Where to start is a reasonable question, faced with the numbers of champion thoroughbreds racing in Australia (AUS) and/or New Zealand (NZ) in this time frame. And, by 1960, still another number of great individuals emerge. More, in fact, than in the preceding years.
Today, through the auspices of the mass media, including the online publication of rare documents, it is possible to begin to appreciate a true history of the development of the thoroughbred worldwide. “True” in the sense of achieving a macrocosmic view, beyond the borders and boundaries that we perhaps know best.
(Please note that the classification of thoroughbreds by decade has been determined by their foaling date, e.g. a horse born in 1939 actually raced in the 1940’s.)
The twentieth century saw the rise and consolidation of both the sport and the industry. Breeding farms like the historic AUS Widden Stud — the home of individuals like Sir Hercules and his brilliant son, The Barb,as well as the mighty Heroic and his champion son, Ajax — first acquired by John Lee in 1843 and subsequently by the Thompson family, moved powerfully into the new century with a fleet of strong, consistent horses. And other important figures in thoroughbred racing stood in the wings, among them notable AUS trainers like Harry Telford, Fred Davis and HOF James Scobie, as well as Jack Holt and TJ Smith, HOF and father of Gai Waterhouse. In NZ, owner-breeders like Georger Gatonby Stead, Henry Redwood and Sir George Clifford had already made their mark and would continue to do so. Still another owner-breeder, George Currie, would have an influence that continues to the present day, through the descendants of his Koatanui Lodge mare, Eulogy (1911). And trainers like the brilliant Dick Mason and Maurice McCarton would bring their country’s racing acumen to the forefront.
Early in the game breeders in both AUS + NZ settled upon the axiom that it was the mare that was going to make the difference in terms of the quality of individuals a stallion produced. As far back as the 1890’s, breeders were selecting mares with champion bloodlines and, at least initially, seem far less concerned about their racing performance than their sire line. A clear example of this practice is seen in the NZ thoroughbred mare and HOF, Eulogy:
Eulogy’s offspring also underscore the dedication of breeders to producing strong, hardy individuals. Accordingly, the allegiance to sound British bloodstock would continue until the arrival on the scene of Star Kingdom (1946), an Irish thoroughbred who, as a sire, would give Australasia its first flotilla of home-bred thoroughbred champions. As well, the principle of running horses often over challenging courses of up to 3 miles continued, with the result that many champion thoroughbreds who raced in the first six decades of the century ran 50 times or more before their retirement.
1900 – 1929: Signs of Greatness
Arguably, Desert Gold (1914), together with the gelding, Gloaming (1915), and the colt, Eurythmic (1916), were the superstars of this period — as their Hall Of Fame status indicates.
Remembered as the First Lady of the NZ turf, the racing career of Desert Gold was brilliant. She was the first NZ thoroughbred to chalk up a record of 19 consecutive wins while racing against colts, as well as fillies, in both NZ and AUS. Desert Gold ran during the dark days of WWI and her courage lifted the hearts of her racing public. She brought people to the track to forget their worries — and to see a Queen of the Turf.
As Desert Gold’s career was ebbing that of another champion was on the rise: Gloaming.
Bred in AUS by E.E.D. Clarke, Gloaming was by the Melton Stud stallion, The Welkin (1904) out of Light (1907), who carried the important bloodlines of British thoroughbreds like Bend Or (1877) and Stockwell (1849) in her pedigree. When he went to auction, Gloaming had only just recovered from strangles and the result was that he went to NZ’s George Stead for under $500 USD, to be trained by one of NZ’s greatest trainers, Richard (Dick) Mason. In many ways, the story of the champion gelding is also Mason’s story. And the two shared a bond reminiscent of Will Harbut and the American thoroughbred legend, Man O’ War. Gloaming would tie Desert Gold’s record of 19 consecutive wins and raced until his retirement, at nine years of age. So emphatic was his race record, that Gloaming was inducted into both the AUS and NZ Hall Of Fame.
Eurythmic was by the British stallion, Eudorus (1906), who was imported to AUS sometime before 1914, and out of the mare, Bob Cherry (1910). His sire descended from Hampton (1872) and St. Simon (1881); his dam from the AUS sire, Wallace (1892), a son of the mighty Carbine (1885). So it stood to reason that the Eudorus-Bob Cherry colt would win at both sprint and longer distances, which he did. When Eurythmic retired, he was regarded as the greatest AUS stakes winner of the time, having surpassed Carbine in stakes victories.
Bred by Noel Thompson at the Yarraman Stud in New South Wales, Eurythmic won 7 of 8 starts at three; then under a new trainer, Jack Holt, the colt scorched the turf at four. In October he won the Caulfield Stakes, the Caulfield Cup (defeating a huge field) and the Melbourne Stakes, his 11th consecutive victory. The following week Eurythmic suffered his only defeat as a four year-old when he ran fourth to Poitrel in the Melbourne Cup. The colt then won his next eight races: the CB Fisher Plate (defeating Poitrel), the Essendon Stakes, the VRC Governor’s Plate and the King’s Plate, as well as the AJC Autumn Stakes, the Sydney Cup (carrying 134 lbs.)) and the Cumberland Stakes. He finished the season with a tally of 12 wins from 13 starts. Racing until the age of 7, Eurythmic ended his career with a record of 47- 31-6-4 and the extraordinary earnings of 36,891 (APS) — at a time when a house in AUS typically cost about 200 (APS).
