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This little ditty comes to you, dear reader, at the close of 2016 with my best wishes for a New Year filled with an abundance of lovely surprises, new adventures and discoveries, radiant health and many occasions for laughter. This narrative aspires to set a mood of joy and hope as we ring in 2017! Love, Abigail

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Dedicated to the family and descendants of W.J. Gray, and especially his granddaughter, without whom this article would have been so much less than it became.

 

BLUE LARKSPUR, a superb thoroughbred from track to breeding shed, captured in the lens of W.J. Gray. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

BLUE LARKSPUR, a superb thoroughbred from track to breeding shed, carrying the W.J. Gray stamp. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

As many of you know, I am wholly addicted to photography and especially vintage photographs. One of my favourite haunts, even when I’m not looking to buy anything, is Ebay — a superb place to just enjoy old photographs of all kinds.

Over the years, my collecting of rare old photographs of thoroughbreds and standardbreds has netted a handful of surprise discoveries and chance encounters with people from all around the world. One was with a descendant of Colonel Phil Chinn of Kentucky, and another took place when I bought a photograph of Safely Kept beating Dayjur in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Sprint in the now famous “shadow incident” (below). As it turned out, the seller was the then owner of the UK’s Pacemaker magazine (now Owner Breeder), who was in the midst of selling off his magazine’s photo archives. So it was that I was gifted with some rare and wonderful photographs of Nijinsky, Danzig, Danehill and Sadler’s Wells from the Pacemaker archives. As a thank you, I sent this gentleman a copy of Secretariat from the Thoroughbred Legends series, as he was a huge fan and this was one book he didn’t have in his collection.

But one of the most fascinating of my discoveries began on an ordinary day, when I was trawling Ebay for no particular reason. I was scrolling through a search I routinely do of vintage horse photos when I stumbled upon a relatively rare Phar Lap, at a ridiculous price. I bought it and then returned to the seller’s listing, to see what else s/he had on offer. What came up was the kind of “find” that makes a collector dizzy: photos of the beloved Exterminator, the great Discovery (BM sire of Native Dancer, Bold Ruler, Bed O’ Roses and Hasty Road), of Blue Larkspur (outstanding in every way, the son of Black Toney is credited as being one of the X -chromosome, large heart sires), Pavot (US Champion Two year-old and grandson of Man O’ War), beloved Stymie, “The People’s Champion,” and a couple of more obscure thoroughbreds. These were large and possibly authentic photographs of the day. I bought the Exterminator and a few others. And then I sent a note off to the seller, asking about the provenance of the photographs. S/he duly responded to say that they were purchased at a garage sale in Los Angeles, where s/he had found them “stuffed into a cardboard box” on the front lawn, surrounded by vast arrays of household goods.

 

COALTOWN by W.J. Gray. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

COALTOWN by W.J. Gray. His signature is just under the colt’s hind leg. (This was one I was too late to buy, unfortunately.) Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

I waited for the arrival of my bounty, feeling that this might well be my personal “Antiques Roadshow moment.” You know the reference: the moment where the little lady from some tiny town that no-one has ever heard of is told that her photograph is worth a small fortune. Or not: many purchases turn out to be not quite what they appear to be in the Ebay listing, mostly due to sellers who know little or nothing about the difference between original and newly-minted photographs.

In the interim, I went back to the seller’s Ebay profile to check on other photographs that s/he might have sold. There I discovered images of a handful of thoroughbred champions who had been scooped up by other buyers: Calumet Farm’s Coaltown, who had the misfortune to race in the same years as Citation; the champions Alsab, Challendon and Gallorette, together with Reigh Count, the sire of Count Fleet; and Rosemont, he who famously beat Seabiscuit and Omaha and sired the champion filly, Bed O’ Roses.

Anyone who collects thoroughbred photos of the past will know that getting an authentic, original photo of Coaltown, Exterminator, Reigh Count, Phar Lap, Discovery or Gallorette is a definite coup because, for whatever reason, images of them are scarce. But what was equally fascinating in this seller’s lot was that the majority of the images were ones that I had never seen anywhere before. And this, of course, peaked my curiosity. I hoped that my own photos would yield some clue as to the photographer’s identity and/or the source (i.e. studio or printer’s mark, date of production, etc.)

The champion ALSAB. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

The champion ALSAB. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

My anticipation was rewarded shortly thereafter when a large, padded envelope arrived. As one photograph after another emerged, I was beyond delighted. Each one was 13.5 X 11 ” with very little border, printed on thick,nicely aged paper presumably used by printing studios/photographers of the day. The images themselves were crisp and compelling. With the exception of the Exterminator and the Phar Lap, each one bore either the signature (within the print itself) of a “W.J. Gray ” or an oval stamp that read “W.J. Gray, Photos, 411 So. Main Street, Los Angeles.”  

The Exterminator bore an encircled C in one corner that I can attribute to the great equine master, C.C. Cook, as well as recognizing his distinctive hand in inscribing the horse’s name, the jockey (A. Johnson) and a few other details on the print itself. Affixed to the photo, on fading newsprint, were typed details of Exterminator’s race record.

 

The print of EXTERMINATOR. Photo and copyright: C. C. Cook.

The print of EXTERMINATOR. Note the paper note affixed, listing his race record. Photo and copyright: Keeneland-Cook.

The Phar Lap only carried a typed newsprint square of the date and locale of his death, together with his career earnings. Had it been taken at either Menlo Park, CA or at Agua Caliente? I knew that, after his celebrated arrival in California and at the request of the American press corps, the champion was kitted up to pose for photos — the last that exist of Phar Lap before his untimely death.

There were no other identification marks on the print, although the image was superb and I knew that this was an exceedingly rare image of Australia’s beloved “Red Terror.” (At this writing, I have only managed to locate one copy of this photo online, but the site is in a foreign language so I was unable to read it. If any of you have any information about it — including recognizing the track where it was taken — please contact me here below, in the section reserved for COMMENTS. Thank you. AA)

 

The PHAR LAP photo.

The PHAR LAP photo. I am fairly certain that this is Billy Elliott in the irons and Tommy Woodcock in the background, in coat and hat. (Phar Lap’s Australian jockey, Jim Pike, had very noticeable cheekbones and a sharper nose. But at a distance, his official trainer, Harry Telford and Woodcock look somewhat similar. However, it was Woodcock and not Telford who accompanied Phar Lap to America, making it important to know who that figure in the background is, as it would date the photo.) Taken either at Menlo Park, CA or at Agua Caliente, Mexico, or else taken in Australia at some point in his career.

Once I had fully savoured my treasures, and framed the photos of Old Bones (aka Exterminator) and Bobby (aka Phar Lap), I began a search for the mysterious Mr. W. J. Gray.  But “Gray” is a common surname and searches kept giving me any instance of “W.J.” separately from “Gray.” After several dead ends, I finally hit upon a lead.

As it turned out, W. J. Gray was a photographer of some of Hollywood’s most iconic stars:

 

INGRID BERGMAN by W.J. Gray. Note his signature on the photo on the left-hand side. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

INGRID BERGMAN by W.J. Gray. Note his signature on the photo on the left-hand side. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

JUNE ALLYSON by W.J. Gray. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

JUNE ALLYSON by W.J. Gray, also carrying his signature on the right. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

A young FRANK SINATRA by W.J. Gray with the latter's signature visible under Sinatra's. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

A young FRANK SINATRA by W.J. Gray with the latter’s signature visible under Sinatra’s. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

Too, I found one image of an iconic historical figure in American – World War II history that Gray had captured in understated dignity …

 

GENERAL DOUGLAS MACARTHUR by W.J. Gray. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

GENERAL DOUGLAS MACARTHUR by W.J. Gray. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

…as well as numerous aircraft, and one snowy scene of Los Angeles in the winter of 1944:

 

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This was enough to tell me that Mr. Gray was, indeed, a very fine photographer, one whose reputation for exceptional work was acknowledged. After all, not just anyone was called upon to photograph Ingrid Bergman or General Macarthur. As well, many of the airplanes he photographed were produced by the industry giant Lockheed, with whom Gray likely had a contract.

