At the end of the 1878-79 racing season, thanks to His Lordship’s Derby and Calamia’s Melbourne Cup, Etienne de Mestre had emerged not just as Australia’s leading trainer but as the leading owner as well. It had been a giddy rise to greatness. The 46-year-old Master of Terrara already had four Melbourne Cups to his credit as well as nearly every other race of importance on the Australian Turf, and he was just then realising his dream of transposing much of Charles Fisher’s famous Maribyrnong Stud from the banks of the Maribyrnong River to those of the Shoalhaven. As de Mestre lordly surveyed his burgeoning empire of over a thousand acres from the steps of his Terrara homestead, never had the rich pastureland seemed so green or the skies so cloudless. At that moment – on that bank and shoal of time – de Mestre stood at the very high-water mark of his life’s fortunes. Nor was it just his public life as a man of the Turf that was prospering, but his private life as well.
De Mestre had delayed marriage until relatively late when his fortune seemed assured, and when he did take a wife it was to a girl of just twenty-one – some twenty years his junior – and someone that he had nursed as a baby at her christening! In a sense, he had been waiting for her all along. As we have seen, one of de Mestre’s earliest patrons was George T. Rowe, proprietor of Edensor Park at Liverpool, and the owner of the celebrated racehorse Veno among others. Rowe guided the fortunes of the A.J.C. as honorary secretary/treasurer during its transition period of 1855-1858 and helped plan its move from Homebush to the expanses of the sandy course at Randwick. Before the job was done, however, George Rowe had died of a heart attack at the age of just thirty-six in May 1859, leaving behind a wife and six children. The third child, Clara, was just seven when her father went out of her life, but Etienne de Mestre as a special friend became even closer to the family. Young Clara looked upon him as a substitute father figure and as the years passed their special love eventually matured into marriage in December 1873, the ceremony taking place in St Mathias’ Church, Paddington. As de Mestre reflected upon his status as the leading racing man in the colonies in the wake of that 1878 spring, he and Clara already had a bustling brood – a son and two daughters under the age of four – while there would be another four sons and three daughters to survive infancy in the years ahead.
Yet, unwittingly, by then the hapless Etienne had already sown the seed of his own destruction. In a word – ambition! In the months before George T. Rowe’s death in 1859, the relationship between the two men had forged ever closer when they entered into partnership together and acquired two pastoral properties, ‘Esmeralda’ and ‘Narra Springs’, at Normanton in northwest Queensland. George Rowe’s death resulted in his widow, Phoebe, assuming the responsibility of the second partner in the venture. Normanton is located about 50 miles inland from the mouth of the Norman River, which spills its waters into the Gulf of Carpentaria, and sits on a high sandy ridge, with the Savannah grasslands to the west and the wetlands to the north of the town. Although this part of the Gulf country might enjoy good rainfall in some wet seasons, it was nonetheless prone to drought. And what proved to be one of the worst droughts in Australian and Queensland history began in 1880 and was to prove unrelenting for the balance of the decade.
In stocking the properties with around 8,000 beef cattle and making various improvements to the land regarding fencing, dams and sheds, both de Mestre and Phoebe Rowe had recourse to bank borrowings. Accordingly, de Mestre was already saddled with a sizeable overdraft even before he acquired the best of Charles Fisher’s bloodstock in December 1877 at ever so grossly inflated prices. His timing was wretched, considering the drought that was soon to bring devastation to the land, and in succumbing to his own ego and a vaulting ambition that overleapt itself, it set Australia’s renowned horseman up for what was to prove a dramatic fall from grace. It wasn’t just the expenditure on the bloodstock of Charles Fisher that would be de Mestre’s undoing in dealings with his former patron, but his proposed method of payment. De Mestre purchased the bloodstock with a mixture of cash and promissory notes or bills. So long as Fisher remained solvent and trusted de Mestre, any temporary default on the bills as they fell due would not trigger legal action. As we have seen, when Fisher relinquished the Maribyrnong Stud, it was to devote his energies to expanding his pastoral leases in Queensland and one particular property at Headington Hill on the Darling Downs. When Fisher’s Queensland holdings crashed because his residency claims were fraudulent, de Mestre was involuntarily dragged into the financial maelstrom even before the worst effects of the drought began to be felt. Charles Fisher had stood behind de Mestre in his purchase of the Terrara estate and when the former suddenly filed for bankruptcy his action had the indirect effect of causing the banks to press de Mestre for payment. These, then, were the circumstances behind the tragedy that would slowly play itself out over the best part of a decade across the Shoalhaven district following de Mestre’s impulsive bloodstock acquisitions on that fatal last day of December 1877.
