A recurrent dream among bloodstock breeders in the Australian colonies in the late nineteenth century was that of producing a racehorse capable of challenging for the rich prizes on the hallowed English Turf, including the biggest prize of all, the English Derby. To the ordinary man, it seemed nothing more than the preposterous dream of a disordered fancy, but to those privileged few with the requisite resources, it beckoned as an irresistible crusade – a crusade that first involved a journey of 14,000 miles by sea, in an age when sea travel remained precarious. The first to try was Sir Thomas Elder of South Australia, who, in the 1870s bred some foals to English time with just that prize in mind. It wasn’t a successful experiment, and in the years afterwards other breeders contented themselves with merely transporting the occasional well-performed Australian racehorse – bred to Australian time – to race in the Old Dart.
Andrew Chirnside, for example, sent a team comprising of the colonial-bred hunters, Sailor, Waverley and Smuggler to partner, but failed to win any significant victories. A couple of Bathurst-bred horses in Commodore and King of the West followed, but only managed to win one small race at Kingsbury. Undoubtedly, the most successful expatriate galloper to go there up to this time was the 1885 Caulfield Guineas winner, Ringmaster, a small but game son of King of the Ring. J. E. Saville trained him to win five races during the 1889 English flat season including the prestigious Great Northern Handicap at the York Spring Meeting, as well as finishing second at the same course in the Great Ebor Handicap. Despite the odds against such a quixotic venture, James White had harboured just such an ambition since he first began to build his thoroughbred empire; and as someone who frequently travelled to England and spent considerable time there, the ambition gradually crystallised into an obsession for the Squire of Kirkham.
In the autumn of 1886 White was in the plenitude of his power and wealth, both on and off the racecourse. His expanding pastoral empire was returning record wool clips, while his Newmarket stable was enjoying yet another season of domination with Nordenfeldt sweeping the three-year-old classics before him and Trident achieving a similar command of the two-year-old ranks. Despite a brilliant sequence of victories at that time, White’s gaze had been distracted from the winning post at Randwick and Flemington towards that same piece of wood on faraway Epsom Downs in Surrey, England. For in matching his broodmares the previous spring, White had instructed Bellingham, his stud groom at Kirkham, to reserve three of his best-bred English matrons – all with Stockwell blood in their pedigrees – Princess Maud, La Princesse and Moonstone, for a later mating with the all-conquering Chester to English time; and in early February 1887 the trio all dropped colt foals – three full brothers to Acme, Cranbrook and Carlyon respectively.
Unfortunately, the Moonstone colt broke his neck while playing about the Kirkham paddocks as a foal but White entered the other pair, named Narellan and Kirkham, for both the English Derby and Grand Prix de Paris of 1890. The two chestnut colts were almost full brothers as their respective dams were daughters of The Princess of Wales, a mare imported from England by White and bred in the purple, for she happened to be a half-sister to the 1874 English Derby winner, George Frederick. Both colts grew into quite massive animals – true Chesters – that filled the eye but were more remarkable for substance and bone rather than any elegance of moulding.
In May 1889 Thomas Payten put the pair into gentle work at Randwick before their shipment to England the following month. When they sailed in the Orizaba, in charge of jockey Denny Bowes, they were accompanied by the six-year-old gelding Plutarch, who was to lead the young colts in their work. I might mention that this ambitious programme of breeding some of his best mares to English time was continued the following season as well, when among others, Malacca and La Princesse were mated with Martini-Henry; while Trafalgar and Iolanthe were paired with Chester. In due course, these four mares dropped foals that were subsequently registered as Mons Meg, Martindale, Wentworth and Nepean respectively, and White nominated these too, for the English classics as well as the Grand Prix de Paris.
