When Jack Holt saddled up Avenger to win the 1937 A.J.C. Derby, it was his second victory in the race from as many starters – Hall Mark having been the first back in 1933. Exactly seven days after Avenger’s thrilling victory at Randwick, the great Victorian trainer produced a small and lightly framed two-year-old chestnut colt, a very near relation of Hall Mark and one who sported the same famous colours, for his racing debut at the Caulfield Spring Meeting. It was one of the rare times that the horse in question, Nuffield, failed to win. For in the course of the next twelve months this colt would emerge as the best juvenile of his year and ultimately credit Holt with a hat-trick of Derbies at Randwick.
The man the racing world would come to know as Jack Holt was born in November 1879 in the then Victorian country village of Berwick, about 27 miles southeast of Melbourne, along the Princes Highway. He was the fourth and last child of poor but staunch Irish Catholic immigrants, Michael and Mary, who had settled there in the district in 1872 almost two years before starting their family. Berwick was then part of a small agricultural and dairying community linked with the greater metropolis of Melbourne by a coach road that stretched all the way to Gippsland. Although Berwick has now been absorbed as a suburb of greater Melbourne, during Holt’s childhood it was more akin to one of those quaint and charming towns in the English countryside that crowd the pages of Charles Dickens’s novels. The Berwick Inn, built in the year 1857, could quite easily be perceived as a meeting venue for Samuel Pickwick and his travelling companions. The heart of the town along the High-street and its adjacent avenues still retains a distinctive English flavour and some of the buildings are in mock-Tudor style. The original school was constructed in 1870 while the Berwick Mechanics Institute and the imposing facade and arches of the former post office speak of the 1880s.
Michael Holt, Jack’s father, was a typical Irishman. Stocky, full of bonhomie with his cherubic round face and infectious laugh he made friends easily. Michael, as befitted an Irishman, had been reared with horses in the Emerald Isle and enjoyed a remarkable affinity with them. Horses were an integral part of life in Berwick and the surrounding districts and young Jack’s gift of being able to handle them came at an early age from observing his father, a horse-breaker, who also trained a few for racing on the side. Although Holt senior boasted no formal qualifications, he was acknowledged as a skilled veterinarian in the surrounding hamlets. But horses alone could not furnish bread for the table of his young family and Holt senior was forced to take various labouring jobs from road-mending to handyman duties on surrounding properties to supplement the family income.
As for Mary, the wife and mother, she was a very different person from her husband as Maurice Cavanough tells us in his excellent monograph: “as retiring as he was gregarious. She was deeply religious and put little store in material considerations other than the needs of her family. She could not afford to dress in anything but the plainest clothes, but her bearing and her unfailing good manners marked her as a person of quality.” The struggle to make ends meet within the family would have a lasting effect on the youngest son and inculcate in him keen respect for money and the security guaranteed by it. The Holts had four children all born in the space of fewer than six years: Margaret, William, Catherine and Michael – hitherto known as Jack.
Under their mother’s leadership, every Sunday the Holt family attended the weatherboard St Michael’s Catholic Church in the High-street where all the children sang in the church choir. There was no sectarian school attached to the church and accordingly Jack and his siblings attended the local State school. Both boys learned to ride almost as soon as they learned to walk and each was an excellent horseman. William and Jack both rode their father’s horses in races and the former may well have made it as a professional jockey had not an accident put paid to that ambition. Subsequently, William became apprenticed to a saddler in the district and later set up in business for himself in the South Gippsland town of Foster, where he also successfully raised cattle. Unlike William, Jack’s sturdy physique ensured that he would have no long-term future as a jockey, as much as he wished to continue working with horses.
While still at school young Jack earned pocket money doing various errands on his horse including laying the drag ahead of the local Hunt. Upon leaving school his first job was with the postal department, delivering mail on his pony. As menial as the job sounds it nonetheless brought him into contact with many of the wealthy landowners of the district and when it came to taking out a trainer’s licence a number of them became his early patrons. Holt quit the mail service and at the tender age of just sixteen, set himself up as a public trainer. Initially, he plied his trade around the provincial and country circuit training hurdlers as well as flat racers. Indeed, Holt would partner his own horses if he could cut the weight at places such as Warragul and Cranbourne.
In March 1896 we find him partnering Mr J. Lecky’s Not Particular to success in a selling race at the Warragul course at the inaugural meeting of the St. Patrick’s Day Racing Club. The winner was subsequently sold for £15 to a Mr W. M. Clinton. In December of the same year, we find him riding and winning the Maiden Pony Race on Phoebe at the annual Boxing Day Meeting of the Balnarring and Hastings Racing Club. Holt’s first metropolitan winner came before he had even turned twenty, at a meeting at Sandown in November 1899. The horse in question was Flying Fox, and Maurice Cavanough in his little book ‘The Wizard of Mordialloc’ relates the story:
“The horse was entered in the Trial Handicap, the first race on the programme, and also in the last event, the Welter. Ridden by the great Bobby Lewis who was only a year older than Holt, Flying Fox won the Trial comfortably. The trainer then assured Lewis that his horse was just as sure to win the Welter, but Lewis had other ideas. He told Holt that he had been engaged to ride a horse called Palmerston in the Welter and that Palmerston was sure to beat Flying Fox. Holt thereupon engaged a lad named Jimmy Thomas for his horse and had the satisfaction of seeing Flying Fox win the Welter even more easily than the Trial. In a field of six, Palmerston could do no better than fourth. That incident was an early example of the almost unerring judgement about his horses’ prospects that distinguished Holt’s career.”
In these years Holt made intermittent visits to the city racecourses but was generally happy to frequent the local meetings of the Gippsland district, training on the Beaconsfield course. Among the horses that won races for him in those ‘battling’ days were Iona, a useful filly by Malvolio, and a handy hurdler in Accumulator. Holt received a momentary scare when in May 1907 the Moonee Valley stewards disqualified him together with his main owner Richard Grice and jockey A. Halstead over the running of Sustain in a Maiden Hurdle. Grice and Holt had their appeals upheld although Halstead’s was dismissed. The following year a very severe winter and the waterlogged ground in the mountains forced Holt’s hand and he moved to the big smoke. He had won the Pines Hurdle with Sustain for the Grice family at the 1908 V.R.C. Autumn Meeting and it seemed as good a time as any to test the metropolitan waters. Even then his rental of stables at Epsom racecourse was intended merely as a temporary expedient. But when Holt realised how suitable the sandy stretches of Epsom, on the shores of Port Phillip Bay, were for the conditioning of his horses, he sought to make the move permanent. But only after his parents and sisters declared themselves content with the relocation, for by then he was supporting them all.
Neither Jack Holt nor his three siblings ever married and only his brother, William, really ever broke free from the family. With their blessing, Jack bought some land at Mordialloc and erected a rather humble cottage that was to be his home, and the home of his two sisters, for the rest of their lives. It was an eight-roomed weatherboard dwelling replete with an iron roof and an L-shaped Australian verandah kept in immaculate condition by the spinster sisters. Over the years the property grew as Holt purchased the surrounding land and nearby paddocks from his race winnings, ultimately swelling to well over five acres. While Epsom racecourse was close, Holt eventually spent much of his time at nearby Mentone.
Jack Holt began his metropolitan career with just six horses viz. Borangee, Rizine, Belville, Carette, and a couple of others. While Borangee, Rizine and Belleville all won useful races what is most impressive is the patience and perseverance that Holt showed in getting victories out of them. For example, Borangee was a mare he leased from Mr T. Gatenby, and, bred by Herbert Power, she was by Bobadil from a daughter of the famous Nellie. It took two years for Holt to win races with her at Epsom and Sandown Park. As was the case with Borangee, Holt leased a few horses in his early days to get his stable going and a few of them came from S. P. Mackay. The owner of the Mundabullangava station in the northwest and other major stations in Western Australia was a prolific owner who bought and sold horses with gay abandon. He was a particularly strong supporter of the Turf in Western Australia and Victoria and perhaps the two best horses to carry his colours during his lifetime were Soultline and Radnor.
