On June 6th, 1934 the champion imported stallion Magpie was destroyed at the Kia Ora Stud, Scone, and buried near the stud stables under an elaborate headstone; he was 20 years old and had been deteriorating in condition for some time. There have been few more impressive or influential stallions ever imported into Australia. At the time of his death, 210 individual winners of around 840 races and £269,000 in prize money had represented him. Foaled in England in 1914, Magpie’s racing career there had been limited to just six racecourse appearances, owing to the restrictions imposed by the Great War. As a two-year-old, the colt was unplaced in the Donnington Castle Maiden Plate; fourth in the Middle Park Plate; third in the Free Handicap; and won the Rous Memorial Stakes of £787. Alec Taylor at Manton Lodge had prepared the colt, and in the 1917 season this son of Dark Ronald was set for the Two Thousand Guineas. It was a season in which the yard at Manton Lodge enjoyed an embarrassment of riches for besides sheltering Magpie; there was also a very promising colt called Gay Crusader in residence. In the weeks before the Guineas, Taylor wanted to try the two horses together on the home gallops to see which one was the better, but the owner of Gay Crusader wouldn’t permit it. Thus, even Taylor himself was in doubt as to their respective merits when they went to the post for the English classic. Nor were their riders, Otto Madden or Steve Donoghue, any wiser as to which was the better colt. Madden had only just come back to the saddle after retirement, due to the jockey shortage caused by the Great War.
Let us allow the great English jockey Steve Donoghue to tell his story of that 1917 English Two Thousand Guineas. He wrote: “There were about fourteen runners in the race for the Guineas, and we jumped off to a good start, and in the dip, Magpie and Gay Crusader singled themselves out, and we drew right away from the others and ran home locked together. Straight as a die we raced side by side, and Magpie was going every bit as well as Gay Crusader. I knew well that if Otto could give his mount the whip the horse, though running lazily, as was his nature, would gamely respond. So, without touching Magpie, I kept Gay Crusader so close to him on the whip hand that Otto could not use his whip to inspire his horse to pull out that little bit which he certainly had in reserve…I knew Otto must be a little rusty from his long absence from the saddle, and this gave me just the shade of advantage, as he could not get his whip over to the left hand quickly enough, and I won the race on Gay Crusader by a head. I certainly thought that I was lucky to beat Magpie that day. The two horses never met again as Major Astor soon afterwards sold his horse to go abroad.”
Gay Crusader went on to complete the substitute ‘Triple Crown’ by winning both the English Derby and St Leger; substitute because wartime restrictions denied the last two classics being run at their traditional venues of Epsom and Doncaster. It is worth remembering that Steve Donoghue always considered Gay Crusader the best horse he ever rode. In the wake of The Two Thousand Guineas, Magpie developed a breathing complaint and this, together with the doldrums into which English racing had plunged because of the War, prompted Major Astor to place him on the market. Ironically the War proved a boon to Australian breeders. Particularly in the years 1915 to early 1917, racing in England was regarded as unpatriotic. There was a widespread feeling in the community that men ought to be at work or in the trenches, rather than at the track.
The counter-argument, of course, was that racing improved bloodstock and quality bloodstock was important for the remounts so necessary to the military. Nevertheless, in May 1915 British racing was all but suspended because of the exigencies of the war and the need to avoid rail congestion; the only exception was the town of Newmarket where almost the entire population was dependant on racing in some way. There were a few unlicensed meetings conducted without Jockey Club control after this suspension, but these were eventually closed down by an application of the Defence of the Realm Act in 1916. The inevitable result was an exodus of good stallions and racehorses to foreign lands, as some British breeders sold out. Australian bloodstock was a beneficiary of this exodus.
Will and Fred Moses, the proprietors of Arrowfield Stud in the Hunter Valley, had an offer on Magpie but when their English agent disclosed an adverse veterinary opinion on the horse, the brothers refused to close the deal. Subsequently, the horse was sold to William Clark and Lionel Robinson for 3000 guineas. These two men were retired Melbourne stockbrokers who had returned to England around the turn of the century but continued to maintain an extensive racing team in Australia as well as England. Indeed, around 1916-17 they had been responsible for importing some well-performed English horses into Australia in general, and into the Melbourne stables of Dick Bradfield in particular.
One such import, King Offa, a well-bred son of Radium, had arrived in Melbourne in February 1917. The colt’s breeder in England, Lord Falmouth, no doubt had visions of classic success when the colt was foaled in 1914 but with the darkness and despair into which British racing was plunged by the Great War, Falmouth accepted Lionel Robinson’s bid of 200 guineas for the unraced colt. In the spring of 1918, King Offa, with Richard Bradfield training him, would win Messrs Robinson and Clark the Caulfield Cup. Magpie, together with Lucknow, a future Caulfield Cup winner, and a couple of other English imports, arrived at the port of Melbourne in early August 1917 and after a month in quarantine and a lengthy spell at Bacchus Marsh, all four horses entered Bradfield’s famous Elwick Lodge.
Richard (Dick) Bradfield was arguably the finest trainer of racehorses in Melbourne at the time of Magpie’s arrival; and Elwick Lodge at 84 Dover-street, Flemington, the finest training establishment in the city. Bradfield didn’t spring from a racing family; his father being a cooper and brewer at Bendigo. Born in 1862 in Bendigo, or Sandhurst as it was then known, as a boy, he occasionally wagged school to spend time in Mick Doyle’s stables, which were in the same locality as the Bradfield home. Nonetheless, Bradfield’s parents insisted that the lad complete his education in an orthodox manner before satisfying his infatuation with horses. As a sixteen-year-old, Bradfield went to work for F. W. (Fred) Purches, the wealthy wholesale butcher from Moonee Ponds, helping Andy Mulholland to prepare his trotters at Elsternwick.
When Mulholland died and Purches transitioned his money from the light-harness sport into the gallops, he set Bradfield up as his own private trainer at Progress Villa, Moonee Ponds. It proved a remarkably successful team. The first racehorse Bradfield took in hand for Purches was Portland and in January 1891 he won the Anniversary Handicap at Caulfield with Tom Hales in the saddle. From that moment on Bradfield made his mark in the racing world and less than four years later won his first Melbourne Cup when Patron, a son of Grand Flaneur won the race. Indeed, the two best horses that Bradfield ever trained for his first patron, were foaled within two years of each other and their careers overlapped. The other horse to which I refer is Portsea, with whom Bradfield won the 1893 Australian Cup. It wasn’t until 1898 that Bradfield took over Elwick Lodge at Flemington where, for a time, he continued to train racehorses to carry the ‘black, red seams, and cap’ for Purches.
When Bradfield eventually decided to branch out on his own as a public trainer, it wasn’t his old employer that gave him a start but rather Sam Bloomfield, a member of the Melbourne Stock Exchange and a committeeman of the Williamstown and Moonee Valley Racing Clubs. Bloomfield in his youth had been a talented amateur rider as well as an outstanding football player, having played for both Essendon and Carlton, and even winning premiership honours with the latter club. Bloomfield’s involvement with Lionel Robinson and William Clark on the Melbourne Stock Exchange saw him entrusted with the management of their horses upon their removal to England and the retirement of Les Macdonald, who had previously discharged the role.
Bradfield’s first winner as a public trainer was Catspaw, owned by Bloomfield and after winning both the V.R.C. and Carnival Handicaps, he was sold to India at a good price. Soon after that, Messrs Clark and Robinson, through the 1901 Maribyrnong Plate winner, Niphetos, became patrons of the stable and Bradfield quickly began to enjoy a succession of some of the finest bloodstock ever to come to these shores. Elwick Lodge was a famous training establishment even before Dick Bradfield took possession of it. The original stables had been built by Johnny Nolan, a successful cross-country rider of the time.
