In the story of Australian bloodstock breeding during the first half of the twentieth century, one man and one stud stand supreme. The man was Percy Frederick Miller; the Stud was Kia-Ora. Born in 1879, the youngest of eleven children, Miller started life in rather humble circumstances in the inner Sydney suburb of Leichardt. When only a boy he set out on man’s estate to earn a living by purchasing a few calves, slaughtering them himself at the old Glebe Island Abattoirs, and then selling the meat to Sydney’s retail butchers. From such modest beginnings, he eventually prospered to become one of the largest carcass butchers in Sydney, founding the firm Miller Bros. It was in 1902 that Percy Miller married his childhood sweetheart, Mabel, and the couple were to be blessed with only one child – a daughter, Marjorie – born three years later. Happy in a secure marriage, as his fledgeling meat business burgeoned in the early years of the century, Percy Miller began to race a few trotters, retaining the brothers Bert and Peter Riddle to prepare and drive the horses. If the standard-bred was to be his first love, the thoroughbred was to supplant it and become his lifelong passion.
His first thoroughbred was a colt by Maltster from Red Flag, which he purchased as an Easter yearling in 1910. Registered rather unimaginatively as Malt Flag, Bill Kelso trained him to win a few races. Subsequently, Miller resolved to build up a stud, and he became a prospective buyer of any well-bred mare by Maltster or Wallace that came onto the market, with Kelso acting as his eminence grise on all matters bloodstock. The first prestigious race in which his colours were carried to victory came with Starland, a daughter of The Welkin, in the 1914 Gimcrack Stakes. I think this really began his love affair with daughters of The Welkin and he was assiduous in seeking well-bred mares by that stallion for his stud. A good example of this policy was Miller’s purchase of those two smart sprinting sisters by The Welkin in Poitrina and Aries. Sporting Miller’s livery, Poitrina won both the A.J.C. June Stakes and V.A.T.C. Oakleigh Plate, while Aries snaffled the A.J.C. Challenge Stakes and Tattersall’s Carrington Stakes. At the same time, Percy Miller extended a commission to the British Bloodstock Agency to buy appropriate English mares, acquiring as many as eight at the December Sales in England in 1915, and these formed the core of his nascent stud. In those days Miller raced under the nom de course of ‘Leslie English’, a fiction he continued through the early years of the War before abandoning it to the full glare of publicity.
It was in February 1914 that Miller purchased the extensive property of A. J. Burcher, near Scone, intending to use it for fattening-up cattle, as well as establishing his standard-bred and thoroughbred horse studs there. Initially, his holding consisted of about 1800 acres, which he initially named Kiora, although the spelling was later amended to Kia-Ora. The property, only a few miles out of Scone, was in a belt of country crowded with breeding establishments; at one time it had formed part of the old Segenhoe estate owned by William Brown. The Kia-Ora property was separated from what remained of Segenhoe by the Page River, which a few miles further downstream joined with the Hunter. It was ideal land for a thoroughbred stud, beginning with rich river flats of alfalfa extending inland to sheltered and timbered hills.
In early 1915, in his quest for a thoroughbred stud sire, he negotiated with Richard Wootton, who was then in England and purchased the five-year-old English stallion, Flippant. The horse had been a fair performer when trained by Richard Wootton for Sir Edward Hulton on the English Turf, having won the 1912 Gimcrack Stakes at York at two; and defeated the reigning English Derby favourite Craiganour in the Union Jack Stakes at the Liverpool Spring Meeting over a mile at three. A son of Marcovil, whose only other stakes winner was Hurry On, the hero of the 1916 English St Leger, Flippant was a three-quarter brother to Bronzino, the high-priced but ultimately disappointing stallion that Samuel Hordern imported into this country with much fanfare just a few years before. While both Bronzino and Flippant were out of the Galopin mare Flitters, whereas Marco was the sire of Bronzino, Marcovil, the sire of Flippant, was a son of Marco.
Perhaps Bronzino’s failure should have served as a warning. Flippant came at a price of 1000 guineas and arrived here in the Waiwera in June 1915. Miller raced him briefly here before retiring the horse to his stud in 1916, where he was mated with about twenty mares. However, Flippant wasn’t a stud success and his only stakes winner here was Fluent, who won the 1920 W.A.T.C. Western Australian Derby. Once Flippant’s paternal shortcomings were exposed, Miller moved quickly to supplant him. Miller learned much from this, his first experience in buying English stallions. This quick turnover of non-performing stallions was to become a firm policy of the Kia-Ora studmaster. As far as his stallion philosophy was concerned it was very much a case of – if you will forgive the pun – “many were culled, and few were chosen”. Flippant was merely the first in a long line of casualties that failed to measure up to the exacting standards, only to be quickly sold off.
Consider for a moment if you will, the number of stallions that had already stood at Kia-Ora Stud in the years up to 1937. Apart from Flippant and his successor, Magpie, there were Leverrier, Demosthenes, Nassau, Legionnaire, Saltash, Spelthorne, Sarchedon, Ethiopian, Constant Son, Baralong, Caledon, Pantheon, Christopher Robin, Medieval Knight, Ronsard and Chatham. Now, this isn’t a bad list to be going on with. Later on, of course, came the likes of Piccadilly, Double Remove, Agincourt, Le Grand Duc, Channel Swell, Midstream and Delville Wood. And from the very start, Miller was prepared to pay big money to acquire the right horse. Flippant wasn’t cheap, but when it came to replacing him, Miller outlaid 5000 guineas each for Magpie and Demosthenes. The latter, incidentally, is a rare example of Percy Miller purchasing an already-tried stallion. Demosthenes was something of a sensation when he first got to New Zealand, and the Kia-Ora studmaster went after him. Alas, when installed on the Page River, Demosthenes was most disappointing and proved a shy foal-getter into the bargain. Sarchedon, whom many regarded as the best two-year-old in England, set Miller back 6000 guineas and no less an authority than Dick Wootton declared him to be the finest-looking horse ever imported into Australia. Alas, at stud he, too, proved a failure.
The list appended above shows that Percy Miller had tried sixteen different imported stallions in the first twenty-one years of Kia-Ora’s existence. One is entitled to ask how any studmaster could possibly make a profit by turning over so many expensive stallions so quickly. The answer, dear reader, lies in the remarkable optimism of horse buyers in being willing to fall over each other in a rush to acquire yearlings by well-credentialed but unproven stallions. Given that the gestation period for a horse is some eleven months and a foal won’t race until it is a two-year-old at the earliest, it follows that any stallion will enjoy three books of mares before any shortcomings in his stock become obvious on a racecourse. Miller capitalised on this unbridled optimism of buyers towards the progeny of new stallions. If their stock didn’t fire in the first season or two, Miller quickly discarded the stallion. I might add that Miller was just as ruthless in his culling of poorly-producing mares, with rejects sold at West Maitland. The Kia-Ora Stud simply didn’t retain any stallion or broodmare exhibiting any weakness or lack of a constitution.
But I am getting ahead of my story. It was in Easter 1916 that Percy Miller made his first appearance as a vendor at the Sydney Yearling Sales when his embryonic stud put forth a modest offering of three yearlings, a colt and a filly by Flavus, and a filly by Downshire. The trio realised an aggregate of 280 guineas. In 1917 Miller again submitted three yearlings for sale, and the following year it increased to four. From the very beginning, Miller resolved to be a breeder for the public and as such, apart from a period during the Depression years, his yearlings were largely sold without reserve. It was in 1919 that he offered the first draft of Flippant, seventeen in number. Although his English import sired sound and hardy horses, Flippant wasn’t particularly fashionably-bred for the time, and buyers were not that keen on his progeny. Miller moved quickly to replace him with Magpie whom he purchased for 5000 guineas in May 1919. Now I suspect that the imagination and commercial flair of Percy Miller would have seen Kia-Ora prosper under any circumstances, but the astounding success of Magpie made the task immeasurably easier. I have already told the tale of Magpie in the previous chapter. His progeny were not early comers but Oh! What stamina they possessed when allowed to mature!
It was Windbag, coming from Magpie’s second crop, that really made the stallion’s reputation and the story of his sale, as a yearling, is part of Australian Turf folklore. The champion might so easily have raced in the ownership of Percy Miller, rather than that of his older brother, Bob. When the future Windbag first entered the yearling ring on that autumn day in 1923, he was initially knocked down to Ian Duncan, a leading New Zealand breeder who was buying on commission for a colleague in the Dominion. Duncan had been frustrated in attempts to obtain earlier lots by Magpie that had gone for stiffer prices, and his decision to bid for the Charleville colt had been somewhat impulsive. After the horse had been sold to him and had left the ring, Duncan hurried to where the Kia-Ora draft was stabled at Newmarket for a closer inspection of his latest acquisition. The future Windbag was not only small but a rather weak walker to boot, and in this instance familiarity bred contempt.
Duncan approached the auctioneer, Clive Inglis, and advised him that he wasn’t prepared to transport the horse back to New Zealand. Accordingly, he requested that the colt enter the ring again at the end of the sale. No auctioneer is keen on such a course of action because buyers are immediately wary that there might be something wrong with the animal. So instead, Inglis approached Percy Miller and asked him if he was prepared to relieve Duncan of the purchase. In a lifetime of trading horses, Percy Miller earned a reputation for absolute integrity and straight shooting in his dealings, and this occasion was no different. Miller stated that if Duncan was prepared to take 120 guineas for the colt, he could book it to Bob Miller. He was, and he did. It was in this manner that Windbag became a windfall for Percy’s brother. In ordinary circumstances, Percy would have taken the colt himself. However, the Kia-Ora studmaster had only just broken off his relationship with his trainer Bill Kelso and sold all his horses in work. Accordingly, at the time he wasn’t interested in ownership. Considering what Windbag went on to achieve, Percy’s estrangement from Bill Kelso proved particularly expensive for both men.
