Ammon Ra, our Derby hero of 1931, provides us with yet another example of a bargain offered at those early New Zealand National Yearling Sales only to be scorned by potential buyers. The Trentham Sales were inaugurated as late as 1927 and that year Concentrate, bought for 800 guineas, proved the bargain. The second coming in 1928 produced the immortal Phar Lap. 1930 was to be the turn of Ammon Ra. A dark bay with black points and of a compact, sturdy build, Ammon Ra was a son of the outstanding English stallion, Limond, and was out of a mare that had already thrown two good stakes winners in Phaola and Prodice, full sisters by Catmint. However, the buyers at Trentham allowed themselves to be bluffed by an unsightly twist in this yearling’s near forefoot. As the great Banjo Patterson, who was writing for the Sydney Mail at the time, observed, it was mere bandiness. To quote Banjo: “When Booth was training Chatter and a stableful of horses mostly by Linacre, he wouldn’t have a Linacre with straight legs. He reckoned there must be something wrong with them. Bandiness is, therefore, no bar to greatness.”
Whatever the nature of this colt’s physical blemish, which seemed more apparent than real to his breeder, Dr Edwin Milsom, the good doctor justifiably expected more than the 450 guineas bid, and he resolved to keep and race the temperamental youngster himself. Fifty-one-year-old Milsom was a prominent figure in Auckland. Having qualified as a surgeon at Guy’s Hospital, London University, he was to serve as the honorary surgeon at Auckland Hospital for 19 years, while during the 1914-18 Great War he had held a similar post with the Auckland Military Annexe. A hobby breeder interested in all kinds of sports, Milsom’s acquisition of the broodmare, Hyades, is yet another fascinating example of the romance of the Turf. Hyades had been bred by the late Hon. J. D. Ormond in 1916, and she was by Hymettus from Straga, whose two previous foals were the good gallopers, Hymestra and Torfreda. Following Ormond’s death, Hyades was put up for sale as a yearling at the dispersal of the Karamu Stud in January 1918. ‘Ngokanui’ McDonald, a Masterton squatter who retained the 38-year-old Jack Jamieson as his private trainer, purchased her for 400 guineas – the top-priced yearling of the sales. Hyades only raced as a juvenile, when she visited the racecourse three times for two minor placings.
Hyades, having retired as a young broodmare, it was McDonald’s good friend, Dr Milsom, who recommended mating her with the imported English stallion, Catmint, winner of the 1913 Goodwood Cup. Rather generously, McDonald made a gift of Hyades to Dr Milsom for that very purpose, on condition that he received the first foal. The result of that first mating with Catmint was Phaola, winner of the prestigious 1925 Avondale Stakes. In the next two successive seasons after throwing Phaola, Hyades produced another two fillies to Catmint in Cione and Prodice. If Cione proved ordinary, Prodice was anything but, winning among other good races, the A.R.C. Great Northern Oaks and later the Avondale Cup. It was when Prodice started to make good that Dr Milsom promised ‘Ngokanui’ McDonald Hyades’ next foal, a filly named Seven Stars that McDonald subsequently sold for a good price to race in Australia. Having discharged any notional obligation to McDonald in this way, Milsom henceforth resolved to race Hyades’s subsequent progeny himself. And it was her very next foal – the Limond yearling offered at those 1930 Trentham Sales that was to prove the jackpot of them all, although, as we shall see, Milsom wasn’t to enjoy all of the largesse.
Jack Jamieson, Edwin Milsom’s choice of trainer, first began preparing horses at Awapuni, near Palmerston North and was a contemporary of George Price, Tommy George and Harry Telford. Awapuni is located in the Manawatu region, which was the heart of the New Zealand flax-milling industry at the turn of the nineteenth century and Jamieson’s fearless character was hardened and honed in the tough gambling that went on in those flax camps where he worked as a young man. Flax had long played an important part in the economic history of New Zealand, for inside those long green leaves of the plant was a robust white fibre used in the manufacture of cordage and textiles. Cutting the green leaves by hand in the flax swamps of the Manawatu region was back-breaking work, and the men earned their money the hard way, tying the cut leaves in bundles and carting them to the flax-mills. Gambling became a way of life for the men working in this fetid environment where only the determined and resourceful prospered. Jamieson was such a man. It was there he learned to say less than he meant or knew; to confide in few; to believe nobody, and to act a part while all the while imbued with an unshakeable faith in his own abilities. He learned much about horses and people, and even more about himself. It was to stand him in good stead in his chosen profession during the years ahead.
Jack Jamieson first registered his colours ‘black, white sash and cap’ in the 1909-10 racing season in New Zealand, and it just so happened that very same year he got hold of the first horse that brought him to the public’s notice. The horse in question was Aberbrothock, a four-year-old son of Papakura, owned by Mr D. Buick and at the 1909 New Zealand Cup meeting he won both the Metropolitan and Fendalton Handicaps ridden by the great Hector Gray. 1909 also corresponded with the year of Jamieson’s marriage to Bertha Barnes, the lady who was to play such an important role as a steadying influence in his future success. By the end of that first season, Jamieson just made it into the Winning Owners’ List with £200 in stakes won from his small team of horses.
