History is lived forwards but is chronicled backwards, i.e. upon reflection. As such, we know the ending before we can ever truly appreciate the beginning and we can never wholly recapture the moment when it was to know the beginning only. And at the beginning of that 1972-73 racing season, there was Imagele. Even now, across the divide of some forty years and more, Imagele and what he promised still engender bittersweet memories for me. Permit me to take up the story on that April day in 1962 when the Gundagai grazier, Edwin John ‘Jock’ Graham, decided that he liked the look of a particular daughter of Nullabor at the Sydney Yearling Sales. Graham needed no trainer to second guess his choice, but when it came to bidding for her, he deputised the shrewd Johnnie Donohoe, for the grazier had a solicitor’s appointment to keep before the filly came into the ring.
Graham instructed Donohoe to bid as much as 750 guineas but as it came to pass he managed the business at just 525 guineas. Donohoe took the filly home and broke her in but she soon went shin sore, and he subsequently sent her on to Graham’s 3,000-acre property, Eulonga, at the quaintly-named Darbarlara, some eighteen miles from Gundagai. Graham named the filly, Cele’s Image after his wife, Cecilia, whom he had married in 1942 during the darkest year of World War II. Only the second racehorse that Jock Graham had ever purchased, Cele’s Image remained at Eulonga for the best part of a year before she was put into the Wagga stables of Doug Stephen. The daughter of Nullabor matured into the best sprinting mare of her day, winning twelve races including the A.J.C. Warwick Stakes and the Q.T.C. Stradbroke Handicap as a three-year-old and over $45,000 in stakes.
‘Jock’ Graham was a character in his own right, the archetypal down-to-earth bushman that might have stepped straight from the pages of Banjo Patterson. The son of a dour, strict Scotsman who scorned both intoxicating liquor and gambling on racehorses, Jock had been imbued with the ethics of hard work from a young age. Educated at St Ignatius College, Graham had spent his life on the land, and his family had specialised in Aberdeen Angus cattle and Romney Marsh sheep in the Coolac district for years. During the 1960s the Coolac region was to be the nursery for some high-class racehorses thanks largely to three properties that each bordered the Murrumbidgee River. Apart from the Eulonga property and Cele’s Image, Griff and Daisy Tait of Dark Jewel fame were near neighbours of the Grahams at Jugiong; while Bill Lenehan across the river was to breed the likes of Latin Knight and Better Gleam.
When retired to stud, Cele’s Image was sent to Wilkes and in the spring of 1967 dropped a chestnut colt that Graham put through the William Inglis Yearling Sales during Easter 1969 with a $20,000 reserve. The bidding for Lot No. 60 fell a thousand dollars short, and Graham resolved to keep the colt and sent him to the trainer, Tommy Smith. Registered as Phantom Dollar, he was a brilliant but unsound sprinter with weak sesamoids.
Nonetheless, he was up to winning welters as a three-year-old and as a four-year-old took out the prestigious Tattersall’s Carrington Stakes. The second foal of Cele’s Image was Tina’s Joy, the result of a mating with Red Gauntlet. Again, she proved to be a sprinter of the highest class in Jock Graham’s colours, winning nine races including the V.A.T.C. Thoroughbred Club Stakes and the A.J.C. June Stakes before she was tragically killed in June 1973 in a motor accident in Doncaster Avenue when being walked to early morning trackwork by Bob Thomsen, who was then Tommy Smith’s foreman. Tina’s Joy had been due to go to Brisbane for the Doomben Ten Thousand and, regrettably for Jock Graham, wasn’t insured at the time.
Still, these vicissitudes all lay in the future when Graham was casting about for a sire with which to mate Cele’s Image in the spring of 1969. He was heavily influenced by Tommy Smith in deciding to send his mare to the imported stallion, Sostenuto, standing at the Woodlands Stud. Although foaled in Italy when his dam was on a visit there to be mated with the great Ribot, Sostenuto was a very English racehorse. A big son of the 1954 English Derby winner, Never Say Die, and the first foal of Arietta, a minor placegetter in 1956 in The One Thousand Guineas, Sostenuto had been bred and raced by that redoubtable character of the English Turf, Phil Bull. As a racehorse, Sostenuto never realised his full potential. He split a pastern very early on in both his two and three-year-old seasons and as such only faced the starter three times during that period for three wins, including the prestigious Gainsborough Stakes over the mile at Hurst Park. At one time he had been the ante-post favourite for the English Derby. At four he showed what might have been when he ran away with the famous Ebor Handicap (14f) at York, winning by eight lengths. Sostenuto’s year younger half-brother, Romulus, by Ribot, turned out to be the best miler in Europe in 1962 winning among other races the Sussex Stakes and the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. Thus there was much attraction in Sostenuto both on pedigree and performance as a stallion prospect.
Enter Tommy Smith. It was Smith’s habit during the 1960s to take an extended European holiday most years during the Australian winter months. It was on just such a trip in 1963, charged with a commission by George Ryder of the Woodlands Stud to purchase a stallion that Smith procured Sostenuto. Upon returning to Sydney on the liner Oronsay, Smith lost no time in singing the stallion’s praises. Moreover, he backed up his judgement by buying some yearlings from the stallion’s first draft at the 1966 Easter Sales where Sostenuto emerged as the leading first-season stallion, among many such stallions that year, when his nineteen yearlings averaged 2067 guineas each. Neither Smith’s judgement nor his expenditure was misplaced when three of Sostenuto’s first crop, i.e. Fiesta, Regal Rhythm and Rumoroso all brought success to Tulloch Lodge.
Clearly, Sostenuto was genetically transmitting his galloping ability to his offspring, but there was a less attractive trait coming through as well. Sostenuto was inbred to the great foundation mare, Lady Josephine, and as such was a grandson of the famous or rather infamous Nasrullah, whose racing career was severely compromised by a boorish temperament. A certain atavism was evident in the barrier etiquette of some Sostenuto stock. Moreover, Graham was only too aware that Cele’s Image herself was a granddaughter of Nasrullah, so a mating with Sostenuto would imbue any offspring with a double cross of that great but erratic racehorse. Still, such concerns weren’t enough to deter Graham from the match and some eleven months later on October 20, 1970, his champion mare threw a liver-coloured chestnut colt cast in her own image. When it came to registration only one name would do: Imagele!
When Imagele first walked through the portals of Tulloch Lodge, the Bowral-street establishment of Tommy Smith was basking in its full reign of meridian splendour. More than any other trainer of the post-war era, Smith had succeeded in interpreting the zeitgeist. It was to be the age of bigness, and as the decade of the 1960s unfolded, it was becoming clear that size was everything amidst the wage pressures and relentless economies of scale in any form of business, not least running a racing stable. It dictated that only those with numbers would survive over the long term. And how Tulloch Lodge was surviving! As the 1971-72 season ended and just as Imagele was beginning his first tentative education in the ways of the Turf, Tommy Smith had won his twentieth successive Sydney Trainers’ Premiership. But he had done so with no less than 141 1/2 metropolitan winners – more than twice the number of the runner-up, Jack Denham. The star of the stable was the all-conquering Gunsynd, who was about to open his five-year-old season, although other equine celebrities with whom Imagele rubbed shoulders there then included the likes of Lord Nelson, Igloo and Analie. Jock Graham’s homebred wasn’t long in proving he was worthy of moving in such a distinguished social milieu. There was an easy-going acquiescence to Imagele as he went about his work and the strapping colt fired Smith’s imagination from his very first gallop.
