I think that it is appropriate at this page in our chronicle to introduce the character of George Dean Greenwood, given his leading role in the story of the A.J.C. Derby, over the next few years. The younger of two sons, he was born at Moorhouse Manor, near Haworth, Yorkshire, in the heart of Bronte territory. Whereas his elder brother chose the London bar to earn his livelihood, George learnt to farm in Leicestershire, and given his love of horses, proceeded to hunt with the Pytchley and the Quorn. When quite a young man he travelled the globe to New Zealand to look over some property that his father had acquired there; and upon his return to England he went to Bradford to study the wool business. Somebody had to manage the family property in New Zealand, and as fate would have it, George Greenwood was the most suitable choice. The property in question was the Teviotdale Estate at Amberley, on the South Island near Pegasus Bay. Now given that Pegasus was the name of the legendary winged horse of the Muses, it seemed a most appropriate destination for a man who was to play such a leading role in New Zealand racing and indeed, possess some notable winged horses of his own.
While initially managing Teviotdale station on behalf of his father, in due course it became his own. Greenwood proceeded to acquire extensive cattle properties in Australia as well, including the Saxby Downs Station of 800,000 acres near the Flinders River in Queensland, together with Tocal, near Longreach. With burgeoning prosperity, it was in 1908 that George Greenwood decided to establish a racing stable. Teviotdale, situated high up in a gentle valley, was well-wooded country and ideal for the spelling of horses. What Greenwood needed was the right man to train them. His choice fell upon Dick Mason, who just then was looking for a new patron following the death of George Stead earlier in the autumn of that year. The new partnership began with a bang when the first racehorse to carry the soon-to-be-famous red and yellow stripes, Miss Mischief, won her first race and later went on to win a Wellington Cup. Greenwood purchased a number of horses at the dispersal sale of George Stead’s stud and stables, including Armlet, a filly that Dick Mason had trained to win the Gimcrack Stakes at Randwick the previous year, and which proceeded to carry the Greenwood colours with distinction. Greenwood’s early success was phenomenal. In his first season, 1908-09, he won £2,777 in stakes and the following season, £5,195 and he secured both the New Zealand Derby and the Great Northern Derby with Danube, from Martian’s first crop, the first year that he tried to win them. Thanks largely to Danube, George Greenwood finished New Zealand’s leading owner for the first time in 1910-11, an honour that he next achieved in 1913-14.
As successful as his bloodstock purchases in New Zealand proved to be, it wasn’t long before Greenwood was looking across the Tasman for some of his yearlings. It was in the autumn of 1916 that he commissioned Joe Burton to buy him a Comedy King yearling at the sale of the Shipley Stud draft in Melbourne that year. The colt that Greenwood had in mind was a stylish youngster from the mare Snowy River but as events turned out the horse was sold to go to Tasmania and Greenwood was left empty-handed. However, as it happened, before the sale had even started, Sol Green, the owner of the Shipley Stud had arranged to have the Comedy King – Air Motor colt that was included in the draft to be bought in on his own behalf if he failed to bring a big price. Green intended to place it in Burton’s stables, after all, the Randwick horseman had enjoyed such success with Air Motor. Accordingly, when bidding waned, the fall-back plan came into play, and the youngster was knocked down to Mr Samuel, acting for Green, at 375 guineas.
So far so good for Burton; but when Green heard of Greenwood’s disappointment, the Shipley proprietor offered him this colt by cable at the same price he had given. Greenwood accepted the offer. The Snowy River colt that went to Tasmania was no slouch, and, registered as Lysander, proceeded to win, among other races, the Tasmanian Turf Club’s Newmarket Handicap. However, the Air Motor colt was to prove the biggest bargain of the sale. Registered as Biplane, he won a string of races and gave George Greenwood the first of his three Derbies at Randwick, although in bypassing the stables of Joe Burton he denied that trainer a fourth blue riband. I might add that very soon after receiving Biplane, Dick Mason realised his potential, and by way of partial compensation to Burton, he wrote asking him to accept the best suit of clothes that Sydney could produce.