Incidentally, when Windbag retired, Miller could have stood him at Kia-Ora for the asking, but at that time he refused to stand a colonial sire at any price. Consequently, Windbag went to Alex Hunter’s Northwood Park Stud, near Seymour in Victoria, after an offer of 4000 guineas was accepted – a good price for an Australian stallion in those days. Alex Hunter was a good friend of Miller – a friendship that traced back to their younger days when each was heavily involved in light-harness racing. Although Percy hadn’t been prepared to stand Windbag as a stallion, he was more than happy to patronise him with a few mares to kick-start his stud career for his friend. Two mares that Miller sent to Northwood Park for Windbag’s first book were Kanooka and Myosotis. It was in this way that two of the great milers of the Australian Turf came into this world when the mares gave foal to Winooka and Chatham respectively. As a matter of fact, these two future champions followed each other into the sales ring when sold as yearlings.
I seem to have wandered off the theme of Magpie and the growth of Kia-Ora Stud, but it is all grist to the mill insofar as the story of the 1937 A.J.C. Derby is concerned. Once Magpie, through the racecourse deeds of his sons, Windbag and Amounis, had become famous, the growth and prosperity of Kia-Ora flourished spectacularly. Percy Miller passed his wholesale butchery business over to his older brother Bob to manage in the mid-1920s once Magpie had guaranteed Kia-Ora’s success, and from then on Percy devoted his energies to the stud. There is nothing in the annals of Australian thoroughbred history to match the mushrooming growth of Kia-Ora, which quickly became the largest stud in the southern hemisphere. The milestones came thick and fast.
It was Percy Miller who bred and sold Dominant, the most expensive yearling ever sold in Australia up to that time when he went for 6750 guineas at Easter 1928; it was a record that stood for thirty years. Dominant was part of the stud’s record aggregate of 33,885 guineas at that year’s Easter sales. I think this is the statistic that best illustrates the stud’s rapid development. In 1919 the yearling sales aggregate was a mere 1865 guineas, and yet just ten years later it had grown to 33,885 guineas! Two years after, in 1930, Percy Miller realised his coveted ambition of consigning one hundred yearlings into the Easter sales ring. Much of the success, as Percy was the first to acknowledge, was due to the animal husbandry of Bert Riddle, the stud manager who was there from the very beginning. In those days the yearlings were despatched to Newmarket well before Easter and, being boxed at Randwick, the youngsters were less likely to incur injury than running loose in the stud paddocks.
Among the six yearlings on offer in 1922, the very first year Magpie’s stock was sold, was a little filly from the well-bred matron, Galtee Princess. The mare traced to the 1885 English Oaks winner, Lonely, dam of Barley who in turn was the dam of Maltster. Galtee Princess had been one of Kia-Ora’s early acquisitions for breeding; she had won races in Perth and Melbourne, and in 1918, was purchased with a Linacre foal-at-foot for 700 guineas by Percy Miller. The Linacre foal subsequently raced successfully as Galtee Maid. Just about all of the progeny of Galtee Princess won races, including this particular filly sold in 1922, later registered as Chatterbox. She raced in the colours of Bob Miller – pale blue, black diamond and sleeves and yellow cap – and was a filly that got better with age. She raced in the 14.2 pony classes before graduating to win at Rosehill, Canterbury Park and Moorefield in Flying company. Perhaps her best effort was to finish second at Randwick in the June Stakes when beaten a neck as the favourite. Unfortunately, she broke down rather severely as a five-year-old and was promptly retired to matronly duties at Kia-Ora. Chatterbox, despite her small stature, proved quite a useful broodmare and had already enjoyed success when Miller mated her with Pantheon in the spring of 1933. The resultant foal was in the draft of Kia-Ora yearlings at the Sydney Easter Sales in 1936.
Percy Miller’s yearling draft in 1936 numbered 95 yearlings from 12 different sires, although Pantheon with 30 yearlings split equally between colts and fillies, boasted the largest representation. Percy Miller looked forward to a good sale of his Pantheon yearlings that year. Only the year before, the stallion had been responsible for the top price paid at the Sydney sales with his colt out of Athenais which went for 1700 guineas. Although that sales-topper hadn’t done anything, Peter Pan’s continued dominance was all the advertising that Pantheon needed. Percy Miller hadn’t drawn well on the first day of those Inglis sales and quite reasonably he held his Pantheons back until the afternoon of the second day. The bay from Chatterbox was the third of the Pantheon colts to enter the ring and the pedigree page in the sales catalogue looked impressive. After all, Boaster, a full brother to Chatterbox, was a half-winner of the 1925 A.J.C. Epsom Handicap while another half-sister, Ascalon, by Sarchedon, had won the 1928 R.R.C. Railway Handicap among other races.
Now it is not always possible to provide a faithful description of a future Derby winner when offered as a yearling, but Avenger, our 1937 hero, is an exception. It was common in those days for the major newspapers of Sydney and Melbourne to send their principal racing writers on a motoring tour of the studs in the run-up to Christmas to review the yearlings for sale the following year. The pressmen would all informally chance their judgement of bloodstock by nominating the yearling they thought most likely. Chiron of ‘The Australasian’ won the contest that year when he showed remarkable prescience in selecting the future Avenger as the pick of the Kia-Ora draft of ninety-six yearlings. I quote below the copy he filed for his newspaper at the time:
“However, to my mind, the pick of the draft is the bay Pantheon colt from that one-time good performer, Chatterbox, by Magpie from Galtee Princess. The breeding is right, and so is the colt. The earlier progeny of Chatterbox were rather on the small side, but lack of size cannot be urged against this fellow, as there is plenty of him, and what there is, is exceptionally good. Although short topped, his back being strong and the middle piece splendidly ribbed, he stands over a lot of ground and is a fine reachy (sic) mover. He gives the impression of perfect pitch and balance. He is exceptionally good in front, with a long clean shoulder well set back, with a long muscular neck and a keen, intelligent head.”
As it transpired, when the colt went through the ring he was bought by Messrs Mackinnon and Cox of Melbourne on behalf of the Victorian sportsman, J. P. Arthur, for 850 guineas. The three days’ sale of thoroughbred yearlings by Messrs William Inglis and Son at their Randwick stables saw 487 lots sold for 74,415 guineas, as against 436 sold in 1935 for 80,007 ½ guineas. Whereas the average in 1935 was 183 ½ guineas, in 1936 it was 153 guineas. Over 100 yearlings of those catalogued were not sold, because the breeders did not care to accept the subdued offers. The highest price realised at the sales of 1700 guineas – the same as the previous year – was for the magnificent chestnut colt by Heroic out of Desdemona and it was paid by Cecil Godby on behalf of the Melbourne businessman, R. R. Thomas. Thomas, playing on the name of the dam, subsequently registered the colt as Othello.
Now, it’s true that a flashy chestnut colt by Heroic would emerge as the best galloper from that season’s yearling crop, but as we shall see, he wasn’t sold through any public auction. Othello ultimately proved as disappointing as his Shakespearean namesake. Interestingly, despite the fact that, by the time the 1937 Inglis yearling sales rolled around, Othello had only won a minor juvenile event at Williamstown, Thomas doubled down on his investment and outlaid another 1300 guineas to buy Othello’s year-younger full brother, subsequently registering him as Cassio. Cassio proved even more disappointing than Othello and by March 1939, Thomas had offloaded the pair of them for less than a thousand guineas combined. “Reputation,” as the Bard tells us, “is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.” One is also tempted to observe that when it came to the foals of Desdemona, R. R. Thomas “loved not wisely but too well.”
But I digress. Let’s get back to the subject of Percy Miller and Avenger. Now, chance is a funny thing in life. By the mid-1930s Miller had been racing horses for more than a quarter of a century and he seemed fated never to win a classic with a horse of his own breeding and carrying his own colours. That he eventually did so with a horse he had once sold seems scarcely credible. However, that is precisely what Percy Miller achieved with this youngster from Chatterbox. In the months immediately after the yearling sales at which the colt was sold, J. P. Arthur had a run-in with Victorian officialdom at Flemington in July 1936 when one of his horses, Conandale, was subject to a steward’s swab in search of the presence of an alkaloid. It was the last straw for an owner that was already suffering ill health and J. P. Arthur decided to retire from the Turf on a matter of principle. Accordingly, he put up his extensive string of horses for sale at a public auction the following month.
It so happened that Miller had taken a shine to the Chatterbox colt as a weanling when he had gambolled about the Kia-Ora paddocks. The studmaster always considered the youngster would develop stamina. Miller approached trainer Jack Holt and asked him to inspect the horse before the auction, and if he was sound, to buy him. Holt liked what he saw and for 800 guineas Avenger returned to the ownership of the man that bred him. I might mention here that at that auction of Arthur’s horses, Holt also bought another rising two-year-old on behalf of Miller – Devoted Son – yet another that Kia-Ora had bred and sold as a yearling. It is interesting to observe that in both cases the horses actually cost less some four months after being sold at Easter, even though neither had been tried on the racecourse.
A strapping bay colt, Avenger wasn’t hurried by Jack Holt in his first season, his debut being delayed until the autumn when he ran unplaced in a minor juvenile event at Pakenham. He appeared five more times that season, twice earning place money and saving his best effort till last when he ran second to John Wilkes in a seven-furlong handicap at Caulfield in late July. Considering that at the time, nominations for the major handicaps and Cup races closed in June, and Avenger hadn’t returned Miller any prize money at all, it came as no surprise that the Kia-Ora studmaster didn’t bother putting forth the colt’s name for the rich events. Indeed, the stable was not even entertaining the ambition of a Derby start at that stage. But, as we have seen so often through this chronicle, colts – and particularly backward and immature types such as Avenger – can often improve dramatically as the last weeks of winter give way to spring.
Jack Holt chose the Chatsworth Plate, a mile race for three-year-olds run at Caulfield, for Avenger’s seasonal reappearance. It was unfortunate for Holt that the veteran Caulfield trainer Frank Musgrave also chose the same race for a flashy chestnut son of Heroic sheltering in his ‘Ruthen Lodge’ stables in Leopold Street. The horse in question was Ajax, who had proved himself the best juvenile in Australia earlier in the year. Despite confronting a field of seventeen competitors and conceding weight to them all, including a full two stone to Avenger, Ajax had little trouble adding this event to his lengthening tally of triumphs. Avenger, however, ran on nicely enough at the end of the race to take the second prize and suggest that he was going to make up into a nice colt once he got over further ground. Moreover, he possessed a relaxed and docile temperament, the trait of a real stayer.
