Just before dawn on the last day of July 1923, the 5777-ton steamer Ulimaroa docked at No 3 Miller’s Point Wharf in Sydney. The vessel, regularly plying the trans-Tasman service, had shipped from Wellington and the cargo included four racehorses entered for the A.J.C. Spring Meeting. The horses in question were Urgency, a rising 5-year-old bay gelding by Clarenceaux together with his two-year younger half-sister, Zaragoza; and Murihaupo and Ballymena, two coming 3-year-old geldings each with entries for the A.J.C. Derby. Accompanying this contingent of horses to Sydney was their 38-year-old trainer, Fred Jones, and 20-year-old jockey, Maurice McCarten. Accommodation for the team was arranged at Chisholm and Company’s Randwick stables and in the chill early dawn, while the city slept, there seemed a hushed air of conspiracy as the horses walked from the ship onto the pier.
While the visit was McCarten’s first to the glorious harbour city, Jones had seen it all before. Indeed, the Randwick course itself was imbued with a poetic romanticism in the trainer’s mind. Back in 1905 as a young man with his way to make in the world – the same age as McCarten now was – Fred Jones had ridden the Taranaki galloper, Maniapoto, to win the A.J.C. Metropolitan Handicap with eight stone in the saddle. That was the year of blood and plunder when the Stead-Mason team had swept all before them at the A.J.C. Spring Meeting, including the Derby with Noctuiform. Jones’ team here and now was modest by comparison but he, too, harboured dreams of a blue riband.
Few New Zealand pressmen gave the Jones’ catalogue of horses much chance of recouping expenses on their Sydney adventure. Urgency, although the winner of the Birthday Handicap at the Dunedin Winter Meeting, was dismissed as a plodder; Zaragoza had only started once before and finished unplaced at the Ashburton County Autumn Meeting; and Murihaupo, dammed with faint praise although a good class two-year-old and the winner of the C.J.C. Middle Park Plate. Ballymena was considered a likely stayer but not as speedy as Murihaupo. A brown bay horse, he possessed good strong hocks and a relaxed disposition, qualities integral to a stayer. In six race starts as a juvenile – all over five furlongs – Ballymena had only managed to win once, and that the Nursery Handicap at the Avondale Spring Meeting when in the hands of Maurice McCarten. Still, he had run three useful placings, and both trainer and jockey were convinced the horse would be a different proposition over further ground.
What this Dominion team seemed to lack in horsepower, it more than made up for in manpower. Fred Jones was already emerging as one of New Zealand’s most promising trainers. As an apprentice jockey, he had served his time at Yaldhurst with the legendary trainer, Dick Mason, and was the second jockey to Tod Hewitt in that illustrious establishment. Jones first burst on the scene when he partnered with the champion three-year-old filly, Gladsome, to win five races during the mid-summer of 1904 including the Great Northern Derby, Auckland Plate, and the Wellington Cup. However, the New Zealand Racing Conference, amidst widespread disbelief, proceeded to strip the horse of all these victories due to Jones being deemed, through a technicality, an unlicensed apprentice. Despite this setback, Jones went on to win many prestigious events for Yaldhurst in the colours of G.G. Stead.
Possessed of that fugitive impulse towards adventure common to many young men, Jones went to England in 1906 with a £500 retainer to ride for the Wiltshire stables of Major Edwards, who had taken over the training of the 1905 A.J.C. Derby winner, Noctuiform. Jones only managed to win some nine races at lesser tracks such as Bath, Salisbury, Windsor and Gatwick, from around seventy mounts, but the experience was to prove invaluable in his future career both as jockey and trainer. Curiously, when Jones completed his turn with the Edwards’ stable, another Yaldhurst jockey succeeded him in the shape of ‘Tod’ Hewitt who accepted double the amount as a retainer. Jones travelled to Europe and America before his return to New Zealand. Despite his weight climbing to 8 st. 12lb on his peregrinations, he almost immediately returned to the saddle as the first horseman to the Hon. J. D. Ormond’s stable, then under the stewardship of Stewart Waddell. Over the next few seasons, Jones won some good races for the Karamu stud and stables including the 1907 Great Northern Derby on Zimmerman.
It was in May 1912 that Jones relinquished his position as the first jockey to the Ormond stable due to his struggle with the scales and the fewer opportunities coming his way. The move allowed him to freelance and accept the heavier rides on T. H. Lowry’s team of horses. It was thus that he linked up with the great Bobrikoff during that galloper’s 8-year-old season, which saw the pair successful in no fewer than six races including the 1912 Auckland Cup. Soon after, Jones began to transition towards a training career, and he maintained a dual licence when in December 1913 he accepted the position as private trainer to the 55-year-old sportsman, W. E. Bidwell.