Comedy King, a black, was a pure dominant for colour as a stallion and the great majority of his progeny were rich dark browns; or if not that, they were bays or blacks. Biplane was black and resembled his sire in many ways including the colour of his coat. Biplane seemed a most appropriate name for the Air Motor colt, not least because from the moment Dick Mason placed him in work the chunky fellow showed the ability to fly. He made his debut at the Canterbury Jockey Club’s Spring Meeting winning a Plate for youngsters and running second in the prestigious Welcome Stakes. Later in the season, he won the Great Northern Foal Stakes at Auckland and the Middle Park Plate at Canterbury, before a mishap put him out of court just as the rich autumn juvenile races seemed there for the taking. Nonetheless, with three wins and three seconds and £1,850 from seven starts, it was a heartening first season on the Turf, and he was regarded as one of the best three of his age in the Dominion. Like many top-class thoroughbreds, he possessed something of a temper, having put on a bit of a turn just before the running of the Middle Park Plate, which had prompted Deeley to dismount and walk his charge past the judge’s box.
It was a habit of Dick Mason to determine his Australian team and travel to Sydney very early in June, thereby dodging the severity of the South Island winters. The transport difficulties dogging the racing scene in New Zealand that year, brought on by the War, proved another reason for travelling early. Mason came over with just four horses that year – Biplane, the star of the team, the well-performed sprinter Bimeter, which he proceeded to sell to a Queensland sportsman, and two unknown quantities in Immortal and Kilowatt, both of which were maidens by Martian. Because of the war and the concomitant circumstance of poor prize money in New Zealand, George Greenwood was selling out much of his stud, and apart from Biplane, the other three were on the market at the right price. The team was quartered at the stables of Chisholm and Co. at Randwick.
Immortal gave the invaders a winning start when unfancied, breaking his maiden status in a juvenile race at Rosehill. The horse was then sold at a good price to Hugh Denison. Biplane’s Derby campaign might have been grounded before it became airborne when in mid-June, while on his way to the Randwick course on a Saturday morning for track work, he shied at a piece of paper and collided with a tram and, not surprisingly, came off second best. Although at first there was some doubt about his continuing to be trained for the classic, the bruising responded quickly to treatment. By the time of his initial Australian engagement in the Chelmsford Stakes, the Comedy King colt was burning up the grass.
It was something of a shock, therefore, when Biplane cut up badly in his Australian debut at the Tattersall’s Meeting. Sent out a raging hot favourite and having drawn the inside position at the post, he ran well for six furlongs but was beaten before the field reached the bend. Another three-year-old, Prince Viridis, won the race and thereby displaced Biplane as the Derby favourite. After the race, Dick Mason accepted much of the responsibility for the defeat. A gale of wind had been blowing when the race was run, and Mason had specifically instructed Ben Deeley not to lead on the colt but afford him cover from the full force of nature’s fury; the tactic helped bring about his undoing as he spent the entire journey reefing for his head. The mistake wasn’t repeated at his next start in the Rosehill Guineas, run that year at Randwick owing to the railway strike. Prince Viridis went off favourite with Biplane second elect, but the son of Comedy King gave the lie to his Chelmsford disappointment with a scintillating exhibition of front-running in a race when nothing was prepared to take him on.
The form reversal was met by booing from the Flat and sections of the Paddock; indeed, for some backers, it revived memories of the form reversal of George Greenwood’s Valido at the 1913 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting, when Greenwood took the unprecedented step of defending himself with a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald denying he won a heavy stake from the bookmakers over the running of the Coogee Handicap and offering to donate £1,000 to charity if it could be proved otherwise. Mason was unperturbed by the hullabaloo for he now realised that the key to the colt was to allow him to use his speed. Whether or not he could sustain it over the classic distance of the Derby remained in the lap of the gods. Going into the Derby, even Dick Mason wasn’t sure Biplane would stay the course, as in the fortnight preceding the race he never worked the colt at a fast pace beyond nine furlongs. Although his dam, Air Motor, never won at a mile and a half, she had managed to run third in Queen of Sheba’s A.J.C. Metropolitan and had been successful up to ten furlongs.
When the War had started three years before, it was expected that racing in Australia would suffer a severe downturn. So far from that proposition proving correct, the sport continued to flourish. Prize money and yearling prices might have dropped off from their pre-war levels, but the crowds hadn’t. The attendance at Randwick on the opening day of the 1917 Autumn Meeting, for example, had exceeded fifty thousand. While the Federal Government were deriving revenue from such attendance in the form of the newly introduced entertainment tax – an extra penny on each shilling spent on admission to the various enclosures – their real problem lay with the recruitment of troops. It was apparent that many young, fit men preferred to take their chances on the racecourse rather than the trench.
And by 1917 with the senseless carnage on the Western Front, recruiting levels had fallen below the Government’s deemed requirements. Attempts at attracting troops were sometimes desperate, as was the case on Doncaster Day when a detachment of the Light Horse, each leading a spare saddled horse, was admitted to the Paddock to recruit, although very few racegoers opted for the free ride. There began much agitation to curtail the number of race meetings being conducted throughout the country. In March the Returned Soldiers and Sailors League of Australia passed a resolution that Prime Minister, W. M. Hughes, consider the immediate closure of all stadiums and racecourses. Rather than full closure, the Government decided on a reduction.