Eurythmic stood at stud for only two seasons before a heart attack ended the life of one of the brightest of stars of the AUS turf.
1929 -1939: Legends
It wasn’t long before AUS + NZ racing saw the birth of individuals who would become thoroughbred legends in their own time, of which Phar Lap arguably became the most famous. For more on the fabulous “Red Terror” who was, in reality, so gentle that a child could ride him, see THE VAULT’S article on Phar Lap, which also includes rare video footage, here: https://thevaulthorseracing.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/bribes-threats-bullets-phar-laps-melbourne-cup-1930/
But Phar Lap was by no means alone, although it must be said that the love and devotion he inspired is rare and it is this that has given Tommy Woodcock’s best boy eternal life.
Although he never enjoyed anything even remotely close to the feelings evoked by Phar Lap, Chatham (1928) was a superstar. Bred by Percy Miller at his Kia Ora Stud in New South Wales, AUS, Chatham was by the Melbourne Cup winner, Windbag (1921). His dam, Myosotis (1919) was an excellent broodmare and a granddaughter of the British Triple Crown winner, Flying Fox (1896). Racing from 1931-1934 for trainers Ike Foulsham and Fred Williams, the handsome bay colt became one of AUS greatest milers, winning 12 of his 21 starts — lightly raced, by AUS + NZ standards. Chatham was a “whistler: ” as a result of a severe throat infection as a colt, he made a distinct, audible whistle when he ran. Chatham did have a lot to “whistle” about: he won the Epsom Handicap twice, the W.J. Cox Plate twice and the Craven Plate three times during his career on the turf. So accomplished was Angus Blair’s colt that he was inducted into the Australian Hall of Fame in 2005.
The incomparable Peter Pan (1929) and the champion gelding, Rogilla (1927) were also contemporaries of Phar Lap.
Peter Pan was hailed as “another Phar Lap” during a brilliant career which saw him take the prestigious Melbourne Cup not once, but twice. A “horse of a different colour” to be sure, Peter Pan sported a flaxen mane and tail, making him even more enigmatic. The colt’s finest performance was his run in the 1934 Melbourne Cup, carrying a staggering 138 lbs. over a soggy track to take AUS most prestigious race for the second time, joining Archer, the only other horse to have accomplished this feat.
(For those wanting to learn more about this great thoroughbred, take a look at Jessica Owers’ book, Peter Pan. Unlike so many thoroughbred biographies that we have read, Owers’ Peter Pan is a lively, entertaining read and the text also includes rare photos of the champion. Peter Pan is also available on Kindle.)
Rogilla, Chatham and Peter Pan chased each other on the turf for highest honours throughout their careers. But even in the company of champions, Rogilla was no slouch. The gelding took home victories in the King’s, Caulfield, Sydney and AJC Cups, as well as the W. S. Cox, Randwick, AJC and AJC Autumn Plates, among 18 stakes races that he won. Rogilla descended from Carbine and was the first of many AUS champions from the British sire line of Hurry On (1913). Affectionately known as the “Coalfields Champion,” the gutsy gelding made 73 starts, winning 26.
One of the next stars on the horizon was AJAX (1934), another “looker” who would dominant racing in the 1930’s as one of the best sprinter-milers of his day. Bred at the famous Widden Stud, the home of great stallions like his sire, Heroic (1921) and enough champions to take up a full 23 pages in Douglas M. Barrie’s excellent book, Valley of Champions, Ajax would have still another distinction in North America: he was acquired as a stallion prospect at age 14 by Bing Crosby and Lin Howard for their Bing-Lin Stud in California. Ajax’s export to the USA would spark a mini-trend over the next decade as interest in the thoroughbred “down under” began to travel across the Pacific and around the world.
Trained by Frank Musgrove, Ajax was ridden to 30 of his 36 stakes victories by AUS HOF jockey, Harold Badger. Ajax made 46 starts and was only ever out of the money once, winning 36 before his retirement, at age 6, in 1940. His victories included the Newmarket Handicap, the Futurity Stakes (three times), the Caulfield Guineas and W.S. Cox Plate, the Underwood Stakes (three times), the AJC All-Aged Stakes (three times), the AJC Cropper Stakes (three times) and the Melbourne Stakes (twice).
In the spring of 1937, Ajax began an 18-race winning streak in the kind of races that are Group-classified today, in six of which he smashed either race or course records. And he kept on going, the goal being to equal or surpass the 19-race winning streak first set by the filly, Desert Gold, followed by Gloaming. Sadly, this was not to be. In what should have been his 19th straight win, Ajax was beaten by a 33-1 outsider, Spear Chief (1934) and finished second.
Ajax began his stud career in AUS before leaving for the USA. An AUS-born son, Magnificent (1942), won the AJC Derby and the VRC Victoria Derby, and numerous other progeny were also stakes winners. In the USA, he sired a few decent horses in Avracado ($71,813), Trebor Yug ($19,420) and A. Jaxson ($11,444) but was nowhere near as successful a sire there as he had been in AUS. Ajax was inducted into the AUS Hall Of Fame in 2004.
As the 1930’s came to a close, still another fine colt Kindergarten (1937) came running. Although his deeds never really spread far and wide, there are many in NZ who still believe he was as good as — or better than — the mighty Phar Lap. Without question, he was the best NZ-bred thoroughbred to grace the turf in his own country and in 2006, Kindergarten was inducted into the New Zealand Racing HOF :
NEXT TIME: A look at the 1940’s “down under” and a superstar whose name is still spoken in hushed tones today, so great was his legacy.
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