1966 represented something of an annus horribilis for the A.J.C. insofar as public relations were concerned. As we have seen, the sport of horse-racing had gradually lost its attraction for the masses in the 1950s, a trend that accelerated during the decade of the ‘swinging sixties’ – a time of massive cultural and social revolution. It was a time of distortion and upheaval in existing habits and traditions; a time of change which crumbled the cement of old standards into disused rubble and where the fissures between the old and the new generations widened. A permissive rather than a repressive age, it moved to the sound of a new beat. Perhaps it was no coincidence then, that 1966 was also the year the famous nightclub, Romano’s, so inextricably linked with the fast and the loose of the racing set, closed its doors for the last time. The end came so suddenly that hardly anybody knew it, although the saddest part was that hardly anybody cared. The eponymous institution established by “Azzalin the Dazzlin’” and located in Castlereagh Street, next to the Prince Edward Theatre and opposite the Hotel Australia since 1938, had been Sydney’s most exclusive and ritziest restaurant-cum-nightclub during the years of the war and the decade or so after it. But by 1964 even its founder had to reluctantly concede that the music and mood of Sydney had altered. The famous nightspot changed hands to linger on for just two years more.
However, unlike Azzalin Romano, not everybody picked up on the changing soundtrack. Many of the older generations found the new mood and music struck a discordant note and tried to block it out: none more so than the committee of the A.J.C. A group of men caught in the grips of misoneism, resistant to change at the best of times, as race crowds plummeted and revenues fell, a less compliant sporting press often questioned the collective judgements of these smug trustees charged with the stewardship of the sport. Too often the committee’s response was haughty and imperious. Such behaviour reached its reductio ad absurdum during the first week of April. On the eve of the club’s autumn carnival, the A.J.C. committee, under the chairmanship of Brian Crowley, took the remarkable decision to bar the Daily Mirror’s racing columnist, Pat Farrell, from access to the members’ enclosures of Randwick and Warwick Farm. Let it be said that Crowley was a man whose absence of frivolity and strict though admirable moral qualities were unrelieved by much personal charm. The particular article to which he and his reactionary colleagues objected had been published on February 16 and alleged that the A.J.C. had resisted attempts by the S.T.C. for, and had refused consultation on, stewards’ control of metropolitan meetings. Crowley insisted the story was untrue and had no substance.
No denial, no retraction, and certainly no apology was forthcoming from the populist tabloid. Instead, the shrewd and youthful 35-year-old owner of the Daily Mirror, Rupert Murdoch, saw a target too good to miss in the A.J.C. committee, particularly given that one of its ten members happened to be Sir Frank Packer, a rival newspaper proprietor and Australia’s richest media baron. In an editorial accompanied by photographs of all ten committeemen, but an especially large one of Sir Frank sartorially resplendent in top hat and tails, the newspaper fulminated at this “act of astonishing pettiness”. It argued that the offensive article relating to stewards was more the occasion than the cause of the committee’s ban on the said journalist. The truth was that Pat Farrell had been a captious critic of the club over the previous two years and had consistently targeted a range of issues. These included the stewards’ control of race meetings; the club’s failure to administer racing in the public interest; the poor standard of racecourse amenities for the public; and various unjust decisions at the committee level. The editorial continued:
“With the introduction of the T.A.B. racing has become a multi-million-dollar business. Fifty years ago, it was a nice game run by the rich for the rich. The A.J.C. has retained this ancient attitude and invests itself with an autonomy no longer valid. What is really wanted is a government-appointed Racing Control Board through which racing can be administered by the people for the people. Today it is run by an arrogant group of men who still believe the administration of racing is really an exclusive preserve for themselves and their polo-playing mates from Dungog and Scone. Such a situation should not be allowed to continue.”
The A.J.C. committee had failed to heed the oldest and truest cliché in journalism: never get into a pissing match with any man who buys ink by the barrel. In truth, it was a petty dispute of comic opera proportions, neither worthy of the great club nor of the man who was then its chairman; a silly corruption of power the likes of which had more often been seen across footlights and orchestra to the strains of Offenbach. It was made even more ridiculous when those trade unions with members employed by the A.J.C. and S.T.C. supported the Australian Journalists Association in its stand. Farrell lost no opportunity in his regular Mirror column to continually ridicule the pompous guardians of the Turf over the weeks that the ban lasted before a truce of sorts was eventually called. No sooner had that bit of silliness been put to rest than another came up to test the judgement of Brian Crowley and the cohesion of his committee.
The Daily Telegraph, one of two, morning newspapers in Sydney, and owned by committeeman, Sir Frank Packer, decided to take a very public stand against the whipping of racehorses. The campaign had first been fired up by the rather vigorous ride of jockey Bill Camer on Immortal Son at Randwick a few weeks before. It was the sort of distraction that newspapers come up with on a slow news day, but what disturbed not a few A.J.C. committeemen was that it was one of their own who was promoting it. Sir Frank Packer championing the cause of sensitivity and restraint in any field struck many as somewhat novel behaviour, somewhat akin, perhaps, to Sonny Liston taking up ballet. Eventually, the campaign ran out of puff with no real change to the whip action of jockeys, but for a few weeks, it brought unwanted headlines to a sport already suffering from a deficiency of public confidence.