When the strapping son of Pantheon continued to thrive in his work and won his next two races at Williamstown and Caulfield against his own age group, Holt knew he had a genuine Derby contender and laid his plans for a northern visit to the Harbour City. His only start in Sydney before the Derby came in the Hill Stakes at Rosehill, and as is so often the case with Victorian horses making their first appearance at the suburban course, managed to find plenty of trouble. Several horses suffered in a scrimmage at the start and Avenger was the worst sufferer when crowded onto the inside running rail. After being last on the home turn he unwound a great finish to run second to the previous year’s Derby hero, Talking.
The Australian Jockey Club suffered a serious setback eighteen days before the Derby was due to be run at Randwick with the death of their esteemed chairman, Sir Colin Stephen, at the age of sixty-six in his Sydney home. His health had been in decline for some months, but just days before his death he had attended Randwick races in his motor car to see his colt, Caesar, run in the Chelmsford Stakes. Indeed, for a time Caesar, who had finished runner-up in the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes and had won the Hobartville Stakes, had been looked upon as a real Derby chance. Born in Sydney in May 1872, Sir Colin became a member of an old N.S.W. family associated with the law since the earliest days of the colony. It was inevitable that Sir Colin would pursue the family vocation and with this object in view, he was educated at All Saints College, Bathurst, and later in England. Admitted as a solicitor in 1896, Sir Colin became a partner in the law firm his family had helped establish, Stephen, Jacques, and Stephen. A shrewd and able lawyer, although too shy to harangue a jury, his administrative abilities were quickly recognised both at work and at play. He became a director of many public companies, and apart from his Turf interests, he was a skilful polo player who served for a time as president of the Australian Polo Council.
As a young man, Colin Stephen was an amateur rider of considerable ability; he rode his first winner at Randwick during May 1892 at the age of twenty on his own horse, Pro-Consul, by The Drummer, which was trained on his behalf by Tom Payten. It was to be the forerunner of many successes in the saddle, particularly at the popular picnic meetings then conducted at the likes of Bong Bong and Tiranna. Elected a member of the Australian Jockey Club in 1892, he became a committeeman in 1912, succeeding to the vacancy left by the death of George Lee. His father before him, Septimus Alfred Stephen, had also been a member of the committee during the 1880s and had been the right-hand man and confidante of the Hon. James White during his all-conquering years on the Turf. Alas, Septimus didn’t live long enough to see his second son succeed to the A.J.C. committee, having died in September 1901 at the relatively young age of forty-nine.
Colin Stephen succeeded to the A.J.C. chairmanship upon the elevation of Sir Adrian Knox to the position of Chief Justice of the High Court. The appointment was in keeping with the traditions of the club. Stephen possessed the same degree of aloofness and hauteur and the same punctilious correctness in his demeanour that had been associated with past chairmen. Knighted in January 1935, Sir Colin was always a keen amateur breeder but he only began to enjoy real success in the twilight of his life and almost exclusively through the descendants of his foundation mare Vole, by the imported Petrillo. Tom Payten was Sir Colin’s first trainer and following Tom’s death, his son Bayly Payten. The two best horses to carry his pale blue jacket and white cap were: Fidelity, foaled in 1933 and the winner of the Maribyrnong Plate, Ascot Vale Stakes and Mimosa Stakes; and Caesar, foaled in 1934 and the winner of the Ascot Vale Stakes and Hobartville Stakes. Other good descendants of Vole bred by Sir Colin included Sal Volatile (Adrian Knox Stakes) and Voleuse (James Barnes Stakes). Upon the death of Sir Colin Stephen, George Main was appointed to take his place as chairman while Rodney Dangar, the owner of Peter Pan, was elected to the vacant position on the A.J.C. committee.
And so, we come to Derby Day. The 1936-1937 racing season had once again seen the Australian Jockey Club record a financial loss. Excessive taxation and the flourishing of illegal S.P. betting were the main causes. As a result of the latter, together with the live broadcasting of races on wireless, racecourse attendance had fallen. Only 50,000 were at Randwick for Derby Day – a significant fall from the crowds attracted during the twenties. When racing clubs had banned broadcasts from within the racecourse confines, some enterprising souls with microphones had merely transferred their operations to a vantage point outside their perimeter but overlooking the track. The previous year there had been an unsuccessful attempt to ban such transmissions, but the clubs had been rebuffed in the courts. The A.J.C. had then allowed on-course broadcasts, albeit with a delayed transmission of starting price information.
The 1937 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions appear in the table below:
Part of the reason for the lessened attendance on Derby Day 1937 was the discomfort of a malicious southerly wind whistling in and around the stands, which saw those that were there, huddling in every nook and cranny that afforded shelter. Given such mid-winter conditions prevailing for much of the time the fashions were largely restricted to a display of monotone winter wardrobes and mainly fine furs such that the cloakroom at times looked like a dead animal act. There were occasional pockets of sunshine and protection from the wind but by and large more cheerless conditions for the conduct of the classic could hardly have been imagined.
Hats in the high wind were the cause of much trouble and women who had thought to remind themselves that, after all, it was spring, by wearing cartwheel straws, proved the stupidity of their choice long before the afternoon was over. Cartwheels and other pieces of millinery bowled tantalisingly across the lawns with their feminine owners in hot pursuit and many flying hats which were stomped on by obliging males to arrest their progress were dusty specimens on their return. Indeed, the debut of Spring fashions had to wait for Metropolitan Day when one of the largest crowds for years was in attendance.
Nonetheless, those that did make the sacrifice witnessed an unforgettable classic. The 1937 field consisted of eight colts, but only three serious contenders in Ajax, Hua and Avenger, all hailing from Victoria. The regally bred New Zealand horse, Courtcraft, was not regarded as seasoned enough for the race, while Bristol, Bourbon, Highborn, and Only One seemed present merely to make up the numbers. Avenger was a big powerful horse in every way, standing sixteen hands high and very deep through the heart; he was the biggest horse in the Derby field, though not quite as big around the girth as Hua. Perhaps Avenger’s most notable feature was his remarkable rein, which, measuring just over fifty inches was even greater than Manfred’s.
The ‘talking horse’ of this classic generation was Ajax, a thoroughbred that was very rarely headed in the early part of his races if his jockey set his mind to it. In his first juvenile races in Melbourne, he had shown a tendency to hang out, a failing that almost certainly cost him the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Flemington when he finished under the judge’s box. Ajax rehabilitated himself in Sydney, however, not showing the least inclination to hang, and in the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Randwick had given a dazzling exhibition of speed to lead practically from start to finish to win easily by five lengths in race record time.
It was a similar riot of speed in the Champagne Stakes when the 10lb-penalty failed to dull his pace. He wintered as the Derby favourite, although that perennial question as to whether he possessed too much speed to stay the Derby course again raised itself. The key lay in his breeding. Ajax was by Heroic and had been bred at Widden by the A.J.C. committeeman Alf Thompson, and V.R.C. committeeman ‘Prince’ Baillieu. The close friendship of Thompson and Baillieu went back quite a few years and the two men had previously raced Ticino successfully together, although they had parted with that horse before Autopay narrowly defeated him in the 1931 Epsom Handicap.
It was Baillieu who was really responsible for breeding Ajax, for it was he that had imported his dam Medmenham, into Australia. She only raced here during her four-year-old season but won twice in nine starts, including a narrow victory in the Brunswick Stakes (10f) at Flemington. I might mention that while ‘Prince’ Baillieu never maintained a separate stud farm, this Melbourne stockbroker and scion of one of Melbourne’s establishment families, was far more responsible for improving the quality of Australian bloodstock than many who did. Medmenham was just one of many of his successful imports. Ajax was Medmenham’s fourth foal, and the colt was raced by his two breeders together with Fred Smith, yet another race club committeeman (being on the Rosehill Racing Board) and a man who cloaked his racecourse identity under the subterfuge of ‘Mr Constable’.
Ajax came into the world on Melbourne Cup night, a few hours after Peter Pan had won his second famous victory and even then, the omens of greatness seemed written in the dark sky. The colt was a replica of Heroic in colour, shape and markings. He was never destined for the sales ring and was the subject of quite some interest in the racing press even before he had appeared in public. After a sensational first season on the Turf, that interest had only strengthened before his three-year-old career opened and he resumed where he had left off at two. After his comfortable victory in the Chatsworth Plate, his veteran trainer Frank Musgrave chose the Rosehill Guineas for his final Derby trial, a race in which he again exhibited his rare turn of foot to run out an easy winner in race record time. It seemed the only concern with Ajax from a Derby perspective was whether he could make his own running and still stay the testing Randwick course.
Hua, considered the other major prospect for the Derby, was typical of a Jim Scobie representative, making his seasonal debut in the Derby; he had proven one of the best juveniles seen out the previous season. Purchased for 750 guineas at the 1936 Sydney Yearling Sales, he was still a very backward colt when he managed to win the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Flemington in a head-bobbing finish from Caesar and Ajax. Only a few weeks before he had still been in the paddocks of Underbank at Bacchus Marsh. Burdened with a 10lb penalty, Hua then went under to those same two colts in the Ascot Vale Stakes later at the same meeting. Brought to Sydney for the autumn gathering at Randwick, he disappointed in the Sires’ Produce Stakes before running second to Ajax in the Champagne Stakes at his last appearance.
Although Hua hadn’t yet raced as a three-year-old, he had impressed in a public gallop over 10 furlongs at Rosehill on Guineas Day against the older handicap horse, Silver Standard, and the reports from Pytchley Lodge were that Scobie rated the imposing son of Heroic the equal of Trivalve. It was one of those rare Derbies that saw Sydney without a genuine contender. Our best prospect had been Caesar, owned by the A.J.C. chairman, Sir Colin Stephen. A brilliant two-year-old, he had won the Ascot Vale Stakes and was runner-up in the Sires’ Produce Stakes at both Flemington and Randwick. Caesar appeared set for an exciting spring campaign when he won the Hobartville Stakes and then engaged Ajax in a famous jostling duel in the Guineas at Rosehill before being beaten a couple of lengths by the Victorian colt. But any hopes that the executors of the late A.J.C. chairman may have entertained of Derby glory at headquarters were dashed when, after dislodging his rider, Caesar bolted and collided with a fence during trackwork in the days leading up to the race.