In those early days, Jamieson derived much of his income, such as it was, from racing horses over the timbers and one of his good servants was the gelding Waipunehu, winner of a series of hurdle races at Hawkes Bay and Wellington. In 1911 Jamieson scored a major success in the Hawke’s Bay Steeplechase with Yasmak, a horse that raced in his wife’s ownership. However, it was not until his move to the Opaki racecourse in December 1914 when he took over the house and stables of M. T. McGrath and became associated as private trainer to ‘Ngokonui’ McDonald that Jamieson’s skill as a trainer became more widely acknowledged. Although restricted, racing did not cease at any stage in New Zealand during the First World War, despite various calls for it to do so and Jamieson was fortunate to miss involvement in it, being passed fit for active service as late as September 1918, just two months before hostilities ended.
Jamieson did well for McDonald during the War years, but it was just two months after War ended that he introduced Affectation to the racecourse, and it was this son of Kilbroney, with his wins in the A.R.C. Great Northern Champagne Stakes and the W.J.C. Wanganui Guineas, that saw Jamieson’s reputation flourish. McDonald was a man who would stop at nothing to buy any yearling of his choice, and with horses such as Affectation, Rose Wreath and Kildee, Jamieson showed his mettle. The break with McDonald came in 1924 when Jamieson moved north to take over stables at Glenora Park, Papakura. Racing and training stables there were about to enjoy a burst of development activity, particularly with the birth of the Takanini training centre in July 1926. The complex that Jamieson took over was one of the best in the Dominion and an acknowledgement of his rising status. For almost half a century the Glenora Park Stud at Papakura had been one of the leading studs in the Auckland district and had been the home of the five-time champion sire, Soult, in the first decade of the century.
Jamieson’s new home and stables were set in a grove of trees in the middle of a beautifully grassed, private training track, which was over a mile in circumference. Outside that inner course was a plough track with its harrowed surface that helped horses to avoid soreness during gallops. Perhaps the most significant attraction to Jamieson of Glenora Park was the privacy of the place, away from the prying eyes of the touts. Some questioned his judgement in leaving McDonald, but by now Jamieson was not only a wonderfully good judge of a horse, but he also had a thorough knowledge of handicapping and was prepared to bet quite fearlessly. These were qualities that quickly won a coterie of loyal and wealthy sporting patrons to his cause which soon included such men as Fred Earl, Ian Duncan, Jim and Spel Gleeson, Eliot Davis, Oliver Nicholson and Charles Macindoe. Jamieson made his first foray into the Sydney yearling sales in that very same year buying some well-bred yearlings and soon he had one of the biggest teams in work in New Zealand with as many as four apprentices indentured to him. The ‘Roaring Twenties’ was a period when anything seemed possible for Jack Jamieson and his extraordinary brand of horsemanship, and by the end of the 1925-26 racing season he was fourth on the list of winning trainers with twenty-five winners to his name, thanks to horses such as Eden Hall, Le Choucas and Nippy.
Jamieson, moreover, was a man who quickly grasped the art of the possible. By 1927, concrete roads had been laid down from his training quarters at Papakura to Takapuna, Ellerslie and Avondale and he resolved to bring the motor lorry into action, transporting his horses there on each race day morning. It wasn’t long before his fellow trainers were following his initiative. Trucks were one mode of transport and ships another. The man from Manawatu had long harboured an ambition to cross the Tasman with a team of horses to challenge for the rich prizes on Australian racecourses. In the winter of 1927, Jamieson made his first long-awaited raid on the Australian mainland, spearheading his team with the proven Le Choucas, a four-year-old Magpie gelding owned by Charles Macindoe.
The gelding had won the Winter Cup at the August meeting of the Canterbury Jockey Club the year before, and Jamieson believed the horse would be competitive in Australia. Alas, he failed to win in four starts here that season but did run seconds at both Moorefield and Rosehill when ridden by stable jockey Stan Bagby, a former Jamieson apprentice. As we have seen, Jamieson’s real breakthrough in Australian racing came with another of Charles Macindoe’s horses the following year in what was to prove, albeit belatedly, somewhat controversial circumstances. I refer, of course, to Prince Humphrey winning the A.J.C. Derby, in the gifted hands of Jim Munro.
The 1929-30 racing season in New Zealand was to see Jamieson enjoy a remarkable amount of success and he ended the year as the leading horseman in the land. The star of his team that season was Eaglet, a daughter of Chief Ruler owned by Fred Earl, and in the spring, she won the Wanganui, Avondale and Great Northern Guineas, to which she later added the New Zealand Oaks. Other good results that season included the Wanganui Cup and W.R.C. Wellington Handicap with In The Shade and the A.R.C. Queen’s Plate and the W.R.C. New Zealand St Leger with Vali. It was amid this classic largesse that Jamieson received into his stables the Limond-Hyades yearling to prepare on behalf of the breeder, Dr Edwin Milsom. His owner-breeder had registered the horse as Ammon Ra. The name derived from the Greek form of the Egyptian Sun God, one of the most important deities in the ancient Land of the Pharaohs who was the champion of the poor and central to personal piety. Neither Milsom nor Jamieson was unduly poor or pious, but from the moment this bandy-legged gelding first galloped at Papakura, it seemed he was heaven sent.