While Mackay employed a few different trainers in Victoria including Dick Bradfield and Walter Hickenbotham, his main retainer was James Scobie. However, Mackay also had an eye for emerging talent and recognised such in the young Jack Holt to whom he was happy to lease horses such as Carotic and Minju. It was also from Mackay that Holt secured his first good horse, Carette, a diminutive daughter of Bobadil from The Saucy Girl. The mare gave the rising young trainer his first big success when she won the 1911 Standish Handicap at Flemington on New Year’s Day at a juicy 12/1. Holt had set her for the race. Despite being a failure at Caulfield at her previous start, Carette was well-supported in the ring and with Bill Foulsham in the saddle, had the field in difficulties after a furlong. It was to be the first of no less than eight triumphs in that race during Holt’s career. Although there wasn’t much of Carette, she handled weight well and went on to win a string of races for Holt and might even have won him the 1911 V.R.C. Newmarket but for an injury. Later that same year at the V.A.T.C. September Meeting, Jack Holt trained King Darius to win the Sandringham Steeplechase for Geoff Grice. The Wizard of Mordialloc was on his way!
It was very soon after Carette’s success in the Standish that the prominent owner, Captain William McCulloch of Woodlands sought out Holt’s services. Maurice Cavanough relates the story of how McCulloch sent Holt two horses with a note saying that one of them, Honey Bee, had the makings of a good galloper. The other, according to the Major, was ‘ a scrubber’ which Holt could return whenever he got tired of it. The two horses arrived on a Saturday evening, and on the following morning, Holt suggested to a friend who was a weekend house guest that they should take the pair to Mentone racecourse for a gallop, suggesting that his friend could ride Honey Bee while he himself partnered the scrubber. As Cavanough recounted the tale, as a result of the trial Holt wrote a note to McCulloch which said briefly: “Thank you for sending me the two horses. I am returning the good one, but will keep the scrubber.”
Meerut was the galloper that Holt retained and he was named after the station in India where Captain McCulloch had served with a British Artillery Regiment. Meerut won seventeen races and one of those victories gave rise to an amusing incident which Cavanough relates in his book. The horse came home at a long price to win by a head with Joe Killorn in the saddle and yet the stable money wasn’t on. In returning to scale, the horses passed close to where the happy bookmakers, many of whom had just experienced a ‘skinner’ on a Holt-runner, were fielding. Killorn looked rather sheepish as he brought Meerut back and one bookmaker, jubilant at the result, began to sing the refrain of a popular song of the day: “He didn’t want to do it. He didn’t want to do it.” One by one the other bookmakers joined in until the chorus could be heard all over the racecourse. Cavanough relates the incident as occurring at Mentone without providing a date but I believe he has conflated two incidents into one and that it took place at Aspendale Park in January 1915.
During those years of World War I, Jack Holt went from strength to strength with his small but growing team. Horses such as Sir Ibex, Lancer Plume, Ludovitch, Telecles, Aislabie and Jemlah won him a string of races. And the bookmakers were wary of any Holt-trained galloper. There is as much an art in accurately summing up a trial and placing horses to the best advantage as regards course and distance, as there is in training them. Jack Holt was a master of both facets and men were beginning to notice. Whether it was the double on the same card scored by Lancer Plume at Mentone in September 1915 or the four races on the reel won by Sir Ibex in the autumn of 1916, there didn’t seem to be anything that Holt couldn’t do with a racehorse. On May 29th 1916 the racing correspondent for the Melbourne Herald was moved to write:
“There is no doubting the fact that trainers with private tracks, or with the use of some remote racecourse not frequented by ‘touts’ hold distinct advantages over most other trainers. One of these fortunate trainers is J. Holt who won the Kellor Handicap at Moonee Valley on Saturday with Sir Ibex. In the first place, the horses of such men are trained in comparative privacy, and as most of them have large strings of horses they are able to have very thorough tests. That this is so is evidenced by the regularity with which the leading private trainers win with horses they back. For example, when a horse from the stable presided over by Lou Robertson is fancied by him, it generally wins, and lately, it has been the same with Holt. Now and again something may turn up to beat a fancy from these stables, but it is not often.”
A number of Melbourne’s most prominent racing men such as Norman Falkiner, Charlie Kellow, Askin Foster, A. J. Staughton, J. M. Niall and C. A. Widdis had already beaten a path to his stable door and many more would do so in the years ahead. As Australia emerged from World War I, Jack Holt won his first Victorian trainers’ premiership in 1918-19 with no less than 43 winners. As we shall see, premierships were to become a habit and over the next sixteen seasons, he would be the leading trainer twelve times, second three times, and third on the other occasion. But for the moment, all he needed now was for a champion racehorse to walk through the stable portal. And as if right on cue at the beginning of the 1920-21 racing season, just such a one emerged from the Golden West.
Eurythmic, the horse in question, had been sold at the 1918 Randwick yearling sales held in Tom Payten’s yards. A well-balanced chestnut colt by Eudorus from Bob Cherry, he was offered by W. B. and C. L. Thompson of Camyr Allyn, Scone. Despite the fact that the dam was a full sister to Bobadea, runner-up in the A.J.C. Derby of 1910, and that the yearling’s older brother had won the Juvenile Handicap at a recent meeting of the Warwick Farm Club, he failed to attract many bids. Paddy Connolly was able to buy him for a modest 310 guineas on behalf of the Western Australian sportsman, Ernest Lee Steere. Eurythmic spent his two and three-year-old seasons exclusively in Perth, winning 10 races from 14 starts, including the W.A.T.C. Western Australian Derby and sharing a dead heat in the Perth Cup. It was in the wake of such devastating form that Lee Steere sent the son of Eudorus across to Jack Holt.
Perhaps even the Wizard of Mordialloc didn’t quite appreciate what he had on his hands when he sent the chestnut out to open his four-year-old season in the V.A.T.C. Memsie Stakes for the bookmakers were still shouting 20/1 at the jump. Eurythmic won by three lengths that day and in a remarkable season that comprised 13 starts his only loss came in the 1920 Melbourne Cup, when, carrying 9 st. 4lb, he could only finish fourth behind Poitrel, after looking to be the likely winner at the distance. Besides winning a string of rich weight-for-age races that season at Caulfield, Flemington and Randwick, Holt prepared him perfectly to win the Caulfield Cup with 8 st. 9lb and the Sydney Cup with 9 st. 8lb. 75,000 Sydney racegoers never forgot that sensational Sydney Cup, when, from last at the seven furlongs, Eurythmic put in one of the longest sustained runs ever seen at Randwick, to swoop down on Arch Marella to score a brilliant half-length triumph.
As a five-year-old, Eurythmic continued his domination of weight-for-age races and although his form began to taper off at six, Holt was still able to keep him up to winning both the Memsie and Caulfield Stakes early in the season. Frank Dempsey was Eurythmic’s regular jockey during his days in Victoria. Eurythmic left Lethe for retirement to stud at the end of his six-year-old season and his complete racing record from 47 starts read 30½ wins; 6 seconds; 4 thirds; and £36,891 in stakes. He was the first horse to wrest from Carbine the title of Australia’s greatest stakes winner, a record that lasted but a short time before Gloaming bettered it. Norman Falkiner took a two-year lease on the horse and stood him at his Noorilim Stud alongside Comedy King and Spearhead. Falkiner did not extend his lease and Eurythmic returned to Perth to stand at Ted Church’s Dunreath Stud near Guildford. The great champion collapsed and died there in October 1925. Sadly, he did not sire any winners of principal races.
Eurythmic ushered in a remarkable decade in the 1920s for Jack Holt in which he trained a succession of high-class racehorses including another couple of good gallopers from Western Australia in Easingwold and Lilypond. Easingwold was owned by the Fremantle owner-trainer, Billy Marks and Holt trained the horse to win two Herbert Power Stakes and a W. S. Cox Plate. Lilypond, whom he trained for the Perth identity Tom Foy, gave Holt his second Sydney Cup in 1925. For James Clark of Queensland, he trained Tangalooma to win the 1921 Williamstown Cup and C. B. Fisher Plate as well as successive V.R.C. October Stakes. Randwick was a happy hunting ground for Holt in 1925 for apart from the Sydney Cup he also won the Epsom Handicap with Metellus for Charlie Kellow. In 1926 Holt won the Newmarket Handicap, Cumberland Stakes and Memsie Stakes with the great Heroic for Kellow as well as the Moonee Valley Cup with Royal Charger for J. M. Niall. In successive years as the decade ended, Holt won the Caulfield Cup with Maple for Ernest Lee Steere (1928) and with High Syce (1929) for Dame Rita Buxton. Holt also trained the good weight-for-age horse Highland for Lady Buxton.
