And now we come to the year in our Derby chronicle that, more than any other seems almost like a fairytale – a true romance of the Turf. With shades of Dick Whittington, a penniless fourteen-year-old boy leaves his humble bush home of dirt floors to seek his fortune in the city. Dick Whittington dreamt of a city paved with gold; our hero was to find racecourses paved with the stuff. After a series of misadventures as a jockey, a strapper and a punter, he eventually decides to become a horse trainer. He manages to buy a colt that nobody else wants and enters it in the A.J.C. Derby. The horse itself is a maiden but the young man – now thirty-two years of age – declares to all who will listen that the horse, like himself, is very much underrated. He backs the colt at long prices at Tattersall’s Club to take the classic, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Thomas John (T. J.) Smith was born at Jembaicumbene, near Braidwood, on September 3rd, 1916, exactly one month to the day before Kilboy won the Derby. He was the eldest boy in a dirt-poor family of seven kids – five boys and two girls – almost each of them having been born in different towns. His father, Neil, was an itinerant labourer and horse-breaker who worked with teams building roads around Ivanhoe. In 1927 the family arrived in Goolgowi, a rail siding town on the dusty red soil plains of south-western N.S.W. It wasn’t quite the end of the world, but there was a local saying that from there, you could see it. The Smith family lived in a slab hut with an earthen floor. Chaff bags primitively stitched together divided the rooms and kerosene lamps provided the light. Chaff bags also served as beds by being slung as hammocks. Tom’s father worked with a horse and bullock team and followed the timber mills in search of work.
Before he was 10-years-old, little Tom was helping his father, doing a man’s job. The boy was breaking in horses, working with the draught team, slaughtering sheep, and carting water. “I could use a two-handed whip and could crack it as good as any man,” boasted Tom in later life. “We did contract work…working the farms, wool carting, dam sinking, road building. You name it, we did it…and it was all hard work.” He never enjoyed any childhood, and he only received brief, desultory schooling. There were no toys and no playmates, and later in life, there were times when the hardness showed. Pocket money was hard to come by. “I would go out in the bush and catch a brumby. Then I would break him to the saddle. The rabbit trappers would pay me two quid for each horse I caught.” His father was a good horseman and a bad drunk. Neil acquired a couple of rogue racehorses from Sydney and raced them in the local picnic races with young Tom in the saddle. “I rode my first winner when I was twelve, on one of my Dad’s horses at a picnic meeting at Hillston,” recalled Tom many years later in an interview with the journalist, Bert Lillye. This fired the lad’s dream of one day becoming a jockey. Despite the presence of a kind and loving mother in Hilda, by his early teens, Tom only had one ambition, and that was to get away from home to follow that dream.
At fourteen and with a handful of coins in his pocket, he left Goolgowi vowing never to return. From an early age he looked up to wealth as the lodestar of his life’s voyage, and even on the darkest days it never lost its lustre. Tom first headed for Melbourne with an introduction to battling trainer, Bill McLaughlin, who trained about four horses at Mordialloc. The Depression had set in, and McLaughlin was broke. Tom stayed less than a year before moving on to Sydney. Through the good offices of an uncle and a contact at the A.J.C., Tom started working out of Moorefield for ‘Son’ Mackinnon. Now it was in the mid-1930s that Mack Sawyer decided to quit the family sheep station in the Riverina and set up as an owner-trainer in Sydney. His father, Matt, was often referred to as the ‘Uncrowned King of the Riverina’ and the family had extensive pastoral interests at Eulomo and other Riverina properties. They had been racing horses for almost a century.
The farming life never really agreed with young Mack, and he’d always had a yearning to try his hand as a gentleman trainer, managing a team in the big smoke. Mack was a brother-in-law of bloodstock salesman, Reg Inglis, and he set up with boxes at Newmarket rented from the Inglis firm. Clive Inglis was a silent partner in the arrangement. Sawyer bought four yearlings to supplement the two tried gallopers that he had brought with him from the country, and Tom Smith was recruited as an apprentice from ‘Son’ Mackinnon to work the horses. He was booked into a boarding house opposite the No. 2 stables at Newmarket where the horses were stabled, a place that eventually became Peter Lawson’s home. Harry Darwon was Mack Sawyer’s foreman at the time and later on Tom was taken into Darwon’s home.
Tom Smith was granted a jockey’s license in August 1937, but, as he admitted himself, he just didn’t have the knack. (In later years, when the famous Smith/Moore partnership dominated the Australian Turf, and public spats between them were not infrequent, any criticism by the trainer of Moore’s handling of a horse would see the jockey quip to pressmen: “Tommy couldn’t ride a rocking horse”.) Smith soon became too heavy for flat races and had to give it away without riding a winner. He then embarked on a brief career riding over hurdles. Tom didn’t ride a winner there either, and a serious fall in April 1938 in a hurdle barrier trial at Randwick when he fractured his right thigh after his mount rolled on him, put him out of action for well over a year. In fact, the fracture was so bad that it left him with a permanent limp that bothered him to the end of his days. When he did regain his fitness, he rejoined the Sawyer stable as a strapper, but by now he wanted to train horses himself, not just strap them. Mack Sawyer told him that his father, Matt, was looking for someone to ride and look after his racehorses on their Bethungra property. Young Tom resolved to head for the Riverina, and the Eulomo sheep station, to become the makeshift trainer, jockey and travelling head lad for the Sawyer country team of horses. It was the moment that changed his life.