Bidwell belonged to a pioneering family of the Wairarapa region and had served both on the committee of the Wellington Racing Club and the New Zealand Racing Conference. Jones’s tenure with Bidwell lasted for little more than a year, but it proved highly successful, winning stakes of almost £7,000 for his patron. Chief among his charges was Reputation, the best three-year-old of the year and winner of the Great Northern Derby, Canterbury Cup and G.G. Stead Memorial. Jones resigned his position in February 1915 and a few weeks later accepted the post of the trainer to the Canterbury sportsman and pastoralist, H. A. Knight, whose horses were trained out of stables formerly at Racecourse Hill but now at Riccarton. Knight didn’t own a big string of horses but he did maintain a select stud at Racecourse Hill and Ballymena, like most of the stable, was a home-bred.
Assured in his horsemanship and training technique – the habits of proper feeding and good grooming were a constant part of his training vocabulary – Jones had crossed the Tasman Sea with resolute faith, both in the horses that he was bringing, and the young man bidden to do his riding. Complete confidence subsisted between Jones and the 20-year-old McCarten. Theirs was a symbiotic relationship of the most profound significance. It was Goethe who observed: talent develops in tranquillity; character in the full current of human life. And McCarten had lived his twenty years in a very full current indeed. Born at Hawera, near Wellington, New Zealand, on September 17th, 1902, McCarten was the son of a drover cum horse-breaker who died when Maurice was quite young.
He and his elder brother, Owen, had been brought up by their single mother amidst hard times. Young Maurice delivered newspapers on his pony around the district to bring a few more pennies as a welcome supplement into the meagre household budget. From an early age, both brothers sought careers in the saddle. Owen McCarten became apprenticed to Oney Cox at Hawera and quickly outrode his allowance. Meanwhile, Maurice had been riding slow work at the local Hawera course from the age of nine where his precocious facility in the saddle and his tranquillity of touch had impressed among others, trainer Fred Tilley. Tilley trained out of a large establishment at Fordell, near Wanganui, and McCarten became indentured to him in August 1915 when he came of age and remained apprenticed there for three years. George Young, the regular rider of Gloaming during that horse’s last four seasons on the Turf and from that remarkable family of jockey brothers, was also apprenticed to Tilley at around the same time.
Tilley’s establishment was one of the most impressive in New Zealand at the time. The modern stable block was large and airy and situated in the most idyllic countryside, complemented by its very own private training ground of about a mile in circumference. The grass gallop offered an excellent surface for the thoroughbred. In January 1917 McCarten served notice of his talent when he rode his first winner at Tauherenikau, on the outskirts of Wellington, on Merrie Gain. Towards the end of that year, the new wunderkind was then unlucky to be beaten into second placing on Johnny Walker in the New Zealand Cup, albeit by a horse owned in the same interests as his own mount. Fred Tilley had already been responsible for developing some brilliant apprentices including Charlie Price and Bill, Bob, and Harold Young, and young McCarten bade fair to be the latest.
In April 1919 McCarten won the Feilding Cup on Paraoa and in January 1920 the Marton Cup onboard his master’s Oratress, good races for a 17-year-old boy to be winning. McCarten’s apprenticeship coincided with a period when Fred Tilley had some high-class horses in his Fordell stables and high-class owners such as William and Thomas Duncan, who were only too happy to give the boy his chance. McCarten won the 1920 New Zealand Oaks on Isabel for Thomas Duncan and a couple of seasons later rode an even better filly for the owner and the stable in Enthusiasm. This daughter of Panmure won among other races the 1922 New Zealand Derby and shared the honours in the New Zealand Oaks as well as taking out the Great Northern Derby and Oaks. The brilliant Tamatete and Tahua were other gallopers raced by the Duncan family on whom McCarten won major races during the early 1920s. In 1922 he partnered with Scion to victory in the Auckland Cup for Eric Riddiford.
Still, as good a stable as Tilley possessed, his numbers weren’t enough on their own to propel McCarten to a jockeys’ premiership. That came as early as the 1922-23 racing season when Fred Jones began to entice McCarten to ride his horses as well. Jones knew a jockey when he saw one. And in this young man from Hawera, he saw the real thing. Able to go to scale at 8st 1lb, McCarten won the New Zealand Premiership for the first time with 52 winners, seven clear of his nearest rival, Charlie Emerson. Considering the jockeys that were plying their trade in the Dominion during that period – including the Reed brothers and Hector Gray – it was no mean achievement. Indeed, McCarten almost helped Jones win the Trainers’ Premiership that same year, too, the Riccarton horseman falling just a couple short with his 22 ½ winners.
Now as McCarten paused on the threshold of achievement in the late winter of 1923, surveying the Randwick course through the early morning mist after riding his first session of trackwork there, no one could have predicted the circumstances that would transform him into greatness. Circumstances that would see Australia become his adopted homeland and Randwick racecourse his very own domain for the better part of 30 years, firstly as the premier jockey and later as the premier trainer. Trusting that the inclement elements would conspire in his favour, Jones chose the meeting at Canterbury Park on August 18 for the Australian debut of three of his charges viz. Zaragoza, Urgency and Ballymena. The horses had done plenty of work before leaving the Dominion. The secretive and suspicious Jones, always one to keep his own counsel, saw the chance for a sting.