The man who was responsible for the management and nominations of James White’s horses in England was his old friend, Septimus Stephen, a founding partner in the leading legal chambers of Stephen Jacques and Stephen, and who had acted as White’s commission agent in the famous collection of winning bets on Chester’s 1877 Melbourne Cup. Born in his father’s famous house on the corner of Hunter St and Phillip St, Sydney, Septimus was the son of the former Chief Justice of N.S.W. Sir Alfred Stephen and father of the future long-serving chairman of the A.J.C., Sir Colin Stephen. Septimus was no stranger to the racecourse and had served with James White both on the A.J.C. committee (1883-1888) and as an M.L.C. (1887-1890) in the New South Wales Parliament. Apart from his services to the A.J.C., Stephen served on the committees of both the Rosehill Racing Club when it began in April 1885, and of the Canterbury Park Race Club and its newly built course during the same period. Over the years, Stephen had raced a number of horses and bred a few at his country seat of Elvo at Burrado, but unlike his great friend had never won a major race. A prominent member of the Protestant Ascendancy in the colony, Stephen had taken his family on a visit to England in 1888-89, which proved convenient for an ailing James White’s tilt at the English classics.
This diversion of some of the best Kirkham matrons to a northern hemisphere-breeding programme affected racing men differently. Whereas rival owners and trainers rejoiced in any development that loosened the stranglehold James White had seemingly come to exert on the Australian Turf, Tom Payten understandably could have been forgiven for doubting the quality of bloodstock that he might have available in his hands for the rich autumn two-year-old races and the Derbies in 1889. White’s rivals were premature in their celebrations; Payten needn’t have worried. At the time Kirkham boasted some of the finest English blood ever imported to these shores, and with mares such as the above-mentioned as well as the likes of Episode, The Solent, Rusk, Lady Vivian and Phillius, there was more than enough to go around.
Such was the depth and quality of the Kirkham blood that the 1888-89 racing season once again saw a string of top-class juveniles with classic pretensions emerge from the portals of the famous Newmarket establishment including Rudolph, Spice, Dreadnought, Pippo, Sinecure and Singapore. Rudolph, on the strength of his disclosed two-year-old form, was the star of the show. Bred at Kirkham, he was a rather weedy brown gelding by Martini-Henry from the imported mare Rusk, yet another of those fine matrons imported from England by White after the sale of the famous Cobham Stud. Purchased for 200 guineas in September 1881, Rusk was supposed to be in foal to Wild Oats at the time but was found not to be once she landed in Australia. While Rudolph was the first top horse she produced, time would show that she enjoyed a fruitful nick with Martini-Henry getting both Ruskinite and Piecrust as well – the last becoming the dam of Grasspan, Brakpan, and Koopan with whom Agar Wynne enjoyed such success.
Rudolph endured a rather exhaustive campaign in his first season on the Turf. After opening his career with a win at Caulfield, he became a strong favourite for the Maribyrnong Plate but could only manage to run third after being knocked about in the scramble. As the season progressed, however, he confirmed his early promise with four wins at Randwick including the December Stakes and Tattersall’s Lady Carrington Prize at the Summer Meeting; and the Sires’ Produce Stakes and Champagne Stakes in the autumn. In his final appearance during that first season, he suffered a neck defeat by Carbine at weight-for-age in the All-Aged Stakes. While he wintered the very firm favourite for the AJC Derby, the blue and white banner of Newmarket boasted some lesser lights of the same age as well.
Dreadnought, Spice and Singapore had all been entered for the classic, and each had staked a claim. Dreadnought, a dapper dark chestnut colt standing about 15.1 hands, had been bred at Kirkham and was a son of Chester, from the imported British mare, Trafalgar. He had established his staying credentials at the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting when he won the 10f Maiden Stakes. Spice, a chestnut lady and a full sister to Abercorn, had honoured her fraternal relation by annexing the Ascot Vale Stakes in an upset result over her stablemate Rudolph that triggered a nasty demonstration at Flemington. Singapore, on paper at least, seemed to be the outsider of White’s Derby entries. A big backward colt by Martini Henry out of Malacca, Singapore’s racecourse debut had been delayed until the Sydney Turf Club’s May Meeting when he ran unplaced in a nursery. Payten kept Singapore in steady work through much of that winter and to his satisfaction, the colt came on in leaps and bounds, winning the valuable July Stakes at the AJC Winter Meeting in his only other start as a juvenile.
In private gallops at the dawn of the new season, Dreadnought showed the greater staying promise, but a setback in training prompted Tom Payten to withdraw him from the Derby and set the son of Chester for the Epsom instead, with the stable coupling him in doubles for the Greater Metropolitan Stakes with Abercorn. Rudolph came to hand much more quickly than his stable companions and was freely expected to be a pea for the Derby. The colt was taken to the Clarendon course for the Hawkesbury Spring Meeting where he easily won the Produce Stakes, but not before he surprisingly met defeat in the Hawkesbury Guineas on the first day after friends of the stable had freely laid odds on about him.