Matt Sawyer was then an old man in poor health, but over the years he had been the biggest owner in the Riverina, winning many races with horses trained on the dirt track on his property. There were still some well-bred horses running about the hills as well as the few horses in training when Tom arrived. Smith spent a couple of years there, and during that time, Eulomo station turned out a number of winners in the regional towns including Wagga, Cootamundra, Cowra and Albury. At this stage, Tom didn’t have a trainer’s ticket although he was doing most of the conditioning work, with Matt supervising. The horses competed under Matt Sawyer’s license, Tom doing much of the riding. It wasn’t an easy existence; he worked long, hard hours each day and on the seventh day he worked as well. But the experience confirmed Tom’s self-belief that he could train racehorses, even if he couldn’t ride them. When Matt Sawyer died in February 1941, the Sawyer family decided to wind up their racing activities at Eulomo. Tom was offered a horse as a parting gesture. His choice fell on a big bay gelding by Windbag that he had first seen almost two years before; he had been bred on the station but until Tom’s arrival hadn’t been broken-in, as the station hands reckoned him too wild. The horse had intrigued Tom who liked the look of him from the start. Given time, Tom eventually threw a heavy buck-jump saddle on the gelding and with the help of a roughrider at Eulomo was beginning to work him on the side as well as mustering sheep and cattle, when old Matt passed on.
The best horse ever to carry the red jacket and blue cap of Matt Sawyer was Fearless, and it was one of young Tom’s last jobs at Eulomo to prepare him to win the Wagga Cup in May, almost three months after the death of the old man. Tom wasn’t one to let them run loose even in those hard times, and his tilt at the Wagga ring saw him return to Eulomo £450 richer. Paid out by Mack Sawyer, Tom loaded his only horse, the four-year-old Windbag gelding, onto a cattle truck at Bethungra bound for Darling Harbour goods yard. Tom was coming to town. It seemed a rather slender stock of horseflesh with which to challenge the world. There was no flourish of drums and trumpets to greet the young man’s appearance on the scene.
Tom picked up his horse at Darling Harbour and, borrowing a hack to save on float costs, led the spirited gelding along the public roads to Kensington. He had arranged to rent a box for the horse from Bob Battersby for five shillings a week. Horse and trainer moved in together. Tom had always been anxious to emulate the sartorial elegance of his former master, Mack Sawyer, and with money in his pocket from the Wagga Cup, he found his way to a leading Sydney tailor and proceeded to order three suits of the best English cloth. There was always something of the coxcomb about him even in these early days; and throughout his career, he gloried when the tailor made a new man of him. With his training permit secured, Tom then set about registering a set of racing colours of blue and green stripes as well as the horse itself, which he named Bragger.
For nearly two years, Tom was a one-horse man, with no clients and no premises. It wasn’t until the last day of January 1942 that he even managed to get the then five-year-old to the post for the first time, in an Encourage Stakes at Canterbury. Tom fancied him but he finished last, and a bad last at that. For the first time in his life, the eternal optimist himself began to question whether he had what it took to be a racehorse trainer. But a good gallop at Rosebery during the following week by Bragger prompted Tom to saddle him up again the next Saturday in a Maiden Handicap at Randwick, the first race on the card. With Pat Delaney up, Bragger still gave a buck-jumping exhibition at the start and a wayward exhibition in the race but managed to run a close second and earn his hard-bitten trainer £35.
It was five weeks later in a Maiden Welter at Rosehill that the bush outlaw broke through for his first win. Tom managed to get Jack Thompson to ride him, and with 9/2 available in the ring, Tom landed a good stake. Tom quipped to the surrounding pressmen: “After twelve months I was inclined to give up hope of training Bragger, but I kept persevering. He saved me a bit in tram fares because I used to ride him on all my messages and whenever I wanted to go for a swim.” In time, of course, the blue and green striped livery would become as famous on Australian racecourses as cold pies, but this was their first triumphant airing for Smith. Sadly, for Tom, Mack Sawyer wasn’t alive to see the success of his one-time work rider, for he had died suddenly at the age of 49 in January 1942.
It was to be the first of four wins on the trot for the reformed outlaw from the Eulomo hills. A win at Newcastle was followed by success in the A.J.C. Coogee Handicap on Sydney Cup Day, run that year at Rosehill because of the War. On that occasion, the rangy gelding was backed in from 25/1 to 20/1. Smith later recalled: “He started from 21 post position at the open barrier and he was so far out it looked as though he was lining up in the car park yet he won by one and a half lengths.” The campaign culminated with a fourth successive victory in the Wagga Diggers’ Cup, a race that was run not far from the Eulomo station where the Bragger story first began. The five-year-old gelding’s credentials had been well and truly established by then, and he started a 5/2 favourite, again with Jack Thompson in the saddle. It was the very first feature race to fall to Tom Smith. In each of Bragger’s victories, young Tom had plundered the Philistines in the betting ring. Bragger broke down after his next start when he ran a minor placing in the rich Cameron Handicap at Newcastle, and it would be another three years before Tom won with him again. But that autumn campaign of 1942 gave Thomas John Smith, the battler from Goolgowi, his bankroll and more money than he had ever dreamed, although in later years the extent of these betting coups would be somewhat embellished in the telling.