It was actually a Rosehill Race Club fixture but a fire in March that year had effectively destroyed that club’s paddock grandstand, causing some £10,000 worth of damage and their slate of meetings to be transferred to other courses. Overnight rain had considerably softened the Canterbury course and thus, on a surface very much to their liking, all three of the Jones’ team – supported with Riccarton money in the acquisitive scramble of the betting ring – were successful. Zaragoza won the maiden, Urgency led all the way in the handicap, and Ballymena so dominated the second division of the high-weight that he left the field considerably over the last furlong. Not bad for an opening salvo! Carpe diem had always been the Jones’ philosophy and he’d certainly seized it that day! Fellow trainers and jockeys alike recognised that in Jones and McCarten, two great practitioners had arrived in their midst.
However, before the assembled pressmen Jones said little and McCarten less. Jones was a character who rationed his emotions carefully in public, but there had been a moment when Ballymena reached the winning post when he had permitted himself the faintest of smiles, the type that shows a man imagines something. For the trainer now knew as he had not quite known before, that, while Zaragoza and Urgency could gallop, in Ballymena – this gelding whose frame was marked by strength rather than grace – he had a genuine Derby horse. Although the starting prices were tight, the expense of bringing the team across the Tasman had been more than recouped, and some of the profit had even been parlayed into Ballymena for the Derby in pre-post betting. In a prescient piece of journalism, the respected sportswriter Bert Wolfe had written on that day: “Ballymena can be improved, and it would not be surprising if he turned out to be the mainstay of the team during the spring meetings. I heard that an effort was made to back him for a large sum for the A.J.C. Derby, but while the price was satisfactory, the amount was not”.
How, then, to have Ballymena carrying the full stable commission in the classic? Answer: extend the price! And that’s what happened. Ballymena next carried silk at the Tattersall’s Club meeting on September 1 when he ran a close third over a mile in a three-year-old handicap won by Shrapnel, although Ballymena was giving the winner a stone in weight. A week later the gelding went over the Randwick mile again when he was quietly ridden and finished unplaced in a welter won by another Derby candidate from New Zealand in Tarleton. If this performance wasn’t enough to cruel Ballymena’s Derby prospects in betting markets then his final run before the Derby in the Hawkesbury Spring Handicap (11f), conducted that year at Moorefield, certainly was.
Handicapped with a mere 7 st. 2lb, after claiming the full 7lb allowance of Sid Gore’s apprentice, Frank Bastable, and starting a 9/2 favourite in a wide betting race although, without stable support, Ballymena was beaten a length by the 12/1 outsider Polycletan, a four-year-old gelding trained by Dan Lewis. Polycletan had made all the pace with Ballymena at his quarters, but the latter had faded over the last furlong. Despite conceding the winner a year in age and 6lb in weight, Ballymena’s performance hardly seemed to justify a start over the Derby distance. However, there were two things about the Moorefield race that the public didn’t know. The first was that Fred Jones had gone easy on Ballymena since his Randwick failure a fortnight before and the gelding needed the hit-out. Accordingly, Bastable had been instructed to ride him on the speed. And the second was that Polycletan could gallop, something he would prove the following season when he won the A.J.C. Metropolitan with 7st. 5lb!
The 1923 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions appear in the table below:
Spring came to Randwick in a great rush that year. On good ground, under glorious sunshine and before a crowd officially estimated at 80,000, eleven horses confronted Mr Mackellar for the start of the A.J.C. Derby. The race had £8,000 in added prize money, an increase of £1,000 over the previous year, together with sweepstakes of £30 for starters with Lady Valais the only filly among them. In a wide betting market, the favourite for the race was Rahiri, a well-developed rich, bay son of the recently deceased stallion, Tressady, bred by the Thompson Bros. at Oakleigh Stud. Trained at Randwick by Fred Williams for 78-year-old, William Davis, the long-serving secretary of the Canterbury Park Racing Club, who raced his horses under the nom de course of Norman Hastings, Rahiri had cost 775 guineas as a yearling. In his first season out the horse had more than recouped his cost by winning three races including the Grantham Stakes, and running minor placings in both the Sires’ Produce and Champagne Stakes. Since resuming, Rahiri had carried 9 st. 12lb to victory in a mile handicap at Randwick, and finished a good third behind The Hawk and Beauford in the Hill Stakes.
The second elect for the Derby was All Sunshine, a son of All Black from the imported Irish mare, Cranbrook. Eric Connolly not only owned and trained All Sunshine but had bred the colt as well, having bought Cranbrook for 875 guineas at William Yuille’s Newmarket sales after she had landed in Australia. All Sunshine had broken through when he upset the odds about the more fancied candidates in the Rosehill Guineas. Next in the betting came the stylish New Zealand gelding, Tarleton, a full brother to the Great Northern St Leger winner, Royal Box. Owned by Gerald Stead and trained by George Jones, the horse had been brought over here in the autumn but due to an attack of influenza returned across the Tasman without racing. The winner of four races from eight starts and £960 in his first season, Tarleton had impressed in September when he won a mile welter at Randwick carrying nine stone.
