Like true love, most romances of the Turf never run smooth and such it was with trainer Doug Bougoure and his champion galloper Strawberry Road, our winner of the 1983 A.J.C. Derby. Born in October 1922 in the rural town of Warwick, set amidst the rich Darling Downs some 81 miles southwest of Brisbane, Bougoure was the eighth child and fifth son in a family of ten children. His father, Daniel, was the manager of Risdon station, a sprawling sheep property just outside Warwick that later became a thoroughbred stud. Young Doug received precious little formal education but he could ride before most other children had left the nursery. From the moment he could walk, this fascination with horses saw him mustering at Risdon with his father early in life and later working with Jack Rademy at Yandilla.
Now, some surnames are indelibly linked with Queensland racing down the generations. I refer to families such as the Nouds, Strongs, Bests and Palmers. And to that list, the Bougoures belong. Doug gravitated to Toowoomba at the age of fifteen to become an apprentice jockey with his uncle W. J. (Bill) Bougoure. Over the years in the extended Bougoure family, the well-drawn lines of patriarchal and avuncular authority were always supplemented, if not supplanted, by affection and respect and Doug enjoyed a real rapport with his uncle. After a couple of years working in Uncle Bill’s stables, Bougoure was granted his apprentice’s licence to ride at the end of October 1939. The timing was hardly fortuitous coinciding as it did with the outbreak of World War II. Bougoure’s apprenticeship coincided with something else as well, a golden era in Queensland horsemanship that witnessed the likes of Neville Sellwood, Noel McGrowdie, George Moore, Garnet Bougoure and other young lads serving their indentures at the same time.
Despite the fierce competition, Doug Bougoure enjoyed success in the saddle and his Uncle Bill, aided and abetted by his most prominent patron, the country sportsman, R. A. (Dick) Young, kept young Doug in the headlines with a regular supply of mounts. At first, Bougoure honed his skills at Clifford Park, the home of the Toowoomba Turf Club, but it wasn’t long before he was doing most of his riding in Brisbane. It was only after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 and the relocation of large numbers of American troops to Brisbane that both Ascot (Eagle Farm) and Doomben racecourses were closed. Large flat areas of land were required to accommodate the extensive military encampments of thousands of troops and those two racecourses provided the ideal landscape as they transformed to Camp Ascot and Camp Doomben. Thereafter, Albion Park or The Creek as it was affectionately known, was the only racecourse to operate in Brisbane throughout the war years. I suspect that Albion Park and the racing conditions that prevailed there on that sand course, go a long way towards explaining why so many wonderful jockeys emerged from Queensland around this time. George Moore always believed so.
The mention of George Moore recalls a link between him and Doug Bougoure. Each did much of their early riding at Clifford Park and each won races on Expressman, the gelded son of Wyvern, trained by Bill Bougoure. Indeed, as we have seen in an earlier chapter, Expressman afforded George Moore his first big race victory when the pair were successful in the 1940 B.A.T.C. Doomben Newmarket. Doug Bougoure then replaced Moore on Expressman at his next start when the pair won the Tattersall’s Flying Handicap at Ascot. Bougoure rode Expressman in most of his trackwork and was a heavier rider than Moore, although less experienced. This preference for live weight rather than dead weight and familial considerations motivated Uncle Bill to make the switch. Still, it afforded Doug Bougoure much satisfaction in later life to be able to regale friends with the tale of how he was once preferred as a stable jockey over the great George Moore.
The bombing of Pearl Harbour and the Japanese incursions ever deeper into the Pacific region saw many more men in khaki. Bougoure’s riding career was largely put on hold as he began serving almost four years in the Army in the 25th Infantry Battalion, the so-called ‘Darling Downs Regiment’ as it was based in Toowoomba. During 1940 the 25th was called up and between July and August 1942, Bougoure along with the rest of the regiment moved to Milne Bay on the southeast tip of New Guinea. Bougoure spent two years there, and he saw action. With the formal Japanese surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on 2 September 1945, demobilisation quickly followed. Bougoure re-opened his winning account within a month of his discharge when he landed Warmate a winner at Albion Park in mid-November. There would be a regular flow of winners over the next few seasons although Bougoure as a jockey was never to be associated with a really top-class galloper.
Perhaps the best was Sefiona, on whom he won the 1949 Brisbane Handicap and Tattersall’s President’s Handicap as well as the 1950 Toowoomba Cup. Unfortunately, chronic lameness prematurely ended Sefiona’s career. Another top galloper with whom he was associated was Gay Felt. Alas, Bougoure was to be denied most of Gay Felt’s major victories including the 1951 Doomben Cup through being disqualified for twelve months. Bougoure, along with the dashing owner-trainer C. J. Russell had incurred the displeasure of the stewards, after being found guilty of improper practices when beaten on Crownall in a race at Beaudesert on June 8, 1950. While Bougoure did resume riding after serving out his disqualification, he had grown heavier and found it harder to come by rides.
As talented as Doug was in the saddle, the real gift of jockeyship in the Bougoure family lay with his 5-month younger cousin, Garnet, the future brother-in-law of George Moore. Garnet Bougoure cracked his first big race when he partnered the former Queensland galloper Abbeville to win the 1945 A.J.C. Doncaster Handicap for owner Bill McDonald and trainer Tom McGrath. It was to be the first of so many major triumphs that would include the Stradbroke Handicap the following year on Abbeville as well as a Doomben Cup (Dark Marne), two Australian Cups (New Cashmere and Murray Glen) and a Brisbane Cup (Prince o’ Fairies). Garnet Bougoure left Australia in 1953 to ride successfully in India, Singapore and Malaysia as well as a brief stint in France. Later that same decade, Garnet returned to ride in Europe where his association, firstly with Paddy Prendergast, and later with a young Vincent O’Brien, saw him develop into one of the leading jockeys in Ireland and England. He became the first Australian jockey to head the jockeys’ list in Ireland in 1960 and ultimately won two Irish Derbies on Chamour (1960) and Ragusa (1963). In England, Bougoure won three of the five classics viz. the English Oaks on Noblesse (1963); the English St Leger on Ragusa (1963); and the English One Thousand Guineas on Pourparler (1964) as well as the prestigious King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes on Ragusa (1963).
But back to Doug Bougoure. It was in August 1952 that he applied for, and was granted, a No. 1 trainer’s licence by the Queensland Turf Club. It was a time of transition for Bougoure in more ways than one, for that same year, he married his beloved soulmate, June. Establishing stables close to Eagle Farm racecourse, Bougoure sent forth his first winner at Beaudesert in the first week of November 1952 when the 6/4 favourite Beano won the Second Maiden. Later, on the same card, Bougoure made it a double when Paper Gift, a horse owned by his brother Arthur, was heavily backed to win the Beaudesert Handicap. Thus, the very track that had caused Bougoure so much pain as a jockey with his destructive yearlong disqualification, afforded something of a redemptive fillip to his nascent training career. Although Bougoure never prepared a large team, he enjoyed a steady supply of useful thoroughbreds over the years.
Nonetheless, until the twilight of his training life, Bougoure remained very much a journeyman trainer. Both rich patrons and fast horses proved hard to come by. The first smart sprinter that he trained was Magres, winner of the 1961 Q.T.C. Lightning Handicap, while the best galloper to pass through Bougoure’s hands before the coming of Strawberry Road was Earlmark, the only stakes-winning son of that good Queensland Derby winner Earlwood. Earlmark gave Bougoure a wonderful run of success in 1969 when the chestnut won the B.A.T.C. Labour Day Cup and both the Q.T.C. Exhibition and Moreton Handicaps. Bougoure won the Moreton Handicap the following year again when that smart filly Morning Joy was successful. Morning Joy was also the closest that Bougoure went to achieving classic success before the arrival of Strawberry Road when she was first past the post in the 1970 Q.T.C. Queensland Oaks only to lose the race on protest to Affectionate. In many respects, Bougoure’s life was a story of triumphing over adversity. In the 1960s he suffered horrendous head injuries when an unruly mare lashed out with reckless promiscuity in her box and Bougoure became trapped. The injuries sustained seriously impaired his vision and he subsequently declared: “How I came out of that alive after seven weeks in hospital, I’ll never know.” It was a reminder of the fragility of life.
It was on a balmy spring day in October 1981 that the horse of a lifetime walked into Doug Bougoure’s life and when it happened, it was almost happenstance. But first, permit me to introduce the members of the Greek chorus to this fascinating tale of adventure that would eventually spill over to racecourses across the globe. Jim Pantos and George Georgopoulos, the breeders of Strawberry Road, were both friends and brothers-in-law living in Canberra, George having married Jim’s sister, Cecelia. Jim Pantos had a deep interest in horseracing; George Georgopoulos didn’t. Nonetheless, the pair had pulled off at least one successful plunge together. Back on Saturday, January 13, 1973, at Sydney’s Canterbury racecourse, the two men were entrusted with the stable commission to put on an unraced two-year-old chestnut colt by Pakistan II, owned by their friend Joe Pavelic named Tristar. The horse was trained in Canberra by A. J. Gordon and hadn’t been seen at any of the two-year-old trials.
With little known about the horse in overnight markets, the colt was quoted at 20/1. It was a well-planned plunge with another pair of commissioners placing bets at the equivalent Melbourne meeting at Sandown on the same day. The Canberra clique got their money too, when Tristar, ridden by Sydney’s top apprentice John Duggan, who still enjoyed a 1.5 kg claim, jumped smartly from his outside barrier and led for the last half-mile of the (1000 metres) S.T.C. Petersham Handicap. Perhaps Messrs Pavelic, Pantos, Georgopoulos et al might not have been so confident had they known what one of the hitherto, unraced contingent in the same event was destined to achieve. For amongst the beaten brigade that day was Zephyr Bay, later to hold the Randwick course record for 1000 metres, which he would set when carrying 59 kg in the 1975 A.J.C. Challenge Stakes, before going on to become a very successful stallion in New Zealand.
Following upon that successful Canterbury plunge, while Jim Pantos bought and raced the odd horse, George Georgopoulos and the racecourse continued to remain wary strangers. That was until Jim Pantos brought a rising young two-year-old filly over from New Zealand in the autumn of 1976, which he subsequently named Giftisa. The filly was by Rich Gift, a grandson of Nasrullah, out of the Red Jester mare, Wahkeena, and had been bred by the brothers, Alistair and Garth Scown, who stood Rich Gift at their property. Alistair Scown himself was a former All Black. Jim Pantos, who ran his own electrical contracting business in Canberra, but spent time in New Zealand, agreed to buy Giftisa for $2,000 when she was six months old but left her over there for a year before bringing her across the Tasman. Jim Pantos originally intended to race the filly in partnership with a couple of friends, but when it came time to show money they reneged on their previous verbal agreement, having second thoughts about getting involved in a New Zealand-bred sprinter. Pantos then invited his brother-in-law George to stump up $1,000 to secure a half-share, together with another $500 for a portion of the costs to land the filly in Sydney.
George worked as a public servant in Canberra at the National Library of Australia. Conservative by nature, like any wise and responsible Greek husband before making a financial commitment, he first consulted his wife, who was very close to her brother, Jim. At the subsequent family confab, Cecelia listened to Jim and then looked at husband George before uttering that immortal phrase: “Give Jim the money.” Now, there is an old saying derived from Homer’s famous epic poem The Illiad, about being wary of Greeks bearing gifts. It relates, of course, to the story of the wooden horse of Troy. At $1,500, Jim Pantos that day wasn’t exactly bearing a gift, but seen retrospectively in the years to come, it would certainly seem so to George and Cecelia Georgopoulos. And while Giftisa’s subsequent few appearances on the racecourse might have been unkindly described as wooden, it wasn’t a description that could ever have been applied to her first-born foal.