From the scanty information I was able to retrieve, it appeared that much of Gray’s extant work was done in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

The great CORNELL WILDE, photographed by Billy Gray. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

The great CORNELL WILDE, photographed by Billy Gray. Gray’s characteristic signature sits to the left, below Wilde’s. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

But nowhere –nowhere — was there any indication of the photographer’s perhaps secret passion for the great thoroughbreds of his day. Whereas the Hollywood and possibly the Lockheed photos could well have been taken in California, several of the horses I had discovered never raced in California, indicating that Gray may have travelled around the country to record their exploits. Did he, I wondered, also work for (a)newspaper(s), capturing images of great thoroughbreds for their pages?

 

A quite spectacular photograph of DISCOVERY, the BM sire of Native Dancer and Bed O' Roses, carrying the W.J. Gray stamp. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

A quite spectacular photograph of DISCOVERY, the BM sire of Native Dancer and Bed O’ Roses, carrying the W.J. Gray stamp. Copies of this shot can be found on Ebay by those unscrupulous dealers who copy and sell other people’s work. Photo, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

Another thorny question: why a stamp and not a signature? Could the stamp indicate that the photograph was developed by Gray at his studio, whereas the signature, as seen in the Hollywood photos and on some of the thoroughbred shots, indicated that Gray himself was the photographer? This explanation seemed most likely, and is reinforced by the handwriting on the Discovery shot (above) that looks very much like C.C. Cook’s hand and carries only the Gray stamp. I hasten to add that, unlike today where so many unscrupulous types download someone else’s work from the internet and sell it on places like Ebay, if Gray did indeed sell others’ work in his store, it would have been through an agreement reached with the photographer, who likely made a commission on the sale of his work.

However, Gray — like C.C. Cook and other photographers of the day — was also given to writing on some of his negatives, as is the case with the photo of Alsab (above) that carries both writing and his signature (while minus the Gray stamp). If signature vs. stamp weren’t intended to discriminate the photographs Gray handled,  it’s equally possible that he just switched from signing his photographs to stamping them, making all those bearing either identification mark attributable to him. A tough call, and one impossible to resolve without the knowledge of someone who knew the man and something about his career.

So, on went the winding trail of the narrative of these stunning images and their creator, until I came across a blog that held a new Gray photograph. Although not of a thoroughbred, in the Comments section below it there was a reply from W.J. Gray’s great grandson, who confirmed that his great grandfather had owned a photography shop in Hollywood/Los Angeles. I duly obtained Mr. Gray’s great grandson’s coordinates from the blogger and shot off a hasty email. Could he tell me something more about his ancestor and about Gray’s thoroughbred photos?

CHALLENDON. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

CHALLENDON, in what appears to be a press photo. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

Within a few days, I received a very cordial note from Mr. Gray’s great grandson, who told me that he was researching his great grandfather, knew he had taken photos of Hollywood stars like Charlie Chaplin and commercial aircraft, but had absolutely no idea that he had an interest in thoroughbreds. I duly sent him copies of some of the thoroughbred photographs that had been listed on Ebay. Again I received a reply and a promise that he would forward the photos, as well as my letter, to other Gray family members. This was in 2014.

As the photos I had found were outstanding and reflected not only Gray’s skill but his knowledge about some of the most important thoroughbreds of his time, it was hard to forget about him.

Then, a day after I began writing this piece, I saw that there were many comments on The Vault that I had had no time to answer, given the Christmas holidays…and first among them was a message from W.J. Gray’s granddaughter. In fact, in a context where truth is stranger than fiction, she had written to me the day before I decided to try to pull something together about her grandfather for my first post of 2017.

Happy coincidence? Certainly.

I had been thinking about the mysterious Mr. Gray as a great subject for a new year post, because I believe that discovery is one of the great spices in life, even if its story is incomplete, which Gray’s clearly was until the moment I read his granddaughter’s note to me.

Sometimes the Universe is indeed inexplicable — and on December 26, 2016, it was presenting me with a gem.

 

Some horses don't wear well down through time. Meet the excellent LADYSMAN, winner of the Arlington Futurity, the Hopeful, the Grand Union Hotel Stakes and the United States Stakes in 1932, when he was also honoured with Champion Two Year-Old honours. LADYSMAN was a real press and fan favourite until his retirement in 1935. Used with the permission of WJ Gray's granddaughter.

Some horses don’t “wear well” down through time. Meet the excellent LADYSMAN, winner of the Arlington Futurity, the Hopeful, the Grand Union Hotel Stakes and the United States Stakes in 1932, when he was also honoured with Champion Two Year-Old honours. LADYSMAN was a real press and fan favourite until his retirement in 1935. Used with the permission of WJ Gray’s granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

W.J. (Billy) Gray’s granddaughter’s initial message to me was followed by a flurry of emails and an actual “phone date.”

As it turned out, she had been born two weeks after her grandfather died, in January 1958, but had grown up hearing many stories about him. Her mother, Billy’s daughter-in-law, had only wonderful memories of him: “…She adored him and his gentle spirit, {he} was the absolute kindest person she ever knew! …My grandfather was a self-made man who lived his life with dignity, integrity and kindness.” (Private correspondence)

As she went on to say:

“…When you contacted my second cousin, his dad sent me copies of the photos you found (where did you find them?)

That began my search for horse racing photos…I couldn’t find any, except one that had been hand painted and was sold at an estate auction a few years prior. I searched for months! Many many months with no success.

Then one night I was watching the movie “Seabiscuit.” I was crying at the appropriate moment😊 and then put the movie on hold and asked out loud (no one was home) ‘Grandpa, am I ever going to find your horse racing photos?’.

I began to search on the internet, again. This time I searched ‘WJ Gray Seabiscuit’. On the third page of searches I found three lines that included contact info and:
‘large, original photos of Seabiscuit and War Admiral by Wm Gray of Los Angeles for $100, Philadelphia’

I called him immediately and told him that {the photographs he was selling} was my grandfather who died 2 weeks before I was born and I was searching for his photos. The man called me back the next day and said I must have those photos and {that he had} discovered 4 more in his stash! He said his father had bought them in Philly when a bar closed and they were selling the photos off the wall! He’d tried to sell them before and thought that no-one understood what they were. But he did. He liked the ‘ponies’.” (Private correspondence) 

 

WJ GRAY getting ready to take a photograph. Used with permission by his granddaughter.

A very dapper WJ GRAY getting ready to take a photograph, possibly at Santa Anita. Used with the permission of his granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

Then scans of the photos she had tracked down and purchased from the man in Philadelphia arrived. Once again, I was astounded. Not only were the images crisp, but most were shots of thoroughbreds I knew well but had never seen before: War Admiral in close-up coming into the final turn of the Belmont Stakes (and victory in the Triple Crown); Phar Lap after his win at Agua Caliente; an apparent press photo (because it included a typed byline) of Seabiscuit losing the Santa Anita Handicap to Rosemont; A.C. Bostwick’s champion, Mate, winner of some important races, notably the the Preakness, Champagne and American Derby in 1931; Equipoise winning The Metropolitan (1932); and Granville, a very good son of Gallant Fox, on track in the colours of the famous Belair Stud. Each large photo carried the oval “WJ Gray Photos” stamp.

 

GRANVILLE on track. Photo and copyright, the estate of WJ Gray.

GRANVILLE on track. Photo and copyright, the Estate of WJ Gray.

Mr. Gray’s granddaughter was also kind enough to send photos of her grandfather, as well as biographical notes.

 

W.J. GRAY with an unidentified horse. Used with the permission of his granddaughter.

W.J. GRAY with an unidentified horse. Used with the permission of his granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

William (Billy) J. Gray was born on Edisto Island, SC in 1883, the youngest of ten children. He was orphaned at the age of seven and while in an orphanage was taught a trade that presumably allowed him to work on the railroad, possibly as a cabin boy. He eventually ended up in Los Angeles CA. Some time before 1919, Billy had bought himself a camera and learned how to use it, because in that year he took a photograph of Woodrow Wilson that he sold to the Los Angeles Times newspaper. (A signed copy of this photograph hangs in the Ronald Reagan Library, where it was discovered by Billy’s granddaughter. She tells me that the family has the original print.)

It was the sale of the Woodrow Wilson to the LA Times that suggested to the twenty-six year old Billy Gray that his photography hobby could, in fact, be potentially lucrative. And he had the courage to follow his instincts — and his heart. As Hollywood and its stars together with various newspapers came to recognize Billy’s endowment, it was possible for the then father of five to support his family during the dark days of the Depression by taking pictures. At some point soon after the sale of the Woodrow Wilson photo, Billy opened his first place of business in Los Angeles, to be followed by a second establishment, also in Los Angeles.