Later Nolan disposed of the property to Harry Yeend, a Tasmanian who bestowed the name ‘Elwick Lodge’ after the famous racecourse at Hobart in his home state. Yeend trained a team of horses there for Sir William Clarke, but he did not have much success. It was at Elwick Lodge that Carbine was stabled when Dan O’Brien brought him up from Sydney for the 1888 Victoria Derby. Bradfield might have even got the son of Musket to train. After Carbine was beaten by Ensign in that Derby, O’Brien decided to sell out of the colt and Fred Purches offered him 2000 guineas. It may well have been accepted but Purches slept on the idea and then called it off. When O’Brien sold the horse not long afterwards, he realised much more.
But however brilliant the reputation of Elwick Lodge before Bradfield’s arrival, it was to be burnished ever brighter afterwards. Assiduous in his attention to detail and a good judge of class, like Jack Holt, Bradfield placed his horses in races to advantage and was a master of the handicapping system. In 1902 Bradfield sent out The Victory with jockey Bob Lewis resplendent in the ‘lavender, rose sleeves, collar and cap’ of Messrs Clark and Robinson to win the Melbourne Cup. A succession of high-class racehorses reflecting the Bradfield polish followed in the years ahead including the likes of St Ambrose, Soultline, Lanius, Lucknow, Highfield, Elsdon, Backwood, The Tyrant and Graculus. By the time Magpie walked through the stable doors at Elwick Lodge, Bradfield’s clients had already included the likes of A. S. and R. M. Chirnside, Stuart Brunton, W. Wragge, S. P. Mackay as well as Lionel Robinson and William Clark. Behind Bradfield’s calm exterior and quiet disposition, lay a good deal of sparkling humour. He needed it with all the frustration that Magpie brought him.
The first time Frank Bullock rode Magpie in a gallop, he dismounted and said: “What a pity this fellow is not going to race in a Newmarket or Melbourne Cup.” Magpie’s first race in Australia came in the 1918 S.A.J.C. Elder Stakes, which he won from Wedge and Whitefield. A few months later he defeated Wedge and Ethiopian in the Caulfield Stakes. Undoubtedly his finest hour on the Australian Turf came when he defeated a high-class field that included Desert Gold, Cetigne and Wolaroi in the 1918 V.R.C. Melbourne Stakes. On that day Magpie was the subject of some inspired wagering from the members’ reserve which saw his price firm from 4/1 into 5/2, and he landed the money with a neck to spare from Desert Gold. What a spring Dick Bradfield and Elwick Lodge enjoyed that year! Apart from Magpie’s weight-for-age victories, Bradfield won his first Caulfield Cup with King Offa for Messrs Clark and Robinson; and his third Melbourne Cup with Wakeful’s son, Nightwatch for Les Macdonald.
Later at that V.R.C. Spring Meeting, Magpie ran second in both the Linlithgow Stakes and the C. B. Fisher Plate to Wolaroi and Kennaquhair respectively. While only narrowly beaten in each, the defeats were probably attributable to the quick back-ups to which the horse wasn’t accustomed. Kidney trouble blighted Magpie’s last two runs in Australia when he could only finish second behind Mistico in both the St George Stakes and the Williamstown Hay Stakes. Taking a line on King Offa and Lucknow, Bradfield’s two Caulfield Cup winners, the trainer always maintained that Magpie would have added the Caulfield Cup to his record, had he been set for the race. I might add that few men knew more about what it took to win a Caulfield Cup than Bradfield. After all, when Lucknow gave him his second Caulfield Cup in 1919 Bradfield trained all three placegetters – Night Watch and Chrome being the other two – in the twenty-strong field!
In the autumn he was brought to Sydney and put up for auction at Randwick. John McDonald was seriously interested in acquiring a stallion and looked him over, but at the time a reserve of 7000 guineas stayed his hand. Magpie wasn’t sold on that occasion and reappeared briefly on the racecourse. Shortly after that, however, Percy Miller was able to prevail on Clark and Robinson to accept 5000 guineas, and that is how Magpie came to be the foundation stallion of Kiora (later Kia-Ora) Stud in the Hunter Valley. Dick Bradfield once confided during a trip to Sydney, that in all the time Magpie was in his yard, he never had him fit – “I’d have liked to have had him for another six months” he said. Reflecting on his training career in October 1943 after his retirement, Bradfield observed: “Unhesitatingly, I name Magpie as the best horse I have had through my hands, although his record in Australia is not as imposing as others…Any race from an Oakleigh Plate to a Melbourne Cup was within the scope of Magpie. Unfortunately, Messrs Clark and Robinson insisted that the Dark Ronald horse should be reserved for weight-for-age races. He was never at his top on the track. He was able to play with all horses that were galloped with him. He was a bit of a whistler but as sound as a bell.”
A magnificent bluish-black horse of size and substance, Magpie was fashionably bred, being by the champion English stallion Dark Ronald from Popinjay, a granddaughter of that wonderful matron Illuminata. It was an impressive pedigree and one that any studmaster would have been keen to secure. Magpie initially stood at a fee of one hundred guineas per mare. At the time Percy Miller was building up Kiora Stud, which he had established in 1914 on the banks of the Page River near Scone, and was anxious to find the right stallion. In those early days, Miller was lavish in his expenditure to acquire thoroughbred fillies of class to serve as broodmares, and his paddocks boasted some excellent stock by Maltster, The Welkin, and Wallace. But in building up the stud, he didn’t limit his source of broodmare acquisitions to Australia. During the years of the Great War and the depressed state of English racing, Miller commissioned William Inglis and Sons’ agents in London to be active on his behalf, and a magnificent collection of English broodmares was the result.
Apart from Miller’s own mares, Harry Taylor of Macquarie Stud was one breeder who patronised Magpie in his first season with that good producing mare, Maltee. It was from this mating that Black Ronald emerged; he brought 975 guineas when sold through the Inglis Sales at Easter 1922 – the most expensive of the Magpies sold that year, but he also proved to be the best when he went on to win the New Zealand Derby the following year. Incidentally, Magpie was an example of a pure dominant when it came to the coat colour of his foals – consequently, he did not get any chestnuts. It is a curious coincidence that the first progeny of both Magpie and Valais to be sold in Australia occurred at those 1922 Easter Sales. Their stock had plenty of size and substance about them and even then, much was expected. Magpie’s nine yearlings went for an aggregate 4380-guineas or an average of, say, 486 guineas. By comparison, only six yearlings of Valais appeared, which realised 2895 guineas or a trifle over 482 guineas on average. Unlike the progeny of Valais, the Magpie breed required patience.
From the very beginning of his stud career, Magpie wasn’t noted as a producer of high-class two-year-olds and of that first crop that represented him in the 1922-23 season he managed only one winner. But by the time his second crop began to hit their straps, Magpie’s reputation was assured. That second crop included Windbag, and in his third crop came Amounis. Apart from those headline horses, over the years other winners of principal races sired by Magpie included Graculus, Boaster, Bacchus, Nawallah, Bicolor, Corinax, Goshawk, Black Duchess, Inducement Karuma, Loquacious, Carry On, Jacko, Picatus, Brown Paddy and Care Free. And yet for all the shoals of honours heaped upon his sons and daughters, on that cold winter’s day in June 1934 when Magpie was humanely destroyed, none had ever triumphed in the A.J.C. Derby.