For all of his profligacy at the yearling sales during the previous summer and autumn, Smith’s two-year-olds generally lacked depth in the 1972-73 racing season. Imagele, just like his dam, succumbed to shin-soreness early in his juvenile season and his racecourse debut was delayed. In his absence, Hoist The Flag became the Tulloch Lodge representative in the A.J.C. Breeders’ Plate although he could only finish runner-up to Jewel Thief. Thereafter, the stable’s two-year-old winners including Wilwin, Spedito and Zahedi seemed rather lacklustre until mid-November when a particular son of Sostenuto made his much-awaited debut. The race was a 900-metres handicap at Rosehill, and he was entrusted into the hands of the No. 1 stable jockey, Kevin Langby. Much was expected, as Imagele had excited the chattering classes, both by the manner of his victory in a two-year-old barrier trial at Randwick just a few weeks before and the brilliance of his trackwork in the days since.
As such, the colt was despatched a 4/6 favourite in a field of eighteen runners, although it seemed a ludicrously short price about a son of such an erratic stallion having his first race start. The Sostenutos by now had a well-founded reputation among racegoers for poor barrier etiquette, and Imagele proved true to the breed when he was slow out of the gates and second last on settling down. With a wall of horses ahead of him turning for home, Langby elected to weave through a narrow opening rather than take the colt to the extreme outside rounding the turn, eventually winning by a half-length. So fast did Imagele finish that day, one was tempted to look for the vapour trail in his wake! Smith’s exaggerated appetite for gasconade and publicity – never easily sated – saw him immediately declare the colt a champion, but even the wearied and cynical pressmen present had to concede that here, at last, was poetry amidst the ranks of the juveniles in a season where only prose had gone before.
Effortless victories in juvenile handicaps at Canterbury and Randwick during December saw the chorus of praise for Imagele grow even louder before Smith eased the son of Sostenuto in his work and readied him for the rich autumn plums. Taken to Melbourne, Imagele retained his undefeated status at Flemington by a mere half-head in mid-February in the Criterion Handicap, albeit when conceding the runner-up six kilograms. Authentic Heir, the beaten horse in question, was being trained elsewhere at the time but in due course would prove a future star for Tulloch Lodge. The same two colts fought out the Sires’ Produce Stakes on the same course three weeks later with the same outcome, although the margin this time was a length.
Returned to Sydney, Imagele was given a relatively easy time on the track before running in the Todman Slipper Trial Stakes, a fortnight after the V.R.C. Sires’ and a fortnight before the Golden Slipper. It was a race in which he clashed with the Melbourne star, New Gleam, and despite appearing somewhat less than wound-up in the birdcage, maintained his unbeaten record of six from six in running a smart 1 minute 10.8 seconds for the 1200 metres. Because of the metric conversion of race distances in 1973, what had formerly been six furlongs was now some twenty-three feet shorter. Accordingly, Imagele established a new race record over the new distance but his time compared favourably with the Golden Slipper record for six furlongs of 1 minute 11.1 seconds held jointly by Reisling (1965) and John’s Hope (1972). In winning, Imagele defeated Zephyr Bay by two-and-a-half lengths, with three-and-a-half lengths more to the previously unbeaten Tontonan, from the J. B. Cummings stable, having his first start at Rosehill.
It was thence on to the S.T.C. Golden Slipper Stakes. The race that year was worth $75,000, and the unbeaten Imagele went to the post the pronounced 4/9 favourite with Tontonan the only other runner under double figures at 6/1. Fourteens and over were on offer about the rest of the field. Curiously enough, it was the first time that Jock Graham was present on a racecourse to witness his putative champion and it proved one of the more sensational of Slippers. Imagele seemed destined for trouble even before the race when he sprung a plate and delayed the start. Sometimes a whiffling vexation of this sort can be more trying to the temper than a serious calamity but Langby thought nothing more of it as he loaded the big colt into the barrier. As the capacity field of sixteen thundered towards the home turn, Imagele clipped the heels of a runner in front and plummeted to the ground instantly. In so doing he brought down two other runners in Baron Bold and Iago, who tumbled over the top of him. Kevin Langby was thrown and lay unconscious on the ground.
While jockey, Ron Quinton (Iago) was unhurt, both Langby and Chris Gwilliam (Baron Bold) were rushed to Parramatta Hospital after the race although each emerged relatively unscathed, apart from the concussion and facial lacerations. Imagele wasn’t quite so lucky, cracking three ribs on the offside and sustaining an unsightly gash in his barrel. He was the fifth odds-on favourite in a Slipper to disappoint punters in seventeen runnings of the race. The drama of the three-horse fall cast a pall over proceedings and completely overshadowed the dazzling victory by Tontonan, who had both drawn wide and started badly – perhaps a blessing in the circumstances – but prevailed by more than a length.
For a time it was uncertain how badly Imagele was injured and whether or not the colt would race again. In his absence, Tontonan proved simply irresistible as the even-money favourite in the $37,000 A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes at Randwick a fortnight later. As he was being led away to the hosing-down stalls after the race, it could be seen that he was favouring his front legs. Tontonan had a history of shin soreness, and this was the first real indication of the leg problems that were to blight a brilliant career. In his absence, the A.J.C. Champagne Stakes that year fell to the filly, Just Topic, trained at Warwick Farm by Harry Clark for Ron Thurecht and his wife.
Imagele was back in training at Tulloch Lodge in June, and it wasn’t long before Tommy Smith was once again declaring him as good as ever and predicting big things. In the colt’s Randwick trackwork there was the same blatancy of speed that had marked those scintillating days before the Golden Slipper. The A.J.C. Hobartville Stakes at Warwick Farm on August 18 was chosen for Imagele’s comeback race, and, reunited with Kevin Langby, he treated his ten rivals with contempt, winning by four lengths from Itchy Feet and Marrakesh to give Smith his fifth win in the semi-classic in eight years. Those previous four winners had been Garcon (1966), Great Exploits (1967), Rajah (1968) and Fairy Walk (1971) while he had also won the race as far back as 1949 with Chastise, but not one of them was a patch on Imagele.
Moreover, there was no suggestion of field-shyness despite the horse’s traumatic Slipper debacle. It was a similar story in heavy ground at Rosehill in the Canterbury Guineas a fortnight later, when the Sostenuto colt went to the post at odds of 4/13 although the conditions conspired to restrict the winning margin over his stablemate, Hoist The Flag, to less than two lengths. It was noticeable on that day that Imagele still hadn’t lost his winter coat and there remained the unsightly hollow in his side where he had fractured his ribs. His victory was just one highlight in a remarkable Canterbury Guineas Day for T. J. Smith who trained five winners and three seconds on the eight-race-card. Furthermore, he also won the Memsie Stakes at Caulfield with Zambari. But Imagele remained the star attraction.
