“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” Thus the immortal Charles Dickens began his classic novel “A Tale of Two Cities”. In the spring of hope that was 1942, a 41-year-old Italian immigrant turned horse trainer, named Fillipo Allotta knew what the irrepressible Boz meant when he penned those lines in 1859. For a young man on the threshold of life as a professional horse trainer to have within his stables the odds-on favourite in Australia’s richest classic, affords both the prospect of triumph and disaster – those twin imposters as Kipling once described them. If events proceed as expected and the horse wins, then a successful career is virtually assured; on the other hand, if the venture ends badly, a promising professional life might be snuffed out before it has barely begun. And this was precisely the circumstance in which Allotta found himself in that dark war-ravaged spring of 1942. Would it be a season of light or a season of darkness? Born in November 1900 in a small village just outside of Naples, Allotta had come to Australia with his family at the age of seven, the youngest of eleven children. Although the Allotta family settled first in the Camden district, it wasn’t long before they moved to Annandale, an inner suburb of Sydney, where all bar Fil eked out a living from the family fruit and vegetable business. The youngest child always was different, and after running away from home at the age of thirteen and working with a milkman for two years, Fil eventually became apprenticed to leading trainer Frank Marsden.
The lot of an apprentice wasn’t necessarily a happy one in those days, but in Marsden, Allotta had chosen his master well. The star of the stable was the golden filly, Furious, whom Allotta strapped and even managed to partner to victory in a mile race at Rosehill. It wasn’t cause for celebration though, for Furious wasn’t meant to win that day and got under the stable guard at 10/1. Allotta, although only a little man, enjoyed few successes in the saddle and soon got too heavy for a jockey; he then set about learning as much as he could from Marsden on the art of training racehorses, remaining with the great man for some years even after his apprenticeship ended. In 1925 it was Allotta’s good fortune to strap Valiard, a smart son of Valais who won the V.R.C. Newmarket Handicap that year out of Marsden’s yard. The victory was to have a profound significance for the future course of the young Allotta’s professional life that could only have been dreamed of at the time. Let me mention here that one of Valiard’s owners was a man named Peter Tait.
It was just a few years later at the age of twenty-eight that Fil Allotta decided to strike out on his own as a public trainer. The young man endured an extended period working the country racing regions, with occasional profitable forays into the city such as the plunge landed on his own horse, Cordova, at Moorefield in May 1934. The Marsden family were also prepared to back Allotta’s ability and in March 1935 Roy Marsden, a son of the late Frank Marsden, saw his colours carried to victory at Canterbury by Black Fern, prepared by Allotta. The money won on Cordova and Black Fern and the growing confidence in his own horsemanship and judgement, saw Allotta make his first application to the A.J.C. to be licensed under their regime in June 1935, renting eight boxes at 168 Doncaster Avenue, Randwick – a property owned by the pony trainer Harry McKeon, which was located immediately behind the famous racecourse. Slowly, Allotta built up a client base, and in due course, the successful trainer was eventually able to buy the Doncaster Avenue stables outright. Of course, in those early days, he wasn’t permitted to train his horses at Randwick, and recourse had to be made to the nearby tracks of Kensington and Victoria Park.
The racehorse that promised Fil Allotta a mortgage on the 1942 A.J.C. Derby, Hall Stand, was a dapper chestnut son of the former champion racehorse, Hall Mark. Bred by Herbert Thompson at his Tarwyn Park Stud, the colt had been catalogued in the 1941 William Inglis Easter Sales, and although Allotta bid up to 550 guineas for him, it fell well short of the 1000 guineas reserve that Thompson had nominated. The studmaster decided for the time being to retain the colt to race in his own colours. Hall Stand was given to Bayly Payten to prepare for the Breeders’ Plate, although Thompson let it be known that the horse remained available for sale, and Allotta determinedly continued to negotiate. Despite having a Melbourne Cup winner as his sire, it was a pure speed that predominated in Hall Stand’s pedigree, his maternal granddam being Rosina, a brilliant juvenile and the winner in her first season of the V.A.T.C. Federal Stakes, V.A.T.C. Alma Stakes, V.R.C. Ascot Vale Stakes and A.J.C. Champagne Stakes. While Trasina, the dam of Hall Stand, had only won a maiden at Menangle, she had already demonstrated the genes retained their value by foaling Goldsmith, a place-getter in a V.R.C. Maribyrnong Plate. Hence it came as no surprise when her latest charge began to display precocity in early morning gallops.
A few days before the Breeders’ Plate, Allotta’s client finally acquiesced to Thompson’s asking price and Hall Stand was sold for a thousand guineas; but the transfer of ownership was delayed until after the race. Accordingly, it was in the familiar colours of the Tarwyn Park studmaster that a well-supported Hall Stand went under narrowly to the 33/1 Bangster, in that most sensational finish to the first juvenile race of the season. Hall Stand was ridden by the demon Darby and rarely had the great jockey chosen to employ his demons in a more nefarious fashion as Bangster headed Hall Stand near the shadows of the post. As the young apprentice Delaney recalled to stewards after the race: “Something hooked into my trousers as I went past Hall Stand. I suppose it was Munro’s spurs.” Delaney well knew it wasn’t Darby’s spurs but rather his fingers. If it wasn’t for the elastic in the breeches giving out, Delaney and Bangster might have been denied the prize. Still, you have to admire Darby’s chutzpah, for – having once committed the indiscretion – he then fired in an unsuccessful protest against Delaney. In those days before patrol cameras, there was no end to the shenanigans of jockeys, and Hall Stand’s debut merely highlighted yet one more trick in the box.
Immediately after the race delivery was taken of Hall Stand by the well-known Sydney businessman, John Despard Hemphill, the managing director of a large firm of flour exporters established by his family, and one that had pioneered the flour trade in the Far East. Moreover, he was also a director of Lustre Hosiery, Sellers Fabrics, and the N.S.W. Stevedoring Company. The new owner chose to disguise his identity under the nom de course of ‘John Despard’ but he already raced a few horses through Allotta’s stable, including the promising White Feather, and it was as a result of a good wager on that horse that Hemphill decided to try his luck with Hall Stand. The son of Hall Mark was a lazy colt with a healthy appetite, and in his first start for Allotta in November he won a juvenile stakes race; he was then started twice in December in both the Kirkham and December Stakes at Randwick but was beaten each time by Riverton, a promising Midstream colt trained by George Price. Allotta then eased Hall Stand in his work and awaited the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting.