In the following autumn of 1935, at the William Inglis Easter Yearling Sales, only four Magpie lots were listed in the sales catalogue, some of the last of the stallion’s progeny offered at public auction. In attendance was Rosehill trainer, Alf Papworth. A native of Mudgee, he had moved to Sydney about fifteen years before to set up as a trainer. Papworth had a commission at those sales from a relatively new client, Sam Cash, a Parramatta butcher-cum- businessman, to buy two yearlings at moderate prices. Papworth had always admired the good horse Yosela, who was by Spelthorpe (imp) from the New Zealand mare Society, and he was hopeful of buying the bay colt by Magpie, a September foal, on offer from the same mare. Through his dam, the colt came from one of the greatest of Australian staying families – that which produced Wakeful and Noctuiform among others, although Society herself was by the sprinting stallion, Absurd. Papworth made his first purchase on behalf of Cash, on the opening day of the sales buying the lot by Bullhead from Antedate for 170 guineas. Subsequently, this colt was registered as Bull Ant and at one stage was to be regarded as a Derby candidate in his own right. This in itself was a good enough bargain.
But it was his second purchase, the Society colt that was to prove the crowning triumph of Papworth’s training career. And he had to wait until very nearly the end of the sales to get him. When the first Magpie colt was sold for 950 guineas, the prospects of Papworth securing his choice, given his limited budget, seemed remote. But bidding on the Society youngster was subdued, beginning at 50 guineas before moving up to 100 guineas and Papworth’s final and successful nod at 120 guineas. The top-priced Magpie colt that sold for 950 guineas was by no means an extravagance. Registered as Fakenham, he was to win the 1938 A.J.C. Villiers Stakes. But it was the Society colt that would dominate the headlines. He was a fine stamp of a horse so typical of the Magpie breed. Although only of medium size, he was beautifully put together with a long, powerful barrel and the bold head and laid-back nature that distinguished so many of the stallion’s strain. Appropriately enough, given his breeding, Cash registered the youngster as Talking. And before the spring of his three-year-old season was over, the bay colt would have everybody doing just that.
A horse’s character is almost always inherited, and in those days, it was as rare to get an excitable yearling by Magpie, as it was to get a quiet one by Linacre. Talking was as laid back as most and Alf Papworth was patient with him. His racing career began humbly enough in a two-year-old handicap at, of all places, Menangle Park in January 1936. Today it might seem a curious venue at which to produce a prospective Derby colt for his racecourse debut, particularly when the first prize was a meagre £33. But in the mid-thirties as Australia struggled to cast off the slough of Depression, these provincial meetings often attracted good support because of the strength of their betting ring. Moreover, Menangle Park possessed a good long straight – something that Papworth realised would suit his staying colt.
Even in these early months, Papworth knew that he had something special and the stable threw in for a good win on the colt, backing him into a 4/1 second favourite. With Andy Knox warming the leathers he scrambled in to win by a short head. After a further unplaced run, Talking won successive races at Canterbury Park and Randwick. Papworth then set him for a handicap at Randwick on Sydney Cup Day, and again the stable didn’t forget to back him, but this time they left their money in the ring when the colt got beaten in the last stride. An intimation of the regard in which Papworth held the horse, came when the trainer decided to back him up in the valuable A.J.C. Champagne Stakes on the third day of the autumn meeting, although the distance was hardly in his favour. It was his final appearance for the season and the son of Magpie finished nearer last than first.
The Champagne Stakes that year was expected to be an easy gallop for the juvenile sensation of the season, Gold Rod. A chunky chestnut colt with conspicuous white markings including a big baldy face, this good-looking son of Chief Ruler was a grandson of the great Desert Gold. Oreum, the dam of Gold Rod, had been Desert Gold’s first winner. Tom Lowry, whose name will always be associated with that remarkable mare, had bred Gold Rod in the Hawke’s Bay district. He was sired, however, at the Westmere Stud in the Wanganui district, where for years John Donald had that wonderful stud success, Chief Ruler, a son of The Tetrach and Jest, a full sister to Absurd, that brilliant English two-year-old who became such an outstanding sire in New Zealand. Jest was also the dam of the English Derby winner, Humorist. Chief Ruler was a massive stallion, and he had been purchased privately from J.B. Joel as an unbroken three-year-old, a serious accident as a yearling having rendered him unsound for racing. Gold Rod was owned by that liberal patron of the Turf and former committeeman of the N.Z. Racing Conference, E. J. Watt and had been purchased as a yearling for 350 guineas and placed in the Randwick stables of George Price.
At his racecourse debut at the A.J.C. Spring Meeting, Gold Rod had scattered a competitive field of two-year-olds in the Breeders’ Plate. Watt often bought yearlings at the New Zealand sales and from the time he gave 350 guineas for this youngster, he had no cause for regret. In winning the 1935 Breeders’ Plate, Gold Rod secured for his owner his third success in that juvenile classic. Even that early in the season, Gold Rod in the saddling paddock on Breeders’ Plate day had the build of an older horse. He was a big-barrelled fellow with massive hindquarters, considering his age. Despite this superior physical development, he wasn’t even an early foal, having been dropped in late September. Hence, he was just on two when he made his racecourse debut.
At first glance, he appeared above himself in condition, but on closer inspection, it was his natural muscular conformation, and in fact, Price had had him in work for some weeks. Many horses by Chief Ruler were turned out in that gross manner, and certainly the stable was confident that he was forward enough. The colt was heavily backed into favouritism, with Tonga the only one thought likely to challenge him. The race turned out that way too, with the two colts having it to themselves before Gold Rod dashed away in the straight to win by four lengths. Gold Rod did not run again until he was started for the December Stakes at Randwick on Boxing Day and he rather tarnished his reputation by being easily defeated into third place. He was then rather backwards and possibly, given his marked superiority in the Breeders’ Plate, George Price had him underdone.
It wasn’t a mistake that the canny New Zealand trainer made when the big chestnut resumed in the autumn. Gold Rod was in cracking form. He posted a race record in winning the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Flemington when he wasn’t ridden out at the finish and completed the double by winning the A.J.C. equivalent at Randwick. Rarely do bookmakers fail to find some method of betting on a race that is regarded as a certainty for one of the competitors. However, they were fairly defeated in that particular Sires’ Produce Stakes. It was usual in such cases to bet on the one-two basis, but in this instance, Gold Rod and Fidelity stood right out as the winner and runner-up that most fielders decided it was better to look on. Casting their minds back over the years few of the regular racegoers about in that season could recall another two-year-old who was as superior to others of his age as Gold Rod was in 1936. He had extraordinary speed, and his action was so smooth and effortless; there was nothing in the least temperamental about him.
It was for this reason that bookmakers fielding at Randwick on the third day of the autumn meeting sent him to the post in the Champagne Stakes at the prohibitive market quotation of 7/1 on. Unfortunately for those acolytes who took the skinny odds about him on that occasion, the condition of the track brought about his downfall. There were some freak results on that day’s programme due to heavy rainfall just before dawn, which left the ground soft in parts and made the going very tricky. For a few years, the track had become overgrown with Parramatta grass, which had a habit of forming clumps, and rendered the surface very uneven. The club had top-dressed the course to overcome the problem. The top-dressing had the effect of making the surface slippery after rain, and it was that which brought about the downfall of Gold Rod in the Champagne Stakes. When the youngster jumped away, his hind legs slipped from under him, and it was mainly due to the horsemanship of McCarten that the colt even stayed on his feet. When McCarten set him going, however, he was struck in the eye with mud from the heels of those in front, and it was apparent that he disliked the conditions intensely, Tonga taking the prize.