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An early advertisement placed by W.J. Gray, sometime after 1921. Note the company name: FILM STARS PORTRAIT CO. Used with the permission of his granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

As the ad above indicates, Billy Gray was targeting Hollywood stars in the early years of his career and to say that he was successful would be an understatement. Below, a W.J. Gray photograph of Hollywood icons and, in his own hand, a note on the back:

 

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This was Charlie Chaplin’s private plane. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

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Back of the photograph above, listing of the names of the Hollywood icons pictured. Used with the permission of Billy’s granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

A cousin also supplied memories of Billy “on the job,” as in this excerpt from my private correspondence with Billy’s granddaughter:

“My cousin, as a little girl, remembers visiting our grandparents in Los Angeles and walking to our grandfather’s studio on Pico (his other studio). Grandfather was developing his own film and in those days you printed a photo, ad or sheet of stationary one-at-a-time. She remembers helping stack the sheets of naval ship stationary, one at a time. During and after the war, grandfather would go down to the docks and take a photo of the ships. He’d come back, develop the film and then print one sheet at a time on stationary. She added that they {other members of the Gray family} would help Grandpa as he printed the individual stationary paper and envelopes: she would fold them and place them into the envelopes which was how they were sold.

Then he would go back down to the docks to sell it. The sailors would buy the stationary that featured their ship to write home on.

My cousin was born near the end of the war and grandfather was still producing this stationary after the war.”

In addition, Billy’s granddaughter mentioned a photograph she had of Billy in a printing shop in Chicago, as well as evidence that he had travelled to Greenland at some point. She further told me that her grandfather’s wife hand-coloured portraits and other photographs associated with the Gray’s photography business and that she had located one, of a thoroughbred, that had sold at auction.

In our lengthy exchanges, she was also able to confirm that Billy was indeed a horse lover (as opposed to just a photographer of thoroughbreds), who had friendships with several of the jockeys at the California tracks and possibly at other racing venues. (This reported by her aunt, Billy’s 91 year-old sister.) As for the “stamp vs. signature” issue, she was unable to provide clarification. However, when I asked about the typing at the foot of some of the photographs, she told me that it was indeed her grandfather who had typed in these details himself.

 

 

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The Santa Anita Derby of 1937. Typed underneath by WJ GRAY: “Start –Santa Anita Derby. Won by “FAIRY HILL.” (M. Peters up) Photo and copyright, the estate of WJ Gray.

 

A portrait of Billy Gray. Used with the permission of his granddaughter.

A portrait of Billy Gray. Used with the permission of his granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

Finally, Mr. W.J. Gray was emerging out of the shadows for me and I was glad. He was an exceptionally gifted photographer and one who deserves to also be celebrated by anyone interested in thoroughbreds and the history of racing in America.

In recording facets of the world as he knew it, Billy made his mark in the world a lasting one.

He could not have known that his photographs would leave a trail for a little girl who loved him to follow. But I’m betting he’d be pleased. I know that his granddaughter is.

What a precious, precious gift Billy Gray left her: the opportunity to literally see a part of his world, through his eyes.

W. "BILLY" J. GRAY: Here's looking at you?

W. “BILLY” J. GRAY: Here’s looking at you! Used with the permission of his granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

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NOTE: THE VAULT is a non-profit website. (Any advertising that appears on THE VAULT is placed there by WordPress and the profit, if any, goes to WordPress.) We make every effort to honour copyright for the photographs used in our articles. It is not our policy to use the property of any photographer without his/her permission, although the task of sourcing photographs is hugely compromised by the social media, where many photographs prove impossible to trace. Please do not hesitate to contact THE VAULT regarding any copyright concerns. Thank you.

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Thanks to your support, messages and enthusiasm, THE VAULT goes into its 7th year in 2017. I can hardly believe it! This article, over two years in the making, is my special Christmas gift to each and every one of you. With it comes my warmest wishes for a joyous and safe holiday season, filled with laughter, surprises and special moments to cherish. Love, Abigail

 

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HOF jockey and trainer Johnny Longden rode winners with a capital “W” — champions like Swaps, Noor, Busher, Whirlaway, Round Table, Your Host and George Royal. But no matter how great the others were, Longden would say that “The Count” — Count Fleet — was the best of them all.

COUNT FLEET shown here with his trainer

COUNT FLEET shown here with his trainer Don Cameron and The Count’s regular exercise lad, Frank Kiniry. Photographer unknown.

Horsemen like my grandfather tend to say, “The reason so few horses ever get to the Triple Crown is because it’s a road fraught with everything but good luck.” And the story of Count Fleet and Johnny Longden is exactly that: so filled with the fickleness of Fate — good and bad — that it is absolutely remarkable they ended up together in the starting gate of the 1943 Kentucky Derby.

As regular readers of THE VAULT know, it was my grandfather who set me on the path that led to writing about thoroughbreds and standardbreds. No question I got the “horse gene,” as my late mother called it, from my Grandpa. It was his passion –a bright fire that illuminated the stories of the great thoroughbreds and standardbreds of his day — that kindled my imagination. In Grandpa’s pantheon, few were more admired than the incomparable John Longden, who had roots in Canada, and his “horse of a lifetime,”Count Fleet. I risk to say that The Count crowned my grandfather’s pantheon. He never said so, but he also never talked about any other thoroughbred, including Man O War, with the same fire in his eye. The Count had moved him in a way that none of the others he so admired, before or after him, would.

Count Fleet came into the world on March 24, 1940 at his owner, John D. Hertz’s, Stoner Creek Stud near Paris, Kentucky. The tiny son of champion and 1928 Kentucky Derby winner, Reigh Count, and the mare, Quickly — a great great granddaughter of the British wonder horse, The Tetrarch — did not impress. Hertz, the rental car magnate, was a canny businessman in all things and Quickly’s little colt foal likely went onto his “for sale” inventory within months of his birth.

 

 

REIGH COUNT

REIGH COUNT, the sire of COUNT FLEET. An outstanding looking individual who was bred in the purple, Hertz bought him from Willis Sharpe Kilmer after seeing the colt savage another horse during a race. Photo and copyright, THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE.

 

QUICKLY, the dam of COUNT FLEET. Photographer unknown.

QUICKLY, the dam of COUNT FLEET, carried the blood of one of the greatest thoroughbreds of all time, THE TETRARCH, in her 4th generation. A sprinter, QUICKLY made 85 starts with a record of 32-14-13 before she was acquired by Hertz from Joseph D. Widener. Photographer unknown.

 

In 1912, almost three decades before the birth of Count Fleet, Mary Longden and her four youngest children — Lillian, Doris, five year-old John and baby Elsie — closed up their home in Wakefield, England and boarded a train for Liverpool. From there, they would board a ship that would take them to Canada, where they were to meet up with Johnny Longden’s father, Herb, and two older siblings. The family’s eventual destination would be Tabor, Alberta, where Herb had found work in the coal mines.

But the train was running behind schedule. Mary feared for the worst: that their ship would sail before they arrived at the port. And, as it turned out, she was right.

The ship they were booked on was none other than the Titanic.

As Johnny would tell it to B. K. Beckwith, author of The Longden Legend, ” …I was five years old and it didn’t mean too much to me then. I guess kids of that age aren’t overly impressed with the workings of fate or whatever you want to call it…I’ve heard since the iceberg ripped most of the bottom out of the boat. It probably would have been curtains for us. The Longden pocketbook wasn’t in any shape to afford upper deck cabins. Most likely we’d have been among the fifteen hundred that went down with her…”  

 

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The NEW YORK AMERICAN front page following the sinking of the TITANIC.

From his arrival as a little boy in Canada to his first encounter with Count Fleet, Johnny worked first as a herd boy and then as an apprentice coal miner and a clerk, all the while dreaming of becoming a jockey. He started out racing quarter horses before switching to thoroughbreds. By 1927 Johnny was working under contract for small-time thoroughbred owners in Alberta, Canada and in southwest American states just across the border. Along the way he met up with another youngster, George Woolf, and the two would remain best friends until Woolf’s tragic end in 1946, at the age of 35.

The $150,000 statue was commissioned by Cardston ranchers Jack and Ida Lowe and created by Artist Don Toney. It is being donated to the province of Alberta.