As the long, languid summer days of 1941-42 sharpened into autumn, Australia’s world assumed a menacing aspect. After the raid on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, Australia stood largely alone in the face of the coming Japanese onslaught. It was our darkest hour. In February Singapore fell, and the Japanese soon threatened Port Moresby and flew bombing raids on Darwin and Broome. In March, Douglas MacArthur quit the siege of Corregidor and made his famous escape to Australia in order to assume the supreme command in the Pacific and begin the Allies’ long fight back. These weeks of uncertainty saw many drastic changes in Australian racing as the Curtin Government marshalled the nation’s resources for a total war effort.
In January it had been announced that henceforth race meetings were to be held only on Saturdays and public holidays, but by March even the public holidays had gone. This meant the traditional A.J.C. autumn fixture was reduced to just two successive Saturdays. Interstate race broadcasts were banned in an effort to curtail S.P. betting while racing binoculars were impounded for use by the R.A.A.F. Not even this last measure could extinguish the mordant humour of one unhappy punter, who, when asked by a Commonwealth officer if he had registered his race glasses; replied: “No, but you take them, Colonel. And if you see as many dead ‘uns through them as I have, the war’s as good as over.”
Then the cruellest cut of all. A fortnight before Doncaster Day, Randwick racecourse was taken over by military authorities, and the A.J.C. hurriedly announced that their truncated autumn meeting was being transferred to Rosehill. Given the reduced capacity of the suburban course and its inability to accommodate the large crowds associated with Randwick, prize money for the meeting was drastically curtailed. It was a po-faced Fil Allotta who learned that the value of the Sires’ Produce Stakes had been slashed from £2,500 to £750. Still, what had been cut from the prize could be made up in the ring, for Allotta, who had been riding Hall Stand in his work, was convinced the chestnut would win. The trainer favourably compared the colt’s speed with that of the brilliant Valiard, who he had strapped for Frank Marsden all those years before.
The speedy Hesione, a daughter of Brueghel and a half-sister to Ajax trained by Bayly Payten, was looked upon as a certainty, after having won both the Gimcrack Stakes and Maribyrnong Plate brilliantly in the spring and the Ascot Vale Stakes earlier in the autumn. Yet while she conveniently trailed the free-going Hall Stand to the home turn, surprisingly the colt came away down the straight in the hands of Bill Cook to win by three lengths in front of the largest crowd seen at Rosehill up to that time. Considering the reduced prize money on offer, Hall Stand was penalised 7lb rather than the customary 10lb for the Champagne Stakes a week later and went out a 4/9 favourite, but after losing ground at the start was never likely in the race won by the tearaway Bangster. It ended Hall Stand’s first season on the Turf: his six starts had yielded two wins and three seconds and the promise of more to come.
Thanks largely to Hall Stand’s juvenile performances, Fil Allotta received his promotion to a No. 1 ticket holder when the A.J.C. reviewed their licensing arrangements prior to the start of the 1942-43 season, although Hall Stand continued to do much of his work at Victoria Park. Not a robust character, Hall Stand came to hand very easily in the last weeks of winter, and Fil Allotta’s Derby preparation consisted of just two races supplemented by track gallops. Sadly, for Allotta, when Hall Stand was ready to resume racing, the man who owned the colt was no longer alive. John Hemphill, at the age of 58, had died suddenly at his Wahroonga home just nine days before his putative champion returned to racing in the Hobartville Stakes at Randwick in late August.
Thus, it was for the beneficiaries of the estate – his wife and five children – that the colt began the new season, leading all the way and running his rivals ragged in the Hobartville Stakes with five lengths to spare. It was a similar tale in the Rosehill Guineas three weeks later when he again set his own pace to beat General Smuts by six lengths, with Baroda a bad third. Having been Derby favourite throughout the winter, Hall Stand’s price firmed even further on this latest evidence. The conventional wisdom among sportsmen was that nothing that finished behind the chestnut at Rosehill would reverse the order in the classic, while the key to the race would lie in the pace. Those pundits who had confidently declared that Hall Stand was unbeatable and yet were aware of the colt’s sprinting pedigree on the distaff side might have had reason to revise their opinion had they known that, with the exception of Phar Lap in 1929, the Derby would be the fastest ever run at Randwick in eighty years.
In mid-September, the Prime Minister, John Curtin, called a conference in Canberra with representatives of racing clubs from New South Wales and most of the other States. It took place against the depressing backdrop of the stalemate in Stalingrad and Japanese landings on Guadalcanal. Given the deteriorating outlook, the outcome was a belated ban on racing on the first Saturday of each month, beginning in October, in the hope that money otherwise gambled on those days might be channelled into the Government’s ‘Austerity’ Loan instead. Moreover, it was stipulated that race meetings could commence no earlier than 1.45 pm and finish no later than 5.15 pm. It was on September 22nd that the A.J.C. committee announced the Derby, due to be run just eleven days later, would now be deferred by a week with the Randwick Spring Meeting to begin on October 10th rather than October 3rd; the A.J.C. Metropolitan, in turn, being put back a week as well.
The club had again been forced to slash prizemoney with the Epsom and Metropolitan reduced from £8,000 to £5,500, although the Derby remained untouched. The hardships imposed by Australia’s war effort showed up in other ways on Derby Day itself, which attracted a crowd of 74,800 people. Melbourne pressmen were absent for the first time since the Great War because of the Federal Government’s austerity decrees preventing interstate betting; and there was a ban on women drinking at racecourse bars, although it was neatly avoided by having them stand a few feet back behind the line as men passed drinks over. War or not, thousands of bottles of beer – almost unattainable at hotel bottle departments – were sold. Racecourse trams were gridlocked in traffic all the way back to Taylor Square.