Giftisa, which loosely translates as “gipsy” in Greek, was placed in the Canberra stables of Athol Mulley. Handicapped by soft and brittle hooves, Giftisa was lame after her every race. She only ever won once, a modest Queanbeyan Maiden when ridden by Neville Layt, although she was also placed four times in her seven starts. A veterinary surgeon recommended that Giftisa’s hooves should be cut and the filly be given twelve months in the paddock to allow them to grow back stronger. Instead, Jim Pantos and George Georgopoulos decided to retire her immediately to stud. Accordingly, during the winter of 1978 the two men looked around the Canberra district for a likely stallion mate and settled upon Whiskey Road, a Northern Dancer line sire who was about to stand his third season at the nearby Strathallan Stud near Braidwood at a fee of just $1,500. Kept at Strathallan until after returning a positive 45-day pregnancy test, Giftisa was then relocated to Joe Pavelic’s farm at Young, where she foaled Strawberry Road on September 28 the following year. From birth, Joe and his wife referred to the colt as Rocky, an allusion to the character played by Sylvester Stallone in the 1976 eponymous film of the same name. Moreover, the nickname resonated with his Greek owners who would still fondly refer to him as Rocky long after he had been officially registered as Strawberry Road. I reproduce a photograph below taken three days after foaling.
Strawberry Road then remained in Young until September 1981, of his two-year-old season. Brought across to Queanbeyan and lodged in the stables of Jack Van Duren, the small and skinny colt impressed nobody on the basis of his looks. Moreover, Queanbeyan was then in the grips of a severe drought and all the paddocks were brown and bare. Accordingly, Jim Pantos suggested that instead of training him in Canberra, they send the undernourished colt to Queensland where there were neither drought nor fodder shortages and where Pantos already had a graduation class galloper, Sunset Affair, in training with Maureen Dittman, the wife of the leading Queensland jockey, Mick Dittman. Jim Pantos raced Sunset Affair, a rising five-year-old by Knightly Manner, in partnership with his best friend Mando Menegazzo, and it was Mando who agreed to pay the expenses and organise the transport to Brisbane for the unraced son of Whiskey Road in return for a share in the colt. Meanwhile, Jim had also given a share in the colt to his brother, Arthur. The complete complement of Greek owners of what was to become one of Australia’s greatest gallopers in the post-World War II era was now in place.
Upon arrival in Brisbane, the horse was temporarily stabled for a month with Dittman, who through ill-health was now, ironically, looking to wind down the numbers in her team. Meanwhile, Menegazzo tried to solicit interest from a few other leading trainers, including Bruce McLachlan, but nobody cared to take on this rather poor physical specimen of a racehorse. Nobody that is, until Doug Bougoure came along. Bougoure agreed to accept the unraced, homebred Whiskey Road colt on the condition that he was eventually given Sunset Affair to train as well. And so, a deal was struck. While Bougoure’s main motivation was to get his hands on Sunset Affair, it seems fair to say that Whiskey Road’s name in the unraced colt’s pedigree did arouse the trainer’s interest.
A son of the 1970 English Triple Crown winner Nijinsky, as we have seen, Whiskey Road had begun stallion life at an unfashionable N.S.W. stud in modest circumstances but was now beginning to generate real interest among Australian breeders largely because the year before his gelded son Just A Dash, had won both the Adelaide and Melbourne Cups. Still, when Bougoure met what was to become the equine love of his life for the first time in October 1981, he, like everyone else, was none too impressed. Immediately, he recommended that the undeveloped colt be sent to a paddock on the Darling Downs and allowed to grow into his frame. While he was out in the paddock, the colt was registered for racing in Queensland. It was Arthur Pantos who came up with the name of Strawberry Road; he insisted that the name had to sound sweet and Arthur did have a passion for strawberries. The very next time that Bougoure saw Strawberry Road in January 1982, he couldn’t believe his own eyes. In four short months, the weedy colt had furnished into a magnificent 16-hand individual of immense raw strength and reach. The fun was about to start.
Within a month of receiving Sunset Affair into his stables, Bougoure had won a race with him at Eagle Farm and would soon see the horse racing successfully in flying handicaps. Jim Pantos and George Georgopoulos were well pleased with their new trainer. The two men were even more pleased when Bougoure cautiously advised them that in Strawberry Road, their unraced Whiskey Road colt, they might have bred something rather special. The moment of revelation came for Bougoure when he subjected Strawberry Road to his first barrier trial at Ascot. Last in the field at the 200-metre mark, the Whiskey Road colt revealed remarkable acceleration in the blink of an eye when Mel Schumacher gave him a kick in the ribs and he went on to win the trial running away. Strawberry certainly seemed like something to get hung up about. Given that the colt was bred on staying lines, Bougoure brought him along slowly and he only raced twice as a juvenile, on the last two Saturdays of the season. The bay’s racecourse debut came at Doomben in the 1200-metre First Todman Handicap. For a colt destined to win the A.J.C. Derby, there was a certain irony in the choice of jockey for his first few races. It was none other than the veteran Mel Schumacher. Now, Mel had ridden enough top horses in his lifetime to recognise a putative champion from the saddle, and while Strawberry Road could only run fifth that day at Doomben in the race won by the 7/4 favourite Rival Planet, Mel’s post-race report was glowing.
The following Saturday in the first race at Eagle Farm, a two-year-old handicap over 1200 metres, Strawberry Road (11/4) showed improvement to finish second in the race won by Panama Red. Those two educational gallops were all that the son of Whiskey Road needed to understand about the business of racing. Eleven days later in a nineteen-horse field on Brisbane Show Day at Eagle Farm, and stepping up in distance to 1400 metres, Strawberry Road and Mel Schumacher won the prestigious Q.T.C. Queensland Handicap against older horses by one and three-quarter lengths. Backed into 11/2, the Bougoure stable enjoyed a good day. Strawberry Road wasn’t the only horse to come out of that meeting and hit the headlines later in his career. For those sportsmen with an interest in Turf history, Strawberry Road won the sixth race on a seven-race card. Thirty-five minutes earlier the Country Cup had been run and won by the 6/4 favourite, a five-year-old bay gelding by Bold Aussie registered as Bold Personality. Two years later, almost to the day, on the very same racecourse but over 100 metres further, Bold Personality would be caught up in one of Australian racing’s most sensational (and amateurish) scandals. Meanwhile, ‘Strawberry’ was put aside for almost five months to allow him to ripen and strengthen.
In most racing seasons the ratings of dominant three-year-old thoroughbreds can change dramatically during the course of the season especially from the spring to the autumn. This was particularly true of the 1982-83 crop in Australia. While Strawberry Road was afforded the luxury of maturing in a Queensland paddock, his greatness unsuspected by all except perhaps Doug Bougoure, three other colts came to dominate proceedings in the classic races viz. Grosvenor, Veloso and Cossack Prince. Between them, this triumvirate would annex the S.T.C. Peter Pan Stakes, Gloaming Stakes and Hill Stakes; A.J.C. Spring Champion Stakes; V.A.T.C. Caulfield Guineas and the V.R.C. Derby. More remarkable still was the fact that in each of the aforementioned races, except for the Peter Pan Stakes and Hill Stakes, the same three colts filled the first three placings, albeit in changing order. Shades of Avenger, Ajax and Hua in the spring of 1937! So, what were the backgrounds of each of these three colts?
Grosvenor was the first to lay his claim on the Turf. An imposing 16-hands colt from the third crop of the all-conquering Sir Tristram, Grosvenor was out of My Tricia, an unraced daughter of the A.J.C. Oaks winner, Gay Poss. Following upon Sovereign Red and Gurner’s Lane, Grosvenor was the third of those famous sons of Sir Tristram that forever linked the name of Caulfield trainer Geoff Murphy with the champion stallion. Murphy paid $NZ40,000 for the boldly-marked bay colt early on the first day of the New Zealand National Yearling Sales at Trentham in late January 1981. Despite being bred to be a Derby colt, Grosvenor was one of those remarkably versatile racehorses that could both sprint and stay. Seen out very early in his juvenile season, he won the listed V.A.T.C. Balmoral Stakes on his home course over 900 metres in late September, and, but for the presence of Rancher, would have won the prestigious V.A.T.C. Debutant Stakes as well. In ten starts during that first season, Grosvenor won three races including the V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes and the S.T.C. Pago Pago Quality Handicap, but notably finished runner-up to the John Hawkes-trained 200/1 outsider Mighty Manitou in the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes, and third behind Marscay in the S.T.C. Golden Slipper Stakes, in which he started as the 11/4 favourite.
Veloso was a strong but lightly-framed colt by Zamazaan who had been purchased in New Zealand for $NZ35,000 as a yearling on behalf of the Gooree Pastoral Company. The company proprietor and major syndicate holder was the Filipino millionaire, Eduardo Cojuangco, a close friend and confidant of the corrupt dictator of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, although the syndicate’s members also included the leading veterinary surgeon, Percy Sykes. The colt had been selected in New Zealand by ‘Tic Tac’ Trinidad, Cojuangco’s trainer in the Philippines, and took his name from Johnny Veloso who acted as Cojuangco’s representative at Gooree. Cojuangco had been racing horses in Australia since the early 1960s although back in those days it was only in a small way with trainers, Peter Lawson and Herb Sampson. More recently, as the venal Marcos regime was showing signs of collapse, Cojuangco had transferred large sums of money out of the Philippines and into Australia, investing in real estate and bloodstock.
Some of Cojuangco’s more prodigal expenditures on Australian and New Zealand yearlings in recent years had included Ayala, the $40,000 sister to Bletchingly and Beaches, bought during Easter 1977; Palaban, a well-bred colt by Showdown out of the good producing mare Kirana and bought for $80,000 during Easter 1979; Paraluman, a daughter of Showdown from Vain Queen and bought for $250,000 during Easter 1980; and Amunani, a sister to Luskin Star, who cost a record $550,000 when sold as a yearling by William Inglis and Son during Easter 1981. Each of these bluebloods entered Neville Begg’s stables and while Palaban did go on and win the 1980 A.J.C. Champagne Stakes, not one of them ever went within coo’ee of justifying their purchase price.
Yet Cojuangco’s extravagance at yearling sales seemed quite circumspect in comparison to the money he was just then pouring into his stud properties. What Cojuangco aspired to was nothing less than to establish the premier breeding and racing complex in the southern hemisphere. He had started by buying the Gooree Stud at Mudgee from Lloyd Foyster for $1.5 million in February 1979, and soon afterwards acquired neighbouring Biraganbil from S. and M. Fox Investments for $1.2 million. The third piece of the jigsaw in this expensive equine empire came with the acquisition shortly afterwards of historic Galambine from the White family, which then brought the Gooree Pastoral Company’s total landholdings to some 5600 hectares.