As the 1920s ended and the 1930s commenced, Holt’s flow of high-class winners continued unabated with the likes of Second Wind, Umbertana, High Brae and Heros. More and more distinguished owners began to patronise Holt’s Mordialloc stables and over the years these luminaries of the Turf included Lauchlan Mackinnon, Percy Miller, Charles Trescowthick, Jim Niall, T. M. Burke, Len Buxton and of course, Charlie Kellow. All were wealthy men who rewarded Holt generously when their horses were successful.
His list of patrons extended to royalty and the peerage as well. In 1926 he trained Trice to win the Standish Handicap for Helena, the Countess of Stradbroke, the wife of Victoria’s Governor at the time, and a lady who, given her love of racing and knowledge of horses, became a close personal friend of the Holts. In late 1938 when King George V appointed his youngest son, the Duke of Kent as Governor-General of Australia, the Duke sent out three racehorses in advance to be trained ready for his arrival. Jack Holt was the man chosen for the task.
A curious aspect of Jack Holt’s training career was that until Charlie Kellow started to race some of his homebred youngsters by his great favourite, Heroic, beginning in the 1930-31 racing season, the Mordialloc trainer had shown an aversion to training two-year-olds, preferring instead the quicker returns from older horses. Whereas the yearling market was something of a lucky dip, when it came to horses already tried on the racecourse, Holt trusted his judgement implicitly in spotting those he considered would improve under his training methods. But whatever bias Holt may have harboured towards juveniles, Kellow’s collection of Heroic home-breds certainly overcame it. For in Hall Mark and Nuffield he got two of the best horses to ever pass through his hands.
When Heroic was retired to Tarwyn Park Stud in the Bylong Valley, Kellow retained the right to send a number of mares to him every season, and for this purpose kept a few likely matrons at Herbert Thompson’s property, among them Herowinkie, the dam of Hall Mark, and Belle Gallante, the dam of Nuffield. In fact, Kellow’s two Derby winners were bred on identical lines and were practically blood brothers. Each was by Heroic from mares by Cyklon, whose dams were full sisters. Herowinkie was a daughter of Deneb, by The Welkin from Teppo, while Belle Gallante was a daughter of Isa, by The Welkin from Teppo. Earlier in this chronicle, I described the immense good fortune enjoyed by Ernest Clarke when he imported The Welkin together with a number of mares from England, purchased on his behalf by John Brewer.
Teppo was among that band of sisters and she was to become one of the great additions to the Australian Stud Book. She was the dam of only one really good horse in Thrice, who also became a useful sire, but it was the daughters of Teppo that really made her reputation. These included not only Deneb and Isa but also Trey, a Maribyrnong Plate winner and the dam of Trivalve. In fact, Belle Gallante and Herowinkie were both full sisters-in-blood to the A.J.C. Derby hero of 1927. Belle Gallante cost Charlie Kellow only 575 guineas as a yearling, less than the 800 guineas he’d paid for Herowinkie, but she proved a much better racing proposition than the latter. Cecil Godby trained Belle Gallante, who was little more than a pony, and he managed to land a tidy betting coup on behalf of Kellow when he prepared the filly for a first-up win in the 1927 Gimcrack Stakes at Randwick.
The stable fairly plastered the money on, seeing the price tumble from fifteens to eights, and Belle Gallante just caught hold of Gold Tinge inside the last hundred yards to win the juvenile classic by a head. Although she won other races later on, that Gimcrack victory condemned her to carry big weights for much of her career and she retired to stud relatively early. Belle Gallante’s first foal died as a yearling while her second wasn’t of much account; she hadn’t bred the season previous to producing Nuffield in October 1935.
The little chestnut colt took his name from the English motoring magnate, Lord Nuffield, who as William Morris, had been a cycling chum of Charlie Kellow, years before either became rich and famous. Morris was six years younger than Kellow, and both men made their fortune after graduating from bicycles to motorcars. Morris eventually became one of the world’s great philanthropists after the company he founded, Morris Motors Ltd, prospered in the years between the two World Wars. A frequent visitor to Australia, he had been a guest of Kellow’s at the time Belle Gallante’s latest offspring was due to be registered. The name seemed fitting and Nuffield himself had taken it, upon being made a viscount, from the Oxfordshire village in which he had earlier settled. Kellow had endured a fairly quiet time of it on the Turf after the retirement of Hall Mark in May 1936, despite racing on a fairly generous scale, but this latest son of Heroic promised once again to place the famous gold and green livery before the general public with distinction.
As a racehorse, Nuffield was rather more highly excitable than his namesake, and from the first, Jack Holt had to line the colt’s box with rubber to save him from self-inflicted harm. Still, Holt knew that he had something special in the little firebrand even though he never showed it on the occasion of his first start in the Debutant Stakes at Caulfield. But that experience taught the youngster all he needed to know about the business of racing. At Mentone, Nuffield was showing something out of the ordinary in his trackwork and Jack Holt didn’t lack for trying tackle. Trainer and owner now had the perfect betting opportunity in the V.A.T.C. Gwyn Nursery over five furlongs on Caulfield Cup Day. Indeed, it was the race run immediately before The Trump’s Caulfield Cup and the Mordialloc stable supported their little chestnut heavily in the ring. Backed into 13/8 favouritism, Nuffield and Maurice McCarten ran out the easiest of winners in the eleven-strong field. The next stop was the V.R.C. Maribyrnong Plate.
While Jack Holt’s Mordialloc establishment enjoyed the reputation of being the biggest betting stable in Victoria in the years immediately before World War II, George Price’s Randwick establishment enjoyed a similar reputation in New South Wales. ‘Wee’ Georgie had commenced the 1937-38 racing season with half-a-dozen nice two-year-old colts – the best collection of juveniles that he’d ever had through his hands in all his years of training. At the official Victoria Park Two-Year-Old Trials held in September, three of the fourteen heats had been won by representatives of his stable viz. Pandava, Mildura and Adios and besides that triumvirate he had others that would subsequently impress on the racecourse in The Squire, Peekmond and Homeric. Still, the star of the show as far as Price was concerned was the good-looking Brazen colt that had so effortlessly won the sixth heat at Victoria Park. An early October foal, his name was Pandava and he was a homebred raced by those two gentlemen who conducted their turf affairs under the nom-de-course of ‘Mr Smithden’.
The reader will recall that Kuvera raced in the same interests and indeed each colt’s name had been derived from a common source. Kuvera is the name of the Lord of Wealth and the god-king of the semi-divine Yakshas in Hindu culture. The Pandavas are five brothers and the central characters of the longest Hindu epic, Mahabharata. As we have seen, Kuvera ran third in the 1932 A.J.C. Derby behind Peter Pan and while Pandava had that explosive physique of a sprinter, Derby dreams die hard in a racing owner’s imagination. Pandava would be given every chance to show that he could stay until he showed that he couldn’t. Pandava’s pedigree was ambivalent on the subject. Pandava’s sire, Brazen was a son of the Polymelus horse, Phalaris, and while he had already produced a New Zealand Derby winner in Bronze Eagle and a Wanganui Cup winner in Brazen King, his progeny were generally considered to be sprinters or milers. Ring Again, the dam of Pandava, was by the imported Tonbridge, a son of yet another Polymelus horse in Pommern, the English Triple Crown winner of 1915 when English racing was severely disturbed by the Great War.
The A.J.C. Breeders’ Plate, run on Monday, the second day of the Randwick Spring Meeting was chosen for Pandava’s debut. George Price, who had previously won the semi-classic with Ramulus, Caramba and Gold Rod, had no doubt that the son of Brazen would give him a fourth and so it proved. Pandava and Maurice McCarten chased Miltiades, perhaps the most impressive heat winner at the Victoria Park trials, for half a mile and then gathered him up in a stride. Limulet from the Bayly Payten stable came from last to finish second, beaten by two lengths, and then the connections fired in a protest for interference at the start. It had been years since any protest had been upheld at Randwick on such grounds – a record that remained intact after a brief colloquy by stewards. Next came Flemington and the V.R.C. Maribyrnong Plate.