The statue of George Woolf and Seabiscuit  captured at the moment when George yelled, “So long, Charley!” to War Admiral’s jockey, pulling away to win the most famous match race in American racing history. The sculpture was commissioned by Cardston ranchers Jack and Ida Lowe and created by Artist Don Toney. Unveiled in 2010, the statue stands in Cardston, Alberta, Woolf’s birthplace.

 

In the same year that Reigh Count won the Kentucky Derby, Longden’s contract was bought up by one E.A. “Sleepy” Armstrong, a veteran horseman; when Sleepy Armstrong came into Johnny’s life, things started to change. His horizons expanded to racetracks in Cuba and Agua Caliente, where he rode a very good colt named Bahamas against the mighty Phar Lap in the Caliente Handicap of 1932.

Phar Lap won, of course. As Johnny remembered it: “I was leading the field to the three eights pole. About that point the big New Zealander went by the rest of us like we were tied to the fence…” :

 

 

By the early 1940’s, Longden was an established American jockey with a growing reputation for excellence, voted America’s leading jockey in 1938. In 1940 he was one of the founders of the (American) Jockey Guild. Now based in California, “The Pumper” — as he was nicknamed by his peers for his tendency to pump his arms as he encouraged a horse forward — had also become an American citizen. Over the testing ground of tracks from Canada to Cuba, Johnny had also learned to ride just about any horse under any conditions anywhere. Today, we would call him a “horse whisperer.” His whispers to particularly difficult mounts were communicated through voice, legs and hands. Johnny wasn’t one to hit a horse unless it really needed a reminder; instead, he relied on the language he had learned that his mounts would understand.

COUNT FLEET rendered by C.W. Anderson during a work. Based on a photograph from 1942/1943, this is a faithful representation of THE COUNT as a youngster.

COUNT FLEET during a work, beautifully rendered by C.W. Anderson and based on a photograph taken in 1942/1943.

 

By the time he was a yearling, Count Fleet already had a reputation for being tough to handle and was, accordingly, sent to auction. One of Hertz’s stable lads, Sam Ramsen, pleaded with the Stoner Creek manager on the colt’s behalf and his words were to become prophetic, “Someday he’s going to be some fine racer. When that leggy brown colt wants to run, he can just about fly.”

(This first attempt to get rid of him as a yearling remains a distinctly odd feature of The Count’s narrative, especially since Hertz had purchased his sire after seeing him savage another thoroughbred in a race, allegedly declaring, ” I love a fighter, man or horse.”)

Despite Ramsen’s plea, there were no takers at the sale. So Quickly’s baby boy was given a name, registered to owner Mrs. John D. (Fannie) Hertz and sent off to the Hertz’s trainer, Gregory Duncan “Don” Cameron.  The stage was set for one of history’s great partnerships: in 1939, Cameron had contracted Johnny Longden to ride horses owned by Fannie Hertz, as well as another owner, Vera S. Bragg.

 

The stage was set: the paths of Johnny and THE COUNT crossed in 1942. Photo and copyright: The Baltimore Sun.

The stage was set: the paths of Johnny and THE COUNT finally converged in 1942. Here they are working at Belmont. Photo and copyright: The Baltimore Sun.

 

The first time Johnny rode The Count, the colt came close to killing him. As Longden told the story, the pair were working at Belmont Park and Johnny noticed two horses coming towards them on the track. But The Count had running on his mind and Johnny couldn’t get him to either slow down or change lanes, so he somehow managed to guide him between the pair without anyone getting hurt. Telling the story to his biographer, B.K. Beckwith, Johnny still couldn’t envision how he’d pulled it off. But one thing was certain: after this incident, only Longden rode Count Fleet in race preps and actual races. Everyone else was too terrified to even contemplate it, although there are a few rare images of another young lad working the colt when he was in his 3 year-old season.

THE COUNT was a handful, but according to Longden, he was not a mean horse at all. Photographer and source unknown.

THE COUNT was a handful, but according to Longden, he was not mean — just a colt with a mind of his own. Photograph circa 1943. Photographer and source unknown.

 

Despite the Belmont episode, Johnny was adamant that there wasn’t a mean bone in Count Fleet’s body, although this fact went largely unnoticed in the press of the day. Headlines like “NASTY BUT FAST” dogged the colt throughout his brief racing career, even when he was packing fans in like sardines at Aqueduct or Churchill Downs.

In his biography, Longden explained The Count’s personality this way,” He was not, you understand, a mean horse…Just one full of the devil with a mind which was very much his own.”  As a two year-old, Johnny described Count Fleet as a somewhat sorry looking individual though, “He really didn’t have the look of a top prospect then…He was a medium size — about fifteen hands three inches — and, though he was deep in the girth and had a good shoulder, he was weedy behind…he looked more like a filly than a colt.”  In addition, Count Fleet at two weighed in at only 900 lbs., reaching 1,000 lbs. by January 1943. John Hervey (“Salvator”) was more complimentary, describing the colt as one who, though not handsome, sported a very fine head and a character both intelligent and inquisitive.

 

"...He looked more like a filly than a colt." COUNT FLEET as a two year-old. Photo from THE VAULT'S private collection.

“…he looked more like a filly than a colt.” COUNT FLEET as a two year-old. Photo and copyright: Bert Morgan, KEENELAND .

 

In 1942, before Count Fleet had made his first start as a juvenile, Johnny recalled another trainer, Sammy Smith, coming to Cameron’s barn at Belmont one morning. The Count was led out for Smith to look over and Longden understood that the colt was being offered for sale; the asking price was $4500. Now Johnny had been working for the Hertzes for almost two years at this point, and he had established a trusting relationship with John D. Hertz. When he realized The Count was up for grabs, he picked up a bicycle from the yard and pumped muscle to the nearest phone booth to call John D. Fortunately, Johnny got hold of him and begged Hertz not to sell the feisty youngster.

Hertz replied that he considered the colt dangerous and was afraid that he would kill Longden one day, to which Johnny replied, ” I’m not afraid of him.” There was a long pause. Then came the words,“All right…If you’re game enough to ride him, I’ll keep him.” 

At first, Hertz may well have regretted his decision: in his two year-old campaign, Count Fleet had a kind of seesaw year, breaking his maiden by four lengths in his third start followed by other wins as well as a few upsets. However, throughout the season the colt never finished worse than third. Said Longden of The Count’s juvenile year, ” He beat himself…He never should have lost a race, but he was a tough customer to handle, green and rough in those early starts, and you couldn’t take hold of him –you couldn’t even properly guide him. You had to let him run, and if you didn’t have racing room, he’d go to the outside or just climb over horses. If you were in close quarters with him, you were in trouble.” 

Actually, Count Fleet’s similarity to the most respected speedball of all time, The Tetrarch, was remarkable. It was just as though the “great grey” had come back in the form of a deceptively unremarkable brown colt.

 

"I'm not afraid of him." Johnny and COUNT FLEET. Photographer and source unknown.

“I’m not afraid of him.” Johnny and THE COUNT. Photographer and source unknown.

 

THE TETRARCH was selected one of the best thoroughbreds of the last century, even though he only raced for a single season. Ridiculed for his markings ("chubari spots"), THE TETRARCH would have the last laugh by becoming a prepotent sire and BM sire.

THE TETRARCH was selected one of the best thoroughbreds of the last century, even though he only raced for a single season. Ridiculed for his markings (“chubari spots”), THE TETRARCH would have the last laugh by becoming a prepotent sire and BM sire. COUNT FLEET carried his blood in the fourth generation of his pedigree.

 

But The Count wasn’t only a speed devil — he was also a lover boy.

In the Belmont Futurity, as Longden manoeuvred the two year-old toward the lead, he drew alongside the filly, Askmenow, a daughter of champion Menow. As Johnny told it, “…The Count decided he didn’t want to leave her. She was in that delicate condition that appealed to him. I couldn’t budge him. He just galloped along beside her and let Occupation steal the race.” 

It was the last race Count Fleet would ever lose.

The colt’s next start was in the historic Champagne Stakes in New York. That day, he really took a toll on Johnny’s patience, acting up behind the gate and sending the track lads scurrying. It was the only time he would feel Longden’s whip, which was applied to get his mind on the job at hand.

And The Count got the message: he led from gate to the wire, setting a world record for two year-olds in the process of 1:34 and 4/5. After this victory, Johnny felt he’d found “the key to him” — get the colt out on top and just let him run. “…It was what he loved to do more than anything else.”  In other words, Count Fleet needed to own the track from the first break. And it was exactly this that his gifted jockey would guide him to do. Not that this was always that easy to pull off: “…that horse {The Count} did horrify me on occasions,” Johnny once confided to his biographer.