Perhaps the one bright spot for both the A.J.C. and N.S.W. racing, in general, was the spectacular growth of the T.A.B. and the cash benefits that were beginning to flow to the industry. As we have seen, when the Jolly Green Giant opened its doors to business for the first time in December 1964, just six suburban branches were operational with no facilities at all for telephone betting. By the end of June 1965, the number of branches had burgeoned to thirty-four, and with telephone betting available from May 1965 the T.A.B. reported a first half-year turnover of £5,637,912. In December 1965, at the end of its first full year of off-course operations, T.A.B. turnover had climbed to £16,677,485. The fat one was on its way! With the continuous expansion of branches and the State Government legislating to permit the publication of pre-post prices for race meetings, T.A.B. revenues continued to flourish with a turnover in the 1965-66 financial year of $60,656,244.
The promise of bigger prize money as a result of windfall T.A.B. revenues flowing to the racing industry had an immediate impact. Over the four days of the William Inglis Yearling Sales in April 1965, just months after T.A.B. operations had begun, 574 yearlings were sold for a record aggregate of 700,375 guineas. The average price of 1220-guineas was more than 14% higher than the year before and John Inglis, the auction firm’s principal, was unequivocal in attributing the increase to the introduction of the T.A.B. There remained problems and issues, of course, and not everybody was enamoured of T.A.B. operations. One issue that had rankled with the public from the start was the lack of minimum-win dividends that would show punters a profit. Many relatively new punters had suffered the ignominy of backing a winner only to have some officious tote clerk hand back the very money bet on it. In early 1966 the N.S.W. Government initiated moves to remedy this inequity. After all, it could certainly afford to when one considered the 12 ½ % that was sliced off the top of tote pools by the Government, the totalisator companies and the race clubs!
The 1965-66 racing season proved a fascinating one for juveniles although the outstanding ones were hardly Derby prospects, thereby extrapolating a trend that had become apparent in recent years. The outstanding two-year-old turned out to be a filly, Storm Queen, who won every feature race she contested and only tasted defeat in the first of her nine starts that season.
A dark bay of medium size but possessed of powerful hindquarters, Storm Queen was a daughter of the South Australian stallion, Coronation Boy, out of Storm Gleam and had been bred by Jim Cummings, the famous old-time trainer that had guided Comic Court’s fortunes. It was upon the death of Jim Cummings that the filly passed on to his son Pat, an Adelaide civil servant, and brother of Bart, who trained the horse and was then in the first flush of that remarkable career that would span more than fifty years. Storm Queen’s haul included the V.A.T.C. Merson Cooper Stakes, V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes, S.T.C. Golden Slipper Stakes and the A.J.C. Champagne Stakes. That she could win at Caulfield, Flemington, Rosehill and Randwick emphasised her adaptability, and she ended the season with prizemoney of $59,620, which easily eclipsed the previous record held by Eskimo Prince. I might mention that Australia had switched to decimal currency on the 14th February 1966, and for comparative purposes, the pound converted to two dollars.
The only two-year-old race of any significance that Storm Queen didn’t win was the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes, for which she wasn’t entered. It was a curious omission given that including the winning breeder’s bonus, it remained a more valuable prize than the Golden Slipper Stakes, although not for much longer. In her absence, the race fell to Prince Max, a big, strong son of the first season stallion Renegade. It came as no surprise that when the weights for the Free Handicap were released as at August 1st, Storm Queen topped the list with 9 st. 5lb with Prince Max, Matariki and Academy Star all sharing the second rating of 9 st. 3lb. It was becoming increasingly apparent that as a guide to the Derby, the Free Handicap was largely irrelevant, being dominated by the more precocious juveniles boasting sprinting pedigrees. As we shall see, only one of the top six rated two-year-olds as per the Free Handicap made it into the A.J.C. Derby field while the actual winner wasn’t even rated.
Eight days after Storm Queen’s sensational Golden Slipper victory came news of the death of Darby Munro. Australia’s champion jockey of the 1930s and 1940s had died in Sydney Hospital from a cerebral haemorrhage. He was just fifty-three. Darby’s last win in the A.J.C. Derby had been aboard Main Topic in 1942 while his last ride in the race had been aboard the unplaced Compound in 1953. The great man had finally relinquished his A.J.C. jockey’s licence in June 1955. Within a fortnight of surrendering his jockey’s licence, the A.J.C. had granted him a No 1 trainer’s licence thereby affording him the privilege of training at Randwick. The club throughout its history had granted few No. 1 training licences to former jockeys upon their first application although others included Maurice McCarten, Jim Pike, Billy Fellows and Stan Lamond. Jim Munro, although a No. 1 licence holder at the time of Darby’s accession, had only been given a No. 2 ticket when he first relinquished his saddle. Darby only enjoyed moderate success in his new vocation. He wasn’t the first leading jockey who switched professions in the Sport of Kings only to discover that those effusive promises of patronage from owners for whom he’d previously ridden successfully, proved empty as a trainer.
Nonetheless, Darby led in his first winning horse as a trainer in March 1956 at Newcastle when Midswell won the Flying Handicap when ridden by Teddy Doon. His first city success never came until January 1957 when he won the first race at Canterbury Park, a two-year-old maiden handicap with Lelspec, ridden by George Moore. Lelspec, a full sister to the Doomben Ten Thousand winner, Teranyan, that Munro had bought as a yearling for his future wife, Kath Frauenfelder, was about the only horse Munro had in his stable at the time. In the late 1950s, Darby trained the useful Hurry By, although perhaps his best horses were the smart sprinter Port Fair, a daughter of Port Vista, with whom he won The A.J.C. Shorts in 1963; and that good welter performer Gold Fiddle. At the time of his death, Munro’s stables just happened to shelter a very promising unraced stayer named General Command. It would have given Munro immense satisfaction to know that after his departure the horse’s training would be taken over by his loyal stable foreman, Billy Wilson, who would go on to win both the A.J.C. Metropolitan Handicap and Sydney Cup as well as some good weight-for-age races before the horse was lost to Bart Cummings.
