No family was more involved with the development of the Australian bloodhorse in New South Wales during the nineteenth century than the Reynolds family of the Hunter Valley. Charles Reynolds and his brother Richard were born into a landed Devonshire family and were already well versed in bloodstock and livestock, particularly Hereford and Devonshire cattle before they ever came to Australia in 1840. It was in 1844 that 38-year-old Charles Reynolds signed a lease for £500 per annum with the Sydney merchants, Caleb and Felix Wilson, for the 4600-acre property, Tocal, on the Paterson River. The name Tocal, derived from the Aboriginal word meaning plenty, referring to the surfeit of food in the wetlands and surrounding rainforest – and a land of plenty it would prove to be for the Reynolds family. The property already had an impressive homestead – an elegant Colonial Georgian country house with a five-bay facade – built three years earlier.
1844 was quite a year for Charles Reynolds, for September also marked the date of his marriage to Frances Seaton (nee Dun) the daughter of William Dun of Duninald station. The union agreed with them both as they worked the farm together and it wasn’t long before the Hereford stud at Tocal was regarded as the finest in the colony and provided much of the money that was used to develop a thoroughbred stud on the property at the same time. It was Charles Reynolds who stood Cossack (foaled 1846) after that horse had finished his racing days in the service of John Tait. It was to be the first of a series of significant bloodstock transactions between the great trainer and the Reynolds family over the years, transactions that enriched each party in turn. Among other useful horses sired by Cossack at Tocal was Talleyrand, with whom John Tait won a Champion Stakes. Vanguard (foaled 1849), a son of Aether bred by Charles Roberts, and the winner of the 1855 Queen’s Plate, was yet another good stallion that Charles Reynolds bought for Tocal.
New Warrior (GB 1851), a horse that John Tait was responsible for bringing to Australia and one that eventually did good service at Tocal particularly deserves mention. After initially standing at the Varoville Stud for John Tait and Judge Cheeke, New Warrior was purchased by Charles Reynolds for 700 guineas in 1860 and was the first of those influential Tocal stallions. Such was the reputation of the breed that it wasn’t merely genuine sportsmen who were attracted to them. Numbered among the Tocal employees in 1856 was a certain drover cum horse-breaker named Frederick Ward, who was to become better known as the bushranger, Captain Thunderbolt. Born at Windsor in 1835, Ward was working at Tocal when he was arrested for receiving 75 stolen horses at Maitland on 21 April 1856. Sentenced to ten years hard labour of which he only served four, the balance of his life was to be spent pulling off armed robberies of mail coaches and wayside inns. Arguably the last of the professional bushrangers in the colony of New South Wales, he was also the most successful, inspiring a certain popular sympathy in the land given his gentlemanly manner and reluctance to violence. However, much of his success was attributable to his superb horsemanship and superior mounts, some of which were sourced directly from the Tocal paddocks. It should be noted that it wasn’t a Tocal mount he was riding when he was chased and shot dead by Constable Walker at Kentucky Creek, near Uralla, in May 1870. Even today the Tocal heritage site boasts of Thunderbolt’s Cottage – a humble sandstone dwelling in which the future bushranger was supposed to have lived while working at Tocal in the 1850s.
As we have seen, it was Charles Reynolds who bought the champion racehorse The Barb from John Tait for a reported 2000 guineas when he was retired in April 1869, but, alas, the high expectations for the son of Sir Hercules as a progenitor were to meet with bitter disappointment. Charles Reynolds didn’t live long enough to recognise the failure of The Barb as a stallion; he died in September 1871 after being thrown from a restive horse while returning from Dunmore and having been dragged along the Tocal road not far from his property. Under a settlement made in 1868 to which Charles and his wife, Frances, together with the children were parties, the whole of the Tocal property and stock were placed in charge of trustees. In the case of Charles’ death, the property and stock were for the benefit of Mrs Frances Reynolds and her children, Frank, Sidney, Percy, Emily and Walter.
The management of Tocal, along with the family’s other properties, Glendarra and Duninald, was given to Frances Reynolds for life. Ably assisted by her eldest son, 23-year-old Frank, it soon became apparent that Tocal’s reputation, as the colony’s finest Hereford stud, had passed into secure hands. What wasn’t quite so readily evident was that the thoroughbred stud was about to be elevated to a similar status. In May 1876 young Frank, after friendly negotiations with John Tait and William Yuille, agreed to purchase the recently retired Goldsbrough to replace The Barb as Tocal’s premier stallion. The price was never fully disclosed, and moreover, the arrangement was complicated by the fact that part of the deal involved The Barb being transferred back into Tait’s ownership with the intention of the old warhorse again returning to the racecourse. Whatever the price included, time would soon show just who got the better of that deal. The Barb failed to stand another preparation, while Goldsbrough proved a champion stallion and ultimately became the finest sire of broodmares in the colony’s history up to that time.
However, for all the wonderful success enjoyed by Goldsbrough and the Tocal Stud during the late 1870s and early 1880s, until the spring of 1885, neither the stallion nor the stud had ever produced a Derby winner. In one of those little ironies of bloodstock breeding that makes it such a fascinating art, when Goldsbrough’s classic winner did eventually happen, it was to come from a Tocal mare sired by none other than that ultimate stud failure, The Barb. Melody, the mare in question, had been bred in 1875 by Frank Reynolds but never saw a racecourse. Her first four matings at Tocal were with Goldsbrough, but nothing sensational seemingly having been produced by the pairing, in 1882 and 1883 Frank Reynolds switched Melody to Tocal’s other successful stallion of the period, The Drummer, a son of Rataplan foaled in England in 1866. The Drummer had already sired some fine stayers in the Tocal paddocks including a Sydney Cup winner in Favo, and the versatile Masquerade, winner of two Epsoms and a Metropolitan at Randwick.
Whether or not the nick with The Drummer would have eventually succeeded had it been persisted with, is one of those imponderables of breeding, for in 1884 there occurred a couple of developments that induced Frank Reynolds to switch Melody back to Goldsbrough. Even then it would have taken a seer of unimaginable gifts to divine the magic that Melody and Goldsbrough would conjure up together, but in that year Frank Reynolds was afforded a couple of clues at least. The first came in the autumn of 1884 when The Broker, a chestnut colt resulting from their third mating, won the V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes. The second clue came in the late winter and the precocity that Melodious, the result of their fourth mating, was beginning to show on the training grounds.