The first winters at Terrara after the Maribyrnong mares had been relocated there proved severe, and some of de Mestre’s most expensive acquisitions such as Art Union, Rose d’Amour and Balkis failed to survive the early frosts. Even the mares that did manage to survive those harsh seasons, apart from one or two, didn’t produce anything of note. Nor was it just the mares that disappointed; few of the stallions fared any better. Piscator, the much-heralded brother to that trio of great sires, Ferryman, Maribyrnong and King of the Ring, and a horse that had cost de Mestre a thousand guineas, proved an inglorious failure, while the bitter harvest extended to the racing stock as well. It is worth observing that at the 1879 A.J.C. Spring Meeting his horses failed to win a single race. All of his charges were backward as a result of the heavy rains that had fallen in the Shoalhaven district and thus precluded any fast work. Nor was the calendar year 1880 much better, and it was only the string of victories by Grand Prix in the autumn juvenile classics that saved de Mestre from an otherwise disastrous time. Surprisingly, it wasn’t until the first half of 1881 that de Mestre deemed it at all necessary after a series of floods to upgrade his training track at Terrara into first-class condition to work his horses. And by the time he belatedly did so, his best years were already behind him.
In retrospect, it is easy to see that the dark, louring clouds gathering above the Terrara lands in those years of 1879-81 already bore an ominous aspect. But out of all the gloom in the spring of 1881, there was at least one chink of light, and it came in the shape of an unusually grey-flecked and black two-year-old colt by Robinson Crusoe galloping about the paddocks. Among the mares purchased at the Maribyrnong dispersal on the spurious bidding of a certain W. H. Formby, who was secretly acting on de Mestre’s behalf, was an eleven-year-old imported daughter of Nutbourne named Cocoanut. Bred in England, she had been a useful mare on the Turf in the Old Country winning plates at Newmarket and Shrewsbury as a two-year-old. She must have been as sound as a bell and just as tough, for she raced successfully through the seasons and even as a six-year-old ran in no fewer than twenty races, managing to win six including the Marquis of Westminster Stakes at Chester and the Palace Autumn Handicap at Alexandria-park. James Fisher, who was then living in England, purchased her along with some other mares on behalf of his brother Charles; she was sent out by steamer and arrived in Melbourne in November 1875. Knocked down to Formby at the Maribyrnong dispersal for 1200 guineas she had only recently produced her first foal and thus her potential as a broodmare was then still unknown. Full many a thoroughbred foal is born to blush unseen on a racecourse, but this fellow and those that Cocoanut threw thereafter weren’t destined for such obscurity.
De Mestre registered the colt as Navigator and early on it was clear that the little fellow could find his way around a racecourse. In fact, Terrara had three two-year-olds that season that demonstrated precocity and all three were by Robinson Crusoe: the other two were a stylish filly named Solitude out of the imported French mare La Mousse; and Sylvanus, a colt that was the year-younger brother of the promising Paul. All three formed part of the team that de Mestre campaigned at the 1881 V.R.C. Spring Meeting although the results didn’t conform to the trainer’s expectations. The stable backed Navigator for the Maribyrnong Plate to win over £10,000 but in a thirty-horse field the colt could only manage a dead-heat for second with Guesswork behind the flying Segenhoe. Disappointed, de Mestre stepped the son of Robinson Crusoe out again on the third day of the meeting and had his high opinion of the colt confirmed when he easily won the weight-for-age Flying Stakes (6f). It wasn’t a bad meeting for the Terrara juveniles that year, as Sylvanus showed promise when runner-up in the Kensington Stakes on the second day, while Solitude snaffled the prestigious Flemington Stakes with ridiculous ease on the last day of the fixture.