Twelve horses stood between Fil Allotta and the Derby laurels, and the best backed to beat the 4/7 favourite, Hall Stand, was Main Topic trained at Randwick by the former leading rider at Victorian pony tracks, Tom McGrath. Unlike Hall Stand, Main Topic had undergone a gruelling preparation, the Derby being his sixth race of the new season. Main Topic had first attracted attention when he finished second, albeit five lengths away, to Hall Stand in the Hobartville Stakes, and had then followed up with a fine third in the Chelmsford Stakes behind the older horses Rimveil and Dewar when no more than a long neck covered the three place-getters. On the day Hall Stand humbled the Rosehill Guineas field, Main Topic ran a nice fourth in the weight-for-age Hill Stakes won by Yaralla.
Grand Prodige and Streamford shared the next line of Derby betting. A son of Beau Pere, Grand Prodige was owned by the Mace family, famous Queensland pastoralists, and trained by the leading Queensland trainer, George Anderson. The colt had won the Q.T.C. Hopeful Stakes at two and had been brought over to Sydney for the Sires’ in the autumn but had contracted laryngitis and returned north without appearing in public. The colt had burst into Derby contention just a fortnight before by leading all the way to win a three-year-old handicap at Rosehill by eight lengths in a time only a quarter-second outside of High Caste’s track record. As good as Grand Prodige was, however, most of the sporting public living in or about Toowoomba believed that there was a much better three-year-old colt left behind in Queensland. Streamford, carrying the soon-to-be-famous colours of Adolph Basser, was a stylish son of Midstream that had won the Fernhill Handicap. None of the other runners appeared to have much chance including both Panbranch and Kareset trained by Dan Lewis at Randwick.
One horse missing from the A.J.C. Derby field was General Smuts who had been placed in all three of the semi-classics i.e. the Hobartville Stakes, Canterbury Guineas and Rosehill Guineas. Over the years, he was the closest that the great trainer Dick Wootton ever came to having a serious contender in the A.J.C. blue riband. A homebred by Air Balloon out of Neat Rose, the colt was trained by James Barden and named after Field Marshall Smuts, with whom Dick Wootton had been friends during his training days in South Africa back in 1903-05. Before he left the Veldt for England, Wootton had promised Smuts that when he bred a promising colt worthy of his name, he would register it accordingly. Wootton had to wait some thirty-eight years to do so but in running second behind Hall Stand in the Rosehill Guineas, General Smuts injured the suspensory ligament in his near foreleg, and, despite pin firing, the horse could never be properly trained again.
Upon the barrier lifting, it flicked Panbranch under the jaw thereby causing the colt to throw up his head and lose ground and squeeze out Baroda. Hall Stand reared out of the barrier in his normal fashion but after that raced kindly for Bill Cook behind the torrid pace set by Grand Prodige. At the mile, the son of Beau Pere had cleared out to lead by six lengths from San Sebastian, Main Topic and Hall Stand, with the balance of the field already off the steel. San Sebastian was the first of the leading quartet to feel the pinch shortly after that and Fred Shean swept Grand Prodige around the home turn full of running with both Main Topic and Hall Stand giving chase, although even then the odds-on favourite was giving out distress signals. When Grand Prodige compounded near the Leger, Main Topic strode away to a most emphatic victory, having five lengths to spare over the favourite Hall Stand, who finished a half-length in front of the tearaway pacemaker. Just how well Grand Prodige had done his work was revealed by the clock: the twelve furlongs had taken 2 minutes 31 ½ seconds, a mere quarter-second outside of Phar Lap’s race record. When unsaddling Main Topic, Munro claimed to the awaiting pressmen that had he pushed the colt in the last half-furlong the record would have been broken. It was the champion jockey’s fifth and final win in the classic.
Winning the A.J.C. Blue Riband in the darkest year of the war, gave Munro immense pleasure as away from the racecourse, he too was doing his bit for the war effort. At the time, he was Private D. H. Munro and was stationed at the Sydney Showgrounds between July 1941 and February 1944. Bert Lillye, the future distinguished racing journalist, was enlisted and spent some time there as well. Bert later recalled: “Darby didn’t have a cushy job, exactly. In fact, they used to have him out on the salvage carts, running around the showgrounds, picking up bottles and rubbish cans. He used to ride on Saturday and if he was beaten on one or two favourites, the troops on parade next morning would boo him to the echo as he rode around on the back of his slow old cart.” One can only presume that Darby wasn’t booed when he reported for duty on the Sunday after Main Topic’s triumph. Darby was finally discharged from the Army when a medical board decided that his intestinal ulcers made it impossible for him to serve and stay healthy while eating army food.
An early September foal, Main Topic had been bred by Alan Cooper at his Segenhoe Stud and was from the first draft of the Magpie horse, Talking, himself the winner of the 1936 A.J.C. Derby. The dam, Germain, by the Irish horse Corban and a son of The Tetrach, was a granddaughter of that famous American importation, My Lady Frances, whom D. M. Barrie in ‘The Australian Bloodhorse’ names as having made such a significant contribution to Australian bloodstock. Germain had already thrown Roi Sion, a winner of handicaps at Victoria Park, Warwick Farm and Newcastle, while Lady Pop, the dam of Germain, had won at A.R.C. courses. Cooper had offered the colt at the William Inglis Sales in April 1941 but set a reserve of 250 guineas. Tom McGrath had got in the last nod at 240 guineas when the bidding stopped but afterwards was able to negotiate a lease with Cooper, with an option to purchase for 500 guineas at any time during the currency of the lease. Alas for McGrath, the trainer had been so strapped for cash prior to the classic that he hadn’t been able to exercise the option, which saw a third of the Derby prize fall into the hands of Cooper as the lessor. The option was exercised, however, a few days later.
“If I had to be beaten then I was delighted that it was Tom McGrath who did it,” a philosophical Allotta remarked to pressmen before the Derby presentation. It was a sentiment endorsed by many of his fellow professionals a few minutes earlier when the trainers’ stand had resounded to the cheers of ‘Come on, Tom”, as Munro dashed his colt to an incontestable lead inside the last furlong. As a horseman, the 55-year-old offered an interesting contrast with Allotta, fourteen years his junior. Each man was struggling to establish himself as a professional horse trainer after a life as a jockey, albeit a remarkably successful life in the case of McGrath, although rather less so for Allotta.
