. Of course, Power wasn’t to know it at the time, but a small measure of revenge would be extracted when Savanaka, in receipt of 12lb, later beat his Melbourne Cup conqueror in the 1879 Sydney Cup, landing a more modest plunge in so doing.
The fall-out over the failed Melbourne Cup plunge on Savanaka tended to deflect attention at the time from the successful one landed on Chester alluded to by Power. For never in the annals of the Australian Turf had there been such heavy settling for a V.R.C. Spring Meeting, and the fact that the bookmakers’ obligations were met so promptly said something about the resources of the Melbourne ring. Long before noon on the following Monday, a large crowd had assembled ‘under the verandah’ in Collins-street. One of the first transactions to be settled was the payment by Joe Thompson of £10,000 in banknotes to Septimus Stephen, the representative of James White, who had taken £10,000 to £400 about Chester for the Cup. Within an hour Thompson had paid out between £20,000 and £30,000 while others of his brethren had parted with big money as well. In collecting such a large sum, Septimus Stephen had taken the sensible precaution of taking along Jem Mace, the famous prize-fighter, to act as a bodyguard.
Chester defeated First King a second time at that V.R.C. Spring Meeting when on the Fourth Day, despite putting up a 5lb penalty, he easily won the Mares’ Produce Stakes (10f) by a length from his great rival in a six-horse field. After the Cup meeting, Chester was not brought back to Sydney but was left at Williamstown to be prepared for the Champion Stakes, for which he was made an even-money favourite. That race, on New Year’s Day, held out the promise of a return clash with First King. By then First King’s split hoof had healed, and James Wilson was able to give his charge the requisite amount of track work. It was on the strength of First King running three miles at St. Albans in a very smart time on the tan, that James Wilson accepted £3,000 to £500 about him for the Champion Race, declaring to his close friends that neither Chester nor any other horse could beat him. In the trial, it was rumoured that he had conceded 28lb to Savanaka and beat him with consummate ease. The irony of that Champion Stakes was that while First King’s hooves had properly recovered, Chester’s had deteriorated on the hard ground that had persisted with the dry weather since the V.R.C. Spring Meeting.
James Wilson’s confidence in First King was soundly based, as his charge went to the front a mile from home and was never headed to win easily by four lengths from Chester. First King’s time in winning the Champion Race was 8 ½ seconds faster than three miles had ever been covered anywhere in Australia. It was such that the V.R.C. Secretary, Mr Bagot, ordered the Flemington course to be re-surveyed only for it to be found to be one link more than the official figure. While Chester was matching strides with First King in the Champion Race, Woodlands was winning the Maiden Plate at the Hawkesbury Midsummer Meeting. It seemed an appropriate reflection on the way their respective careers had progressed since that fateful Derby Day at Randwick.
Just over four weeks after First King’s triumph in the Champion Race, on Thursday, 31 January, James Wilson held his first annual yearling sales at St. Albans. It was held on the day before the start of the 1878 Geelong Summer Meeting. The sale commenced at 2.30 pm but long before that time vehicles of every description could be seen wending their way across the common towards the aristocratically-named village, and it reminded one journalist of the road to a course on an important race day. J. D. Robinson of the auctioneering firm of Ogilvie and Robinson conducted proceedings while A. K. Finlay of Glenormiston chaired the recherche luncheon and proposed the toast to James Wilson senior. Those present included C. B. Fisher, W. J. Clarke and Herbert Power. What was remarkable about both the crowd and the level of interest, was that just five yearlings were going under the hammer – all by King of the Ring!
The fascination was almost wholly attributable to the performances of First King. The results proved that not only blood will tell but that it will also pay. There had been some betting on just how much the three colts and two fillies would realise in aggregate with some sportsmen taking the odds to £5,000. They collected, too! James Wilson obtained the highest price ever given in Australia for a yearling thoroughbred when the sister to First King sold for 1500 guineas. He also obtained 1200 guineas for Musidora’s colt and 1350 guineas for the dark bay colt from Miss Jessie. Two of those three buyers would prove well pleased with their acquisitions. First King’s sister, registered as Petrea, would win the Sydney Cup amongst a host of good races. While Musidora’s colt, registered as South Hamilton, proved disappointing, the bay colt from Miss Jessie, registered as Avernus, would win a Hobart Cup. The total sales aggregate amounted to exactly 5000 guineas.