The closing years of Munro’s life hadn’t been easy and in 1964 his left leg was amputated because of diabetes. More than two thousand mourners shared tears and memories when they attended Munro’s funeral on Tuesday, April 5, 1966. It was one of the biggest funerals Australian racing had seen in years. Over seven hundred people packed into the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church in Avoca St, Randwick for the Requiem Mass. Many hundreds more thronged the streets and footpaths for hundreds of yards on each side of the church. Productivity came to a standstill in most of Randwick as shop owners and their assistants went onto the footpath to witness the long funeral cortege move from the church to Randwick cemetery. Pallbearers were the famous jockeys Fred Shean, Billy Cook, Ted Bartle and Jack O’Sullivan. Among the many prominent citizens in attendance was the former Governor-General, Sir William McKell. Twice divorced, Munro was survived by his third wife Kathleen and by two daughters from his second marriage.
But back to the main theme of this chapter. The real talking horse of the 1966 A.J.C. Derby didn’t emerge until mid-June, and when he did, he came in the massive shape of a brown gelding by the Pinza stallion, Rawalpindi, out of the good producing mare, Festive Air. Named Garcon, the gelding broke through at the fifth time of trying in a seven-furlong handicap for juveniles at Rosehill from a big field on a surface that was officially described as dead. Garcon was owned by the prominent breeder and long-time client of Tulloch Lodge, David Chrystal junior, who, with his father, David Chrystal senior, and George Ryder, had for some years been the principal partners in the Woodlands Stud. The Chrystal family owed much of their good fortune to their company that made ‘Chrystal’ shirts. Over the years together with George Ryder, they had raced many good horses including Jan, Tarien, Grand Stream, Churra, Sea Sovereign, Apple Bay, Victory Flight, Adelina and Candy Floss. Many of these were imported mares that the Woodlands triumvirate had purchased when accompanying Tommy Smith on some of his European travels. Although primarily purchased as broodmares, quite a number achieved distinction on the racecourse here before going to stud.
The manner by which David Chrystal came to own Garcon has a similar resonance. Festive Air had already produced the Victorian weight-for-age champion, Future, trained by Ken Hilton on behalf of Bill Kemball when the opportunity to buy her presented itself to Chrystal during a trip to New Zealand. He didn’t hesitate to do so, and at the time she was in foal to Rawalpindi then standing at the Clear View Stud in the Hawke’s Bay district where Future had been bred. Great expectations had been held for Rawalpindi when he was first imported there for not only was he a son of the 1953 English Derby winner, Pinza, but he was out of a full sister to the great Nasrullah. Garcon was the subsequent foal although by the time he came along Rawalpindi’s reputation was rather soiled, the stallion having failed to produce a decent galloper in either of his first two crops. At the 1965 Trentham sales, five yearlings sired by Rawalpindi went through the ring and while two were passed-in, the highest bid yielded for any of them was a risible 375 guineas. Was it any wonder that Rawalpindi himself brought a paltry 1700 guineas when sold through the same ring the day after the yearling sales ended? The season before Garcon re-awakened interest in Rawalpindi, his service fee had fallen to just 125 guineas and even at that price he had only received four mares.
David Chrystal junior was rather fortunate that Garcon was carrying his colours in races at all. When just a yearling, the Woodlands Stud had consigned Garcon to the sales ring in Melbourne, where it was hoped that the reputation of his half-brother, Future, would ensure a flurry of bids. Alas, the frenzied bidding never eventuated, and it was the same result when he failed to make his reserve at the William Inglis Sales in Sydney. In the end, it was Tommy Smith who urged Chrystal to keep the then colt and race him himself. Gelded as a rising two-year-old, Garcon made his racecourse debut at Randwick during the Christmas/New Year season but failed to impress in his first few appearances. It would have taken a brave man to predict the boom the horse would achieve before he had even turned three; and that he would prove to be the best Derby prospect from Tulloch Lodge from a team of three-year-olds that had cost a poultice at the yearling sales in both Sydney and Trentham.
Garcon’s maiden victory at Rosehill in the hands of the coming apprentice, Neil Campton, was to be the first of six straight wins for the horse during the winter and early spring that culminated with both the Hobartville Stakes and Canterbury Guineas. The strong gelding’s apparent speed and stamina seemed able to accommodate all courses and track conditions with big weights as well. With each successive victory, trainer Tommy Smith’s encomiums became more exaggerated, as Garcon’s more expensive contemporaries at Tulloch Lodge fell by the wayside. Benjamin Disraeli, the famous British Prime Minister of the nineteenth century, once described his great political rival Gladstone as “inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity”. That delicious phrase captures something of the loquacity of Thomas John Smith in his dealings with the racing press in Sydney. Despite his unique genius with horses, an excessive appetite for publicity – never easily sated – led him at times to go too far. He was at it again in the early spring of 1966 when, with due cockalorum, he declared Garcon another Peter Pan! This claim was transcendental moonshine, and Tommy knew it, but it got Garcon’s name into the newspapers and made owners believe that they hadn’t wasted their money. After all, print gives things a specious air of convincingness. Alas, it wasn’t just the owners who were gulled by Smith’s hyperbole on occasions, but the hapless punters as well.