George Price had not yet had the pleasure of training a V.R.C. Maribyrnong Plate winner. The nearest he had gone was with Blixten, who raced in the same colours as Pandava and ran second in 1932. The Maribyrnong Plate was an interesting race with an interesting history. It was somewhat remarkable that, though many more horses were bred during the inter-war years than during the first dozen years of the running of the Maribyrnong Plate, the fields were not as large. Since 1884 and up to the time of the 1938 renewal, a total of 20 starters had only once been exceeded, that being when Rapsonia beat Blixten and twenty others in 1932. Some of the early totals were: 1877 – 28; 1878 – 29; 1879 – 23; 1880 – 27; 1881 – 30; and 1882 – 26. Owners back then must have been easier to convince that they possessed a potential champion than those of the inter-war years. It was also a race in which weight penalties applied, commencing at 5lb for a win of from £250 to £500; and 7lb in excess of that amount. Consequently, Pandava carried the major penalty, Nuffield the lesser.
At flagfall, Nuffield went off the 2/1 favourite just ahead of the A.J.C. Gimcrack Stakes winner Gay Romance, with as much as 8/1 available about Pandava. During the week, Jack Holt had confided to a few intimates that he considered Nuffield the greatest two-year-old he’d ever trained. In the race itself, Nuffield in the hands of Darby Munro spreadeagled the brilliant field of thirteen other runners. Nuffield hit the front a furlong from home and Darby didn’t have to ride him out to win by nearly three lengths. The time was fully two seconds outside of Rampion’s race record of 59 ½ seconds but the field had to battle against a head breeze. Pandava, the worst-handicapped colt in the field, had also been drawn on the outside, which was considered the slowest part of the course, and he tired in the last hundred yards to only finish sixth. Whereas Nuffield was then put aside until the autumn, Pandava continued to race.
Five days after the Maribyrnong Plate, Pandava navigated the same course and distance and fell in to win the Byron Moore Stakes after conceding weight to all his rivals. Brought back to Sydney, Pandava next appeared in the A.J.C. Kirkham Stakes at the Warwick Farm meeting in early December when he could only fill the minor placing behind the Bayly Payten-trained Kooba, sporting the colours of the wealthy industrialist, F. W. Hughes, a relative newcomer to racing. Kooba, a son of Veilmond, was built on the same generous lines as his sire and for a time came to be regarded as a genuine Derby prospect. Meanwhile, Pandava’s defeat led some wiseacres to suggest that the son of Brazen wasn’t quite the real deal. Just how wrong such naysayers were was demonstrated at the A.J.C. Summer Cup Meeting when Pandava went around in the prestigious December Stakes.
The Randwick course was on fire that day. In winning the Summer Cup, Young Crusader set a new Australasian record for thirteen furlongs, clipping three-quarters of a second off the old time when he registered 2 minutes 42¼ seconds. Pandava then stepped out and broke the Randwick record for five furlongs. Despite putting up a penalty, Pandava, with Keith Cook in the irons, jumped smartly and proceeded to lead all the way in a time of 58½ seconds to clip the previous record held by Gloriole. Kooba, Pandava’s conqueror from Warwick Farm, Kooba, could only occupy a minor place in his backdraft. Only then did George Price ease up on the colt and put him aside until the autumn.
The two colts that were to dominate the juvenile ranks throughout that season each resumed racing on the same day in mid-February at Caulfield in separate divisions of the Federal Stakes. Whereas Nuffield was asked to carry 9 st. 10lb in the first division, Pandava was handicapped with 3lb less in the second. Whereas Nuffield won comfortably by three-quarters of a length in a time of 1 minute 1½ seconds, Pandava was beaten a head by Llana, to whom he was conceding 29lb, in a time that was a half-second faster. Nuffield then went directly into the V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes for his next contest while Pandava was sent around against the older horses the following week at Caulfield in the Hawksburn Handicap. It was a race that he probably should have won instead of going under by a neck to the year-older Heroic gelding, Lolorua, carrying 1lb less and trained by Stan Lamond jr. Pandava was inadvertently squeezed when he appeared to have the race won. Seven days later it was on to Flemington and the Sires’ Produce Stakes (7f) and the Ascot Vale Stakes (6f).
It was generally believed that Nuffield had the V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes at his mercy and in the hands of jockey Ray Wilson, he went to the post as the 3/1 on favourite in the field of six. Pandava was let go as the 5/1 second-favourite with 14/1 and more offered about the others. It was very nearly a boil over. A hundred yards from the winning post no less than four of the field were in line. Ray Wilson lifted Nuffield to win by a half-neck in his final stride from the 100/1 chance, Destiny Bay, with Lady Montague half a head away. Pandava finished another head behind the placegetters in the fourth position. The pace was slow and the crowd was surprised at the long start that Nuffield was conceding at the half-mile. In contrast, Maurice McCarten on Pandava rode a waiting race in front although it wasn’t his easiest ride as Pandava wanted to hang out from the first turn and McCarten was riding him on one rein.
Limulet, the other Sydney representative in the race, never looked a possibility, although had he been able to hold his position at the foot of the straight, Nuffield would not have got through. Five days later in the Ascot Vale Stakes over the same course but a furlong shorter in distance Pandava and Nuffield, each carrying 10lb penalties, were relegated into the minor placings respectively by Tactical, a thirty guineas purchase at the dispersal of the Isla Vale Stud. Unlike in the Sires’, up the straight-six Pandava set a solid pace throughout and fought on well to go under by a half-head, with Nuffield a further head away. At the conclusion of the V.R.C. Autumn Meeting, it was clear that Nuffield and Pandava were the two best colts of the season and that there wasn’t much between them. The fact that one hailed from Melbourne and the other from Sydney added a piquancy to their rivalry that continued in the Sires’ Produce Stakes and Champagne Stakes at Randwick.
Forty-four days separated the running of the Ascot Vale Stakes at Flemington and the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Randwick and neither Jack Holt nor George Price were prepared to leave their colt unraced for that length of time. Accordingly, both horses ran in the Fairfield Handicap, a race for two-year-old colts and geldings in which the maximum weight was fixed at 9 st.5lb and conducted a week before the official opening of the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting. Bucking tradition the race that year was run at Randwick and Pandava, carrying 1lb less than Nuffield who was burdened with the maximum, was thrown out of the machine to almost immediately enjoy a four-length lead, wound up ambling to the post with two lengths to spare. Nuffield was beaten into fourth place. As the correspondent for the Truth newspaper wrote: “Had it been prophesied that Nuffield would fail to figure amongst the money-getters, the prophet would have been looked upon as a splendid subject for Callan Park.”
It was a very different story a week later in the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes over a journey of a furlong more. It was easily the richest two-year-old race of the season, worth £2,960 and £150 to the nominator of the winning sire, which was almost one-third more than the value of the V.R.C. equivalent. If the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Flemington had suggested Nuffield as the likely Derby winner come the spring then the A.J.C. equivalent confirmed it. Charlie Kellow’s chestnut won the classic in sensational circumstances. Bereft of all early brilliance, Nuffield was second-last in a well-strung-out field when they passed the half-mile and was giving Pandava in the lead anything up to a dozen lengths’ start. It looked like a lost cause. However, Nuffield gathered momentum as they approached the three-furlong post and though running fourth as they swung into the home stretch, he was still seven lengths shy of Pandava. And yet so quickly did Pandava weaken and so strongly did Nuffield finish that the race belonged to Charlie Kellow and Jack Holt fully half-a-furlong from the judge. Fort Regal finished well to claim the second prize, three-quarters of a length behind Nuffield and a head in front of Pandava.