Leonardo went to the post as an 8/1 chance in the Derby. A late-September foal and a home-bred son of the 1913 A.J.C. Derby winner, Beragoon, the colt had been offered at the 1922 Easter Yearling Sales by his breeders Joe and Cecil Brien of the Kingsfield Stud but was passed in at 300 guineas. A winner of the Q.T.C. Hopeful Stakes in November, Leonardo was partnered in the Derby by Jim Pike, who had scored on the colt’s sire ten years before. What wasn’t known then was that Leonardo had been pricked in the hoof when being shod for the Derby and just eleven days later was to succumb to blood poisoning in a sad postscript to the classic. Shrapnel was a colt fancied by many breeding buffs to take the Derby. By a son of Spearmint and out of Artilleryman’s sister, Folly Queen, he had proved the best of Frank Marsden’s prospective Derby colts.
The best juveniles of the previous season were engaged in the shape of King Carnival and The Monk, the former the winner of the V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes and the latter, its A.J.C. equivalent. However, neither colt had seemed to progress sufficiently since winter to suggest any threat to the more fancied candidates. King Carnival sported the colours of L.K.S. Mackinnon and, bred by J. V. Smith, had cost 650 guineas as a yearling. His dam, Orvietto, by Wallace, had won several races and was placed second in the V.R.C. Oaks. Trained by Bert Foulsham at Mordialloc, King Carnival had been a brilliant early two-year-old winning both the A.J.C. Breeders’ Plate and the V.A.T.C. Debutant Stakes, but many doubted the colt had the requisite stamina for the Derby trip. Similar doubts surrounded The Monk, a 1200 guineas yearling purchased by George Tye at the Wellington, N.Z. sales, particularly given that his sire was Absurd. Not only was The Monk by Absurd but he was out of a mare called Cowl, which made him a particularly well-named colt. Apart from the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Randwick, he had also won the Ascot Vale Stakes at Flemington. In truth, it was the poor showing of both colts in the Rosehill Guineas that rendered dubious their Derby pretensions.
Ballymena’s journey at Hawkesbury the week before had estranged many of his former admirers and he was the least fancied of all the Derby runners. While 33/1 had been freely available in early course betting, Fred Jones and his confreres had helped themselves and the gelding went to the post as a 25/1 chance. Now the only advantage to riding the rank outsider in any race is that nobody expects you to win it. Ballymena had drawn the No.10 marble in the field of eleven although McCarten was able to hurry the gelding irresistibly forward into the third position when King Carnival was rushed to the front. Cairns kept King Carnival going, and when the field reached the milepost, the son of Comedy King was well clear of Ballymena, Black Scot, All Sunshine, Royal Roué and Rahiri.
At the half-mile Ballymena was travelling so well that McCarten had convinced himself that victory was assured, although rounding the turn the gelding lost ground as a result of two or three other riders making a dash. However, Ballymena stuck gamely to King Carnival and under vigorous riding from Cairns, the Victorian colt held his supremacy to the distance where Ballymena caught and passed him. Although the New Zealand gelding began to shift out through tiredness, there was a spirited ferocity in his fight over that last furlong and on the line, he had a half-length to spare over Shrapnel with the pacemaker, King Carnival, lasting to run third, a head away. Lady Valais was officially placed fourth, just ahead of All Sunshine and Tarleton. The time of 2 minutes 33 ½ seconds, equalled Gloaming’s time in 1918 and had only twice been bettered in the race – a tribute to King Carnival’s bold front-running. It was also an eloquent tribute to Ballymena’s staying abilities, having been so near the pace at the very start.
Ballymena’s victory was a triumph for his owner and breeder, Henry Arthur Knight. A prominent figure in the Canterbury district of New Zealand, Knight was chairman of the Canterbury Agricultural College and the New Zealand Refrigerating Company among other roles; and maintained a sprawling pastoral property at Racecourse Hill, where he bred English Leicester and Southdown sheep. Educated at Christ’s College and the Canterbury Agricultural College, and the first student enrolled there, he had taken over the property at Racecourse Hill in 1885 at the age of just twenty-five. A fastidious man of refined manners and a non-bettor, he prided himself on not spending more than £1,000 a year on his racing interests. And yet for such modest outlays Knight was to enjoy remarkable success on the Turf.
Knight began to indulge his interest in racing in the late 1890s although his first important winner did not arrive until Mercy won the New Zealand Oaks in 1907. Other useful horses to carry his colours before Ballymena included Neroli (1894 D.J.C. Champagne Stakes); Lapland (from Neroli) and Tikitere, winners respectively of the 1908 and 1909 Timaru Cups. Knight never stood a home stallion on Racecourse Hill but instead preferred to send his mares to the best sires on offer at other studs. Knight was active on the Turf in administration as well, being a steward of the Canterbury Jockey club and the long-term president of the Hororata Racing Club. That genial little Irishman, Dan Roberts, who, like Jones, had mastered his craft at Yaldhurst, trained all of Knight’s early winners but ill health compelled him to retire in the autumn of 1915. Medley, the dam of Ballymena, was the very last horse that Roberts handed over to Fred Jones who succeeded him; and he did so after she had won a double for him at the South Canterbury Jockey Club’s Autumn Meeting in April of that year.