Parallels were now being drawn with Martello Towers. Like the Grey Flash, racegoers were wondering whether the powerhouse colt could now extend his winning sequence to encompass both the Rosehill Guineas and the A.J.C. Derby? One half of the answer came at the same course a fortnight later when Imagele outsped, outstayed and outclassed his fourteen rivals in the first of those contests. As the 8/11 favourite, Imagele easily overcame his wide barrier and had a margin of four lengths to spare from Craig Win, with a further three-and-three-quarters of a length to his stablemate, Hoist The Flag. Tommy went into overdrive: “This is the best three-year-old I have trained outside of Tulloch…I told everyone they would not get him off the bit in the Rosehill Guineas. The experts said that he would not stay, that he would pull when tried over a distance, and they found fault with his track gallops. He tricked some of the trackmen because I deliberately did not push Imagele in training. I am after the big stakes – I want the A.J.C. Derby, the Victoria Derby and the Caulfield Cup, too,” Smith jubilantly declared. “I won’t be surprised if he remains unbeaten this season.”
It was certainly colourful copy for the scrum of newspapermen surrounding the trainer, and he did speak from a position of authority. After all, it was the seventh time T. J. had trained the winner of the Rosehill Guineas, his previous successes being Idlewild (1952), Tulloch (1957), Bold Pilot (1958), Dark Briar (1966), Portable (1969), and Royal Show (1970). It was now on to Randwick. Not everybody was as confident as Tommy that Imagele would stay the Derby trip. Bart Cummings in a bit of pre-race gamesmanship observed: “I’ll be surprised if he runs 2400 metres strongly, being out of a Nullabor mare.” Now, it was true that if you went back far enough, to the seventh maternal dam, Silesia, in fact, you would find a daughter of the great Spearmint, the son of Carbine who won the 1906 English Derby. Moreover, Silesia was a half-sister to those two great Edwardian stayers, Bayardo and Lemberg. But the problem was that there was a lot of sprinting blood in between.
The 1973 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions appear in the table below:
A.J.C. Derby Day dawned gloriously – weather to gladden the heart of any true sportsman who loved to hear the rustle of silk and the thunder of hooves on the greensward. A field of eleven, including one filly, confronted the starter for the blue riband. In the birdcage, Imagele was bronzed with a rich radiance, and if his pedigree and explosive speed cast doubts as to his ability to stay the Derby distance, no such concerns surrounded the favourite for the race. Grand Cidium possessed a pedigree that suggested he would stay like a bailiff, while his six performances on the racecourse leading into the Derby shimmered with class. A son of Oncidium out of an unraced three-quarter blood sister to the champion, General Command, he was closely related to the Melbourne Cup winner Straight Draw and the Caulfield Cup winner, Ilumquh. Moreover, his year-older brother Dayana, in some nine weeks over the spring and summer of 1972, as we have seen, had become the first three-year-old to win four Derbys as well as the W.A.T.C. Perth Cup.
An early November foal, the stylish brown colt had been sold at the New Zealand National Yearling Sales in January 1972 for $18,000 to Melbourne trainer, Tom Hughes, and had been his only purchase at Trentham. Expensive though he was, the price still fell well short of the $40,000 paid by Melbourne bloodstock agent, Jim Shannon, at the same sales for a full brother to Citadel on behalf of Jack Ingham. Whereas Ingham’s colt sank without trace, Grand Cidium, racing in the colours of leading Melbourne industrialist, Bruce Hedley, had quickly emerged as the most promising young stayer in the land. The winner of two of his only three starts as a juvenile, his single failure – if failure it is called – came when he ran the minor placing in the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Flemington behind Imagele and Authentic Heir. Many argued that he should have won that race as well as his jockey, Mick Mallyon, became pocketed soon after turning for home. Sent to the paddocks after the V.R.C. Autumn Carnival, Grand Cidium had won each of his three races in the new season culminating with an easy win over Longfella and Americano in the S.T.C. Hill Stakes at his latest outing. When jockey Mick Mallyon brought Grand Cidium back to scale after the Hill Stakes, even before dismounting he leaned over the horse’s neck and told Bruce Hedley: “This is the best horse that you’ll ever have, mate!” Trainer Tom Hughes wrily observed: “I thought he was the best that I’ve ever had some time ago.”
The only other colts considered a chance of upsetting the two leading contenders were Leica Lover and Craig Win. Leica Lover was bred by the leading trainer, Bart Cummings, who raced him in partnership with a couple of established clients of his stable. By Latin Lover and a half-brother to Grigio, whom Cummings trained to win a Port Adelaide Guineas, Leica Lover hadn’t been spared early racing, and the Derby was his fifteenth race start, having already won four including the Adelaide Guineas and emulating his half-brother in the Port Adelaide Guineas. Craig Win, trained by Syd Brown at Warwick Farm, had won the H.B.J.C. Hasting Stakes and was beaten only a long head into second placing in the Great Northern Foal Stakes in New Zealand as a juvenile. He had been sent across to Brown by his Auckland owners back in the autumn to be aimed at the Derby and had impressed with two strong wins at Randwick. The best of the others seemed to be Tommy Smith’s second string, Participator, by Alcimedes from Marie’s Daughter, that had cost $10,000 at the New Zealand Sales but remained a maiden after six starts. He hadn’t started in either of the Guineas but had finished an unlucky second in a 2400-metres Graduation Stakes on Rosehill Guineas Day. Marie’s Daughter would indeed produce a Derby winner, but it wasn’t to be for another ten years.
This, then, was the mise-en-scene for the running of the 1973 A.J.C. blue riband. It was the last Derby for the legendary racecaller, Ken Howard, and it proved to be a classic glorious enough for church bells to peal throughout the land. For my money, it was the most exciting Derby I’ve seen and amongst the finest ever run. The three horses that dominated the betting dominated the race, with Imagele, Leica Lover and Grand Cidium challenging head to head from the distance as the last furlong became a theatre of valour. At some stage, each of the three was hailed as the winner in the furious dust of battle of those final hundred yards. And even when they did flash across the line, nobody was quite certain which of them had triumphed. Racegoers with long memories immediately recalled the famous finish of the 1924 A.J.C. Derby when Heroic, Nigger Minstrel and Spearfelt flashed across the winning post.
I don’t think that I ever saw Tommy Smith more excited than the moment when Imagele’s number flashed on the semaphore board, and the crowd roared its approval. It was the moment that conferred sublimity on the colt. Intoxicated in the moment of victory Smith spontaneously threw his hat in the air and with that brio that had distinguished his career, declared that the liver-chestnut might even be as good as Tulloch, contemplating the imminent conquest of both the Guineas and Cup at Caulfield, not to mention the Victoria Derby. Smith’s constitutional weakness for colourful hyperbole about his own horses often backfired. Some of his more rhetorical flourishes all too frequently only served to devalue his more sober judgements. However, on that afternoon few pressmen were prepared to gainsay him. Fittingly, the occasion marked the leading trainer’s eighteenth success in a Derby in Australia (and his seventh at Randwick) and secured him the outright record of most wins, which he had previously shared with the legendary Jim Scobie.
Ah! There was an effulgent grandeur to the occasion although, from the grandstands, the crowd perhaps failed to appreciate the quality of Imagele’s performance fully, as the handsome colt didn’t enjoy the smoothest of passages. Although he sprinted quickly from his outside gate, Grand Cidium from his near rails draw was pushed along by Mallyon to prevent Imagele from crossing as the field thundered towards the first turn pell-mell. After travelling about 800 yards, both Imagele and Leica Lover were squeezed, and Langby eased the son of Sostenuto into fourth position. Although he initially resented the restraint, the colt quickly relaxed into Langby’s hands. From there on, the three favourites in the market were always among the first five or six horses. Coming to the home turn, Grand Cidium strode to the front from the outsiders, Mischord and Regoli’s Pride. At this stage, Leica Lover was in fourth, and Imagele fifth position. When Langby moved to improve his status on the turn, Craig Win carried him off the course slightly, costing the colt at least a length.