If Nuffield was the better stayer, Pandava again proved himself the better sprinter on the following Wednesday in the A.J.C. Champagne Stakes. In a field of ten, he was again slick out of the slips and led from pillar to post in a time that matched Manfred’s race record, beating Nuffield by a length with Fort Regal third. While that race saw Nuffield retire into his winter quarters as the firm favourite for the A.J.C. and V.R.C. Derbies, Pandava had one more commitment to honour and it came on the following Saturday in the C. W. Cropper Plate (6f). It was a tough ask. The favourite was the well-nigh invincible three-year-old Ajax who three starts before had carried nine stone to win the V.R.C. Newmarket and three days before had equalled the Australasian record for the mile in winning the A.J.C. All-Aged Stakes. Pandava was in receipt of 26lb from the champion but it wasn’t enough, although the rain-affected ground didn’t help. Musgrove’s marvel merely toyed with the son of Brazen in the straight to win by two-and-a-half lengths but those that finished behind the pair included King’s Head, Gold Rod and Mohican.
As the dust settled on the 1938 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting, interest turned towards the Derbies and Cups in the spring. Nuffield and Pandava were clearly the two outstanding colts of the season, and, having clashed six times, the honours were even. George Price always said that Pandava was the fastest horse from the barrier ever to be in his care. While he entertained grave doubts that the colt would get a middle distance let alone stay, Price hadn’t entirely abandoned his Derby plans. After all, history showed that quite a few high-class colts, though not stayers, had been able to get the mile-and-a-half against their own age group.
Pandava aside, there was a tendency by some critics to regard Nuffield as over-rated after his Champagne Stakes defeat. However, the manner in which he raced during that first season – usually tailed off – suggested he would be better over more ground. Moreover, bred as he was on the same lines as Hall Mark and Trivalve (both Derby and Cup winners), Nuffield should have been a genuine stayer given his two strains of Carbine in alliance with Bend Or and Hampton. Consequently, he wintered as a pronounced favourite for the classics. As was the case with Hall Mark, the day paddocks that Holt maintained at Mordialloc meant that the trainer didn’t have to lose sight of the colt while he rested during the winter months. Highly temperamental and never particularly robust, Nuffield presented an altogether different challenge to Holt than did either Hall Mark or Avenger in their respective Derby preparations. Whereas Hall Mark was small, he was nevertheless a thickset customer who had been given three runs in Melbourne before fronting up at Randwick. Avenger had been a big, gross horse needing plenty of work and ran four times before his Derby quest.
When it came to Nuffield, the Wizard of Mordialloc elected for a first-up tilt at the blue riband in a style reminiscent of Jim Scobie in his prime. Although the colt had a lean and hungry look and came to hand quickly, there were two other reasons for Holt’s reticence. In the early weeks of his Derby preparation, Nuffield, in a playful mood, got his off foreleg entangled in a rope that forced Holt to ease him in his work. The horse had suspect front legs anyway – he invariably raced in bandages – and the soft stretches of Epsom and Mentone were far more sympathetic to such a condition than most other courses. Holt did give Nuffield one good gallop when he got to Sydney – over a mile at Victoria Park – and the manner in which he despatched it convinced both Holt and Kellow that the Derby cheque only wanted for Mr Rowe’s signature. Nuffield appeared on paper to be an outstanding colt out in an ordinary year. Both trainer and owner subscribed to the theory that any price about a winner was a good one, and proceeded to support the colt with gay abandon. This support overcame any suspicions bookmakers may have had regarding Nuffield’s non-appearance since the autumn, and on Derby Day he headed the market at 4/5.
The major controversy surrounding Nuffield in the lead-up to that Derby wasn’t about the horse but the jockey. Nuffield arrived in Sydney at the end of August accompanied by his stablemates Courage and Avenger as speculation surfaced as to Nuffield’s likely partner in the Derby. Harold Badger had ridden the colt in the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes in the autumn but wasn’t prepared to abandon his favourite Ajax who would be contesting the V.R.C. Melbourne Stakes at Flemington on the same day that the A.J.C. blue riband was run. It came as no surprise then when Darby Munro was booked for Nuffield at Randwick. After all, Munro had won the V.R.C. Maribyrnong Plate on the colt and had ridden Hall Mark for trainer Jack Holt and owner Charlie Kellow when he won the Derby at Randwick five years earlier. This engagement of Munro led to a split between Munro and trainer Bayly Payten for whom the former had ridden regularly for several seasons. Indeed, amongst high-class victories shared by the pair were the Easter Plate and Maribyrnong Plate with Fidelity; the V.R.C. Oaks and Wakeful Stakes with Siren; and the A.J.C. Hobartville Stakes and V.R.C. Ascot Vale Stakes with Caesar.
At the time Munro accepted the mount on Nuffield, it was by no means certain that Limulet, a Limond colt that Payten prepared for C. N. Smith, would even be in the race as he was still eligible for novice class. So, the argument went, as much as Munro preferred riding for Payten more than any other trainer, he couldn’t have been expected to turn down a ride like Nuffield on the off chance of a novice performer making the classic grade. Besides, Munro wasn’t paid any official retainer by the Payten stable. Rather, the relationship was based on an accepted understanding. Nonetheless, the issue caused the only real fissure in the long-standing relationship between the two men. Payten proceeded to book Maurice McCarten to ride Limulet in the classic instead and for more than three months Munro never threw his saddle across a Payten-trained galloper. During the interregnum McCarten, McMenamin and Bartle generally shared the rides. It was only with the coming of Christmas – that season of peace and goodwill between men – that Payten and Munro resolved the matter. The thaw ended when Munro partnered with Highborn at the Tattersall’s Randwick meeting on the last day of the year.
Nuffield might have been set for a first-up tilt at the A.J.C. Derby prize but not one of the other colts was, and the traditional lead-up races were not without controversy. Pandava resumed racing in the A.J.C. Hobartville Stakes and was widely expected to win despite badly needing the run. Pandava’s brilliance from the tapes and early speed afforded him a clear lead turning for home and his supporters were feeling for their tickets given the shortness of the Warwick Farm straight and the fact that McCarten was in the saddle. Still, the truth of that old racecourse adage that “a race is never won until it is lost” was again shown when Pandava run out of puff and was claimed by the rank outsider Aeolus in the hands of comeback jockey Bill Scanlon, to be beaten a half-length, with Creditor in the minor placing. Having raced through the winter, Aeolus was more seasoned than Pandava and a few others in the race but the latter’s weak finishing effort again seemed to betray a lack of stamina.
George Price then resolved to let the Canterbury Guineas determine whether or not Pandava would start in the Derby or be put on ice for the Caulfield Guineas. As it was, a sensational barrier bungle ensured that the Canterbury Guineas resolved nothing as far as the nuggety son of Brazen was concerned. It was the fault of a few youths who climbed the fence at the Canterbury course to view the start from the nine-furlong post. A wire which controlled the rising of the barrier obstructed their view. Accordingly, one youth overcame it by giving the wire a half-hitch around the barrier post. Thrown out of its adjustment, the barrier rose only a few inches at one end. While the official starter shouted “Go!” when he pulled the lever, he quickly grasped the situation and added: “Come back!” Unfortunately, Pandava had pulled through the tapes and McCarten, not hearing the recall, rode his mount along for more than a furlong before he realised that something was amiss. Pandava, by this time, had grabbed the bit and careered along under restraint for a couple of furlongs more.
At Ted Bartle’s end, the barrier strands were too low for his mount, Respirator, to get through and he pulled his horse around. Rathlin, dashing under the ropes, pulled his rider, Frank Lewis, from the saddle. The lad’s throat and face were badly grazed but he survived to serve as a R.A.A.F. navigator in Beauforts around New Guinea and Bougainville for four years during World War II. And of course, just over twenty-three years after this Canterbury incident, he would train a Melbourne Cup winner in Lord Fury. When Pandava and Rathlin returned, a start was affected by the flag as it was impossible to readjust the barrier mechanism in time. Needless to say, Pandava had shot his bolt and was a beaten horse before the home turn in the re-run.
Respirator, who was the last of the six runners into the straight, loomed up large in the last furlong and went on to win the race by three-quarters of a length from Aeolus with Petruchio, a stablemate of Pandava, in third place. Subsequent trackwork confirmed to George Price that Pandava wouldn’t stay the Derby trip and he began to prepare the horse for the mile of the Caulfield Guineas. Booked to leave for Melbourne later in the week preceding the Guineas, Pandava dropped dead in Price’s stable just ten days after the Canterbury debacle. The chestnut colt had galloped a half-mile at Randwick that Tuesday morning and more than one close observer wasn’t pleased with the way he went. A few hours later he was dead. A post-mortem by Viv Davis, the Randwick veterinary surgeon, disclosed that the death was due to a haemorrhage of the lungs. It was a tragic end to a brilliant career.