While Biraganbil’s 3,600 hectares were deployed to produce all of the oats and most of the lucerne required for Gooree, Galambine was transfigured into a massive thoroughbred breeding conglomerate. Gooree itself became the centrepiece of operations with its agistment and training facilities, which included a large stabling complex and two training tracks, one of them all-weather with a woodchip surface. Perhaps the biggest challenge in basing a thoroughbred empire in Mudgee, apart from logistics, is the prospect of drought. This was partly addressed at Gooree by the construction of a giant dam with a 170-million-gallon capacity. Much of this building and construction work at Gooree was undertaken during that very 1982-83 racing season when Veloso emerged as a genuine classic prospect.
Veloso made his racecourse debut in a 1000-metre race for two-year-old colts at Randwick in the first week of November and ran a promising second. It was only in the autumn when racing over 1400 metres and 1600 metres that Veloso came into his own. The son of Zamazaan won a hat-trick of races at Warwick Farm and Randwick, culminating in the A.J.C. Fernhill Handicap when he carried 56kg including Ron Quinton to victory after drawing wide and being trapped wide for much of the journey. This performance saw the colt go to the post twelve days later as the 13/8 favourite for the A.J.C. Champagne Stakes. Unfortunately, an absence of early pace in that race saw Veloso go under by a long head to his less fancied stablemate, I Like Diamonds (16/1), after being ninth in the ten horse-field at the 600 metres. That appearance closed Veloso’s first season on the Turf.
Cossack Prince, the third of the outstanding three-year-old triumvirate in that spring of 1981, was owned and trained by Jim Marconi of Taras Bulba fame. Like Grosvenor, Cossack Prince was by Sir Tristram and had cost Marconi just $12,500 when sold as a yearling in Melbourne. It seemed a relatively cheap price for any colt by Sir Tristram, but then the yearling did suffer from a roached back and turned-out feet that reminded some onlookers of an equine version of Charlie Chaplin. Still, turned-out feet never stopped Charlie from running fast when being pursued in those silent film classics such as ‘The Circus’, and they didn’t stop this tall and lean colt either once he got over a bit of ground. Marconi was already beginning to make waves as a trainer but their frequency certainly increased with this fellow. Cossack Prince made his racecourse debut over 1000 metres at Sandown Park at the end of December without bothering the judge. After another couple of educational runs at Mornington and Sandown in late summer, Jim Marconi prepared to announce his arrival by accepting for the V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes.
While Grosvenor, as the 5/4 favourite in the hands of Peter Cook, effortlessly won the race by four lengths in the muddy conditions, Cossack Prince (50/1) impressed with his bold second placing when beating the balance of the runners by the same margin. Upon the horses returning to scale, Marconi met with a good reception from awaiting journalists and even hinted that Cossack Prince might just turn out to be another Taras Bulba. A fortnight later the trainer’s credibility took a knock when Cossack Prince finished a well-beaten seventh in the V.R.C. Gibson Carmichael Stakes after starting the 7/2 favourite. However, two successive victories at Caulfield and Sandown in May, soon saw the reputation of both horse and trainer resuscitated. It was then off to Queensland for the rich Q.T.C. Winter Carnival.
In the $30,400 Q.T.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes, Cossack Prince was most unlucky when second, beaten a long neck by the Eric Kirwan-trained galloper, Star of the Knight, yet another of the progeny of the sensational stallion, Sir Tristram. In a performance suggestive of Derby potential, Cossack Prince began awkwardly and settled near the rear of the big field before unleashing a powerful finish to just fail. But if that Sires’ appearance betokened blue riband prospects at three, the Cossack’s superb athleticism and stamina in the $60,000 Q.T.C. Castlemaine Stakes (1600 metres) just over one week later, confirmed it. Drawn in the very outside barrier of the 20-horse field, jockey Gavan Duffy fired Cossack Prince out of the gates in the Castlemaine and had him running in the lead upon settling down. He seemed a beaten horse turning for home but came again in the straight to go under by a head to Anchor In, in a winning time of 1 minute 36.1 seconds.
Much was expected from these three cracking colts when they resumed racing in the new season. Cossack Prince was the first to draw blood. Brought to Sydney and stabled at Canterbury, Cossack Prince impressed upon his Sydney debut when he ran the Golden Slipper Stakes winner Marscay to a half-length in the A.J.C. Up And Coming Stakes (1200 metres) at Warwick Farm in the smart time of 1 minute 10.8 seconds. Gilio Marconi confessed that his colt was probably a week behind in his preparation. One man particularly impressed with Cossack Prince was leading trainer, Tommy Smith. The horse reminded him of Bernborough and he believed he could develop into a champion. How he wished that Cossack Prince was stabled at Tulloch Lodge! Nothing in the next few weeks suggested that Smith was wrong in his assessment.
The following Saturday at Rosehill with jockey Neville Voigt in the saddle and heavily backed at 7/2, Cossack Prince set a new race record in winning the S.T.C. Peter Pan Stakes from a field that included both Grosvenor (sixth) and Veloso (eighth). Trainer Geoff Murphy was so disappointed with Peter Cook’s ride on Grosvenor that, not for the first time, he peremptorily sacked a jockey and substituted Dittman instead, when weight and geography permitted, for the balance of the spring. Still, every cloud has a silver lining and Cook’s sacking saw him preferred by Marconi for the mount on Cossack Prince. Moreover, though unforeseen at the time, it was to render Cook available for the prized mount on Kingston Town in that famous third W. S. Cox Plate.
Grosvenor stormed back into calculations as the season’s best three-year-old a fortnight later in the $60,000 S.T.C. Gloaming Stakes. Despite a farcical pace in the middle stages of the race, Dittman was rewarded for his initiative in going early and Grosvenor (7/4) withstood Veloso’s late challenge to win by a long neck, with a further length and a half to Cossack Prince (5/1) in the minor placing. The racing public now looked forward to the A.J.C. Spring Champion Stakes to determine which of the three colts was the season’s best. However, before that race, there was to be one more twist in the plot when Gilio Marconi decided to send Cossack Prince out to challenge Kingston Town the following Saturday in the weight-for-age S.T.C. Hill Stakes. There were only four runners in the 1750 metres event that year but it developed into one of the most exciting races of the spring. Marconi’s colt triumphed by a neck and short head over Kingston Town and Rare Form respectively, after Peter Cook, following several days’ fasting yet still riding a half-kilogram overweight, exploited both the inside fence and Cossack’s light poundage to the full.
Despite the victory, bookmakers and punters alike still preferred Grosvenor (even money) and Veloso (2/1) over Cossack Prince (4/1) seven days later in the $120,750 Spring Champion Stakes, run on a Randwick track softened by rain earlier in the week. Perhaps it was a sign of the times that, despite the clash of three great colts to be ridden by three great jockeys, only 17,819 people bothered to journey to Randwick for the opening day of the A.J.C. Spring Carnival. Nonetheless, those that made the pilgrimage witnessed a thrilling contest when Veloso, after a superb tactical ride by Sydney’s leading jockey Ron Quinton, lasted to beat Grosvenor by three-quarters of a length, with a further half-neck to Cossack Prince. The other eight starters, including the New Zealand gelding Greatness, were mere supernumeraries.
Grosvenor may have been a touch unlucky but few begrudged trainer Neville Begg victory in a race that for him had previously been fraught with frustration. After all, Begg had saddled-up Khapalaran, also owned by the Cojuangco family, as the 2/1 on favourite in the very first running of the event in 1978 only to see her fail to run a place. Two years later he sent forth the expensive Palaban as the 3/1 equal favourite, but he could only fill the minor placing behind Prince Majestic, again for Eduardo Cojuangco. But perhaps Begg’s biggest disappointment had been with Best Western the previous year’s winner. Begg had done all the hard yards educating Best Western only to see the colt sold out of his stable for a high price long before the classic. As for Veloso, Grosvenor and Cossack Prince, clearly there was very little between the trio and the difference at the winning post often seemed to depend upon luck in running.
Melbourne, however, put a different perspective on the matter. Grosvenor was always a better horse racing in the anti-clockwise direction and some things had gone wrong during his Sydney sojourn. Grosvenor had been subject to an attack of worms when he first arrived in Sydney from Brisbane, and then, after the A.J.C. Spring Champion Stakes, the normally robust colt scoured rather badly, suggesting to Murphy that he might have been got at. Returned to his home state and stables and posted with an armed security guard, the Geoff Murphy-trained galloper then reeled off three brilliant performances in the Caulfield Guineas, W. S. Cox Plate and the Victoria Derby and one not so brilliant in the Caulfield Cup.
In the $140,000 Caulfield Guineas on his home course, Grosvenor got back in the fourteen-horse field and Dittman was forced to negotiate the home turn seven horses wide while Veloso enjoyed a saloon passage. Grosvenor maintained his powerful finish all the way to the winning post to defeat Veloso by a long neck, with a further length to Cossack Prince. Such was the class of the first three colts, that the trio dominated the betting for the Caulfield Cup to be run the following Saturday. While Grosvenor went off the 6/1 favourite for the Caulfield Cup, Veloso and Cossack Prince were each quoted at 8/1 equal third favourites. Alas, wide barriers and handicap conditions against the older horses on the rain-affected ground proved too much for all of them, although Veloso did best to take the minor placing behind Grosvenor’s two stablemates, Gurner’s Lane and Gala Mascot, albeit eight lengths away.
Disappointing though Grosvenor had been in the Caulfield Cup, seven days later he was responsible for the best performance from a three-year-old that spring when he beat all bar the champion, Kingston Town, in the latter’s third W. S. Cox Plate. With Mick Dittman unable to do the weight, young Brendan Clements was substituted and he gave Grosvenor the perfect ride, As he recalled post-race: “I thought I was home and when I went past Kingston Town at the school, I thought the favourite was gone for sure. I had the others covered and I kept saying to myself, “I’m home, I’m home”, then I saw Kingston Town go past me in a stride.” Yet despite Grosvenor’s heroics at the Valley, Veloso (9/4) was surprisingly preferred to him in the market for the $200,000 Victoria Derby on the following Saturday in fine weather and on a fast track.
In a triumph that climaxed his Melbourne spring campaign, Grosvenor, despite racing for the fourth successive Saturday, proved too strong for Cossack Prince (11/2) over the Flemington 2500 metres to win by three-quarters of a length, after both horses brushed together when Grosvenor wanted to lay in up the straight. The lightly-framed Veloso, perhaps betraying the physical toll taken by his exhaustive spring campaign, finished eight lengths further back in the minor placing, a head in front of Dynamo. Veloso’s minor placing cost Sir Tristram the honour of siring all three placegetters in the historic classic as Dynamo was yet another son of the all-conquering New Zealand-based stallion. The winning time was 2 minutes 35.9 seconds. It was Caulfield trainer Geoff Murphy’s second Victoria Derby, having won his first with another long-striding son of Sir Tristram in Sovereign Red. It seemed then that the issue of dominance among the respective three-year-olds had been settled pro tempore by that Victoria Derby result.
But spring appearances can be deceptive and Grosvenor’s reputation had no sooner been burnished than it became tarnished. Indeed, all too soon his career on the racecourse was over. The cause, so often the case in those days, was an ill-advised trip to the Golden West in quest of yet more riches from the W.A.T.C. after an already exhaustive East Coast campaign. Do you remember that time in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the W.A.T.C. West Australian and Australian Derbies seemed the Turf’s equivalent of Scylla and Charybdis in Greek mythology? Just as the Sirens’ calls lured unsuspecting sailors to their doom in treacherous water against these monsters in the days of Homer, the big money on offer by the W.A.T.C. each December similarly lured unsuspecting three-year-olds to their doom in these two Derbies on hard, sunbaked, treacherous Turf.