Gold Rod apart, Maurice McCarten enjoyed that 1936 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting immensely for it saw him partnering the champion six-year-old New Zealand mare, Cuddle. Rarely does it fall to any jockey to ride two champions in successive races on the same card but McCarten did it on the first day of that meeting, when, a half-hour after piloting Gold Rod home in the Sires’ Produce Stakes, he landed the rich Doncaster Handicap on the outstanding and versatile racemare. Unraced at two and only lightly raced at three and four, Cuddle really came into her own as an aged mare. A daughter of the indifferently performed English stallion Psychology, Cuddle was owned by R. J. Murphy and trained for the Doncaster by that New Zealand expatriate, George Price. The mare was coming off a Melbourne campaign that saw her win the V.A.T.C. St George Stakes and run second in both the V.A.T.C. Futurity Stakes and the V.R.C. Essendon Stakes but her inglorious last in the V.R.C. Australian Cup saw her prejudiced against in Doncaster betting.
After 25/1 had been bet earlier in the day, Cuddle eventually went to the post at 14/1. Handicapped on 9st. 4lb, McCarten gave a brilliant exhibition in the rain-affected going on the mare from her bad barrier draw. After balancing the mare early on the better ground out wide, McCarten swept her to the lead at the five and thereafter gave nothing else a chance. Something of Cuddle’s versatility and power of recuperation was demonstrated at Randwick later that week when, after finishing last in the hands of another jockey in Contact’s Sydney Cup, she stepped out two days later with McCarten to win the All-Aged Plate. Yet as memorable as Cuddle proved to be during that A.J.C. week, it wasn’t the mare but rather the chunky chestnut son of Chief Ruler that Maurice McCarten was anticipating with relish come the spring.
Still, McCarten knew that A.J.C. Derby history abounded with brilliant colts, which in their first season dominated the juvenile classics over short courses, only to be unable to extend their speed to stamina over the classic mile-and-a-half journey at three. Or as Banjo Patterson once put it: “there are numerous backers who found their way to the old men’s home at Lidcombe through trusting brilliant sprinters to get a mile and a half.” During the winter of 1936 the talk in the Tattersalls clubs and pubs and the other places where racing matters, focused on whether God Rod was entitled to his Derby favouritism. Certainly, his brilliance and relaxed temperament were acknowledged, but his muscular conformation, particularly in his forequarters and barrel was suggestive of a horse more comfortable at a mile. Moreover, he had a distinctive high head carriage when at full gallop, a characteristic not usually associated with an ability to cover ground. His pedigree, however, indicated that the Derby distance might well be within his compass. After all, his sire Chief Ruler was a half-brother to the English Derby winner Humorist, and had already proven himself an outstanding sire of stayers; his dam Oreum had won over 10 furlongs. Whatever the doubts about his pedigree, the V.R.C. handicapper, J. H. Davis, took no risks with Gold Rod when he framed his Melbourne Cup weights, allocating the chestnut 7 st. 10lb, or four pounds more than weight-for-age. Talking, on the other hand, was rated six pounds inferior.
Talking wintered splendidly and when he returned to Papworth’s stables, he had furnished into a nice colt. First time out he won at his home course of Rosehill. The race was a stakes race at weight-for-age, restricted to horses that had never won a prize of at least £300. Talking led all the way to win in fine style and in fast time. It was after that race that Papworth declared his faith in the Magpie colt by paying up for the Warwick Stakes. The special conditions of weight-for-age, with allowances for horses that had not won a race to the value of £500, brought Talking into that contest with only 7 st. 1lb.
This was the celebrated occasion on which Papworth wanted his own son, Max, to ride the horse. The boy rode the colt in much of his work but had only been granted his riding licence earlier that month. In the circumstances, the chief steward, Mr Fraser, approached Papworth before the time for jockeys to weigh out and suggested that, given the importance of the race and the public money invested, it might be desirable to book a stronger and more experienced hoop. Accordingly, Jack O’Sullivan, who had ridden the colt once in the autumn, got the mount despite declaring two-pound overweight. The field for the Warwick Stakes was a good one and included Cuddle, Lough Neagh, Silver Ring and Sylvandale; yet Talking had three lengths to spare at the winning post, running the mile in 1 minute 38 seconds and landing some good bets for the stable. It was this performance that marked Talking as a genuine Derby contender.
On that same Warwick Farm programme, Gold Rod had opened his three-year-old season in style with an easy victory in the more traditional Derby lead-up, the Hobartville Stakes. Among the cognoscenti at the Farm, opinions were divided as to the relative merits of Talking and Gold Rod from a Derby perspective. And as it transpired, the debate was not to be resolved until Derby Day itself, for the two colts took different routes to the A.J.C. classic. At the Tattersalls meeting at Randwick, Gold Rod at 8/11 and burdened with a seven-pound penalty, ensured his Derby favouritism by winning the Chelmsford Stakes from the top New Zealand colt Mala, who was the best of the Dominion contingent that year. Mala, a well-made bay colt by Lackham, an imported son of Roi Herode, came across from New Zealand with a big reputation. He had only started four times at two, winning twice, including the weight-for-age Wellington Stakes in New Zealand in a quick time. Mala’s sustained run in the straight in the Chelmsford to get within a half-length of Gold Rod at the finish, despite a tendency to run off the course, was enough to suggest he would fare even better at the longer Derby distance.
However, Gold Rod’s impressive performance at the Tattersall’s meeting invested the colt with an aura of invincibility for the Derby. After all, his time for the Chelmsford Stakes was the fastest for the race since Heroic had beaten Gloaming twelve years before. Papworth meanwhile had kept Talking at home for his final Derby trial in the Rosehill Guineas. The colt, however, sustained a blot on his escutcheon, when Shakespeare proved the more fluent over the even-money favourite. Excuses were made for Talking’s defeat that day. His jockey John Donkin, who two months later was to die in tragic circumstances in India, had taken the horse to the front at the three furlongs post in an attempt to lead all the way. Indeed, he misjudged the pace rather badly, establishing a commanding lead at the home turn only to be run down by Shakespeare in the last few strides.
The 1936 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions are set out in the table below:
Derby Day dawned in brilliant sunshine and racing conditions were perfect even if Jack Gaxieu’s performance with the starting lever wasn’t. For the ladies on the lawn, Flora made herself the bride of Apollo for the day and gay fashion abounded. The ladies bloomed in all the efflorescent hues of spring. One witnessed the whole of a florist’s catalogue go past in a cavalcade of lovely tints and variegations. While it did not seem to the racegoer a record crowd, among the 62,000 in attendance it is fair to say it was a crowd of happy excitement.
In the classic itself, nine colts accepted. Bookmakers and racegoers alike trusted the Chelmsford Stakes form as the arbiter of the betting market. Gold Rod was a pronounced favourite at 4/7, with the highly regarded New Zealand colt Mala second elect at 7/1. Some of the confidence about Mala was inspired by an impressive track gallop the week before, but those in the 62,000 Randwick crowd supporting Mala might not have been so sanguine had they been aware of an incident earlier that morning in Princes-street when the horse slewed into the side of a tram. The mishap was to give rise to an unsuccessful and at times comical, Supreme Court claim for damages the following year by the colt’s owner-trainer Henry Russell. Talking, quoted at 10/1, was on the third line of betting along with his Rosehill Guineas’ conqueror, Shakespeare.