Ironically, when Garcon’s remarkable winning sequence came to an end in the Rosehill Guineas, it was at the hands of jockey Gordon Spinks and another galloper trained at Tulloch Lodge in Dark Briar. This Pipe of Peace gelding had been bred by the popular owner, Bill Bradshaw – already twice successful in the A.J.C. Derby – from an Irish mare, Indian Sari, that, with the help of the British Bloodstock Agency, he had purchased while holidaying in England during 1957. Once the filly landed here, Bradshaw had raced her in conjunction with his daughters through Stan Lamond’s stable. Punters staged a prolonged demonstration after the Rosehill Guineas when Dark Briar (40/1) finished strongly to relegate the 9/4 favourite Garcon into second placing, beaten a length-and-a-quarter, with a similar margin to Matariki in the third spot. Afterwards Athol Mulley admitted to an ill-judged ride on the son of Rawalpindi, making too much use of him in the first furlong to overcome his wide barrier and getting trapped in a pocket momentarily on the home turn, which left the gelding with too much to do in the final furlong. The result of the Rosehill Guineas triggered yet another call by sections of the sporting press that Sydney should follow the lead of England, France, the U.S.A., New Zealand and Mexico, and bracket either stablemates or horses raced in the same ownership on the totalisator. Such appeals by the popular press became a feature of the sixties after the introduction of the T.A.B. and the increased domination of Tulloch Lodge, whenever a long-priced outsider upset a more fancied stablemate.
The format for the 1966 A.J.C. Spring Meeting reverted to that of 1961 whereby the carnival started on the Six Hour Day Saturday. From 1962 until 1965 the A.J.C. committee had experimented with kicking off the meeting a week earlier, but the general public hadn’t embraced the experiment. The reversion to the former programming resulted in a 45,216-strong crowd attracted through the gates on Derby Day. Moreover, it was a day when spring had sprung. Bright, sunny weather produced the best-dressed crowd in years with the ladies in all their colourful finery. Gone were the safe, silk suits of previous years with all sorts of outfits and materials on show. In the ardour of my youthful excitement, I had been rather hoping that the fashion revolution that had started at the 1965 Melbourne Cup Carnival by the presence of a beautiful English model, might have found its way north across the border.
For the uninitiated, 1965 was the year of Jean Shrimpton and ‘that dress’! However, first some perspective. It was in the early 1960s that both the A.J.C. and the V.R.C. realised that they had to do something to reverse falling attendances. One of their ideas was to launch their very own versions of ‘Fashions on the Field’. If young, well-dressed ladies could be attracted to the races, so the theory went, gentlemen would follow. Or, in the immortal song lyrics of Sid Ramin: “The boys watch the girls while the girls watch the boys who watch the girls go by, eye to eye.” Accordingly, it was in 1965 that the textile manufacturer Du Pont de Nemours International engaged the lovely Jean Shrimpton, then the world’s highest-paid model, to travel to Australia to be a judge in the V.R.C. ‘Fashions in the Field’ contest. Shrimpton’s fee for the two-week visit and the four-day Flemington gig was a cool £2,000. It was a remarkable amount of money considering that collectively The Beatles had only pocketed £1,500 for their Australian tour of the year before.
On each of the four days at Flemington, The Shrimp as she became known to the Australian public, was promoting Orion, Du Pont’s new lightweight acrylic fabric. Before coming to Australia, Du Pont supplied Shrimpton with rolls of Orion so that she and her London dressmaker, Colin Rolfe, could design a sui generis wardrobe. Those expecting an ostentatious ensemble of the type that Cecil Beaton designed for Audrey Hepburn to wear for the Ascot scene in ‘My Fair Lady’, which was screening in cinemas just the year before, were shocked. Begin as you mean to go on isn’t bad advice on the Turf and on Derby Day, Miss Shrimpton wore a simple, elegant, white, shift dress. But Du Pont hadn’t supplied sufficient fabric, and so to cut corners, or rather hems, the line of the dress had finished four inches above her knee. At the time of the cutting, The Shrimp remarked to Rolfe: “Nobody’s going to take any notice…”
Not take any notice! On Derby Day it had all those dowdy Melbourne matrons in the exclusive Members’ enclosure at Flemington frothing at the mouth. The men too, although for another reason. It triggered a fashion tremor around the world of a magnitude that could have been measured on the Richter scale. The Melbourne establishment remained scandalized while The Sun News-Pictorial declared: “There she was, the world’s highest-paid model, snubbing the iron-clad conventions at fashionable Flemington in a dress five inches above the knee. NO hat, NO gloves, and NO stockings!” Shrimpton herself reflected: “I feel Melbourne isn’t ready for me yet. It seems years behind London.” Ouch! In truth, V.R.C. Derby Day 1965 was a seminal moment for women’s fashion in Australia and it helped usher in the mini-skirt. As The Shrimp was being assailed by the so-called fashion gurus of Australia such as Maggie Tabberer, the London Evening News came to her defence: “Surrounded by sober draped silks and floral nylons, ghastly tulle hats and fur stoles, she was like a petunia in an onion patch.” I seem to have wandered off the path somewhat, so let me return to the onion patch that constituted the unexciting Randwick fashions of the 1966 A.J.C. Spring Meeting.