Now, the Trainer’s Stand at Randwick has never been shy of great grandstand riders and Tommy Smith was one of the best. And on that historic Derby Day, he excelled himself. As he viewed Langby’s misfortune on the home turn through his binoculars, Tommy went into overdrive. Cheering home a winner was the great trainer’s raison d’etre, while his riding style was deceptively simple. All the way up the length of that Randwick straight, Tommy just called Imagele’s name loud, clear and often. Langby’s dexterity did the rest. The big chestnut colt’s courage never once faltered as he conjured his challenge, and with Langby riding desperately, he first reached Grand Cidium, and then, Leica Lover. There was certainly no place to hide in that last furlong or two, but Langby seemed as if he was riding Imagele on the wings of the wind. The official margins were a short head and a long head. Just like the Battle of Waterloo it had been a close-run thing, and just as at Waterloo, it extracted a heavy price from the combatants.
Implacable grandeur indeed! Imagele was jockey Kevin Langby’s first victory in the A.J.C. Derby at just his seventh ride in the race and it capped a remarkable twelve months of big-race triumphs. Possessed of a precocious facility in the saddle, he was one of Australia’s finest jockeys during the 1970s and had been a leading apprentice the previous decade when he served his indentures with Rosehill trainer, Fred Hood. The lentiginous Langby, whose nickname around the Hood stables was Ginger Meggs, appropriately enough hailed from Orange and was the son of a spray painter who trained a few racehorses on the side. A simple, shy, country boy who loved horses from a very young age, Langby had impressed on his mount, Blackie, at local pony shows in the Orange district.
Leaving school just before his fifteenth birthday, Langby secured a three-month trial in the stables of Fred Hood on the recommendation of a leading local jockey, Ned Dougherty. Hood, a former successful Sydney hurdles jockey, then trained at Rosebery, where the Eastlakes shopping centre now stands, but would soon move to Rosehill with the closure of the former course. Having seen the boy ride, Hood lost no time in signing off on the paperwork. Langby rode his first city winner on the Hood-trained Self Support at Canterbury in July 1962 and his first feature race winner on the stable’s Blue Clan in the Frank Underwood Cup at the same course in November.
Langby just failed to be the leading apprentice in that 1962-63 racing season when he finished one win behind David Royle, although he eventually went on to share the title with Neil Campton in 1964-65 despite having outridden his allowance at the beginning of that season. However, premierships aside, Langby’s apprenticeship at the Hood stables was most remarkable for the fact that it coincided almost perfectly with the racing career of the best horse that his master ever trained. When the bay gelding named Striking Force walked into those stables just a few months after Langby first commenced his indentures, it was the random collision of a promising young apprentice with a wonderful opportunity. Langby was to win nine races on the nondescript homebred owned by Cootamundra grazier, H. Davison – all as an apprentice – including the 1964 B.A.T.C. Doomben Cup, the 1965 A.J.C. Metropolitan, the S.T.C. Rosehill and H.E. Tancred Cups as well as four high-class weight-for-age races. A genuine stayer that generally conceded a start to his opposition, Langby’s relaxed style suited the son of Osborne perfectly.
In October 1967, some six years after signing his indentures with Fred Hood and some three months after winning the B.A.T.C. Doomben Ten Thousand for Jim Barker on Bourbon Beau, Langby at the age of twenty-one became a senior jockey. He immediately accepted a twelve-month contract to ride for media magnate and A.J.C. committeeman, Sir Frank Packer, whose horses were trained at Randwick by former jockey, Arthur Ward. Any relationship with Packer was bound to be combustible, and this one soured in its second year when Packer reproached Langby for his handling of Foresight in the 1969 Doncaster Handicap at Randwick. At the time of the Packer split, Langby had already been riding trackwork and securing some winning second-string race mounts from Tulloch Lodge where George Moore was the stable rider.
Those winning mounts had included the 1968 A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes on Black Onyx and the A.J.C. Epsom Handicap on Speed of Sound. Now, freed from his retainer, Langby was able to accept more rides from Smith and such was his success that upon George Moore’s retirement in the spring of 1971 he was promoted to the stable’s number one jockey. Langby’s first winner for Tommy Smith had come as far back as January 1965 when he steered the 250/1 shot, Oliver Twist, to victory in the A.J.C. New Year’s Gift. Like that horse’s namesake, Langby had wanted more. And he soon got it. Other major successes for Tulloch Lodge before Imagele arrived upon the scene included the 1970 Rosehill Guineas (Royal Show), the 1971 A.J.C. Epsom and Metropolitan Handicaps (Gunsynd; Oncidon), the 1972 V.A.T.C. Blue Diamond Stakes and S.T.C. Golden Slipper Stakes (John’s Hope), and the 1972 and 1973 Q.T.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes (Merry Minstrel, Zahedi).
Imagele’s Derby was the highlight of a remarkable A.J.C. Spring Meeting for Tom Smith and Tulloch Lodge. The stable also won the Epsom Handicap with Lord Nelson (Neville Voigt) and the Metropolitan Handicap with Analie, who was also ridden by Kevin Langby, and five other races besides, netting $184,800 in stakes. In winning the Derby, Imagele had become the first racehorse in the post-Golden Slipper era to take the classic having been universally hailed as the fastest two-year-old of his generation. Since the Star Kingdom genetic revolution and the advent of the Slipper, the dominance of the ‘breed for speed’ philosophy had all but seen the end of the precocious juvenile who could extend his stamina to the classic distance of a mile-and-a-half.
Yes, the brothers’ Skyline and Sky High had achieved it in a manner of speaking, although neither was quite regarded as the best two-year-old of their respective years. Let us remember that when Skyline won the Golden Slipper, he went to the post at 25/1 while the runner-up, Misting, was dispatched at odds of 2/5. And although Sky High won the Golden Slipper as the 4/7 favourite in 1960, at the end of that season the A.J.C. handicapper, Ken Goodwin, rated Wenona Girl topweight in the Free Handicap that year at 9st. 5lb, one pound in advance of Brian Crowley’s colt. Most racegoers believed that but for the freak fall in the Golden Slipper, in the wake of the A.J.C. Derby, Imagele would stand unbeaten after eleven starts. In short, when Imagele departed the Harbour City in quest of Melbourne’s spring riches in early October 1973, he stood on the threshold of greatness.
Bart Cummings had other ideas. The Adelaide horseman by now was regarded by many as the finest racehorse trainer in the land, notwithstanding T. J. Smith’s twenty-two successive Sydney trainers’ premierships. Bart, the son of Jim Cummings who had guided the fortunes of Comic Court and the Witty Maid progeny to greatness, had burst on the scene in the mid-sixties when he trained Light Fingers, Galilee, and Red Handed to win three successive Melbourne Cups in the years 1965 to 1967, as well as training the runner-up in the first two of those years. Since then, although denied another Melbourne Cup, he had cast aside the parochial and geographical limitations of his Adelaide base to establish self-contained stables in Melbourne.