The 1942 Sydney Yearling Sales took place in the week after Bragger won his second race. Smith bought only one filly, subsequently named Urgent Rate, for which he paid 125 guineas on behalf of Mr J. Coughlan for whom he won a race in the following season. He was also attracted to a Brueghel filly that was passed in for a paltry 75 guineas, about half of the average price for yearlings realised at those sales. In retrospect, given Smith’s vaunted killing in the betting ring at Newcastle, it is surprising that he wasn’t prepared to meet the modest reserve on the filly although perhaps he wasn’t that struck on her. But as luck would have it, he finished up getting the filly to train at any rate. Alf Thompson was prepared to lease her to an acquaintance, and the bay filly found her way into Tom’s care. Subsequently registered as Ajixa, she credited Tom with his biggest success to date in the spring of that year when she won the rich Gimcrack Stakes, on the same programme that Moorland scored in the Breeders’ Plate. The unusual feature of that Gimcrack Stakes was that Brueghel, the Italian stallion imported by Widden Stud, sired all the three placed horses.
During that 1942-43 season, Tom, who by now had received his No 2 license on the strength of his achievements with Bragger, won four races, with Hieron (twice), an older horse that had failed for other trainers including Maurice McCarten, as well as wins with Urgent Rate and Ajixa. It was enough to see the A.J.C. promote him to a much-coveted No. 1 trainer’s license for the start of the following season. This was heady progress, and few trainers reached that status so quickly. At the time it aroused quite a bit of jealousy within the training ranks. With the closure of the Kensington pony track during the War, training access to Randwick was much sought after, and the year Tom got his No 1 ticket, he was the only one granted that honour out of fifteen or so applicants.
There were quite a few other trainers of much longer standing that had applied, including Frank Nowland, who had just enjoyed his best season, having prepared Flight to win the Champagne Stakes. Yet despite this rapid promotion to the elite bracket of trainers and the demonstration of his horsemanship with a small string, Smith still found it difficult to attract clients. Of course, these were the darkest years of the war and owners had curtailed their involvement in the sport in line with Government restrictions and the reduced level of prize money available. Nonetheless, a small coterie of supporters emerged in the likes of Messrs Bylos, Bookalil and Coughlan, together with Mrs Bellamy, and he won races for them with horses such as Chantilly, Urgent Rate and Top Line; but Bragger remained his best advertisement for the old fellow had come back into training after his years of sabbatical in the country and seemed better than ever.
Both Bragger and Tommy improved with age as each got to know the other better. In those early days, Smith often couldn’t get a rider for Bragger. “I chased every jockey in Sydney one day in August 1945 when Bragger had 9st. 12lb in a Randwick Highweight, the last race of the card. Eventually, I got a kid named Tomlinson who had a 5lb allowance to ride the old gelding and they combined to beat Jack Thompson on Puffham.” Years later reminiscing about the brumby galloper that gave him his first break in life, Smith recalled: “Bragger was a great horse. He did not race until he was a January five-year-old and he was lame most of the time. He bled after practically every race, yet he raced until he was ten. He had 58 starts, won 13, was runner-up 9 times and won me £8,666 in prizemoney, a hell of a lot of money in those days. If I could have trained him properly, he would have been even better, a weight-for-age winner for certain. I was learning to train in those days and I must admit that I slaughtered him at times. And don’t forget that there were no midweek meetings and only three Saturday fixtures a month in the war years.”
In his last two seasons on the Turf, Bragger won four principal races viz. in 1945 the N.J.C. Cameron Handicap and S.T.C. Rosehill Cup; and in 1946 the A.J.C. June Stakes and the S.T.C. Railway Quality Handicap. He was a tough old horse too! Smith remembered Bragger bleeding in the 1946 Grafton Cup, within a fortnight of turning ten. Yet Smith freshened him up and three weeks later he landed some good bets when he carried 9st. 3lb to win the Accountants’ Handicap at Randwick at 8/1 with George Moore in the saddle. It is sad to recall the manner of Bragger’s demise. It came as a result of the gelding being severely burned when the horse float in which he was travelling along Parramatta Rd at Auburn, caught fire when he was returning from a spell at Richmond. Despite being given penicillin and blood transfusions, Bragger failed to respond and was put down three weeks after the accident by the veterinary surgeon, Roy Stewart. I might just mention here that when Tommy Smith won his thirtieth successive Sydney trainers’ premiership in the 1981-82 season, his wife Valerie presented him with a portrait of Bragger which she had specially commissioned in recognition of the achievement.