Jamieson’s juveniles might have been a tad disappointing in that glorious 1929-30 racing season, but it was a pattern that wasn’t about to be repeated. Nor was Jamieson slow to recognise the promise of Ammon Ra, for bandy-legged or not, he had a perfect galloping action. The youngster was among the team of sixteen horses that sailed out of Auckland Harbour in mid-June bound for Sydney on the Ulimaroa. That particular visit to Australian shores was to be one of somewhat mixed blessings. The stable strongly fancied Ammon Ra for the Breeders’ Plate, but the horse went shin sore and failed to sport silk at all. Jamieson did win a few races, including the A.J.C. Members’ Handicap with Sargon, a three-year-old colt by Catmint which, like Ammon Ra, was also owned by Dr Milsom, but the colt failed in his main mission when unplaced in the Derby behind Tregilla. Perhaps Jamieson’s greatest regret on that visit was that his good stayer, In The Shade, was a touch unlucky in running second to Cragford in the A.J.C. Metropolitan, beaten two lengths, after being supported by the stable into 8/1.
Returned to his homeland, however, Ammon Ra soon emerged as the stable’s real star. The bay gelding’s racecourse debut came in controversial circumstances at Takapuna on the first day of summer when he was beaten into second place by his stablemate Chief Jewel, although the running was subject to a stewards’ inquiry. Whatever the merits of that defeat, Ammon Ra’s next appearance at Ellerslie on Boxing Day was a winning one when he squandered a smart field in the Great Northern Foal Stakes over six furlongs. A week later he repeated the dose over the same course in the Royal Stakes, although this time he beat three-year-olds into the bargain. At the end of January, Ammon Ra made it a hat-trick of wins in the Wellington Stakes, when, after a sluggish start and seemingly in a hopeless position at the furlong, he stormed home to win by a head.
It was the first inkling that this son of Limond might develop into a high-class middle-distance galloper. Already he was being regarded as the best juvenile in New Zealand, a rating that he confirmed in mid-February when he took out the prestigious Taranaki Stakes, a six-furlong race open to horses of all ages. Ammon Ra started the third favourite to Lady Quex and Hunting Cry – both older horses with impressive form, and yet beat them easily. Mind you, at this stage of his development the sturdy gelding looked more like a seasoned three-year-old himself than a precocious juvenile. It was therefore with no little surprise and considerable disappointment that New Zealand sporting circles heard the news at the end of February that Ammon Ra had been sold to 44-year-old Cliff Sheath.
Cliff Sheath was a man who had done much to establish the New Zealand Jockeys’ Association and had acted as its first secretary, although he now resided in Sydney. The fact that Mr Sheath was originally from New Zealand offered scant assuagement to his former countrymen although it may have been a consideration in the new owner’s decision to leave the horse in Jamieson’s stables. The exact sum paid for Ammon Ra was never properly disclosed although according to rumour it was £4,000 – giving Dr Milstrom a tidy profit over the 450 guineas offered for the colt as a yearling. However, time would soon show that it was Cliff Sheath who walked away with the better bargain. No sooner had the sale been clinched than Jamieson was making arrangements to transport the gelding to Sydney for the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes worth over £5,000 that year despite the Depression, the conditions of the race having been laid down before the hard times had forced the club to slash prizemoney. Considering the prize and the absence of an outstanding juvenile in Australia, it wasn’t surprising that eighteen horses were paid up for the race.
Despite a rough trip across the Tasman, Ammon Ra, with former New Zealand jockey Maurice McCarten in the irons, was well-backed by the public and stable into the even-money favourite. Jamieson had only arrived in Sydney eight days earlier, although one of his hacks, Havaspot, had landed some good wagers when winning at Warwick Farm the week before and the stable was both confident and cashed-up. McCarten, who was a personal friend of owner Cliff Sheath from their days together in New Zealand, was warned by Jamieson that the Limond gelding caught fire as quick as gunpowder and told him not to light the match until precisely the right moment. Accordingly, McCarten rode a waiting race on Ammon Ra and only hit the front in the final furlong, but ran out a comfortable winner by two lengths over Johnnie Jason and Gallante. Still, the race and the Tasman crossing took more out of the horse than first thought, for when he backed up four days later in the Champagne Stakes with his 10lb penalty he could only manage third behind Burwood and Movie Star.
As fascinating as the topsy-turvy form might have been in both the Sires’ and the Champagne Stakes, those races were by no means the most sensational conducted at that A.J.C. Autumn Meeting. That dubious honour belonged to the Second Steeplechase run on the second and last Saturday. Seven horses started in that contest, but only three survived. Burraform was among the number to fall, and the injuries that jockey Jack Troy sustained when the horse landed on him proved fatal, but that wasn’t to be the only sensation. St General toppled over the last steeple dislodging his jockey who was in no position to continue. An onlooker, an ex-country hoop called ‘Snowy’ Davies, jumped the fence onto the course proper and re-captured St General. Mounting him, he then proceeded to jump the last fence and ride him home into third place, albeit ‘two chains’ distant to the runner-up. Davies weighed in correctly and then survived the subsequent protest to enable St General’s owner to collect third prize money. The rules at the time permitted a spectator to mount a riderless horse and provided the horse properly completed the course, and the rider drew at least the correct weight or more, the owner was entitled to the prize. A grateful owner later gave Davies a tenner for his trouble.