This chestnut filly, purchased by Ted Weekes for 270 guineas at the Easter Yearling Sales on behalf of Dr L. L. Smith, was the most expensive of the four Goldsbrough fillies offered by Tocal in the autumn of 1884. However, she quickly repaid the good doctor’s faith when she landed the Sapling Stakes in mid-August at the V.A.T.C. Grand National Meeting. That was enough to convince Frank Reynolds to return Melody to her first love. I might mention that Melodious only ever won one more race and that was the Flemington Stakes on the fourth day of the V.R.C. Spring Meeting. No matter, after only two failures at three, John Crozier subsequently acquired her for the St Albans Stud. As good as Melodious was on the racecourse, she proved even better as a matron, gaining immortality when she dropped her third live foal, the brilliant Wallace in the spring of 1892. This, then, was the background to how Melos, the fifth offspring of the Goldsbrough-Melody liaison, came to be foaled in the Tocal paddocks in the spring of 1885.
It came as no surprise when the stock of Goldsbrough was in high demand at the January 1887 Yearling Sales conducted by Tom Clibborn. After all, his progeny had managed to win the both the Doncaster and Epsom Handicaps; as well as the A.J.C. Oaks and Melbourne Cup since his previous crop of yearlings had been offered. One man in attendance at those sales determined to acquire a prospective staying colt by the champion stallion was the prominent Sydney hotelier, William Gannon. Gannon, fifty-six, had raced horses for some years including among others Sweet William, whom de Mestre sent to the post as the unplaced favourite in the 1882 Melbourne Cup. Sweet William had later been sold by William Gannon to Frank Reynolds to stand at Tocal, and he proved a very useful stallion. That transaction had cemented a genuine friendship between the two men and was to prove the first of quite a number of bloodstock dealings between the pair.
The leading sportsman had every reason to go in search of the Goldsbrough blood for only two months previously Arsenal, a four-year-old son of Goldsbrough, had landed him the Melbourne Cup. Moreover, Gannon had been fortunate enough to buy Arsenal as a tried racehorse for just 375 guineas at auction. Arsenal was initially sold as a yearling for 625 guineas when offered by Frank Reynolds’s Tocal Stud in early 1884, and the buyer had been William Pearson of Kilmany Park, Gippsland. Pearson spent a lifetime trying to land a Melbourne Cup, but Arsenal was to be just one more in a catalogue of frustrations. It was only when the then three-year-old colt managed to beat just a few horses home in the 1885 running of the race carrying both 6 st. 9lb and a lot of his owner’s money that Pearson decided to sell out a matter of days afterwards. Arsenal always suffered from bad feet, and the colt presented a particular challenge to his new trainer Harry Rayner, who prepared William Gannon’s team. Rayner could be unorthodox when the circumstances demanded, as Arsenal’s preparation for that Cup demonstrates.
The son of Goldsbrough was put into training for the 1886 Melbourne Cup as early as April and yet for the next seven months never started in a race. He did all his work on the tan at Randwick, which accounts for his having escaped the notice of the touts and he was not taken to Melbourne until a couple of days before the race. Gannon didn’t need much encouragement to have a bet at the best of times, and when Harry gave him the nod he plonked enough on Arsenal, who started at 20/1, to land £16,000 in winning bets. It was the high point of Gannon’s life with the horse. Rested after the Cup, Arsenal broke down badly at his next start, four months later, in the Australian Cup. Not that Gannon gave up on the horse, although some considered that he continued to try him on the racecourse when Arsenal was in no fit condition for it. In May 1888 in the Water Police Court, Gannon was charged at the instance of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for running the horse at the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting when unfit; although after hearing only part of the evidence the case was dismissed. Life was an adventure to Gannon, not the compounding of a prescription. Having won the Cup and a tidy sum in bets, there was cheerful profligacy to Gannon’s appearance at yearling sales in the ensuing few years of his active sporting life, with much of his money spent on Goldsbrough stock.
William Gannon bought two Goldsbrough yearlings from the Tocal draft at those sales in January 1887: Melody’s colt for 500 guineas and a brown filly out of Thirza for 330 guineas – and they were by far the two most expensive sold by Goldsbrough that year. Nonetheless, they were well short of the highest price paid for a yearling that season, an honour accorded the St Albans Stud, which sold Redbourne, a son of the imported stallion that bore the stud’s name, for 1325 guineas. Gannon acquired another yearling that was to do him kind service on the racecourse in the wake of those yearling sales. Thomas Chirnside had paid 250 guineas for a son of Maribyrnong that was a full brother to the 1884 Derby winner Bargo, but Chirnside died just a few months later before the colt had even been registered. The executors placed the horse on the market in July and Gannon acquired the future Wycombe for just 110 guineas. This trio of yearlings was to prove a formidable team over the next two seasons.
Part of the reason the Melody colt sold for less than he might otherwise have done was that he suffered from a pinched and a rather narrow gullet. It is commonplace for real horsemen to believe that a horse with narrow jaws set back into its neck cannot stay a distance as the formation affects his breathing. This fellow was to prove a brilliant exception to this rule even if Harry Rayner had the greatest difficulty to physic him during his years in the stable. Still, there was a fine touch of good breeding about the youngster which had appealed to Gannon. Our publican wasn’t a man for complication when it came to choosing names for his racehorses, and in registering his two Goldsbrough yearlings, Gannon had recourse to the names of their respective dams. The Thirza filly he simply named Miss Thirza. When it came to the colt, however, Gannon’s choice was a bit more inspired. Melody (melos + ode) is derived from the Greek melos, literally meaning ‘to sing a song.’ Melos, it was to be, and this hardy colt that could stay like a bailiff gave the voluble Sydney publican any number of opportunities to exercise his lungs from the grandstand over the next few years. It was to be a delayed start, however, for his narrow gullet (Melos that is, not William Gannon), together with some minor leg issues, conspired to keep the colt from being called to the colours throughout his two-year-old season. However, he showed enough in track gallops to assure Harry Rayner of his quality. In the absence of Melos, the star of the Gannon-Rayner team that season turned out to be the Goldsbrough filly. Although Miss Thirza carried the ‘maroon, white stripes’ in six races that season and only won once, that victory came in nothing less than the richly endowed Sires’ Produce Stakes at Randwick, and it helped William Gannon finish runner-up to the Hon. James White in the List of Winning Owners for the 1987-88 season.