For the second year in succession, a son of Goldsbrough carried William Gannon’s colours to victory on the Clarendon course in the Guineas over a fancied Newmarket representative, this time in the shape of Merriment, a horse that had cost 210 guineas as a yearling. This fellow, a half-brother to the dual Tattersall’s Cup winner Tom Brown, had previously won both the Hobartville Plate and Tatt’s Tramway Handicap and was immediately installed as the Derby favourite. Tom Payten, shaken by the defeat at Hawkesbury, suggested to White that he not entrust Rudolph with the sole charge of the colours at Randwick. Rather, another son of Martini-Henry, the strongly-built Singapore, who was quite forward in his work, should act as a second string, with the filly Spice being reserved for the Oaks later at the same meeting. Singapore’s only appearance in the new season had been a disappointing fifth in the Tattersall’s Spring Stakes after being sent out as the favourite, and many on Derby Day regarded his presence in the field as merely that of a pacemaker.
The 1889 AJC Derby field and race conditions appear in the table below:
It was thus a select field of five that confronted Tom Watson’s flag for the start of the 1889 AJC Derby. Apart from Merriment and the Newmarket pair, the starters included Tom Lamond’s representative, Sydney, and the rank outsider, Knight Templar. Seldom had Derby Day been ushered in under less favourable circumstances. Constant rain had fallen during the preceding week and particularly the night before, resulting in heavy ground and a depleted crowd estimated at between eight and ten thousand people. However, even the elements had failed to deter His Excellency the Governor, the Hon. Rupert Carrington from attending, together with the commanders of the British, French and German men-of-war then in port, and who all shared the vice-regal box.
The one notable identity missing was the club’s chairman, James White, due to illness. Regular visitors to Randwick could not help but notice the improvements that had been affected on the course. The grant by the Government to the club of the strip of land between Randwick-road and the original line of the racecourse reserve had enabled the committee to bring the gates forward to the road line, thereby affording more space for the avenues leading to the different reserves once inside the course. Moreover, a new scratching tower replaced the old frames on the eastern fence of the St Leger reserve, to the advantage of many spectators. Although showers marred the morning, by the time the warning bell had sounded for the opening event, the saddling paddock presented an animated scene.
Merriment who looked fit enough to run for a kingdom, held his own in Derby betting to the bitter end although the Kirkham stable supported Rudolph so well that 6/4 was the best price available at flagfall, with stablemate Singapore receiving very little attention. Tom Hales had the choice of mounts and in preferring Rudolph allowed the former stable apprentice Ernie Huxley to claim the ride on Singapore. At the start, Knight Templar was the smartest on his legs but had not gone twenty lengths when Merriment, pulling Ellis out of the saddle, dashed to the front to lead Singapore comfortably past the stand. Knight Templar and Sydney were each a couple of lengths off with Rudolph five panels away in waiting.
All the way along the back of the racecourse Merriment kept fighting for his head, giving Ellis the most uncomfortable of rides. Meanwhile, Singapore had settled into his long raking stride and kept worrying the favourite so much so that three furlongs from home saw the best of Merriment, who retired from the fray utterly disgraced even before reaching the straight. Singapore, with young Huxley riding furiously, swung around the bend attended by Sydney and the fast-finishing Rudolph. It was left to James White’s first choice to chase his stable companion, and although Rudolph finished resolutely in the middle of the course, Huxley and Singapore carried too many guns on the heavy ground to win cleverly by more than a length. The favourite had knocked up badly to finish a poor last. Personal catharsis is always sweeter in the big races and for young Ernie Huxley to beat the great stable jockey Tom Hales, who was then nearing the end of his career, with an intelligent ride was sweet indeed.
The result was met with no little surprise but with a generous measure of enthusiasm by the assembled multitude, Tom Hales’ chagrin notwithstanding. Singapore was White’s fifth and final winner of the AJC Derby and was another of those big-boned horses by Martini Henry bred at Kirkham from the imported mare, Malacca, by King of the Forest. In siring both the winner and the runner-up, Martini-Henry matched the effort of the great Sir Hercules in the 1866 running of the race, although the son of Musket had achieved it with his very first crop. Martini-Henry finished third on the overall list of winning stallions in his first season, thanks mainly to Rudolph and Singapore, and fleetingly it seemed he might match the feats in the stallion barn of his famous half-brother, Goldsbrough.