Ammon Ra’s hat-trick of wins on New Zealand courses as a juvenile had helped Jack Jamieson to finish runner-up behind Tommy George in the New Zealand trainers’ championship of 1930-31, and an exciting three-year-old campaign now beckoned for the son of Limond. The gelding arrived back in Sydney in the first week of July and opened his new season in a six-furlong flying handicap at Rosehill in mid-August; he was backed into favouritism as if there wasn’t any settling day despite carrying more than weight-for-age. Maurice McCarten renewed his acquaintance with the 16.1-hands gelding and steered him to an effortless four-length victory from a field of crack sprinters.
It was a similar story in both the Hobartville Stakes and the Chelmsford Stakes at his next two starts. In the latter event, he was ridden by a young Rae Johnstone because of McCarten’s inability to make the weight. It was Johnstone’s last significant winner here before venturing to fame and fortune in Europe. When Jamieson had failed to enter Ammon Ra for the Melbourne Cup, some wiseacres drew the conclusion he was too brilliant and that the trainer doubted his staying ability. The Chelmsford performance, in which Ammon Ra gave weight to most of his own age group and humbled the older horses besides, suggested otherwise. Jamieson knew Ammon Ra was not a genuine stayer, but he was confident the gelding could get the mile-and-a-half against his own age group, particularly after an early morning track trial at Randwick a week before the Derby when Ammon Ra matched strides with Veilmond on the course proper over a mile-and-a-quarter. Although the rain had deadened the track, the pair ran a time that convinced Jamieson the Derby was in the bag.
Whereas nearly 90,000 people had made the pilgrimage to Randwick on Derby Day in 1924 during the decade of prosperity known as the Jazz Age; only 42,000 managed the journey in the Depression year of 1931. One notable absentee was John McMahon, the former chairman of stewards, who had died after a long illness following an operation in St Vincent’s Hospital. The gloomy, grey sky and the occasional drizzle of rain seemed in sympathy with the grim hardship imposed by the economic collapse. At the A.J.C.’s annual general meeting, the chairman, Colin Stephen, stated that the club had shown a loss of more than £26,000 on the year. Revenue was lower by £75,000. Admissions had fallen away by 35%, tote-takings by 31% and profits from the sale of racebooks more than 34%. Superimposed over these issues was the fact of the State Labour Government’s imposition of a 10% winning-bets tax, which had first become operative in December 1930. Governments everywhere were reeling from the economic crisis, and it was hardly surprising that N.S.W. Premier Jack Lang targeted the industry, given its disproportionate contribution to the public coffers over the years.
Still, this new tax was iniquitous in that it was levied not just upon the winnings of the backer, but also on the very stake itself. Although this anomaly was subsequently amended, the damage was done. In January in the New Year, more than fifty paddock bookmakers refused to renew their licenses, and it seemed to many that a racecourse had become a place where men went to discuss politics. Even in the year before the new levy, the A.J.C. had paid £128,000 in taxation. Although the N.S.W. Treasury forecast that the new tax would net £2 million in revenue, the legislation served to defeat itself. People began to do their betting away from the course with some of the more prominent players placing their money at starting price with bookmakers in other States. Despite the hard times, the club at least for now had bravely maintained the prizemoney for its signature classic, despite taking the pruning knife to some of its major handicaps. For example, the Doncaster and Epsom stakes were slashed by a third and the Sydney Cup almost halved.
The 1931 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions are set out in the table below:
The twelve acceptors against Ammon Ra in the Derby suggested that for some owners at least, the age of miracles had not passed. Perhaps some of them derived hope from the fact that Ammon Ra, a lively individual at the best of times, worked himself into a lather of foam in the mounting yard. If an upset were to occur the horse most fancied to pull it off was Johnnie Jason, a Treclare gelding trained in Newcastle by Charlie Unwin, the former useful jockey who made his name around the coalfields and then set up as a trainer after returning from the Great War. A well-grown, square-quartered individual, Johnnie Jason had cost Newcastle businessman, Mr W. J. Jones 120 guineas as a yearling when he purchased him from the Widden draft.
Johnnie Jason first emerged as a serious racehorse when he finished second to Ammon Ra in the Sires’ Produce Stakes and later won the Fernhill Handicap with 9 st. 5lb at the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting. Johnnie Jason had since thickened and furnished into a fine specimen and proven that he had come back better than ever with a fine win in the Warwick Stakes. However, the gelding developed a cold in the days after that race and had missed vital trackwork. To compensate, Unwin had taken Johnnie Jason to Gosford where he carried 9 st. 10lb to victory in the Stewards’ Mile. Still, not everybody was convinced that Johnnie Jason was fit to run out the distance of the Derby, although he did have the services of Rae Johnstone in the saddle.
Illustrious, a first season son of Heroic and the only Victorian representative in the race was the third favourite. The winner of three races in Melbourne during the winter, this stylish-looking colt, who was the pick of the parade and overshadowed his fellows, had been privately tried by James Scobie over the Derby distance before coming to Sydney. Like so many of Scobie’s previous starters in the race, Illustrious was making his seasonal debut. Easily the most expensive Australian-bred in the field was Koomeela, a full brother to the all-conquering Amounis. Sir James Murdoch, the 64-year-old A.J.C. committeeman and founder of the men’s store in Park Street, Sydney, had paid 1300 guineas for the son of Magpie as a yearling and placed him in the stables of George Price. However, Koomeela’s disclosed form was distinctly ordinary.