At Flemington, he had bought and developed the property of Roy Shaw with space for twenty-four boxes and a spare block of land besides. At Randwick, the A.J.C., while anxious to promote competition to T. J. Smith, had no on-course stabling in High St available and Cummings would have to cool his heels for another season or two before the opportunity did become available at headquarters. However, by the mid-1970s, Cummings had extended his outlook to become an Australian trainer rather than a South Australian one, increasingly focussing on the major autumn and spring racing carnivals on the eastern seaboard, although all the while retaining his Adelaide stable complex and a genuine fondness for his home city.
Results weren’t long in coming. In 1968-69 Bart won his third successive South Australian trainers’ premiership and his first Victorian premiership, something that was to be replicated so often in the years ahead. A host of top-class gallopers seemed to usher forth from the two Cummings’ establishments in those years including the likes of Storm Queen, Arctic Coast, Lowland, Big Philou, Century, General Command, Starglow and Dayana. However, in the spring of 1973, the former Adelaide maestro had within his stable a handful of three-year-olds that he believed would re-write the history books. Let us pause for a moment and just consider the veritable cornucopia of talent from the 1970 foaling season just then at Cummings’ disposal.
We have already met Tontonan who, despite recurrent leg and muscle problems, which cost him a spring campaign that year, would return in the autumn and post a weight-carrying record of 56kg in winning the A.J.C. Doncaster Handicap as a three-year-old. Likewise, we have made the acquaintance of Leica Lover, who before the calendar year ended would win both the W.A.T.C. Caris Diamond Quality Stakes and Australian Derby. There was Asgard, a brown colt impeccably bred by Hermes from Belle Time, and owned by the former Australian Test cricketer, H. C. (Slinger) Nitschke. Asgard that season would win the W.A.T.C. Western Australian Derby, S.T.C. Tulloch Stakes, A.J.C. Australasian Champion Stakes and Q.T.C. Grand Prix Stakes.
Besides that trio of stars, there were two other three-year-olds worthy of mention. In January 1972 Bart Cummings had gone to New Zealand to inspect yearlings and attend the Trentham Sales. One yearling that he examined on that visit was an athletic, dark brown daughter of Oncidium out of the former good race mare, Lei. The filly had been bred by the respected New Zealand sportsman, Ian McRae, and was available to be raced on a lease. Cummings inspected this daughter of Oncidium in the company of one of his stable’s high profile clients, Andrew Peacock, the Federal Member for Kooyong and a future leader of the Liberal Party of Australia. Although the filly was only lightly framed, both men liked the athleticism that they saw on display as she galloped about McRae’s paddock.
The deal was done, and she was registered as Leilani. Unraced as a two-year-old, she made her debut in a maiden race at Morphetville to run second to Trojan Bronze in the first month of the new season. While she was too backward for an ambitious spring campaign, she closed out her three-year-old season by winning both the Princess Handicap and the A.J.C. Oaks in the autumn. In the following racing year, she emerged as the best mare to race in Australia for some years when she won nine of her fourteen starts viz. the V.R.C. Turnbull Stakes, L.K.S. Mackinnon Stakes, Queen’s Cup, Queen’s Plate and Australian Cup; the V.A.T.C. Toorak Handicap, C. F. Orr Stakes, St George Stakes and the Caulfield Cup.
Moreover, it was a season when Leilani carried no less than 55.5 kg into second placing in the Melbourne Cup as the 7/2 favourite, only to be beaten by a stablemate bought by Cummings on that very same trip to New Zealand when he had acquired her. The horse in question was Think Big. A bay horse by the Summertime stallion, Sobig, from the mare Sarcelle, bred by the Wynthorpe Stud, Cummings got him for $10,000. It was an impulse purchase, for at the time, unlike most of his acquisitions, he had no buyer in mind. However, a few weeks later in Melbourne, jockey Glynn Pretty introduced Bart to a prolific real estate developer from Kuala Lumpur, just two years’ older than him and thus began the greatest of Bart’s owner-trainer relationships. His name, of course, was Tan Chin Nam. He asked Cummings to buy him a Melbourne Cup winner. Bart told him that in the Sobig yearling he already had the horse Chin Nam wanted and the latter bought a share, sight unseen. Gelded and registered as Think Big, he was a slow maturing animal that was never really a Derby prospect, as the classics came too soon for him. However, as an older horse, he would win successive Melbourne Cups in 1974 and 1975.
For just the one stable to be sheltering three-year-olds with the actual and prospective achievements of the likes of Tontonan, Leica Lover, Asgard, Leilani and Think Big was a remarkable thing. However, there was yet another three-year-old in their midst for whom Bart held the highest regard and considered the best of that age he had ever trained. Taj Rossi was an early maturing colt by Matrice from Dark Queen, a mare by Coronation Boy. Matrice himself had been a high-class sprinter/miler prepared in Adelaide by Harry Butler and on whom Pat Glennon had won a number of good races including the A.R.C. Adelaide Guineas and the P.A.R.C. Port Adelaide Guineas at three; and the Caulfield Invitation Stakes, P.A.R.C. Christmas Handicap, and S.A.J.C. Goodwood Handicap at four. Dark Queen was a sister-in-blood to the winning triumvirate of Storm Queen, Storm Ruler and Anna Rose, and had already produced a fast filly in Marjoram, the future dam of both the smart sprinter Bagalot and the 1980 Golden Slipper winner, Dark Eclipse. As Bart himself observed: “It was a blueblood sprinter’s pedigree.” A coup de fedre struck Cummings the moment he first saw this Matrice colt. It was, therefore, no surprise when the trainer stumped up the top price at those 1972 Adelaide Yearling Sales of $18,000 to secure possession of the handsome, dark bay yearling colt on behalf of prominent stable clients, Vic and Lila Peters.
Taj Rossi had made his racecourse debut at Victoria Park in early December, filling the minor placing. In all, he had six starts as a juvenile, winning his last two when favourite during June, in 1000 and 1400-metres handicaps at Flemington. It was after those two events that Cummings decided to set the colt for the rich Caulfield Guineas-Victoria Derby double in the spring. While his pedigree suggested the Derby distance might be a stretch, he was a relaxed colt, and as we have seen, mere class can carry a three-year-old a long way against his own age group. Taj Rossi had commenced the new season with a minor placing in heavy ground at Moonee Valley. Thence came a hat-trick of wins in the V.R.C. Ascot Vale Stakes, V.A.T.C. Carrum Handicap and the M.V.R.C. Moonee Valley Stakes, in which he beat Purple Patch and Bush Win into the minor placings. It was on the strength of this sequence of victories that Taj Rossi was supported into the 3/1 second-favourite for the Caulfield Guineas behind the even-money on offer about Imagele in the same race.
Much had been made in the news media about the clash of the two colts from the two best stables in the land, and the Smith/Cummings, Sydney/Melbourne rivalry even lent a Barnum and Bailey quality to it all. Not that it appeared a two-horse race by any means, as the supporting cast included Grand Cidium, Prince Shifnal, Purple Patch, Bush Win and Craig Win. Indeed, of the eight starters only one of them, Lord Kingston, failed to win a stakes event. The race marked the first occasion but sadly, not the last, that Imagele was beaten on his merits. It also marked Taj Rossi’s only defeat that spring. The race went to Grand Cidium who avenged his narrow loss in the A.J.C. Derby by relegating Imagele and the New Zealand horse, Prince Shifnal, into the minor placings, with an unlucky Taj Rossi the closest of fourths.