In any successful career, there are moments that in retrospect can be seen to have been seminal. One such moment came for Tom when he secured the rich and successful Ernest Robert Williams as a client. Williams will loom large in his own right in this Derby chronicle, but in 1942 when Tom first got to know him, he was on the threshold of his big push into racing. Williams owned the high-priced Kookaburra, the horse that Bragger had defeated at Rosehill when the reformed outlaw broke through for his first win. Some weeks later, Williams put Kookaburra on the market and Smith negotiated personally with the businessman to buy him. From an early age, Smith had learnt that modesty was a virtue not well worn in public and he expatiated at length to Williams on his ability to get the best out of a thoroughbred. Whereas Kookaburra had disappointed in his earlier career, like most horses that came into Smith’s orbit, he improved markedly upon a change of trainer.
Williams was impressed with the transformation and was one of the very first men to discern Tom’s remarkable gift for training racehorses. Smith looked up to the older, successful man and did his best to ingratiate himself with Williams, who became something of a role model for Smith. The co-founder of Woolworths’ stores in Sydney, Williams could afford to indulge his racing hobby and kept horses with a number of leading trainers. Always on the lookout for emerging talent, Williams immediately transferred Bright Spot, an older tried horse to Smith and over the next few years arranged for Tom to buy yearlings on his behalf both at the Sydney Sales and in New Zealand. Williams enjoyed some measure of success in the mid to late 1940s with horses trained by Tom including the likes of Bright Spot, Staunch and Rotten Row, albeit generally in restricted races. And while in the years ahead Tom would eventually train some high-class thoroughbreds to carry the Williams’ livery, the founder of Woolworths squandered the chance to own the first of Smith’s many winners of the blue riband.
It was with Williams in mind that Smith attended the 1948 Sydney Yearling Sales, where he paid 4300 guineas for five yearlings, including two chestnut colts by the English stallion, The Buzzard. Bred in 1926 by the English Derby winner, Spion Kop, himself a grandson of Carbine, The Buzzard was imported into Australia in 1930 by Queensland studmaster, Mr J. G. McDougall, for his Lyndhurst Stud at Warwick. A well-performed galloper, he held the world record for a mile-and-a-half of 2 minutes 23 seconds set in Newmarket, England in 1929, although it wasn’t universally recognised because it had been hand-timed. Funnily enough, when racing in England the horse had been called The Bastard, but Australian racing authorities were so abashed that a change was insisted upon when he came to our shores. I believe that Lord Rosebery, who raced him in England, named the colt after a famous French soldier, one Jean Comte de Dunois. This soldier was a natural son of Louis, Duc d’Orleans. He was known as The Bastard of Orleans, as any reference to French history will show. Indifferent to the brouhaha surrounding his name and despite the restricted opportunities available in Queensland during the Depression years, The Buzzard quickly established himself as a wonderful sire of stayers – arguably one of the best brought to this country. He sired the winners of two Melbourne Cups, two Caulfield Cups, two Sydney Cups and four Brisbane Cups, as well as those two very classy horses, Yaralla and Katanga.
By the late 1940s, The Buzzard was very much in the evening of his career, but Tom Smith was looking for a likely stayer among the yearlings on offer, and he figured the old stallion of Lyndhurst gave him his best chance of getting one. Smith paid 1150 guineas for the chestnut colt from the Fox Earth (imp.) mare, Home Bird, the only foal of his dam, as she died without breeding again after producing him. Smith had bought the colt on spec, liking both his sire line and his strong physique and intended him for Ernie Williams. But when Tom telephoned Williams and offered him the youngster, Williams declined, citing the slow maturing nature of The Buzzard stock. The young trainer, in turn, offered the youngster to three other people but they, too, declined, and in the end, Smith decided to keep the horse to race himself. Tom was thirty-one, single, and a gay blade about town at the time, and so decided to name the colt after himself – Playboy.
As behoved his breeding, Smith brought the colt along slowly, giving him just four outings as a juvenile. His first public appearance was delayed until early January 1949, when, with George Moore as his partner, Playboy ran unplaced at Randwick. He was then eased up and brought back in April for the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting. Smith got his first monetary return on the colt in the George Rowe Handicap (7f) on the Wednesday of that meeting when Playboy ran third, beaten a nose and a half head at 100/1. Backing good horses up quickly in races when they were fit and well, would become something of an art form for Smith in the years ahead, but it got its first public expression on the fourth day of that 1949 Randwick Autumn Meeting. The race was the Fernhill Handicap, the first mile-race of the season for two-year-olds. Playboy had been set for the race, and in his second run in four days, with 7st 12lb and Neville Sellwood up, he ran second beaten three lengths by Mona’s Choice, a Mr Standfast filly trained by Dan Lewis that gave the colt 19lb in weight. Playboy was a little unlucky having met with some interference, and upon dismounting, Sellwood confirmed Smith’s good opinion of the youngster. Perhaps on paper, it didn’t seem the most promising of Derby trials given the weight differential and the winning margin, but Playboy’s pedigree and the fact that he was a big, strong colt yet to grow into his frame inspired Smith to prepare him for the blue riband. Accordingly, the horse was immediately turned out for his winter spell.