Lightning March was an interesting runner, raced by Sir Adrian Knox and the executors of John Brown. A light-fleshed and delicate homebred, Lightning March was only a little gelding and, prepared by Frank McGrath, had won a lacklustre Rosehill Guineas at his most recent start. Sharing the fourth line of betting with Lightning March was Rondalina, owned and trained by Harry Telford. Rondalina was one of Telford’s first purchases after coming into money through Phar Lap. In the new season, she had already won a division of the Chatsworth Plate and filled the role of runner-up to her legendary stablemate in both the Underwood Stakes at Williamstown and the Memsie Stakes at Caulfield. Another entry was the ill-fated New Zealand colt Oratorian, a half-brother to the great Concentrate and the New Zealand Cup winner, Oratrix. Like his two famous siblings, he had been purchased as a yearling by the Wellington sportsman, Rob Murphy, and cost 2400 guineas, the top price of his year at Trentham. Trained in the stables of Horty Lorigan, he was only lightly raced.
The most significant omission from the Derby field was Chatham. Bought as a yearling for 650 guineas by trainer Ike Foulsham for owner Gus Blair, Chatham was a huge horse of extraordinary speed by Windbag. His two-year-old season had been restricted to just one appearance when he ran the speedy filly Gloriole to a head in the Woollahra Stakes at Randwick in November, after which he was given time to mature into his huge frame. Chatham resumed in late August – all 16 hands 2 inches of him – to win a Three-and-Four-Year-Old Handicap at Rosehill in slashing style. A rich dark bay, in make and shape Chatham was the very image of his sire and seemed to require the same amount of patience. Jim Munro had been booked to ride the colt in the Derby before his preparation had even begun and he was one of the early favourites for the race. However, a severe cold contracted by Chatham in September meant that Foulsham couldn’t get him ready in time.
Restive though Ammon Ra might have been behind the barrier, McCarten might have felt pangs of guilt in collecting his winning percentage for all the trouble Ammon Ra gave him once the Derby got underway. Content to follow the pacemaker, Cirod, for the best part of a mile, it wasn’t until a little more than half a mile from home that McCarten allowed the son of Limond to stride to the front. It was effectively the end of the race insofar as any serious competition was concerned. Rae Johnstone on Johnnie Jason followed him throughout and about halfway up the straight issued a brief challenge. For a few strides he threatened to make a race of it, but having been stopped in his work, a lack of condition betrayed him in the final furlong, and Ammon Ra ran out an easy winner by two lengths. It was left to Koomeela to fill the minor placing, storming home with an Amounis-like finish after being trailed off hopelessly five furlongs from the winning post. It was to be the last A.J.C. Derby for which geldings were eligible for twenty-six years, and it had been won only for the sixth time by one of their numbers. Ammon Ra followed in the tradition of Bob Ray, Gloaming, Cupidon, Ballymena and Phar Lap and curiously enough each of them had been foaled in New Zealand.
It was the second A.J.C. Derby for both Jamieson and McCarten but the first for owner Cliff Sheath. As we have seen, Jamieson had won the race with Prince Humphrey in 1928 while McCarten had been successful on another New Zealander, Ballymena, in 1923. Maurice McCarten might have come by his winning percentage in the Derby under false pretences but he certainly earned his money when he landed the New Zealand horse Autopay in the following race the Epsom Handicap. Maurice gave a brilliant exhibition of front-running riding when he jumped the son of Paper Money at the tapes and then lasted in the straight to win by a neck. It made it a memorable afternoon for the popular New Zealand hoop.
While on the subject of the winning jockey, I might mention that it was the closest that the jockey on the runner-up, Rae Johnstone, ever came to winning the A.J.C. Derby. A year or so later Johnstone tried his hand successfully in India before moving on to international fame and fortune in England and France. While the successful international horsemanship of jockeys such as Breasley, Moore, Williamson and Hutchinson is celebrated in Australia, the achievements of Johnstone often don’t receive the same attention. However, it was to be a remarkable career. Apprenticed to Jack Phoenix in Newcastle, Johnstone would go on to ride the winners of thirty classic races and more than 2,000 winners in nine countries. In 1948 alone he would ride the Derby winner in three countries, England, France and Ireland. In 1950, Rae rode the winner of the English and French Derby, the English St Leger, the English and French 1000 Guineas, and the English and Irish Oaks. Unfortunate, then, that he never managed to ride a Derby winner at Randwick, in the city in which he was reared.
I shall expatiate on the background and merits of Limond as a stallion elsewhere in this chronicle, but let me say here that Ammon Ra was the first of the great sire’s two A.J.C. Derby winners, the second coming three years later with Theo. Limond was a grandson of the mighty St Simon; while Lindal, the dam of Limond, was by the Bend Or horse, Kendal, the only horse ever to finish ahead of the mighty Ormonde, and that was in a home trial. As we have seen on the maternal side, Ammon Ra was from Hyades, a daughter of the Cyllene horse Hymettus, who must not be confused with the dual Caulfield Cup winner of the same name. Cyllene, of course, sired four winners of the English Derby. The dam Hyades was a direct lineal descendant of Juliet, one of the English mares that the Fishers imported into their Adelaide stud in November 1860. Yet here – 71 years later – she was still exerting influence and Ammon Ra following on from Charon, Benvolio, Robinson Crusoe, Nordenfeldt and Sylvanite was the sixth direct descendant of Juliet to win the A.J.C. blue riband.