There wasn’t much between Solitude and Navigator at that early stage of the season, something that proved to be a source of embarrassment for de Mestre when the pair clashed at their next start in the Normanby Stakes (5f) at the Flemington Summer Meeting. The trainer declared to win the race with Solitude, who enjoyed the benefit of a 7lb advantage over the colt as well as the services of Hales in the saddle. Sadly both for de Mestre’s reputation and his pocket, Riley, the rider of Navigator, proved unable to restrain the colt in the shadows of the post and got up to beat the filly by a half-head. The quinella might have gone to Terrara, but not being in the declared order, the result cost the stable a goodly sum in winning wagers. It brought to mind the Florence-Pyrrhus affair of eleven years before, only this time de Mestre, unlike John Tait, showed no equivocation in peremptorily dismissing Riley from his employ for having disobeyed orders.
If there wasn’t much between the filly and colt then, it became a different story as the summer mellowed into autumn. Navigator was kept in steady work, easily winning the Geelong Sires’ Produce Stakes en route to the Flemington Autumn Meeting. Half a score stripped for the Ascot Vale Stakes, and de Mestre having made a declaration in favour of Navigator over Solitude, 6/4 was freely laid on him. The son of Cocoanut won with the greatest of ease despite carrying a 7lb penalty, with his stablemate Solitude filling the minor placing. Neither colt nor filly was engaged for the Sires’ Produce Stakes on the second day, their nominations having been declared informal by the V.R.C. committee on account of the pair having been described as being by ‘Crusoe’ rather than Robinson Crusoe. Inflexible as the committee’s attitude might have been to an owner-breeder hailing from outside the colony of Victoria in those more parochial times, the inaccurate nomination by de Mestre was perhaps an indication that financial pressures were beginning to gnaw at his professionalism.
In their absence the Sires’ Produce that year fell to Sir Thomas Elder’s Guesswork, a son of Gang Forward, the 1873 winner of the English Two Thousand Guineas who stood at his owner’s stud. It seemed a poor consolation for de Mestre when Solitude won the Nursery run later on the same card while Navigator stayed home in his box. Brought across to Randwick, Navigator was a prohibitive favourite when he became the cause of his owner-trainer shouting the A.J.C. committee a case of champagne for winning the race associated with that beverage, narrowly beating the Hon. James White’s filly, Hecla, and P. McAlister’s Jessie in a good field. Lumbered with penalties, the son of Robinson Crusoe was training-off when he was a beaten favourite behind Jessie in both the Sires’ Produce and Great Foal Stakes on the second and third days of the fixture, his last appearances for the season. Nonetheless, Navigator’s five wins during the year had netted £3,244 and this, together with a further £1,443 from Solitude and other winners in the Terrara stable, was enough to see de Mestre again finish as the leading owner in Australia.
However, it could easily have been so much more. The stable had backed its late-blooming three-year-old, Sweet William, for the Sydney Cup. Weighted on just 6 st. 7lb, de Mestre had tried the son of Yattendon as a good thing, particularly when he believed Tom Hales would be his partner. Still, the best-laid schemes “o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley,” as Robbie Burns observed, and on this occasion left de Mestre nought but grief and pain, for promised joy. The scheme came unstuck when the St Albans stable compelled the grand horseman Hales to honour a prior engagement for their horse Progress that with no end of lead hadn’t a ghost of a chance in the race. This piece of intelligence was only made known at the eleventh hour, and for some time it was feared that a rider could not be procured for Sweet William, who by this stage had been backed into 3/1 favouritism.
At length, however, the choice fell on Williamson, and the colt left the paddock with a 7lb penalty and 3lb overweight. De Mestre still believed he would land his wagers, but Sweet William and Williamson were strangers, and despite looking the winners at the distance, the duo was beaten into second place by a late-rush from the outsider Cunnamulla, while Hales on Progress finished among the tail-enders. The men from St Albans certainly had all the rules of racing on their side but the sympathy of the sporting public that day lay with Terrara. Nonetheless, de Mestre took grim satisfaction from the result knowing that he had a genuine two-miler who in losing had avoided a few pounds in weight for the Melbourne Cup later in the year. The answer seemed to be to build a better mousetrap, or rather, bookmakers’ trap in the spring and what de Mestre had in mind was a betting tilt at Terrara again pulling off the Victoria Derby-Melbourne Cup double.