It was, of course, the Newmarket stable that once again dominated the two-year-old ranks in that 1887-88 racing season, only this time largely thanks to a femme fatale blessed with exceptional speed and dexterity named Volley. This stylish daughter of Musket caused distress to every colt that got involved with her that autumn when she won five of her only six appearances. Comfortable leading with either leg she was equally seductive on the vast stretches of Flemington and Randwick. At Flemington, she won the Ascot Vale Stakes on debut and a couple of days later the Sires’ Produce Stakes, and at Randwick, the Champagne Stakes (despite a 10lb penalty) and the First Foal Stakes fell to her lot. In winning, Volley rarely got out of a common canter. She didn’t run in the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes but few doubted that she would have won it had she done so.
The filly represented a triumph in breeding for the Hon. James White for he had purchased her dam, Lady Vivian, when a yearling in England from her breeder Hume Webster. Lady Vivian was not tried on the racecourse nor do I think she was ever broken into a saddle. When Lady Vivian was only a rising four-year-old, James White sent her all the way to New Zealand for a tryst with Musket and got Volley for his enterprise. It came as no surprise that when the Melbourne Cup weights were released in late June, Volley was ranked the best of the rising three-year-olds, being allotted 7 st. 10lb or 9lb more than weight-for-age. Matched with Volley at the head of those weights was a certain bay colt in New Zealand who had remained unbeaten in his five starts that season. His name was Carbine.
1888 was the year in which the colony of New South Wales celebrated its centenary of settlement at Botany Bay. A measure of the extent to which the Sport of Kings had ingratiated itself into the heart and soul of the place was indicated by an article in the Sydney Morning Herald on January 26th. For the benefit of those wishing to celebrate the occasion by a day at the races, the newspaper published a list of the Centenary race meetings to be held in the colony. That list filled an entire page of the broadsheet! Indeed, new race clubs seemed to be springing up everywhere, and 1888 would be the year in which the proprietary of the new racecourse at Kogarah incorporated itself under the name of the Moorefield Race Club and resolved that their first race meeting would be conducted on October 13. Great changes were afoot at the A.J.C. as well. In May a special general meeting of the members of the A.J.C. was held at Tattersall’s chambers in Hunter-street to elect no fewer than three new members to the committee. The vacancies had been caused by the resignations of Septimus A. Stephen, William Cooper and James W. Johnson, who had all left the colony for an extended stay in Europe. The ensuing ballot resulted in the election of William Long, Henry Dangar and the Hon. Richard Jones.
The racecourse debut for Melos came at the Rosehill Spring Meeting in early September when he sallied forth for the City and Suburban Handicap over the mile, but failed to run a place after being ridden quietly. The truancy of the colt on that occasion had more to do with stable intentions. William Gannon enjoyed a wager, and Harry Rayner encouraged him to have one five days later when the son of Goldsbrough stepped out for the Hawkesbury Guineas (1m) on the Clarendon course. The bookmakers proved most obliging too, and even after Gannon got his commission on, the colt went to the post at double figures. For the first time, the colt was ridden by Victorian jockey, Edward Power, a lad from Williamstown, whom Gannon had retained at the conclusion of the 1887 V.R.C. Spring Meeting having been impressed with his horsemanship. Ridden a waiting race, Melos was untroubled to overwhelm the odds-on Lamond in the straight and win by two lengths. It was the first fruit of a talent, which, on ripening, promised to yield a rich harvest for Gannon and Rayner and certainly augured well for the Derby.
The 1888 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions are set out in the table below.
Dull, muggy weather and a grey Whistler sky proved the order for Derby Day and a crowd estimated at fewer than 7,000 by the turf correspondent for the Melbourne Argus and more than 10,000 by the Sydney Mail were in attendance, and leading in their ranks was the Governor, Lord Carrington. Randwick racecourse presented a different aspect to that of the previous Derby Day twelve months earlier. Considerable alterations were being made to the course proper as a new track, a mile and three furlongs long, was in the process of being laid out. Work had also begun on the grubbing and clearing of about twenty acres on the far side of the racecourse to make it available for exercising and for filling up the depression between the new and old tracks near the Derby turn. Only five numbers were hoisted on the board for the classic with Volley the firm favourite, making her seasonal reappearance.
Gannon chivalrously declined to accept with Wycombe as a pacemaker against his lady opponent, unsuccessfully running the son of Maribyrnong in the Trial Stakes, the race immediately preceding the Derby. Wycombe could only run third in the event won by an unheralded gelding sporting James White’s livery by the name of Ensign, of which more would be heard before spring had expired. Melos might have been left by the stable to run alone, but the 4/1 available in the betting ring seemed like legitimised larceny to William Gannon. Lamond, and the future Queensland Derby winner, Greywing, met with some market support in the Derby and only the filly, Pearlshell, being prepared by Tom Lamond, was regarded as a no-hoper. The heavy rain that had fallen overnight served to enliven the course itself, although the close atmosphere and the unwanted attention of the crowd in the paddock before the event saw Volley sweating rather freely. Not that it bothered her supporters, who believed that with the lack of numbers and the absence of speed, the filly’s acceleration would prove decisive. They wouldn’t have been so confident had they known that Greywing kicked her as the field mustered at the start.
Thomas Watson, the son of the famous V.R.C. starter, George Watson, who had been appointed to the same position at the A.J.C. in March, dropped the flag to a good start in his first Derby on the course. The race was run precisely to suit Volley, for the pace was quite ordinary for the first half of the journey, so lacking in speed, in fact, that even by the seven, the battle had scarcely been joined. However, shortly after that Hales took a liberty with the filly in a bid to hasten the action. It worked. The last six furlongs of the race were covered at a quick rate as Greywing and Lamond cut out the running before the two favourites came through. Power was riding Melos vigorously at the home turn while Hales hadn’t stirred on the filly, and it seemed for a time that William Gannon was again to be denied. Into the straight, Volley shot clear but like his mighty sire, Goldsbrough, Melos responded gamely, and the favourite faltered near the distance. After a short, sharp struggle below the distance, Melos ran out a convincing winner with the filly finding little more under Hales’s whip, although she managed to beat Lamond just as easily as she was beaten.