Geoff Murphy had tempted fate with Sovereign Red in 1980 and got away with both the Western Mail Classic and the Australian Derby. He wasn’t to be so fortunate with Grosvenor. This impressive colt raced four times over there in the last weeks of 1982 and failed to win a race. He could only finish third in the West Australian Derby won by Rare Flyer; and fifth, after a chequered passage, in the Australian Derby behind the local colt, Sanatate. In so doing, Grosvenor injured his fetlock which effectively ended his career. There was immense interest in securing this son of Sir Tristram for stud and the bidding frenzy was eventually won by a New Zealand syndicate for $2.2 million headed by David Benjamin and Ross Findlayson. The horse then went off to start his highly successful stud career at the Fieldhouse Stud in Matamata.
Cossack Prince then became the next of the spring triumvirate to bite the dust. This son of Sir Tristram, who had won the $50,000 Sandown Guineas at his final start in the spring, failed to stand both an autumn campaign and a veterinary examination after Bart Cummings had made an offer of $1,250,000 to acquire the colt on behalf of Robert Sangster. Veloso remained on the scene, of course, but even his circumstances had changed dramatically. In the week before Christmas this son of Zamazaan had been sold for $450,000 to a syndicate that included John Singleton and the well-known cartoonist Larry Pickering. Moreover, the colt had been transferred out of Neville Begg’s Randwick stables and into those of Mal Barnes. Now, a change of stable for a first-class racehorse doesn’t always turn out well. Training methods change and it takes time for a new trainer to understand the quirks and idiosyncracies of any new owner and any new horse. Suddenly the three-year-old ranks were looking distinctly ordinary and rather less predictable. Then again – just occasionally – we’ve seen this script before. Seemingly a void opens up into which steps a champion or two. Enter stage right: Mr McGinty and Strawberry Road!
The little Kiwi colt, McGinty, or Mr McGinty as the Australian authorities insisted on his being called, was a most fascinating racehorse. Bred by Les Jarvis and Hilda Fraser, McGinty was withdrawn from the National Yearling Sales at Trentham in January 1981 both because of his lack of size and an unsightly cut on his chest. The bay colt was later bought privately by the colourful Keith Haub, a well-known New Zealand hairdresser and sometime-racecaller, and his more introverted partner, Barney McCahill, for $21,600. Placed in the Takinini stables of Colin Jillings, McGinty had been an outstanding two-year-old, winning his first five starts by big margins, including the Av.J.C. Avondale Stakes, A.R.C. Great Northern Foal Stakes and W.R.C. Dalgety Stakes. He was beaten by Andretti in the A.R.C. Eclipse Stakes but only by a neck and only after he had been badly checked soon after the start.
Sydney racegoers were familiar with McGinty’s credentials long before his Derby quest. Colin Jillings had brought the little fellow over the water to Rosehill as a two-year-old to win the $250,000 Golden Slipper Stakes. He didn’t, but perhaps he should have. McGinty never made it to the starting gates for the Golden Slipper but he gave a taste of what might have been when he clashed with the eventual Slipper winner Marscay in the Todman Slipper Trial Stakes (1200 metres) at Rosehill a fortnight before. Billed as a David and Goliath battle because of the vast difference in the respective sizes of the two colts, that clash became legendary in Australian racing history. Marscay, the reigning Slipper favourite, went to the post as the 9/2 on favourite, with 7/2 freely offered about Mr McGinty. Never mind the other three runners, this was a contest in two from the very start and it proved yet again the truth of the adage that it’s not the size of the dog in the fight that matters, but the size of the fight in the dog! I was there that day and the memory of the tiny New Zealand champion dwarfed by the almost 17-hands Marscay as the pair staged a two-horse war all the way down the Rosehill straight, still brings a tingle to the hairs on the back of my neck.
Thanks to the wonders of the internet and Youtube, a younger audience can relive that clash at the press of a button. Ridden hands and heels by Bob Vance, McGinty triumphed by a short head. But the delight of connections turned to despair soon after the race when a fracture to McGinty’s off-fore fetlock joint became obvious upon his cooling down. McGinty had won that day with a cracked cannon bone and two missing front plates. He lost the plates when he jumped out of the starting gates and the race video suggests that he cracked his cannon bone on the sweep of the home turn. The word ‘courage’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. Few who witnessed the after-effects of that race ever expected McGinty to race again. But a relatively simple operation was performed on the little colt by Treve Williams, the well-known Sydney veterinary surgeon and future A.J.C. committeeman, and a screw was inserted into the fracture by compression. And so, rather than being fitted with a slipper of gold on that trip to Sydney, the plain-looking McGinty was fitted with a pin of steel to his cannon bone instead. Had the intention been to retire McGinty to stud immediately after his injury, no such operation would have been necessary. But as far as Colin Jillings and the owners were concerned, this colt was meant for racing.
McGinty was off the scene for the best part of nine months. Jillings bided his time in bringing the little fellow along slowly and when he did reproduce him on the racecourse as a three-year-old, a wondrous W.R.C. Wellington Stakes (1600 metres) win was the result. This was followed by a victory in the W.R.C. George Adams Handicap (1600 metres) that saw the 1 minute and 33 seconds mile mark broken in New Zealand for the first time. Then came the New Zealand Stakes (2000 metres) to make it a sensational hat-trick before McGinty was loaded onto an aircraft and brought across the Tasman to begin his Sydney autumn campaign in the S.T.C. Canterbury Guineas. The sign on McGinty’s travelling box, scrawled on in rough ink by transport workers at Auckland airport, said it all: “Look out, Marscay, I’ve got four legs now! McGinty.” Stabled at Rosehill, the so-called Takanini Terror hadn’t even seen Canterbury racecourse until he stepped onto it to take his place in the Guineas. It was a high-class field that year and included Marscay, Veloso and Strawberry Road.
There was a sense of change in the air that day, a new order emerging, and not just on the Turf. The Canterbury Guineas was conducted on the same day as the Federal Election, which saw the ascension of Bob Hawke and Labor, over Malcolm Fraser and the Conservatives. I remember it well because on the evening before, I had dined at Tattersall’s Club with a non-racing friend who was over from England. At one stage during our meal, he paid a visit to the bathroom. While standing at the urinals, apparently a club member came in to relieve himself. Seeking to make conversation the newcomer blurted out: “So, who is going to win the big one tomorrow?” My circumspect friend, assuming the stranger was referring to the Federal Election and seeking to be diplomatic, mumbled in reply: “I think it will be close.” Came the member’s outraged response: “Close, be buggered! Mr McGinty’ll shit in!” My bemused friend returned to the dinner table and politely inquired of me just which political party Mr McGinty represented?
The following day both Mr Hawke and Mr McGinty were victorious, although the former won the more easily. Whereas overnight price assessors had McGinty as the 2/1 favourite, the best available price on-course at Canterbury was 6/4 and one needed the speed of Carl Lewis to get it. A sustained betting plunge eventually saw McGinty start the 9/10 favourite. Never out of trouble during the race, Sydney’s jockeys gave McGinty’s pilot, Bob Vance, a torrid time. Nonetheless, at the winning post, McGinty held off a powerful finishing burst from Veloso to win by a neck, with a further length-and-a-half to the dead-heaters, Baron Cayne and Chiamare. The Golden Slipper winner and McGinty’s erstwhile rival, Marscay, who eased from 8/1 to 20/1, finished fifth after leading into the straight. And just behind the first five, looming up on the outside when the race was all over, was none other than the visitor from Queensland, Strawberry Road, after getting cluttered up behind runners.
In a campaign that was to culminate with triumph in the A.J.C. Derby, Strawberry Road had earlier resumed racing on January 6 to score a fast-finishing victory in a Bundamba Improvers over 1100 metres and then nine days later had snaffled a Doomben Novice by three lengths after bursting through the pack in the final 200 metres. Strawberry Road scored effortlessly again a fortnight after that in a Transition Handicap over 1600 metres at Eagle Farm, this time with Townsville jockey Bill Cullen in the saddle for the first time. A spirit of lusty optimism began to pervade the small stable. Doug Bougoure had been chasing an elusive dream all of his life: he had always wanted a galloper good enough to tilt for the rich prizes at the autumn and spring racing carnivals of Sydney and Melbourne. Ever since his cousin Garnet Bougoure had won the 1945 A.J.C. Doncaster Handicap on Abbeville, Doug had wanted a taste of the same. But he had bided his time.
Now, in Strawberry Road, he believed he had found the very horse that could realise that hitherto impossible dream and win the A.J.C. Derby. Not all of his fellow Eagle Farm trainers shared Bougoure’s enthusiasm and some questioned whether the Whiskey Road colt had the class, belonging perhaps more to the second rank among the season’s three-year-olds. So, before booking the trip, Bougoure made doubly sure that he wasn’t deluding himself by subjecting his colt to a searching gallop at Doomben. The bay went 1600 metres of strong pacework and then ran home the last 800 metres in 46 ½ seconds, the last 400 metres in 23 ½ seconds! And yet Bougoure knew full well that his charge was nowhere near fully wound-up. Sydney it was to be then in quest of Derby honour, and Bougoure might well have channelled Shakespeare at that moment by declaring: “If it be sin to covet honour, then I am the most offending soul alive!”
Strawberry Road settled in at Pat Webster’s Randwick stables very quickly, never leaving an oat or a piece of hay in his manger. Indeed, he was one of the biggest eaters that Doug Bougoure had ever trained. And yet the horse remained an athletic type, not heavy in the neck or shoulders like so many three-year-old colts in the autumn. Bougoure interspersed his track gallops with plenty of walking, sometimes up to four hours a day. The big fellow (12/1) made quite an impression on the Sydney racing public first up when he ran Marscay (9/2), winner of the Golden Slipper Stakes, to a short neck in the Hobartville Stakes (1400 metres) on the tight Warwick Farm circuit. I believe that he should have won. It was an ill-judged ride by Maurice Logue who, unfamiliar with the horse, restrained him after jumping well, only to get caught up in traffic and then flash home. An unsuccessful protest by the third-placed Veloso (13/2) against Marscay climaxed an engrossing contest that also featured the shock defeat of the filly, Emancipation. Had the appeal from Veloso’s jockey been successful, the fast-finishing Strawberry Road would have been declared the winner.
Then came the Canterbury Guineas described above. One week after the Guineas, Bougoure’s colt tackled weight-for-age for the first time when he filled the minor placing behind Dalmacia and Fountaincourt in the S.T.C. Rawson Stakes (2000 metres) on fast ground at Rosehill. While only a neck separated the first pair, Strawberry Road was a further five lengths astern although it was a creditable performance nonetheless because Dalmacia had broken the track record in running a brilliant 2 minutes 0.4 seconds for the journey. A fierce puller in his early races, Strawberry Road was still being restrained and kept for a late kick by his various jockeys. The trick to getting the best out of the big horse, however, was for the man on top to assist, not resist, and the trick was about to be discovered.