COUNT FLEET wins the Champagne stakes, Longden up, and sets a new track record.

COUNT FLEET wins the Champagne Stakes, Longden up, and sets a world record for two year-olds. Photographer/source unknown.

 

In the Pimlico Futurity, The Count faced his rival, Occupation, once again. Although he broke on top, Occupation was soon overtaken by the Hertzes little whiz kid, who flew by to win by five and equal the course record. The Count’s last start of 1942 was in the Walden Stakes. If there had been any doubt as to his ability, it all ended that day: the bay who looked more like a filly than a colt won by roughly thirty lengths, carrying weight of 132 lbs. This performance, together with his other wins that season, made Count Fleet good enough to abscond with the title that, at the beginning of the racing calendar, looked to be Occupation’s — namely, U.S. Champion Two Year-Old (colt).

 

count-fleet-before-wood-memorial__57

 

The Count went into 1943 as the favourite to win the Kentucky Derby, a feat that would allow his sire, Reigh Count, entry into the elite club of Derby sires of Derby winners. Other very good three year-olds of 1943 included Blue Swords, Slide Rule and The Count’s nemesis, Occupation. Older horses who added to the spirit of the sport that year were Equipoise’s son, Shut Out, who had won the 1942 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, Belair Stud’s Apache and Marise Farms’ Market Wise, a son of Broker’s Tip who had famously defeated Whirlaway in the 1941 Jockey Gold Cup in track record time.

 

Edgemere Handicap, 1943: APACHE (blinkers) edges SHUT OUT to take the win, with MARKET WISE and Johnny Longden coming in third. Photo and copyright, THE BALTIMORE SUN.

Older horses running in 1943 did much to keep the sport an exciting one: Edgemere Handicap, 1943 — APACHE (blinkers) edges SHUT OUT to take the win, with MARKET WISE and Johnny Longden coming in third. Photo and copyright, THE BALTIMORE SUN.

After claiming an easy victory in the St. James Purse, the colt and his team were off to Aqueduct to compete in the Wood Memorial, then run at a distance of 1m, 7yards. These were, of course, the War Years and there were many restrictions on travel being enforced America-wide, all of which seriously threatened the running of the Kentucky Derby, which dilemma Colonel Matt Winn, the President of Churchill Downs, was wrestling with even as the gates swung open for the Wood Memorial.

countfleetapr_1943

Rare photo of COUNT FLEET in 1943, breaking in either the Wood Memorial or The Withers. THE COUNT is the first arrow closest to “Copywritten Image.” Photo from the private collection of THE VAULT.

The anticipation of spectators at the Wood, according to John Hervey, seemed to set Aqueduct on fire and derived from The Count’s performance — and new track record — in the slop in the St. James Purse. Both Blue Swords and Slide Rule lined up at the gate, but before The Count was loaded, he was either kicked or grabbed in his hind leg: “…It was low down, near the fetlock. We went on and won easy anyway, but it filled up pretty bad afterwards, and for a times we were afraid we might not make the Kentucky Derby. I sat up and tubbed him in ice all the way to Louisville. We went down in a boxcar. It was nip and tuck, but we made it to the race…” (Longden as quoted by Beckwith, his biographer).

But however uncomfortable the colt might have been, he took the Wood in 1:43, and made two excellent colts look more like cart horses than thoroughbreds.

A look at COUNT FLEET'S hind leg following his win in the Wood Memorial. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

A look at COUNT FLEET’S hind leg following his win in the Wood Memorial. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

Matt Winn had now resolved with authorities that, although the horses would arrive by boxcar and/or on wheels for the Kentucky Derby, only local people would be in attendance at the track that day. As those who crowded Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of May 1943 would remember it, the “Streetcar Derby” was worth it, even though they had to leave their cars at home.

The Count did not disappoint, rolling passed Blue Swords and Slide Rule to a victory that bespoke his class. Below, silent footage of the race:

 

 

COUNT FLEET wins the Kentucky Derby and makes his sire, REIGH COUNT, a Derby-winning sire of a Derby-winning son. Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

COUNT FLEET wins the Kentucky Derby and makes his sire, REIGH COUNT, a Derby-winning sire of a Derby-winning son. Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

 

Johnny and COUNT FLEET festooned with roses. Photographer/source unknown.

Johnny and COUNT FLEET festooned with roses. Photographer/source unknown.

 

And then it was on to Pimlico, where the colt scored an even more decisive victory in the Preakness, beating Blue Swords by 8 lengths. Routing Blue Swords still again brought The Count’s reputation to its next level, since the former was a beautifully-bred son of Blue Larkspur whose dam was a daughter of Man O’ War. Blue Swords was the Sham of his day, confronted with a determined athlete who tended to wear his opponents down before the race was even half over. As The Blood-Horse put it, “If Count Fleet is the spectacular comet in the racing skies of 1943, then Blue Swords is the comet’s tail.”

 

THE COUNT arrives at Pimlico with trainer,

THE COUNT arrives at Pimlico with trainer, Don Cameron. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

 

Leading them on a merry chase, COUNT FLEET swings into the turn at Pimlico.

Leading them on a merry chase, COUNT FLEET swings into the turn at Pimlico. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

 

Wearing the black-eyed Susans. Photographer and source unknown.

Wearing the black-eyed Susans. Photographer and source unknown.

 

Trainer Cameron decided to run him next in the Withers, just to “keep him sharp.”  And The Count might have been at least a tad to blame: after a race — any race, from the easiest to the Derby and Preakness — it was not unusual for the colt to tire out two hot walkers as he cooled down. He never once came back from a race worn out.

Again, in what was becoming an all-too-familiar story, Johnny and The Count came home ahead of the competition in the Withers, leaving Slide Rule — who had skipped The Preakness — six lengths behind. The press — keen to exaggerate anything peculiar or interesting in an otherwise dark time — had already elevated The Count to the status of Man O’ War following his Preakness romp. But when the three year-old took the Withers, they were dumbfounded. This was due also to the fact that only one other Triple Crown winner had pulled off the double, the great Sir Barton. It was “a feat so difficult that any turfman who has witnessed it once need not expect to see it again during his lifetime.”²

Streaking home in The Withers, the second-to-last race of his career.

Streaking home in The Withers, the second-to-last race of his career. Photographer and source unknown, but possibly The Baltimore Sun.

 

John and Fannie Hertz with their champion. Photo circa 1943.

John and Fannie Hertz with their champion. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

 

Count Fleet went to the post for the very last time in the 1943 Belmont Stakes, although no-one anticipated that it would be his final start. The high rolling colts like Blue Swords and Slide Rule had stayed home, leaving The Count to face a field of two who were truly only going to win if, in Johnny’s words, “… he’d have to fall down … and even then I thought he could get up and win. He was that good.”

Those who ride will tell you that horses react to resistance like dogs — in the case of horses, they just run faster. So it was that when Fate joined the dance, Count Fleet decided to fight back.

“He fractured a bone in his left front leg. I felt him bobble in the long stretch and knew he had hurt himself…I started to pull him up but he’d have none of it. He just grabbed the bit in that bull-headed way of his and took off again.” (Longden as quoted by Beckwith, his biographer).

 

 

You'd never know that there was anything wrong with him at all: COUNT FLEET comes home in the Belmont Stakes to become America's sixth Triple Crown winner.

You’d never know that there was anything wrong with him at all: COUNT FLEET comes home in the Belmont Stakes to become America’s sixth Triple Crown winner. Photo and source unknown.

 

Count Fleet’s performance was so devastatingly good that the Hertzes were, of course, delighted to welcome their Triple Crown champion into the winner’s circle. But the next morning, the Count was so badly off that neither trainer nor groom could get him out of his stall. The injury involved a tendon and the limb was fired. The colt was then kept at Belmont until October, when he was shipped to the Hertzes Stoner Creek farm in Kentucky. The racing world waited, praying that the champion would return in 1944. But the Hertzes were owners who always put their horses first and when the risk to The Count appeared too great, it was with deep regret that the decision was made to retire him. In the Hertzes’ mind, there was never any question of risking his life on the track.

 

Johnny and THE COUNT, in living colour. Source unknown, although probably a journal or magazine of the day.

Johnny and THE COUNT, in living colour. Source unknown, although probably a journal or magazine of the day.