The 1938 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions appear in the table below:
The 1938 A.J.C. Spring Meeting opened against the backdrop of Neville Chamberlain’s sacrifice of Czechoslovakia and the shame of Munich. Days in which England failed to keep its word and honour its treaty obligations and which soon enough would plunge the globe into war. Yet all such matters were another world away for the estimated 60,000 people that flocked to Randwick on the first day of October for the opening of the A.J.C. Spring Meeting. Lord Wakehurst, the last of the British Governors of N.S.W. was present with Lady Wakehurst, together with members of their house party, and they were entertained at lunch by the A.J.C. committee. The Australian Club and the Royal Sydney Golf Club conducted luncheon parties of their own while a large private party was given by Pat Osborne and his wife who entertained more than one hundred guests.
On a glorious spring day that at times seemed to have been borrowed from summer, femininity triumphed over tailored lines when it came to ladies’ fashions. There was a wholehearted indulgence in Edwardian tradition. Veils made the meeting absolutely delightful from a fashion perspective and imparted to the wearers an air of fragility usually associated with the 1890s and the days of Persimmon and Diamond Jubilee. In retrospect, the fragility of Edwardian fashion captured the mood, the time and the place perfectly. Just as the original Edwardian look eventually exhausted itself with the outbreak of the First World War, this revival would come to grief with the outbreak of the Second World War. For this would be the last peacetime A.J.C. Derby for seven long years during which period veils would come to have a very different meaning.
Coquettish bows were plentiful and there were some ground-length floral organdie frocks. The Daily Telegraph and Herald fashion correspondents gushed amidst the wonder of it all. Colour was of vital importance. Effective was the silvery-grey of pussy-willows, fired with yellow, acid green, carrot or rust. Royal blue combined with maize or Malaga grape. Blue cheered black ensembles. Schiaparelli’s blazing royal, cool aquarium blue and the mauve blue of twilight. Frocks that were white plain or relieved with giddy colour, gleamed coolly against the green brilliance of the lawns. “What approaching war?” one might ask. The fashion goddesses had their fling with the hats. Sailors, saucers, tyre brims, frilled bonnets, Watteau shepherdesses, Flemish Renaissance hats and Cellini hats. Sober and not so sober, but all great fun.
The course itself was in perfect condition and the light overnight and dawn rains of Thursday and Friday lent an odour of petrichor to waft across the lawns. As much as the racecourse might be man’s dominion, still, as Rabbie Burns observed: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.” A tram mishap outside the course blew all the fuses and upset the whole electrical system causing the Tote to go down on the second race. “It is the first time that the Randwick totalisator has gone wrong since it was installed in 1917,” said George Rowe, the A.J.C. Secretary. The grief and pain lasted until a man could come from the White Bay power station and the defect remedied, which caused the Trial Stakes to be put back ten minutes. Ah! but the promised joy of the Derby did materialise on time.
The field of six colts for the Derby was the fewest to contest the race since 1906 and Nuffield at 15.2 hands high was one of the two smallest to muster. The best-backed to beat him was Limulet, a colt who, as we have seen, won a novice handicap on Hobartville Day when partnered by Darby Munro and had then earned minor money in both the Chelmsford Stakes and Rosehill Guineas. The next fancied runner was Respirator, a son of Windbag, raced by George and Harry Tancred and trained by Jack Jamieson. This fellow had earned his place by winning the Canterbury Guineas, although the race that year had been something of a fiasco when a malfunction of the barrier tapes had necessitated a recall and a subsequent flag start. The fact that the hotpot Pandava had already run a furlong and a half in the first attempt before being recalled, made Respirator’s victory ring a little hollow, a fact that seemed to be confirmed by his latest failure in the Rosehill Guineas.
The only other runner considered by the market was Aeolus a colt bred at the Kia Ora Stud and by Percy Miller’s imported English stallion Baralong, a half-brother to the English Oaks winner My Dear, our of the Comedy King mare, Queen of Night. Peter Riddle both owned and trained Aeolus up to the time he won the Hobartville Stakes. He then sold the horse for 1600 guineas to the Gove family, clients of his stable and for whom he had then won the Rosehill Guineas, albeit narrowly. The rank outsiders in the race were Sir Harold, trained by Bill Burke, and Petruccio, trained by George Price.
During the week before the opening of the spring meeting, the A.J.C. denied Geebung, owned and bred by Dan Seaton, a place in the classic owing to Seaton neglecting to register the colt’s breeding at the proper time. There was no question concerning the bona fides of his breeding but due to the oversight, the horse was ineligible for inclusion in the Australian Stud Book and hence the Derby. I might mention as an aside that Geebung was to enjoy his moment of glory at Randwick on Derby Day but it wasn’t until the next year, and that the race in question would be the Epsom Handicap. Another three-year-old with some real ability that failed to make the field was Mildura, trained by George Price for E. J. Watt. A well-bred son of Manfred, time beat Price for any Derby preparation and the colt on Derby Day went around in the Kensington Handicap instead. Still, the colt in the fullness of time would make his presence felt at A.J.C. Autumn Meetings in the next few years, when, he, together with Gold Rod, would give their owner three Doncaster Handicaps on the trot.
Nuffield, in the hands of Munro, dispensed with the usual preliminary but gave a prancing parade along the running rail with his ears pricked as he made his way to the start. His interest centred on the crowd in the paddock enclosure, to which he kept turning his head as if inviting admiration. And while there was plenty of admiration before the starting tapes were released, there was so much more afterwards. The running of the 1938 Derby was of little incident apart from the fact that Sir Harold in crossing to the rails shortly after the start interfered sufficiently with Nuffield to cause the offending rider, Ted McMenamin, to be censured by the stewards.
It was the only moment of anxiety that supporters of the heavily backed favourite were to suffer in the entire race. Thereafter, Munro was content to slip Nuffield in behind Sir Harold, who, pulling hard early, was allowed to take up the role of the pacemaker as if it were the very reason for his place in the field. After a sluggish first furlong or so, Sir Harold proceeded to cut out the journey in good time. Nuffield was within a half-length of the leader at the half-mile and headed him on the home turn. There was a moment near the furlong post when Aeolus looked like he might challenge, but Munro wielded the whip on the favourite and Nuffield won as he liked. Aeolus was second and Respirator, three lengths further back, a plodding third. Aeolus was slightly disadvantaged during the running by a shifting saddle, but Cook rode with too much vigour in the straight to suggest that it had made much difference. Perhaps the only surprise of the race was the abject failure of Limulet, who was beaten a long way from home and finished only in front of Petruchio, who nearly fell.
Nuffield won the race in 2 minutes 32 seconds, a time that had only ever once been bettered, and that by Phar Lap in 1929. The fact that rain during the end of the preceding week had taken a little life out of the track and that the pace was really only on from about the mile, further served to emphasise the merit of Nuffield’s performance. It was a high-class effort by a colt possessing both brilliant speed and no ordinary stamina, and although it might have been a lean year for three-year-olds, he was going right away from the field in the last fifty yards. Jack Holt had always considered Nuffield a great colt and to win a Derby without a race since April as Nuffield did, confirmed his trainer’s opinion of him. One of the first men to congratulate Holt after Nuffield’s victory was Peter Riddle, who trained the runner-up, Aeolus. Nuffield and Avenger, in fact, all of Jack Holt’s horses were stabled at Peter Riddle’s establishment whenever they came to Sydney.
Perhaps the only disconcerting aspect of this otherwise glittering display was that Nuffield raced bandaged on both front legs, symptomatic of the congenital weakness there that would terminate his career on the Turf so prematurely. It represented the third win in the A.J.C. classic for both trainer, Jack Holt, and the jockey, Darby Munro, while it was the second for owner Charlie Kellow, following on Hall Mark five years earlier with whom the same three principals had been involved. Although at times Kellow had paid big prices for yearlings by Heroic, the best two horses to carry his colours, excluding Heroic, were sons of that stallion that he had bred himself. There always seems to be more of the true spirit of sport about racing a horse whose early days have been passed in home paddocks than there can be when possession has been acquired by the fall of the auctioneer’s hammer. In the circumstances, comparisons with Hall Mark were inevitably renewed.