The real significance of the Rawson Stakes came in its aftermath in the stewards’ room when Strawberry Road’s jockey Bill Cullen was suspended. Bougoure needed a replacement rider for the Rosehill Guineas to be run seven days later and while his first choice was Ron Quinton, that jockey declined the mount, preferring instead Chiamare and loyalty to David Hains and the T. J. Smith stable for past favours. In the sweetest of ironies, Bougoure then offered the mount to the leading Queensland jockey Mick Dittman, the man whose wife might well have been training the big Strawberry but for the decision to cull her stable a year earlier. Dittman had been chasing the ride ever since Strawberry came to Sydney. Now, as was so often the case throughout Dittman’s riding career, his timing was impeccable. For Doug Bougoure had Strawberry Road primed and ready to prove that he was the best racehorse in the country! There was only one thing more for which the Queensland horseman with the Whiskey Road colt could have wished. And it came on Tuesday and stayed for the rest of the week. I refer, of course, to rain. Seven days is a long time both in politics and in racing. The fast track that Rosehill had served up for the record-breaking Rawson Stakes quickly became a slow track for the Rosehill Guineas over the same course and distance.
Fifteen horses were accepted for the $150,000 Rosehill Guineas and McGinty went off as a warm 5/4 favourite ahead of Veloso at 9/4. Our Flight, the outstanding New Zealand filly and winner of the A.R.C. New Zealand Derby and C.J.C. New Zealand 1000 Guineas, was the only other runner under double figures. Curiously enough, given the track conditions, Strawberry Road was easy in course betting, eventually blowing out from 12/1 to 16/1. I’ll let Mick Dittman take up the story: “I jumped on him and went out onto the track. I got over his neck to give him a canter around to the barrier and I couldn’t pull him up. I asked myself: Gee, how strong is this horse? I had to run him into the outside fence to stop him…I thought to myself, I’m not going to get behind them on this bloke, I’ll just see what pans out. That’s how I learnt to ride him. I went around the first corner about four wide and they all pulled up. Nothing wanted to lead. I let him stride to the front and he just spat the bit out. That was the key to him. If he could lead on his own…”
Jockeys know within a matter of strides whether or not a racehorse can handle the wet. Strawberry Road loved it. He was a four or five lengths’ better horse on rain-affected going as the crowd at Rosehill was about to witness. The son of Whiskey Road bowled along at the head of the field without being put under any pressure until the last 600 metres. Mr McGinty tried to go with him on the turn being within a length but the rest of the field was a good four or five lengths further adrift and off the bit. On the line, Strawberry Road had two-and-a-quarter lengths to spare over the tiring Mr McGinty, with the same margin again back to Veloso in third place. Despite the slow ground, Strawberry Road ran the distance in 2 minutes and 3.2 seconds, the fastest time since the race had been run over the metric distance. One man who wasn’t surprised by the result was Veloso’s trainer, Mal Barnes. Strawberry Road was lodged at Randwick next to the Barnes’ stable and he’d witnessed first-hand how the Queensland colt had absolutely blossomed each day since coming to Sydney.
A.J.C. Derby Day fell on Monday, 4 April 1983. All the portents for a historic Monday were there from the opening event on the card, the W. N. Parry-Okeden Handicap over 1200 metres. For in that race, Lesley Bellden, a housewife and mother of two young children, became the first female jockey ever to ride a winner at Randwick. Lesley had migrated to Australia from England in 1969 and had been riding in races for five years, although only for the last three as a professional jockey. Her first winner had arrived at Orange on Boxing Day, 1981, and this initial Randwick triumph was just her seventh success. Partnering with Mystic Mahal, Lesley led all the way to seize the honour by a half-head from Ron Quinton. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the winning trainer, too, was a woman – Mrs J. M. Duke.
Success somehow seemed fitting given that Lesley had been one of the primary agents in getting women licenced as jockeys in N.S.W. After the race she explained: “We applied to the Southern Districts Racing Association and then the Australian Jockey Club, but our efforts were in vain. We then took our case to the Council of Equal Opportunity and after two years of strong petitioning, we were finally granted our licences. It has not been easy. I ride more trackwork than any male jockey at Warwick Farm, but I get few chances on race day. It is most frustrating to educate and condition a horse on the track, then see the race ride go to a male jockey.” However, Lesley wasn’t the first woman to ride a Sydney metropolitan winner. Jane Spence, a Cowra apprentice, had beaten her to that prize twenty-two days earlier when she guided Our Fable to victory at Canterbury on March 14.
Two hours and forty minutes after Lesley Bellden’s historic moment came another with the start of the A.J.C. Derby. The field is shown in the table below:
Fifteen colts and geldings accepted for the 1983 A.J.C. Derby and strong backing for the Rosehill Guineas’ winner saw Strawberry Road go to the post at Randwick as the 9/4 favourite with Veloso a solid second favourite at 5/2. Veloso maintained his strong rating, not just because of his minor placings in each of the Guineas, but in particular because of his great performance in the weight-for-age $250,000 S.T.C. Tancred Stakes (2400 metres) at Rosehill the week before. Ridden by his now usual race jockey Peter Cook instead of Ron Quinton, given the change of stable, Veloso had gone under by a neck to the year-older Trissaro but had been largely responsible for posting a new race and course record of 2 minutes and 27.4 seconds, clipping 0.3 seconds off the mark set by Shivaree in 1979. Trissaro only caught Veloso in the dying stages of the race, which augured well for Veloso’s Derby prospects over the same trip.
Secured Deposit, a giant New Zealand gelding trained and part-owned by Neville Atkins of Waiuku, was on the third line of Derby betting. A son of the former champion three-year-old and New Zealand Horse of the Year, Kirrama, Secured Deposit had finished second in both of the Dominion Derbies and at his most recent appearance had won the New Zealand St Leger. Secured Deposit was also partly owned by Dale Ralph, the wife of the Melbourne trainer Brian Ralph, and was to be ridden by the good New Zealand jockey, Tony Williams. Mr McGinty, on the fourth line of betting, was the only other runner under double figures, despite suspicions that 2400 metres on the heavy ground might test his stamina. After all, Mr McGinty had sullied his reputation somewhat when finishing a well-beaten 4 ¼ lengths behind Veloso when filling the minor placing in the Tancred Stakes.
Two other interesting runners in the Derby were Chiamare and Hayai. Chiamare was another homebred by the ill-fated stallion Claude and was owned and trained in the same interests as Kingston Town. The three-year-old colt started his career with a 330/1 win at Canterbury over 1250 metres in August and had steadily progressed. Chiamare had claimed the minor placing in the S.T.C. Canterbury Guineas, and at his last start just nine days earlier, had finished fourth in the S.T.C. Tancred Stakes. Malcolm Johnston was hoping to reprise his luck in the famous yellow and red silks. Hayai was an immature brown colt by Skyhawk II, trained at Randwick by the struggling tyro Jim Lee for Les Walters and at his penultimate start had won a 1900 metres handicap for three-year-olds at Canterbury, his only win in seven starts. Walters believed the Derby was coming too soon for the backward youngster and that he needed another twelve months to fully develop his potential.
Tom Lehrer, the American humorist and singer-songwriter, believed that bad weather always looked worse through a window. Well, all I can say is that he wasn’t roaming the betting ring at Randwick on A.J.C. Derby Day in 1983. The track was heavy and the grandstands and betting ring rain-sodden. Wet, I may have been, but the rains refused to dampen either my ardour or that of the 20,880 other hardy racegoers who braved the elements to witness one of the truly great Derby performances at Randwick in the years since World War II. As the horses mustered at the gates awaiting loading into the barrier, it seemed to me that Strawberry Road was intimidating his rivals with his very kinetic presence. Once the field was loaded and the barrier gates released, it proved to be not so much a race as a procession. Whiskey Road’s reputation as a stallion whose stock loved heavy ground was already established, but it was certainly franked that day.
Doug Bougoure’s unencumbered instructions to Mick Dittman as he legged him into the saddle were short and sweet: “Do what you want to do. If he starts to pull for his head, let him rip. He will win untouched whatever you do.” From barrier 11, Strawberry Road was the third to jump and Dittman quickly allowed the big horse to stride to the lead, as reflected in the photograph below, taken soon after the start. Strawberry and the others certainly sent the racecourse seagulls cawing and wheeling into the air! Indeed, for a moment the scene at Randwick resembled an Alfred Hitchcock movie. As the field negotiated the turn out of the straight, Strawberry Road near the fence led narrowly but comfortably from the Smith-trained pair Hermod and Chiamare, who had both taken full advantage of their inside draws. Meanwhile, Peter Cook was happy to have Veloso further back in the pack. As is often the case in heavy ground, the running order then changed very little before the run down to the home turn.
I mentioned earlier that Strawberry Road’s nickname even before he had ever been registered or raced, was Rocky. Derived from the 1976 film that won the Academy Award for Best Picture, the name seemed so right for this strapping colt. While ‘Rocky’, the film, was about boxing rather than racing, the two sports down through history have perhaps never been all that far apart. The golden years of each coinciding. The film was about an unpedigreed underdog heavyweight boxer, Rocky Balboa, fighting against the odds and never giving up. However, what set the film apart, more than anything else was the stirring soundtrack of “Gonna Fly Now”. Rocky Balboa’s challenge in the boxing ring was “going the distance”, something that was never going to bother Mick on Strawberry. One could almost imagine the Queensland horseman humming the Bill Conti lyrics as he swung around the home turn at Randwick on ‘Rocky’ in the Derby: “Won’t be long now, Getting strong now, Gonna fly now, Flying high now, Gonna fly, fly…” And away went the big Strawberry upon topping the Randwick rise, not the Italian stallion but the stallion owned by Greeks!
Strawberry Road raced away to humble Veloso by 5½ lengths, with a further 16 lengths to Chiamare in third place. As Dittman quipped afterwards: “He motored into the bit when I gave him a kick on the home turn, then went so fast that you would have sworn that he was on dry ground.” Peter Cook, who partnered the runner-up Veloso, confirmed Dittman’s commentary, informing the owner John Singleton: “I cruised up on the home turn and was feeling very confident as I closed the lead held by Strawberry Road. Then suddenly he went swoosh and left me floundering. What a colt! He left us without a feather to fly.” Never mind that the time for the race of 2 minutes and 41.8 seconds was the slowest since the Frank McGrath-trained Abundance registered 2 minutes and 45 seconds for the imperial distance in 1902. John Singleton took the defeat to heart. Having spent almost half a million dollars to acquire a potential Derby winner, he’d seen his dream shattered by a superior colt that had cost his owners and breeders less than $5,000 to bring into the world.
In retrospect, I consider Strawberry Road unfortunate not to have won the $250,000 bonus offered for any horse that could win the Canterbury Guineas, Rosehill Guineas and A.J.C. Derby that year. He was unlucky to be beaten two lengths at Canterbury Park. Had he been allowed to slip to the front on that tight circuit in his now bold free-running style as discovered by Dittman, one suspects he would never have been caught. As the four lucky owners awaited Strawberry Road’s return to scale after the Derby, Jim Pantos revealed that they had already refused an offer of $1 million after the Rosehill Guineas. Pantos declared: “He is still on the market, but we will not listen unless the offers range between $1.5 and $2 million.” An element of fatalism now crept into Bougoure’s view of his custodianship of Strawberry Road. Like the sword of Damocles, the very real possibility of having the best racehorse upon which he’d ever laid his hands sold out from underneath him, was to hang over Doug Bougoure for the next twelve months.