Whereas Allotta had battled to ride a winner, the heavyweight McGrath had been the king of the Victorian pony tracks in the years before retiring in 1920. McGrath had been the first jockey to ride a thousand winners including an Ascot Thousand, a race in which his saddle snapped, and yet he had managed to retain his balance and weigh-in correctly. McGrath’s transition to training had, however, been marked with continuing success at the 14.2 pony courses with good ‘uns like Valoria rather than any conspicuous achievement at the more important racecourses. During his early years with the stopwatch, McGrath was licensed with the Associated Racing Clubs, but as the winds of change began to blow across Kensington, he voluntarily stood down from the A.R.C. for the requisite period to become a fully-fledged A.J.C. No. 2 trainer.
Consequently, with the amalgamation of the A.J.C. and A.R.C., McGrath was one of the first of the pony brigades to be elevated to No. 1 status, along with the likes of Bill McGee and ‘Quack’ Ryan, and the fact that he boasted an influential client such as Sir Hugh Denison no doubt helped his cause. McDougall-street, Kensington, where McGrath lived and trained in those days, was a hub of colourful racecourse characters. McGrath’s home was a stone’s throw from the Victoria Park racecourse and neighbours included the likes of the bookmaker, Joe Matthews and the jockey George Brown as well as Joe Cook, Joe Vernon and Leo O’Sullivan. In later years, Ernie Fellows and Vic Thompson had their stables in the same precincts. It was a melancholy day for many of the old stalwarts when Victoria Park was lost to racing with its sale to the Nuffield Motor Company by the Sydney Turf Club. The last race meeting held at Victoria Park took place on January 7, 1942. Coincidentally, Main Topic’s racecourse debut came exactly one month later at Randwick, when he ran unplaced in a division of the Ingleburn Nursery.
Main Topic had contested seven races as a two-year-old, winning just one of them – a juvenile stakes race at Rosehill in the hands of O’Donnell, the stable apprentice. However, McGrath had thought highly enough of the son of Talking to give him his chance in both the Sires’ Produce Stakes and the Fernhill Handicap, races in which he finished just behind the place-getters. As a battling trainer, Tom McGrath was unlucky in getting the horse of his life in a year when the interstate transport embargo stopped him from contesting the Victoria Derby – a race that he would almost certainly have won. Instead, McGrath was forced to go for The Metropolitan the following Saturday, a race in which Main Topic ran as the 5/1 favourite in the hands of Jimmy Duncan, but was spread-eagled in the straight and finished down the course behind the winner, Grand Fils.
A week later McGrath saddled him up again against the older horses when he was beaten by a neck in the City Tattersall’s Cup. Those three hard runs in successive weeks bottomed the colt and left him vulnerable to a throat virus that caused his St Leger/ Sydney Cup programme the following autumn to be aborted. Main Topic was never really the same horse again. Although he did win The Metropolitan as a four-year-old with Ted Bartle in the saddle carrying 8 st. 13lb, it was his only victory in seventeen starts that season. Leg troubles then began to plague the stallion, and he retired in September 1944 after a brief campaign as a spring five-year-old.
So much for Main Topic’s career on the racecourse, but at least he did win a valuable race after his Derby triumph, which is more than can be said for his putative rival, Hall Stand, or any of the other colts that finished behind him at Randwick for that matter. The son of Hall Mark only started twice more for the executors of John Hemphill, running third in the A.J.C. Craven Plate and unplaced in the City Tattersall’s Cup in successive weeks, before being submitted for auction through the William Inglis yard in January 1943. Racehorse owners are an optimistic lot, and despite his revealed limitations, Hall Stand was knocked down to Mr T. H. Dennis, a Queensland timber contractor for 3500 guineas – the highest price paid for a horse in Sydney since the outbreak of the war.
Actually, there was quite a keen contest for the colt including interest from the bookmaker Joe Matthews and the brother of Hall Stand’s former owner; and when the final bid came, the crowd of about three thousand roundly cheered Mr Dennis, a client of the former Brisbane trainer, Charlie McLoughlin, who had settled in Sydney about fifteen months before. Like George Anderson, McLoughlin came to Sydney when the grass tracks in Brisbane were closed for the duration of the war. Fil Allotta approached the new owner expressing the opinion that “although Hall Stand had brought above his value, he was a strong, healthy three-year-old, who would win lots of races.”
At least the first part of Allotta’s opinion was spot on even if the rest wasn’t. Hall Stand raced under the nom de course of ‘T. L. Timbers’, proved inordinately expensive to both the owner and the public alike. Although he did eventually win a series of flying handicaps on courses such as Newcastle, Ascot and Rosebery, the son of Hall Mark never remotely looked like repaying his purchase price. Perhaps the horse’s best performance under new colours came when he ran second in that infamous Cameron Handicap at Newcastle that effectively ended Andy Knox’s career – and again it was a horse trained by Tom McGrath, this time Abbeville, that denied Hall Stand victory. The person who made the most money out of Hall Stand was the auctioneer, Reg Inglis. It was Inglis who had brokered the original sale for 1000 guineas to Hemphill and who also acted as the auctioneer when the horse was resold and realised 3500 guineas.
And it was Reg Inglis who was called upon to effect a sale when his Queensland owner tired of the horse’s lacklustre performances after he was placed in trainer Harry Plant’s stables, realising a rather surprisingly good price again, of 2200 guineas in January 1946. Hall Stand’s failure to win a principal race after that 1942 Derby was something he shared in common with all of the other starters, except for Main Topic; and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, despite the time and the winner, 1942 was a far from vintage Derby year. Hall Stand did manage to beat Main Topic in one field of endeavour. While neither of the stallions was successful at stud, Hall Stand at least had the distinction of getting one winner of a principal race, Blond Val, the horse that R. J. Harris trained to win the 1954 S.T.C. Festival Handicap at Rosehill.