A new name featured in the racebook among the list of Derby entrants that year, F. W. Hughes. One of Australia’s richest industrialists, he had taken up racing in 1937 on the advice of his doctor and he had engaged in the sport with all the drive and determination that characterised his business undertakings. Just ten days earlier at a race meeting at Victoria Park, Hughes had purchased Highborn for an undisclosed sum rumoured to be 1750 guineas and placed the horse with his Randwick trainer, Bayly Payten. Highborn had originally been purchased as a yearling in Sydney at the Easter sales for just 180 guineas by the prominent New Zealand veterinary surgeon Dr W. C. Ring on behalf of a syndicate of six New Zealanders who raced as ‘Mr W. C. Auckland’.
Trained by Jack Jamieson before Hughes’s intervention, Highborn had won at Avondale before crossing the Tasman and then been most impressive first-up at Rosebery. F. W. Hughes was desperate for a Derby runner at Randwick and with all the impatience of a rich old man in a hurry and used to getting his own way, signed a cheque at 1.30 p.m. on the afternoon of that Victoria Park meeting. At 4.25 p.m. that same afternoon, Highborn gave Hughes his first victory on a racecourse as an owner when he fell in to win by a head from Tuckerbox. It was the sort of impulsive behaviour reminiscent of Alan Cooper and indeed, the ‘Sydney Sportsman’ greeted the news derisively with: “There’s another ‘Alan Cooper’ in the field.” But this was no Alan Cooper. This was a highly intelligent man who knew what he wanted and knew how to get it. As we shall see, in the years to come, the ‘red and white checks, red, blue or black cap’ of F. W. Hughes would be among the most famous sets of colours on the Australian Turf, but let me say that Highborn himself, who really wasn’t up to Derby weight, did little to distinguish them.
1937 was fated to be one of the great Derbies ever run at Randwick. Comparisons were drawn with the 1924 race when three first-class colts with thunder in their blood and courage in their hearts again fought out a desperate final furlong. The fact that the 1924 Derby hero, Heroic, was the sire of two of the three colts in question, made such comparisons inevitable. However, although, as in 1924 the three public fancies filled the placings, this time the result didn’t accord strictly with market expectations. In the race itself, Ajax slipped to the front immediately upon barrier rise and proceeded to dictate a quick tempo, considering the state of the ground. The first half-mile was cut out in 51 ½ seconds with Ajax two lengths in front of Highborn and Hua, who were enjoying the run of the race while Avenger was second last.
After a mile, the only change in the order of things was that Courtcraft was now third and Avenger was starting to bestir himself. At the entrance to the straight Hua was only a little over a length behind Ajax, while Courtcraft was third, with Avenger beginning to eat the ground. At the furlong post, Hua and Avenger collared Ajax but McCarten conjured another effort from the chestnut, and for a stride or two it seemed he might even come away again. But both Hua and Avenger were relentless. Despite running in under pressure, which inconvenienced Hua and forced Bartle to stop riding, Avenger was dominant going to the line and won by a length. It was a triumph of stamina over speed. Ajax managed to hold on for the second placing, although it was so close that many expected a dead heat declared between him and Hua. The interference from Avenger almost certainly deprived Hua of finishing second, and had he gained it, jockey ‘Tich’ Wilson might well have protested against the winner. Ajax was also slightly hampered by the crowding but not to the same extent.
Avenger proved himself a genuine stayer in catching Ajax after conceding that horse five or six lengths advantage from the three furlongs mark. The result gave trainer Jack Holt and jockey Ted Bartle each their second A.J.C. Derby. The performance of Avenger was even more meritorious when one considered that the colt was not yet three years of age, being a late October foal. It is interesting, if ultimately futile, to speculate on how differently the race might have resolved itself, had the Randwick course not been subject to the inch of overnight rain. It had become apparent earlier in the day during the hurdle race that the track was soft. The ground rendered the task of Ajax, in attempting to lead all the way, much more difficult. Nor was the chestnut helped by the strong headwind. But the presence of Ajax in the field hadn’t cramped the confidence of the Holt stable, particularly after their horse had posted a brilliant gallop against Allunga over a mile at Victoria Park in the days leading up to the classic. Avenger landed some big bets. When it comes to the racing fraternity, those who know don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know. Jack Holt was certainly numbered among the school of the knowledgeable and the silent, and he had plundered the Sydney ring accordingly.
It was fairly evident that all three of the Derby place-getters were good colts, while the state of the going at Randwick on Derby Day was enough to suggest that perhaps the best horse had not won on the day. The truth was that only about a length separated the three of them. While Ajax as the strong favourite had been beaten, Avenger as the second favourite had been supported by many in the crowd. It was reflective of the afternoon as a whole. While only two outright favourites succeeded, the remaining winners, with one exception, were heavily supported and the day’s operations were decidedly against the bookmakers. Both Gold Rod (4/1) in the Epsom and Allunga (2/1) in the Spring Stakes were well-backed.
The one exception for punters came in the Trial Stakes when the heavily-backed favourite Sir Regent whipped around and was hopelessly left at the start. This son of Chief Ruler then compounded the punters’ lament by stepping out on Monday to win The Metropolitan by a head from the people’s favourite, Silver Standard. In so doing bookmakers were relieved of huge liabilities on the meeting’s feature double. Another interesting aspect of A.J.C. Derby Day was the fact that apart from the three major races, each of the other events was won by a horse trained by its owner. Training honours and riding honours for the day went to Hunter Bowman and Darby Munro, who enjoyed the same double with Rossjoy in the Trial Stakes and Allunga in the Spring Stakes.
In winning the A.J.C. Spring Stakes, Allunga just fell in to beat the nine-year-old Queensland champion, Lough Neagh, who was having his 123rd race start. That 1937 A.J.C. Spring Meeting provided an interesting coda to Lough Neagh’s remarkable and versatile career. Just three weeks before the Spring Stakes, Lough Neagh had lopped half a second off the Australasian seven furlongs record jointly held by Turbine, Quasimodo and Ajax, when he beat a field including Gold Rod for the Tattersall’s Tramway Handicap at Randwick. The victory ensured that once again Tim Brosnan’s famous “white jacket and green cap” was seen in the weight-for-age events at Randwick. Alas, Lough Neagh could only finish third in a four-horse field in the A.J.C. Craven Plate with a distressed Gold Rod finishing behind him; and third and last – beaten seven lengths in the A.J.C. Randwick Plate behind Mala and Allunga. Tim Brosnan retired the aged chestnut son of Bachelor’s Persse after just two more unplaced efforts with a career record of 127 starts: 32 wins, 23 seconds, 21 thirds and 19,871 pounds in prize money. Perhaps Lough Neagh’s finest claim to fame was that at five he won a major sprint race, the 6-furlong B.A.T.C. Newmarket Handicap (later the Doomben Ten Thousand) and at seven he won the 2-mile Q.T.C. Brisbane Cup.
But let’s get back to the three-year-olds of that famous 1937-38 season. In the Caulfield Guineas and the Victoria Derby, as at Randwick, the same happy triumvirate of three-year-olds filled the placings, although the finishing order varied. The mile at Caulfield was much more to the liking of the brilliant Ajax although he only had a neck to spare over Avenger, with Hua a half-length away. But Avenger might have been a little unlucky in the Caulfield Guineas. He didn’t travel well when returning from Sydney and remained sore from the buffeting that had occurred over the last furlong at Randwick. As it was, he only went under at Caulfield by a neck in a course record time. A strange thing then happened insofar as the betting on the Victoria Derby was concerned. How is it that three colts demonstrably so evenly matched on the racecourse, can be so widely discriminated against in the betting ring? On the strength of his superior stamina at Randwick, Avenger went to the post for the southern blue riband at the prohibitive odds of 4/9, with Ajax at sevens and Hua, the joint ruling favourite in the Melbourne Cup, despatched at tens.
So often in racing what appears to be an intriguing contest on paper rarely lives up to its billing on the course. The Victoria Derby of 1937 proved to be a rare exception. The betting public might have regarded the race as being at Avenger’s mercy, but his defeat proved to be one of the more celebrated upsets in the race when he only managed third. Hua and Ajax fought out the race and the issue hung in the balance until the very last stride. Indeed, nobody knew which colt had won for sure until the numbers were hoisted. Hua marked the fourth Victoria Derby ribbon garnered by Ernest Clarke and was the last top horse to sport his famous colours. As a rule, Clarke generally left Melbourne for his summer fishing holiday in New Zealand before Derby Day, but Jim Scobie persuaded him that year to postpone his departure.
The result of these two great sons of Heroic disputing the prize all the way down the Flemington straight only served to emphasise the tragedy of their sire’s impotence and the premature end of his stud career. Of the three top colts, only Hua contested the Melbourne Cup. The two miles were well beyond the compass of Ajax while Avenger had never been entered for the race as Percy Miller believed it was too severe on a young three-year-old. Hua ran as the 11/2 equal favourite with Sir Regent but both horses failed in the race won by The Trump. And so, at the close of 1937, following the series of great clashes between these three colts, racing aficionados looked forward to some exciting re-matches in future years. But those whom the gods wish to frustrate, they first titillate. Only one of the threesome, Ajax, would withstand the rigours of racing and enjoy a full career on the Turf. Avenger and Hua would each fall victim to unsoundness.
After the sterling form displayed by Avenger as a spring three-year-old when he was still a backward and unfurnished colt, it was assumed that with maturity he would develop into an outstanding galloper, particularly over further ground. But leg problems plagued the balance of his short-lived career. In the autumn, Hua proved his master in both the C.F. Orr Stakes and the St George Stakes before Avenger broke down on the eve of the V.R.C. St Leger. Jack Holt then blistered the leg in the hope that the horse might stand a spring campaign. Avenger was brought over to Randwick for the spring meetings of Tattersall’s and the Australian Jockey Club in 1938, but in two races at headquarters, viz. the Chelmsford Stakes and the Colin Stephen Stakes, the great New Zealand horse, Royal Chief, easily outstayed him.