I can recall a philosophy professor when I was at university, who had a sign in his office saying: ‘The future is not what it was.’ It was a message that would have resonated with Etienne de Mestre as the year 1882 unfolded. A sign of the trainer’s straitened circumstances came in the middle of August 1882 when Yuille and Co. sold some well-bred stallions on his behalf including His Lordship and Calamia, as well as the likes of Grand Prix and Chesterfield. The proceeds didn’t come within coo’ee of what de Mestre had paid for them as yearlings, but the money for a time placated the importunate managers of the City Bank of Sydney as well as affording a bit of gunpowder for the Terrara horseman’s spring assault on Melbourne’s men of Tattersall’s. Navigator had done well during the winter, and even though juveniles subjected to rigorous racing in their first season often failed to regain their best form the following year, the trainer was confident that Navigator would more than measure up to classic standard.
At the same time, he was preparing three horses for the Melbourne Cup, namely Sweet William, Gudarz and Sylvanus and the team arrived at Randwick in late August. Sometimes appearances mislead as much as they inform. It was de Mestre’s practice, as the veteran journalist of the day, Frank Wilkinson observed, to bring his Cup horses to headquarters mud fat and then gradually hone them to fitness for Cup week at Flemington. It was a practice that often deceived the touts. Such was de Mestre’s confidence in Navigator that in the weeks prior to the A.J.C. Spring Meeting he had taken £20,000 to £200 about the double Navigator and Sweet William for the Victoria Derby and Melbourne Cup and £50,000 to £250 alike about Navigator and Gudarz. He had also extensively backed Navigator for the A.J.C. Derby, the first mission of the spring.
The 1882 A.J.C. Spring Meeting suffered from a brief blacksmiths’ strike. Accustomed to the habit of receiving free access to the Paddock, on this occasion they were charged, and when asked to remove the shoes of the horses about to race, they refused to do so unless their money was immediately refunded. This dispute, together with the unrestrained presence of a welter of welchers, including some outside Victorian bookmakers and ‘three-card’ thieves, were the only blots on an otherwise successful carnival. The A.J.C. was powerless to act in regards the latter owing to an earlier ruling by a magistrate that a racecourse was not a public place within the meaning of the Act.
Only four horses stepped onto the Randwick course for the 1882 Derby. Masquerading as the favourite for the race was the prohibitively priced Segenhoe, James White’s sole representative from his original six nominations for the event. White had paid 1000 guineas for the colt at Andrew Town’s yearling sales in January 1881, and ever since he had cut down a thirty-strong Maribyrnong Plate field in devastating style at his only appearance on a racecourse, Segenhoe had held undisputed command of the Derby betting. Unfortunately, the strapping colt suffered from brittle hoofs, which had restricted his two-year-old season, and getting him fit to do battle was a significant challenge for his trainer, Michael Fennelly. There were doubts in some quarters of his ability to get a mile-and-a-half although his breeding suggested he would; after all, he was a full brother to both Richmond and Bosworth.
Moreover, it wasn’t as if the Newmarket stable was short of likely candidates as Hecla, the sister of Woodlands and Etna, had dominated proceedings at the first important meeting of the new season at Hawkesbury when she effortlessly won both the Guineas and the Mares’ Produce Stakes in the hands of Tom Hales. And yet Michael Fennelly had declined to pay up for her in the classic. If Segenhoe didn’t want the assistance of such a well-performed stablemate, so went the theory, then he was surely a good thing. Still, the art of prophecy, as Mark Twain once observed, is very difficult – especially concerning the future. Unlike Fennelly, de Mestre had taken the precaution of accepting with a pacemaker in the form of the unraced Nicholas to assist his more fancied charge. Neither Segenhoe nor Navigator had carried silk in the new season, and the betting market was based entirely on juvenile form, although Navigator had been responsible for a couple of strong gallops since his arrival at headquarters. The fourth runner to make up the quartet of starters was Lord Loftus, a brother to the top stayer Lord Burghley. Unplaced in all four starts as a juvenile, the Derby marked his seasonal reappearance.
Those members of the public who patronised neither the Grand Stand nor the St. Leger Stand were able to get a good view of the race from the newly built terrace adjacent to the Derby turn, and the tale of what they witnessed is soon told. Nicholas and Lord Loftus were the first to begin, and by the time Cutts’ was passed, Nicholas had established a lead of twenty lengths on his stablemate Navigator, who was a couple of lengths in advance of the other pair. Nicholas gained his commanding lead rather cheaply, and it was not until the first half-mile had been traversed that the speed began to quicken. The order remained much the same until soon after passing the trainers’ stand when Segenhoe went up to join Navigator, and the two were just a couple of lengths off the leader as they raced around the bend. Colley partnering Nicholas eased off the rails shortly thereafter, affording Navigator the luxury of a saloon passage on the inside. Despite this advantage, at the distance it looked any odds on Segenhoe as he made his run on the outside; he failed, however, to run the journey out and was hampered by twice colliding with Lord Loftus. Navigator went on to an easy win from the public fancy, with the other two starters dead-heating for third some distance away.