Despite their age difference, Roberts and Jones were good friends dating back to their Yaldhurst days, and when the Riccarton Trainers’ Association organised a smoke concert at the Racecourse Hotel on May 4, 1915, to mark Roberts’ retirement, Jones was happily in attendance. As the toasts were proposed on that convivial smoke-filled evening to both the outgoing and incoming trainers, nobody could have guessed the dramatic change in racing fortunes the stable would enjoy as a result of the mare that had given Roberts such an honourable end to his training career. In a fitting symmetry of circumstances, not only did Medley give Dan Roberts his last win as a trainer but she also gave Jones his first for his new patron, when she dead-heated for the Wakanui Handicap at the Ashburton County Race Club’s Autumn Meeting a couple of weeks later. It was an exciting portent of the significance the mare would come to play in Jones’s life, although not especially on the racecourse herself. Prior to Ballymena’s Derby, the most important race that Jones had won for Knight had been the 1921 Auckland Cup with Malaga.
Victory in the blue riband inevitably focussed attention on the pedigree of Ballymena. Nassau, his sire, was foaled in England in 1910 and was the winner of 6 races from 25 starts and some £3,700 on prizemoney. Unraced at two, Nassau’s best wins came in the Newmarket Biennial Stakes (1m) and the Duke of York Stakes (10f) at Kempton Park, although he won a couple of good class handicaps at Haydock Park as well. Nassau, a bright bay of excellent proportions, was a son of William the Third, winner of the 1902 Ascot Gold Cup (20f) and the Doncaster Cup (16f), and thereby a grandson of the legendary St Simon. Stolen Love, the dam of Nassau, was the daughter of Buccaneer, winner of the 1892 Ascot Gold Cup. When Nassau arrived in the Dominion on board the Remuera in June 1915, having been purchased for 2000 guineas on behalf of Gerald Stead to stand at his Brackenfield Stud, he was reputedly the most expensive thoroughbred ever imported into the country up to that time. He was one of the two sons of William the Third to enjoy success at stud in New Zealand. The other was Winkie, who most famously features in the pedigree of Phar Lap as his maternal grandsire.
Success was assured when Starland (1920 A.R.C. Auckland Cup) and the cracking Surveyor (1918 A.R.C. Great Northern Foal Stakes; 1923 W.R.C. Champion Plate; 1925 W.R.C. Wellington Cup etc.) came along in his very first crop. Other good gallopers sired by Nassau included Royal Box (1922 A.R.C. Great Northern St Leger) and Historic (1929 Av.J.C. Avondale Cup; 1929 C.J.C. Winter Cup etc.). Nassau was sold out of Brackenfield Park in April 1920 for 2100 guineas when Gerald Stead’s stud was dispersed. It was in September 1923, only weeks before Ballymena won the Derby, that Percy Miller announced he had purchased Nassau for an undisclosed sum to stand at his Kia-Ora Stud at the beginning of the 1924 breeding season. Alas, he was to prove a disappointment at Kia-Ora, although old Percy, hosting him at a fee of 100 guineas, profited from the deal as he generally did with all his stallions. Indeed, the only winner of a principal race that Nassau sired after relocating to Australia was Salazar, the 1939 Newcastle Cup winner. Never placed in the top three on the winning sires’ lists in New Zealand, Nassau was to finish tenth in the overall composite N.Z. winning sires’ list of of the 1920’s with his progeny winning £154,572 during the decade.
Medley, the dam of Ballymena, foaled in 1911, was a member of the remarkable Mermaid family. Given the significance of the extended family to Australasian racing in general and the A.J.C. Derby in particular, the details of Mermaid’s voyage to New Zealand and her change of ownership while onboard bear repeating. It was on New Year’s Day 1862 that a shipment of English thoroughbreds was loaded onto the vessel Kensington bound for New Zealand. The team was being imported by the Hon. Lancelot Walker of Four Peaks Station in Canterbury, and was in charge of an Englishman named William Webb. Amongst their numbers were both Mermaid and the future champion stallion Traducer. It proved to be a long and arduous voyage during which the horses became so enfeebled that it was contemplated casting them overboard. Indeed, Walker despaired of ever landing them and sold out to a fellow passenger from Canterbury, a certain Mr Innes of Harris and Innes, while the Kensington was being tossed about on the high seas.
The ship finally docked on June 21 after a trip lasting almost six months. As a result of his precipitative action, the Hon. Lancelot Walker subsequently missed out on the reflected glory of Mermaid and Traducer and their progeny’s subsequent racecourse achievements. Mermaid went on to produce four individual stakes winners of sixteen stakes races including the champions Lurline and Le Loup. However, her significance to us comes from her first foal, Waterwitch, a filly to the Australian-bred stallion Camden, himself a son of the wonderful Cassandra, whom we met in our 1861 chapter. After Waterwitch was mated in the spring of 1873 with Traducer, her mother’s companion on the long voyage out from England, she dropped Watersprite. And Medley, the dam of Ballymena, was a lineal descendant of her. The sire of Medley was the Marco stallion, Varco who had been imported by the South Island breeder, Mr J. B. Reid of the Burnside Stud, Oamaru in 1909. Medley only ever won 4 races from her 27 starts and none beyond seven furlongs. Moreover, in physique, she was a mare of very ordinary appearance and yet after she went to the stud in 1916 of her six foals, five raced and all five were winners.