One of the main problems was the proliferation of proprietary meetings, which had been proliferating, particularly in N.S.W. The shareholders of these private race clubs were literarily coining money while making little contribution to the war effort. In September the Federal Government announced restrictions, which in N.S.W. saw the number of registered meetings in the metropolitan area reduced from 134 to 97. Unregistered meetings were outlawed, while clubs racing just outside the metropolitan area saw their gatherings cut by two-thirds. Although the original intention was to reduce the fourteen allotted race days of the A.J.C. to twelve, active lobbying saw this proposal defeated.
The notion that a young man, who for more than three years had withstood the temptations of the siren strains of the cannonade, was now about to hurry off to the front because there were fewer race meetings to attend, seemed fanciful in the extreme, but then such at times is the ineluctable logic of politicians. I might add that the Federal Government were also desperate for more practical measures on recruitment and in December 1917 for the second time in fifteen months their plebiscite for conscription, or the ‘lottery of death’ as the critics called it, was defeated. The A.J.C. committee wishing to be seen to be doing their bit had decided that no new bookmaker’s clerks’ licences would be issued to eligible single men of military age who had not volunteered for military service.
The strains of war were giving rise to industrial agitation on the home front. The winter and spring racing in 1917 in N.S.W. was disrupted by a protracted and bitter strike in the N.S.W. railways, which had spread to other industries and States. Some Rosehill trainers such as William Booth deserted their home course and walked their horses to Randwick to be temporarily prepared there in the absence of trains. The Rosehill Racing Club was forced to abandon its allotted two days of racing in September insofar as their own course was concerned, and the Rosehill Guineas and Spring Stakes were switched to Randwick; while the Hawkesbury Spring Meeting had to be abandoned. These disruptions served to reduce the number of interstate men and horses that journeyed over for the A.J.C. Spring Meeting. James Scobie managed to arrive, but very few others came across. The restrictions on trans-Tasman shipping also served to cut the Dominion representation at the meeting and were responsible for Desert Gold’s absence in particular.
The War was effecting change in other directions too. In N.S.W. the Holman Government’s resistance to the introduction of the Totalisator was finally overcome when troopships began to disgorge the wounded and invalided soldiers from the butchery of Gallipoli and the Western Front in 1916. The need for the Government to make financial provisions for the handicapped and the disabled, not to mention the widows and the orphans, eventually forced the Government’s hand. In December 1916 the necessary legislation passed through both Houses of the New South Wales Parliament with a substantial majority. The Totalisator was introduced as a Government monopoly, and the proprietary clubs were not to be subject to any interference, while at the same time receiving a portion of the Tote revenue.
The Bill did not affect bookmakers. Having procrastinated for so long about the machine, the Government quickly became impatient at the delays of some clubs in introducing it. Kembla Grange became the first club in New South Wales to use the Tote at its meeting on Tuesday, February 13th, 1917; the first of the registered metropolitan clubs to use it came at the Warwick Farm meeting in early May. The deduction from the betting pool was 11% plus fractions with the Government getting 7% of that amount. The A.J.C.’s Tote regulations required all registered clubs to pay first and second dividends where there were seven or more runners, while all horses running in the same ownership were to be bracketed. As the year progressed it became evident that the Tote wasn’t returning as much revenue as anticipated, and in September the Government proceeded to double the stamp duty on bookmakers’ betting tickets and increased the fees collected from the clubs for bookmakers betting licences from a quarter to a half.
In ideal weather, a tremendous crowd of more than 40,000 people stormed the Randwick turnstiles for Derby Day. There was considerable curiosity as to the impressive new building housing the Totalisator and the workings of the infernal machine. The new Tote House had cost around £15,000 to construct and allowed for forty windows for ticket sales and thirty for the collection of dividends. It allowed for a maximum field of forty-two horses. There had been something of a rush by the club to ready the machine for the opening day of their spring meeting, and it was significant that they had only succeeded in installing it in the Paddock.
The delays caused by the non-arrival of materials from America, allied with the transport strike in Sydney, meant that there was no machine betting available in either the Flat or Leger reserves. In fact, the Tote in these sections of the course would not become available until the Summer Meeting later in the year. One of the benefits of the machine was that the forfeits had to be declared for all races at Randwick two days before their decision and consequently the racebooks were no longer cluttered with pages of improbable runners. The club had announced that all profits accruing from the four days of racing at the spring meeting would go to patriotic funds, while the major portion of prize money was paid in war loan bonds. For the record, the Tote’s turnover on that historic first day at Randwick would be just over £26,000.