There was nothing half so exciting as the Jean Shrimpton look on display. It was still strictly Old Testament stuff; the fashion book of Revelations was yet to arrive in Sydney. Navy and white were the out and out favourites, with pinks – hot and sweet coming next in the market. However, those with an eye to the future might have taken note of the young lady who was judged the best-dressed woman in an outfit valued at more than $80 on Ladies Day, in a contest sponsored by the Sydney Morning Herald. Ironically, the lady in question was the women’s editor of the Herald’s rival publication, the Sydney Daily Telegraph. While the name Mrs. Alasdair Macdonald probably doesn’t mean anything, she wrote under the byline of Miss Ita Buttrose. Dressed in a navy and white Op art dress and coat, she whisked off with the prize. “I was stunned,” she said. “I thought somebody would surely have told them who I was.” The time was coming when all of Australia would know.
An even dozen accepted for the Derby, its prizemoney considerably augmented over the previous year thanks to T.A.B. largesse, with not a filly in sight. Despite being a November foal, Garcon was the firm public elect with his stablemate, Dark Briar, on the fifth line of betting. Best fancied to stop Tulloch Lodge winning its fourth Derby in five years was Matariki, a stylish son of the all-conquering Agricola, trained by Dick Roden at Randwick on behalf of Gulargambone grazier, W. R. Lambell and his two sons. The colt’s name was a Maori word meaning ‘where lightning strikes’ and Roden had purchased the colt at the 1965 New Zealand National Yearling Sales for just 1100 guineas despite the yearling’s impressive pedigree.
Agricola notwithstanding, Matariki’s maternal grand dam, Chakita, was rated the second-best two-year-old filly of 1947 in France, while the fourth dam was a three-quarters sister to The Tetrach. Under ordinary circumstances, Roden would have expected to pay much more than he did but only weeks before the auction the colt had come off second best in an argument with a fence and the unsightly cuts still disfigured his legs. The accident in no way, however, impaired his galloping ability and Matariki had won four races on the trot as a juvenile, three of them over the Randwick mile including the prestigious Fernhill Handicap, before wintering in Queensland. The colt had been taken north to contest the Brisbane winter carnival but had struck his near fore-joint in a track gallop at Eagle Farm in mid-June, which put him into the spelling paddock and delayed his Derby preparation. At his most recent appearance, he had run the minor placing in the Rosehill Guineas. Overnight rain had softened the course, and Roden believed it would suit the heavy-topped Matariki, although if there was a chink in the colt’s armor, it was the fact that his dam was a daughter of Princely Gift, hardly an influence for stamina.
One of the more curious aspects of this particular Derby was the topsy-turvy arrangement of jockeys on the respective favorites. George Moore, who had already won four Derbies for Tommy Smith and was his No. 1 rider, had preferred the ride on Matariki to Garcon, and the latter mount was entrusted to his long-time rival Athol Mulley. Mulley, at times, had been Roden’s first jockey and was still bound by a signed agreement to ride, when required, for Stan and Millie Fox, Roden’s leading clients. On paper it seemed that the switch was merely a matter of Moore having preferred Matariki to Garcon, Roden preferring Moore to Mulley, and Smith and Mulley being quite satisfied to rely on Garcon. There had been other times in the past when Moore had chosen to pit his judgment against Smith and his success rate in such clashes of opinion had, in the words of Pat Farrell, ‘been slightly less than good’. And, of course, Smith invariably enjoyed proving he could train horses better than Moore could ride them.
On the third line of Derby betting was Auto Filou trained by Morrie Anderson. A son of Le Filou that cost 2400 guineas as a yearling in New Zealand, he owed his market prominence more to his bloodlines than his achievements, although he had been placed in the Canterbury Guineas and won a ten-furlong restricted stakes race at Rosehill just a fortnight before. El Gordo, prepared by Leo O’Sullivan, was the only other runner under double figures and he was bidding to give R. P. De Lasala his second blue riband in four years. Students of bloodstock breeding were intrigued by two runners, in particular, General Command and Bay Cobbler.
General Command was the latest in the line of champion New Zealand broodmare, Sunbride, to carry the colours of the newspaper publisher, Ezra Norton. Initially prepared by Darby Munro, who professed great faith in the horse and believed he was likely to be the best to pass through his hands as a trainer, General Command had not started at the time of the great man’s death in April 1966. Munro’s foreman, Bill Wilson, had then assumed stewardship and guided the horse’s steps towards the Derby. While still a maiden at the time of the classic, General Command’s fine fourth in the Canterbury Guineas suggested a posthumous confirmation of Munro’s judgment. However, he was a late November foal, and many believed that the Derby was a race too soon. Coincidentally, Ezra Norton’s bête noire, Sir Frank Packer also had a horse engaged in the Derby, Golden Boy, which he had bred himself and raced in partnership with a close friend. Neither General Command nor Golden Boy was a strong fancy for the race, but their respective ownerships renewed memories of an infamous Derby Day clash with fisticuffs some 27 years earlier.
Bay Cobbler, who cost 2400 guineas as a yearling in New Zealand, was bought on behalf of the Scarborough Art Union in Brisbane and used as their first prize. Trained by Kel Suttle at Warwick Farm, he was a half-brother to the good New Zealand stayer Fox Myth and the 1963 Caulfield Cup winner, Sometime. Like General Command, Bay Cobbler was still a maiden although he had been running on in his races albeit not nearly as well as his year-older, three-quarter brother, who was about to ignite his brilliant spring campaign with a sensational second in the Epsom, in the race following the Derby. But that’s another story. The best-backed outsider in the race was Mystic Glen, a son of Parma, who had finished runner-up in the weight-for-age Warwick Stakes and had been specked at 33/1 into 16/1.