It was while Playboy was in the spelling paddock that there emerged the colt destined to start as the A.J.C. Derby favourite, and ultimately prove to be the best horse of his year. The two-year-old in question was Delta, a handsome brown colt by Midstream trained at Randwick by Maurice McCarten for Adolph Basser. The colt had been purchased at the same Sydney Yearling Sales that Smith bought Playboy. Basser, unlike Smith, had unlimited cash to spend on horseflesh but restricted himself to bidding for three expensive yearlings at those sales costing an aggregate sum of 9200 guineas. The Midstream colt from Gazza was the ‘cheapest’ of the trio at 2600 guineas. Basser was then just setting out on a decade or so of lavish expenditure on yearlings that would see him emerge as one of the leading owners in Australia. Ironically, Basser might well have acquired Playboy at those sales. As a yearling, Playboy appealed to trainer Tim Brosnan, who had a commission to buy on behalf of Basser and had the colt’s dam been by any other sire than Foxearth (imp.) Brosnan would probably have trumped Smith in the bidding. There, in such tenuous coincidences and circumstances lies much of the charm of the Turf.
Adolph (Abraham) Basser was one of the most extraordinary and generous characters ever to colour the Australian Turf and provides an interesting contrast to Tom Smith. Unlike Smith, he was born into a bourgeois family in Cracow, Poland, in 1887; his father died when he was only ten. Intelligent and hard-working, he left school at fifteen but continued his education with private tutors and was trained in Berlin as an optometrist and instrument maker. At the age of twenty, he decided to migrate to Australia to join his half-brother Isadore at Lithgow. Ambitious and energetic, he became a travelling salesman journeying about rural N.S.W. by train and horse and buggy, selling spectacles to settlers in isolated areas. Within five years he had established a sizeable practice. By 1910 he was practising as an optician in Challis House, Sydney, in conjunction with yet another of his half-brothers. On the side, he speculated in real estate and continued to accumulate.
By 1921 he was a partner in a manufacturing jewellers’ business in Clarence St in the city. It was in December 1928 that he took the step that eventually led to a massive accretion in his wealth. Basser formed a proprietary company to buy out one of his major customers, the large Sydney manufacturing jewellers, Saunders Ltd, established in a large three-storied building in Railway Square. Basser maintained his office within the building, and as managing director, he quickly expanded the business. Whereas the Depression was responsible for the collapse of many businesses, under the shrewd stewardship of Basser, the Depression served to enhance his wealth. As other jewellery firms faltered under the crumbling economic times, he bought their stock at reduced prices, held sales, and realised handsome profits. In 1931 he acquired a competing firm and then proceeded to open branch stores displaying ‘the finest in jewellery and gifts’ on the corners of Liverpool and Pitt Streets in 1933 and King and Pitt Streets in 1935. Immediately after World War Two, the business boomed and in 1948 Saunders Ltd was registered as a public company.
It was therefore in the full flourish of wealth that Basser attended those 1948 Sydney Yearling Sales. His passion for racing had first been awakened in 1916 when a brother-in-law of his was dabbling in a few ordinary gallopers on the pony tracks of Victoria Park and Kensington. One of his early ventures as an owner was with a mare called Night of Love, which he bought in Melbourne. Always an admirer of Jim Pike he gave her to Jim to train when he was first trying to make the transition from the saddle, and it was one of the two horses with which Pike started. Basser enjoyed a little success with her although he derived more satisfaction when as a matron he sent her to the stud to be mated with Hua. The resultant foal was Lady Charming, which subsequently won a race at Randwick in Basser’s colours; she got an even better one in the ill-fated French Cavalier that would have given Basser the 1951 Epsom, but for breaking a leg as he was about to take the lead.
Basser never really did go in for breeding though, always preferring to get his stock from the auction ring. He raced quite a few horses with Jack Jamieson in his later years, and when that trainer retired, and Maurice McCarten took over his establishment in May 1942, he left his horses there. It was to be the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration in which Neville Sellwood in due course was to emerge as the third integral player. Although over the years his colours of ‘brown and dark blue hoops, and red cap’ would become famous with horses such as Indian Empire, Empire Link, Happy Kingdom, Lord Forest and My Kingdom, it was the champion, Delta, with which they will always be associated.
When Adolph Basser bid 2600 guineas to secure Delta at the 1948 sales, the relatively high price had more to do with the conformation of the colt and the reputation of his sire, Midstream, than any pretensions of his dam, Gazza, as a performer on the racecourse. At the time of the sales, Midstream was enjoying his most successful season in Australia and would head the winning sires’ list for the first time in that year of 1947-48. Mrs Doll Clayton, that well-known woman of the Turf, raced Gazza. She obtained a two-year lease on the Magpie filly when only a yearling from Kia-ora studmaster, Percy Miller. As we have seen in the case of Miller’s purchase of Idle Words, he was keen to retain Magpie fillies given the reputation his foundation stallion was forging as a sire of broodmares. Doll Clayton didn’t have much luck with Gazza but believed the filly was just coming to hand when the lease expired. She sought an extension, but Miller churlishly refused. It seemed that the Kia-ora studmaster was upset because on one occasion the lady lessee had raced Gazza twice in successive races on the same day at Moorefield. That, and the fact that she was responsible for an accident to jockey Bill Cook at the barrier one day at Warwick Farm in April 1936, were the only distinguishing features of Gazza’s career on the Turf. She was, however, a half-sister to the granddam of Tea Rose, and suggested promise as a broodmare.