The mud-bespattered jockey who guided Strawberry Road’s fortunes in the A.J.C. Derby didn’t come to race riding from the rarefied atmosphere of any pony club or show ring. The son of a farm labourer, Leonard Ross (Mick) Dittman was born on 2 July 1952 into a working-class family from Rockhampton in Queensland. (He became known as Mick early in life to distinguish him from his father, Len.) Historically, Rockhampton had been an important staging post for horse and bullock teams linking the inland during the early droving days in Queensland. Something of that early horse culture lived on in the region. Mick was one of six children and loved horses from an early age and it just so happened that a few ponies were kept in a paddock next door to where he lived as a boy. It was on these ponies, sans saddle and bridle, that the future champion jockey first learned to ride. Because he was small, older family and friends predicted a future as a jockey and the idea stuck to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
When Mick was about nine the family moved to Mount Larcom for a couple of years and then to Westwood, a small township in the Rockhampton region. When the lad was twelve and wanted to work in stables out of school hours, Dittman’s father mentioned it to the Westwood publican, who raced a few horses on the side. The publican then put him in touch with the Southport trainer Bill Krafft and young Mick went there, eventually to be properly apprenticed just before his fourteenth birthday. Krafft was a hard taskmaster, a flinty disciplinarian, and Dittman was a young tearaway. It wasn’t an easy fit. Dittman later reminisced about lying awake in bed at three o’clock in the morning while apprenticed at Southport, far away from home, and wondering whether it was all worth it. But he stuck. As he told the journalist Bert Lillye in 1984: “I reckon I would have been a delinquent if I hadn’t gone into a racing stable.”
Mick’s first win came when he landed Kenmir Lad at Murwillumbah as a sixteen-year-old. So small was he that the race club officials had their work cut out finding enough lead to make up the correct weight. Dittman’s first city winner came a few months later aboard the 12/1 Smoke Smudge in a Transition Handicap at Doomben in September 1968, assisted by his 7lb allowance. Smoke Smudge was to remain a favourite of Dittman’s and in March and April the following year he landed Encourage and Trial Handicaps respectively on the horse at Eagle Farm. Winners started to come slowly. In March 1970 Dittman made his first visit to Randwick to ride Competition in a midweek race for Brisbane trainer A.C. Pratt. Competition failed but Dittman picked up a lucky last-minute winning mount on Rose of Athens (50/1) in the Novice Handicap, the first race on the card, for Rosehill trainer, Ray Guy, after jockey Bill Burnett couldn’t make the weight. Carrying 7st 4lb and drawn out in barrier 17, Dittman rode a waiting race at the back of the field and coming from eighteenth on the home turn, staged a barnstorming finish to win decisively. The regulars were impressed, but little could the 17-year-old lad have dreamed of the glories awaiting him in future years on that hallowed Randwick Turf. Dittman was to spend a week in Sydney at Bede Horan’s Rosehill stables following moves to have his indentures transferred from Bill Krafft, but he became too homesick.
Dittman returned to Brisbane and won his first important race a few months later when he landed the 1970 Ipswich Cup on Makata. People began to sit up and take notice. Such was Dittman’s ability that a friendly owner bought out his indentures from Bill Kraft and the lad spent the last twelve months or so of his apprenticeship in the Brisbane stables of Pat Duff. Old Jim Shean, one-time master of Neville Sellwood, George Moore and Tommy Hill, was helping about Duff’s stables at the time and the pair of them provided something of a finishing school for the last days of Dittman’s apprenticeship. Duff knew what he was about in tutoring apprentices and among others, Michael Pelling and Jim Byrne, later emerged from his stables.
A boy from the bush at heart, Dittman always knew his own mind. Before his twentieth birthday and while still an apprentice, Dittman sought and was granted permission by the Q.T.C. to marry Maureen Hegarty, a champion show rider who, after her marriage, became a successful trainer. A week after his twentieth birthday, Dittman won his first group one race when he landed the B.A.T.C. Doomben Cup on the Jim Griffiths’ trained 25/1 shot, Knee High. In so doing, he beat the great Roy Higgins on Rough ‘N’ Tumble by a short head with a further long head to Dale’s Gift in the minor placing. Dittman’s performance that day garnered him unqualified praise from the critics. All of the qualities that were soon to carry him to the very top of his profession were on display: the courage to slip a pocket on the home turn; initiative in establishing a break; and remarkable vigour and strength in the tight finish.
A fortnight later he won his second Ipswich Cup on the Roy Dawson-trained Skyperion. The following season, 1972-73, Dittman finished equal third in the Brisbane Jockeys’ Premiership with 43 wins and only Graham Cook and Doug Messingham ahead of him. Among his winners that season was his first Doomben Ten Thousand on the 33/1 outsider, Craigola in only his fourth ride as a fully-fledged jockey. The lightweight might have been 33/1 but Dittman gave a masterclass in front-running riding to win by six lengths! A curious set of circumstances led to Dittman getting that mount on Craigola. Dittman was under suspension when the meeting was meant to be run the previous Saturday but was washed out. Then Graham Ireland, who was meant to ride Craigola, himself got suspended. But chance bookings on group one winners soon became a thing of the past as Dittman, riding freelance, quickly emerged as the first choice among jockeys for many Brisbane trainers and beyond.
Distinguished visiting trainers such as Tommy Smith, Bart Cummings and Geoff Murphy, frequently sought Dittman’s services during the Brisbane winter carnivals. He was never destined to win a Q.T.C. Stradbroke Handicap but he won every other valuable race in his home state, often more than once. He secured his first Brisbane Jockeys’ Premiership in 1973-74 and closed out the decade with four more titles on the trot during the seasons 1976-77 to 1979-80. Dittman’s record of Brisbane premierships is even more impressive when one considers that for a number of weeks each season he was riding at the major autumn and spring carnivals in Sydney and Melbourne. Among his interstate victories were a Golden Slipper Stakes on Full On Aces in 1981 and a Melbourne Cup on Gurner’s Lane in 1982. Dittman didn’t always look pretty on a horse but he rode with fury and strength like the Devil incarnate with a ‘win at all costs’ determination. Not for nothing did Clive Morgan, the one-time Q.T.C. chief steward describe him as a Wild Bill Hickok while John Mahoney the former A.J.C. chief steward once observed that his strong riding “was more in keeping with camp drafting”. I might add that before the 1982-83 season was over, Dittman was to do what many racing men had been expecting for a long time, and that was to announce his relocation to Sydney to become Tommy Smith’s No.1 stable rider.
The results of A.J.C. Derby Day served to focus renewed attention on the stallion Whiskey Road. At that Randwick meeting, not only did he sire the winner of the A.J.C. Derby but also the winner of the racing club’s signature 1100-metre sprint race, The Galaxy, in Bronze Spirit later on the card. This was a remarkably versatile double for any stallion or minor commercial stud to achieve. Moreover, he had two other winners that day – Whiskey Galore at Eagle Farm and Beautiful Way at Canberra. A bay foaled in 1972, Whiskey Road was from the first crop of Northern Dancer’s sensational son, Nijinsky, winner of the 1970 English Two Thousand Guineas, Derby, St Leger and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. But Whiskey Road also had much to recommend him on the distaff side of his pedigree for his dam was Bowl of Flowers, the winner of ten races including the Coaching Club American Oaks and $US398,504 in prize money. Moreover, she was ranked the top filly in the U.S.A. in both her two and three-year-old seasons. Unraced at two, Whiskey Road had just four race starts for one minor win and a couple of placings. The horse was imported to stand at Neal Lavis’s Strathallan Stud at Braidwood, N.S.W.
Lavis, the complete horseman, had achieved international success in 1960 as a member of the four-man Australian equestrian team that took the gold medal in eventing at the Rome Olympics, while he also won the silver medal in the three-day individual equestrian event. Lavis was beaten for the gold medal in the latter by his teammate Laurie Morgan, who features in this chronicle as the breeder of our 1947 A.J.C. Derby winner, Valiant Crown. While Lavis wasn’t the breeder of Strawberry Road, by standing Whiskey Road at his Strathallan Stud he played no small part in the colt coming into this world. Lavis was 30-years of age at the time of the Rome Olympics, the youngest on the team, and riding his horse Mirrabooka was almost faultless throughout the competition. He’d bought the horse in Cooma for just £100 and after the Olympics was offered as much as £10,000 for him. But Lavis, a real horse lover, wouldn’t sell as Mirrabooka had become such an important part of his life.
Something of the same instinct for a bargain attracted Lavis to Whiskey Road almost twenty years later. Initially, Strathallan was the family’s cattle stud but in 1974, Neil, together with his two brothers, opened the 2,000-acre property to commercial bloodstock breeding while at the same time training a few racehorses on the side. Brigid Woodford-Smith, who had been impressed with Whiskey Road’s pedigree, purchased the stallion sight unseen in England for 10,500 guineas. A three-way partnership was then formed including John Middlemass and the 17-hand stallion came to stand at Strathallan, initially at a modest service fee of $1,000. Now, it is always the mark of a good stallion when he can get good winners to unfashionable mares during his early seasons at stud, and Whiskey Road did just that. Whiskey Road’s first crop produced eight individual winners including Just A Dash, Whiskey N’ Roses and True Blood. Moreover, from the very start, he proved himself capable of begetting early sprinters as well as classic-winning stayers. By the time Strawberry Road came along and strutted his stuff, Whiskey Road’s service fee had climbed to $12,000 and the world was beating a path to the front door of Neil Lavis’s homestead. Few A.J.C. Derby winners have been conceived more cheaply. In hindsight, Giftisa’s pedigree for a broodmare was rather better than it seemed at the time of Strawberry Road’s foaling. For later, at stud, her half-sister Yukiko would throw two good stakes winners in Silver Samurai and Danjiki.
Bougoure returned Strawberry Road to Brisbane immediately after the A.J.C. Derby while the Randwick carnival continued to unfold, albeit with Jupiter Pluvius as a constant presence. Some 450 millimetres of rain soaked the Randwick course in the space of three weeks and 11 millimetres of it had fallen in the 24-hours before 9 o’clock in the morning of Saturday, April 9, Sydney Cup Day. The Randwick track no longer enjoyed the reputation it once did for quickly recovering after such an inundation. Accordingly, the Sydney Cup meeting was postponed for a week after an early morning track inspection by the chief steward John Schreck who judged it unsafe for racing. As if the rain wasn’t enough, strong reports circulated that the automatic sprinkler system had inadvertently activated on the Thursday night prior. Some parts of the track were worse than others but the real swamp lay in a 40-metre stretch approaching the home turn, which no movement of the false rail could possibly remedy. The rescheduling of the $160,000 Sydney Cup caused a knock-on effect that in turn saw the $60,000 Champagne Stakes and $40,000 St. Leger deferred until the Anzac Day program on April 25.
One man who wasn’t unhappy about the postponement was Mal Barnes, the trainer of Veloso, for his Zamazaan colt now had an extra week to recover from his Derby exertions for the Sydney Cup. Barnes had to suffer his share of critics during that autumn, with unfavourable comparisons being made of him in relation to Veloso’s previous trainer Neville Begg, although neither Barnes nor the colt’s new owners ever lost faith. Nonetheless, spare a thought at this stage for the cartoonist Larry Pickering who couldn’t see much humour in the succession of minor placings Veloso had run in major races since paying heavily for his share in the colt. Thus far it had been a case of always the groomsman and never the groom leading into that Sydney Cup. Veloso had finished third in the Royal Sovereign Stakes, Hobartville Stakes and Rosehill Guineas; and second in the Canterbury Guineas, Tancred Stakes and A.J.C. Derby. Best described as a ‘big little horse’, Veloso was weighted on only 51 kg in the Sydney Cup and with Strawberry Road back in Brisbane, the stable fancied its chances. On ground officially rated as ‘dead’, Veloso’s frustrating run of placings came to an end when he and Peter Cook careered away in the straight to win the Sydney Cup by four and a quarter-lengths to his fellow three-year-old Secured Deposit, with the older Fountaincourt, a further 2 ½ lengths away third.