The 1966 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions appear in the table below:
The story of the actual running of the Derby in 1966 is soon told. In a field conspicuously lacking in class, a rather plodding stayer in El Gordo under the youthful guidance of 21-year-old Neil Campton, who was enjoying his first mount in the classic, was allowed to lead throughout. While Campton was dictating the tempo of the Derby, Sydney’s two finest horsemen, George Moore and Athol Mulley, on the two race favorites, were riding alongside each other in second and third placings. For much of the journey, both men seemed to be more concerned with each other than with the young man jogging along ahead of them and only recently out of his apprenticeship. The tale of the clock is interesting. The first half-mile was put by in a pedestrian 52 ½ seconds while the second half-mile was timed at a half-second longer. Indeed, so anxious was Campton to delay the moment of truth on El Gordo, who lugged rather badly throughout, that he pulled the bit through the horse’s mouth near the five.
The last half-mile might not have been the easiest ride for Campton, but he remained in possession of the twelve-horse field as it swung around the home turn with nothing but a few hundred yards of fresh air between El Gordo and the winning post. Matariki challenged momentarily early in the straight but quickly succumbed due to lack of stamina, and it was left to Garcon and the fast-finishing Mystic Glen to issue the final threats. Garcon managed to get within a length of El Gordo but so effectively had Campton husbanded the colt’s energies that in the shadows of the post he was going away again. Mystic Glen, trained by Fred Hood and ridden by his acclaimed apprentice Kevin Langby, finished powerfully from tenth on the turn and just failed to pip Garcon for second money, with Dark Briar, the future Queensland Derby winner in fourth place. General Command, who ran into a spot of bother in the straight, came on nicely to finish sixth. When one considers that El Gordo ran the last half-mile in 49 seconds and the last three in 36.5, it was hardly surprising that nothing ran him down in the testing Randwick straight. Overnight rain had softened the course, but even making allowances for the conditions, the winning time of 2 minutes 34.5 seconds was remarkably slow – in fact, the slowest race since Deep River had plowed through the mud in 1952. And so, for the sixth year in succession, the A.J.C. Derby had been won by a colt or gelding sired in New Zealand.
The race represented jockey Neil Campton’s only success in the Derby. The likable lightweight had been orphaned at an early age. His father was killed at sea towards the end of World War II, and his mother died only two years later. An uncle reared young Campton on a dairy farm near Wingham, N.S.W. It was in that idyllic rural environment that the lad honed his horsemanship, becoming a top show rider on the north coast and attracting the interest of Sydney trainer Clyde Cook. Campton joined Cook when he was fifteen, although he later transferred his indentures to Randwick trainer, John Page, and it was with the popular Page that his career in the saddle first blossomed. Campton scored his first metropolitan win at Warwick Farm on Gleaming Star in June 1963, and soon gained the attention of Sydney trainers. Darby Munro, quick to spot emerging riding talent, engaged Neil for his classy sprinter Port Fair and the pair combined to win The Shorts at Randwick in 1963. Two years later, in the 1964-65 season, Campton tied with Kevin Langby on 18 wins for the Sydney Apprentices’ title. Apart from the Derby on El Gordo, which Campton won only a matter of months after coming out of his time, other major successes by Campton later included the Golden Slipper Stakes (Royal Parma, 1967) and the Sydney Cup (Late Show, 1985). Upon retiring from the saddle, he set himself up as a small-time trainer at Rosehill.
The winning owner, R. P. de Lasala, was a wealthy Brazilian-born businessman with extensive shipping and commercial interests in Australia and Hong Kong. Although he had previously raced horses for some years in Hong Kong, he had made his first foray into Australian racing in the 1952-53 racing season when he invested some £7,500 in bloodstock and retained Pat Murray as his trainer. His first winner, carrying the same Derby-winning colours, had been White Signal at Canterbury in June 1953. One of his early horses was Gordita, meaning ‘the little fat one’ and while that horse didn’t find fame on the racecourse, as Laurie Morgan’s mount in the equestrian events at the 1960 Rome Olympics, he helped Australia to two gold medals. For a time, de Lasala retained a modest breeding property, Tyreel Farm at Richmond.
De Lasala had previously won the A.J.C. Derby in 1963 with Summer Fiesta, trained by Tommy Smith and he still retained horses in Tulloch Lodge, including Clovelly, which he part-owned and which had won the S.T.C. Cup at Rosehill just the previous Saturday. De Lasala raced El Gordo in partnership with close family members and the winner’s name in Spanish meant ‘the fat one’. It was a description that could have equally applied to either De Lasala or the huge cigar that he immediately lit up in the wake of the Derby triumph. El Gordo was trainer Leo O’Sullivan’s second winner of the A.J.C. Derby, following on from the success of Summer Fair in 1961, and his last good horse. The victory gave Leo the Silent considerable satisfaction because he suspected that the race might pan out exactly the way it did. The shrewd horseman, who had stung the ring so often with outsiders, had given Campton carte blanche to go to the front if circumstances warranted and his number was now in the frame. O’Sullivan continued to train a small string until the end of the 1986-87 racing season when he retired at the age of 85; he died during June 1996.
