No two brothers have made a more significant contribution to the Australian Turf than Hurtle and Charles (C.B.) Fisher. One of the pioneering families of South Australia, their father, was the first Resident Commissioner of South Australia and controlled the sale of land in that fledgeling colony during the first two years of its existence. In this role, Fisher senior was responsible to the Board of Commissioners in London and in many respects exercised more power than Governor Hindmarsh, with whom he worked in tandem.
On the morning of January 31st, 1866, the famous stallion, Sir Hercules, died at John Lee’s Bylong Stud near Mudgee at the patriarchal age of twenty-three. The reported cause of death was an inflammation of the kidneys. Few stallions in Australia had made a greater reputation at the stud than this son of the imported Cap-a-pie. At the time of his death his greatest son, The Barb, bred by the Lee brothers, was still some two months away from making his first public appearance on a racecourse. Accordingly, as exceptional as the procreative exploits of Sir Hercules appeared at the very moment he drew his last breath, his posthumous reputation would soar even higher with the remarkable achievements of the black demon.
There were few more famous or distinguished broodmares in the early Victorian Stud Book than Gaslight. Bred in England by Sidney Herbert in 1850, she was purchased by William Yuille, on behalf of Hector Simson, while on a visit to England in 1857. Gaslight cast her first foal on board ship during the passage out, although it never amounted to much and she then missed the two following years. Illumination, by Warhawk, was her first foal to race in Australia, and, in Phillip Dowling’s hands, among other events, the filly won the 1864 V.R.C. Oaks and St Leger later in the same season. It was at the break-up of the Bournefield Stud that the old mare, heavily in foal to Kelpie, was sold to Hurtle Fisher.
Some months later a colt was foaled and by the time Fisher dispersed his Maribyrnong Stud in April 1866 the youngster had developed into an impressive, powerful yearling. There were some fabulous prices paid at that auction and not least for the Fisherman stock. Little Fish was bought-in for 1150 guineas, Sour Grapes for 1100 guineas, and Sylvia for 600 guineas but the Kelpie offspring went cheaply and all bar one man ignored Gaslight’s son. It was Patrick Keighran who came, saw, and bought the colt for 200 guineas – the only bid made. Keighran subsequently registered the horse as Fireworks and decided to race him in partnership with his friend Samuel Martin.
When the A.J.C. began to transfer its attention to Randwick in 1858, the old trysting ground at Homebush was forsaken and fell into desuetude for some years. Despite the newfound splendour of Randwick in those early years, however, the holidaymaking public failed to engage with the new course as a place to combine the enjoyment of racing with that of a picnic. It was to satisfy this yearning for the atmosphere of a fete champetre that Homebush enjoyed a brief resurgence in the mid-1860s.
Many and varied are the paths that men have trod towards greatness in their chosen professions. None more so than John Tait, the man that pressmen hailed in the second half of the nineteenth century as the Father of the Australian Turf. Tait was born in November 1815 in Melrose on the Scottish Borders, a town renowned for its beautiful abbey ruins in the middle reaches of the Tweed and overshadowed by the peaks of the Eildons. This was land made famous by Sir Walter Scott and the dashing and romantic tale of Tait’s life would have been rich and worthy material for the pen of the Scottish bard. Although there has been some suggestion that he may have been illegitimate and a foster child, he was reared the son of Robert Tait, a jeweller and engraver, and his wife, Margaret, the daughter of an Edinburgh shoemaker.
In September 1861 the grand broodmare Cassandra, dropped a stylish colt foal to the champion stallion, Sir Hercules, in the paddocks of the Ramornie Stud. A few evenings after the foaling, a Ramornie employee noticed Cassandra in a state of agitation and walked over to investigate, only to discover her foal at the bottom of a deep hole into which he had fallen and been trapped for some time. It was a close brush with the wings of the angel of death. Surely if Cassandra’s excitement hadn’t attracted the man’s attention, the foal would have been dead by morning, and the chronicle of the Australian Turf denied one of its most illustrious chapters.
It was on Tuesday morning, January 13, 1863, that the 56-ton schooner the Grafton landed in Sydney carrying valuable cargo. On board was a remarkably fine brown colt by the 1850 English 2000 Guineas winner Pitsford, out of that grand-producing broodmare Cassandra. Bred by Charles Tindal at his Ramornie estate on the banks of the Clarence River, the colt bore the most aristocratic of lineage and Tindal had already knocked back an offer of £500 on him. Pitsford, his sire, had not only won the English 2000 Guineas but had run as the favourite for the 1850 English Derby, ultimately finishing second – beaten a length by the great Voltigeur. Those two classic performances apart, Pitsford had also won the Racing Stakes at Goodwood and the Great Yorkshire Foal Stakes at York, as well as several other classic races.
The 1862 chapter of our chronicle introduces us to a family that came to have a dominant influence on bloodstock in the colony of New South Wales in particular, and throughout Australia in general. The founding father of the Australian branch of the Town family came to the first colony in less than auspicious circumstances. John Town (1773-1846) was apprenticed to a Lincolnshire tailor when he was sentenced to life imprisonment at Warwick, England, in 1796; he arrived in Sydney on board the Royal Admiral in the year 1800.
It was on a balmy autumn Tuesday, March 2nd, 1858, that the bloodstock of the Macarthur Bros’ historic Camden Park Stud came before the public in an unreserved disposal sale. Situated just outside the County of Cumberland some forty miles southwest of Sydney, Camden Park had been the home of Captain John Macarthur and his descendants since 1805. In time, it had become the most influential nursery for blood horses in the land. John Macarthur began breeding quality horses while at Elizabeth Farm, Rosehill; Percy (1804) and Hotspur (1805) were arguably the first of what was to prove an impressive company of quality bloodstock that eventually emanated later from Camden Park.