Alas, though far from being a failure, Martini-Henry never really went on with the job. When he first retired from the Turf, he had to play second fiddle to the mighty Chester at Kirkham, and White’s refusal to accept outside mares limited his opportunities. Rudolph was probably his best juvenile while Singapore was arguably his best racehorse, though the record books might accord that honour to Vanitas. Martini Henry’s daughters were very good too – Litigant and Ruskinite proving valuable in Australia while in England, as we shall see, both Acmena and Mons Meg added lustre to his name. Malacca, the dam of Singapore, was yet another of those well-bred mares imported from England by White that gave him such excellent service at Kirkham and before producing Singapore had thrown Sumatra, who had shown much promise as a two-year-old when in Ike Foulsham’s stable.
That 1889 AJC Spring Meeting again proved the dominance of the Newmarket stable, for apart from the Derby, the colours of James White were carried to success in the Spring Stakes, The Great Metropolitan, Craven Plate and Randwick Plate by Abercorn, while Spice won The Oaks from her only two rivals. The one major prize that did elude the Newmarket stable was the Epsom for which Dreadnought had been considered such a good thing. Weighted with 7 st. 12lb and sent off the second favourite in a wide betting race, the son of Chester just failed to give a year in age and 20lb in weight to the lightweight, Novice.
However, Dreadnought came out later at the meeting to win the Wycombe Stakes while Singapore added the Members’ Handicap to his tally after bravely humping 9 st. 5lb and conceding a massive 47lb to the runner-up. The Honourable James White again finished the meeting as leading owner with winnings of £5,345 while Hales finished leading rider – despite choosing the wrong Derby – with seven wins from ten mounts. It was a fitting end to conducting meetings on the old course, for with the close of that 1889 Spring Meeting racing ceased on the old tracks. The new courses, which had been laid down some twelve months before under the direction of A. W. Stephen, were ready for the Midsummer Meeting, with the fences being taken down at once and removed to the new lines. Summer would also see the extensions to the grandstand completed.
In retrospect, the class of the 1889 Derby field was to look decidedly ordinary, and Singapore’s subsequent career proved anything but glorious. As the season unfolded, at least Rudolph added the Caulfield Guineas to his set of winning brackets, giving White a hat-trick of wins in the race, while nothing else from that Derby field ever won another important race. It was Dreadnought that emerged as the real staying find of the year. After winning the Wycombe Stakes, Dreadnought was taken to Melbourne where he beat Carbine and company rather easily in the Caulfield Stakes before adding a sixth Victoria Derby blue riband to James White’s trophy case, while Singapore lost form completely.
Dreadnought apart, the filly Spice was probably the most consistent of the Newmarket three-year-olds that season for she won the VRC Oaks as easily as she did the AJC equivalent at her first two appearances. It was the same story in the autumn, although the two St Legers at Randwick and Flemington were reduced to a complete farce when all of the other entries for both races defected to leave only Singapore and Dreadnought to contest them. Although the Newmarket pair just cantered over the course during the first part of each journey, the superiority displayed by Dreadnought at the end of both races after conceding his stablemate a start, clearly marked the son of Chester as the better racehorse, a fact emphasised by his victory in the Australian Cup.
Those major autumn meetings of 1890 marked the end of James White’s active association with the Australian Turf. The heart disease that had precluded his witnessing Singapore’s victory in the Derby at Randwick and Dreadnought’s at Flemington, represented the dark shadow of things to come. As the season progressed White’s condition worsened, and, unable to cast off the slough of illness, in January he reluctantly announced his resignation as chairman of the A.J.C., an institution to which he had belonged since the days of its very inauguration. At the same time, he abandoned the dream to which he had clung so obstinately, that of crossing the seas to bear witness to his colours being carried at Epsom Downs by Kirkham and Narellan.