So fate once more had loaded the dice against the Newmarket stable. Immediately after the race both Fennelly and his jockey, Yeomans, were roundly criticised: Fennelly for failing to start a stablemate to assist the favourite; and Yeomans for his inept exhibition in the final furlongs. The Sydney Mail correspondent considered it the worst race that he had seen Yeomans ride. Given the rumours that began to circulate, Yeomans himself asked for an investigation at the hands of the committee; but as Mr G. U. Griffiths, who was representing James White in his absence on the continent, expressed his satisfaction, the committee declined to take the matter any further.
Neither for the first time nor the last, a horse had been despatched as the red-hot favourite in the blue riband that was wholly unworthy of the honour. Segenhoe’s shortcomings became obvious as the season unfolded and the V.R.C. Maribyrnong Plate was to be his only victory in a truncated career on the Turf. Despite the fulsome praise of his admirers, in retrospect he might be likened to a brilliant meteor, hurrying across the skies to extinction, and leaving behind only a whiff of incandescent sulphur. The critics were right to assert that there was one high-class colt in that select 1882 Derby field; it was just that they picked the wrong one. Navigator, the colt in question, only made one other appearance at that A.J.C. fixture and it came on the Thursday after Derby Day when he scored a hollow victory in the Mares’ Produce Stakes against his only three opponents, one of which was again the stablemate Nicholas acting in his interest.
Soon afterwards Navigator along with a team that included three other Melbourne Cup candidates in Sweet William, Gudarz and Sylvanus, were whisked off to Melbourne by steam train. Again, de Mestre chose the pastoral serenity and seclusion of James Redfearn’s Williamstown stables that he had favoured over the years, being able to work the horses on Williamstown racecourse away from prying eyes. It was only on Thursday prior to the start of the V.R.C. Spring Meeting, after his horses had completed their preparation, that de Mestre transferred his team to the Racecourse Hotel at Flemington. Despite the relative isolation of his Williamstown trial gallops, it soon became apparent through betting activity on the Victoria Derby/Melbourne Cup doubles that Sweet William was the real stable fancy. However, de Mestre had taken the precaution of coupling Navigator with all three, including one sizeable wager about the outsider Gudarz with the bookmaking firm Miller, Jones and O’Brien even before the A.J.C. spring fixture. Sweet William, a stallion son of Yattendon, was a year older than Navigator and handicapped with only 7 st. 11lb in the Cup and de Mestre thought he might be a good thing.
Navigator kept up his part of the bargain to extricate his trainer from penury when, under leaden skies, Tom Hales brought him late and fast in the straight to easily win the Victoria Derby with the minor placings falling to Frying Pan and Segenhoe. The leaden skies matched the grey pall that the result cast over the bookmaking fraternity, for the son of Robinson Crusoe had been extensively coupled with every decent prospect in the Cup itself. Although Navigator pulled up well enough, at 1.20pm on the following Monday, de Mestre put the scratching pen through the colt’s name for Australia’s richest race. The withdrawal of Navigator from the Cup was controversial although de Mestre had long warned the public that the horse was by no means a sure starter.
The private gallops at Williamstown had suggested the Derby winner could not give a year away to his older stablemate in exchange for just a few pounds at the weights. Besides, Sweet William was at the more extended price. It was to be the last desperate throw of the dice by the Master of Terrara in attempting to cling to his collapsing empire. The bets on Sweet William saw the horse go to the post the following day as the favourite in the hands of Tom Hales. Alas, de Mestre knew his fate even before the release of the field. Another horse played up poorly at the start and lashing out collected Sweet William on the thigh. Despite the inconvenience, Sweet William still ran a most respectable fifth. Gudarz, the longest-priced of the Terrara trio, came closest to securing de Mestre’s salvation when he finished third, a length from the winner – a 33/1 shot named The Assyrian that had bookmakers rejoicing.