The 1917 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions are set out in the table below:
The outstanding juvenile of that year’s Derby crop had been Thrice, a slashing bay son of The Welkin who raced in the colours of his breeder, Ernest Clarke, and was trained by Jim Scobie. Thrice was from that wonderful broodmare Teppo, arguably the best of that select group of mares that J. E. Brewer had bought in England on behalf of Clarke. She was a highly-vitalised little tartar and the supreme bully of Clarke’s paddocks. She was a terrific fighter, and no broodmare dared go near her when she was caring for a foal. Teppo was to produce seven good winners in successive seasons, and Thrice was the third of them. I have previously mentioned Ernest Clarke’s frustration at his inability to secure the names of his choice for some of his yearlings and his resorting to calling a trio of his youngsters One, Two and Three. Well, Thrice was a brother to Three, and also to that good filly Deneb, both of whom had carried the Clarke livery. It is highly unusual for any race mare to throw successively such speedy customers as this trio but served to underscore the value of the imported Teppo, who proved such a marvellous servant for Ernest Clarke.
Although Thrice started favourite in the Maribyrnong Plate in the spring and ran unplaced, he was a much better colt at the back end of the season when he won both Sires’ Produce Stakes at Flemington and Randwick and proved good enough to back up at both courses in the wake of these victories, and carrying the full penalty, won both the Ascot Vale and Champagne Stakes over the shorter journey. In so doing he became the first horse to win those four big juvenile races. He finished his first season with those four wins from nine starts and £8,792 in prize money – the second-highest stakes won all season by a horse of any age. He was the best horse that Clarke had bred or owned since Emir.
A big colt, Thrice was up to carrying any amount of weight, but the fact of The Welkins having been only great sprinters until that time dampened the ardour about his Derby prospects. Moreover, Scobie hadn’t even bothered to nominate him for the Melbourne Cup – hardly a rousing declaration of faith in his staying potential. Thrice hadn’t appeared since the autumn and moreover had endured a somewhat interrupted Derby preparation. Throughout his career, he suffered from soft feet – a problem that afflicted quite a few of The Welkin’s stock. It was noticeable on Derby Day that when the bar shoes came off, Thrice was slightly scratchy in his action on the way to the post. Lewis kept the colt trotting and cantering before he was called in to take his place at the barrier.
The Derby field comprised nine starters – all colts – and the public elect was Prince Viridis, a lightly framed little horse got by Prince Foote in his first season at stud and was bred and raced by John Brown. Only lightly raced as a two-year-old, he came within a whisker of pulling off a major upset at the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting in the Champagne Stakes when he ran Thrice, the twos on favourite, to the closest of finishes. Another fifty yards and he would undoubtedly have reversed positions. A couple of days later at the same meeting, he stepped out to win the Easter Stakes. Prince Viridis had resumed from his winter break in the Chelmsford Stakes and surprised his trainer Jim Barden, by being forward enough in condition to beat a good field. It was a result of that win that he supplanted Biplane at the head of Derby quotations. Although Biplane turned the tables at their next start in the Rosehill Guineas, Prince Viridis retained his place in Derby betting because of the forthright manner in which he finished off that event after conceding an impossible start at the home turn. John Brown had also taken the precaution of entering a pacemaker for the favourite, in the shape of Lord Windermere. In fact, the Brown brothers accounted for a third of the Derby field, because William Brown’s representative in the race was the Newcastle-trained Modesto, a brother to his A.J.C. St Leger-winning filly, Thana, and a runner-up in the Breeders’ Plate.
Another starter in the Derby was Bronzetti, a fine strapping homebred colt by Sir Samuel Hordern’s hugely expensive imported stallion, Bronzino, from an imported English mare, Daisy Chain, which Ike Earnshaw trained to run second in a Sydney Cup for the same owners. A winner of the Flemington Stakes down the straight-six as a two-year-old, Bronzetti had resumed in the new season to land some good wagers in a handicap at Moorefield when he flashed home from the rear of the field. The run was enough to recommend him to shrewd judges, Dick Mason amongst them, that here, was a serious racehorse. Alas, his Derby preparation had been interrupted when he stepped on a broken drainpipe, and it became necessary to chloroform him to treat the injury. However, in the attempted anaesthetic Bronzetti struggled with his attendants to withstand the fumes, fighting the ropes and straining himself internally. His trainer James Smith, a once-famous bush horseman from the hills of Barrengarry Valley, only managed to get the horse going again about a week before the classic was due to be run. Pah King, another acceptor for the Derby, had shown promise early in his career when he had gamely won the Maribyrnong Plate, before failing in the autumn and most considered that he wasn’t bred to stay, despite being a son of a former winner in Mountain King.