However, before I leave that foaling season of 1939, there are two other horses that I should mention. The first is Great Britain, who in the absence of the Sydney three-year-olds in the spring of 1942, dominated the Melbourne classics restricted to that age group. It is seldom the happy lot of owners to win classic races with the first horses they have raced. Yet that was the good fortune of Mrs D. Belsom, who won the Caulfield Guineas, Victoria Derby and Melbourne Stakes with Great Britain, a chestnut colt by Enfield out of Belgian Star bred at the St Albans Stud, Geelong, by Messrs H. G. Raymond and H. B. Ranken. Admittedly, Mrs Belsom’s husband had been racing horses for about ten years but when Mrs Belsom paid 850 guineas at the Melbourne yearling sales in 1941, she could hardly have dreamed of a classic winner. Indeed, she won the Maribyrnong Trial Stakes with the colt the first time he started. Trained by Harold Freedman, in winning both the Caulfield Guineas and Victoria Derby with Great Britain, the trainer emulated the feat that he had achieved with Lucrative just two years before. Such was Great Britain’s form in the spring of 1942 that he went out as the 6/1 second favourite in the Melbourne Cup but finished in the ruck. After being retired to stud, Great Britain proved a useful sire with six of his progeny winning twelve stakes races.
The second horse that I should mention from that 1939 foaling season looms much larger than Great Britain. When the 1942 A.J.C. Derby was being conducted on that Saturday afternoon in October, there was an athletic three-year-old bay horse spelling in a rich black soil paddock in Toowoomba, Queensland. Bred by Harry Winten at his Rosalie Plains Stud in the Dalby district, he was by the Manchester Cup winner, Emborough, out of Bern Maid, a poorly performed daughter of Bernard, who ran unplaced in her only eight visits to the racecourse. Despite her inability on the track, Bern Maid proved an outstanding broodmare in the paddock, dropping no less than seven winners from her eight foals that made it to the races.
However, it was her last foal that concerns us here. As you have already guessed, his name was Bernborough and he came along when Bern Maid was 20 years old. The name Bernborough first appears in Australian newspapers on January 23, 1942. He was among the entries for a meeting of the Toowoomba Turf Club (T.T.C.), although his racecourse debut wasn’t to be made until February 7, 1942, when he won a T.T.C. maiden handicap at Clifford Park, Toowoomba’s racecourse. Second across the line, Bernborough was awarded the race on protest in the stewards’ room. Three more starts followed during March and April on the Toowoomba course resulting in a close second and two more victories. Many hardened sportsmen began to look upon him as the best youngster seen on the Downs for many years. A tremendous colt, strong enough to handle any weight and possessed of the build and temperament of an outstanding galloper.
It was after Bernborough’s win in a two-year-old handicap in early April that a perceptive journalist, in a description that would become all too familiar to Australian racegoers over the next few years, penned these lines in “The (Brisbane) Worker”: “Although he was a short-priced favourite on Easter Saturday, Bernborough was so far back in the big field for the first furlong that most of his backers would have sold out on any price, but he staged such a startling finish towards the end of the five furlongs that he won by several lengths. Bernborough shapes more like a stayer than any of the season’s two-year-old Brisbane winners, and if there’s a Derby next season he is already the Down’s selection for the classic.” The first sign of trouble came at the end of April when Bernborough was transported down from Toowoomba to Albion Park for a tilt at a juvenile handicap on the sand. On race day itself, the Emborough colt was withdrawn by order of the stewards.
When the matter was referred to the chairman of the stewards, J. J. Lynch, he replied that reasons would appear in the stewards’ report in due course. They didn’t. The truth was that Rule No. 62 empowered the Q.T.C. stewards to reject any nomination or entry for any race without giving any reason. The following week, Joseph Roberts, the then purported owner-trainer of the horse lodged an appeal, only to withdraw it the following day and enter Bernborough for the second successive Saturday at Albion Park in a nursery handicap. Again the stewards barred the horse from racing and Bernborough returned to Toowoomba with his tail between his legs. The bay colt rounded out his first season on the Turf with yet another unextended win in a two-year-old handicap at Toowoomba, with 9 st. 9lb in mid-May.
Meanwhile, the refusal of the Q.T.C. stewards to allow Bernborough to start in Brisbane races had racing men intrigued. Here was a horse who had been cleared by the Downs and South West Racing Association, all papers and documents in order, his nominations accepted and his weights allotted, produced on the racecourse and prepared for a race, only to be withdrawn at the eleventh hour by Q.T.C. stewards who obviously wanted no part of him. All attempts to draw the stewards out on the subject of why Bernborough was not allowed to race on Q.T.C. courses were politely rebuffed. At the same time, the horse’s burgeoning reputation was such that significant offers to purchase the colt were beginning to emanate from southern buyers including one offer of no less than 1500 guineas, rumoured to be from George Tancred. So, what was it about Bernborough’s past that had rendered the Q.T.C. committee so intransigent? Let us unspool the reel and look back on what had supposedly taken place since the colt’s foaling.
We are afforded this version of events by virtue of the due process of an official inquiry instigated by George Kirk of the Downs and South West Racing Association at the time of the Q.T.C.’s ban. Kirk probed the transactions surrounding the original purchase of Bernborough. It was on Thursday, 23rd May 1940, that, under instructions from the executors of the estate of the late H. J. Winten, the Rosalie Plains dispersal sale (on the Cooyar line) took place. It was conducted by Messrs Harrison, Gilbert and Company of Toowoomba. Twenty-five blood mares and thoroughbreds were catalogued to be sold and numbered amongst them were the aged Bern Maid with her bay foal by the imported Emborough at foot. She was the third lot sold on the day and was knocked down for either 150 or 155 guineas to Frank Bach, ostensibly acting on behalf of his son, John. Indeed, the contemporary newspaper reports of the sale are conflicting with one showing F. Bach as the buyer and consideration at 155 guineas, and another showing J. Bach at 150 guineas. Whatever, at either price, only one other lot sold for more on the day.
At the inquiry instigated by George Kirk, it was stated by Albert E. Hadwen, who was the proprietor of a motor service station in Brisbane, that Bach had been acting on his behalf. Hadwen produced a receipt for the purchase of a foal by Emborough, the dam being Bern Maid. The receipt was signed by J. R. Bach and was dated June 22, 1940. The purchase price was stated to have been £140. It was explained by Hadwen that he had instructed Bach to give up to £100 on his behalf for any horse that Bach might deem suitable. A letter from Messrs Harrison Gilbert & Co., a prominent Toowoomba bloodstock firm, was tendered at Kirk’s inquiry. It was stated that Bern Maid with her foal, was knocked down to Mr F. Bach, who shortly afterwards instructed them to record the purchase in the name of J. R. Bach, which was done immediately.