Bred by Mr J. H. Grigg at Longbeach on the Canterbury Bight, El Gordo, who was an early October foal, was offered at the New Zealand National Sales in January 1965. At the time, his sire Agricola’s oldest progeny were two, but already the likes of Te Parae and Tinsel had shown enough to confirm that Agricola’s splendid bloodlines were going to be a blessing for Kiwi bloodstock. Unquestionably one of the most aristocratically bred stallions ever imported to the southern hemisphere, Agricola was by Precipitation out of that grand matron of the English Stud Book, Aurora. He was thus a half-brother to Lord Derby’s great champion, Alycidon, the winner of eleven races and £37,206 including the Ascot Gold Cup, Goodwood and Doncaster Cups and Champion English Sire in 1955. Other members of the family weren’t too bad either. Acropolis, a full brother to Alycidon trained by Cecil Boyd-Rochfort for Lady Derby, had won seven races including the Newmarket Stakes besides running second in the 1955 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes (1 and ½ mile) at Ascot and third in the English Derby of the same year behind Phil Drake. Borealis, yet another of Aurora’s progeny by Brumeux, had won the 1945 Coronation Cup at Epsom Downs and run second in the English St Leger.
Agricola, a chestnut horse, bred by Lady Irwin in 1956, was raced only sparingly but always in first-class company. He raced once as a juvenile and only began a serious engagement with the Turf the following season when he scored a courageous win in the Newmarket Stakes (10f), followed by running the minor placing in the Great Voltigeur Stakes (1 ½ miles) at York. Agricola completed his classic season by finishing fifth in the English St Leger, conducted that year on the particularly hard ground at Doncaster. At his only start as a four-year-old he ran second to Aggressor in the Newbury John Porter Stakes ( 1 ½ miles), after which he was sold for $NZ40,000 to the leading New Zealand breeder, Alister Williams, to stand at his Te Parae Stud near Masterton. Agricola became the first syndicated stallion to enter the Shaky Isles when he arrived there in 1961. Both Acropolis and Borealis had proven successful stallions, albeit not in Alycidon’s class, and, so the theory went, why wouldn’t a fourth son of Aurora do likewise? Agricola’s impact on racing in Australasia will become apparent as the pages of this chronicle unfold. For the moment let it be said that he was the leading first season sire in New Zealand and from this first crop came three classic winners in Roman Consul (New Zealand Derby), Te Parae (South Australian Derby) and Bahram Star (Queensland Derby).
Rathlin, the dam of El Gordo, who was her second foal, had a somewhat undistinguished record on the racecourse, failing to win but she was placed at seven furlongs. She was a daughter of the American stallion, Whistling Wind, who, although bred in America, did all his racing in England, where he won ten races. Rathlin’s dam, Ballyclare, had been lightly raced in England as a two-year-old before being imported to New Zealand where she raced twice before being retired to stud. The attraction of Ballyclare as a potential broodmare derived from the fact that her dam Tildarg, though unraced, had thrown four winners from five foals and was a full sister to Owenstown, a successful racehorse and stallion whose only four wins included the Irish St Leger and the valuable York Ebor Handicap. Offered as lot No. 129, the bay horse that was destined to win the 1966 A.J.C. Derby was one of the cheaper Agricola yearlings, being knocked down for 850 guineas to a Matamata agent acting on behalf of Leo O’Sullivan. By comparison, the highest-priced yearling sold at those sales was the ill-fated Slippertime, a colt by Summertime from Miss Able that cost his Melbourne owner 8000 guineas through the agency of Bart Cummings. The colt was a half-brother to Captain Blue and was being prepared for his race debut when he dropped dead in a track gallop at Morphetville just four months before El Gordo won the classic.
El Gordo debuted in a maiden at Hawkesbury in late January without exciting any attention. It was to be a similar story at his next four runs over unsuitably short distances during the late summer and early autumn. O’Sullivan nonetheless retained his faith in the colt, believing that as soon as he stepped up to a mile, the stoutness of his pedigree would assert itself. Indeed, it was El Gordo’s minor placing in the A.J.C. Fernhill Handicap that nourished the belief in O’Sullivan that once again his stables sheltered a Derby colt. Immediately after that race, O’Sullivan sent the colt to the spelling paddocks and he didn’t resume racing until the Bank Holiday meeting at Randwick on the first day of the new season when he failed in a Novice. Following two more failures in Canterbury Maidens, O’Sullivan elected not to pursue the conventional Derby route via the Canterbury and Rosehill Guineas, judging that the colt didn’t have the requisite speed to be competitive against the best three-year-olds at distances up to ten furlongs. Instead, O’Sullivan opted to test the colt’s stamina and at his two previous appearances before the Derby, El Gordo narrowly broke his maiden status in a minor stakes race over thirteen furlongs at Canterbury in early September and then just managed to win a Novice over the Derby course a week later. In each of those successes, the son of Agricola had led most of the way with Campton as the pilot. Hence when the early pace was so funereal in the Derby itself, Campton had no hesitation in seizing the initiative once more. Before the classic many regarded El Gordo as something of a dark horse but he was a dark horse on whom a great many knowing people had been inclined to put their money on Derby Day.