Delta is one of those rare Derby favourites – at least rare in those days – to emerge during winter racing. He won his first race in late May, a six-furlong Maiden at Canterbury, and followed it up with a nice win in a restricted handicap at Randwick less than two weeks later. McCarten eased him in his work after one more race, and he made his three-year-old debut in the Hobartville Stakes; although he ran unplaced as the equal favourite in the race won by the outsider, Chastise, trained by Tommy Smith. Delta first zoomed into Derby calculations with a barnstorming finish to win the Canterbury Guineas after the McCarten stable’s coterie of punters had helped themselves to some generous odds in the ring. Delta’s final Derby trial came in the Rosehill Guineas when the colt ran a useful second to Thracian Lad. Meanwhile, Playboy had come to hand rather sluggishly and slowly in his Derby campaign. His long winter coat and his bulking frame suggested he would require plenty of work, but during the weeks of winter Tommy’s pride and joy had matured into a powerful individual.
After three unplaced runs over relatively unsuitable distances, Playboy’s first glimpse of form came in a mixed stakes event at Rosehill over ten furlongs just two weeks before the Derby. Weighted with only 7 st. 7lb and ridden by Neville Sellwood, he ran third beaten about a half-length. Smith had preferred the event to the Rosehill Guineas run on the same card and over the same distance. Although only a mixed stake, history would show that the two horses that finished in front of Playboy that day were good-class gallopers. The winner, Benvolo, later that spring would be placed in the Melbourne Cup, while the runner-up, Sir Falcon, would win the next Sydney Cup. Moreover, the time for the event was a second faster than Thracian Lad, had taken to win the Rosehill Guineas. Smith knew that he had a serious Derby candidate even if the bookmakers didn’t share his opinion. He still had two weeks to work on the big strapping chestnut and was confident that he hadn’t yet got to the bottom of him. Although he had specked Playboy in Derby betting during the winter, on the Monday following the Rosehill race, Smith ventured into Tattersall’s Club and backed the colt, which was still a maiden, to win more than £25,000 at rather liberal odds.
The 1949 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions are set out in the table below:
Perhaps nothing better demonstrated the unprecedented post-war boom that racing was enjoying than the fact that a record field of twenty horses accepted for the Derby, run that year before an estimated crowd of 72,000 people. The intermittent rain had delivered up a holding surface and Delta after opening at 3/1 in Derby betting on course, firmed to start a 2/1 favourite. Second elect was Achilles, trained by Frank McGrath for A.J.C. committeeman, Tom Baillieu, a nephew of ‘Prince’ Baillieu who had raced Ajax, the horse’s sire. Achilles had run a very close second to Columnist in the Chelmsford Stakes before chasing home Vagabond in the rain-postponed Hill Stakes at Rosehill, run that year on the Wednesday before Derby Day. The third fancy was Dickens, a son of the imported stallion Genetout, carrying the colours of Frank Packer and trained by Charlie Cullen. Dickens was stoutly bred, and it was thought that the muddling pace of the Rosehill Guineas had told against him when third to the Dan Lewis-trained Thracian Lad, a gelding and thus ineligible to run in the Derby.
Dickens had topped-off his Derby preparation with a close third in the Hill Stakes, a neck behind Achilles. Jack Thompson, who had the choice of mounts between Achilles and Dickens, opted for the latter, which saw leading Queensland rider, Morgan, secure the ride on Achilles. Neither horse had been done any favours in the barrier draw – Achilles (16) and Dickens (18) were both starting off the track. The weight of money saw Playboy’s price firm on the course from 16/1 to 10/1 as fielders off-loaded some of their pre-post betting liabilities on the maiden galloper. Victoria was well represented in the race with the colts, Centurion, Patron, Birdman and Better Law and each received support in the ring. The A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes winner, Field Boy, prepared by Peter Lawson, a one-time strong fancy for the race was freely quoted at 33/1 on the strength of disappointing form; while Purple Prince, a son of Talking, represented owner-trainer Alan Cooper in the race. Apart from Delta, Adolph Basser had a second string to his bow in Clive, a 3200 guineas yearling who was trying to emulate the effort of his full brother, Valiant Crown, and was trained by the veteran, Tim Brosnan. It is interesting to observe that Harry Darwon, Tom Smith’s former overseer, also trained a starter in Brother Arthur.
As often happens in a big field, the race proved to be a roughhouse affair with neither Delta nor Playboy enjoying the smoothest of passages. Dickens was a clear leader after the first two furlongs, although there was a severe scrimmage as the big field went out of the straight the first time with Delta a significant victim. There was something of a chain reaction, and a furlong later Moore was almost bumped out of the saddle on Playboy when Nerscot fell back, and the son of The Buzzard was again buffeted at the seven. Meanwhile, Billy Briscoe partnering Field Boy had assumed the lead from Dickens, and after being two lengths clear at the mile, Field Boy was allowed to run along so freely over the next half-mile that he was fifteen lengths in front at the four from Dickens and Birdman. By this time Moore had elected to pull Playboy to the outside and dashed up to be third nearing the straight, in a manoeuvre that probably won him the race. He then remained clear of trouble and afforded the big chestnut the opportunity to use his long stride and come into the contest at a time of his choosing. On the other hand, Sellwood and Delta were delayed at a crucial stage. Field Boy was done with soon after turning for home, leaving Dickens in front but the first demands of the journey from his wide draw left him easy prey for Playboy, who took the lead just inside the distance and finished off the race like a genuine stayer.