The margins might have been only three-quarters of a length and a short-half-head respectively, but it was an emphatic victory nonetheless, as Grand Cidium was going away from the field on the line like a true champion. The exuberance of the winning jockey, Mick Mallyon, in waving his whip hand in the air to the crowd as he passed the winning post, cost him a $100 fine from the stewards. Whereas Imagele seemed to have every chance, the same could not be said for Taj Rossi who struck his head on a barrier stanchion while being fractious in the gates. Moreover, the colt was tightened when caught between Imagele and Prince Shifnal nearing the winning post.
Whereas Grand Cidium and Imagele were saddled-up for the Caulfield Cup on the following Saturday, Bart Cummings kept Taj Rossi fresh for the W. S. Cox Plate at Moonee Valley a week later. I might observe that the Caulfield Cup that year was the richest race ever run in Australasia up to that time with a total value of $114,500. First prize was $78,750 together with a gold cup valued at $2,000. The second prize was $20,250 with $9,000 for third and $4,500 for fourth. On the strength of his two-year-old form, the V.A.T.C. handicapper, E. H.Williams had allotted Imagele 48 kg, which meant that the son of Sostenuto was being asked to match the weight-carrying record for three-year-olds in the race then held jointly by Tulloch and Sobar. On the Thursday before the Cup, incessant rain set in over Melbourne, which persisted throughout Friday such that by Saturday morning the Caulfield track had received more than two inches of water. Until the rain came Grand Cidium had edged out Imagele for race favouritism, but the colt’s outside barrier draw in the field of eighteen, and his predilection for firm ground saw him ease in course betting to 7/1.
On the other hand, the ever-confident Tommy Smith declared to Australian radio listeners of ‘Three-Way Turf Talk’ that Imagele wouldn’t be bothered by the deluge. In a wide-betting race, the son of Sostenuto went off as the 4/1 favourite. Inevitably, the weather laid a heavy hand on proceedings that day at Caulfield, and while Kevin Langby always had Imagele in close attendance and actually hit the front upon entering the straight, he was soon claimed by Gala Supreme. Imagele pitched and floundered in the muddy ground in the straight and quickly tired to finish a badly beaten twelfth behind the winner, Swell Time, with Gala Supreme and Young Ida in the minor placings. Grand Cidium, despite his aversion to wet tracks, finished a very worthy fourth. When a week later Taj Rossi scored a narrow but emphatic win in the W. S. Cox Plate to earn $52,500 and a $600 trophy for Vic and Lila Peters, Imagele’s reputation as the best three-year-old of his year, let alone as the best three-year-old since Tulloch, was looking decidedly tarnished.
Nonetheless, come to the Victoria Derby seven days later and the punters, dubious about Taj Rossi’s ability to run out a strong mile and a half, sent Imagele to the post as the 9/4 favourite, with Leica Lover at 13/4 and Taj Rossi at odds of 11/2. In a masterly exhibition of jockeyship, Roy Higgins rode a waiting race on the son of Matrice. The victim of several checks during the running, Taj Rossi was in front of only three of the fourteen other starters passing the 800 metres mark. This was in marked contrast to Kevin Langby on Imagele, who in a daring tactic, had raced his mount from his outside barrier position to lead on the run around the first turn after going 300 metres. Whereas Langby kept Imagele on the pace in the soft ground, Higgins bided his time near the rear.
Imagele did look the winner upon entering the straight for the long run home, but Taj Rossi came with a powerful sprint to sweep past, first Imagele, and then his stablemate Leica Lover, to win by a head in a photo finish. Imagele was third past the post, three lengths behind the Cummings’ pair, but was relegated to fourth on a protest by Harry White, the rider of Craig Win, for interference over the final 100 metres. Peter Cook, who rode the runner-up, Leica Lover, was adamant that his mount would have won had he enjoyed one more run before the classic, something that was denied Leica Lover because of a hock injury sustained on the return float trip from Sydney.
The sporting public believed that they had seen the last of Imagele, Taj Rossi and Leica Lover for that spring after that Victoria Derby. Not on your life. Whereas Leica Lover went directly to Perth for his successful summer campaign, Taj Rossi came out on the last day of the V.R.C. Spring Meeting for the rich George Adams Handicap against the older horses over 1600 metres and with Roy Higgins unable to do the weight, Stan Aitken substituted in the saddle. Displaying rare versatility and showcasing Bart’s training genius, Taj Rossi, carrying weight-for-age of 51.5 kg, successfully came back in distance from the 2500 metres of the Derby only seven days before, to knock Australia’s best milers into a cocked hat, and in so doing become Australia’s greatest three-year-old money winner, displacing his stablemate, Dayana.
Moreover, Taj Rossi repeated the dose seven days later in the V.A.T.C. Sandown Guineas when yet again he defeated Imagele and seven other three-year-olds for the prize. Thus ended one of the most sensational sequences of wins on a racecourse in modern times. Whereas Taj Rossi then headed for the spelling paddock, Imagele headed for Perth and an ill-conceived W.A.T.C. summer campaign at Ascot racecourse that most sportsmen, none more so than Jock Graham, later came to regret. Yes, in three races over there Imagele won an additional $20,450 chasing Cummings-trained three-year-olds when running minor placings in the Western Australian and Australian Derbies and the Caris Diamond Quality Stakes, but at what cost? Only time would tell.
I have anticipated very few seasons in racing more than I did that autumn of 1974. How could one not step more lightly on to a racecourse with the prospective clashes of that year’s mature three-year-olds in view? Alas, it was to prove a grave disappointment. Seldom has the transience of brilliance been more apparent. Imagele had returned from his disappointing and gruelling campaign in Western Australia on January 11 and was given a spell at the Silver Sharpe Lodge at Cobbity under the supervision of Keith Mackin. During his sojourn at Cobbity, Mackin observed: “Imagele is a remarkable horse. His temperament and hearty appetite stick to him. He puts on as much condition in less than four weeks as a normal horse would in six. Imagele has been getting through a four-gallon drum of vitamin-packed fodder twice a day, with a hay snack for lunch.” Smith brought the colt back to Tulloch Lodge in the first week of February after an inspection by the eminent veterinary-surgeon, Percy Sykes. Despite succumbing to a virus in the Melbourne spring, Imagele returned to the stable a much bigger and seemingly stronger colt.
Racegoers witnessed a more robust racehorse in mid-March when Imagele resumed in fine style to claim the Phar Lap Stakes (1500m) at Rosehill, relegating Purple Patch and Regoli’s Pride to the minor placings. Tommy Smith clapped his chestnut all the way down the straight that afternoon and then proclaimed to the waiting pressmen that Imagele’s ascension to the top of the three-year-old rankings had been merely delayed rather than denied. Smith declared: “It was murder to see this horse beaten in his races in Melbourne in the spring. He was suffering from an attack of the virus which knocked all the inside out of him.” This belated admission of the effects on Imagele of the virus that was rife in Melbourne the previous spring rendered the decision to campaign the colt in Perth in high summer all the more questionable.