 

Whether it was his brief career or just the realities of war time, The Count’s story has been woefully neglected over the decades since he won the Triple Crown. In fact, researching Count Fleet’s racing career — in terms of coming up with something other than the obvious — represents the second longest project THE VAULT has ever undertaken. Insight into the character of the horse came principally from two sources: Johnny Longden’s biography and the superb record of John Hervey aka “Salvator,” as provided in “American Race Horses, 1943.” The former reference I owe to the great Steve Haskin, to whom I am deeply indebted.

Another issue pointed out by Hervey that likely had some impact on Count Fleet’s reputation was that criticism of his career was often based on “But whom did he beat?” In Hervey’s view, the Belmont aside, these doubters clearly weren’t much up on their game, since individuals like Occupation, Blue Swords and Slide Rule were extremely worthy competitors. It was more, in Hervey’s view, the fact that Count Fleet made it look too easy. Referencing the wisdom of the incomparable W.S. Vosburgh when writing about America’s latest Triple Crown winner, Hervey also had this to say: “…As racing goes, the enthusiasts have short memories. They require new gods to worship, and if, a season or two hence, these deities show feet of clay, by that time still newer ones will have displaced them.”³ 

Critics of his racing career there may have been, but Count Fleet would triumph again as a sire.

In 1951, a son, Counterpoint, won the Belmont Stakes and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. He was also chosen as 1951 Horse of the Year. And again in that same year, a daughter, Kiss Me Kate, was named Champion Three Year Old. But perhaps sweetest of all was Count Turf’s win in the 1951 Kentucky Derby. Then, in 1952, One Count shared Horse of the Year honors with the two year-old Native Dancer for his wins in the Belmont, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup.

 

 

COUNT TURF. Source unknown

COUNT TURF. Source unknown.

 

KISS ME KATE with Eddie Arcaro in the irons. Source unknown.

KISS ME KATE with Eddie Arcaro in the irons. Source unknown.

 

Nor would The Count’s legacy end here. Through his daughters, Count Fleet was BM sire to one of the greatest thoroughbreds of all time, Kelso, as well as to champions Lamb Chop, Quill, Prince John, and the 1965 Kentucky Derby and Santa Anita Derby winner, Lucky Debonair.

KELSO with owner, Allaire DuPont. Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

KELSO with owner, Allaire DuPont. Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

Count Fleet lived to be thirty-three when, after foundering for three days, he was laid to rest at Stoner Creek Stud on December 3, 1973.

…… And I learned exactly why my beloved grandfather’s eyes shone so brightly when he spoke about Count Fleet and Johnny Longden: the same year that The Count departed, I watched Secretariat and Ron Turcotte win the Belmont.

 

COUNT FLEET at thirty years of age, as captured by the genius of the late Tony Leonard. Photo and copyright, the estate of Tony Leonard.

COUNT FLEET at thirty years of age, as captured by the genius of the late Tony Leonard. Photo and copyright, the estate of Tony Leonard.

 

 

BONUS FEATURES

 

A Visual Story of Count Fleet:

 

 

 

 

 

Johnny Longden’s last ride:

 

 

 

Footnotes

¹As Titanic buffs will know, the ship set sail from Southampton, not from Liverpool. But this is how Johnny told the story to his biographer and Longden had a reputation for being an honest man, unlikely to grandstand by telling a lie. One has to wonder if the “lower deck” passengers weren’t taken on in Liverpool, where the Titanic’s crew boarded the ill-fated ocean liner. Or, was the plan to get a “connecting” ship from Liverpool to Southampton, unlikely as that would seem. Or, is it possible that Mary Longden was employed to work on the Titanic, in turn for passage for herself and her children? Or, was this simply a fanciful tale that young Johnny was told and believed to be true?

² John Hervey, in American Race Horses 1943, pp. 107

³ Ibid, pp 99

Sources

Beckwith, B.K. The Longden Legend. 1973: A.S. Barnes and Co., Inc.

Hervey, John. American Race Horses 1943. 1944: The Sagamore Press.

Archives of the Daily Racing Form in the University of Kentucky Digital Library.

Archives of the Milwaukee Journal.

Unofficial Thoroughbred Hall Of Fame: http://www.spiletta.com/UTHOF/countfleet.html

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NOTE: THE VAULT is a non-profit website. (Any advertising that appears on THE VAULT is placed there by WordPress and the profit, if any, goes to WordPress.) We make every effort to honour copyright for the photographs used in our articles. It is not our policy to use the property of any photographer without his/her permission, although the task of sourcing photographs is hugely compromised by the social media, where many photographs prove impossible to trace. Please do not hesitate to contact THE VAULT regarding any copyright concerns. Thank you.

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Using history as a guide, if I was shopping for a potential champion, I’d be looking for an “ugly duckling.”

NORTHERN DANCER by Brewer, Jr.

NORTHERN DANCER by Brewer, Jr. The colt was royally bred, but so tiny that E.P. Taylor failed to sell him as a yearling. In fact, potential buyers laughed when he was paraded out with the other yearlings!

Of course, none of the thoroughbreds discussed in this article were ugly. Not literally. But metaphorically, there was something about each one of them that hearkens back to Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale: they seemed to be ugly ducklings but what no-one saw at the time was that they were not ducklings at all. Some weren’t good-looking enough. Others took too much time to come into their own. And still others were waiting for a special someone to come along, someone who looked into their eyes and saw who they really were.

The individuals whose stories appear here are only the proverbial “tip of the iceberg” — VAULT readers will certainly be able to name many others who fall into this category.

And it all adds up to this: If there’s any “secret” to finding yourself another Frankel or American Pharoah or Black Caviar or Treve, it has to do with looking “under the feathers.”

“UGLY DUCKLINGS” #1: TOO UGLY TO EVER BE A CHAMPION

Perhaps we can’t help it. Horses are beautiful animals and thoroughbreds can be exquisite. And no matter how often horse folk remind us that beauty and talent don’t necessarily go hand in hand, it’s all too easy to ignore when you’ve got a plain bay standing next to a magnificent chestnut…….

 

KINCSEM (filly, 1874-1887)

This lovely print of KINCSEM shows off her lustrous liver-chestnut coat, massive chest and powerful hindquarters.

This lovely print of KINCSEM shows off her lustrous liver-chestnut coat, massive chest and powerful hindquarters. But it was painted in hindsight, when the world already had learned that she was incomparable, making one doubt its absolute accuracy.

She may well have been the greatest thoroughbred of them all, winning 54 times in as many starts on two different continents. Kincsem took on all comers and was so devastatingly good that she also ran in 6 walkovers when no-one would run against her.

But at her birth, she was declared by her owner-breeder, Ernest Von Blaskovich, to be the ugliest foal that he had ever seen — and most agreed with him. When Von Blaskovich offered the majority of that year’s crop of foals to Baron Orczy, the latter purchased all but two — and one of the rejects was Kincsem.

Here is one fairly accurate description of a thoroughbred that was so brilliant she actually paused to graze before taking off after the others, only to win going away:

She was as long as a boat and as lean as a hungry leopard … she had a U-neck and mule ears and enough daylight under her sixteen hands to flood a sunset … she had a tail like a badly-used mop … she was lazy, gangly, shiftless … she was a daisy-eating, scenery-loving, sleepy-eyed and slightly pot-bellied hussy …” (Beckwith in “Step And Go Together”)

As a broodmare, Kincsem was pretty decent, although she never duplicated herself. But through one of her daughters, she comes down to us today in the bloodlines of Coolmore’s fine colt, Camelot. In her native Hungary, Kincsem is a national hero and a film based on her life (although it appears that the mare isn’t its central protagonist) is due for release in 2016.

For more on this remarkable thoroughbred:

https://thevaulthorseracing.wordpress.com/2013/09/20/kincsem-the-mystery-and-majesty-of-an-immortal/

And on the film:

http://www.euronews.com/2015/10/06/multi-million-dollar-hungarian-movie-hopes-to-compete-with-hollywood/

 

IMP (filly, 1894-1909)

IMP in 1898, going to post at Hawthorne Race Track.

IMP in 1898, going to post at Hawthorne Race Track.

 

She was the 1899 HOTY and twice won the honours for Champion Handicap Mare (1899 & 1900). She had her own theme song (below): “My Coal Black Lady.” And she was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1965.