Avenger returned to Melbourne and went to the post as the second fancy in the Caulfield Cup, despite 9 st. 3lb in the saddle. The favourite, Buzzalong won the race although Avenger was never afforded the chance to show his true form. During the running, he damaged the sinews in his near foreleg. For a time, it was feared he would not be able to race again. It would have been better if he hadn’t. Less than three months later, Avenger’s racing career came to a tragic end at the New Year’s Day meeting at Flemington in 1939 in the Bagot Handicap. Starting a 2/1 favourite, Avenger was beginning to make his run at the bottom of the Flemington straight when he suddenly faltered and snapped his off-foreleg, and then had to be destroyed.
Hua was also to meet misfortune on the racecourse. When he resumed racing in the autumn of 1938, he promised to be the best colt of his year. At his first start back in the William Reid Stakes at Moonee Valley, he equalled the course record. Similar victories followed in both the Orr Stakes and St George Stakes before Hua went under to Ajax at level weights in the Futurity Stakes. Even so, Scobie had no hesitation declaring him potentially the best colt that he had ever trained, and the Master of Pytchley Lodge didn’t indulge in hyperbole. With Avenger’s legs giving trouble, and Ajax running in the Newmarket on the same day, the V.R.C. St Leger attracted only one solitary opponent for Hua, who enjoyed the easiest of tasks in taking the classic in a hand canter.
It was his last win. Later that week, Hua was sent to the post at prohibitive odds for the King’s Plate in a field of three, only to finish an inglorious last after attempting to lead all the way. Throughout that autumn the big horse had raced with his front legs heavily bandaged, and after the King’s Plate, he was very tender though not actually lame. Although attempts were made to train him after that, Hua never raced again. Retired to stud, he upheld the honour of Australian-bred stallions and proved a most useful acquisition for William Smith’s St Aubins Stud, near Scone. His best horse was unquestionably that brilliant sprinter San Domenico who won sixteen stakes races, including the V.A.T.C. Oakleigh Plate as a three-year-old when carrying 8 st 11lb in Australian record time. Other good gallopers by Hua included The Groom, Captain Hua and Questing. Some of his progeny showed something of a temper, and older readers might recall his son Prince Hua, who owner-trainer Jim Bendrodt described as the most savage horse that he ever had through his hands.
Unlike either Avenger or Hua, the post-Derby career of Ajax prospered extravagantly. Ironically, after the spring of 1937, the flashy chestnut was only asked to run over twelve furlongs on three more occasions in his racing life, and he won them all – twice in the King’s Plate and once in the C.B. Fisher Plate, all at weight-for-age and all at Flemington. But the son of Heroic was at his best in races up to ten furlongs. Before being retired in the spring of his six-year-old season, Ajax ran in 46 races, winning 36 times and only once finishing out of a place earning stakes of £40,275. Alas, the fame of Ajax has been scarcely equal to his merit. When he is remembered today it is more for that sensational defeat at 40/1 on in the Rawson Stakes rather than for his string of grand victories. A succession of eighteen consecutive race wins had caused him to be cast as a living certainty for that Rosehill race and had he been successful he would have equalled the then-record sequence shared jointly by Gloaming and Desert Gold.
The defeat came in a race where only three ran and which, on paper, looked among the easiest. It was one of those unexpected happenings that lend both a charm to the Turf and accretion to the wealth of bookmakers. The owners of Spear Chief were as much surprised by his victory as the owners of Ajax were by his failure. It was a great disappointment to E. L. Baillieu but he accepted the setback gracefully. There was no suggestion that Ajax had been got at, as he didn’t blow when pulled up, which seemed proof that he was clean inside. It was a shame because Ajax then won his next four races and, but for the Rawson Stakes mishap, might have established a sequence of 23 wins.
Throughout his career, Ajax was placed ever so astutely by his veteran Caulfield trainer, Frank Musgrave. Musgrave, who was born in Coleraine, Victoria, in 1860, had been actively connected with racing for well over 60 years when he was given Ajax to train. As a jockey, Musgrave began his career when he rode three winners for his father in the western districts of Victoria at the age of nine and then at the age of fourteen, rode the 50/1 Goshawk, in the 1874 Melbourne Cup. Musgrave had also partnered a horse in the first Grand National Hurdle at Flemington in 1881 and in those days he was riding against such noted horsemen as James Scobie, Martin Bourke and Tom Corrigan. However, as Musgrave got older and heavier, it was on the ground with a stopwatch rather than in the saddle with a whip that he was to make his name. Frank Musgrave’s reputation as a trainer would always be associated with his Ruthen Lodge residence and stables in Leopold-street, Ormond after he moved there from the Gippsland district.
The establishment was built by Joe Harper, a prominent bookmaker of the period, and it was originally occupied by that sportsman’s son who first trained a team of horses there. Frank Musgrave moved into the place in 1890 and down through the years he continued to improve and develop the property. Musgrave won his first valuable prize as a trainer when H. V. Creswell’s horse, Parramatta, a five-year-old mare by the 1885 Melbourne Cup winner, Sheet Anchor, won the V.R.C. Standish Handicap in 1894. From the very beginning, Musgrave was not a trainer who cared to show the strength of his horses in training to the touts, and their respective abilities were hard to gauge until they were actually displayed in public. There were a series of gallopers during Musgrave’s first decade at Caulfield that paid their way, horses such as Stern Anchor, Enticement, Allurement, Whisperer, Sir Galahad and Strange Device, but Musgrave never attracted much newsprint until he got hold of Vanity Fair, a mare by Pilgrim’s Progress.
Vanity Fair was surely the unluckiest horse that Musgrave ever had at Ruthen Lodge. Yes, she did win the 1902 V.A.T.C. Coongy Handicap but it was her list of minor placings that marked her misfortune on the Turf, including finishing third in the Caulfield Cup and second in the Melbourne Cup, beaten a neck by The Victory, in that same year. Vanity Fair also made a dead heat of the W.R.C. Williamstown Cup with Eleanor in 1902, only to be beaten easily in the run-off. She had a habit of hanging out in her races and, try as he might, Musgrave could never cure her of it. At stud, Vanity Fair was the dam of two good gallopers in Swagger and St Vano, and the latter won Musgrave the V.R.C. Bagot Handicap. In 1904, in what was arguably the greatest training triumph of his career, Musgrave prepared the lightweight Murmur to win the Caulfield Cup for the owner, John Wren, and in so doing pulled off a betting plunge that netted Wren and his confreres an estimated £50,000. I shall discuss this episode at greater length in my 1940 chapter relating to Wren himself.
Musgrave’s next significant victories came with Ellis in the 1906 V.R.C. October Stakes and W.R.C. Williamstown Cup. Ellis, a son of Hotchkiss out of Edith Cureton, a daughter of that wonderful broodmare Frailty, was originally acquired in New Zealand on behalf of John Wren although he quickly became the property of A. S. Sinclair. Ellis was something of a “morning glory”, a beautifully-moulded horse and a sensation in his gallops on the track, only to disappoint in the big races when the money was on! Nonetheless, after winning the Williamstown Cup with him for Sinclair, Musgrave bought Ellis for 600 guineas to race in his own colours of ‘heliotrope, purple collar, cuffs and cap’. While the horse later managed to win the V.A.T.C. St George Stakes, he did little else. Thereafter, however, big race triumphs fell into Musgrave’s lap with monotonous regularity and most came from three clients in particular viz. John Wren, P. A. ‘Paddy’ Connolly and ‘Prince’ Baillieu.
Some might argue that Matt Ellis was another of his important owners given his wins in races such as the Williamstown Cup and Moonee Valley Cup with Kerlie, a half-brother to Wallace; and the V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes with Sheriff Muir, but Ellis largely served merely as a front for John Wren who was persona non grata with Victorian racing authorities for a protracted period. Ellis, prominent in cricket circles both as a player and as an administrator, was certainly a picturesque figure on the Turf and very close to Wren. Indeed, he worked many memorable betting commissions when Wren and James Wilson Jr represented a very powerful influence in Victorian racing. However, John Wren is the subject of another chapter in this chronicle and I shall defer a discussion of his racing exploits until then, but let’s explore here the racing achievements of the other two main players in Musgrave’s rise to stardom i.e. P. A. Connolly and ‘Prince’ Baillieu, one the admirer of Ajax, the other the breeder and owner of the champion racehorse.
Patrick Andrew Connolly was one of Australia’s best-known turf figures in the first half of the twentieth century. Born at Ophir, New South Wales, in October 1866, he was the fourth child of Irish-born parents who came to the colony and initially tried farming. Paddy’s early years are now lost in obscurity although it is suspected that after family problems that saw the father walk out of the marriage, his mother conducted a bush pub. Connolly’s first love from his earliest years was horses. As a young boy, he rode his family’s gallopers at local race meetings, while in his early twenties he worked itinerantly as a raw-boned, lanky stockman in the south-west region of Queensland and the far west of New South Wales on the Paroo. He indulged in a little racing in that country too! It was in 1894 that Connolly joined the gold rush in Kalgoorlie in search of that elusive alluvial metal and he took a couple of his back-block racehorses with him.
Like a few other sportsmen whose lives have been chronicled in these pages, Connolly made his money in the rush not by prospecting for the yellow metal, but rather by servicing those that did. Young, determined and energetic, Connolly prospered in the carrying trade. Indeed, such was his success that by 1900 he had purchased a sprawling property on the outskirts of Perth, leased an inner-city hotel, and moved into the state capital. Connolly had begun racing horses almost as soon as he arrived in the West, getting hold of an aged sprinter named Pantomime with which he enjoyed some success, including winning three races on the seven-race card at the Annual Meeting of the Brookton Race Club in March 1895. Connolly soon graduated to richer fare and his racing colours of ‘scarlet jacket, white sash and cap’ came to dominate Perth racing.