As a roar came plunging down from the grandstands an unlucky Delta flashed up on the inside rail in the shadows of the post to get within three-quarters of a length of the winner, with Dickens filling the minor placing. Smith had staked his all. And won! Now the ability to relax is almost a prerequisite for a high-class stayer, and the cernuous Playboy was about as laid back as they come. Immediately after the race, Smith quipped to surrounding pressmen: “All this fellow wants to do is sleep and eat. The rest is up to me. He was sound asleep and had to be kicked out of the straw at lunchtime to be brought to the course.” Now, let me say this. It is an egalitarian fiction that great men are modest. They aren’t. As Smith basked in the glory, attired in a stylish new fedora and a double-breasted suit whose pattern was distinctly audible at twenty paces, one of the pressmen leant over the railing and observed: “I believe you’re destined for great things.” Smith, without a trace of irony, replied: “Yes, so do I.”
That Derby represented the first of the hundreds of rich races that would be won by Smith-trained horses ridden by George Moore, in what would become the dominant partnership on the Australian Turf over the next thirty years. The pair had first made each other’s acquaintance on board a Melbourne-bound train in the spring of 1939 when they found themselves in charge of horses travelling to the spring meetings. Moore was then only a lad of sixteen, while Tommy was seven years older. But they were both impecunious. Moore had travelled to Sydney from Brisbane with horses owned and trained by the colourful Alan Cooper, and his master, Jim Shean. At that time Moore had yet to enjoy many race rides at all. The train stopped at Wagga where Tom Smith joined it, travelling to the southern capital with Fearless and another horse owned by Mack Sawyer.
In Melbourne, the pair found that their lodgings were in adjoining stables, Smith in Pat Quinlan’s and Moore in Cecil Godby’s establishment. During games of cards and cricket to while away the hours, Tommy boasted to the other strappers that one day he would be leading trainer and Moore would be leading jockey and that together they would win the Derby. Now it had all come true. Moore’s first ride for Smith had come three years later when he partnered Urgent Rate, an outsider in the 1942 Gimcrack Stakes that Smith won with another filly, Ajixa. It wasn’t until April 1946 that the jockey won his first race for Smith when he was successful on Bragger at Rosehill. A rare photograph survives of that occasion with Moore posing for the camera as he unsaddles the horse while Tommy in the unfamiliar role of strapper, is busy with the bridle. It isn’t unusual for a jockey to christen his house after the name of his first Derby winner. Only three months before his victory on Playboy, George had married Iris, and rather understandably the young bride was none too keen on such a name for their new marital home.
Delta proved much the superior colt in Melbourne during that spring of 1949, winning both the W.S. Cox Plate and the Victoria Derby, before running a respectable fifth in the Melbourne Cup. Playboy, on the other hand, seemed to lose form after his hard run in the A.J.C. Derby, finishing well behind Delta at Moonee Valley and Flemington, before ending his campaign with an eleventh in the Cup itself. By the time Playboy came back into serious work in the autumn, Smith had moved premises. Working out of Todman Avenue before the 1949 A.J.C. Derby, he was flush with money after it, and in December 1949 he negotiated to take over the late Frank Marsden’s old stables at No 16 Bowral Street, Kensington. Tommy regarded it as quite a coup as the crusty chairman of the A.J.C., Alan Potter, had long cast a covetous eye over the location, but the young trainer with ready cash was too quick for him. It was to remain the Smith family’s stables for the rest of his life and beyond.
When one looks back on that season, there was pronounced symmetry in the results of the three-year-old classics. In the autumn, Delta added the red riband of the V.R.C. St Leger to match the blue riband of his V.R.C. Derby; Playboy did the same thing at Randwick by annexing the St. Leger there. Their respective St. Leger clashes were the last time the two met that season. At Flemington, Delta was ruthless, when, with odds of four to one laid on him, he trotted up by eight lengths from Playboy. Sellwood lacked vigour on that occasion, or the margin could have been much greater. Perhaps it wasn’t Playboy’s true running as he had been troubled by an abscess in the jaw during his Melbourne stay. A month later at Randwick, he gave the lie to that performance when he easily relegated Dickens and Delta to the minor placings in the A.J.C. St. Leger, Delta trailing in some fourteen lengths behind the winner. When he won that A.J.C. St. Leger, Playboy was temporarily leased to well-known owner Len Wooldridge who found himself in the fortunate position of having a classic winner in his first foray into the ownership ranks. As the season ended, there was little difference in the cumulative earnings of the two horses, Delta’s totalling £14,010 compared to Playboy’s £14,249, with the faint suspicion that Delta was a much better horse in Melbourne.