Shakespeare was a big colt by Tippler that Hunter White had bred at his Havilah Stud, Mudgee; he was sold for 210 guineas as a yearling and entrusted to the stewardship of 54-year-old ‘Pat’ Nailon. Nailon whose Avoca-street stables were among the best at Randwick had established a sound reputation as a trainer of stayers. Prior to the Great War, he had been the foreman for Bill Kelso, grandfather of the family trio of trainers that bore that name. In May 1914 Nailon moved to Brisbane to become the private trainer for A. B. ‘Bunny’ Nagel for whom he won the 1916 Queensland Cup with Bachelors Persse and the 1917 Brisbane Cup with Bunting. It was largely the patronage of E. J. Watt that lured Nailon back to Sydney. In 1920 he won the A.J.C. Metropolitan Handicap for that generous owner with Pershore, a success he repeated for the same owner in the same race fourteen years later with Waikare.
Shakespeare was a particularly good type of colt by Tippler from the Brakespear mare Spear Threat and gave the impression that he would develop into a really good stayer. Backward because of his size, and he was not seen to advantage at two. However, Shakespeare impressed many when a good second behind Gold Rod in the Hobartville Stakes and gave the lie to any notion that speculation on his Derby chances was much ado about nothing when he ran Talking down at Rosehill. Sure, Tippler didn’t inspire confidence from a staying point of view but the dam of Shakespeare was a product of the St Simon-Musket cross. Shakespeare carried the colours of Dr Nigel Smith, a newcomer to racing, who missed the Rosehill Guineas because he was at Oakleigh in Victoria taking part in the Australian Open golf championship meeting. But Nailon had encouraged Smith to be at Randwick as he considered the horse a sound prospect and the best chance he had had to win the Derby up to this stage in his training career.
Among the outsiders in the A.J.C. Derby was Billy Boy, a prepossessing colt trained by Fred Williams who had won the Canterbury Guineas for his owner, Leslie Utz whose nom de course was ‘Miss Lorna Doone’. Custos, the best juvenile in New Zealand the previous season, prepared by Fred Jones was another who shared the fourth line of betting, along with Rob Roy, a half-brother by Night Raid to Homer, the ill-fated Derby hero of 1935, owned by Percy Miller and trained by veteran Ike Foulsham. Rob Roy had originally been purchased as a yearling by L.K.S. Mackinnon for 1450 guineas and was only bought by Miller upon Mackinnon’s death. There was a little support for Custos in the betting, but the public overlooked the remainder with Brazilian, a half-brother to Peter Pan by Brazen, owned and trained in the same interests as the grand champion, the despised outsider at 50/1.
The race proved a somewhat muddling affair early. Crowding marred the start, and Billy Boy was so badly behaved that when the barrier was released, he caused Shakespeare to dislodge his rider. Talking’s early speed carried him to the front at once to lead from Gold Rod and Rob Roy, and this remained the order for the best part of four furlongs when Mala displaced Rob Roy. Over the back of the course and just past the milepost, the pace was so slow that McCarten allowed the favourite to stride to the lead and Mala went with him. The order remained the same as the field swept into the straight with Andy Knox riding a waiting race on Talking. At the furlong, the tyranny of the distance told on Gold Rod, and Mala hit the front to be acclaimed the winner only to be unable to withstand the final challenge of Talking.
The fallen Shakespeare galloped after the field and when the mounted brigade had pulled up after passing the winning post, he continued galloping until he reached the back of the course and was captured sometime later near the six furlongs marker. It was a consummate performance by Talking, who, like a true Australian magpie, relished the glorious sunshine and firm ground, and covered the distance in 2 minutes 32 ½ seconds, one and a quarter seconds outside Phar Lap’s race record. It was a time that had only been bettered on three occasions in the history of the race.
For 53-year-old Alf Papworth, the A.J.C. Derby was to be his most important success as a trainer. The money won on Talking both in the ring and on the course, supplemented by a generous £5,000 from Cash upon Talking’s sale, enabled Papworth to construct a beautiful new home and modern stables at Harris Park, which he christened after his Derby winner. If I may borrow a phrase of Rudyard Kipling’s, it was after that memorable spring of 1936 that Papworth was to experience in full measure those twin imposters of triumph and tragedy on the Turf. The tragedy came with the death of his jockey son in a race crash the following year. Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first call promising.
In the months after the stewards’ decision to refuse young Maxie Papworth the mount on Talking in the Warwick Stakes, the boy had developed into a most promising lightweight. Only fifteen months after victory in the A.J.C. blue riband, on the very same course where Talking had proved supreme, Papworth watched his fifteen-year-old son Maxie crash to the Turf on Villiers Stakes Day, 1937, when five horses fell at the turn into the straight in the First Division of the Novice Handicap. A crushed rib penetrated his lung and from the moment of his fall, little hope was held out for his recovery. He died 48 hours later in hospital. The boy, who had ridden Talking in so much of his work in preparation for that 1936 Derby, was just 15 years of age. The funeral, held at St Paul’s Church, Parramatta, was one of the biggest ever seen in the district.
At the time of his death, he had already ridden seventeen winners that season. Watching the fatal crash of Bronze Tulip, and learning of the subsequent death of Maxie, recalled to one pressman a day not long before when the young Papworth had ridden his first winner at Randwick. On that occasion, he had been aboard his father’s horse, Curator, and it had been something of a family triumph. The elder Papworth then had stood to wait for Curator’s return to the dismounting point. The boy, his face flushed, trotted Curator back to scale. Father’s eyes met son’s, in a silent message of congratulation. Then the boy in Maxie, despite, or perhaps because of the importance of the occasion, gave one enormous wink. It was just a moment, and then the young face again assumed its serious aspect, awaiting the judge’s order to dismount.
But the capriciousness of the Turf’s fortunes showed itself again in the 1939-40 racing season when Papworth once more emerged triumphantly. In that year he trained Bonny Loch to win the Canterbury Guineas and realised his life’s ambition by heading the list of Sydney’s winning trainers. I don’t think that any trainers’ premiership has ever been more fiercely contested than it was in that year. Going into the final race meeting, Ascot, on the very last day of the season, Papworth (32 wins and a dead heat) trailed both Fred Cush (34 wins) and Joe McCurley (33 wins and two dead heats). All three trainers had runners engaged at the meeting, but only Papworth was successful, training a double.
Accordingly, he won the premiership by virtue of a dead heat, although his horses won only £6,168 that season; by comparison, Bayly Payten’s stable won £14,410 from 30 wins and a dead heat. It was to prove a short-lived high for the trainer, however, who died in Parramatta District Hospital less than four months later. Though suffering from heart affection, he had been most active right up to the time of his entering hospital and the announcement that he was gravely ill. Blessed with a cheerful disposition, Papworth accepted the vicissitudes of life with equanimity. So, it was the irony of fate that just when he had reached the pinnacle of his profession, he should be cut down.
Born at Lue near Mudgee nearly 58 years before, Alf’s father, Radford Papworth, had managed Gumin and Walla stations near Coonamble on behalf of V. J. Dowling for many years. In a sense he was reared in the saddle for as a child he was equal to winning prizes in the show ring. Later he gained renown as a buckjump rider in the western districts. For a number of years, he was conspicuous in the Mudgee, Coonamble and Dubbo region as an amateur rider and his victories in events restricted to this class of horseman numbered more than a hundred. For example, in May 1900 we find him at a meeting of gentlemen favourable to the formation of an Amateur Race Club at Warrumbungle. Those experiences in bush racing furnished him with a fund of amusing anecdotes.
During the years of the First World War, Papworth enjoyed success at places such as Parkes, Dubbo and Wellington with Water Lass and Diamond Rock but it wasn’t until he got hold of Carmray and Eudare a couple of years later that he was prepared to try his hand in the big smoke. Carmray, who had won many races in the western districts proved his first calling card when he won races at Warwick Farm and Rosehill at good prices. And from the beginning, when Alf Papworth fancied one of his string, the weight of money for it was felt in the ring. It was with half-sisters and brothers of Carmray, all bred by Arthur Cleaver, a well-known Western sportsman, horses such as Sister Ray, Platonic, Homeric and Helen of Troy, that Papworth kept his stable going. Slowly Alf built his client base, usually drawn from successful Parramatta businessmen such as H. W. Ashby and Tom Lockett, mine host of the Woolpack Hotel at Parramatta.
