And now we come to the year in our Derby chronicle that, more than any other seems almost like a fairytale – a true romance of the Turf. With shades of Dick Whittington, a penniless fourteen-year-old boy leaves his humble bush home of dirt floors to seek his fortune in the city. Dick Whittington dreamt of a city paved with gold; our hero was to find racecourses paved with the stuff. After a series of misadventures as a jockey, a strapper and a punter, he eventually decides to become a horse trainer. He manages to buy a colt that nobody else wants and enters it in the A.J.C. Derby. The horse itself is a maiden but the young man – now thirty-two years of age – declares to all who will listen that the horse, like himself, is very much underrated. He backs the colt at long prices at Tattersall’s Club to take the classic, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The 1948-49 racing season brought forth a wonderfully talented crop of three-year-olds and none more so than Carbon Copy, winner of that year’s A.J.C. Derby. An ounce of luck is worth a ton of judgement in the breeding of a classic winner, an aphorism of the Turf that the brothers’ Abe and Hymie Silk were only too willing to acknowledge. The pair had made their fortune as fruit merchants in Melbourne before indulging in their love of thoroughbreds by establishing the Glen Devon Stud at Werribee, about twenty miles southwest of Melbourne. As small-time hobby breeders with only a modest budget, opportunity knocked during the last months of World War II when the one-time leading Victorian trainer Bill Burke sold them a rising nine-year-old broodmare named Havers.
Horseracing, it has often been said, is the great leveller. As history bears witness, regardless of money or bloodlines, winning Derbies is not a birthright. A battler with the right horse in the right place at the right time can sometimes play the bluebloods at their own game. I’m reminded of this truth when I look back on the running of the 1947 A.J.C. Derby. Amongst other things, it is the story of two men each from a quite different background and class who became, or rather were raised to become, racehorse trainers. One, born with all the advantages of wealth and privilege, was to establish himself as Sydney’s leading trainer in those years before, during, and just after World War II. And yet from countless entries, he had never won the A.J.C. Derby and 1947 would be his last throw of the dice. The other, raised on the struggle street associated with the notorious world of 14.2-hand ponies, was to remain a journeyman trainer all his life. And yet with this, his first throw of the dice, he would claim the 1947 A.J.C. Derby prize. The two men were Bayly Payten and Alf Doyle.
At the beginning of spring in 1946 the man generally acknowledged as the finest trainer of stayers in Sydney, had never won a Derby either at Randwick or Flemington. The figure in question was 71-year-old Dan Lewis. A Derby victory might have been missing from his curriculum vitae, but he already had four Sydney Cups to his name. A true gentleman of few words, and those few spoken in a soft and courteous manner, Dan Lewis had cut a distinctive figure on Sydney racecourses over many years with his trademark bowler hat, bow tie and pipe. He was to remain reticent throughout a training career crowded with success in which his best two years were still to come, although he never did manage to top the Sydney trainers’ premiership.
The war ended in Europe on 8 May 1945 and while victory in the Pacific didn’t come until the surrender ceremonies aboard the battleship Missouri on 2 September, Australian racing had burgeoned throughout the year. Nearly all of the wartime restrictions had been abolished by Derby Day, including those on interstate transport before the spring meetings; but a persistent drought contributed to a fodder shortage, and as a result, the numbers of horses permitted to race in Victoria and NSW were drastically reduced. It was one thing for wartime restrictions to be lifted, it was another to return to normalcy after the upheaval of wartime legislation. A number of controversial issues confronted the Australian Jockey Club.
On a midsummer’s day in 1943, Peter Riddle happened to be at the Newmarket yards of William Inglis and Son when the yearlings from Kia-Ora Stud were being unloaded from the horse float. In those days, the yearlings arrived at the yards well before Easter to be prepared for the sales, and the Kia-Ora stock was generally the first, some three months before the auction. Although Peter Riddle’s brother, Bert, was the manager of the stud at the time, Peter hadn’t been given any privileged information concerning this particular batch. But for a reason that he later had difficulty explaining, he took a liking to one little colt as he emerged from the float.
‘What, when drunk, one sees in other women’, the critic Kenneth Tynan once intoned, ‘one sees in Garbo sober’. It was the ultimate paean to a screen heroine – those transcendent qualities of beauty, strength and courage. In the dark years of World War II when the austere and hard times robbed the racecourse of any glamour, another of the fair sex was to win the hearts of a generation. Hers might have been a different kind of beauty, strength and courage, but, like Garbo, she too, wanted to be left alone to enjoy her own company – both on and off the racecourse. It was in races, however, that her aloneness captured the public imagination when doing what she did best – setting the pace and daring others to catch her.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” Thus the immortal Charles Dickens began his classic novel “A Tale of Two Cities”. In the spring of hope that was 1942, a 41-year-old Italian immigrant turned horse trainer, named Fillipo Allotta knew what the irrepressible Boz meant when he penned those lines in 1859. For a young man on the threshold of life as a professional horse trainer to have within his stables the odds-on favourite in Australia’s richest classic, affords both the prospect of triumph and disaster – those twin imposters as Kipling once described them. If events proceed as expected and the horse wins, then a successful career is virtually assured; on the other hand, if the venture ends badly, a promising professional life might be snuffed out before it has barely begun. And this was precisely the circumstance in which Allotta found himself in that dark war-ravaged spring of 1942.
Most racing men vainly spend a lifetime in their quest for a Derby winner. A chosen few come upon them with seemingly monotonous regularity. The Dandenong wholesale butcher, Roy McLean, was one of the chosen. In the previous chapter, we saw how he acquired Lucrative as a yearling in his first essay at ownership. On the morning of March 4, 1940, just two days after Lucrative had finished a length second behind Trueness in the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Flemington, Roy McLean and his trainer, Harry Freedman, were in attendance at the opening session of the Melbourne Yearling Sales conducted by Mackinnon and Cox Pty Ltd. The two men had spent considerable time inspecting the various yearlings on offer and had made up their minds to bid for Lot No 35 – a brown colt by the imported Law Maker out of Stage Wit. He was a beautiful stamp of a yearling although perhaps a little light in the thighs and gaskins. The colt was being offered by Les Aldridge and had been bred at his Kismet Park Stud at Sunbury, Victoria.
Permit me to quote the famous monologue from William Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’:
‘All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances. And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.’
This 1940 chapter of our chronicle introduces one of the most controversial and divisive figures ever to have strode across the Australian Turf: John Wren. Few men in Australia’s colonial history have been as revered or reviled as Wren. His life was an integral chapter in the social history of Melbourne. Perhaps the image of John Wren that younger readers have – if they have one at all, is the infamous one derived from Frank Hardy’s celebrated historical novel ‘Power Without Glory’ published in 1950 – the book the Wren family sought to suppress by an unsuccessful Court challenge. Hardy was tried for criminal libel in 1951, but he was acquitted by a jury in a case that attracted enormous publicity. Indeed, it was the last prosecution for criminal, as opposed to civil libel in Victoria.