In winning, Veloso became the fourth three-year-old to do so in the space of five years, proof surely that the age group was being allowed into the rich handicap on far too generous terms. The result certainly did nothing to harm Strawberry Road’s reputation although Veloso’s was tarnished when connections went to the well once too often that autumn. Instead of sending the Cup winner to the paddock, Veloso was kept in work until Anzac Day when he went off the 8/13 favourite in the $40,000 A.J.C. St Leger. He failed to overhaul Forward Charge on a track that was downgraded on the day from ‘slow’ to ‘heavy’. When questioned by A.J.C. stewards that day, no less an authority than Ron Quinton described the track as an utter disgrace from a point near the 700 metres to the home turn. It was a foretaste of the troubles that lay ahead for Sydney’s principal club over the next few years before the protracted course drainage problems would be eventually and comprehensively addressed. And so the 1983 A.J.C. Autumn Carnival ended on a somewhat disappointing and controversial note.
Mind you, the autumn torrents weren’t just a phenomenon in N.S.W. Doug Bougoure’s winter carnival plans for Strawberry Road were disrupted in his home state when heavy rains also drenched the Queensland coast. The son of Whiskey Road was beaten into the minor placing in the $20,500 Q.T.C. Fourex Handicap first-up after being sent to the post at 7/4 on, but it was a different story a week later in the B.A.T.C. Channel Seven Stakes (2020 metres) when he streaked away to win by four lengths. Rain and postponed meetings continued to plague Strawberry Road’s preparation. Bougoure had planned to start the colt in the Prime Minister’s Cup (2015 metres) at Southport but the meeting was washed out and he was forced to switch and come back in distance for the $100,000 Powers Hotel Quality (formerly the Delaney Quality) run over 1350 metres at Doomben on the last Saturday in May. Despite the shortness of the journey and the presence of some fast Stradbroke Handicap hopefuls, ‘Strawberry’ ploughed through the mud to win effortlessly.
Bougoure’s preference was to then give the colt an immediate six full weeks in a paddock with the W. S. Cox Plate and Melbourne Cup in mind, but the owners had their hearts set on the Queensland Derby. Showing signs of sourness in his box in the week leading up to the Derby, Strawberry Road (4/9) pulled fiercely in the Queensland classic, but after a brilliant ride by Dittman, fell in to win by a half-neck from Forward Charge (25/1), with Tristram Lad (25/1) a further length and a quarter away. Many were underwhelmed by Strawberry Road’s performance and Tommy Smith, the trainer of the runner-up, was one such critic who dismissed the son of Whiskey Road as merely a wet-track champion. Well, time would tell, although I might observe that Tommy could often by churlish about top-flight gallopers trained out of stables other than his own. Meanwhile, the spelling paddock beckoned for Strawberry Road and while resting there he was named Australia’s Horse of the Year.
When Strawberry Road opened his four-year-old season with a sparkling victory in the Freeway Stakes (1200 metres) at Moonee Valley, excitement gripped the sporting public. The Whiskey Road stallion was quite forward in condition having given two exhibition gallops at Doomben a fortnight apart, as well as putting in an appearance at Brisbane’s Exhibition Ground for a show ring parade, before venturing south. Jockey Garry Willetts substituted for a suspended Mick Dittman on this occasion and bookmakers reacted to the win by immediately installing the horse as the 4/1 favourite for the $252,000 Caulfield Cup. A fortnight later on heavy ground at Caulfield and with Willetts still warming the saddle, Strawberry Road (1/2) was beaten almost a length in the Memsie Stakes by Red Tempo after that horse came again in the straight to down the Queensland champion.
Redemption of sorts came two weeks later when the horse, re-united with Dittman, easily beat Red Tempo and Cossack Prince in the Centennial Stakes (1600 metres) in the mud at Moonee Valley. It was probably within a day or two of this victory that Strawberry Road contracted a virus in the lung exacerbated by a severe throat infection that went undetected for a time, which marred his next two appearances which came at Caulfield in the weight-for-age Underwood Stakes and Caulfield Stakes respectively. Trissaro won the former from Cossack Prince on protest; while Mr McGinty won the latter from the very same horse. Puzzled by Strawberry’s successive failures, Dittman observed that the horse seemed to lose ten lengths at Caulfield. Part of the reason why visiting horses such as Kingston Town and Strawberry Road found Caulfield tricky, according to the chief steward Pat Lalor, was the ‘hill’ approaching the turn, where the ground fell away to the outside. Coming renovations to the course were expected to address the problem. Caulfield hoodoo or not, pushing on with a Melbourne program for Strawberry Road now seemed to some the triumph of hope over experience, as Samuel Johnson might have put it. Over the course of a few weeks, Strawberry Road lost almost a hundredweight in condition.
But Bougoure never despaired, or at least not for long. There was always a quiet stoicism and integrity about the man. Aided by the wonders of modern veterinary science, the trainer knuckled down at Flemington and virtually lived with the stallion for a couple of weeks. The Caulfield Cup, in which Strawberry Road had been handicapped on 57 kg was no longer on the agenda, but Bougoure still hankered after the W. S. Cox Plate. It wasn’t until trackwork at Moonee Valley on Tuesday morning before the $275,000 weight-for-age championship of Australia that Bougoure was sure that the horse was fit and well again. Ron Quinton chivalrously rode him in the gallop when Dittman didn’t front, and he declared to Bougoure upon dismounting that the horse was ready for anything. Doug returned to Flemington a very happy man and not just because of the trial. Rain was falling in Melbourne and even with the forecast of improved weather, at the very least a dead track at Moonee Valley seemed assured. Ron Quinton wasn’t quite so enamoured following the trial. After all, he had the mount on the favourite Emancipation in the W. S. Cox Plate and now feared that Strawberry Road might well have the mare’s measure.
Strawberry Road’s recent disappointments at Caulfield had estranged many of his former admirers, which saw the classy three-year-old Sir Dapper and the champion four-year-old mare Emancipation go to the post as the joint 7/2 favourites. Next in the betting came Mr McGinty at 9/2 while Trissaro and Strawberry Road were relegated to the third line of betting at 11/2. Nonetheless, there was strong stable-inspired betting for Strawberry Road on the Moonee Valley course that had seen his price firm from 13/2. Despite the star-studded weight-for-age championship that year being a roughly run affair, Dittman on Strawberry Road was always confident of success and gave his charge the perfect ride. While Emancipation was badly checked on two occasions in running and Trissaro bled, Sir Dapper simply couldn’t stay the distance. When Strawberry Road exploded to the front at the home turn, the Valley crowd roared its approval. In scenes reminiscent of the great Kingston Town, the Whiskey Road stallion raced away to beat Kiwi Slave (100/1) by 3 ½ lengths, with a further 1 ½ lengths to Mr McGinty in third place. Ringing declamations came in the wake of the victory. It was the proudest moment in the training career of Doug Bougoure as he stood ruddy with reflected glory in the winner’s stall awaiting the colt’s return to scale.
Within days of the Moonee Valley triumph, there was renewed speculation about the sale of the horse. The Australian and American record producer, Rob E. G. Porter, who was in Australia to watch his horse Amarant run in the Melbourne Cup, for a time held a $2 million purchase option on Strawberry Road. Bart Cummings even made a special visit to Brisbane on Porter’s behalf to inspect Strawberry after the stallion had a couple of minor operations completed on his stifles. But in the end, the prospective sale fell through much to Bougoure’s relief. Jim Pantos, the managing owner said at the time: “Strawberry Road is for sale for two million dollars, but we are not interested in syndications, options or deposits. The first person to come up with the full amount in cash can have our horse.”
The W. S. Cox Plate was to be the high-water mark for Strawberry Road on the Australian Turf. While connections briefly considered starting him again in the George Adams Handicap on the last day of the V.R.C. Spring Meeting, wiser counsel prevailed and he was sent to a lush paddock on the Darling Downs. When Strawberry Road resumed in the autumn, he was restricted to just four weight-for-age races with Mick Dittman in the saddle but he disappointed in them all. First-up, he could only finish in the minor placing behind Emancipation and Claim The Quest as the 4/7 favourite in the A.J.C. Apollo Stakes on a heavy track. Strawberry Road then ran unplaced in the A.J.C. Chipping Norton Stakes, S.T.C. Rawson Stakes and the S.T.C. Tancred Stakes. It was an ignominious end to what had promised to be a glorious season.
Curiously enough, Strawberry Road only won three races as a four-year-old and all had come at Moonee Valley early in the season. The subsequent loss of form was frustrating but two factors hugely contributed to it. Firstly, the virus contracted by the horse in the spring had exacted a heavy toll and Bougoure believed Strawberry had not enjoyed sufficient rest to properly recover and that elements of the virus might still be in his system. Secondly, the horse’s training had been constantly disrupted by sales’ negotiations. One day Bougoure would have him in work; the next day he would be out of training to be sold. On top of this, of course, was the fact that Strawberry Road was a big, strong stallion and he’d often arrive at the barrier with something other than racing on his mind.
Despite the horse’s disappointing form during that Sydney autumn, John Singleton, the Sydney-based advertising man and radio personality, led a syndicate that negotiated successfully to buy him. After he failed in the Chipping Norton Stakes, it was announced a half-share and controlling interest in Strawberry Road had been sold for $1,000,000 with the transfer to be taken on April 15, the day after the Tancred Stakes. Contrary to earlier stated intentions, the original Queanbeyan owners, Jim and Arthur Pantos, and George Georgopoulos, and Mando Menegazzo of Brisbane, still retained the other half-share. If Singleton and some of the other syndicate members, which included Ray Stehr, Kerry Packer, Geoff White, Larry Pickering and Gerry Rose, did suffer buyers’ remorse in the wake of Strawberry Road’s Tancred Stakes failure, it didn’t last long. Initially, the new syndicate intended to immediately retire the son of Whiskey Road from the racecourse to stand stallion duties at Singleton’s Prince’s Farm Stud at Richmond. Indeed, 37 stud bookings at $15,000 a mare had been taken before the syndicate principals, John Singleton and Ray Stehr, changed their minds. Instead, the men declared their intention to take on the best gallopers in the world with Strawberry Road in an ambitious campaign that would include the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (2400 metres).
After a fortnight’s spell at Prince’s Farm, Strawberry Road was transferred into the Randwick stables of the young trainer John Nicholls, a former racing journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald. Doug Bougoure’s family and racing commitments in Brisbane precluded any consideration of him continuing to train the horse, particularly given the five-month American and European odyssey that the new owners had in mind. Nicholl’s, whose own father Syd had struggled on the fringes of Sydney racing, at least had previous experience in France having worked briefly for the leading French horseman Maurice Zilber some nine years earlier at the time that the latter prepared the champion mare, Dahlia. The scope of this work was never intended to fully pursue the international careers of any of the A.J.C. Derby winners. However, Strawberry Road presents a special case and perhaps it is worth reviewing the highlights of his overseas adventures, much as we might click through a series of Kodachrome slides from that era.