Perhaps the turning point in his training fortunes was when he privately bought Black Douglas, a tried son of Rossendale for around 500 guineas in May 1930. Sporting Papworth’s own colours, the horse won some nice races at Rosehill, Moorefield and Warwick Farm. Papworth backed Black Douglas to win the 1931 A.J.C. Metropolitan, coupling him with a number of Epsom contenders including the ultimate winner Autopay. Alas, Black Douglas could only run seventh. Papworth’s fortune would have to wait a bit longer. The man from Lue got his hands on another well-bred youngster that same year when Bonnie Valerie came into his stables. A well-bred daughter by Caravel from Galtee Queen, she was a half-sister to those two very expensive yearlings bought by Ned Moss, Vaals and Sion.
Bonnie Valerie won the Wentworth Handicap worth £612 at the 1931 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting, which enabled Papworth to buy a new sedan car and for a time he entertained visions of the filly being good enough to contest the A.J.C. Derby. Unfortunately, after her two-year-old days, she lost all form although later at stud she rewarded Papworth by dropping Bonny Loch. Papworth then endured a hard time during those early years of the new decade but still, it’s a long road that has no pub, as the anti-prohibitionists used to say. By the time that Bull Ant and Talking came along, nobody could doubt that Papworth deserved them. He had proven himself as a man that could keep a horse up for a long time and place him properly whether on metropolitan courses or at provincial fixtures according to his ability.
Alf Papworth was a man who enjoyed great popularity with his peers and those were the days when there was a real camaraderie amongst the Rosehill trainers. Papworth was active on the social front too, being a member of Tattersall’s Club and the Masonic Lodge at Parramatta as well as president of the Rosehill Cricket Club. Together with Neil McKenna of Randwick, he organised the annual cricket match played between Rosehill and Randwick trainers. Papworth’s death should have led to his son Colin succeeding him in his Weston-street stables but legally he was only a minor at the time and thereby ineligible for a trainer’s licence. Accordingly, Papworth’s nephew, Harry, fronted the establishment for a brief period until Colin was able to take control. Harry and Colin inherited a large team of sixteen horses that included Chatham’s Choice who would be placed in the A.J.C. Derby the following season.
Talking provided the popular lightweight jockey, Andy Knox with his second A.J.C. Derby winner in succession, having been on the ill-fated Homer the year before. A likeable, knockabout character, Knox had honed his trade on the old pony courses of Sydney and was then riding in the finest form of his career. He headed the Sydney Winning Jockeys’ List for the first time in the 1934-35 season, and then successfully defended the title the following year when – but for a broken ankle towards the close of the season incurred in a barrier incident – he would have posted a century of winners. During the 1930s and the early war years, Knox won many of Australia’s richest races including a Caulfield Cup on Denis Boy and a Melbourne Cup on the 100/1 Old Rowley. His career was to end prematurely in rather sensational circumstances. In 1944 he and Fred Shean were each disqualified for two years.
Evidence revealed that Knox had offered Shean £500 to get his mount beaten in the Cameron Handicap at Newcastle, and had induced Shean to make a similar offer to jockey Noel McGrowdie. The latter declined to be part of the scam and went on to win the race on Abbeville. Both jockeys appealed. Shean argued that he did not intend “to have anything to do with it” and had also advised McGrowdie not to entertain the inducement. Although McGrowdie supported Shean’s version of events, the A.J.C. committee nonetheless dismissed the appeal. Knox’s appeal, in which he produced no new evidence, only served to worsen his plight. Instead of his original two-year disqualification, the committee saw fit to increase the term to ten years. Although this was later halved, the episode effectively ended his career in the pigskin. Knox was a broken and embittered man, and at the time his disqualification was lifted declared: “I’m a taxi driver, now and this is all I plan to be. The Turf and I are no longer friends.” He died in 1969 in impoverished circumstances.
Among the top-hatted brigade in the lofty vice-regal circle at Randwick on Derby Day was that old scoundrel W. M. (Billy) Hughes, the former prime minister of Australia. The so-called Little Digger, who never saw a bullet fired in anger, infamously jumped political parties with regularity during his career in a self-interested bid to stay atop of Disraeli’s greasy pole. At one time, he had belonged to every political party in Australia bar the Country Party. When asked why the exception, Hughes famously responded: “I had to draw the line somewhere.” Hughes wasn’t a racegoer but the one-time umbrella repairman enjoyed mixing it with the toffs. “Billy Boy for the A.J.C. Derby!” advised Billy in conversation with the Governor-General, Lord Gowrie. Consistent with many of the acidic Welshman’s prognostications, political and otherwise, Billy Boy ran last. Apparently, Richard Bennett, the former Canadian prime minister who was also present in the vice-regal box, was privy to Hughes’ information. After the races, Mr Bennett could not be drawn into enthusiastic praise of Australia’s ex-PM as a picker of winners.
“No,” said Mr Bennett, with a little sadness in his voice, “I will not be able to introduce Mr Hughes to Canada as the author of an infallible betting system.” When told of this exchange, Hughes thought for a moment. “Ah,” Hughes responded, “I am very much afraid that it is a sad story. Mr Bennett did not keep faithfully to the Hughes’ tips. He strayed and gave heed to other counsellors. Mr Bennett did not tell me how he finished, and that itself is an ominous sign. And, of course, I may be mistaken, but I thought he looked at me reproachfully once or twice. In the interests of Mr Bennett, I sought tips from every quarter. And I was overwhelmed with special information. Red-hot, last minute, unimpeachable information, all of it. But, strangely enough, it was contradictory.”
Of course, the big story associated with Talking that year came after the Derby. Taken to Melbourne, he ran third in the Caulfield Cup, beaten less than a length. It was a high-class performance as he was thoroughly tested for stamina in the race. The colt pulled early, and Knox then attempted to lead on him all the way, and, despite lugging out on the treacherous Caulfield turn, it was only in the last half-furlong that he surrendered. Later that evening, Alan Cooper, the owner of the Segenhoe Stud at Scone, and a man who was becoming something of the clown prince of Australian racing in the mid-1930s, approached Sam Cash and offered £10,000 for Talking. This initial offer was refused and when asked how much he wanted to effect a sale, Cash set a price of £20,000 – which would have been taken by a sensible man to mean that there was no business to be done.
But Alan Cooper was anything but a sensible man and he had set his hat at getting the colt. He countered by pointing out that at £20,000 it would take a large sum to insure Talking. Cash saw the opportunity of a lifetime and compromised at a price of £19,000. Some compromise! This was an Australasian record price and as Cash well knew when he shook hands on the deal, were Talking to win both the Victoria Derby and the Melbourne Cup as well as both St Legers and a slew of weight-for-age races over the balance of the season, he still would not have returned the cash that Cash got from Cooper. It was sensational news when it was announced to the public on Monday, October 19th. In racing circles, Alan Cooper was widely believed to be the illegitimate son of John Brown, the dour Newcastle industrialist and colliery owner. If his antecedents were somewhat obscure, the source of his bankroll wasn’t; it was the earnings of the late coal magnate’s Newcastle enterprise that was providing Cooper with the means of embarking on one of the most spectacular spending sprees in the history of Australian racing.