Afterwards, the payment was made by cheque drawn by F. Bach, but the receipt was issued in the name of J. R. Bach. Hadwen’s explanation was that J. R. Bach had not taken his chequebook with him. Hadwen said that he went to Oakey, and arranged to take the colt for £140. He produced his cheque and passbooks at the inquiry, which showed that a cheque for £150 had been drawn by him on June 19. He paid Bach, he said, £140 on June 22. Disappointed by the colt’s first run, Hadwen stated, he promised to lease him to a man named Roberts. It was only after Bernborough had run second at his second start that Hadwen kept his word and leased the colt to Roberts. It was after hearing this and other evidence that George Kirk found that Hadwen was the bona fide owner of Bernborough.
However, unlike George Kirk, the good burghers of the Q.T.C. committee were less than impressed. It had been admitted by Hadwen at Kirk’s inquiry that he was an old friend of John Bach. The Q.T.C. committeemen refused to accept that the transfer of Bernborough to Hadwen had been a legal arm’s length transaction and such men were not for turning. At the time, Frank Bach enjoyed the dubious distinction of being persona non grata with the Queensland Turf Club, which refused to accept nominations of any horse owned by or suspected of being owned by him. Consequently, no horse of Bach’s could race on any course controlled by the Q.T.C., and by implication, on any of the principal tracks in Australia. So, what nefarious circumstances had brought on such an impasse? The celebrated incident that caused Bach’s life disqualification was the infamous Brulad/Daylate ring-in at a race meeting at the Queensland Turf Club’s Ascot headquarters on January 4, 1941, almost six months after Bach first came into the possession of Bernborough.
One man who just happened to be in attendance among the crowd that day at Ascot was Steve Bowen, an off-duty Q.T.C. country steward, who at the time was acting under no official capacity whatsoever. However, his suspicions were aroused when he witnessed a four-year-old gelding named Daylate, spreadeagle the field in the mile Trial after coming in for heavy support in the betting ring. While Bowen had never seen any horse named Daylate race before, he was very familiar with a well-performed galloper named Brulad, who as a two-year-old had looked like developing into a first-class horse. And Daylate bore a remarkable resemblance to him. After the race, Bowen subjected the gelding to close scrutiny.
Seeking out the racecourse detective on duty, Charles Prentice, Bowen declared: “That horse isn’t Daylate – it’s Brulad!” Thus began one of the more intriguing investigations in Queensland racing history that involved a hand-writing expert poring over race nomination forms; the reported death of the racehorse Brulad on the Downs; the unauthorised midnight removal of Daylate/Brulad from Doomben stables; a mysterious owner, J. J. Jackson who could not be located; and gunshots when police visited the Bach property. The upshot was that sixteen days after Daylate’s Ascot win, Frank Bach senior and the racehorse Daylate (aka Brulad) were disqualified for life. The Bachs, father and son, later stood trial for conspiracy but, ironically, were found not guilty. Not for the last time, the bar of accountability and justice stood lower in the stewards’ room than in the police and criminal courts.
Strange, isn’t it, how those shenanigans cost the Bach family the honour and privilege of owning one of the all-time great champions of the Australian Turf and a horse that entered into our national folklore? Moreover, it denied Australians living any distance from Toowoomba the opportunity to witness this great champion for nigh on three-and-a-half years. Despite the difficulties of arranging transport during wartime, in the early winter of 1942 Bernborough and his lessee owner-trainer, Joseph Roberts, did a journey to Sydney in a bid to compete against Hall Stand and company in some of the three-year-old classics such as the Hobartville Stakes and the Canterbury and Rosehill Guineas. Stabled at Rosehill, Bernborough resumed his training. Alas, upon application to the A.J.C. stipendiary stewards, Roberts was told the horse would be unable to race on Sydney courses unless he could produce a clearance from the Q.T.C. Horse and trainer departed Sydney on Tuesday night, June 30, 1942, and Bernborough wasn’t to return to the Harbour City again until early August 1945.
Having been rebuffed from Albion Park and Sydney’s racecourses, Bernborough returned to the one place where he was allowed to race – Toowoomba. Following that abortive visit to Sydney, Joseph Roberts, Bernborough’s trainer, issued a Supreme Court writ against P. J. O’Shea of Toowong, suing him as chairman of the Q.T.C. committee, personally, and as representative of every member of the Q.T.C., and on behalf of stewards of the club. Roberts claimed that the alleged action of O’Shea and of the persons he represented in revoking and/or withdrawing a certain clearance for Bernborough was wrongful and illegal, in breach of, and contrary to, the rules of the Q.T.C. and rules of racing, and in excess of O’Shea’s powers under those rules.
An injunction was sought and damages were claimed for defamation. Nothing came of it, of course, and the action was discontinued in June of the following year. However, the restrictions on racing and transport bans during the dark years of the War, saw the great galloper contest only four races as a three-year-old, although he won them all over distances of six and seven furlongs. As a four-year-old Bernborough had even fewer starts – just two – running the minor placing in the T.T.C. Boxing Day Handicap and finishing unplaced during Easter in the T.T.C. Weetwood Handicap. Roberts’ lease on the horse expired in July 1943 and full ownership reverted to Albert Hadwen. Despite transport bans, southern interest in acquiring the colt at ever-increasing prices remained. Hadwen defiantly declared: “Bernborough is not for sale and if I can’t race him no one else will!”
Nonetheless, given that the best years of Bernborough’s life were being irrevocably spent in inactivity as the racing authorities from Doomben to Flemington remained intractable, something had to give. And it came about as the War wound down and relative freedom of movement was restored. There is a curious symmetry to the story of how Harry Plant got to train Bernborough and our 1942 A.J.C. Derby favourite, Hall Stand, had more than a bit part in proceedings. Plant, the former Queensland trainer, like a number of other northern horsemen, relocated permanently to Sydney because of the War. In the winter of 1945, he was training none other than Hall Stand and he set the colt for the £3,000 Doomben Newmarket run that year at Albion Park.