Strawberry Road left Australia at the end of May with his program aimed fairly and squarely at the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe to be run at Longchamp in Paris on 7 October. He was flown from Mascot to Los Angeles where he was in quarantine for three days, and thence on to Paris. Upon arriving in France, John Nicholls and Strawberry Road then took up residence at leading French trainer Patrick Biancone’s distinguished Chantilly establishment. Biancone had won the previous year’s Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe with the great All Along for owner Daniel Wildenstein and was also training Sagace, owned in the same interests, and each was expected to be a leading contender for the same race in 1984. In late August, Strawberry Road made his European race debut at Baden Baden in Germany when he was beaten by a nose in the Oettingen-Rennen Stakes, an unsuitably short 1600 metres group three event at weight-for-age. Stepped up in distance at his next start, Strawberry Road won the Grosser Preis von Baden (2400 metres) in Germany in early September when partnered by the former New Zealand jockey, Brent Thomson, who that year had relocated to England to further his career. In winning, Strawberry Road had to survive a protest lodged by the runner-up Esprit Du Nord, trained by John Fellows and ridden by the Australian, Gary Moore.
Then came the Arc! Lester Piggott was tentatively engaged for the ride but in the days before, suffered a concussion in a fall. Instead of recruiting an available Brent Thomson as a substitute, Singleton and the company opted for the English jockey Greville Starkey instead, much to their later regret. During that October, I was travelling in Europe and made the pilgrimage to the Bois de Bologne to watch the champion Australian galloper. I positioned myself down on the rails near the broad majestic sweep of the Longchamp home turn. On soft ground under dull and leaden skies, Greville Starkey allowed Strawberry Road to stride to the front as the field swept for home, and in doing so there was a fleeting moment when it seemed that perhaps the impossible dream wasn’t so impossible after all. When Strawberry, carrying the famous green and gold boxing kangaroo colours, went past me he seemed set fair to run right away from his opposition in much the same authoritative manner as he had done in the A.J.C. Derby under similar heavy ground conditions in April 1983. John Singleton, calling the race live for Sydney radio, hailed Starkey’s manoeuvre with the remark: “he’s either a genius or a crook”. It soon became clear that he wasn’t a genius as those with long memories of Dancing Brave’s English Derby would have known.
After all, this wasn’t Randwick and Strawberry was up against world-class opposition as the unforgiving straight of Longchamp stretched far into the distance. Moreover, he’d already run some 1000 metres before the race had even started, having taken charge of Starkey on the way to the starting gates. In the end, the long run home proved a bit too far for our Australian hero who weakened to finish a gallant fifth behind the champion French galloper and his erstwhile stablemate, Sagace. For the record, Sagace won by two lengths from Northern Trick, with the previous year’s winner of the race, All Along, a further six lengths behind. Three-quarters of a length then separated the fourth and fifth placegetters, Esprit Du Nord and Strawberry Road. In the aftermath of the race, the impulsive Starkey came in for considerable criticism for going too soon and not just from John Singleton and Ray Stehr. Many in the international press contingent queried the ride of “l’assassin”.
Five days later, Strawberry Road left Paris for Washington and his engagement in the 33rd Washington D. C. International Stakes on October 20. Ridden a less than elegant race by Gary Moore, Strawberry Road came late after being held up for a run, to finish third behind the French representative, Seattle Song. Next on the itinerary was the $U.S. 2 million Breeders’ Cup Turf Stakes at Hollywood Park on 11 November. Seeking yet another change of jockey, John Singleton telephoned Mick Dittman and offered him the ride but the latter declined much to his later regret. Partnered instead by the veteran American jockey Willie Shoemaker, Strawberry Road set the pace for much of the mile and a half journey only to be overtaken on the turn. Still, he fought on gamely down the straight to eventually finish fourth in the race won by the Aga Khan’s three-year-old colt, Lashkari. The race was conducted before a crowd of 60,000 people including such Hollywood stars as Elizabeth Taylor, Gregory Peck and Cary Grant.
Dittman watched the race on television and later reflected: “Willie Shoemaker rode him well but I knew the horse better than anybody. He led on him, got an easy lead, little tight track, and Willie came round the corner just sitting on him, thinking he was going to go bang and kick away. But they were all coming from behind him. He should have been gone. If he’d have known him as well as me and gone at the six or seven hundred, they wouldn’t have caught him.” The globe-trotting Strawberry Road then closed the year out by finishing seventh in the Japan Cup in the hands of Lester Piggott. In so doing, the horse earned $16,000 which pushed his prizemoney past the $1,000,000 mark, thereby becoming only the third Australian horse to achieve that milestone following upon Kingston Town and Manikato.
Strawberry Road returned to France in 1985, and, under his new trainer, Patrick Biancone, won the prestigious Prix de Harcourt. The son of Whiskey Road was then sold to the prominent French art dealer and owner-breeder, Daniel Wildenstein, who had admired the horse ever since John Nicholls first stabled the horse at Chantilly the year before. Wildenstein then won the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud with him before sending the horse to the U.S.A. for another crack at the Breeders’ Cup Turf Stakes. It wasn’t a case of second time lucky, for he was beaten a neck by the champion Pebbles after a glorious inside rails ride on the latter by the Irish jockey Pat Eddery. Strawberry Road was then sold yet again, to Allen Paulson and Bruce McNall and he remained in the United States to be trained by the great Charlie Whittingham. By now a seven-year-old, Strawberry Road claimed the last major race win of his career in the Arcadia Handicap at California’s Santa Anita Park in 1986.
Allen Paulson became the horse’s sole owner when Strawberry Road was retired to stand stud duty at his Brookside Farm in Versailles, Kentucky. The Northern Dancer blood was the most sought after in the world at the time and Strawberry Road, through Whiskey Road, was a grandson of the legend. It hardly came as a surprise when the champion Australian galloper became a highly successful sire over there. Among the most successful of his progeny were Dinard (1991 Santa Anita Derby, San Rafael Stakes), Fraise (1992 Breeders’ Cup Turf), Escena (1998 Breeders’ Cup Distaff) and Ajina (1997 Breeders’ Cup Distaff). Strawberry Road was also the sire of the dams of Vindication, the champion American two-year-old of 2002 and winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile; and Affluent, the winner of four American grade one races and over $U.S.1.4 million in prizemoney. It was no small irony that the horse who had so narrowly missed winning the Breeders’ Cup himself, came to have such a disproportionate influence on the race as a stallion. In 1995 Strawberry Road contracted a bacterial infection that led to peritonitis and pneumonia. He fell in his stall in a weakened condition, fracturing the femur in his right hind leg, and had to be euthanised. It was the end of the long and winding road for the big Strawberry.
The sale of Strawberry Road to overseas interests might have denied the Australasian bloodstock industry access to one magnificent stallion, but it is interesting to reflect on the compensation so many of the other three-year-old colts from that acclaimed 1982-83 season gave the same industry. Grosvenor proved a wonderful boon to New Zealand, going on to sire 53 individual stakes winners of 96 stakes races. From the moment Omnicorp and Westminster came along in his first crop, Grosvenor was never going to lose. Under the stewardship of David Benjamin, he stood for eighteen seasons at stud in New Zealand and other good gallopers he got included Cross Swords, Eagle Eye, Te Akau Nick, and Ebony Grosve. Grosvenor was euthanised in June 2001 at Fayette Park Stud at Tirau after developing severe osteomyelitis.
The gallant McGinty entered the stallion paddock with 14 wins from 27 starts although his prizemoney never quite reached $500,000. The little fellow belied his size and went on to have a successful career at stud siring 25 individual stakes winners of 47 stakes races with the best of his progeny being The Gentry, Jolly Old Mac and Miltak. McGinty died within days of Grosvenor’s passing, collapsing from a heart attack while galloping at Progressive Farms. As good as McGinty’s stud career was, it wasn’t a patch on that of the colt he conquered at Rosehill on that famous occasion in March 1982. Marscay, the property of a syndicate and standing at the famous Widden Stud, was responsible for 66 stakes winners of 156 stakes races. Marscay was leading first-crop sire in 1986-87 and twice champion Australian sire, in 1990-91 and again in 1992-93. Sadly, neither Veloso nor Cossack Prince proved successful at stud. Veloso got just two ordinary stakes winners in Melody Fox and Manchu Warrior while Cossack Prince suffered fertility problems that saw him produce only 16 live foals from five seasons at stud. Nonetheless, there is a nagging suspicion that but for his lack of fertility, he may have proven a very good stallion for one of his sixteen foals was the multiple stakes winner Princess Pushy.
When Strawberry Road walked out of Doug Bougoure’s Eagle Farm stables for the last time in May 1984, there was no smouldering rancour from the 61-year-old veteran trainer. The champion racehorse had changed his life. Besides, he still had some eighteen horses to look after, although he believed that his days of basking in group one glory were well and truly over. After all, it had taken him a lifetime to register the first one. But racing can be a strange game. The following season Doug Bougoure was given a tiny brown filly to train by the imported English stallion Tingo. Bred by Ian Hedley at his Beaudesert property, she had been passed in as a yearling for just $700. Retained by Headley and registered as Tingo Tango, the filly proved a sensation when Bougoure brought her to Sydney in the late winter of 1985. After a laudable fifth in the A.J.C. Silver Shadow Stakes, Tingo Tango then proceeded to score a hat-trick of wins at Randwick in the course of twenty-two days with triumphs in the Furious Stakes, Reginal Allen Handicap and the Flight Stakes. In each race, her hallmark was a swooping finish and in the group one Flight Stakes, in particular, she staged a phenomenal performance to gather in the leaders within the shadows of the post to beat those high-class fillies, Shinakima and Shankhill Lass into the minor placings.
I remember that Flight Stakes very well having secured 7/2 for my money on the Queensland filly, but two furlongs out my chances of collecting seemed very remote indeed. Bougoure declined to push on to Melbourne with Tingo Tango after that triumph, preferring to turn her out into a paddock and wait for an autumn assault on both the Canterbury and Rosehill Guineas and the A.J.C. Oaks. Such patience should accrue its own rewards in racing but it didn’t work out that way for connections. Alas, the daughter of Tingo suffered an injury at the beginning of her three-year-old autumn campaign – probably in the Hobartville Stakes on the tight Warwick Farm circuit when she was checked during the running. The injury went undiagnosed for the balance of the campaign in which she ran well below her best in several races. It was only upon her return to Brisbane that the wasting of her muscles on one side of her coupling, or lower back, became apparent. Thereafter, Tingo Tango never regained her form.
Despite the disappointment, Bougoure was still not quite ready to humour the infirmities of age and retire from the game. There would be other useful horses for Bougoure in the years to come including Gypsy Rogue (1990 B.A.T.C. Tourist Minister’s Cup) and Smart Alex (1996 Q.T.C. Queensland Cup) but nothing remotely like Strawberry Road. Doug Bougoure finally retired from training in 1998 at the age of seventy-five. Retirement afforded him the satisfaction of watching his own son, Dan, establish himself as a Group One-winning international trainer with that wonderful sprinter Falvelon. Experiences mediated through recollection in old age can often be romanticised but Doug Bougoure in retirement could reflect with immense satisfaction upon a full life on the Turf. He died in his sleep in August 2011 at the ripe old age of eighty-eight leaving behind June, his loving wife of close to sixty years, their son and daughter, and three grandchildren.