Some of the crowd were critical of the absence of vigour that Matt Harris showed on little Lamond, believing that the jockey could have made a better fight of it for second money. Joe Cook, the trainer, wasn’t one of them, however, for the jockey was saving the roach-backed gelding for the Metropolitan on the second day of the meeting. Much better suited with just 6 st. 4lb on his back than the 8 st. 5lb Derby weight, Lamond, with a young Jack Fielder in the saddle, started the second favourite in that Metropolitan. Left alone in front, by the time his rival jockeys realised the danger it was way too late, and the little gelding ran out the easiest of winners by eight lengths from Arsenal and Abercorn. Lamond was respectfully named after the Master of Zetland Lodge with whom owner/trainer Joe Cook had served as headman during the early days of that establishment in the 1870s, and he had maintained a friendship in the years after that. It seemed only fitting therefore when the little son of Newminster duly landed the big handicap together with some good bets for the Cook stable. In so doing, Lamond confirmed that this particular crop of three-year-olds was perhaps not so ordinary after all.
The victory of Melos in the Derby proved immensely popular with the crowd, and veteran owner William Gannon was in a state of tremulous rapture after the disappointment of The Australian Peer the year before. At last, he had secured his much-coveted blue ribband and James White, recently ill with bronchial troubles and denied his fifth successive winner of the race by the son of Goldsbrough, was one of the first to offer sporting congratulations. Gannon, a committeeman of Tattersall’s Club, was one of Sydney’s best-known hotelkeepers, his flagship hotel and residence being Petty’s Hotel in York Street, Sydney, not far from Church Hill where Gannon had been born in August 1831.
Alan Sharpe in his ‘Pictorial History – City of Sydney’ writes of Petty’s Hotel that it was “the prince of Sydney hotels, the first choice of distinguished overseas visitors and favoured by distinguished squatters from “up-country”’. It was in its heyday during the years of Gannon’s ownership. The building was originally the manse of Sydney’s first Presbyterian minister in Sydney, the divisive, vindictive John Dunmore Lang. It is no small irony that the property that was to become Sydney’s leading hotel was once the home of a leading figure in the city’s temperance movement. It took its name from Thomas Petty, who took over in 1836 and although he was the licensee for only ten years until he died, the hotel kept his name.
Life’s journey for Gannon, which saw him become one of the leading personalities of the Turf in the colony of New South Wales right through the decade of the 1880s, does not lack interest. His father, Michael, a staunch Catholic, had been born a native of County Westmeath in Ireland and at the age of twenty was sentenced to life and transported to New South Wales aboard the Almorah in 1820. He came together with his younger brother, James, who had been sentenced to the lesser term of fourteen years. That in nineteenth-century Australia an individual was not trapped in character created by their circumstances – that one could escape one’s conditioning, given the opportunity – is demonstrated in the life of Michael Gannon. A carpenter by training, in August 1824 as an assigned servant he had married Mary Parsonage in Sydney and Mary soon after petitioned the Governor, Sir Ralph Darling, for her husband to be assigned to her. Marriage gave Michael Gannon a sense of purpose, and he worked so assiduously as a carpenter and joiner that by 1829 he won his ticket-of-leave.
It was in 1831 that William Gannon was born, the third son in a growing brood. It was in June 1836 that Michael Gannon received his conditional pardon and then, unfettered, he set about flourishing as a builder and man of property. In a markedly sectarian society, Michael Gannon prospered from his Catholic identity becoming undertaker and constructing coffins for Catholic burials, while also acting as an auctioneer and commission agent in Lower George street in those historic precincts of Sydney now know as The Rocks. In 1839 Michael Gannon entered into a twenty-one-year lease on much of the land between Harrington and George-streets, on the southern side of Argyle-street, for a ground rent of £170 per year. The contract required that Gannon build and erect on the line of frontage to George-street within two years as many houses that could occupy the frontage, three-storeys exclusive of cellars and constructed “substantially of good materials”. The two houses that still stand at 45-47 Argyle St and known as the Gannon House and Shop are a testimony to Michael’s workmanship; they are recognised by the Heritage Council of New South Wales today no less for their architectural and historic importance. Michael Gannon’s carpentry workshop and timber yard occupied the rear of the premises together with a number of other tenancies.
Along with the two houses mentioned above, Gannon also constructed the New York Hotel on the corner of Argyle and George-streets, which opened in January 1841. He had already been granted his first publican’s licence in June 1840 during its construction. It was a few weeks before the opening that our coming man of the Turf, young William Gannon, first enters the pages of Sydney’s newspapers. In keeping with the sectarian spirit of the times, he was found guilty along with five other boys of having thrown stones and broken the eastern lead windows of St Andrews Scots Church in Sydney. Ecumenicism was never to be a word that came trippingly off the tongue of either father or son. Laying such indiscretions aside, however, the family and the New York Hotel prospered and Michael became active in promoting political candidates as well as in property speculation.
However, the vicissitudes of life caught up with him during the 1840’s Depression, when a series of bad debts combined with his brother’s financial problems saw him declared insolvent in March 1845, with the courts critical of certain fraudulent transactions and his failure to keep proper accounts. It wasn’t until March 1850 that Michael regained his certificate and in September of that year he took over the lease of the Union Inn, Cook’s River, (held during his insolvency by his eldest son John). Two months later, for just £732 he bought over nineteen hundred acres of a heavily timbered estate then known as Townson’s Grant from the proprietors of the Bank of New South Wales. Subsequently, the land came to be known as Gannon’s Forest, and Gannon began selling it off in small farm lots from fifty to one hundred acres each in October 1853. Thus, was born the suburb of Hurstville. During his years as the licensee of the Union Inn, the hotel became a focus for all sorts of sporting activity including pigeon shooting and dogfighting, often with well-bred ponies and mares as the prize.