Nuffield’s triumph might have lacked the spectacular of, say, Manfred’s victory but there was an ease about his response at the right end of the race that took the eye. Only good horses sprint home at the end of a truly-run mile and a half and Nuffield sprinted home in no mean fashion. Moreover, it wasn’t a late finishing run from behind, but one in which he made his own pace. “He reminds me of Hall Mark in many ways,” said Munro. “He is much the same type of horse, and he gallops very similarly. I would not say that he was better, but he is as good as Hall Mark.” Immediately after the Derby was run and won by his colt, Charlie Kellow dispatched a cable to the horse’s namesake, Viscount Nuffield in England: “Nuffield won Derby at Randwick in brilliant style.” Kellow received a cablegram of congratulations in reply which read: “Delighted my namesake started the new season with success. Splendid triumph, kindest regards, Nuffield.”
What a great day’s racing that first day of the A.J.C. Spring Meeting was for the cognoscenti. Nuffield apart, the crowd was thrilled by the victory of the hitherto unlucky King’s Head in the Epsom Handicap. Racing in colours to be rendered legendary in the A.J.C. Derby just nineteen years later, King’s Head, narrowly beaten by Synagogue in the 1935 Epsom and by Hamurah in the previous Doncaster, broke through at last for owner Evelyn Haley. Moreover, in beating Bobby and St. Constant into the minor placings, the Bullhead horse posted a record for the race. If that wasn’t enough vintage sport for the crowd, the New Zealand champion Royal Chief then stepped out to win the Colin Stephen Stakes from Avenger after almost being brought down early in the race. It confirmed what was to be proved, his well-justified favouritism for The Metropolitan.
Before passing from Derby Day 1938 I might mention that it was the last A.J.C. Spring Meeting covered in the pages of the John Fairfax Sydney Mail. The newspaper which had begun in July 1860 as a 16-page weekly resume of the Sydney Morning Herald priced at threepence, soon matured into a high-quality magazine format in its own right printed on glossy paper that afforded excellent reproduction of photographs and lithographs. Sporting historians down through the years have good cause for rueing its passing. Nonetheless, it seemed entirely fitting that in the very last year the Mail covered Randwick’s blue riband, the race was won by a colt truly worthy of the honour, although as time would prove, the horse’s racecourse longevity wasn’t to extend much further than the pages of the Sydney Mail itself.
Nuffield was hurried back from Sydney to Melbourne on Monday, two days after the A.J.C. Derby, to be ready for the Caulfield Guineas on the following Saturday. Jack Holt and Charlie Kellow stuck around for the Wednesday fixture before returning to Melbourne on Thursday. Twelve horses opposed Nuffield over the mile course in the Guineas, but Nuffield never gave a moment’s anxiety to those who had laid odds on him. From the turn, it was merely a question of by how far? Dashing through on the inside soon after entering the straight, Nuffield cleared away to win by three and a half lengths. Tactical, who ran his best race since the Ascot Vale Stakes at Flemington the previous March finished second while Carpentier, a particularly well-named chestnut colt by Gay Lothario, took the minor placing. The time of 1 minute 38½ seconds was 1½ seconds outside Ajax’s record established twelve months before.
The bandages that Nuffield wore on his forelegs always betokened physical vulnerability. As the racing writer, Les Carlyon observed, slow racehorses emerge unscathed from train wrecks and bounce off barbed wire fences; fast ones are like delicate and valuable Sevres porcelain – given to chip and crack rather easily. Nuffield is a case in point. In the days after the Caulfield Guineas, the son of Heroic began to register heat in his near foreleg after track gallops. Holt was aware of the sensitivity of Nuffield’s suspensory ligament in that leg and it now became a delicate balancing act in trying to keep the colt sound for his Victoria Derby and Melbourne Cup commitments without risking a complete breakdown. Never a gross horse, Nuffield didn’t require constant hard gallops to retain his fitness. Holt had frequent recourse to the Mentone beach where Nuffield either swam or merely stood in the saltwater to get him to the post for the Victoria Derby.
Nine starters were attracted to the £5,000 prize money on offer for the Flemington blue riband that year. Despite Nuffield’s well-publicised troubles, he went to the post as the 1/3 favourite with Freedom, a Thracian colt carrying the black jacket and blue sash of A. T. Creswick, and trained by Lou Robertson, the 8/1 second favourite. Tempest, a Windbag colt from South Australia raced by his owner-breeder Fred Scarfe and unbeaten in ten starts including the S.A.J.C. Derby, was the third favourite at 10/1. Many at Flemington hesitated in accepting the short price about Nuffield in view of his unorthodox preparation and they were on better terms with themselves than those intrepid souls who did, for in a slowly-run race Nuffield came under real pressure. For more than a furlong in the Flemington straight, Nuffield had a head-and-head struggle with Tempest and it wasn’t until the last one hundred and fifty yards that Nuffield was able to beat off the South Australian colt to win by a length and a quarter. Adios, one of the outsiders in the field, caused a surprise by finishing fast from second last on the turn to run third. The time for the race was 2 minutes and 34¾ seconds, the slowest since Theo took the classic in 1934.
In winning, Nuffield became only the third horse after Rampion and Theo to take both the A.J.C and V.R.C. Derbies and the Caulfield Guineas in between. He was the only one of the trio to have triumphed in both the A.J.C. and V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes as well. However, the victory came at a cost. Upon returning to scale and being unsaddled, a trace of blood on the near foreleg bandage was noticed, evidence that Nuffield had knocked his injured leg during the running. For Jack Holt and Charlie Kellow, the next 72 hours would be ‘deja vu all over again’, to quote Yogi Berra’s famous maxim. Five years earlier both men had suffered similar anxiety getting Hall Mark to the post for the Melbourne Cup with his bruised heel. But there was a world of difference between a bruised heel and a suspect suspensory ligament. Immediately, Jack Holt called in the V.R.C. veterinary surgeon, S. O. Wood, who confirmed the problem and then proposed making a further examination of Nuffield on Monday afternoon, twenty-four hours before the Cup. In the end, after a joint conference between Kellow, Holt and Wood, it was decided to start the colt. Nuffield was no worse than before he ran in the Victoria Derby and the veterinary surgeon observed that the horse could just as easily break down in a training gallop as in a race.
The 1938 Melbourne Cup was worth a total of £10,000 in prize money together with a £200 trophy and attracted a field of twenty-two runners. The 5/1 favourite for the race was the champion New Zealand four-year-old, Royal Chief, who had won The A.J.C. Metropolitan so impressively with 8 st. 13lb. in race record time. Nuffield, handicapped with 7 st. 7lb was the 11/2 second-favourite just ahead of St. Constant at 6/1. Darby Munro was too heavy to take the mount on Nuffield and Harold Badger was substituted. In truth, Nuffield was never in the race. Badger was reprimanded by the V.R.C. stewards for crossing too soon after the start and causing Young Crusader to be checked but it was the only moment in the race that the colt bothered any of his opponents.
After enjoying a comfortable journey on the rails in a slowly-run race, Nuffield compounded quickly when the pressure was applied in the Cup soon after turning for home and he was among the last five to finish. The race that year went to an eight-year-old gelding from New Zealand in the shape of Catalogue, who became the oldest horse to win the race since Toryboy in 1865. Jockey Fred Shean, who enjoyed such a wonderful spring that year, partnered Catalogue and when he took charge about seven furlongs from home and opened up a lead of some two to three lengths, the others couldn’t run him down in the rain-affected going. Nuffield pulled up sore – an ominous portent for the future.
And so it proved. The chestnut only raced once in the following autumn, when he finished unplaced in a five-horse field behind the improving Manolive at the seaside course of Williamstown in the C. F. Orr Stakes. In Nuffield’s absence, the star Australian three-year-olds of the autumn proved to be Tempest, who won the V.R.C. St Leger and Mosaic, who won both the A.J.C. St Leger and Sydney Cup. However, the very best of that age group proved to be the New Zealand champion, Defaulter, who, although he failed under handicap conditions in the Sydney Cup, won the weight-for-age A.J.C. Chipping Norton Plate, Autumn Plate and A.J.C. Plate.