As bad as the Depression was for Australian bloodstock breeders before Derby Day, the results of the major races on that Saturday hardly relieved the gloom. New Zealand horses reigned triumphant for, apart from Ammon Ra winning the Derby, Autopay, a son of Paper Money purloined the Epsom by leading all the way while Phar Lap took out the Spring Stakes, in which Chide, another horse from across the Tasman, was runner-up. In those days, horses bred in Australia outnumbered those raised in New Zealand in the proportion of roughly five to one, there being about 5,000 mares registered in the Australian Stud Book at the time. And yet the percentage of first-class gallopers from New Zealand seemed so much greater. It was just as well that Jack Jamieson had Ammon Ra in his stables, however, for none of the others of the large contingent that he had brought across the Tasman won him any substantial prize.
Voyageur had been expected to run well in the Breeders’ Plate while Prolyxo, a sister to Ammon Ra, was fancied for the Gimcrack but each proved disappointing along with the likes of Chief Joy, Koda Pen and Pateena. Such was the form of Ammon Ra, however, that both sportsmen and pressmen were speculating whether a clash with Phar Lap might eventuate in the Craven Plate. After all, at this stage, Ammon Ra’s only two defeats in ten starts had come on debut at Takapuna when an unlucky second; and in the Champagne Stakes at Randwick. Moreover, he had won in the best of company over distances ranging from five furlongs to a mile and a half. Jack Jamieson wasn’t having any of it. He hadn’t risen from the flax camps of Manawatu due to any sentimentality or softness of the mind. Jamieson recognised Phar Lap for what he was and by the Wednesday afternoon when Telford’s Red Terror was posting an Australian record for the ten-furlongs, Ammon Ra, a bad traveller, was comfortably ensconced in his Melbourne stables awaiting the Caulfield Guineas against his own age group on the following Saturday.
The Caulfield Guineas turned out to be a one-horse affair. Ammon Ra’s supremacy was complete despite Chatham’s presence, that magnificent specimen of a thoroughbred. Perhaps Chatham wasn’t at home that day on the heath for, unlike Ammon Ra, it was his first experience of a left-handed track, and he had shown his displeasure by unseating Darby Munro in the parade ring beforehand. Ammon Ra put up new figures for the Caulfield Guineas, winning by three-and-a-half lengths and running the mile in record time for the course, despite being eased down in the shadows of the post. Ammon Ra’s prizemoney now stood at more than £19,000. Three weeks later and the Jamieson juggernaut arrived at Flemington for the Victoria Derby.
The bookmakers considered the gelding held a mortgage on the classic and with Ammon Ra at 2/7, in the more recent past only Phar Lap at 2/9 and Poseidon at 1/4 had ever started shorter for the Victorian classic. How Ammon Ra dominated the betting was shown by the fact that Chatham, who had emerged as a strong chance after running a good second to Phar Lap in the W.S. Cox Plate, two lengths ahead of Johnnie Jason, was the second favourite and yet 12/1 was on offer about him. Koomeela was next at 14/1 while Johnnie Jason was a point longer. In the case of Phar Lap and Poseidon in the Victoria Derby, the issue had never been in doubt, but Ammon Ra was to be another story.
As at Randwick, though not at Caulfield, Ammon Ra was in a lather of sweat even before the action commenced. There were only nine starters, but it was a very rough affair, surprising given that there was good speed early. The pace was set by the Adelaide colt, Opera King, who had led all the way in the South Australian Derby and having chipped a second or so off that race record now tried to do the same at Flemington. At one stage of the race, he was out by half-a-dozen lengths with Ammon Ra just behind him. However, coming toward the home turn, it could be seen that McCarten was niggling the favourite just to keep his position. In the straight, Ammon Ra succumbed when Johnnie Jason, being ridden in Pike’s most vigorous style, crossed and checked him. The stewards subsequently reprimanded Pike for the infraction, although McCarten claimed his mount was beaten at the time. Chatham also suffered from some of the backwash. In the run to the judge Johnnie Jason went on to win by a length and a quarter from Chatham, with Viol d’Amour third, a neck away. Ammon Ra didn’t compound completely and ran on reasonably to finish fourth although it seemed clear he was no stayer. He came back to the enclosure an exhausted horse.
Jamieson lost no time in returning the gelding to Sydney en-route to shipping across the Tasman. Plans to run the horse in the Great Northern Derby at Auckland were shelved and instead he went to the spelling paddocks, not to return to racing until mid-February 1932 in an autumn campaign aimed at both St Legers. This time, however, it was to be no “hit and run” visit to Australia. During the previous spring and Ammon Ra’s march to A.J.C. Derby glory, Jamieson had explored the possibility of relocating his training stables to Randwick. For the best part of a decade, Jamieson had been hailed as the coming man. 1932 was the year he came.