Raised in such an environment was it any wonder then that William Gannon matured into a chip off the old block? Hotels in those rawhide days could be roughhouse affairs, and hot Irish indignation blazed up rather easily when either father or son was affronted. Still, the hotel trade was a natural vocation for William, who in build and general appearance – with his twinkling eyes and ruddy clean-shaven face – not to mention a frequent air of bonhomie, would have done very well as one of Henry Fielding’s ebullient country squires. It was in November 1869 that William Gannon took over the licence of the Oxford Hotel in King-street, opposite St James’ Church. Situated directly opposite the park and recreation grounds, Gannon proceeded to build up the client base, as well as seeking outside catering opportunities such as the pavilion at the Albert Cricket Ground for Boxing Day and New Year’s Day sports. The business flourished, and William Gannon was soon taking a more prominent interest in the Turf.
It was in August 1872 that he was first appointed starter for the A.J.C. and in April of the following year he accepted the same role at the inaugural meeting of the Sydney Hunt Club at Randwick racecourse. Given that the Governor, Sir Hercules Robinson, and Edward King Cox were the patron and president respectively of the latter club, Gannon was mixing with the very cream of Sydney sporting circles. Having built up the business of the Oxford, in June 1874, Gannon relinquished the licence on that establishment and took over the Exchange Hotel at the junction of Pitt, Bridge and Gresham streets. Situated in the commercial centre of the city Gannon set about refurbishing the hotel and then advertising it widely, boasting that it possessed the largest dining hall and the finest billiards room in Australia.
William Gannon, let it be said, wasn’t a man to blink in the blaze of publicity. He kept the Exchange for four years when he sold the goodwill for an impressive £8,000 – at the same time giving the new purchaser an undertaking that he wouldn’t engage in a similar business in Sydney for three years. However, the very same month that the sale was announced, advertisements in the Sydney newspapers proclaimed that a Miss Helena Parry, formerly known in connection with the management of both the Oxford and Exchange Hotels, had taken over Petty’s Hotel. Behind the person of Miss Parry was none other than Gannon himself and he married the lady – twelve years his junior – in St Mary’s Cathedral five years later.
Petty’s Hotel, Wynyard Square, was an impressive building with the main entrance from Wynyard-street through a pair of massive iron gates. Upon passing through the glorious gardens, one arrived at a verandah nearly a hundred feet long and extended the length of the building. The hotel had a special significance for William Gannon as he was born within a few yards of it. Gannon’s largesse from the Exchange Hotel and the burgeoning success of Petty’s, together with a certain patrimony following his father’s death in 1881, all saw his involvement with the Turf become an altogether more extravagant affair. The same year he took over Petty’s, he extended his activities with the starter’s flag to Hawkesbury Race Club as well. In 1882 we see him purchasing a yearling brother to Richmond for 2000 guineas although only weeks later he sold the colt and a number of his other yearlings to Arthur F. Smart.
There was Irish impulsiveness in Gannon’s behaviour at times and once wounded, he was not easily conciliated. This trait was shown with his antics at various times in resigning the starter’s flag when criticised, only to allow himself later to be persuaded back to a task which he truly coveted. Similarly, with those occasions when he put his string of racehorses onto the market only to refuse most offers. Indeed, he offered Melos for sale in a fit of pique in October 1889 only to assert his privilege to retain possession when the bidding got to 1200 guineas. It was perhaps just as well that in choosing a trainer for his small team of racehorses, Gannon reposed confidence in Harry Rayner, ten years Gannon’s junior and an equally firm adherent of the Roman Catholic faith. Rayner could be relied upon to provide the ballast of wisdom on practical horse husbandry at critical junctures in their relationship. Melos was the first of two A.J.C. Derby winners trained by Rayner during his long career, the last coming twenty-six years later with Mountain Knight and I shall defer a discussion of Rayner’s career until that chapter.
William Gannon was an enthusiastic sportsman and could frequently be seen driving his carriage out to Randwick while the stars were still twinkling to watch his horses in their early morning working gallops. Few owners were as adept with a stopwatch as Gannon, and there was an enchantment for him in the smell of stables, in the jingle of the harness being cleaned, and in those dark summer dawns when the horses were saddled by candlelight. However, there were times when his enthusiasm exceeded his ability. Nearly every man one met on a racecourse in those far-off days fancied that he could start a race, sail a boat, or play Hamlet without making a mistake. William Gannon was such a man. For some years he had acted as the starter at Randwick, both on behalf of the Australian Jockey Club and the Sydney Turf Club, although his panache with the red banner attracted a great deal of criticism at times. On one occasion after criticism Gannon abandoned the pigskin in preference to a dray brought to the spot for the purpose, but the innovation was not a success, and a reversion made to the more orthodox method of waving the red flag.
Perhaps the most celebrated imbroglio relating to Gannon’s wielding of the flag came on the occasion of the first visit to Randwick racecourse by the Governor, Lord Carrington, which happened to coincide with the running of the 1885 December Stakes. In that race, William Long had heavily backed his representative, Yellow Jacket, and believed the horse’s prospects had been cruelled at the start. There was a real, visceral antagonism between Long and Gannon and an unseemly public row resulted in the saddling paddock. The latter formally charged Long with attempting to bribe him while the former vigorously lobbied the A.J.C. committee for the replacement of Gannon as the starter by Joseph Kean, or failing that, the appointment of a paid professional. The A.J.C. committee investigated the matter, and Gannon later withdrew his charge.
The club could do no more than censure the publican for the language he used on the occasion while the issue of his starting abilities was deferred. It wasn’t until Gannon expectorated his spleen at a succession of jockeys at a Rosehill Race Club meeting a few weeks later for starting infringements – fining no fewer than a dozen of them – that his days with the banner were numbered. In early 1886, Gannon was forced to resign, and while sterling silverware was presented by Tattersall’s, the A.J.C. and the S.T.C. in acknowledgement of his honorary contributions with the flag, the A.J.C. advertised the position. Gannon’s contretemps with the flag did nothing to curb his relations with either club or the sport in general, and he was quite a generous benefactor, often donating trophies as he did at the beginning of 1888 with his presentation of the Tattersall’s Club Centenary Gold Cup to the value of one hundred guineas.