But when she came into the world, the tiny daughter of Fondling (1886) by the stallion, Wagner (1882) was looked upon poorly by her owner-breeder because she wasn’t pretty and her conformation showed not the slightest hint of promise. But her owner-breeder, D.R. Harness of Chillicothe, Ohio kept her anyway, perhaps because the fact she was bred in the purple overrode his misgivings. Her ancestry included direct descent from the Darley Arabian, Eclipse and Lexington.

Imp raced an unthinkable number of times: 171. But she won 62 times, with 35 seconds and 29 thirds and raced more against the boys than those of her own sex. She set track records from 1 3/4 to 1 1/16.

By the time she was retired, at the age of eight, she was a national figure.

For more about Imp:

https://thevaulthorseracing.wordpress.com/2013/12/06/my-coal-black-lady/

 

PHAR LAP (gelding, 1926 – 1932)

“Bobby” as he was called by those closest to him, arrived in the stable of trainer Harry Telford looking like a very, very sorry excuse for a racehorse. Which, in turn, precipitated the first crisis in Phar Lap’s biography, unbeknownst to the scrawny, dishevelled colt who had been born in New Zealand and was a son of the promising sire, Night Raid. Trainer Telford had bought Bobby for owner, David J. Davis, who rushed over excitedly to see his latest acquisition. After a moment of silence, Davis went ballistic. The compromise was that Bobby would be leased to Telford for a period of three years, the trainer covering all costs and the owner getting one third of the colt’s earnings. Assuming he could run.

How big was PHAR LAP? Have a look at these figures! Photo and copyright, Victoria Racing Museum, Australia.

How big was PHAR LAP? Have a look at these figures! Photo and copyright, Victoria Racing Museum, Australia.

The rest, as they say, is history: Bobby aka The Red Terror aka Phar Lap (meaning “lightning/bolt of lightning/lights up the sky” in the Thai language) was a champion. His great heart, together with his victories, moved Australia and New Zealand — and the racing world– to fall in love. And, in 2016, we are still in love with him:

Bobby’s risky run @ The Melbourne Cup in 1930 should have been a movie:

https://thevaulthorseracing.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/bribes-threats-bullets-phar-laps-melbourne-cup-1930/

 

WAR ADMIRAL ( colt, 1934-1959)

“Sons of Man O’ War ought to look different,” Mr. Riddle decided, as he looked at Brushup’s new foal. It was a bay colt with no real pizzazz to it …. and it was tiny. Riddle found it impossible to hope for much from the little fellow, who much-resembled his dam. And Brushup had been hopeless as a runner, pretty as she was. Riddle tried, in vain, to hand the colt over to his partner, Walter Jeffords Sr., but when Jeffords refused, it was decided that Brushup’s boy would stay in the Riddle stable until he showed what, if anything, he had as a runner.

War Admiral [2006 Calendar, Nov]

 

By the time he was a three year-old, Riddle had learned that even though The Admiral was the size of a pony (15.2h) he did, indeed, carry his sire’s blood.

And that blood would show in not only in War Admiral’s Triple Crown, but also in the breeding shed. As a sire, his contribution to the breed was as definitive as was the impact of sons and daughters like Busanda, Busher, Bee Mac, Searching, War Jeep and Blue Peter on the sport itself. War Admiral led the general sire list in 1945, the 2 year-old sire list in 1948 and the broodmare sire list in 1962 and again in 1964.

Although The Admiral’s sons were not influential as sires, both Busanda and Searching made a huge impact. Their descendants include the likes of Swaps, Buckpasser, Numbered Account, Iron Liege, Hoist the Flag, Gun Bow, Striking and Crafty Admiral, as well as two Triple Crown winners, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. Other descendants of note from the War Admiral line include Dr. Fager, Alysheba, Cigar and, most recently, Zenyatta.

To this day, breeders point with pride to War Admiral in the lineage of their thoroughbreds. What the name connotes is timeless, synonymous with the very essence of the thoroughbred.

For more on War Admiral:

https://thevaulthorseracing.wordpress.com/2012/01/09/war-admiral-the-little-horse-who-could-and-did-for-john-shirreffs/

 

ZENYATTA (filly, 2004)

As the tale is now famously told, the yearling daughter of Street Cry did not look her best in the sales ring as a yearling, due largely to a case of ringworm. But David Ingordo could see beyond all that. And Ann Moss has recounted how she and the filly seemed to “just click” at first meeting at Keeneland, just as though Zenyatta had chosen her.

When the hammer fell, the filly had been acquired by the Mosses. But she was not their only purchase that year and shortly after their yearlings arrived at Mayberry Farm, they received a call from Jeanne Mayberry. Jeanne had this to say,”Either you bought yourselves some very slow yearlings or else that Street Cry filly is very, very good. Because when they’re out together running, she leaves them all behind as though they aren’t even moving.”

Prophetic words.

But fast as Zenny was, it took time and patience to “get her right,” as the Mosses’ Racing Manager, Dottie Ingordo Sherriffs, has said. But when trainer, John Sherriffs, did get her right, the result was the birth of an American racing legend:

Retired with a record of 19 wins and 1 second place in 20 starts, Zenyatta’s fans have not diminished in the slightest. At this writing, Zenyatta is the only filly/mare to have ever won two different Breeders’ Cup races and the only filly/mare to ever have won the BC Classic.

 

“UGLY DUCKLINGS” #2: STANDING IN THE SHADOWS

In any institution, whether a school or a sport like horse racing, it works out a lot better if everyone develops in the same, linear way. Couple that with our love affair with speed — intelligence being linked to quickness and, in the case of thoroughbreds, ability with running fast enough to win, preferably at two — and you have the “cracks” through which genius and greatness all-too-frequently slip ……..

 

EXTERMINATOR (gelding, 1915 -1945)

 

 

EXTERMINATOR. Copyright The Estate of Bob Dorman.

EXTERMINATOR. Copyright The Estate of Bob Dorman.

The story of “Old Bones” is famous. He’s as legendary a figure in American thoroughbred racing as Man O’ War — and some say he was the best of them all. High praise for a big, coarse gelding who was bought as a rabbity for a flashy colt named Sun Briar, the hope of  Willis Sharpe Kilmer for the 1918 Kentucky Derby.

The man who first saw under the surface of the lanky chestnut with the deep, dark eyes was trainer Henry McDaniel. It was he who studied Bones and Sun Briar as they worked, noting the intelligence of the former at dealing with his moody running mate. And when Sun Briar couldn’t run in the Derby — and after considerable lobbying by McDaniel and Colonel Matt Winn, the President of Churchill Downs — Kilmer agreed to let the ugliest of his horses run instead. And so it was that Exterminator stepped on to a muddy track and transformed, in three minutes, from an ugly duckling to a Swan King.

To read more about Exterminator: https://thevaulthorseracing.wordpress.com/2016/01/07/a-collectors-mystery-exterminator-and-bob-dorman/

 

DISCOVERY (colt, 1931- 1958)

 

Discovery, a brilliant runner and outstanding broodmare sire, won Horse of the Year in 1935 over Omaha. Discovery appears 4X5X4 in Ruffian's pedigree.

DISCOVERY on the track. Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

The son of Display had a brilliant, dazzling chestnut coat and lots of chrome. Born at Walter J. Salmon’s Mereworth Farm and owned by Adolphe Pons, the colt was impressively bred and ran head-first into the accompanying expectations. Predictably, he disappointed, winning only 2 of 13 starts as a two year-old.

At three he appeared again, looking fit enough. However, among the 3 year-olds that year was a colt named Cavalcade, who had already beaten Discovery the year before. In the Derby, Discovery chased Cavalcade home; in the Preakness, he finished third to High Quest and Cavalcade.

But Discovery was just getting going. He went on that same year to win the Brooklyn and Whitney Handicaps, and then set a world record time for 1 3/16 miles in the Rhode Island Handicap.

But his finest years were at four and five. In 1935, the colt won 11 of 19 starts, carrying an average of 131 lbs., gaining him the nickname “The Iron Horse.” Retrospectively named 1935 Horse of the Year (over Triple Crown winner, Omaha) and throughout 1936, Discovery’s winning ways continued. Of his Whitney win, the New York Times wrote that the chestnut ran “…the most decisive victory to be scored in a big American stake in many years.”

DISCOVERY was named Horse of the Year for 1935. Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

DISCOVERY was named Horse of the Year for 1935. Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

As a sire, it was Discovery’s daughters who gave him purchase on immortality, producing the great Native Dancer, Bold Ruler and Bed O’ Roses.