Although Etienne de Mestre finished the leading owner at that 1882 V.R.C. Spring Meeting, he was effectively a ruined man now dreading the bailiff’s descent. Of course, hope is never entirely extinguished in a racing man’s breast, and de Mestre still clung with the faith of Wilkins Micawber that ‘something might turn up’. And for a while, Navigator, at least, did keep turning up. Although the black colt could only finish third in the V.R.C. Champion Stakes on New Year’s Day, barely a length from the winner Commotion, it was a different story at the Flemington and Randwick autumn fixtures where he won his only three appearances viz. the V.R.C. St Leger and the Australian Cup and the A.J.C. St Leger. The Australian Cup win was particularly meritorious for the little black was suffering from soreness in backing-up after the St. Leger. Near last at the sheds, Hales got through on the rails without suffering the slightest interference, although the rival jockeys were not nearly so kind to Cracknell on Guesswork. Hales on a good thing was never above saving a ‘fiver’ or a ‘tenner’ with other jockeys at the post. Not that the great man paid these sums out of his own pocket, for he had carte blanche from de Mestre to spend a few pounds during the trip.
The de Mestre tragedy was to drag itself out for a couple of more years before the inexorable ebbing of his finances came to low water, and the banks were forced to act. In November 1883, on the Friday before the opening of the V.R.C. Spring Meeting, de Mestre, who had been suffering nervous exhaustion in the months before, submitted the whole of the previous year’s foals bred at Terrara for auction by Yuille and Co at Flemington’s Pastoral Hotel. Both the time of the year and the location of the sale betrayed the fact that it was a panic clearance. Most were just barely yearlings although some hadn’t even reached a full year in age and to get them to Melbourne, the team had to succumb to a trip by steamer to Sydney and then an overland train journey. Fifteen in number, they were the first public offering since de Mestre had established Terrara as a breeding stud. While the sale realised more than 3000 guineas, the prices were nonetheless disappointing, and the money merely delayed the inevitable. Navigator, who had been off the scene with an injured leg since the St. Leger at Randwick, was also offered for sale but he failed to attract a bid given his prohibitive reserve. After returning to Sydney, de Mestre also parted with Navigator’s two-year-old half-brother, Coir, for a thousand guineas to Arthur Smart.
At the conclusion of the 1883 V.R.C. Spring Meeting de Mestre announced to the sporting public through the pages of The Australasian newspaper that he intended to retire from the Turf, and that he would be disposing of his entire racing and breeding stable. The last major race meeting at which his all-black livery was sported came with the 1884 V.R.C. Autumn Meeting. It seemed appropriate that it was also the venue for Navigator’s last race. At his first appearance in almost a year, the son of Robinson Crusoe went to the post at 7/1 for the Champion Stakes but only managed fifth in the race won by Le Grand. Just the day before, Navigator again had been put up for auction at the Pastoral Hotel sale yards at Newmarket, but bidding again failed to match his reserve of 3000 guineas. Sam Gardiner, the founder of Bundoora Park Stud, offered as much as 2000 guineas privately but the price was refused.
De Mestre returned to Terrara House and finalised arrangements for the sale of much of his racing stock by Tom Clibborn at Fennelly’s Bazaar in Pitt St, Sydney, in April 1884. In October 1884 and 1885, de Mestre engaged W.C. Yuille and Co of Melbourne to dispose of his second and third yearling drafts. The sales coincided with the Victorian Spring Meetings, but the resulting bids were scarcely satisfactory for three reasons. The ongoing drought and the low price of wool had crippled most bloodstock buyers; secondly, many of the best youngsters looked small and weedy as a result of being sold so early in the season; and thirdly, several of the stock were by Piscator, who had quickly become an unfashionable stallion.
The sporting public was saddened when the final sale of the Terrara bloodstock came in April 1886, under the hammer of Tom Clibborn at the Agricultural Society’s grounds at Moore Park. Originally it was intended to hold the sale on the Terrara property with buyers transported thither by special steamer, but wiser counsel prevailed. As it was, the prices realised at Moore Park were very poor. Navigator was knocked down for a derisory 401 guineas to George Lee, the added guinea being the only bid over the reserve price. Beatrice, served by Robinson Crusoe, brought in 100 guineas while Dagmar with a brown filly also by Robinson Crusoe got 105 guineas – the same price obtained for Ragpicker with a bay colt by Grand Prix and served by Navigator. James White bought Regret, with a bay colt by Robinson Crusoe and served by him again for 100 guineas and the same buyer got Copra, a sister to Navigator and Trident, for 300 guineas. All up the sale brought in £7,221, an amount that did little to rescue de Mestre from looming insolvency.