In 1904 he won the first of his seven Perth Cups (including five in successive years) with Blue Spec and with that same horse won the 1905 Melbourne Cup. In 1908 Connolly won the Sydney Cup with Dyed Garments. Alas, Frank Musgrave wasn’t Paddy Connolly’s Melbourne trainer of choice in those days as Blue Spec was the last of Walter Hickenbotham’s four Melbourne Cup winners, while William Kennedy trained Dyed Garments for his Sydney Cup success, although Hickenbotham had originally encouraged Connolly to buy the horse. However, the next good galloper that Paddy sent east did go to Frank Musgrave and I refer to Jolly Beggar. Connolly paid just 85 guineas for Jolly Beggar at the 1908 Sydney Yearling Sales and he was a son of Ayr Laddie and Lady Grenville, a daughter of Trenton.
Jolly Beggar had already proven himself a high-class racehorse in the West long before Musgrave got hold of him as a rising seven-year-old, having won the W.A.T.C. Karrakatta Plate, Western Australian Derby and Perth Cup and becoming the first horse to do so. En route to Sydney, Jolly Beggar ran for the V.R.C. Newmarket Handicap and Connolly stood to win over £17,000 in bets and prizemoney. But in a desperately close finish, the judge gave the verdict to Relievo. It was one of those old, classic straight-six Flemington finishes with Relievo on the rails and Jolly Beggar out under the judge’s box. The gallant black then journeyed over to Sydney in the care of Frank Musgrave for the A.J.C. Doncaster Handicap for which he was handicapped to carry 8 st. 13lb. Jolly Beggar had been brought to Sydney the previous October with designs on the Epsom Handicap but in charge of trainer J. L. O’Brien, a man of long experience on Victorian and Western Australian racetracks.
Under O’Brien, Jolly Beggar began by showing the Randwick men a few brilliant gallops and was given a run at Hawkesbury, which he won by sheer courage. Sent to the post at a short quote for that Epsom and with 9lb less than he was to carry in the 1913 Doncaster, he was a beaten horse a long way from home. The big difference in 1913 was that Frank Musgrave superintended the horse’s Doncaster preparation. This time there were no flash gallops beforehand and ‘Jolly’ did his flash go in the race itself and could have won by an even bigger margin if George Lambert, the crack Victorian jockey, so desired. Paddy Connolly had backed the black horse at long odds weeks before and as a result, scored heavily when despoiling the magic ring of thousands. Jolly Beggar ultimately proved a remarkable success at stud in Western Australia and Musgrave later trained some of his progeny for Connolly.
Frank Musgrave’s other big winner for Connolly came with Lilyveil in the 49th running of the Sydney Cup just twelve months later. An imported horse by Martagon from Chiffon, Lilyveil was purchased by Connolly and Jack Peterson after the 1913 Perth Cup for 3000 guineas plus £500 out of his first win. Shortly after, the horse won the W.A.T.C. Railway Stakes in their colours. Lilyveil was backed for a ton of money on the course on Sydney Cup Day and started the race as the favourite in the hands of W. A. McLachlan. Not only did he win the race, but broke the Australian record for two miles in doing so. Now, that’s the sort of performance that makes a betting owner’s heart sing! The fact was that Musgrave knew what he was doing whenever the money went on. Two days after the Cup, Lilyveil backed up to beat Radnor at weight-for-age in the A.J.C. Cumberland Stakes.
Frank Musgrave emerged as the leading trainer at that 1914 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting, both in respect of races as well as prizemoney, won. Apart from Lilyveil’s brace, he also trained Silver Lad for Paddy Connolly to win the Highweight Handicap and enjoyed two seconds with Aleconner resulting in £6,746 in stakes alone. Lilyveil broke down later that year under McLachlan during the running of the Melbourne Cup when he was in a promising position. Suffering from unsoundness and a split frog, the horse was sold soon after and went to Queensland to stand as a stallion where he got, among other horses, Lilypond winner of both a Perth Cup and a Sydney Cup. One would think that with two such successes and betting windfalls as the Doncaster and Sydney Cup for Connolly within the space of twelve months, the scene was set for sustained and close collaboration between both owner and trainer.
Yet it never really came to pass. Paddy Connolly preferred to share his horses among a range of trainers including C. Rule, Frank Godby, F. L. Billett, Frank McGrath, W. J. Prately, Bill Burke, J. J. O’Toole, J. H. Trenoweth and Stan Lamond to name but a few. Moreover, with the passing of the years, Connolly no longer raced on the same grand scale as he did prior to World War I. While Musgrave still trained for Connolly a number of years later and the latter enjoyed his visits to Ruthen Lodge to study Ajax on his infrequent visits to the east, there was never again a major handicap or valuable race shared between them again. And yet from 1904, when his name first appeared in the Winning Owners’ List for the season in the annual Turf Register, Connolly figured prominently. According to the Register, he won £83,603 in stakes up to 1941. In the West, he owned or had a half-interest in no less than seven Perth Cup winners and five Railway Stakes winners.
Like many a wealthy, self-made man, Connolly played a lone hand in life and never got too close to any particular jockey or trainer, having a violent suspicion of both. In his golden days on the Turf, which covered the years before the Great War, Connolly rivalled even John (‘The Baron’) Brown in his capacity to sack trainers and jockeys on a whim. Connolly’s impassioned allegations about a ‘freemasonry’ existing between jockeys and interference in races were usually given a yearly airing before members of the W.A.T.C. at their annual general meeting. Frank Musgrave lasted much longer than most of Connolly’s trainers, but then he never was dependant upon any one owner, as the presence of John Wren, the Baillieu Bros, Matt Ellis and A. S. Sinclair on his books can attest. Connolly only married once – to Alice Hyde at St George’s Cathedral, Perth, in February 1898 – but they divorced in 1924.
Irascible by nature, Paddy became even more reclusive, distrusting and eccentric with the passing of the years. Indeed, he built a barricaded shack for himself behind his beloved Kalamunda Hotel, paranoid that his enemies were trying to kill him. A lonely man of the strong and silent type, he nonetheless had an unrequited love for horses and children, according to his biographer, Charlie Fox. And lest I have given any indication of moral equivalence between those two “irascibles” of the Turf, Baron Brown and Paddy Connolly, let me state that in life Connolly was as generous a benefactor as he was in death. Long before he crossed the River Styx, Connolly was known in Western Australia as “The Prince of Givers”. Connolly died from a heart attack at the age of eighty in December 1946 in St Omer’s Hospital in Perth, and despite being a lifelong atheist, he was buried with Anglican rites in Karrakatta cemetery. From an estate sworn for probate at £149,332, he bequeathed over £100,000 to children’s charities and almost £30,000 to country hospitals, but with the specification that none of it was to go to any with a religious connection.
Edward Lloyd Morgan ‘Prince’ Baillieu, the breeder and part-owner of Ajax, represented a different type of owner altogether for Frank Musgrave. Born in Queenscliff, Victoria, in 1867, ‘Prince’ was one of thirteen children to survive infancy in the family of James and Emma (Lawrence) Baillieu. Originally hailing from Pembrokeshire in Wales, James had gone to sea at the age of seventeen. It was in January 1853, at the age of twenty-one, and while anchored in quarantine inside Port Phillip Heads in the Priscilla, that James abandoned ship and swam the few miles across the dangerous waters to reach Queenscliff. And it was in Queenscliff that he stayed and prospered. He began working as a boatman for Health and Customs, which he combined with the role of a lighthouse-keeper at Point Lonsdale after 1881 and remained in government service for thirty years.
As Queenscliff matured into a fashionable Victorian resort, for holidaymakers, in 1881 James built a large hotel to attract the hoi polloi, thereby achieving some wealth and notability. All of his thirteen children were educated at the Queenscliff state school. In 1885 the family moved from Queenscliff to Melbourne, a city that was ready to boom. And few families benefited more from that impending boom than the Baillieus! No less than six of the Baillieu boys were to play significant roles in business and commerce, although it was around William Lawrence (W. L.) Baillieu, the second son, that the family fortunes pivoted. Real estate, stockbroking, finance and mining were the fields in which they prospered and the brothers launched their enterprises as the Victorian land boom hit its heights. It became a tradition among them to regard loyalty to family as the highest duty of all. Indeed, a family company formed later was called ‘Mutual Trust’.
The brothers recovered from the 1891-92 collapse better than most, although then, as now, it seemed a matter of socialising the losses and privatising the profits. Eventually, W. L. Baillieu and Company emerged as a new estate agency for William, while ‘Prince’ Baillieu together with brother Clive, formed the stockbroking firm of E. L. and C. Baillieu. The brothers worked closely together, dealing in land, shares and, increasingly, mining property. In 1902 ‘Prince’ temporarily withdrew from his stockbroking firm to spend a highly lucrative decade as a member of the London Stock Exchange. While ‘W. L.’ was the public face of the Baillieu dynasty and ‘Prince’ worked closely with him, it was as a racing man that the latter was best known to the general public. Indeed, as a mere lad of fourteen, he had ridden in a few races for amateurs.
Prince’s association with the Turf in general, and Frank Musgrave in particular, began long before his decade-long posting to London. He joined the Victoria Racing Club in 1895, was elected to the committee in 1915 following the death of Alex McCracken, and was appointed honorary treasurer in 1918 following upon the retirement of Archie Yuille, a position that Baillieu then held until his death in July 1939. E. L. Baillieu remained a lifelong bachelor and it was this absence of immediate family that perhaps explained his preference for racing horses in partnership with relations and friends. ‘Prince’ Baillieu first joined the ranks of owners when he purchased the Carnage filly, afterwards known as La France, which he raced with his brother, Clive.
La France was from the first crop of Carbine’s brother, Carnage, and was out of Wild Rose, the winner of the 1891 Oakleigh Plate and 1892 Newmarket Handicap. La France was sent to Frank Musgrave to train and thus began an association which was only to be broken upon the death of Baillieu. At first, he raced under the assumed name of ‘Mr E. L. Lawrence’, a play on his mother’s maiden name. Baillieu won his first race with La France, when, ridden by Charles Cooper, she was successful in the Welter Handicap at Sandown Park in April 1900. After her first season, La France raced in the name of Musgrave and won numerous races at suburban meetings. However, the Baillieu Bros retained her after she had finished racing and sent her to the stud.