If some of the New Zealand visitors harboured doubts about Biplane getting the classic distance, the horse remained oblivious. Lord Windermere may have been intended as a pacemaker for Prince Viridis, but he wasn’t up to the job. Biplane was going very easily in front as far as a half-mile from home, and it was at this juncture that Bob Lewis moved to within striking distance of the leader on Thrice, and at the bend, he seemed to be travelling well. Biplane had Prince Viridis beaten before the distance while Thrice was running into second place, and though he tried valiantly to bridge the gap with Biplane, he didn’t quite see out the journey. It was left to Bronzetti, finishing in fine style down the middle of the course, to deny Thrice second money. No greater tribute to Dick Mason’s conditioning skills could be paid than that of the clock, which showed that Biplane had run the second-fastest time in the history of the race – bettered only by Noctuiform, Mason’s previous winner of the race.
The Derby was the first classic race won by a Comedy King and the first to go to the Persimmon branch of the St Simon line. It was on the recommendation of his trainer Jimmy Lynch that Sol Green bought the Gallinule mare, Tragedy Queen, in England for 1700 guineas – mainly on account of the Persimmon colt she had at foot at the time, although she was also carrying a foal to Orvieto. It was said that the figure of 1700 guineas was much below the real value of the pair, but having been put up early in the sale there was not a representative attendance of buyers present. Green was starting the Shipley Stud, near Warrnambool in Victoria, and he hoped to use the colt there as a sire. Comedy King, although foaled in England, was shipped to Australia on board the Afric and reared at Shipley. He matured into a grand, handsome black horse, a big fellow on a short leg, and with his conformation and breeding, only needed to prove himself as a racehorse for an assured career as a stallion.
Comedy King went into trainer Jimmy Lynch’s ‘Forest Lodge’ stables situated in Ascot Vale Road, opposite the old Ascot racecourse. Forest Lodge had its name bestowed upon it by Lynch in honour of Forest, the bay gelded son of Forest King with which he brought off a coup in the V.R.C. Newmarket Handicap of 1899. The training establishment had originally been built for the Western Australian identity, Bob Phillips, who won both Derbies with Abundance back in 1902. Lynch had succeeded Frank McNamara as the trainer to Sol Green on the last Saturday in February 1906 in dramatic circumstances. McNamara died on that Saturday morning and just a few hours later Lynch saddled up the champion mare Gladsome to win the Ninth Caulfield Futurity Stakes on Sol Green’s behalf. Lynch had accompanied Sol Green to England when he bought Tragedy Queen in the package deal.
Being bred to English time, Comedy King suffered a disadvantage in his early racing here, although Lynch appreciated his value from his very first gallop when he beat a very smart Simmer mare in Verenice over three furlongs in 38 seconds. But he was still a very green colt. Comedy King’s first real glimpse of form came when he won the Futurity Stakes at Caulfield. He was brought to Sydney for the spring meeting in 1910 when he lowered the colours of Prince Foote in the weight-for-age Spring Stakes at Randwick. On that occasion, Jimmy Lynch intended to recommend that Sol Green have a dash on the English colt but rheumatism affected the horse in the days before the race, and there were doubts about his even running as late as the Thursday. But he did the job and later that spring, of course, he won the Melbourne Cup, becoming the first imported horse to do so. Comedy King’s trial for the Cup was to give Prizefighter, a sound stayer who had already won a South Australian St Leger and in time would win both a Hotham Handicap and Australian Cup, fifteen lengths start and beat him over a mile and a half outside hurdles in 2 minutes 46½ seconds on the course proper at Flemington.