Robinson Crusoe, by now a thirteen-year-old stallion, was knocked down for 700 guineas, ostensibly to Joshua Leeds, but the buyer was acting on behalf of de Mestre, who also retained the ageing broodmare, Cocoanut. It wasn’t so much sentiment that actuated de Mestre, as the desperate wish that the pairing of the two might produce one last bit of magic. It wasn’t to be and just on twelve months later, in April 1887, the residue of de Mestre’s bloodstock went under William Yuille’s hammer at Newmarket. Quite a few of the subsequent progeny of the Terrara mares sold turned out to be good ones, as will be seen from the following pages of this chronicle but as an even more unfortunate contemporary of de Mestre’s once famously observed, such is life. Navigator, however, proved a failure at the Lee family’s stud farm at Dagworth, near West Maitland. Miletos and Seaman were probably the best of his progeny, although he did manage to get the winner of an A.J.C. Anniversary Handicap in Inkstand as well as the good West Australian galloper, Orphan Boy. Navigator died at Dagworth in December 1894, in the quaint language of the time ‘as the result of an internal disarrangement.’
The Terrara estate soon followed the way of the bloodstock. The City Bank of Sydney directed the auctioneers Richardson and Wrench to auction the famous estate at their Pitt-street rooms in Sydney on Friday, 12 November 1886. The forced sale brought £40,000, and the buyer was Hugh Mackenzie, a native of the Shoalhaven region. The amount realised was some £7,000 below the book value of the property and well short of de Mestre’s overdraft of nearly £56,000. Mackenzie was a long-time serving alderman of the district and a mayor for twenty-three years. It was Hugh and Bella Mackenzie who between the years 1900 and 1904 and at the cost of some £10,000 built Terrara House as it stands today.
Keith W. Patterson in his biography of de Mestre entitled ‘The Master’s Touch’ relates that a month after the sale of the Terrara estate a petition for bankruptcy was filed against the trainer by his most relentless creditor, John McArthur, a prominent Shoalhaven merchant. De Mestre was just 55-years-old but broken in health and spirits when in 1887 he removed his growing family to a small weatherboard farmhouse, Forest Lodge, north of Nowra where they remained for nearly four years. One recalls the words of Thomas Carlyle on the subject of ambition: what a tragedy that so poor a passion could lead so strong a man into such mad extremes!
How de Mestre in later years must have bitterly repented the excessive prices paid for so much of the bloodstock, and the bad luck that dogged his breeding and pastoral ventures. His finances continued to hover between embarrassment and penury, so much so that on Monday, June 15th 1891 a complimentary race meeting was conducted at Randwick racecourse for him. The A.J.C. committee gave over the use of the metropolitan course freely and the club’s members declined to avail themselves of their entrance privileges. Even the bookmakers contributed liberally to the cause. More than three thousand people attended the meeting, including the Governor of N.S.W., Lord Jersey, accompanied by Lord Ancram. Alas, owing to ill health de Mestre himself wasn’t able to attend.
The proceeds that were raised that afternoon, together with gifts and loans from friends, assisted de Mestre to remove to the milder air of the southern highlands of N.S.W. and a series of residencies that ultimately culminated with a small farm, Garryowen, near Moss Vale. Clara was influential in the choice of location as she had been born at Rowe’s Hill near Mittagong, and reflected fondly on her childhood. It was there that de Mestre fell back to ponder in shade and isolation the departed glories of his life on the Turf. Any man would have felt such a public fall from grace as de Mestre had suffered but he felt it particularly keenly; he was proud and proud men never wholly forgive those to whom they feel obliged. It was this pride more than the sickness that kept de Mestre away from the racecourse and his former confreres in his twilight years, as he constrained himself to move quietly, indecisively, amid the shadows.
Still, his removal to the southern highlands and his withdrawal from the Turf afforded de Mestre more time to spend with his growing family. All of the boys were good horsemen although it was the eldest, Etienne George de Mestre, who began to show a real penchant for training. For a time in the 1890s, de Mestre prepared a few horses at a roughly constructed course on leased property just outside of Bowral for the annual Bong Bong picnic meeting. It was in this way that the father imparted much of his experience and practical horsemanship to his sons. Money, however, was to remain scarce and it wasn’t until 1901 that de Mestre was granted a government pension.