In April 1890 coinciding with the AJC Autumn Meeting, came the dispersal of all White’s racing stock, save his old favourite, Abercorn. The sale took place at the famous Newmarket stables on the Friday following the AJC Autumn Meeting with Thomas Clibborn wielding the gavel, and all the leading racing men from Australia and New Zealand were in attendance, together with a curious sporting public. Indeed, such were the numbers that a half-crown submission led to £60 being collected on behalf of Sydney charities. White’s belated decision to withdraw eleven of his yearlings from the public auction, and sell them privately to a syndicate that included both Payten and Hales, had disappointed many and detracted a little from proceedings; nonetheless, the bidding was lively enough on the older horses that were left.
The sensation of the sale was the remarkable price of 4600 guineas realised by White’s champion two-year-old gelding, Titan, when only the second lot sold. It was the highest amount ever paid for one piece of horseflesh in Australia and a world record for a gelding. Walter Hickenbotham led the bidding for him, having an unlimited commission from Mr E. G. Brodribb. Of course, there were other notable transactions as well, with nearly all of the spirited bids coming from representatives of the other side of the border. Lord Kesteven paid 2100 guineas to secure Dreadnought with the intention of taking him to England, although William Jones shortly afterwards gave the astute nobleman 500 guineas more into the bargain to stop the horse leaving these shores; while Singapore went into the hands of V.R.C. committeeman Matt O’Shanassy for 2000 guineas.
Rudolph was sold to W. R. Wilson of St Albans for 820 guineas and the filly Prelude, who only days before had won the AJC Oaks, went for 2750 guineas to Vincent Dowling. William T. Jones gratified with the success of his negotiations with Lord Kesteven, and a subscriber to the theory of ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’, was active in buying Sinecure for 700 guineas and the next VRC Oaks winner in Litigant for 1550 guineas. The 13 lots realised 16,665 guineas with most of the money coming from men who had made their fortunes in silver at Broken Hill. Despite earlier getting his hands on the yearlings, Tom Payten was downcast at the prospect of so many of his best older gallopers passing into other stables.
Given the bullish prices paid, it is interesting to reflect upon what each of these horses achieved subsequently. Singapore proved an absolute flop for O’Shanassy and in fifteen more appearances on the racecourse over the next three seasons not once did our Derby hero achieve a placing; he died in November 1892 after sustaining a severe shoulder injury at Flemington and thus was denied his chance for redemption at stud. Nor were a number of the other White horses sold that day any more successful. Rudolph failed to recapture his juvenile form and eventually perished for want of water in the back blocks of South Australia.
Prelude did win three decent races for the future A.J.C. committeeman Vincent Dowling but hardly recompensed her cost. William Jones, for all his largesse, did win the VRC Oaks with Litigant but her win left the ring untouched, while Dreadnought proved impossible to train. However, in time Dreadnought emerged as the greatest bargain of them all – a most successful stallion at the Karamu Stud near Hastings in New Zealand – but only after William Jones had sold the horse to the Hon John Ormond. Dreadnought produced a host of smart stayers in just a few short seasons at the stud before his premature death in April 1897. Given the money paid for some of the starters in that 1889 Derby field as prospective stallions, it is ironic that the only one of the five to get the winner of a principal race at stud was the rank outsider, Knight Templar. He at least produced the winner of a VRC Standish Handicap in Rosebloom.
So much then for the AJC Derby of 1889: but what became of the two colts James White had shipped to England in his quest for glory on Epsom Downs? The adventure of bearding the British lion in his den, so to speak, captured the imagination of the Australian sporting public at the time, and aroused a similar interest among British sportsmen, although its denouement was to prove a bitter disappointment for the Colonials. Narellan failed to make it to the post for the 1890 English Derby and was a profound disappointment to his English trainer, Matt Dawson, in private gallops leading up to the race. Kirkham, on the other hand, did run but ran badly after having been despised in the market at 50/1. It was Sainfoin’s Derby, conducted that year in the blinding rain, and although Kirkham was prominent in the early stages, the colt dropped out rather quickly when the pace became genuine, finishing last but one.