Frank Marsden was suffering the painful last weeks of his life at the time of the 1931 A.J.C. spring meeting, and Jamieson negotiated to take out a lease on his Bowral-street stables. Unfortunately, Peter Riddle beat him to the prized location and Jamieson was forced to stable his horses within the Newmarket yards of William Inglis. The relocation was to be a fateful decision, and, as we shall see, the man in the trademark black Stetson was to become the bane of Australian bookmakers. Not only did Jamieson retain a number of his New Zealand clients but he recruited a clutch of high-profile Australian owners as well, including the likes of Walter Devon, Joe Harris, George and Harry Tancred, Fred Smith (alias ‘Mr Constable’), Major P. Kerr-Smiley, Mick Gearin and Hunter White. A free-spender at the yearling sales on both sides of the Tasman, Jamieson was set to be the new force in Australian racing.
In relocating to Australia, Jack Jamieson was following a long-established trend by quite a few leading New Zealand horsemen including men such as Lou Robertson, D. J. Price, George Price and Harry Telford. Bookmakers had been prohibited from betting in any street, on licensed premises, or any racecourse in New Zealand by the passage of the Gaming Amendment Act of 1910. The last meeting at which bookmakers legally operated was at the Takapuna Jockey Club’s summer meeting on January 30, 1911. Shortly before the running of the last race, the band present on the ground took up a position among the bookmakers and played ‘We Parted on the Shore’ with many of the crowd joining in the chorus followed by a rendition of “Auld Lang Syne”. However, bookmaking didn’t disappear; it merely went underground to flourish as an illegal business. Nonetheless, betting stables – such as Jack Jamieson’s – began to cast envious eyes across the Tasman as the Great Depression worsened.
The punitive taxation that New Zealand racing clubs were forced to disgorge to the government in this all-Totalisator environment meant that prizemoney was modest compared to the lavish sums the A.J.C. and V.R.C. were seemingly able to offer, while owners and trainers were further denied the opportunity to balance their racing budgets by shrewd recourse to the ring. Moreover, racing was a much more expensive business in New Zealand because of recurring transport costs to travel horses to the best meetings. The exodus was inevitable. Prominent owners and committeemen of the Auckland Racing Club, Eliot Davis and Oliver Nicholson, clients of Jamieson, championed the cause – doomed as it turned out – of reinstating bookmakers under a properly legalised system of control. They were just two of several New Zealand sportsmen who stuck with Jamieson when he crossed the Tasman. The Awapuni horseman’s audacious tilts at the Randwick and Flemington betting rings would soon give new meaning to the famous newspaper headline of 1895, and while the new ‘Jamieson Raid’ still had everything to do with the pursuit of gold, this time there wasn’t a Boer within sight.
Ammon Ra’s glory dimmed further in the autumn when he finished runner-up as the favourite in both St Legers, each time going under to the Elwood Fisher-trained Middle Watch, confirming that the son of Limond was no stayer. For all that, it still proved a good campaign with wins in the V.A.T.C. St George Stakes and Futurity Stakes; V.R.C. C.M. Lloyd Stakes; R.R.C. Rawson Stakes and the A.J.C. Warwick Stakes. Perhaps the Futurity at Caulfield was Ammon Ra’s most impressive performance when he carried 9 st 3lb (including a 15lb penalty) and yet equalled the course record. In the wake of this haul, Cliff Sheath was approached by some American race clubs including Tanforan, to campaign Ammon Ra over there and for a time he seemed interested in the proposal. However, Ammon Ra notwithstanding, the consensus at the close of the 1931-32 racing season was that it had been an inferior crop of three-year-olds. The criticism seemed harsh if not unfair, despite Johnnie Jason’s Sydney Cup victory. However, there were two champion gallopers within that class of three-year-olds, although their championship qualities would not fully emerge until the following season. The first horse in question was the one-time favourite for that 1931 A.J.C. Derby, Chatham.
Gus Blair, the owner of Chatham, transferred the horse into the Randwick stables of Fred Williams during the winter of 1932. Chatham resumed winning five races in succession, including the Epsom Handicap and Craven Plate. Although he then proved disappointing during the autumn of 1933 it was to be but the prelude to a brilliant five-year-old season that was to see him win 11 of his 13 starts including both the Epsom and Doncaster Handicaps carrying 9 st 10lb and 10 st. 4lb respectively. Restricted mainly to weight-for-age races as a six-year-old, he still won 4 of his 8 starts that season including a third Craven Plate and a second W. S. Cox Plate. The son of Windbag retired from the racecourse with a record of 23 ½ wins from 45 starts and £18,245 in prizemoney.
The second horse in question was Winooka, like Chatham, another son of Windbag. Curiously the two followed each other into the ring at the 1930 Sydney Inglis Yearling Sales. Just like Chatham, he proved to be a champion miler and was particularly brilliant as a four-year-old in 1933. As a matter of fact, Winooka and Chatham won successive A.J.C. Doncaster Handicaps in 1933 and 1934. In 1933 Winooka carried 9 st 13lb to victory and in 1934 it was Chatham’s turn with 10 st. 4lb. Jim Pike enjoyed the mounts on each occasion. Later that same week after the Doncaster, Winooka added both the All Aged Stakes and the C. W. Cropper Plate. Winooka didn’t race at all in Australia as a six-year-old and during this period was exhibited in a series of match races in the U.S.A. with his trainer Mick Polson and jockey Edgar Britt. The son of Windbag was never the same horse after his return to Australia and was retired after being badly stripped on the legs in the 1935 A.J.C. Doncaster Handicap.