The 1888 A.J.C. Spring Meeting proved particularly profitable for Gannon, for apart from Melos’s Derby, his maroon and white stripes were carried past the post first by The Australian Peer in the Spring Stakes and by Wycombe in the Second Foal Stakes, Spring Maiden and Randwick Plate. Moreover, his Melbourne Cup winner, Arsenal, had run second in The Metropolitan. Of the total stakes won at the meeting of £10,170, Gannon won no less than £2,709. As a result, for once Gannon took the place of honour as the leading owner of the meeting with the Hon. James White relegated to the third position. Not bad for the son of an Irishman transported here for life, and no doubt William imagined the benign ghost of father Michael proudly looking on.
The Squire of Kirkham’s colours enjoyed only two wins at that meeting, both achieved by Ensign in minor events, the Trial Stakes and Wycombe Stakes. Now, as if the failure of Volley in the Derby wasn’t disappointment enough for White; on Tuesday, the second day of the meeting, she was confidently expected to give him success in the A.J.C. Oaks when she went to the post at 3/1 on, but despite Hales’ superb horsemanship, Pearlshell got up in time to give the bookmakers a skinner. A prolific owner, all of William Gannon’s best horses were trained by Harry Rayner, who just about had carte blanche to buy what he liked, although at times some significant outlays did go unrewarded. To the end of his days – and it was to be a long life – Rayner regarded Melos as the finest racehorse ever to pass through his hands.
Gannon’s horses ensured that Power took the riding honours at that 1888 Randwick spring gathering, with the Derby being just one of his eight wins from fifteen mounts; Tom Hales, by comparison, savoured victory in only one race. Born in Williamstown in 1859, in his early days on the Victorian Turf, Power rode for Philip Dowling and Joe Morrison and later for W. E. Dakin. Following a brief sojourn in New Zealand, Power returned to Victoria to ride for Francis Dakin before agreeing to team up with William Gannon. Although never associated with a Caulfield or Melbourne Cup winner, Power had partnered a number of high-class thoroughbreds before Melos came along. Commotion was arguably the best horse with which he had been associated, winning both the 1885 V.R.C. Champion Stakes and Bagot Handicap on the son of Panic. Darebin was another top galloper on whom Power won races including the 1881 Victoria Derby while other significant victories before Melos included the 1882 Caulfield Guineas (Fryingpan) and the 1883 V.R.C. Oaks (Quality).
While his association with William Gannon wasn’t long term it served to keep his name before the public and among his big race triumphs, post-Melos, were two Maribyrnong Plates (1889 The Admiral; 1893 Dreamland); another Caulfield Guineas (1890 Annesley); and the 1896 Adelaide Cup on Warpaint. After retiring from the saddle, Power turned his hand to training horses and the experience gained from working in collaboration with the likes of the Dakin brothers, and Harry Rayner soon brought results. Among his best horses were O’Trigger, Hopetoun and Warpaint. Sadly, it was not to be a long training career as the years of wasting as a jockey had taken their toll. Edward Power died in February 1905 at the age of forty-five in his residence in Francis-street, Ascotvale.
Melos did not appear in public again until the Victoria Derby. The southern classic that year was invested with an interest far beyond the ordinary because of the presence of a certain boom galloper from New Zealand. In the field of seven, Carbine went off the 6/4 favourite with Melos the second elect at 5/2. Not everybody, however, was convinced that the Victoria Derby was a clash in two. On the Friday night before the race a small group of Turf aficionados including the jockey Tom Hales and the journalist Tom Willis (‘Milroy’) of the Sydney Mail, gathered in a Swanston Street Hotel to discuss the following day’s card.
While so engaged, M. S. Mackenzie, who used to do commissions for Hales, joined the party and informed the great jockey that he had taken £1,600 to £200 about Ensign for him (Hales). The latter, who was never given to boasting, quietly remarked: “His proper price is 6/4” and advised the rest of the group to get on early and often. As we have seen, Ensign was considered too backwards to run in the A.J.C. Derby, with the Newmarket stable relying on Volley instead while Ensign picked up the lowly Trial Stakes, the race immediately before the classic. Unusually for one of James White’s racehorses, Ensign was already a gelding when he made his unplaced racecourse debut in a Nursery on Sydney Cup Day 1888 and his only other start in that first season came on the fourth day of that A.J.C. Autumn Meeting when beaten a half-length into second placing in another Nursery.
After winning the Trial Stakes at his seasonal reappearance, Ensign had later won the Wycombe Stakes at the A.J.C. spring fixture, beating Lamond among others. Hales had ridden the gelding at his most recent outing when he filled the minor placing in the Caulfield Stakes and believed him ready to run the race of his life in the Derby. He did, too, but must be accounted fortunate indeed to have beaten Carbine. Wycombe, in the interests of Melos, forced the pace until the distance when Pearlshell wore him down. Carbine then collared Pearlshell and appeared set for a comfortable win until Derrett sat up in the saddle believing his job done only for Ensign to nose him out on the line.
In winning, Ensign became the first gelding to do so since the inception of the race in 1855, and no other gelding would do so again until Phar Lap in 1929. Just how good a racehorse Ensign was, we were never destined to find out. Three days after that Victoria Derby, Ensign and Melos both started in the Melbourne Cup. Whereas Ensign broke his off-fetlock when beginning the run home, Melos at least completed the course, although finishing a long way behind the winner, Mentor. Remarkably, William Gannon started four horses in that Cup including The Australian Peer, Arsenal and Touchstone, but like Melos, all failed to figure in the finish. Melos came out again for the V.R.C. Foal Stakes on the fourth day of the meeting but could only finish third behind Carbine and his stablemate, Wycombe. It completed his spring programme.
Melos resumed from his summer holiday first-up in the V.R.C. St. Leger against seven opponents, although Carbine wasn’t amongst them, the wonder horse being preferred for a first-up tilt at the Newmarket Handicap, run on the same card. Despite starting the 3/1 favourite in the red riband, run that year in good time, the underdone Melos could only manage third behind Volley and James Wilson junior’s homebred, Lonsdale. In winning with ease, Volley upset the conventional theory that this daughter of Lady Vivian couldn’t stay, and in proving that she could when conditions were right, she gave the Hon. James White his fourth successive victory in the classic.