White received the disappointing news by cable and died a little more than a month later. The Colossus of the Colonial Turf passed away in his Cranbrook residence on Sunday, 13th July 1890 at the age of sixty-two. In the fourteen seasons he actively raced horses, from 1876-77 to 1889-90, he headed the list of winning owners no less than eight times. He first won the title in the 1877-78 racing season, by virtue of the deeds of Chester and Democrat; he then never headed the list again until 1883-84 and after that never relinquished it until the year after his death. Such was his domination that despite selling out his stock with more than three months of the 1889-90 racing season left to run, he still finished leading owner.
Mrs White subsequently commissioned Mr W.S. Carroll, a long-time employee of Michael Fennelly, to compile a tabulated record of the performances of her husband’s racehorses from January 1878 to April 1890. All up in his racing life, James White owned 66 individual winners of 250 races and more than £121,000 in stakes. I think it is true that during the years of his dominance, the Derby while it still retained its classic significance, lost out to the major handicaps in the public interest through the sheer dint of betting turnover. White’s horses only ever ran at the big meetings, and the general public knew that they always ran on their merits. Racing and the A.J.C. had never known a more faithful friend.
On the afternoon of his funeral, as the cortege left his Cranbrook residence, the office of the A.J.C. closed, and the flags at Randwick racecourse flew at half-mast. His wife Emily, whom he had married at Merton, NSW, in 1856, survived White and she had shared in full his love of the Turf. However, the marriage remained childless. White’s estate was valued for probate at £349,731. Probate on the will was granted in December and his good friend and fellow M.L.C., Septimus Stephen acted as his executor. By his will, White directed that all of his horses in training be sold and the proceeds divided between his wife Emily and his trainer Michael Fennelly. Among the other significant bequests was £10,000 left to George Cobb, the manager of Belltrees for his long and faithful service. Emily inherited both Kirkham and Cranbrook, while generous sums were willed to White’s brothers and nephews. Newmarket, which White had purchased for £8,000 from Michael Fennelly upon the latter’s death, was let out to Thomas Payten rent-free for a period until Payten was able to buy it outright in 1891.
White’s death effectively ended the Kirkham Stud’s quixotic tilt for the classics on the English Turf. The second contingent of horses, namely Nepean, Wentworth, Martindale and Mons Meg, had already been despatched to the mother country by the steamer Damascus in March 1890, three months before White’s death, and these, too, had gone into Matt Dawson’s stables. However, by the absurd law obtaining in England at that time, all nominations were void by the death of the nominator. Accordingly, the horses were not allowed to contest the races for which they had been engaged in White’s name.
The Australian baronet brothers, Daniel and William Cooper, then residing in England, bought most of White’s stock there including Mons Meg, Wentworth and Narellan. Mons Meg, who cost Daniel Cooper 2600 guineas, was to prove the best of the lot, winning the two miles Gold Vase at Royal Ascot; she may well have won the Cesarewitch too, had not her owner insisted on her being tried over the full course on the Saturday before the race. Kirkham, sold for 610 guineas to Captain Machell, became something of a savage and in one incident his trainer had to beat the horse off the attendant who was servicing his horsebox at the time, or the lad would have been killed. He only raced that one season, starting three times in England without ever winning. Later Kirkham stood at Lord Dunraven’s Adare Stud in County Limerick where he got Kirkland, the winner of a Grand National Steeplechase, among others.
For a time after James White’s death, his widow Emily continued to live in Cranbrook and to run Kirkham as a thoroughbred nursery, albeit on a somewhat diminished scale, retaining Harry Mackellar as manager and meeting with mixed success. However, in August 1896 the 62-year-old Emily upset many in the White family when she elected to marry again, this time to 37-year-old Captain William Scott, MRCVS, the principal veterinary surgeon in the NSW Defence Forces. It was to prove a short-lived marriage, however, as her second husband took Emily to Melrose in Roxburghshire, Scotland, where she died little more than a year later. Scott did some racing in England and Ireland but proved something of a disgrace and parted with his horses after being warned by authorities. After the death of Mrs White and on the orders of Captain Scott, Kirkham was put up for sale in September 1898. Mr E. G. Blume purchased the aged Martini-Henry, and the horse was taken to Bexley, on the Thompson River, about 600 miles west of Rockhampton, where he eventually died of a stomach tumour. Harry Mackellar bought the stallion, Gossoon, and a few mares, and started breeding on a limited scale at Kirkham for himself, but lack of success eventually saw that venture fold.