Alas, after this trial and on the Friday before the Cup, Comedy King caught a cold. He ran so badly in the Melbourne Stakes on Saturday that Sol Green no longer thought much of his chance in the Melbourne Cup. But he was so well handicapped with just 7 st. 11lb that Lynch and his jockey, Bill McLachlan, thought he might pull through. Reflecting on the race a few years later, McLachlan stated: “From the jump-off, I took good care that I was never far behind the leaders, and as we approached the turn I moved up. Turning into the straight I shot him to the front. The only horse I was thinking of amongst the lot behind me was Trafalgar. When we reached the distance, Comedy King began to falter, but I dared not move. About one hundred yards from home, I saw Trafalgar at my heels. He gradually crept up but I had to sit still. I determined to wait for one last kick. About thirty yards from the post, Trafalgar almost drew level, and I sat down and rode for my life. You know as much about the rest as I do. Comedy King did not require much pulling up.” Apart from his riding fee, McLachlan also pocketed an additional £1,000 that Sol had laid him in the betting ring. As befitted the champion that he was, Comedy King occupied the No.1 box at Lynch’s Forest Lodge. Afterwards, when Sol Green retired Comedy King to Shipley, he proved an immediate success as a stallion and quickly displaced Positano, which Sol Green then put on the market.
The A.J.C. official starter, Harry Mackellar bred Air Motor, the dam of Biplane, and she brought eighty guineas as a yearling. Joe Burton trained her to win the Epsom in 1902, and she proved equal to 9 st. 7lb when she later won the Villiers as well as several other good races. Not only was she a first-class racehorse, but she was also a stylish mare to boot. Burton never over-trained his horses, particularly his mares, and it wasn’t surprising when Air Motor proved a good matron. She was very unlucky when she first went to stud. She didn’t contribute anything for four successive years, her 1909 and 1910 foals dying, while she missed in 1911, and slipped her foal the following year. Until Biplane came along, Aero was her only winner. However, in getting the Derby winner, she repaid the faith shown in her and ensured her fame as a broodmare matched that realised on the racecourse.
Joe Burton was very unlucky not to train Biplane. When George Greenwood originally cabled from New Zealand to buy a yearling from that Shipley draft up to 500 guineas, the cable was directed to Sol Green; it was Green who cabled back recommending that Burton do the buying on his behalf, a suggestion to which the New Zealand pastoralist readily consented. As noted above, the yearlings that Burton went after at those sales all went above his limit. Sol Green then let the Air Motor colt fill the void; but had Green retained the colt, the understanding was that Burton, having trained the mother, was to get the son. Thus, in bittersweet irony, through failing to fulfil his commission to Greenwood at that sale, Burton lost Biplane to him. Immediately after the Derby, Greenwood refused all temptations to sell the colt even though as much as £5,000 was offered for him.
To celebrate the Derby victory, George Greenwood gave a dinner at the Australia Hotel that night with the tables decorated in his racing colours. Lest anybody think there was something of the fluke about his Derby win, Biplane stepped out to win the Craven Plate on the following Wednesday. Perhaps the field served up against him didn’t amount to much, but the fact that he matched Woorak’s record for ten furlongs posted in the very same event three years before, made people sit up and take notice. Moreover, in the Craven Plate, Deeley had only taken him to the front after the field had gone two furlongs and had then allowed the colt to run his own race.
Early in the campaign, and particularly after his failure at the Tattersall’s Meeting, Biplane was regarded as a fierce puller in his races, whereas at heart he was more of a free-going galloper. The Craven Plate proved that. Still, the matter of whether or not he was a genuine stayer remained unresolved. Perhaps the answer would come in Melbourne. Mason hadn’t visited the southern capital since the autumn of 1890 when he was in charge of a team belonging to George Stead. The pleasure of that visit had been marred by the fact that the running of one of his horses had been the subject of discreet questioning by the stewards. Stead took umbrage and vowed never to return there with his horses. Mason, of course, had brought Greenwood’s horses to Australia before but had invariably returned patriotically to New Zealand in time for their Derby, then run at Canterbury in early November. However, the absence of readily available shipping facilities to cross the Tasman this time, given the dislocation of the War, made a visit to the banks of the Maribyrnong de rigueur.
By the time of the Derby at Flemington, much of Biplane’s perceived opposition had dropped off. Thrice had won the Caulfield Guineas in fine style from Bronzetti as expected, but he was no longer regarded, if he ever was, as a genuine mile-and-a-half horse. Bronzetti, who had won the Caulfield Cup on a heavy track with a postage-stamp weight and a goodly slice of luck, was the one horse that was expected to give Biplane some trouble in the Derby at Flemington, which that year attracted the smallest field since F.J.A. beat four others in 1903. It didn’t happen. Ben Deeley took the favourite to the front and made a one-act affair of the race in a time that equalled Beragoon’s race record with Prince Viridis chasing him home four lengths in arrears. Bronzetti was knocked up badly, and some newspaper correspondents were hugely disappointed when the telegram arrived at Canterbury Park announcing the result; not a few people were convinced that Bronzetti must have fallen. Many people now considered it a pity that Biplane was out of the Melbourne Cup. Mason permitted the colt one more appearance at the meeting, that being in the weight-for-age Linlithgow Stakes over the mile on the following Thursday. Although only two horses bothered to oppose him, Biplane emphasised his class when he went to the front early on in proceedings and, without being pressured, managed to slice a second off the course record and equal the Australian mark. Many were now rating him as faster than Woorak at the same age.