In the light of Delta’s later domination of the Australian Turf, particularly in his sweeping five-year-old season that saw him win eleven of his fourteen starts, highlighted by carrying 9 st. 5lb to victory in both The Metropolitan and the Melbourne Cup, it is easy to forget just what a good-class horse Playboy was. While he now tends to be remembered merely as the maiden that won Tommy Smith his first Derby and kick-started a legend, he won some good weight-for-age races as well, including the Hill Stakes, Craven Plate, C.B. Fisher Plate, King’s Plate and A.J.C. Plate as a four-year-old. In fact, at the end of their four-year-old season, Playboy had won only one less race and significantly more money, than Delta. It was a four-year-old season that was most notable for the headlines generated during a controversial spring in Melbourne. It started when Playboy, partnered by George Moore, won the Caulfield Stakes only to lose it in the stewards’ room; and then came the Melbourne Cup when Darby Munro pulled the horse up, believing him to have broken down. Smith knew otherwise and four days later – substituting Jack Purtell at the last minute for an irate Munro – he backed the horse up to win the Fisher Plate from Delta, amidst a chorus of booing from racegoers who had watched the horse supported in the ring from sixes into threes.
In retrospect, much of Playboy’s career on the racecourse might be seen as a template for T.J. Smith’s modus operandi in the years ahead. In common with most Smith-trained horses, Playboy experienced an arduous life. Few of the good horses that race on the last day of the V.R.C. Spring Meeting are asked to confront the starter again as early as January. Yet the four-year-old Playboy was brought back as soon as that in a campaign that saw him start twice in Sydney before going south to win the King’s Plate and run second in the Carbine Stakes (2 ¼ miles) at Flemington. Returned to Sydney, Smith then started Playboy on each of the four days of the 1951 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting – four times in the space of seven days culminating with a 15-length victory in the A.J.C. Plate. Even then the chestnut wasn’t sent to the paddocks but was taken to Queensland for the Brisbane Cup and other races. “Racehorses are meant to race” was Tommy’s philosophy and it was hard to argue against in the light of his phenomenal record.
Still, iron-horse that he was, Playboy afterwards experienced problems. A blood disorder forced Smith to give his Derby winner a long spell that cost him much of his five-year-old season and when he did finally resume it was with somewhat indifferent form. A suspect suspensory ligament saw him retired from the racecourse in March 1952; and by then George Ryder part-owned the chestnut stallion, having secured a half-interest on behalf of Woodlands Stud. Their intention at the time of purchase was to race the horse for a season or two and then stand him at Woodlands. But the chestnut’s unexpected breakdown prompted a revision of plans as the stud at the time had a surfeit of stallions and Playboy was ultimately sold to New Zealand interests. Throughout his life, Smith was the least sentimental of men, and horses were only ever commodities to be raced or traded. Although Playboy was the horse that had given him his first Derby and set the bandwagon rolling, there was never any hesitation about selling when the price was right. After all, Tom now had an extensive clientele of wealthy owners that included men such as Dave Chrystal and George Ryder, and, as we shall see, he would never look back.
Before I leave this chapter, allow me a word about the subsequent careers of some of the other horses in that 1949 Derby. Delta ultimately proved to be the best horse to come out of the race. The patience that McCarten showed in foregoing an autumn campaign with the brown horse as a four-year-old paid off in that memorable five-year-old season previously mentioned. As a six-year-old, Delta appeared only briefly, winning the Chelmsford Stakes for the third year in succession and in Australian record time, beating Hydrogen by four lengths. The horse broke down on the eve of the 1952 A.J.C. Spring Meeting and his much-anticipated clashes with the New Zealand champion, Dalray, then at the zenith of his powers. Although McCarten attempted to train him later in the autumn, Delta failed to stand a preparation, and in February 1953 Adolph Basser announced that he had sold the son of Midstream to Frank Thompson and Widden Stud for an undisclosed sum. In 41 race starts, Delta won 22 races and £48,169 in prize money. Delta remained Neville Sellwood’s favourite horse, and it was no accident that the jockey named his Coogee home, ‘Deltaville’. Adolph Basser could have obtained more money for his favourite on the American market as a stallion but wanted the pleasure of seeing the horse’s progeny race in Australia.
Basser was also the most enthusiastic buyer when the first of Delta’s progeny was offered at the Easter Sales in April 1956. On his behalf, McCarten paid 3200 guineas for a chestnut colt from Scottish Rake and 1900 guineas for a yearling from Ajixa. Neither went within a mile of returning their purchase price although the Ajixa yearling, registered as Saima, as a three-year-old became the first of Delta’s progeny to win in the metropolitan area. Alas, Delta, like most of the Midstream stallions, proved most disappointing at stud and managed to get only a handful of moderate metropolitan winners before dying suddenly at Widden in February 1960 on the eve of being sold to a New Zealand breeder. Ironically, the one horse out of the 1949 A.J.C. Derby field to enjoy success at stud was Achilles, who, by coincidence, also stood at Widden. Although the Derby distance had proved beyond him, Achilles later distinguished himself on the racecourse by winning the 1950 Epsom. He got some useful winners at stud including the Anniversary Handicap winner, Icarus, and that iron horse of the early 1960s, Grecian Vale. Dickens, the minor place-getter in the A.J.C. Derby of 1949 had a very short career. He proved his class when he beat Delta at weight-for-age in the Rawson Stakes at Rosehill as an autumn three-year-old, but as a spring four-year-old he crashed to the ground with three other horses at the home turn in the Epsom won by Achilles, and was subsequently destroyed.