Smith announced that Imagele’s autumn mission was the Australasian Champion Stakes at Randwick. Whether or not he would have again set the racing world alight, was never put to the test. Sadly, the Phar Lap Stakes was to be Imagele’ penultimate race start and his final victory. Four days later Tommy Smith detected a scratchiness in the colt’s action and felt a filling in the colt’s leg. Despite Tommy’s dark mutterings as to the unavailability of at least the ‘A’ grass, if not the course proper for track gallops at Randwick, and the fact that he was compelled to work Imagele and his other horses on tracks that were too small with too many turns, it was hard not to trace the problem back to the iron-hard surface of Ascot in high summer and the demands made on Imagele on three successive occasions after an exhausting spring campaign in both Sydney and Melbourne. There was certainly no shortage of racing scribes willing to call out Tommy for attempting to burn the candle at both ends. Veterinary assistance enabled Imagele to make an appearance on a heavy track in the A.J.C. All Aged Stakes on the third day of the Randwick Autumn Carnival, but he failed to stretch out in the race won by his nemesis, Tontonan. Imagele retired from the racecourse with the record of 20 starts, 11 wins, 4 seconds, 1 third and $150,976 in prize money.
Even before Imagele had resumed racing in that aborted autumn campaign, the mercurial George Ryder, managing director of the Kia Ora Stud at Scone, had expressed his intention of making a bid of around $350,000 to acquire either Imagele or Taj Rossi for stallion syndication. Imagele thus came on to the market first, and during the winter when it became clear that he wouldn’t stand another campaign, negotiations were completed. At the time Ryder was in the throes of snapping up a few locally bred champion gallopers to serve stud duty at Kia Ora in the belief that such represented better value than their international counterparts. Various sons of Star Kingdom had succeeded at stud, none more so than Todman and he blazed the way for others such as Noholme, Sky High, Biscay, Kaoru Star and Sunset Hue. However, it wasn’t just the Star Kingdom blood that was succeeding here but the likes of Vain as well. Ryder had previously negotiated to buy Baguette for $350,000 and Gunsynd for $270,480, and now Imagele joined them in the Hunter Valley. Before the sale and syndication of Imagele, Jock and Cele Graham commissioned Morris Toohey, a well-known commercial artist to paint a portrait of their champion. So pleased were they with the result that the husband and wife ordered a painting of Cele’s Image to serve as a companion piece.
Imagele’s premature retirement might have suggested untrammelled domination of the three-year-old autumn classics by Taj Rossi. However, in yet further proof of the transience of brilliance on the racecourse, Taj Rossi never won another race after that remarkable sequence of eight wins from nine starts during the spring of 1973. When the stylish son of Matrice returned to racing in the late summer, he was suffering from a stomach virus and was but a shadow of his former self. Taj Rossi returned prize money only once in four appearances, and that came in soft ground at Randwick in the Australasian Champion Stakes when he was a poor third behind his stablemate Asgard, and Bush Win. Perhaps I should pause here and draw attention to Asgard’s belated achievements as a three-year-old. This son of Hermes started no less than twenty-six times that season and while he never truly emerged as a fine colt until he won the W.A.T.C. Western Australian Derby, he ended the season having also won the S.T.C. Tulloch Stakes, A.J.C. Australasian Champion Stakes and Q.T.C. Grand Prix Stakes.
Indeed, the eclipse of both Imagele and Taj Rossi and the rise of Asgard, during that summer and autumn cast the respective strengths of the Smith and Cummings’ stables into sharp relief. Whereas Bart Cummings had other artillery to fire, Tommy Smith’s arsenal, sans Imagele, seemed depleted. Where Smith had dominated the 1973 A.J.C. Spring Meeting, Cummings dominated the 1974 A.J.C. Autumn Meeting. In a magnificent sweep, the Adelaide horseman won not only the Australasian Champion Stakes but also the Doncaster Handicap (Tontonan); The Galaxy (Starglow); and the A.J.C. Oaks (Leilani). By comparison, Smith won only the A.J.C. Champagne Stakes (Zasu) and a couple of other minor races at a carnival marred by heavy ground. The famed ‘bone and muscle’ had never been seen to less effect with Smith’s horses racing like tired animals, as indeed many of them were given that a virus had plagued the stables on and off since the previous November. It was in the wake of that extraordinary campaign that Cummings made overtures to the A.J.C. to secure permanent on-course stables at Randwick, but lack of availability was to stay his hand for another season or two.
There never was any love lost between Smith and Cummings and for the first time since Tulloch Lodge came to dominate Sydney racing, there now appeared a rival stable equal to the challenge. There was a special coda to the two men’s rivalry that season in that it seemed likely one or the other would become the first Australasian trainer to win more than one million dollars in prize money in a single season – such was the state of inflation at the time of the OPEC oil crisis. Newspapers reported the running tallies of the respective stables over the passing weeks as each closed in on the magic number. When it was achieved, in truth, it came more with a whimper than a bang. Each trainer achieved it on the very same day – Brisbane Cup Day, as it transpired. Cummings scrambled to the honour first when his horse Hello Honey, the 4/5 favourite finished second in the first race at Warwick Farm at around 12.57 p.m. Some two hours later, Smith majestically swept past the million-dollar mark when Igloo won the Brisbane Cup.
However, there is little doubt that a frustrated Smith should have beaten Cummings to the distinction. There had been weeks of washed-out and rain-affected race meetings in Sydney, and while Cummings had some horses temporarily stabled there, the main body of his cavalry was then based in Adelaide and Melbourne. Restricted training facilities at Randwick due to the closure of the grass-training tracks, precluded Tulloch Lodge representatives from reaching peak fitness. Consequently, T. J. experienced his most exasperating run of outs since becoming the leading trainer, failing to win a race at five successive Sydney meetings having saddled-up seventy successive losers. How Tommy must have regretted losing the horsepower of Imagele, who had been intended for a Brisbane winter campaign, as the trainer scrambled towards the elusive million-dollar target. Nonetheless, Smith had guaranteed his 23rd successive Sydney metropolitan trainers’ premiership months before.
Whereas Imagele had gone to stud, Taj Rossi did return to racing as an early-season four-year-old. However, after unplaced efforts in the Freeway Stakes at Moonee Valley and the Memsie Stakes at Caulfield, Bart Cummings elected for the horse’s retirement. The racecourse record of Matrice’s best son stood at 21 starts, for 9 wins, 1 second, and 4 thirds and $208,980 in prize money. Taj Rossi was leased to the famous Spendthrift Farm, Kentucky, for a northern hemisphere stud career, but American broodmare owners largely remained aloof to his charms, and after just two seasons there the son of Matrice returned to the country of his birth to stand at Dr Phil Redman’s Turangga Stud, near Scone. In the fullness of time, Taj Rossi proved a successful stallion. In America, he left some twenty-one racing foals with sixteen proving winners, including the prolific stakes horse, Rossi Gold. He met with similar success at Turangga Stud too, and it seemed fitting that perhaps his two best performers, Taj Eclipse (1983 V.R.C. Edward Manifold Stakes and V.R.C. Oaks) and Taj Quillo (1986 V.R.C. Gadsden Stakes and V.R.C. Bobbie Lewis Quality) were both owned by Vic and Lila Peters and trained by Bart Cummings. Taj Rossi got other good performers as well including the 1989 A.J.C. Doncaster Handicap winner, Merimbula Bay.