Alas, the son of Hall Mark failed yet again and when booking passage by boat to return to Sydney, Albert Hadwen, still maintaining his ownership of Bernborough, asked Plant to take his horse back with Hall Stand and henceforth train him in Sydney. Hadwen was still hoping that the Q.T.C. would issue a clearance and that Bernborough could run as soon as the N.J.C. Cameron Handicap and the Newcastle Cup. While it was the first time that Hadwen himself had approached the Q.T.C. (the earlier approaches had been by Joseph Roberts when he leased Bernborough), the result was still the same and no clearance was forthcoming. By then Plant was already putting Bernborough through his paces at Victoria Park and knew first-hand just how good the horse was. Given the stonewalling of the principal race clubs in Australia, the owner or owners of Bernborough finally put the stallion up for auction at William Inglis and Son at Newmarket on October 5, 1945 – the first thoroughbred auction to be held in Sydney since the lifting of the rail transport ban.
Encouraged by Harry Plant to open his shoulders (and wallet) and bid for the horse, the famed restaurateur A. O. Romano, the essence of smarmy charm, paid 2600 guineas to secure ownership. Even then there were to be some delays in locating Bernborough’s original registration papers before the Q.T.C. were forthcoming with a clearance to race, but there was never any doubt that on this occasion the sale was genuine. When the clearance finally came it was as if a primal force of nature had been unleashed upon the racecourses of the eastern seaboard of Australia.
After a modest debut at Canterbury in the hands of jockey Noel McGrowdie, when the son of Emborough finished a close-up fourth, the Toowoomba Tornado proceeded to unwind a devastating sequence of fifteen straight victories in partnership with jockey Athol Mulley. Beginning with the A.J.C. Villiers Handicap when handicapped with 9 st. 2lb, the sequence included such races as the V.A.T.C. Futurity Stakes, V.R.C. Newmarket, B.A.T.C. Doomben Ten Thousand and Doomben Cup, V.R.C. Melbourne Stakes and V.A.T.C. Caulfield Stakes. In each of those fifteen races, he went to the post as the favourite, eleven times at odds on! However, it wasn’t just that Bernborough won. It was the manner in which he did it. So often he would come from seemingly impossible positions with the most breathtaking acceleration. The unbroken stream of victories, of course, ended with that famous 1946 Caulfield Cup.
The post-Derby training careers of Tom McGrath and Fil Allotta offer a more interesting contrast. A Derby winner can often give the necessary impetus to a battling trainer and promote him to the higher ranks, but in the case of the 55-year-old McGrath, Main Topic perhaps came along too late to make any real difference. The former champion jockey was fortunate in one respect, however. Just as Main Topic broke down in the spring of his five-year-old season and had to be retired, another top-class racehorse emerged from the stable in the shape of Abbeville, a gelding by the 1935 Caulfield Cup winner Palfresco. McGrath trained him for the leading bookmaker, Bill McDonald, who had also shared in the ownership of the great Winooka.
Abbeville won the 1945 A.J.C. Doncaster Handicap and then ran second in the same race to Blue Legend the following year while winning the Q.T.C. Stradbroke Handicap in between. Alas, for McGrath the pickings were slim once Abbeville departed the scene and he was to endure a long period of indeterminate blight on metropolitan racecourses until Lord Stefan, again carrying the colours of Bill McDonald, won a graduation stakes in January 1953. In September 1954 it was McGrath who gave a youthful Les Bridge his first metropolitan winner as an apprentice jockey. In January 1955 he trained Kalimah to win a modest race at Canterbury. McGrath continued to potter about with a few horses with indifferent success until he surrendered his training licence in the 1956-57 racing season, remaining one of the most popular men at Randwick to the very end.
Fil Allotta’s career might not have prospered as it did, had Hall Stand distinguished himself in Charlie McLoughlin’s hands. But Hall Stand’s remorseless catalogue of failures led sportsmen to question how Allotta ever managed to win any race with the son of Hall Mark, let alone see him go the post at 4/7 in a Derby. In time, many distinguished clients were to beat a path to Allotta’s door. One of the first was the leading bookmaker, Ken Ranger, who entrusted him with Cragsman. Bad legs prevented this son of Felcrag from realising his full potential, and his best performance came when runner-up behind Bernborough in the 1946 T.M. Ahern Quality Handicap. The winners continued to roll, and Allotta was to enjoy his most successful season to date in 1952-53 when he won the V.R.C. Newmarket with Cultured; and the Victoria Derby with Advocate. These successes brought him the Western Australia galloper, Raconteur, whom he trained to win the 1953 A.J.C. Villiers Stakes. By now, Allotta’s clients included the likes of Denis Allen, Justice Dovey, Fred Batchelor, the Carrigan family and A.J.C. committeeman, Pat Osborne.
Allotta was in the full flush of success on that fateful day in April 1955 when he attended the William Inglis Yearling Sales at Newmarket. In the late afternoon sunshine, proceedings had almost drawn to a close when Allotta, acting on behalf of Pat Osborne, put in a bid of 1200 guineas for Lot No. 714, a chestnut filly by Star Kingdom out of Red Lace offered on account of K. Quinn. The youngster was from the second crop of the new wonder stallion, and, registered as Dark Jewel, she managed to win three races in Sydney in her first two seasons, along with six placings and £2,318 in stakes. Despite this satisfactory return, for reasons of his own, the ageing Osborne decided in May 1957 that Dark Jewel had fulfilled her racecourse potential and he had no wish to hold on to her as a broodmare. Allotta had always fancied the chestnut, and when she went through the auction ring a second time that month, the trainer bought her for 550 guineas, intending to breed her in partnership with one of his stable clients. The client that Allotta had in mind was none other than P. G. ‘Griff’ Tait and his wife, Daisy, long-time patrons who already had enjoyed considerable success with Stirrup Cup just a couple of years before and now had a rising two-year-old, In Love, showing distinct promise in Allotta’s yard. Griff Tait was the son of Peter Tait, for whom a youthful Fil Allotta had strapped Valiard all those years before in Frank Marsden’s stables.