First King’s dominance over Chester continued in the V.R.C. St Leger two months later, with a victory by a short head after a cracking race in which the only other starter was Pardon, a stablemate of First King, who had been entered by James Wilson as a pacemaker. Nonetheless, many maintained that the verdict would have gone the other way had Pigott waited longer. A few days later with no Chester, First King claimed the Australian Cup as well. In that race, First King carried 8 st. 5lb and beat the Tasmanian colt Swiveller who was the same age but to whom First King was conceding 27lb! Arguably it was the hard run in the Cup that led to Chester easily upsetting the St Albans’ crack in the Town Plate (2m) on the last day of that V.R.C. Meeting, although the 7lb penalty the Champion Stakes winner was required to carry didn’t help matters. After his tough campaign, First King wasn’t part of the St Albans’ assault on the Randwick Autumn Meeting.
De Mestre wasn’t hard on Chester once he got the colt back to Sydney to be freshened up for the A.J.C. St. Leger at Randwick. Albert Cornwell whispered to his close friends that Cap-a-Pie, whom he had taken over from de Mestre to train on behalf of Andrew Town, would beat Chester in the race if de Mestre persisted with his laid-back approach. And so it proved – in a race in which the Derby winner, Woodlands, ran last. Handicapped with 8 st. 9lb for the Sydney Cup, James White didn’t allow Chester to take his place but chose to rely instead on Democrat, a lightweight with 6 st. 5lb and a comparative outsider. In winning the race, Democrat capped a remarkable few months for White.
Chester instead was held over to match strides again with Cap-a-Pie in the Cumberland Stakes, and the men from Richmond put their money down for another upset but the St Leger gallop had stirred Chester up, and he managed to collar Cap-a-Pie on the line to make a dead-heat of it. A run-off was demanded, and Chester was kept moving about until they went to the post, and in the re-run, James White’s representative reigned supreme. He showed just what a cast-iron customer he was on the fourth day of that autumn meeting when he again ran over the same horse in the three-mile A.J.C. Plate to complete his three-year-old season. Chester’s string of victories saw the colt finish the season as the highest stakes winner, although his tally was about £1,000 below Richmond’s three-year-old haul. In so doing, Chester ensured Yattendon topped the winning stallions’ list and promoted James White to become the leading owner for the season in Australia for the first time. White won the title with five individual winners of nineteen races and began a dominance that was to last over a decade. In winning this first title, White relegated his own trainer, Etienne de Mestre, to second place on the owners’ list.
Chester’s subsequent career was largely restricted to the best weight-for-age races run at Randwick and Flemington, in which he was invariably difficult to beat, although he did run unplaced as top-weight in both the 1878 and 1880 Melbourne Cups- two of the only three occasions that the great horse finished unplaced. It was in that 1878 Melbourne Cup won by his stablemate Calamia, that Chester ran into a post leaving his jockey Joe Morrison with a badly broken leg that slowed, and eventually, ended his riding career. Morrison was never the same after that, often requiring a walking stick to get around. It was after the incident with Chester that the V.R.C. took steps to rail in the entire Flemington course. After that Cup crash Chester was given a spell, and when he came back into work didn’t return to Terrara but went instead into the stables of Michael Fennelly, James White’s key retainer in the training ranks. Fennelly was to enjoy remarkable success with White’s team in a relatively short career, and Chester proved no exception for he managed to rekindle the big horse’s spirit to again prove dominant in the weight-for-age ranks. It was in that first campaign for Fennelly – at the 1879 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting – that Savanaka eventually got his revenge on Chester for that famous Melbourne Cup loss when he easily beat the crack in the Sydney Cup when in receipt of 12lb.
Intermittent lameness was to mar his last season on the Turf and in his last important win – in the 1880 Melbourne Stakes – he arrived in the paddock with his legs swathed in bandages, only for the bandages to come off in the race itself; he won by a neck and walked tenderly afterwards. Chester was eventually retired to the stud for the 1881 breeding season after a career of 30 starts resulting in 19 wins, 7 seconds, and 1 third for winnings of £7,887 and his victories ranged over distances from five furlongs to three miles. James White installed Chester as the foundation stallion at what would become Kirkham Stud, at Narellan, near Camden, which in the early 1880s he began to develop as a thoroughbred nursery.