Henry Knight had not only bred Medley but her dam as well. Medley’s first issue was a filly foal to Kilbroney dropped in 1917 that remained unregistered. Humboldt, by Sunny Lake, was the next to come along and he won twice in good company, including the Rimutaka Handicap at the Wellington Racing Club’s 1921 Spring Meeting. Ballymena was Medley’s third foal and the fourth to come along was another minor winner in Roscrea, by Rossendale. As good as Ballymena was, however, it was Medley’s fifth foal resulting from her first mating with Limond and dropped within weeks of his half-brother’s A.J.C. Derby triumph, who would prove to be the best of the lot on the racecourse. I won’t name him here but his story will also be chronicled in these pages in due course. Medley died in October 1927, after throwing another colt to the stallion, Limond. Subsequently reared by hand and registered as Dunraven, he too, won races.
The news of Ballymena’s Derby triumph was met with genuine surprise in New Zealand and the general assumption was that it was a poor year for three-year-olds. As mentioned earlier, prior to coming to Australia Ballymena had started six times as a juvenile for just one victory. Interestingly enough for a Derby winner, the gelding made his racecourse debut very early in the season. It came in the Wanganui Jockey Club’s Debutante Stakes when in a field of nine and ridden by Larry Wiggins, he finished third behind those two brilliant fillies, Queen March and Orofino, who each went on to become distinguished broodmares. A week later, Ballymena again took the minor placing in the Avondale Stakes on the first day of the Avondale Spring Meeting. On the second day, Ballymena was the public elect in the Nursery Handicap and he came with a strong run to beat Homage and Queen March, two names that resonate in the New Zealand Stud Book. As good a broodmare as Queen March proved to be, Homage proved even better as we shall observe in the pages of this chronicle.
Ballymena was then taken to Dunedin for the McLean Stakes and while he was easily beaten by the Autumnus filly, Top Score, a full sister to the champion colt Winning Hit, Ballymena just as easily beat his other five opponents. Ballymena then failed to gain a placing in his final two starts for the season viz. W.R.C. Wellesley Stakes and the C.J.C. Irwell Handicap. Now, this might have seemed somewhat thin form to justify a trip across the Tasman but Fred Jones had his suspicions based on what he’d seen at home and he now had the cash to confirm that those suspicions were correct.
Several excuses are always less convincing than one. Accordingly, the frustrated Australian turf scribes, whose own tips for the A.J.C. Derby had proved disappointing, simply wrote off the result as a case of an ordinary winner in an ordinary year for three-year-olds. And in truth, apart from the winner, the other starters in that A.J.C. Derby did turn out to be rather ordinary as we shall see. However, as we shall also see, Ballymena was to be something else. The gelding wasn’t entered for the Victoria Derby or the Melbourne Cup as it had always been Henry Knight’s intention to return to his homeland for the spring meeting of his beloved Canterbury Jockey Club.
Proof of the paucity of Australia’s staying three-year-olds came with the blue riband at Flemington, which was won by a filly for the second time in three years. The femme fatale in question was Frances Tressady, a bay daughter of Tressady out of the Grafton mare, Thorina. Offered at the 1922 Sydney yearling sales, she appeared in the catalogue as the property of the Thompson Bros. but was really bred by Mrs P. L. Sykes of Scone, who was a sister of Herbert and Cyril. A rather cheap purchase at 230 guineas, Frances Tressady raced in the ‘white, orange band and cap’ of Alex G. Barlow, the head of one of the biggest motor firms in Melbourne, who cloaked his racecourse activities under the nom de course of ‘ Mr A. G. Vauxhall’ and was trained at Caulfield by the former top jockey, Billy Foulsham, who was only in his second season with a stopwatch. Frances Tressady, partnered by Frank Dempsey, later in the same week also won the V.R.C. Oaks as well as finishing a strong and unlucky fifth in the Melbourne Cup. None of the horses in the A.J.C. Derby contested the Cup that year.
Meanwhile, back in New Zealand, on the day before the Melbourne Cup, Ballymena stepped out for the C.J.C. New Zealand Derby. Alas, his preparation hadn’t been ideal. The gelding had stumbled when being unloaded from the boat returning from Australia, which caused some soreness and delayed his first track gallop. Then it emerged that Ballymena was striking his hocks when working on the left-handed Riccarton course, something that had not troubled him on the right-handed Sydney courses. Kicked by another runner at the start in the New Zealand Derby, Ballymena went to the front soon after but the bay tired, to finish a disappointing fourth. However, the gallop brought him on wonderfully. Just two days later, Ballymena led all the way over the 18 furlongs of the C.J.C. Canterbury Cup to win hard held. Next came the Auckland Cup over 2 miles on Boxing Day but like so many immature three-year-olds before him, he found the task too great and weakened out of a place. Back to his own age group in the A.R.C. Great Northern Derby on New Year’s Day, Ballymena won easily from the brilliant filly Razzle Dazzle and Tarleton.