Meanwhile, Nuffield was sent to Herbert Thompson’s Tarwyn Park Stud in the hope that a long spell might enable him to again stand training. He even served a few mares while he was there. In the spring of 1939, Nuffield was temporarily transferred from Tarwyn Park into Peter Riddle’s stables at Randwick, intended as the first stage en route back to Mordialloc and Jack Holt. However, Nuffield, who, like his sire Ajax, was always fractious in a horsebox, resumed his old pranks with a vengeance, continually beating out a tattoo against the timbers with his hooves. The attempt to return him to Mordialloc was abandoned and he went back to Tarwyn Park. But all hope of returning him to the racecourse had not been quite abandoned. In May 1940 Nuffield did return to Jack Holt and his old master did manage to get the cranky son of Ajax back to the track twice as an early-season five-year-old. Alas, Nuffield failed to make a showing in either the Kiata Handicap at Moonee Valley or the Moondah Plate at Flemington, and after another injury to his suspensory ligament, while playing on the beach at Epsom, Holt recommended that Kellow retire the horse for good.
The Wizard of Mordialloc always maintained that Nuffield was one of, if not the finest horse he ever had through his hands, and that the public never really saw the best of him. Charlie Kellow arranged with his good friend Herbert Thompson for the son of Heroic to do stud duty at Tarwyn Park. Despite his impressive bloodlines, both his conformation and temperament were against Nuffield as a stallion; he only ever got one really good horse in Field Boy, which Peter Lawson trained to win the Sires’ Produce Stakes and Villiers at Randwick for the Cloros family. However, Nuffield did manage to sire several useful performers among them being Bestow, Field Captain, Cadet and Coalition. Eventually bought by the Alabama Stud, Nuffield died there in January 1948.
Charlie Kellow, after a full and colourful life, died of heart failure in his 71st year at his South Yarra home in July 1943. While Nuffield had been retained at Tarwyn Park until Kellow’s death, he was offered for sale the following Easter, at a time when his shortcomings as a progenitor had been well and truly exposed and he brought only 950 guineas on a bid from Ray Bowcock of Alabama Stud. In his later years, Kellow had become a pastoralist of some standing, owning, among other properties, the Gundaline Station on the Murrumbidgee where he ran large numbers of sheep and to which he often travelled by private plane. Kellow’s estate was sworn for probate at £147,229. Though his name will always be associated with the gallant deeds of Heroic, Hall Mark and Nuffield, there were other good horses that carried his famous gold and green silks, including the V.R.C. Oaks winner, Gallantic, and the Epsom Handicap winner, Metellus. The Kellow connection with racing wasn’t entirely severed with Charles’s death. Two of his daughters raced those good gallopers, Jana and Jalna, full brother and sister, trained by Bob Sinclair.
But to offset all of Charlie Kellow’s successful racing ventures, there had been some spectacular crashes along the road as well. When the 1935 Melbourne Cup winner, Marabou, was put up for sale in the wake of his Cup victory and the death of his co-owner, Kellow outlasted the competition in a spirited bidding duel that saw him pay 5500 guineas to secure ownership. But the horse broke down in the autumn of 1936, sustaining an injury to one of his tendons when he struck himself in Sydney. At the time it wasn’t regarded as particularly serious, but it was necessary to fire the tendon and Jack Holt succeeded in getting only one more race out of him.
The bond of friendship between Kellow and Holt that was forged on the racecourse lasted to the very end. During the course of many years, the two men regularly played poker each week at Holt’s Mordialloc cottage and neither liked to lose. The dominance that Jack Holt had over the Victorian Turf in the years between the Wars is evidenced by the fact that from 1918-19 to the 1934-35 racing seasons, he headed the Victorian Trainers’ List twelve times and was runner-up on three other occasions. He won his last premiership in that 1937-38 racing season when Nuffield as a juvenile contributed four wins to his tally, sharing the title with Fred Hoysted who was just then beginning to assume the mantle that had been Holt’s for so long. Perhaps those statistics don’t tell the whole story either. The lists of winning trainers in Victoria were not scrupulously kept before the 1918-19 season, and it is arguable that Holt had won three other titles before those official lists began.
Maurice Cavanough estimates that Holt trained about 1,000 winners and perhaps as much as £500,000 in stakes during his life. His horses won practically all of the important handicaps and weight-for-age contests in Sydney and Melbourne and he was as adept with a skittish juvenile as he was with a sour stallion. He had an innate empathy with horses, a love for them, and the skill to fit them for racing quickly and yet keep them up for months on end without any falling away in performance. Part of the secret lay in the pastoral serenity of his Mordialloc property. The best horses to come into his stables apart from those already discussed in the preceding pages, included among others: Easingwold, Eurythmic, David, Highland, High Syce, Lilypond, Maple, and Young Idea.
The benefit of spelling horses in his home paddocks prevented them from falling into grossness as Holt could keep an eye on them. And as Cavanough observed: “The fact that he never permitted his horses to get too far out of racing trim was the main reason why Holt won so many early spring weight-for-age races. In Holt’s time, the first weight-for-age race of the season was the Underwood Stakes at Williamstown, followed by the Memsie Stakes at Caulfield, the October Stakes at Flemington, and the Caulfield Stakes. Holt had the extraordinary total of 33 wins in those 4 races.” Holt treated each horse as a special individual study. If I may quote Cavanough again: “This individual attention to each horse was extended to the training track. After a working gallop, Holt required the rider to trot his mount across to him so that he might test by hand its wind and condition. Many present-day trainers leave such an inspection of a horse until it is back in its box: by which time the examination is practically worthless.”
Yet for all of Holt’s success, he never aspired to social pretensions, remaining a contented countryman at heart, happy in the company of his sisters and his horses, with just a few close friends, of whom Charlie Kellow was one. Apart from racehorses and poker, his only other passions were golf and billiards, and he was canny at both games. It was generally considered that his denial of marriage was in deference to his sisters, for he undoubtedly enjoyed female company. Holt was never anxious about public popularity; chary of the press, he rarely provided newspapermen with any copy. The fact that he never installed a telephone at his Mordialloc cottage until very late in life, and only then after his greatest training days were behind him, further alienated the racing scribe. Despite his great wealth, his extravagances were few, extending to the dapper man of the Turf’s rich and ample wardrobe, together with a stylish Packard limousine, courtesy of Charlie Kellow.
After the death of Kellow and the disruption of the Second World War, Holt only kept a small team, largely to keep faith with old clients. While Nuffield was arguably the last of his top-class horses, he did enjoy considerable success with the good sprinter Manrico in the early years of World War II. The son of Manfred whom he trained for J. M. Niall won two V.R.C. Standish Handicaps – the race where it had all started for Holt with Carette – as well as a Cantala Stakes. Another good horse that Holt trained during those war years was that good weight-carrier MacRob, who won consecutive V.R.C. Bagot Handicaps, a race that lost its lustre in the post-war period. Holt’s last big race came when he trained the homebred Chanak for owner Ken Niall to win the 1947 V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes.
Invalided after a heart attack in 1948, the V.R.C. committee accorded the veteran trainer the then, rare honour of life membership of the club. Jack Holt died of coronary occlusion in June 1951, his remains were interred in a simple grave with those of his parents and sisters in Berwick cemetery. Confirmation as to the soundness of his judgement and the shrewdness of his betting coups came when his estate was proved at a staggering £228,815, of which he bequeathed £200,000 to St Vincent’s Hospital for the establishment of its School of Medical Research. No racehorse trainer in Australian history up to that time had even come close to acquiring such riches. Whatever his generosity in death, Holt’s philanthropy in life never extended to the betting ring, as many a bookmaker could attest. Much of the information in this chapter has been drawn from Maurice Cavanough’s excellent monograph ‘The Wizard of Mordialloc’, and it is fitting that the last word on Holt should be accorded him: “He was a modest and gracious man but proved that any calling is great if greatly pursued.”