Cooper first emerged on the racecourse in the early 1930s with a string of expensive acquisitions and enjoyed his first notable success when Bill Chaffe trained Sun Clad on his behalf to win the 1933 V.A.T.C. Debutant Stakes. Nor was Cooper merely content to race his horses. Given the opportunity in Corinthian races, he often partnered his own charges. Knowing no other criterion of greatness, but the ostentation of his newly acquired wealth in buying expensive bloodstock, Cooper soon set new heights for prodigality. Two years before the purchase of Talking, when the New Zealand mare Capris appeared to hold a mortgage on the 1935 Adrian Knox Stakes, Cooper gave the price asked by her owner. The filly was subsequently beaten at 9/4 on, although she did redeem some of the purchase cost by landing the 1936 Epsom Handicap on protest from Gay Lover, the same day that Talking had taken the Derby. But £19,000 was an extraordinary sum in the days when colonial-bred horses were looked upon with condescension. After all, first prize in the Melbourne Cup that year including the value of the cup itself was only £7,200.
The sum paid by Cooper eclipsed the previous Australasian record of 16,000 guineas that Charles Kellow had given for Heroic in 1925. Confirming the purchase, Cooper declared: “I would have offered £25,000 for Peter Pan. I wanted a first-class stallion and would have been prepared to pay more than £10,000 for one in England. Still, I think the value was in Talking. I consider him worth that amount as an investment as a stud property. I am not greatly concerned over the monetary return likely to come from the racecourse, and I might not start him in the Melbourne Cup at all. I was so attracted by Talking’s appearance and the speed, strength and doggedness he has displayed in his races that I have decided to have an Australian-bred sire instead of going to England for one. I was also influenced by the success of Windbag and Heroic at the studs here. I have 55 well-bred mares at my stud at Segenhoe. Talking will have as good an opportunity for making a name for himself there as a sire as he had of getting to the top as a racehorse.”
At the time of the sale, Talking had won £5,510 in stakes, and this amount together with the £19,000 from the sale had given Sam Cash a rather good return on the original 120 guineas purchase price. It indeed offers a disclaimer against the time-honoured theory that the only way to end up with a small fortune in racing is to start with a large one. But perhaps it was the other party to the transaction, Alan Cooper, who invested the truth of that adage. What could have prompted Cooper to pay so much? Despite the bravado of his comments on the day of the purchase, much of the answer lies in his ambition to win the Melbourne Cup, a race that the brothers, John and William Brown, had won on separate occasions with Prince Foote and Piastre respectively.
As we shall see, Cooper was to give Talking every opportunity to prove his worth as a progenitor, but the residual value of Australian-bred racehorses as prospective stallions was not high in Australia in those years, even if coming from a distinguished sire line. Rampion, another A.J.C. Derby winner by an outstanding imported stallion bears testimony to this fact. However, it is true to say that the effects of the Depression on the Australian pound (its value in England had fallen to about 15/-) was to provide some opportunities for Australian-bred stallions during the 1930s as the likes of Heroic, Windbag, Manfred, Spearfelt, Veilmond and Liberal were to attest and when some of the old prejudice against colonial-bred stallions was forgotten.
In the wake of Talking’s sale and the extraordinary price paid, the Magpie colt became the favourite not just for the Victoria Derby but for the Melbourne Cup as well. Substantial commissions, not stable inspired, were launched for the ‘Two Talkings’ – Derby and Cup double. He was immediately backed to win about £20,000 and was coupled for big amounts with Sarcherie and Desert Chief. Meanwhile, arrangements were completed for the new wonder colt to gallop at Moonee Valley on the following Saturday, so racegoers could have an opportunity of seeing at close hand the most valuable thoroughbred in Australia. Talking did well after the Caulfield Cup and any fears that the hard race had knocked him out were soon dispelled, not least by his appearance at Moonee Valley. The fact was that most of the Magpie breed were hardy and there was no reason to believe that Talking was any exception to the rule. Generally, as gallopers, they were better at four than three and better at five than four. At least, so hoped Alan Cooper.
In the Victoria Derby, the best price on offer about Talking at barrier rise was 6/4. Victoria provided the second favourite in Prince Quex, a New Zealand-bred colt by Lord Quex, who was generally regarded as a fine stayer. With the exception of Shakespeare and Mala, the others were not taken seriously. Although Beechwood made full use of his extraordinary pace, establishing a long lead in the early stages, it couldn’t be said that Talking was ever in danger of defeat. He was pulling hard in third place as the field commenced the run along the riverside and even then, it was evident that Knox had every confidence in the ability of Talking to run to the leaders whenever he called upon him. Talking was inclined to hang out a little, but he was racing generously enough and had little or no trouble handling the heavy track, conditions that Magpie’s stock seldom relished. The race was run as a Derby should be run, the fast pace at which Beechwood carried the field along being all in favour of the genuine stayer.
It was simply Talking’s superior stamina that carried the day and he had the race won even a mile from home. At the winning post, the Magpie colt had two and a half lengths to spare. While he won quite easily from Mala, who caught Beechwood in the last few strides, it was doubtful whether Talking could have gone any faster. Mala, who gave both Beechwood and Talking a long start from the half-mile, fought on valiantly under pressure. There was no doubt that in again finishing second, Mala was the unlucky horse of the spring. Indeed, it was his fifth successive second having finished in that same position in a Rosebery Handicap upon resumption and then the Chelmsford Stakes, A.J.C. Derby and W. S. Cox Plate. The chief disappointment of the race was Prince Quex, who at no stage appeared to be a winning chance. Talking carried the ‘white jacket, purple sleeves and cap’, colours once owned by William Brown and sported by Piastre’s jockey when that horse won the Melbourne Cup in 1912. It was a set of colours usually carried by horses owned in the joint interest of both Alan Cooper and his brother, Hal, such as Capris when that mare won the A.J.C. Epsom Handicap earlier that same month.
Apparently, Alan Cooper’s usual colours of ‘orange, red sleeves, black cap’ were not used in this case so as not to be confused with a similar combination of colours carried by Shakespeare. In winning the Victoria Derby, Talking became the 28th horse to win the A.J.C. Derby/V.R.C. Derby double and thereby established himself as the undisputed three-year-old champion of his year. In so doing, he also redeemed £3,500 of Cooper’s outrageous purchase price. As Alan Cooper basked in the reflected glory of being a Derby-winning owner and awaited Talking’s return to the Flemington mounting yard, he wasn’t to know that this was to be the high-water mark of his days on the Turf. Despite the prodigal sums that he would continue to spend in quest of sporting glory, he would never reach such dizzy heights again.
Talking’s performance prompted bookmakers to promote the bay colt to the head of the Melbourne Cup market. Three days later, in glorious spring weather in front of 109,856 people and with Andy Knox still in the saddle, Talking ran unplaced at 3/1 in the Cup won by the 100/1 bolter Wotan. No excuse could be made for his failure. The colt took up a forward position from the outset, and until he weakened shortly after turning for home, had never been farther back than third. So well was Talking placed, that he avoided all risk of interference and had he been good enough he had sufficient opportunity to prove it. He steered an erratic course in the straight – a sure sign that he had reached the end of his endurance. Clearly, Talking was not in quite the same class as Poseidon, Prince Foote, Patrobas, Trivalve, Hall Mark and others who, after winning the Derbies, went on to earn greater distinction in the Melbourne Cup. All the bravura in the world about future weight-for-age races and prospects at stud couldn’t disguise the fact that in paying £19,000, Alan Cooper had played and lost again.