Rare indeed were his visits to Randwick although occasionally he was induced to appear and one of the last occasions was the A.J.C. Spring Meeting in 1912, just four years before he passed from the scene altogether. It was in the sylvan solitude at Garryowen that he died, the grand old man of Australian racing, at the age of eighty-four on a Sunday morning in October 1916. He was buried in the Christ Church cemetery at Bong Bong – the very church where his beloved wife Clara had been christened sixty-four years before. Clara would survive him by almost eighteen years, eventually passing away herself in May 1834.
Theirs had been a large family, and two of the sons achieved considerable recognition in two entirely different fields of endeavour. Etienne George de Mestre followed his father’s calling and went first to South Africa, and thence to England and trained with much success. When he first went to the Old Country he was friendly with Dick Wootton, and he became involved with the Treadwell House stable, assisting Wootton in breaking-in his yearlings. After being granted a licence by the authorities, de Mestre trained at Newmarket for Solomon Joel, winning some good races for him including the 1924 Eclipse Stakes with Polyphontes, as well as a Lincolnshire Handicap, a Manchester Cup and an Ebor Handicap; Etienne finished second on the English winning trainers’ list in 1921.
Later he trained at his Whitsbury property, near Salisbury, Wiltshire, and in 1926 before returning to Australia, he sold it to Sir Charles Hyde, for whom Norman Scobie, Jim’s son, trained. Thus the paths of two sons of successful Australian trainers crossed in another land where each enjoyed good fortune. Etienne junior returned to Australia in 1927 for a holiday after being absent for more than twenty years. It was on the occasion of that visit that he presented a series of paintings of some of his father’s horses to the Australian Jockey Club, including portraits of Robinson Crusoe, Chester and Calamia, which continue to hang in the clubrooms.
Roy de Mestre, the youngest son and tenth child of the Cups maestro, was to achieve fame in an entirely different field of endeavour. Not physically robust like most of his brothers and possessed of an ethereal nature infused with religiosity, his interest lay in the arts. Roy studied the violin and viola at the N.S.W. Conservatorium of Music, and painting at the Royal Art Society of N.S.W. and was attracted to post-impressionism. In 1923 Roy was awarded a two-year travelling scholarship by the Society of Artists, only the second ever awarded up to that time. He proceeded to study art in London and Paris and upon his return to Australia held an exhibition in April 1926 at the Macquarie Galleries in Blight-street, Sydney, and another in 1928.
Roy left Australia permanently in March 1930 to seek an artistic career in the United Kingdom and Europe. At the same time, he changed the spelling of his surname to ‘Maistre’, seeking a modern spelling to suit a modern artist. In July 1930, he gave an exhibition at the Beaux Arts Gallery, London, and his work attracted considerable notice. He developed an idiosyncratic style of cubism and established his home and studio in Eccleston-street, Westminster. Roy became close friends with another Australian expatriate living in London, the future Nobel Laureate, Patrick White, a scion of yet another famous Australian racing family. White rented a flat in the same building in Eccleston-street and dedicated his first novel to the artist, as well as collecting his works. Roy de Mestre (Maistre) worked with the British Red Cross during World War II and in 1962 was awarded the C.B.E. He died in Westminster in March 1968. In 1974 Patrick White donated his collection of de Mestre paintings to the Art Gallery of N.S.W.
Although the all-black livery that once struck such fear into the hearts of the men of Tattersalls’ was temporarily transferred by Etienne to his friend Wallace Robinson of Abingdon on the Murrumbidgee, the colours still lie registered with the Australian Jockey Club by the de Mestre family. But not much remains of the original de Mestre estate of Terrara that was forcibly sold in 1886. Millbank cottage still stands as part of a model farm, while the famous stables that Etienne constructed in about 1850 that housed so many champions have been restored and converted into a country retreat offering accommodation to holidaymakers seeking escape from the bustle of city life amidst sixteen acres of the original de Mestre holding. Ancient English elms and venerable Moreton Bay figs cast their shadows over the old mellow sandstone blocks that the original Master of Terrara laid with such loving care. Oh, if only those old stones could talk!