But let us return for a moment to that decade of ‘Prince’ Baillieu’s London posting for it was a time when he made many friends in the racing world, and, having a good eye for a horse and a wallet to match, he purchased quite a few horses and sent them to Australia to race. One such animal was the 1918 Australian Cup winner, Defence, although Baillieu had parted with the son of Carbine before that Flemington success. In 1906 he sent out three mares viz. Sokinsha, Royal Favour and Carissima, and the trio were trained for him at Caulfield by Musgrave. Although they didn’t achieve any striking success on the racecourse, Carissima and Royal Favour did well at stud. Carissima was the dam of Amata, and Royal Favour produced the brothers, King’s Bounty and Prince Royal, who won the V.A.T.C. Toorak Handicap in successive years. But it was Almissa, a bay colt bred in England in 1908 by the Duke of Portland, that proved to be the first high-class galloper that Frank Musgrave ever trained to carry the famous Baillieu colours.
Almissa was by the 1888 English Two Thousand Guineas and Derby winner, Ayrshire, out of the St Simon mare La Roche, the English Oaks heroine of 1900, and hence bred in the purple. Clive Baillieu bought Almissa as a two-year-old. It was suspected at the time by the Duke of Portland that Almissa was touched in the wind. Accordingly, it was believed that the warmer Australian climate might suit him. It took Frank Musgrave a little while to work Almissa out, but there was nothing wrong with his wind when he won the Williamstown and Moonee Valley Cups in 1912 and the Australian Cup in the following autumn. It was just the sort of encouragement that Clive Baillieu needed to step up his bloodstock interests. While the Moonee Valley Cup was Almissa’s maiden victory, it was that first Williamstown Cup that Prince Baillieu won with Almissa that became a treasured possession.
People are apt to forget just what an important fixture the two-day Williamstown Racing Club’s Spring Meeting was at the seaside course in those days. Over the years, it was certainly one of Frank Musgrave’s favourite meetings. Indeed, when Almissa won the Cup, Governor-General Lord Denman made the presentation. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that Almissa, later on, proved a success at stud, siring two Caulfield-trained winners of the V.R.C. Oaks Stakes in Mufti (1920) and Miss Disraeli (1924). While the Baillieu Bros weren’t connected with either of them, Frank Musgrave at least trained the latter, who was owned by that cricketing enthusiast and crony of John Wren, Matt Ellis. Mention of Almissa’s Australian Cup in 1913 serves as a reminder that it was the breakout year when it came to success on the racecourse for the Baillieu Bros. The Musgrave stable went for a big whack on the V.R.C. Newmarket Handicap-Australian Cup double that year, with Almissa’s stablemate and homebred Aleconner fancied for the sprint.
Aleconner had been bred at the Widden Stud by the Baillieu Bros, who by then had already established a close relationship with Alf and John Thompson even before the Great War. One of the broodmares that the Baillieu Bros kept at Widden was the previously mentioned La France. La France enjoyed successive trysts in the breeding barn with the great Maltster at Widden and in 1908 the brothers had made the mistake of selling one of her progeny as a yearling for 610 guineas to H. Alan Currie, a member of the V.R.C. committee. Registered as Mala, the colt had won both the V.A.T.C. Debutant Stakes and the V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes at two, and the V.R.C. Newmarket Handicap at three. Selling was a mistake that the Baillieu boys resolved not to make again when three seasons later La France foaled a full brother to Mala.
Registered as Aleconner, he was little more than a pony and while he fumbled his lines in the Newmarket costing the Musgrave stable a king’s ransom over the 1913 V.R.C. feature double, the Baillieu Bros more than got their stake back when Aleconner took the A.J.C. Epsom Handicap later that same year under great difficulties. Prior to leaving Melbourne, Aleconner had been supported by ‘Prince’ Baillieu to win £6,000 in the big Randwick mile. Unfortunately, in the Tramway Handicap, Aleconner received an injury that for many days looked like it might prevent him from starting in the Epsom. But Musgrave worked unceasingly on the horse with poultices and on Thursday prior to the race, Aleconner ran what was then a record gallop. Starting from the outside of a field of thirty-eight, Aleconner, then a 14.1 ½ pony, won in brilliant style. Aleconner went on to carry the Baillieu Bros’ white and purple seamed jacket to victory in a number of good races including the Williamstown Cup, V.R.C. October Stakes and V.A.T.C. Memsie Stakes in 1914 and the V.R.C. Standish Handicap in 1917.
Musgrave always maintained that no legitimate pony could have lived alongside Aleconner. Ken Bracken got his first big chance on the Malster pony and he went on to win many good races. Aleconner was later presented by Messrs Baillieu to the Red Cross Society to be raffled in aid of its funds. The subsequent raffle earned £3,362/15/-. Prince Baillieu’s most successful English importation, if judged solely by the most significant racecourse victory won, would have to be Backwood who took out the 1924 Melbourne Cup. Bred in Ireland and foaled in 1919, Backwood was a son of Bachelor’s Double out of Lady of Grace by St Frusquin and raced in England. He was a sound if unspectacular stayer when he carried the colours of W. C. Whinneray, and as a three-year-old, he had won both the Manchester Wolverhampton Plate and the Ascot Derby over a mile and a half. At the December Newmarket Sales in 1922, Backwood was bought by Prince Baillieu’s old stockbroking colleague, William Clark, for 2500 guineas and sent to Australia with the aim of winning either a Caulfield or Melbourne Cup.
Had Baillieu been the dominant owner of Backwood, Frank Musgrave may well have got the horse to train but William Clark’s long and successful relationship with the Flemington stable of Richard Bradfield, and the presence of a third partner in Alan Hughes, saw the horse go there. Mind you, Baillieu was the only one of the owners living in Australia. Backwood went around in the 1923 Melbourne Cup as a 25/1 shot but the five-year-old stallion wasn’t properly acclimatised at the time and finished down the course. The following year and not having won a race in Australia, Backwood got into the Cup with 8 st. 2lb, or 11lb less. In a decidedly rough contest but with the peerless ‘Bunty’ Brown sporting the white jacket, purple seams and cap, Backwood was last and by himself going out of the straight for the first time, and he was still last at the mile. However, his sustained finish under a strong ride saw him get up by a head at the winning post to score his only victory on the Australian Turf and give Dick Bradfield his fourth Melbourne Cup winner as a trainer.
Backwood’s racecourse career Down Under was curtailed when he fell and injured himself in the 1925 A.J.C. Sydney Cup. Baillieu and friends then rather predictably sold the Melbourne Cup winner to A. W. and A. E. Thompson to stand at the Widden Stud. The last English import to win the Melbourne Cup had been Comedy King in 1910 and the Thompsons must have been hoping that Backwood might experience a similarly successful career at stud. It wasn’t to be… well, not quite. While not a spectacular success at Widden, Backwood did sire a number of useful gallopers and arguably the best two, Parkwood and Beechwood, were each raced by the Baillieu Bros in partnership with others and trained at Musgrave’s Ruthen Lodge. Parkwood, foaled in 1926, and raced in partnership with W. S. Robinson, was a brilliant juvenile who won the V.R.C. Maribyrnong Plate, V.A.T.C. Debutant Stakes and A.J.C. Champagne Stakes. Parkwood then lost his way on the racecourse for nearly two seasons but reclaimed much of his reputation when he practically led all the way with 8 st. 13lb to beat Waterline and Mollison in a head-bobbing finish to the 1931 V.R.C. Newmarket Handicap.
Frank Musgrave thus won his second Newmarket fifteen years after his first with Amata, and in a neat bit of symmetry, Amata just happened to be a half-sister to Yoorala, the dam of Parkwood. Despite the lack of recent racing, the Musgrave stable was confident about that Newmarket too, as course money saw the horse backed down from 25/1 into 16/1. Stretched right across the course, the thirty-two runners presented a spectacular sight in the Newmarket that day as Parkwood gradually worked his way from the rails to near the outside while battling in the lead. Beechwood, by way of contrast, was foaled in 1933 and was out of the Claro mare, Clear, and raced by E. L. Baillieu in partnership with Pat Osborne of Currandooley. This bay or brown colt, like Parkwood, was a smart two-year-old but injured himself after winning the V.A.T.C. Alma Stakes and was then off the scene until the spring of his three-year-old season. Small, stocky and game, Beechwood’s finest hour came in the 1936 V.A.T.C. Caulfield Guineas when he ran a course record of 1 minute 37 ¾ seconds from the extreme outside at the barrier. Mind you, Beechwood didn’t hold the course record for very long. Later in the day, his stablemate The Chanter clipped a half-second off it when he won the V.A.T.C. Toorak Handicap.
The racehorse that would turn out to be the most valuable importation Baillieu ever made into Australia arrived onboard the Persic in February 1927, along with three other thoroughbreds including Ronsard, who would emerge as a high-class stallion here. All had been consigned by the British Bloodstock Agency. Medmenham, the horse in question, was a lightly-framed bay mare by the 1919 Dewhurst Stakes winner Prince Galahad, out of Meadow Grass, a daughter of Lemberg, winner of the 1910 English Derby among a host of other top-class races. Medmenham had raced a few times in England, although her only victory was a shared one at Bath in a five-furlong two-year-old event. Although she had been imported mainly for her value as a broodmare, Medmenham entered Ruthen Lodge, and, after acclimatising, was briefly raced here jointly by ‘Prince’ Baillieu and Fred Smith.
Indeed, on the strength of victories in the St Clair Trial Stakes at Caulfield and the Brunswick Stakes at Flemington in the autumn of 1928, she was the ruling Caulfield Cup favourite for a time. A few good stayers competed in that Brunswick Stakes and Medmenham came from a long way back to snatch a narrow victory on the post. Alas, Medmenham was plagued by weak forelegs and when she broke down in early October 1928, it was quickly announced that her racing career was over and she was going to the Widden Stud. That spring was an unlucky one for the Messrs Baillieu and Smith for they also lost the services of Karuma, who was a popular choice for the A.J.C. Epsom Handicap at the time. Medmenham’s first foal, a bay filly by Backwood, came along in 1930 but was never registered and never raced. The following season she produced a dead foal to the same stallion. After a mating with Brazen, Medmenham dropped Humorist in 1933, a hardy but moderate galloper who nonetheless won at Caulfield. But it was the flashy chestnut foal that she produced in 1934 after a brief affair with Heroic that guaranteed that Medmenham’s name would resonate forever in the Australian Stud Book.