It wasn’t to be a memorable week at Flemington for William Gannon, with Melos failing to run a place in the Bourke Handicap on Tuesday and then being easily beaten into third place behind Carbine and Abercorn in the Champion Stakes over the three miles at weight-for-age. The St. Leger at Flemington might have eluded mine host of Petty’s Hotel, but the Randwick equivalent didn’t. Four runners were announced for the A.J.C. St. Leger but it was looked upon as a virtual match race between Volley and Melos. When wagering opened on the course odds were laid on Volley but when the last bell rang the supporters of Melos had backed him with such conviction that he had displaced her. Rayner presented Melos in much fitter condition than when the daughter of Musket lowered his colours, and after waiting on Bluenose and fighting to get his head to the last turn, Melos ran home the easiest of winners from Volley with the filly beaten on the corner.
It set Melos up for what was to be the most celebrated race of his career – the 1889 Sydney Cup. This was the race that is famous not just because of the class of the contestants or the closeness of the finish, but also for the fact that William McSherry captured the action in oils for posterity, selecting a point near the winning post when the race still hung in the balance. Never mind the ‘merry-go-round’ posture of the horses, the painting does capture the closeness of the finish.
Thirteen horses were declared for that Sydney Cup worth £1,735 with the four-year-old Abercorn, handicapped with 9 st 4lb, the 2/1 favourite. Carbine, carrying 12lb more than the weight-for-age 8 st. 2lb expected of Melos, was 8/1 – two points shorter than his three-year-old rival while the great Lochiel was yet another runner. Carbine confirmed his reputation as the best horse in the land when he prevailed by a head over Melos, with Abercorn two lengths further behind in third placing in a time of 3 minutes 31 seconds. The pace had been genuine with first Lady Lyon and then Lochiel setting a killing tempo, and Carbine didn’t enjoy the smoothest of runs.
Something interfered with the son of Musket just before the three-furlong post, and he fell back to last, but O’Brien gathered him together and, making his run down the outside of the field, Carbine proceeded to pass horse after horse in the straight. When finishing Carbine accidentally crossed both Melos and Abercorn and upon returning to scale a protest was entered on behalf of Melos. However, as, according to the rules of racing, the complaint was not placed in the hands of the A.J.C. secretary before O’Brien was weighed, it was not entertained by authorities, and the course announcement to that effect was received with applause. Winning the A.J.C. St Leger undoubtedly cost Melos that Sydney Cup, for the son of Goldsbrough had to put up a penalty of 9lb as a result.
Although Melos was to race into the spring of his six-year-old season, he only ever won two more races, but this bald statistic hardly does him justice. For it was his misfortune to be foaled in an era of great racehorses – including Carbine and Abercorn no less – all brought together by some chance at the same moment in history. The stature of all three horses invests the late ‘eighties with a fascination for the racing aficionado altogether missing from most other periods. And Melos did run a succession of impressive placings behind Carbine and Abercorn in important races. Indeed, had that pair not been around to rain on his parade, Melos would have won not only that 1889 Sydney Cup but a second V.R.C. Champion Stakes, two A.J.C. Plates, two A.J.C. Spring Stakes, a Randwick Plate, an A.J.C. Autumn Stakes, and a V.R.C. Melbourne Stakes.
Let it not be forgotten that Melos was thought good enough to be sent to the post the 4/1 favourite in the 1889 Melbourne Cup. After running Abercorn to a head and beating Carbine in the V.R.C. Melbourne Stakes on Saturday, it certainly looked like ‘sharping’ the bookmakers to accept the odds with only 8 st. 12lb on his back and being in receipt of 16lb from Carbine in the Cup. Alas, in the hands of his jockey, Norton, he probably travelled well over fifty yards further than any other horse in the race. Later that same season, Dreadnought beat Melos a nose in the V.R.C. Australian Cup, although two jumps after the post, Melos was a half-length in front. Melos was singularly unlucky for being shut in amongst a lot of beaten horses on the turn but my how he finished on!
As it was, the two races that Melos did win after his three-year-old season were the 1890 V.R.C. Champion Stakes when he was heavily backed in to beat both Dreadnought and Carbine; and the A.J.C. Randwick Plate in his five-year-old season when he lowered the colours of Whimbrel. Melos required a robust pacemaker to get anything like good results, and in that famous 1890 Champion Stakes at Flemington, Dreadnought went out to cut Carbine down with the upshot being that Melos, exhibiting valour’s steel, outstayed the pair of them. Melos ran his last race when finishing in drunken style to claim second behind Megaphone in the 1891 Randwick Plate and afterwards he could only be removed to his training quarters with great difficulty.
In the light of Carbine’s dominance of Melos and just how much the Musket horse cost Gannon indirectly, I might mention that after Carbine’s unexpected defeat in the Victoria Derby, that horse was put up for sale by Dan O’Brien. Perhaps the story is apocryphal, but it was later reported that at a convivial dinner at which both Frank Reynolds and Bruce Lowe attended, William Gannon asked Lowe’s advice as to the wisdom of buying Carbine. “Don’t touch him.” was Lowe’s reply, “I have gone into the thing, and he comes under the red.” Lowe’s reply can be deciphered by explaining that Reynolds and other noted bloodstock men of the period often coloured pedigree charts – red representing non-stayers while the colour blue denoted the staying propensities of the proverbial boy in the lolly shop. Gannon is supposed to have accepted Lowe’s advice and at the time congratulated himself on having avoided a bad bargain!
Despite the paucity of numbers in that 1888 A.J.C. Derby field, there was quality nonetheless. Melos was easily the best galloper of them all, but Volley did enough after the race to indicate that her support on the day wasn’t entirely misplaced. Later the same season she won not just the V.R.C. St Leger but the Caulfield Guineas as well, although Pearlshell did beat her into second placing in the Oaks at Flemington. Lamond, as we have seen, went on to win the A.J.C. Great Metropolitan Stakes a couple of days after the Derby. Greywing later won the Queensland Derby, and after being retired to stud sired another Queensland Derby winner in Greyleg. This was unlike the two major protagonists in the 1888 A.J.C. Derby, neither of which proved a success at stud.