In the autumn Biplane never crossed the Tasman and instead was restricted to three racecourse appearances in his homeland. First-up after a fifteen-week spell on his owner’s station in North Canterbury, he won the weight-for-age Jackson Stakes at Wanganui and then was rather surprising beaten by Estland for the Wanganui Guineas; he redeemed his reputation when he came back to win the C.J.C. Challenge Stakes comprehensively. The racecourse clash of the autumn that all of New Zealand awaited, was this wonder colt against the darling of the Dominion Turf, Desert Gold. A cracked fore-hoof, a legacy of his Australian spring campaign, had frustrated an earlier meeting of the two at the Wellington Racing Club’s Summer Meeting when the club had offered a stake of £250 for a head-to-head contest at weight-for-age over ten furlongs. The much-delayed confrontation seemed all set to occur in the Awapuni Gold Cup in mid-April when Desert Gold was back in New Zealand fresh and triumphant from her first tour of duty in Australia. There was much tumult and shouting when Dick Mason decided to withdraw Biplane ahead of the contest, citing the specious reason that the colt’s recent track work had been disappointing. Perhaps it was the ultimate accolade to Desert Gold, as Mason enjoyed a peerless reputation for placing his horses to perfection. In effect, the great man was tacitly acknowledging that Biplane hadn’t a chance.
The Manawatu Racing Club took a somewhat jaundiced view of this twist to events. While Mason’s action hadn’t strictly broken the letter of the law, the club believed that the “true ethics of racing had been grossly violated”. The committee regretted that the racing rules did not authorise them to ban Biplane for life! This choleric outburst from the good burghers of Manawatu was to backfire on them in a rather spectacular fashion in the years ahead. Unbeknownst to anybody just then, the paddocks of George Greenwood’s Teviotdale estate at that very moment were playing host to a rugged and robust bay gelding by The Welkin. As Gloaming he was to have a most remarkable career on the racecourse that extended into his ninth year. And yet for all of his sixty-seven appearances on racetracks across both sides of the Tasman, not once did George Greenwood allow this wonder horse to set foot on Awapuni. There was something else the splenetic Manawatu Racing Club couldn’t have known at the time: Biplane had already raced for the last time in New Zealand.
During the winter he was part of the Greenwood team that Dick Mason took to Randwick for the 1918 Spring Meeting. He ran unplaced first-up in the Rosehill Spring Stakes and then a couple of weeks later in early October broke down in a six furlongs track gallop at Randwick with Gloaming on the eve of the A.J.C. Spring Meeting. He never sported George Greenwood’s silks again. Despite this history of unsoundness, the enormously wealthy pastoralist, Tom Stirton, paid £3,000 for Biplane, a big price at the time. Whereas Stirton’s acquisition of another Derby winner in Cetigne as an older horse had been crowned with glory, his purchase of Biplane was an unmitigated disaster. Transferred to the stables of Tom Scully, Biplane was never really sound again, and in fourteen starts for Stirton not once returned a farthing on his purchase price. Stirton was hoping for a rather better fortune when, after Biplane’s failure in the 1922 Oakleigh Plate, he retired the son of Comedy King to his Dunlop Stud to stand alongside Cetigne.
At stud, Biplane proved a major disappointment. Standing at a fee of fifty guineas, things looked good early when the handsome and promising Seaplane came along in his first crop together with the Canterbury winner, Biavon, who carried Tom Stirton’s colours. But neither of these horses developed, and his subsequent crops proved of little value. When the Dunlop Stud was eventually dispersed in April 1927 following the death of Stirton, Biplane only made 260 guineas with comparatively little to recommend him. In fact, Gallant Airman, which took out the 1929 W.A.T.C. Karrakatta Plate, was the only winner of a principal race that Biplane ever got at stud. The one horse from that 1917 Derby field that proved successful as a stallion was Thrice; he sired six individual winners of principal races, and the best two of his progeny were Thurlstone, who emulated his sire when he won both the V.R.C. Ascot Vale Stakes and Sires’ Produce Stakes; and Redshank, the 1925 winner of the V.R.C. Oaks.