Time would tell that the quality of that 1966 A.J.C. Derby field was suspect. The first inkling came in the weeks immediately after, when both El Gordo and Garcon ran ordinary races in the Caulfield Cup. It was a similar story in the Victoria Derby, which provided an all-Victoria finish. Khalif, a 750 guineas yearling purchased at the Adelaide Sales on behalf of Geoff Levett and his wife, providing jockey Roy Higgins and trainer Des Judd with their first success in the race, while Pharaon and Sunhaven filled the minor placings. Both Higgins and Judd had won their respective Victorian premierships the year before and Khalif went a long way towards ensuring that Judd retained his in that 1966-67 racing season. During the running of the Victoria Derby, El Gordo was never further back than third and even hit the lead briefly when the field turned for home. He looked a chance until just before the winning post but tired to finish fifth, while Garcon performed even more lamentably in finishing fourteenth. Despite El Gordo’s failure, O’Sullivan persisted with a Melbourne Cup run, although the Derby winner tired to finish among the tailenders in the race won by the mighty Galilee.
It was to be the pattern for much of El Gordo’s racing career. After resuming in late summer, the colt did manage to win the A.J.C. Cumberland Handicap at Randwick during the autumn carnival landing some good wagers, although it was the only time he earned prizemoney during that campaign. El Gordo continued to race during his four-year-old season but in 14 starts at that age, he only managed to win once – giving De Lasala his second successive S.T.C. Cup as an owner when El Gordo relegated Prince Grant and General Command into the minor placings. The horse returned to racing for one last season, winning an open handicap at Rosehill and bowing out after a close second to Pirate Bird in the 1969 S.T.C. Silver Jubilee Cup. Sold privately as a stallion in May 1969 to stand at Mr R. M. Campbell’s Edenvale Stud at Mount Tamborine in Queensland, El Gordo proved a useful stallion although he only managed two stakes winners in El Laurena and Kerr Street. The former won a Queensland Tattersall’s Cup and a Q.T.C. Exhibition Handicap, although even more famously ran a dashing second in the 1981 Melbourne Cup; while the latter won the 1983 and 1984 Darwin Cups. El Gordo died in August 1985.
History would confirm that the best racehorse to emerge from that 1966 A.J.C. Derby field, indeed the best three-year-old foaled in that Australasian crop of three-year-olds, was Ezra Norton’s General Command. Not that Ezra lived to see the horse realise his potential. The irascible old rascal died of cancer at his Vaucluse mansion on January 4, 1967, a few months shy of his 70th birthday, leaving an estate sworn for probate valued at $3,844,672. What proved to be a valuable part of that legacy, albeit undervalued at the time, was the Sunbride gelding, which he left to his wife, Peggy. It was as far back as January 1954 that Norton had asked Maurice Grogan, the studmaster at Blandford Lodge, Matamata, to attend the New Zealand National Yearling Sales and bid on his behalf for a rangy bay colt by Faux Tirage out of the English-bred mare, Sunbride. The colt was on offer by Mrs Alister Williams from the Te Parae Stud at Masterton and although Sunbride’s early progeny had been disappointing on the racecourse, Grogan was forced to go to 2000 guineas to secure this latest colt for Norton. Not that the Sydney newspaper magnate ever had cause for complaint.
Placed in the Randwick stables of Jack Mitchell, Straight Draw was precocious enough to win the A.J.C. Kirkham Stakes at two and then as a mature five-year-old took out that memorable treble of the A.J.C. Metropolitan followed by the Melbourne and Sydney Cups – the only horse ever to do so. Little wonder that after that Ezra Norton sought desperately to purchase the progeny of Sunbride. In January 1957 he bought Ilumquh, by Sabaean from Sunbride, as a yearling, only for the sale to fall through when the horse failed to pass a veterinary examination. The colt was gelded and raced in the livery of Alister Williams, winning among other races the 1960 Caulfield Cup. Despite that setback, Ezra Norton remained determined, and again through the agency of Maurice Grogan, in January 1963 and January 1964 bought the yearling colts by Agricola from Sunbride but had to go to 6000 and 5000 guineas respectively. The first one, registered as Sun Prince, never amounted to much and while the second ultimately disappointed, he went a long way towards repaying his purchase price when, racing as High Principle, he was runner-up to Prince Grant in the 1966 Sydney Cup.
General Command, which Ezra Norton bought privately, however, was to be something else. It wasn’t until relatively late in his three-year-old season that he broke through in a Maiden Handicap at Randwick with Mel Schumacher in the saddle; he then went on to win three of his last four starts as a three-year-old including the mile-and-a-half A.J.C. Winter Stakes and a ten-furlong open handicap at Rosehill. It was as a mature four-year-old that he flourished, winning the A.J.C. Metropolitan and the V.R.C. C.B. Fisher Plate, although failing in the Melbourne Cup when equal favourite. In the autumn of 1968, he was in devastating form winning his last five starts that season including the V.R.C. Queen Elizabeth Stakes, A.J.C. Chipping Norton Stakes and the Autumn Stakes, Sydney Cup (carrying 9 st 3lb) and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at the A.J.C. autumn carnival.
At a time when Sydney racing in general and the A.J.C., in particular, seemed to be languishing, General Command brought a touch of class to the Turf. Taken to Brisbane for the Q.T.C. winter meetings, General Command sustained an injury after failing in the Churchill Stakes, which forced the gelding to miss his entire five-year-old season. When he reappeared as a six-year-old with Bart Cummings as his trainer, he was but a shadow of his former self and managed only one win in eleven races – the 1969 Sandown Cup, which proved to be his final race. When one considers the form that General Command was in at Randwick during the autumn of 1968, we are left to imagine what he might have achieved as a five-year-old if only he had remained sound.