The triumphant story of that enterprise will be left to later pages but let me observe here that Chester got a host of winners from the well-bred English mares that White imported there. The best unquestionably was the mighty Abercorn, but other good colts included the likes of Camoola and Stromboli, while rarely did a season go by when he didn’t have a brilliant juvenile to represent him as the likes of Titan, Acme, Autonomy and Uralla attest. Chester was four times Australia’s premier stallion, heading the Australian stallions’ list for the first time in 1887-88 and for the last time in 1892-93. He sired 26 individual stakes winners of 104 stakes races. Chester died at Kirkham in November 1891 as a result of peritonitis, causing a rupture of the stomach and diaphragm. An impressive memorial stone still stands at Kirkham proclaiming that Chester lies buried underneath.
And whatever became of First King after his first two triumphant seasons on the Turf? He did not race at four years but returned at five to win the V.R.C. Melbourne Stakes, V.R.C. Royal Park Stakes and the V.R.C. Champion Stakes for the second time, as well as the V.R.C. Port Philip Stakes. There was nothing like the same interest taken in First King’s second Champion triumph as there was in the first and only seven horses came forward for the race. It was looked upon as a moral certainty for the St. Albans stable, which boasted both First King and Petrea. In the end, First King won it by four lengths from Wellington, with his stablemate a length and a half further away in the minor placing. First King went amiss during the 1880 V.R.C. Autumn Meeting after winning the Port Phillip Stakes in which he relegated Martindale and Wellington into the minor placings. Retired to the St. Albans Stud, First King wasn’t given the best of opportunities but while there he got among others Silver King, Lonsdale, First Prince, Ringmaster, Chintz and The Nun. First King remained in James Wilson’s ownership until he sold the St. Albans establishment to John Crozier. The horse was sold by William C. Yuille and Company for just 100 guineas in November 1892 and went to New Zealand where he died in May 1894.
Before leaving this chapter, permit me a word on Woodlands. Although much inferior to Chester and regarded as a lucky Derby winner, Woodlands was nonetheless a very good racehorse. At the 1877 Spring Meeting, he won the V.R.C. Handicap against older horses and the following season the Wagga Cup, in the days when it was regarded as a quality race. Woodlands was also first past the post in the 1878 Hawkesbury Grand Handicap, but his jockey was unable to draw the correct weight, and the horse was disqualified; even with the bridle, Bricky Colley fell short by 3 ounces. That incident caused a great sensation at the time and the decision cost owner Joe Silberberg a fortune in bets.
The Hawkesbury scales were only new, and it was thought their stiffness prevented correct weight from being signalled. In fact, Silberberg was poorly done, for the following year the scales were found to be defective. A big gambler – that loss at Hawkesbury was the beginning of Silberberg’s downfall. He dropped a bundle at the 1880 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting and had to ask for time to settle, which he subsequently did in full but not before selling all he possessed including his bloodstock. Woodlands, at that time, was off the scene and having had both his forelegs fired, went to a Melbourne buyer for an undisclosed sum while The Alpaca, dam of the Derby winner, went to the Hon. James White for 525 guineas. Silberberg died some years later a broken man.
Woodlands fared somewhat better. Pin-fired or not, the old warhorse was still good for one last controversy on the racecourse even in new ownership. It came in the 1881 Caulfield Cup; the second was conducted that year after the V.A.T.C. decided on a switch from autumn to spring. Woodlands made a late run in the race and in the opinion of most onlookers got up on the line. It seemed that the judge was the only man on the course that didn’t see Woodlands; he failed to place him in the first two while refusing to award a third placing. As Maurice Cavanough wrote in his book “The Caulfield Cup”: “the very strong consensus of contemporary opinion was that Woodlands was first past the post.” When Woodlands finally retired from racing, Norman and Harold Armytage purchased him for their Afton Downs station in the Hughenden district of North Queensland, where he managed to get plenty of local winners from among the station mares.