That completed the gelding’s summer campaign and he was off the scene for the best part of three months. Ballymena’s next racecourse appearance came in late March when, considerably underdone, he was beaten less than a length into the minor placing for the Waimate Cup (10f). Returned to race fitness, Ballymena then reeled off five slashing victories in a burst of protean energy to complete his three-year-old season! Those victories came in the New Zealand and Great Northern St. Legers; and the Trentham, Awapuni and Ormond Gold Cups with Maurice McCarten in the saddle each time. From fifteen starts as a three-year-old, Ballymena had won nine races.
Even leaving aside the value of his two victories in Australia, he was the season’s leading stakes earner in New Zealand. But including the prizemoney from his wins in the Highweight at Canterbury and the Derby at Randwick, almost doubled those stakes earnings. It was a remarkable transformation in a galloper and while some of his opposition might not have been strong, the minor placegetters that finished in Ballymena’s wake in the Trentham and Awapuni Gold Cups included Rapine, Pilliewinkie and Winning Hit. While the string of victories might have served to confirm the sublimity of the gelding in New Zealand, it raised official eyebrows in Sydney. How was it that a three-year-old capable of achieving so much could go to the post for the A.J.C. Derby at 25/1 after as much as 33/1 had been snapped up in the betting ring?
New Zealand sportsmen began to ask the obvious question. Just how good was Ballymena? One measuring stick came through the form of another bay gelding, the year-older Rapine, who was just then on the threshold of being hailed one of the best stayers ever bred in the Dominion. Yet in the two-mile Trentham Gold Cup at weight-for-age, Ballymena had led all the way to beat him by four lengths, with a further ten lengths to the only other runner in the race, Muraahi, who had shared victory in the Auckland Cup. Immediately after that defeat, Rapine had crossed the Tasman to score three devastating weight-for-age victories at the Randwick Autumn Meeting in the Autumn Stakes, Cumberland Stakes and A.J.C. Plate.
Ballymena might have been absent but that proved a fascinating week at Randwick with some great racehorses in action. Even setting apart Rapine, it was a meeting that saw Whittier establish a new Australasian record for the mile in the Doncaster; Lady Valais set a new Randwick record for 14 furlongs in the A.J.C. St. Leger; and Heroic stamp a race record in the Champagne Stakes. It was also a meeting that almost saw the leading Rosehill trainer William Booth win the Doncaster Handicap and Sydney Cup double in successive years. In 1923 Booth had successfully done the double with The Epicure and David. In 1924 Booth saw his Trimacre go under by a mere half-neck to Whittier in the Doncaster, before saddling-up Scarlet (33/1) who came with a late run in the straight to beat Ned Moss’s Stony and win the Sydney Cup for the well-known pastoralist John Winter Irving two days later.
After a brief winter spell, Fred Jones and Ballymena returned to Sydney on the first day of July 1924, again aboard the Ulimaroa, a full month earlier than their corresponding trip on the same ship the year before. Although Ballymena was engaged in the rich weight-for-age events at the A.J.C. Spring Meeting, his real mission was the Melbourne Cup. The horse had filled out considerably since his previous appearance in Sydney. Accompanying the classic winner were his stablemates, Glentruin, a smart sprinting mare, and Royal Despatch among others. Again, the horses were stabled in Chisholm’s establishment at Randwick. McCarten delayed his arrival in Sydney by a few weeks in a bid to win a second successive N.Z. Jockeys’ Premiership but in the event, he could only dead-heat with Charlie Emerson with 47 winners each. While there was a certain superficial symmetry in the circumstances of this trip with the last, rather than triumph this was to end in tragedy. Indeed, rarely have the vicissitudes of the Turf been more starkly illustrated than in the successive Sydney spring campaigns of Ballymena and his principals.
The horse that was to cause all the problems, Royal Despatch, made his Australian debut in a second division of the maiden handicap at Moorefield on July 19 with Teddy Lowe in the saddle, given McCarten’s absence. Rushed by the public when the betting opened – at one point he was backed into 6/4 before easing to start at 4/1. The gelding dropped out at the top of the hill and was well beaten at the distance. Stewards opened an inquiry into the performance on the racecourse itself and continued at the A.J.C. offices the following Monday but ultimately exonerated connections. If the Jones’ juggernaut of success shuddered on the occasion of Royal Despatch’s first start in Australia, it absolutely stalled on the occasion of his second at Canterbury Park on August 9. And this time, in the first division of the maiden handicap, McCarten was back in the saddle and to be held hostage to fortune. Well in the market, although easing again after opening as the favourite, Royal Despatch was one of the first away but soon dropped back and never afterwards appeared to have a possible chance. Stewards immediately launched another inquiry into the horse on the course, which was resumed the following Monday at the A.J.C. offices.