The Tait family were graziers with an extensive property ‘Gobarralong’, near Jugiong, New South Wales and had long enjoyed an association with the Turf; their registered colours of ‘red jacket, white cap’ were already recognisable on Sydney racecourses. Griff Tait, however, despite his warm regard for Fil Allotta, wasn’t keen on a breeding partnership, but such was the trainer’s faith in the broodmare potential of this daughter of Star Kingdom that he persuaded Tait to buy her outright, with him getting the progeny to train. It was a faith that was to be amply justified in the years ahead. To a degree that would not be fully appreciated for the best part of fifteen years and more, Allotta and Tait had succeeded in trapping quicksilver; for Dark Jewel was to be the dam of eleven foals, ten of which raced, and nine were to win races.
The Taits sold the first two of Dark Jewel’s progeny, Gingerbread and Powella, but not before Allotta had won races with them; then came Heirloom, the first of Dark Jewel’s high-class progeny. Trained by Allotta, she shared a V.A.T.C. One Thousand Guineas and won a V.R.C. Maribyrnong Plate among other races. In three successive years came Betelgeuse, Cabochon and Birthright – all by different stallions but all winners of principal races. Dark Jewel then missed one year and got the moderate Lucie Manette in the next, before dropping her finest to Rego the following year in Baguette, the first two-year-old to win Sydney’s triple crown of juvenile races, the S.T.C. Golden Slipper Stakes, AJC Sires Produce Stakes and Champagne Stakes.
In the twilight of his training career, Fil Allotta, with his small but select team of racehorses, became almost a private trainer to the Tait family and the progeny of Dark Jewel. It was a tribute to Allotta’s patience and kindness with fillies that many of those that passed through his hands went on to become valuable matrons. Dark Jewel is but one example; Cultured was another. Fil Allotta trained Cultured – a speedy daughter of Newtown Wonder – for Lindsay Bell to win the 1951 Gimcrack Stakes at Randwick and two years later the mare won the V.R.C. Newmarket Handicap. At stud, she produced the smart juvenile Courteous, whom Allotta also trained for Bell, and she emulated her mother by winning the 1960 Gimcrack Stakes, as well as the V.A.T.C. Debutante Stakes in the same season.
Nor was Allotta’s kindness and professionalism restricted to bloodstock. Down the years he schooled a number of successful apprentices including John Lee, who won an Epsom Handicap on Hans, as well as Rex Bowdler and Kevin Gover; but Allotta’s most successful student was Stan Cassidy, who enjoyed great success in the saddle before his tragic death in a track fall at Randwick in July 1974. Allotta took Cassidy’s death badly, and it presaged a sad end to Allotta’s own life on the Turf as well. Just two years later at the Randwick Bank Holiday Meeting, he suffered a stroke that restricted him to a wheelchair for the last ten years of his life – a time that was rendered even emptier by the death of his beloved wife.
Allotta surrendered his trainer’s licence in June 1976, although he continued to be a conspicuous presence at important Randwick meetings in later years. As Allotta looked back and reflected on the aggregate of rich and prestigious races won for his stable’s clients, he knew that he had enjoyed a far, far better life than he would have ever known had he remained working in the family’s fruit and vegetable business. It was a very sad day for the Australian Turf when this extraordinarily kind and compassionate soul finally slipped the bridle in October 1986; his famous old timber stables, from which he had sent forth so many great racehorses down the years, were bought by Tommy Smith soon after his death, only to be demolished to make way for ‘Bounding Away’ Lodge.
Before I leave the 1942 chapter, permit me a paragraph or two on one of Australian racing’s key administrators during the inter-war years. For it was on A.J.C. Derby Day 1942, there came the news that the chairman of the V.R.C., Sir Henry Alan Currie, aged 74, had died at his Ercildoune homestead after an illness of more than two years and leaving an estate worth £123,000 He had been at the forefront of administering Turf affairs for more than 30 years. Born in June 1868 in Osborne House, Geelong, he was the sixth son of J. L. Currie of the Larra run near Derrinallum, Victoria. Educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, he graduated in civil engineering in 1891 from the University of Melbourne. It was on his father’s death in 1898 that he had forsaken engineering and returned to his family’s calling of breeding fine merino sheep, together with Shorthorn cattle and racehorses on his Mount Elephant run and much later at Ercildoune.
Already a member of the V.A.T.C., Currie became a member of the V.R.C. in 1899 and soon began importing English mares for his stud. His first win came at Caulfield in 1906 with Lady Orzil on Boxing Day. Currie’s cherry jacket and yellow sleeves and cap quickly became familiar on the racecourse. Walter Hickenbotham was his first trainer and it was on his advice that he bought the horse, Mala. Mala won him the 1909 V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes on the same day that his brother John won the V.R.C. St Leger with Even Time although the latter was trained by Mark Whitty. There were some mistakes along the way such as when he sold Golden Hop for 600 guineas out of a selling race at Flemington only to see the Maltster colt win two A.J.C. Challenge Stakes and The Shorts for Joe Brien. From 1910 to 1913 Currie served as chairman of the V.A.T.C. and only resigned in May 1914 to become a member of the V.R.C. committee in August of that same year when he was elected to a vacancy unopposed. During the First World War, Currie was a lieutenant with the Royal Field Artillery and saw action in Belgium and France, winning the Military Cross in January 1918. Married in 1902 to Albert Miller’s daughter Muriel, the marriage was childless.
Having served on the V.R.C. committee for a number of years, Sir Alan became chairman in 1935 succeeding to the position after the death of L.K.S. Mackinnon who had held the position for 19 years. Fifteen years earlier, Sir Alan had acquired Ercildoune and since then almost every visitor of note to Victoria, including royalty, had been entertained there as his guest. He maintained a thoroughbred stud on his estate and among his stallions had been Caithness and Rizzio. Sir Alan had also owned many good racehorses, including Mala, who won the V.R.C. Newmarket Handicap in 1910, and Doradus who much later won the 1930 S.A.J.C. Goodwood Handicap when trained by E. J. Courtney. He had also owned some good horses over timber the best of which were Flash Jack, whose victories included the 1915 V.R.C. Grand National Steeplechase and the 1917 South Australian Great Eastern Steeple when trained by the former cross country jockey Fred Burn; and Berrinbo who won the 1923 Grand National Hurdle when trained by Norman Godby after Burn had surrendered his licence. A member of the Legislative Council of Victoria from 1928 to 1940 and briefly a minister in the 1928-29 Nationalist ministry, Currie was knighted in 1937. Richard Turnbull succeeded Currie as the V.R.C. chairman.