But what became of Imagele and his activities in the stallion barn upon his retirement to the Kia Ora Stud? There was much speculation as to whether this grand racehorse could extend the influence of the Nearco-Nasrullah-Never Say Die line in Australia. Sostenuto’s successful, if understated, stud career in Australia happened to coincide with the hugely successful stud careers of two other sons of Never Say Die standing duty across the Tasman: Mellay and Battle Wagon. Would any of the triumvirate produce a son who would make his mark in the Australian or New Zealand Stud Books? Imagele was clearly Sostenuto’s best chance as the Italian stallion’s next best performed son on the racecourse, Regal Rhythm, had been gelded early in life.
As an aside, I might just observe here that Tommy Smith, the man most responsible for bringing Sostenuto to Australia, also trained his best three sons – Imagele, Regal Rhythm and Rumoroso. Now, Tulloch Lodge could never lay claim to ever having been a nursery for colts that transitioned to prepotent, outstanding stallions upon their retirement from the racecourse. For a start, the overwhelming majority of colts that entered the stable emerged emasculated as geldings. Indeed, the gelding operation was one of the key factors that enabled T. J. Smith to increase the size of his string to unprecedented numbers during the 1960s and 1970s relative to other trainers of earlier turf epochs. Smith trained racehorses to win races; he didn’t groom them for life in the paddock or stallion barn. And in his chosen profession he was remarkably and spectacularly successful.
Nonetheless, the truth remains that a disproportionately high number of the very expensive yearlings and first-class racehorses trained at Tulloch Lodge that might have been expected to be successful in the stallion barn proved disappointing. Tulloch and Gunsynd come immediately to mind, but there were a string of others as well including Peace Council, Rajah, Park Lane, Travel Boy, Longfella, Authentic Heir, Speed of Sound, Romantic Dream, Mighty Kingdom and Cheyne Walk. In a sense, Imagele was never properly tested. He had only served two seasons when, in April 1976, he was found dead in his stall at the Kia Ora Stud, having suffered a stomach rupture. Nonetheless, on the evidence of the quality of those two books of broodmares that Imagele did serve at Kia Ora, and the subsequent racecourse performances of the resultant progeny, one is inclined to believe that he would have been only a moderately successful stallion at best.
The majority of his yearlings were retained by their breeders but of those that did make it into the yearling sales ring, a few brought good prices including the $30,000 paid for the chestnut colt from Babalina that raced as Chocolate Prince and the $25,000 that Tommy Smith paid for the brown colt from Rita’s Image that raced as Dancing Image. In his two seasons at stud, Imagele sired three individual stakes winners of seven stakes races, and his best galloper was High Classic, winner of two C.R.J.C. Ramornie Handicaps. His other stakes winners were Little Imagele (W.A.T.C. Western Mail Classic and W.A.T.C. Ascot Gold Cup) and Valerian (W.A.T.C. Tattersall’s Cup). Compare this outcome with that of another of the Kia Ora stallions, Baguette, serving at the same time. Like Imagele, Baguette had been the champion two-year-old of his year and matured into the best sprinter in the land. Also syndicated as a stallion by George Ryder, Baguette got no less than seven individual winners of principal races in his first two seasons including that brilliant sprinter, Romantic Dream.
As disappointing as the loss of form and premature retirement of Imagele and Taj Rossi proved to be, the greatest tragedy of that season’s three-year-olds related to Grand Cidium. The expensive full brother to Dayana, who went so close to winning the Derby at Randwick but made amends by winning the Caulfield Guineas at his next start, never raced again after his commendable fourth in the Caulfield Cup on a bog track. In March 1974 he underwent a minor operation on a hind fetlock at the Werribee Horse Clinic but complications arose, and although his owner, Bruce Hedley, called in two specialist veterinary-surgeons, this outstanding racehorse later collapsed and died at the clinic. In just nine starts, Grand Cidium won six races and finished third twice, with his only unplaced run coming in the 1973 Caulfield Cup. Melbourne trainer, Tom Hughes, despite training Salamander a few seasons later, a horse who was unluckily beaten a short-half-head in both the Victoria Derby and Melbourne Cup, always regarded Grand Cidium as the best he ever trained. In his words: “He could have been anything.”
And what of that other three-year-old who shared that closest of Derby finishes at Randwick in 1973? Leica Lover undoubtedly proved the toughest, but the hard-luck that cost him both the A.J.C and Victoria Derbies by no more than bobbing heads, stalked him in other races, too. He remained in the Cummings’ stable until the end of his seven-year-old season and while as an older horse he went on to win good races such as an A.J.C. Craven Plate and a Tattersall’s Chelmsford Stakes at Randwick besides an S.T.C. Hill Stakes and a V.A.T.C. Norman Robinson Stakes, it could have been so much more. At five he ran a series of minor placings in high-class races including seconds in the S.T.C. Turf Club Cup, A.J.C. Craven Plate, V.A.T.C. Caulfield Cup and Doncaster Handicap; and thirds in the A.J.C. Metropolitan, A.J.C. All Aged Stakes and the A.J.C. Queen Elizabeth Stakes. The gelded son of Latin Lover eventually retired from the racecourse having won stakes worth $223,130 from 11 1/2 wins, 16 seconds, and 10 thirds from 75 starts. Not a bad backstop in a stable chockful of talent from that glorious foaling season of 1970!
Perhaps the claims made on Imagele’s behalf that he was the finest three-year-old of that season and most others now bears only the lightest scrutiny. Nonetheless, there remains the nagging suspicion that in another stable, one that valued patience and restraint, and one that rarely asked the horse to extend his speed beyond 2000 metres, Imagele may have emerged as the champion he always seemed destined to be. Jock Graham remained philosophical about it all, despite the bitter disappointment. More than most, he realised that owning a champion racehorse was akin to intense romantic love. It is inherently transitory. Indeed, the fleeting nature of possession enhances its potent appeal. Perhaps Jock Graham’s experience with racehorse ownership and the racecourse bears some comparison with the fate of Tantalus, whose punishment for revealing the secrets of the gods, was having to stand under a loaded fruit tree up to his chin in water. Whenever Tantalus tried to satisfy his hunger or thirst, the fruit and water retreated.
Jock Graham might have won the Canterbury and Rosehill Guineas as well as the Derby with Imagele, but it could have been so much more. Whenever the Gundagai grazier got close to satisfaction on the racecourse, while the fruits of victory might have been tantalising, they invariably receded. Imagele’s fall arguably cost him a Golden Slipper; weak sesamoids cost him a champion sprinter in Phantom Dollar; a misadventure with a motor vehicle lost him a smart sprinter and uninsured future broodmare in Tina’s Joy. And Cele’s Daughter, the only other daughter of Cele’s Image, tangled with a wire fence as a yearling and never raced. Cele’s Image herself never dropped another foal after Imagele, despite repeated matings with such stallions as Red Gauntlet, Swiftly Morgan and Agricola. Indeed, the grand mare died not long after Imagele. Yet despite his father’s Scottish Presbyterian scorn of racecourse gambles, old Jock never gave up hope of breeding another Imagele with Cele’s Daughter, but it wasn’t to be. He died in Cootamundra Hospital after a short illness in early December 1979.