This time Fred Jones and Maurice McCarten were found guilty of improper practices and each was disqualified for twelve months. The stewards also called on Henry Knight to show cause why Royal Despatch should not be disqualified as well. Knight himself was not implicated and was in New Zealand at the time. The stewards’ decision triggered a huge controversy on both sides of the Tasman, particularly given that Jones was training for some of the most distinguished sportsmen in New Zealand. Henry Knight notwithstanding, Jones also trained for those other Canterbury identities, J. F. Buchanan and G. D. Starky, both members of the committee of the Canterbury Jockey Club. Jones and McCarten both appealed hoping that their appeals could be delayed until September when Henry Knight himself would be present at the hearings. In the end, the A.J.C. committee didn’t wait for Knight and on August 28 unequivocally announced their dismissals. While Royal Despatch was initially put out by stewards for 12 months, Knight’s later appeal against this finding was subsequently upheld.
In the last week of August Jones’s entire team was transferred to the Cowper St stables of fellow Kiwi trainer, George Price. On September 8, Knight finally arrived in Australia but there was nothing to be done to change the A.J.C.’s decision. In the wake of the committee’s findings, Knight, perhaps as much from wounded vanity as collegial loyalty, initially declared his intention to ship Ballymena and his other horses back to New Zealand. However, he was prevailed upon by Jones and McCarten, much to their later regret, to give the Derby winner his chance at the Sydney spring meetings. Accordingly, Ballymena made his seasonal reappearance in the Chelmsford Stakes at the Tattersall’s Club meeting at Randwick on September 13 and was just beaten for the minor placing, having made much of the pace in the race won by Heroic in Australasian record time.
A week later Ballymena equalled the course record to beat Gloaming and The Hawk and win the Hill Stakes. In doing so, Ballymena was one of only two horses to beat Gloaming in his last, and arguably, greatest season on the Turf. Heroic was the other. This was no small feat, particularly when one considers that he was then being trained by a man who really didn’t know the horse. Despite being the great trainer that he was, even George Price agreed that it took at least one preparation to fully understand a thoroughbred. Henry Knight remained in Sydney to witness Ballymena run second and third respectively behind Gloaming in the Spring Stakes and the Craven Plate at weight-for-age; he then left on board the Tahiti to return to New Zealand on Thursday prior to what was to prove Ballymena’s final start.
It came the following Saturday in the more suitable two-mile A.J.C. Randwick Plate (w-f-a) on the last day of the meeting. Despatched the 4/6 favourite in a four-horse field where his only serious rival was David, Ballymena skipped to the front with less than six furlongs to travel. Coming down the High St side of the course no one in the large crowd could have guessed that even then Ballymena was dancing on the edge of oblivion. Just before the three, when a length-and-a-half clear of David and being hailed the winner, the son of Nassau suddenly staggered, blundering along a few yards more before stopping entirely. Con Reed hurriedly dismounted to be confronted by a horse with a fractured near fore fetlock, the bone coming right through and Ballymena’s hoof hanging by the skin.
The depressing spectacle soon muted the crowd’s roar into silence. A bullet quickly ended the Derby winner’s life. At the time, Ballymena was on the verge of becoming one of the greatest stayers ever foaled in New Zealand. One can only imagine Knight’s reaction when the wireless news ricocheted back to New Zealand. Only weeks before he had rejected an offer of 5000 guineas for the gelding; only days before, as a result of the Royal Despatch controversy, he had intended to return the horse to Racecourse Hill without so much as another Australian start. Such, then, is the capriciousness of fate. Triumph in the spring of 1923; Disaster in the spring of 1924. Whether Knight, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, could treat those two impostors just the same seemed a moot point at the time.
Ballymena’s full racing statistics were 26 starts for 11 wins, 3, seconds and 5 thirds and around £12,310 in stakes. In a statement hard to prove but impossible to refute, McCarten at the very end of his distinguished riding and training career on the Turf would claim that Ballymena was the greatest stayer with which he was ever associated. The chances of any owner, let alone one aged sixty-four and in deteriorating health, getting another galloper even better than Ballymena, must have seemed a remote prospect when news of the latter’s death crackled over the wireless at Racecourse Hill on that cool October evening in 1924.
However, unbeknownst to Knight or anyone else at the time, down in the stud paddocks, there was a little brown colt by Limond, a year old, who was to prove just that. He was Medley’s fifth foal that she had dropped the previous spring. Despite dubious hocks and shelly feet, Knight held great hopes for the youngster and in keeping with the Irish tradition of nomenclature – Ballymena is a town in County Antrim – he decided to register his younger half-brother as Limerick. And this gallant son of Limond would be awaiting both Fred Jones and Maurice McCarten to resuscitate their reputations after the two men had served out their full A.J.C. disqualifications. In life, the luck of having talent isn’t enough; one must also have a talent for luck. And the coming of Limerick proved that Messrs Jones and McCarten had just that in full measure. However, for the story of Ballymena’s younger half-brother, the reader must wait for the 1926 chapter.