‘Prince’ Baillieu never lived long enough to see the end of Ajax’s racecourse career, much less the beginning of the horse’s stud career. Baillieu died on Friday, 21 July 1939, at the age of 70 and just five weeks before Ajax resumed racing as a five-year-old. On the following bitterly cold Saturday, there was a profound air of sadness in the Members’ Reserve at the Caulfield meeting given that during that morning many members had attended Baillieu’s funeral. To all the world, he had been known as ‘Prince’ and surely there was never a more appropriate nickname, as it so aptly described his bearing and character. He had loved racing for its own sake. Indeed, there was nothing Baillieu enjoyed more in life than to get away from the demands of the city and spend a vacation at Widden with his good friend Alf Thompson, where he felt happy and carefree. How pleased he would have been that Ajax spent seven seasons at the Widden Stud.
Frank Musgrave certainly mourned ‘Prince’ Baillieu’s death, as there was a deep bond of affection between the two men. In deciding racing campaigns for Ajax and his other horses, Baillieu was always content to be guided by Musgrave. Frank Musgrave outlived his former patron for another five years, dying in a private hospital at the age of eighty-four, in June 1944, after an illness of several weeks’ duration. Almost to the very end, Musgrave continued to attend early morning trackwork at Caulfield to supervise the preparation of his team. For all of his success, Musgrave never did train a Melbourne Cup winner and there was a supreme irony in that fact not unrelated to the Ajax story. The last Melbourne Cup that Musgrave lived to witness was won by a horse that Musgrave had once owned and trained and bought for 525 guineas as a yearling. I refer to Dark Felt.
In Frank Musgrave’s ownership, Dark Felt was a very disappointing horse. It was said that his spirit was broken by being used as a galloping companion for the three-year older Ajax. Musgrave always denied that rumour but the fact was that the Spearfelt horse remained a maiden despite quite a number of race starts when Musgrave and the rising five-year-old parted company in January 1942. What forced Musgrave’s hand was the labour shortage brought on by the War. It was simply impossible to recruit and retain staff and Musgrave had to reduce the size of his string. Dark Felt was one of the first horses to go. It isn’t difficult to imagine Musgrave’s chagrin when he watched Dark Felt win the 1943 Melbourne Cup by three lengths in the “pink, black bands and cap” of Joe Cain. Frank Musgrave lies buried in Brighton cemetery having left two daughters and three sons. Sadly, Musgrave never lived long enough to see any of Ajax’s progeny race. The first of the stallion’s offspring, which included Magnificent, went through the yearling sales only a couple of months before Musgrave’s death.
Over the years the critics have disparaged Ajax, harping that the horse was only allowed to contest handpicked set-weight events and that he was something of a ‘glass jaw’ champion. Such criticism is misplaced. Let us not forget that on the day Hua won the V.R.C. St. Leger at Flemington, Ajax won the V.R.C. Newmarket Handicap with nine stone, or 8lbs over weight-for-age. In doing so he broke two records – the weight-carrying record for a three-year-old and at the same time becoming the shortest-priced favourite in the history of the race at 6/4 on! In those years such a rich handicap prize so early in one’s career meant crushing imposts in other handicaps on other days. It was for this reason that the three wise men who guided the colt’s destinies restricted him to contests at set weights or weight-for-age on all but three occasions. If Ajax’s record is found wanting when measured against the scales, it most certainly isn’t when measured against the clock, that other infallible touchstone of truth on the racecourse. Apart from being the joint holder of the Australasian record for a mile, Ajax set new race records in the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Randwick, the Rosehill Guineas, the Caulfield Guineas and the Futurity Stakes. Some glass jaw!
The mythological Ajax, the hero of the Trojan War, was to die by his own hand after seeing the coveted armour of Achilles go to someone else. Although the equine Ajax saw the coveted Derby prize go to someone else, there was distinctly less melodrama associated with the end of his career than that of his classical namesake. The horse had his last race in the 1940 W.S. Cox Plate when Beau Vite narrowly beat him. He was then put up for auction as a stallion in March 1941 and knocked down for 6500 guineas to W.J. ‘Bill’ Smith of St Aubins Stud, near Scone. Although Smith was the successful bidder, he had come to a prior arrangement with Alf Thompson, who had shared in the ownership of the horse during his racing career, that if he got the horse, Thompson would be half-owner.
It was in this way that Ajax came to return to Widden, the place where he was born and bred. Like his own sire, Heroic, who returned to do duty at Herbert Thompson’s stud where he was bred, Ajax, returned to Widden for the same purpose. In seven seasons there he sired one excellent horse in Magnificent, himself an A.J.C. Derby winner, as well as a number of lesser luminaries including Chaperone (V.A.T.C. Merson Cooper Stakes; V.R.C. Ascot Vale Stakes) and Achilles (AJC Epsom Handicap). He also sired some brilliant fillies that showed their best form at two and three but often failed to train on. Despite such good stock, I think it is fair to say that rather more was expected from him. Ajax was again put up for sale in July 1947 when Bill Smith bought him outright for 13,000 guineas; Smith then sold him to America where the horse met with only moderate success.
I started this chapter with the life and times of Percy Miller, and perhaps I should round out his story. Despite the success of a Derby with Avenger and a Caulfield Guineas and other good races with Young Idea, Percy Miller, for all his genius as a horse breeder, was never really fortunate as a horse owner. He raced some useful gallopers such as Session (V.R.C. Wakeful Stakes and Oaks Stakes), Broadcaster (V.R.C. Maribyrnong Plate and Flying Duke (A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes) but somehow they never quite lived up to their early promise. Of course, he might have raced some high-class fillies of his own breeding but so often these were leased as yearlings to other men and only returned to Miller as broodmares. Perhaps the best example here was the wonderful filly, Sweet Chime, by Le Grand Duc, who swept the board of fillies’ classics in Melbourne in the spring of 1946 but carried the colours of the prominent Sydney owner, W. K. Dawes. When Sweet Chimes did return to the Kia Ora Stud as a broodmare, she became that very rare example of a V.R.C. Oaks winner who foaled a V.R.C. Oaks winner when she dropped the future Jingle Bells in the spring of 1960 to the stallion Double Bore.
There was one horse that Percy Miller raced that might have developed into something special, however, – and that was Rob Roy, the half-brother to Homer that ran in Talking’s Derby. Originally purchased by Ike Foulsham on behalf of L.K.S. Mackinnon for 1450 guineas at the New Zealand yearling sales in January 1935, Mackinnon’s death brought the horse back onto the market. He was still eligible for maiden races when Miller bought him for an undisclosed price. The son of Night Raid later won the Members’ Handicap at the 1936 A.J.C. Spring Meeting by six lengths pulling up, at just his second start in Miller’s colours. Rob Roy was strongly fancied for both the Victoria Derby and the Melbourne Cup that year only to break down badly in his near-final Caulfield gallop before the V.R.C. Spring Meeting began. To the end of his days, Miller maintained that he was the most promising stayer that he had ever had the good fortune to own.
Percy Miller died at his Dudley St, Coogee, home in August 1948 at the age of sixty-eight after a long illness. He was survived by his wife, and his only child, Marjorie. At the time of his death, Kia-Ora remained Australia’s pre-eminent stud as the quality of the stallions standing there at the time attests – Midstream, Le Grand Duc, Channel Swell and Delville Wood. Although in its prime, Kia-Ora had been extended from its original 1800 to almost 3000 acres, the march of progress had served to reduce it over the years, not least with the construction of Glenbawn Dam, and at Miller’s death, the stud totalled a little more than 2,400 acres. Likewise, its broodmare numbers had declined from the halcyon days when two hundred or more matrons roamed the paddocks to about half that number. During Percy Miller’s lifetime, the stud had been responsible for breeding such champions as Windbag, Amounis, Murray Stream, All Love, Feminist, Loquacious, Chatham, Winooka and Shannon from its own mares, not to mention the greats such as Peter Pan that came from visiting broodmares.
Miller lived long enough to see another of his stallions in Midstream, succeed to the title first won for Kia-Ora by Magpie, that of Australian Champion Sire. Loyal and generous, and a man of absolute integrity, from his very first tentative offering as a vendor in 1916, Percy never sold his yearlings outside the Sydney region, and he retained his original selling agents, William Inglis and Son, to the very end of his days. His friendship with the Inglis family was such that he bequeathed his racing colours to John Inglis and for years after Miller’s death the livery continued to be successful on Sydney racecourses. I shall leave the story of Kia-Ora’s sad decline to a later chapter of this chronicle, but it is fair to say that the seeds of destruction were sown with Percy’s death. Even during his lifetime, the inevitable squabbles and petty jealousies that so often mar and fracture family companies had threatened the stud’s viability. But a legal instrument that resided control of the enterprise in Percy’s hands had at least contained such discontent while he lived. His death released the demons to wreak havoc.
Really interesting thanks for that Percy Miller was my Grandfather, Rita Miller was my mother.
Thanks for the feedback, John.
John, I think you are mistaken. Percy Miller was only married once, to Mabel and had only one child, Marjorie.
Very interesting read. I am looking for information on racehorse Joan Marsh , saddle cloth no.4 . Won in 1937. From Percy Miller / Kia Ora stud. Horse no.8 was 2nd & no. 1 was 3rd. Horse was owned by my Great G/ father . Arthur Shrimpton . Can you help me please .
Hi Lynne, I’m sorry but I can’t help you. I presume that you have a photograph and you are trying to identify the occasion. Joan Marsh (named after a well-known actress) never won a principal race on the Australian Turf and doesn’t have any significance in the Australian Stud Book is all I can establish.