The sterling deeds of Biplane on the racecourse that spring provided a tremendous advertisement for his sire Comedy King, and the dispersal of the Shipley Stud in January 1918. One of the effects of the protracted War and the depressed prices at yearling sales was the winding back or dispersal of major studs. Shipley was one of two major studs dispersed in January 1918 within just three days of one another, William Brown’s Segenhoe Stud being the other, and it was a long time since that had happened in Australia. Sol Green had spent a king’s ransom developing the Shipley Stud, located a few miles from Warrnambool in Victoria, but hadn’t enjoyed the returns that his enterprise deserved. Green had announced his intention of dispersing the stud back in March, long before Biplane had given Comedy King and the stud a real boost with his achievements in the spring. Dick Mason, while in Melbourne during that Cup Week had paid a visit to Shipley, and never a man to let his imagination run away with him, declared that he had never seen a finer stallion than Comedy King.
It seemed that Norman Falkiner, a member of the famous squatting family, agreed with him. Falkiner owned Boonoke, and other big sheep runs in the Riverina, and at the time of the sale of the Shipley Stud, was looking for a stallion for his newly formed stud farm. Sometime before, Falkiner had purchased the former Pranjip Park Stud on the Goulburn River in Victoria, not far from where it runs into the Murray, and it was there that he was founding his place. Falkiner would not be denied Comedy King at the Shipley dispersal, and after a bidding war with Reg Inglis, who was acting on behalf of the Thompson Bros of Oakleigh Stud, he secured the black stallion for 7300 guineas. Initially installed at Pranjip Park Stud, in 1920 Falkiner moved Comedy King and the rest of his stallions and broodmares to Noorilim, where the mares and foals enjoyed the benefits of paddocks fronting the Goulburn River, natural conditions for bloodstock. Comedy King continued as a great success at stud and was twice the leading stallion in Australia. As we shall see in due course, also sold that day at the Shipley dispersal was a well-bred little fellow by Comedy King, who less than two years later would give the stallion his second A.J.C. Derby winner.
It was often said back in those days that the Derby was run too early in the season. I think the year 1917 offers some evidence to that effect for it was a season that included two wonderful Australian-bred stayers, neither of which contested the classic. I speak of Poitrel and Kennaquhair. Poitrel wasn’t prepared for the Derbies at all, which was probably just as well for Biplane, who wasn’t a genuine stayer. Poitrel was quite underdeveloped at the time of the Derby and was handicapped throughout his career by rather shelly feet. While he never did grow much in height, he did mature into quite a compact and strong horse. It wasn’t until the mid-summer meetings of 1917-18 that the colt struck form. Within the space of little more than a week, he won the Holiday Handicap, Summer Cup and Tattersall’s Cup at Randwick. Poitrel loomed as a likely Sydney Cup chance, but when his racing plates were removed after the win at the Tattersall’s Meeting, a considerable amount of hoof came with them. As a result, he missed the autumn of his three-year-old season entirely. In his absence and the absence of Biplane, Prince Viridis won the Flemington and Randwick St Legers. A thoroughly game colt but not quite first-class, Prince Viridis in winning those two St Legers enabled John Brown to match the achievements of his brother, William, who the year before had won both races with Thana and Colbert. Afterwards, Prince Viridis wasn’t good enough to get within gunshot of Poitrel, whose wins were to include a Melbourne Cup with ten stone.
Out in the same year, and at his best not that much inferior to Poitrel, was Kennaquhair. He won a maiden race at Rosehill in August early in his three-year-old season, but when Biplane and the other cracks were preparing for the Derby, he was busily engaged in taking a Menangle Park handicap.
Kennaquhair developed even later than Poitrel, about a month later to be precise, for in 1918 he won both the January and Anniversary handicaps at headquarters. But Kennaquhair proved to be at his very best as a four-year-old. He won The A.J.C. Metropolitan with 8 st. 4 lb and then after putting up a 10lb penalty, which took his weight to 9 stone, he was beaten only by Nightwatch (6 st. 9lb) in the Melbourne Cup. Later, of course, he went on to victory in that famous Sydney Cup of 1920 when the race was worth £5,000 and attracted a crowd of 85,000 to Randwick. Poitrel was topweight with 9 st 9lb and partnered by Ken Bracken, while Kennaquhair, piloted by Albert Wood, carried 4lb less. It was a thrilling contest run in record time in which Poitrel doggedly made his run from near the rear of the field to fail by just half-a-neck. Despite being out during the same season as Poitrel and Biplane, Kennaquhair managed to win ten races and share a dead-heat, earning over £17,000 in stakes.
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