Three important structures still stand in Sydney today that provide a living link with the life and times of the Hon. James White viz. the famous Newmarket stables, Cranbrook, and Kirkham House itself, although it now passes by a different name. The Big Stable at Newmarket, as we shall see, was to have a continuing role to play in the story of the AJC Derby and I will defer telling its history to later chapters. Cranbrook’s connection with racing, however, ended with the departure to Scotland of Emily White. The New South Wales Government purchased it and used Cranbrook for some years as a State vice-regal residence, particularly during the early years of the Commonwealth when NSW Government House was on loan to the Federal Government, as a residence for the Governor-General. When put up for auction in 1918, Cranbrook was purchased by Samuel Hordern on behalf of a group of Church of England men, who decided to convert it into a school, a function it continues to this day as one of the most exclusive boys’ schools in the land.
We then come to Kirkham House and Stud itself. During the last years of his life, White had pursued a policy of breeding from mares there only every second season, believing that this approach afforded the best nourishment to their foals. The well-grassed paddocks of Kirkham, offering a plentiful supply of chicory plant, provided the best of conditions for the rearing of racehorses. Sadly, White wasn’t a studmaster long enough to establish the value of his patience or discipline, and most of his best performers were not bred in this way. The truth is that, notwithstanding the likes of Cranbrook and the Newmarket three-year-olds of the 1889-90 racing season, many of the big race victories under the blue and white banner had come with horses bred in other studs by other men.
In a sense, one wonders just what Kirkham might have achieved if the vision of James White had endured. Certainly, he was proud of his showplace, and he would on occasions personally conduct tours for the benefit of guests. During Australia’s centennial year of 1888, Lord Hindlip, J.C. Williamson, C.M. Lloyd, Tom Watson and Frederick William Day were among a group that was privileged to experience the Kirkham hospitality that included an inspection of the thoroughbreds, Singapore and Rudolph among them. Kirkham was just coming into its own when its founder died. There was talk that had White lived, even greater resources might have been spent on an assault on the English Turf. A proposal to lease stabling in the south of France was put forward with the intention of installing Thomas Payten over there with a team of Kirkham-bred colts and fillies during the northern winter, and only when the English frosts had melted, transport the racehorses across the Channel. Moreover, the intention was to take an Australian jockey over there to do the stable riding.
When I last paid a visit to Kirkham House some years ago, the grand mansion was shut up, the grounds closed and the gate firmly bolted. I’ll admit that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, but I had the haunting feeling that had I ventured there by moonlight, or perhaps upon All Souls night, the gate might well have opened to admit an impressive company of men whose shadows in life had passed across it. I refer to the likes of James White, Tom Hales, Tom Payten, Michael Fennelly, Harry Mackellar, to name but a few. If those stately old rooms of Kirkham could talk, such stories they might tell. An excursion to Kirkham, or Camelot as it has been called since 1900, is still one worth making for the racing man with an eye for Australia’s Turf heritage. The historic stables, a two-storey structure of rendered brick, built by convict labour, still stand to this day at the entrance to the property and have been consistently used for stabling down through the years since. A profile of the head of Chester features on the main gable together with the Latin motto ‘Metam Tetigit’, which I understand roughly translates to ‘first past the post’. Nearby, the well-kept grave of Chester is situated.
There have been some desultory attempts in the years since White’s passing to bestir the gentle hills of Kirkham from their slumber, and once again breed thoroughbreds fit to tilt for the Turf’s big prizes. The last such attempt was made by Fred Sutton in the late 1960s when he stood there the unsuccessful stallions, Proper Pride and Kingfisher, that Tom Smith had selected on his behalf during a visit to England. Even the great Agricola also stood there for a season or two in the early 1970s. At the Inglis Yearling Sales during Easter 1973, the Kirkham Stud sold a Wilkes-Flying Gauntlet colt for $66,000 – the most expensive yearling ever sold by the stud. But Fred Sutton’s efforts were really a last gasp of greatness. What was once an idyllic and pastoral scene of paddocks and rolling green hills, with mares and foals gambolling to their heart’s content, has, with the encroachment of time, been inexorably swallowed up into the vastly extended metropolis of Sydney. The glory days of Kirkham are now but musty pages in the dusty tome of Australia’s Turf heritage. Ah, but what glory days they were!
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