The Cup failure marked the end of Talking’s spring campaign. The colt went for a brief spell at his owner’s Segenhoe Stud. When Talking returned to training in mid-December, it was not to the Rosehill stables of Bert Papworth but rather into the famous ‘Newmarket’ establishment at Randwick then tenanted by Fred Williams. The man who pays the piper calls the tune and Cooper had acquired the landmark stables sometime before. In changing trainers so peremptorily, Cooper was exhibiting a paranoia that would become more pronounced as his life on the Turf unfolded. A difficult man to please at the best of times, before long his list of ex-trainers apart from Papworth would include W. J. Shean, Fred Williams, Ossie Pettit, Jack Jamieson, George Price, Jack Munro and Bob Mead. Mead told the story of getting a young horse to train for Cooper only to fall out with him before the horse had even faced the starter!
Talking’s first campaign for Williams was aborted when the colt pulled up suffering a cut on the inside of his near thigh when resuming in a race at the City Tattersall’s meeting in February. He was then shown a paddock until the following spring. The most expensive racehorse in Australian history up to that time was destined for only six more appearances on a racecourse. After leading all the way to win the Hill Stakes, he ran unplaced in the Epsom Handicap won by Gold Rod. Nonetheless, he exacted a measure of retribution four days later at the A.J.C. Spring Meeting when he took out the Craven Plate from his only three rivals, Gold Rod, Allunga and Lough Neagh, after a smart, tactical ride by Ted Bartle. It was to be Talking’s last victory. In Melbourne, the horse sprained his near hind fetlock at the three-furlong post in The Trump’s Caulfield Cup, and it was only with considerable difficulty that he was removed from the racecourse. However, prominent veterinary surgeon Dr E. F. Bordeaux managed to save him for a career at Segenhoe Stud. Standing at an initial fee of 100 guineas the Derby winner secured a good book of mares in his first season, most of which came from Segenhoe’s own pastures.
Talking’s first crop came on the market at the Sydney Easter Sales in April 1941, and it was a spectacular debut. That year 430 yearlings changed hands during the three days of the auction, and only three brought 1000 guineas or more. A colt by Talking from the excellent mare French Model, bred by Alan Cooper, topped the sales at 1200 guineas. Another colt, a rather fetching chestnut from the Epsom winner Capris, also bred by Cooper, realised 1000 guineas. The Buzzard topped the sales averages at 519 guineas that year; Talking with 12 lots at 3,725 guineas and an average of 310 guineas came in seventh on the list. It was the stylish chestnut colt from Capris who would prove to be Talking’s best son.
Registered as Amana, he was a quality weight-for-age performer winning among other races the Melbourne Stakes, Mackinnon Stakes, Caulfield Stakes, and W.S. Cox Plate. In that same first crop Talking also got the aptly named Main Topic, out of the mare Germain, and, as we shall see, he would emulate his sire and take out the A.J.C. Derby in 1942 as well as The Metropolitan in the following year. I think that it is fair to say that although he got other good horses in Ribbon (A.J.C. Adrian Knox Stakes), Silent (A.J.C. Summer Cup), Blue Ocean (A.J.C. Queen Elizabeth Stakes), and Dream (B.A.T.C. Doomben Cup), Talking’s first crop was his best. It is worth mentioning that the man who made his fortune from Talking, his original owner Sam Cash, loyally bought two fillies when the first of his hero’s progeny went through the sales ring.
But Cash’s good fortune was Alan Cooper’s misfortune, for his £19,000 investment in the spring of 1936 was always likely to be judged a failure. Even before Main Topic won the 1942 Derby, Cooper had been forced to disperse his stud and lease Talking to Herbert Thompson. In April 1943 Cooper put Talking up for auction and walked out of the auctioneer’s rostrum in disgust when bidders refused to go beyond 1900 guineas. But in the end – such was the deplorable state of his finances – he was compelled to take the price from F. V. Kelly of the Killarney Stud, Canowindra. Incidentally, Talking wasn’t the only horse that Cooper acquired from that 1936 Derby field.
In August 1937 he gave £7,000 for Mala as well. The horse did manage to win him the Chelmsford Stakes and the Randwick Plate, but then tragically died after running an unplaced favourite in the Doomben Cup. Cooper was not only capable of expensive and impulsive transactions in acquiring horses. He could be just as erratic in parting with them. The sale of the racehorse, St. Constant, is a case in point. Purchased as a yearling by Cooper for 525 guineas, the colt gave immediate promise by running second in the Breeders’ Plate. However, in his subsequent two and three-year-old career, the colt was the medium of betting plunges by Cooper on which he rarely delivered. After disappointing in the Hobartville Stakes, a frustrated Cooper declared he was sick and tired of his failures and for ten shillings asked: “Who will rid me of this troublesome colt?”
The answer came from rather close at hand. Cooper’s trainer Joe Cook wasn’t one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Cook didn’t have a 10/- note in his pocket at the time, but he did have a £1 note, and with that, the deal was done. From that moment forth, St. Constant exhibited considerable improvement. At his very next start, carrying Cook’s colours, he won a high-weight handicap at Rosehill and then proceeded to develop into such a useful stayer that the following season he finished second in the Caulfield Cup and was installed as the third favourite for the Melbourne Cup in the race won by Catalogue. It was on the eve of that race that Cooper, who had already much cause to regret his precipitate sale of the horse, claimed a proprietary interest in St. Constant. The secretary of the V.R.C. investigated Cooper’s claim that, at the time of the sale to Cook, it was understood the horse would be returned to Cooper for use as a stud stallion, upon retirement from the Turf. The V.R.C. investigated the matter and subsequently declared Cook to be the only registered owner and the horse’s nominations entirely in order. Perhaps the incident revealed as much about Cook’s character as it did about Cooper’s.
But before I draw down the curtain on that 1936 Derby, let me say something about Gold Rod, the beaten odds-on favourite in the event. In the fullness of time, he would prove himself to be the best horse in that 1936 A.J.C. Derby field. In finishing third in the race, Gold Rod jarred one of his legs and was put by until the autumn when he won the Futurity Stakes; later in the same campaign with Talking off the scene, he demonstrated his versatility by taking out the A.J.C. St Leger as well. But his true journey was a mile. He showed that comprehensively in the 1937 Epsom when he won with the good horse’s weight of 9 st. 3lb. It was thought that the heavy track might have been against Gold Rod that day. Despite the fact that his two forelegs and off hind leg were swathed in bandages and his near hind fetlock was strapped with sticking plaster, Gold Rod galloped with glorious freedom to give Maurice McCarten his second Epsom, the first having come on that other Maorilander, Autopay, back in 1931. While Gold Rod went out at 4/1 for the race, the 7/2 favourite was Talking who ran a disappointing tenth. What a different result to the Derby Day of twelve months before! Alas, E. J. Watt, by then a member of the A.J.C. committee, wasn’t at Randwick to see Gold Rod win that Epsom, having only just left England to return to Australia in time for the Melbourne Cup.
The following season as a five-year-old he shouldered a burden of 9-2lb to win the Doncaster. That autumn was a particularly wet one in the weeks leading up to the A.J.C. Easter Meeting and Gold Rod only tended to show his best form on top of the ground. But late in the week before the running of that 1939 Doncaster, the sun shone and a couple of warm, dry days took all of the moisture out of the Randwick track. Gold Rod then became the subject of heavy wagering on the event, and with Maurice McCarten in the saddle, he dominated the race from the start. He was easily the best horse that E. J. Watt ever owned and won more than £18,770 in stakes. Unfortunately, when retired to his owner’s stud at Molong, Gold Rod was to prove a disappointment. In Sydney, in April 1946, after the death of E. J. Watt, Gold Rod was sold for 1600 guineas to go to stud in New Zealand but died on the voyage to Wellington.