Melos, a prepossessing individual who won both first and champion prizes for blood stallion at the Royal Agricultural Society of Sydney Show in April 1892, was leased to James Thompson, of Rylstone and Widden, for a few seasons. However, the horse contracted kidney trouble early in his stud life, which restricted his opportunities and ultimately led to his premature death before he ever managed to sire a good horse. Kingston, the winner of the 1899 A.R.C. Dequetteville Stakes, was the only winner of a principal race the stallion ever got, although he did sire the dams of Beverage, Carnwath and Glenullin. The champion filly, Volley, wasn’t any more fortunate. When she retired to the Kirkham paddocks to be mated with Chester, great results were confidently expected. Her first foal was Vestatia, and two years later she died foaling her second which died with her. Vestatia was not of much account on the racecourse, winning a little race at Maribyrnong and running second in the Oakleigh Purse, but at stud, she did manage to get Vitula to Haut Brion, which won the A.J.C. December Stakes.
William Gannon died at his residence, Petty’s Hotel, in the city on the last day of July 1894, amidst the shadows of the past and within a stone’s throw of where he had been born sixty-three years before. He had perhaps spent himself too prodigally over time both in his public and private life and suffered his last few years in poor health. However, he didn’t let his illness preclude the racing of horses nor his involvement as a steward with the newly re-constituted Warwick Farm Racing Club. For a man who had raced relatively few horses over the years compared to the extensive strings of many, Gannon’s trophy cabinet at Petty’s included a Melbourne Cup and a Sydney Cup as well as winning ribbons from such races as the A.J.C. Derby and St. Leger, V.R.C. Derby and Champion Stakes and the Hawkesbury Guineas together with a host of weight-for-age races – and all in the space of just five years! As we shall see, Gannon was unlucky not to win a second A.J.C. Derby with the high-priced Gatling, which went under by a head in 1890.
As a mark of respect to the loss of so prominent a sportsman, at the Moorefield race meeting on the first day of the new season flags were flying at half-mast and the jockeys wore crepe. The funeral procession on the Thursday following his death, was a very lengthy one, and started at 2.45 pm from Petty’s Hotel and ended at Waverley Cemetery. As we have seen, Gannon was a buyer rather than a breeder of bloodstock, but there was the occasional filly to which he became attached and would pass to his wife as a broodmare. Miss Thirza and The Orphan were cases in point, and it is interesting to observe that his widow, Helena, continued to breed from Miss Thirza long after William’s death. One of the horses she bred, by her deceased husband’s former good racehorse, The Australian Peer, was America, who won the 1900 Maitland and Newcastle Cups for Mr McCarthy.
The landmark Petty’s Hotel enjoyed a chequered history after William’s death. Helena continued to run the establishment until May 1904 when she relinquished the licence and moved to the nearby Grosvenor Hotel, Church Hill, instead, where she died in September 1906. For years afterwards, Petty’s continued as a licensed hotel until its barroom closed for the last time in 1950. However, the building itself was used again from 1952 as the headquarters of the Red Cross Blood Bank before it was finally demolished in 1975. Now, on the site where William Gannon’s stately flagship hotel once stood so proudly and where he celebrated so many racecourse successes with friends, there is The York, a twenty-eight-storey residential apartment building.
Melos might have been the only A.J.C. Derby winner bred at the Tocal Stud but allow me a final word on Frank Reynolds and the subsequent history of Tocal Stud before I leave this chapter. Tocal continued to be supervised by Frank and his brothers, Sidney and Percy, until the death of their mother Frances, at the age of eighty-two in late 1900. Upon her death, the value of the estate for probate purposes was sworn at £60,240, and it was disposed of in terms of that original settlement. The mighty Goldsbrough might have died some two years before in August 1898, after a magnificent reign at Tocal, but some impressive bloodstock remained on the books, and all were auctioned off at the West Maitland Showground on January 22, 1901.
All told the catalogue included some thirty-five broodmares, thirteen two and three-year-olds, as well as the four Tocal stallions viz. Splendor, Medallion, Simmer and Sweet William. Frank Reynolds purchased most of the mares – about twenty – as well as the stallion, Medallion, for 350 guineas and carried on at Tocal while Sidney took over Duninald, which practically adjoined Tocal on the Paterson River; and Percy, who purchased Simmer for 1290 guineas, settled at Hobartville. Walter later took over Trevallyn. During all the years since 1844 when Charles Reynolds signed the original lease for Tocal, the Wilson family had remained the legal owners, but that changed in 1907 when Frank bought it outright.
Frank Reynolds died from heart failure in November 1920 at the age of seventy-two and after nigh on fifty years of conducting the Tocal Stud. A big, stalwart man, sporting a silver walrus moustache and a close-cropped beard, he was a larger than life Australian character that had cast a giant shadow over both the Hereford and bloodstock industries in this sunburnt country. A large number of the best racehorses that Australia had ever known up to that time owed their existence to that famous nursery and included amongst them apart from Melos were that wonderful broodmare Frailty, together with the likes of Trafalgar, Kennaquhair, Artilleryman, The Fortune Hunter, Lady Medallist, Patrobas, Desert Rose, Biplane, Wolaroi, Alawa, Long Tom, Mala, Aleconner, Brattle, Lager, St Carwyne, Flavinius, Cranberry, Abercorn, Arsenal, Sou’wester and a host of others who were either out of or descended from, Tocal mares. It was due to some of the early sires standing at Tocal that many cattlemen between the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Lachlan owed their magnificent station sires – in particular, sons of Cossack, The Barb, New Warrior and Goldsbrough. At least during his early years, Frank Reynolds had enjoyed a close personal friendship and collaboration with C. Bruce Lowe, author of the book “Breeding Racehorses by the Figure System”, a relationship that redounded to each man’s benefit.
Upon the death of Frank, the management of Tocal was transferred to his sons Darcie and Arthur, but its days as an institution in the breeding of thoroughbreds were numbered. In October 1926 the Tocal estate was sold to the Alexander Brothers of Singleton, large-scale cattle breeders. Tocal remained in the Alexander family until 1947 when the last of them – Charles – died, and under a complex will he left his substantial estate to be used to help orphan and destitute children, by training them for agricultural careers. Eventually, the Tocal estate passed through the hands of the Presbyterian Church and ultimately it was transferred to the N.S.W. Government. It was in 1965 that Tocal College was established, promoting agricultural education and environmental management, a function it continues to serve to this day. The old homestead that Felix Wilson built in 1841 and used by three generations of the Reynolds’ family for over eighty years, still stands. It is now, together with stables and a series of farm buildings, subject to a permanent conservation order and is registered in the National Estate.