Compared with Chatham and Winooka, Ammon Ra’s post-three-year-old career was marred by bleeding attacks. As a four-year-old he raced just twice, finishing unplaced when favourite in the early spring at Moonee Valley and Caulfield. Given a long spell, firstly at Riverstone, N.S.W., and later in Cambridge, New Zealand, in the hope that his bleeding attacks would mend, Ammon Ra resumed as a five-year-old but could only manage to win an Ascot flying handicap and the Rosebery Spring Stakes. The horse ran his last race at the January 1934 Ellerslie meeting when he again bled and finished a furlong behind the field; his complete record was 17 wins from 29 starts and £25,741 in stakes. Ammon Ra then spent the rest of his days in idleness at Dr W. C. Ring’s farm at Matamata. I might mention that there is a compelling postscript to the colours made famous by Ammon Ra. Cliff Sheath raced few horses after the son of Limond and in 1940 a newcomer to racing, Mr E. P. Walker, asked if he could use the silks for a son of The Buzzard that he had purchased for 1200 guineas earlier that year at the Easter Yearling Sales.
Registered as Yaralla, the colt lent renewed fame to the colours when he carried them to victory in the A.J.C. Breeders’ Plate and Sires’ Produce Stakes that season and went on to become one of the best sprinter/milers in the land and the winner of no fewer than thirteen stakes’ races. I might add that, unlike Ammon Ra, Chatham remained entire and was given his chance at stud. For the first two seasons after retiring, Chatham was leased to Percy Miller and stood at his birthplace, Kia Ora Stud. Considering that Percy had refused to stand the father, Windbag, because of his colonial lineage this was quite a compliment to the son, although it was only a lease arrangement after all and the Depression years sometimes made a virtue of necessary economies. Subsequently, Chatham was leased by Mr R. J. Edmonds of Larras Lake and stayed there until the death of his owner, when he was then sold privately to Mr W. H. Schlink and relocated to South Australia in 1940. Chatham proved a successful stallion, siring 16 individual stakes winners of 36 stakes races and his best progeny were the 1945 Sydney Cup winner, Craigie, and the good sprinter, High Rank, winner of a Stradbroke.
If Ammon Ra’s post-Derby trajectory was to be disappointing, then that of his trainer was certainly not, except perhaps to some of the men within Tattersall’s. Jack Jamieson’s relocation to Randwick was to see him train a succession of high-class horses and pull off some famous betting coups with men like Joe Harris and George Tancred placing the commissions. Initially granted merely a permit to train, it wasn’t until the beginning of the 1932-33 racing season that ‘Jam’ – as the Sydney sporting press affectionately called him – was promoted to a No 1 licence.
Established clients from across the Tasman stuck firm while he picked up new clients both in New Zealand and Australia including the brothers, George and Harry Tancred, John Donald of the Westmere Stud, and Major Kerr Smiley. In November 1934, he succeeded in purchasing the premises of veteran trainer Dick O’Connor at 24 Arthur Street, near Wansey Rd, just a short walk to the racecourse, which was to remain his base for the next ten years. Included among the first wave of horses that Jamieson handled in the next few seasons were Closing Time, by Tippler, a good miler and the winner of the 1933 A.J.C. Villiers Stakes, carrying 9 st. 5lb; Pasha, winner of the V.R.C. Maribyrnong Plate and runner-up in the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes; Myra Tip, runner-up in the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes; and Limarch, winner of both the A.J.C. and V.R.C. St Legers among other good races.
However, Jamieson’s untrammelled run of luck with the men of Tattersall’s was to come to a shuddering halt on the last Saturday of the 1935 V.R.C. Spring Meeting. The cause of all the trouble was a three-year-old gelding by Chief Ruler trained by Jamieson on behalf of George Tancred, and his runaway victory in the Batman Stakes had been presaged by a cash storm that rained down upon the ring in support of the horse, resulting in his price firming from 20/1 into 4/1. A maiden before that day when he was never off the bit, the problem for Jamieson, Tancred and jockey Ted Bartle, was that the performance represented a massive form reversal on his previous start when he had finished eighteenth in the Railway Highweight on Cup Day. Stewards subsequently stripped Country Party of the race, convinced that the horse hadn’t been allowed to do his best in the Railway Highweight. Although the Batman Stakes was awarded to the runner-up, Bustard, the bets were nonetheless allowed to stand. The real sting for Jamieson, Tancred and Bartle, however, came when the trio was unceremoniously disqualified for twelve months and their collective appeals to the V.R.C. committee failed.
Groucho Marx once famously observed: “I won’t say that it hasn’t been a pleasure – because it hasn’t.” When it came to visiting Melbourne, Jack Jamieson and Ted Bartle knew how Groucho felt and for the balance of their careers, it was to remain the city of their discontent. It was the first time in almost twenty years of race riding that Bartle, who had become Jamieson’s staunch stable jockey, had ever been disqualified and in fact, he had only ever been suspended three times before. It was a particularly bitter blow for Jamieson who had paid a big price for his new training establishment at Randwick and had a big team in work including Limarch, who subsequently went into the stables of Jack King. Still, as bleak as their racing futures may have appeared to the three principals on that sultry November day in 1935, the triumvirate was to have one more rendezvous with destiny insofar as the A.J.C. Derby was concerned, and it was to come in the final year of the decade with one of the toughest, most consistent and versatile gallopers the Australian Turf has ever seen. However, that story, dear reader, must wait to be told in its proper place.