 

SEABISCUIT (colt, 1933-1947)

Rejected outright as a colt foal because of his size and conformation, the little son of Hard Tack languished as a runner until he hooked up with trainer Tom Smith, who could see right through the disguise. In Smith’s hands, “The Biscuit” blossomed into a horse with fire in his blood. It was the Depression Era: a good time for a hero to come along. Especially one who had once been “not good enough,” through no fault of his own. He battled back from defeat. He battled back from injury. And he taught America how to look a setback straight in the eye — and vanquish it.

Enjoy this rare footage of The Biscuit at work and play:

 

RED RUM (gelding, 1965- 1995)

 

 

RED RUM at work on the beach. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun

RED RUM at work on the sands of Southport, England. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun

 

“Beloved”  is probably the first response when someone speaks his name. Or “Immortal.” Something like that.

In its long, distinguished history the National Hunt has known many great horses, but none who rose to the standard of Red Rum. He was, quite simply, the greatest steeplechaser who ever lived.

By the time Donald “Ginger” McCain got his hands on the bay gelding, he had won a few one-mile races over the flat before being passed from one training yard to another. The horse who had descended from the great St. Simon, and whose name originated from the last three letters of his dam (Mared) and sire (Quorum) was never going to amount to much, running in cheap races with modest purses.

GINGER McCAIN WITH RED RUM PICTURED AT HIS STABLES BEHIND SECOND HAND CAR SHOWROOM. SOUTHPORT 1975. pic by George Selwyn,119 Torriano Ave,London NW5 2RX.T:+44 (0)207 267 6929 M: 07967 030722 email: george@georgeselwyn.co.uk Vat no:3308110 05

Ginger McCain with RED RUM, pictured at his stables behind his used car dealership in Southport, 1975. Photo and copyright, George Selwyn.

The first thing that McCain set out to do was to rehabilitate the gelding, who suffered from the incurable disease, pedal osteitis, a disease of the pedal bone. (This was discovered after the trainer paid a goodly sum for “Rummy” on behalf of owner, Noel le Mare.) The “cure” was swimming and long works on the beaches of Southport. And it worked miracles. Red Rum blossomed into a tough, rugged individual. (It should be noted that Ginger adored Rummy and the horse was never put at-risk in any of his races, unlike the situation when he was running on the flat.)

The result was not one, but three, wins in the Aintree Grand National, arguably the greatest test of any horse’s courage and stamina in the world. His first win came at a time when the Grand National was flirting with extinction. It needed a hero and it got one, in the form of a thoroughbred once-destined to run on the flat until he could run no more, and a used car salesman who “also” trained National Hunt horses — and saw something quite different in his Champion’s eye:

 

JOHN HENRY (gelding, 1975-2007)

“For the first two years of his life, John Henry had been peddled like a cheap wristwatch.” (Steve Haskin, in John Henry in the Thoroughbred Legends series)

JOHN HENRY at work.

JOHN HENRY at work.

To say he was “difficult” doesn’t even come close: for what ever reason, John had a nasty disposition, despite his workmanlike performances on the track. It would take trainers (and there were many) like Phil Amato and Ron McNally to work their way around temperament issues to gain the gelding’s trust before the John Henry we now know and admire emerged.

In his 3 year-old season, there were glimmers of ability. But from 1980 to his final win, at the ripe old age of nine, John Henry turned out to be the stuff of greatness. And not only was it his “arrival” as a turf star: John’s rags-to-riches story captivated fans who even today, almost nine years after his death, still revere his memory. Indeed, for many, John Henry is one of a pantheon of superstars, right up there with Exterminator, Man O’ War, Secretariat, Ruffian and American Pharoah.

By the time he was retired to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, John had twice won the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year (1981, 1984), with 39 wins in 83 starts and earnings of over six million dollars USD. His 1981 election as Horse of the Year was unanimous and at the time, unprecedented for a nominee to receive all votes cast. In addition, John was inducted into the American Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1990.

 

ISTABRAQ (gelding, 1992)

Unlike John Henry (above), whose bloodlines were blue collar, Istabraq came from a royal line: a son of Sadler’s Wells (Northern Dancer) whose dam, Betty’s Secret, was a daughter of Secretariat. Owned by E.P. Taylor, the Canadian thoroughbred breeder and owner of Northern Dancer, Betty’s Secret was sent to Ireland in 1987 to be bred to some of Northern Dancer’s British sons. Taylor died two years later and the mare, in foal to Sadler’s Wells was purchased by Hamdan Al Maktoum.

The foal she was carrying was Istabraq.

ISTABRAQ as a foal with his dam, Betty's Secret (Secretariat).

ISTABRAQ as a foal with his dam, Betty’s Secret (Secretariat).

The colt foal seemed to understand from the very beginning that he was “someone special.” And indeed he was destined to be — but it took time.

The colt’s name was Sindhi for “brocade” but the weave of him proved inferior on the flat, where he managed only 2 wins. His jockey, the great Willie Carson, described the youngster as a “slow learner” who “…also lacked speed and was not at home on fast ground…I came to the conclusion that the reason he was struggling was because he had no speed. In fact, he was one-paced…”

As a three year-old, he developed foot problems. He was, in fact, flat-footed, making shoeing him a problem. When Istabraq refused to quicken in his last race as a three year-old, despite Carson’s aggressive ride, Sheikh Hamdan let trainer John Gosden know that it was enough: Istabraq was to be sold.

John Durkan started his career as a jockey.

John Durkan started his career as a jockey before becoming an assistant trainer to the great John Gosden.

When John Durkan, Gosden’s assistant trainer, heard that Istabraq would be listed in the 1995 Tattersall’s sale he resolved to acquire him. He saw possibilities for Istabraq, but not on the flat — as a hurdler. Having informed Gosden that he would be leaving to go out on his own, Durkan began searching for a possible buyer for Istabraq and found one in J. P. McManus, a wealthy Irishman who had made a fortune as a gambler. Following the sale at Tattersall’s, McManus shipped Istabraq back to Ireland with the understanding that the colt would be trained by Durkan. In his young trainer, Istabraq had found someone who believed in him.

“He is no soft flat horse. He is the sort who does not get going until he’s in a battle. He has more guts than class and that’s what you need, ” Durkan told McManus, “He will win next year’s Sun Alliance Hurdle.” Prophetic words.

"No soft

“He is no soft flat horse…” Durkan counselled J. P. McManus. And you see it here, in the power as ISTABRAQ launches, even though he’s a good distance from the hurdle.

But the young Durkan would soon be beset with tragedy, although not before watching his beloved gelding take ten hurdle races in a row from 1996-1997. Durkan was battling cancer and was shipped to Sloane Kettering Hospital in New York City; Aidan O’Brien took over training duties. By 1998, John was dying and moved home to Ireland, succumbing on the night of January 21, 1998.

Charlie Swan wore a black armband in John’s memory on the day of Istabraq’s first start in 1998, the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle. The gelding, who was now 6 years old, was a national hero and thousands turned out to watch him begin his 6 year-old season in grand style at Leopardstown:

And then this gallant thoroughbred just went on and on and on, beginning with a win two months later at Cheltenham in what would be the first of three wins in the Champion Hurdle:

Retired in 2002, Istabraq is now in the fourteenth year of a happy retirement at his owner, J.P. McManus’ Martinstown Stud. There, the horse who was voted in 2009 the favourite of the last 25 years by the Irish people, hangs out with his BFF, Risk of Thunder, and continues to greet fans who visit from all over the world:

For more about Istabraq, one of Secretariat’s greatest descendants: https://thevaulthorseracing.wordpress.com/2011/02/23/secretariats-heart-the-story-of-istabraq/

 

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Together,we saved over 20 horses from going to slaughter in Canada or Mexico in 2015. And every donation counted in this effort because no donation is too small. Hale, Trendy Cielo, Maya Littlebear, Felicitas Witness and 16 others, including two mares and their foals, thank you.

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Every nation has its pantheon of thoroughbred champions. In Australia, Bernborough’s name is one that still carries the power of greatness, even though he raced there over half a century ago. Adding to his legendary performance on the turf was the fact that, through no fault of his own, Bernborough was also an enigma…..

Bernborough: as the Daily Telegraph put it, in a 33-page circular they produced about the champion shortly after his retirement: ” … He is one of those extraordinary horses which turn up every now and then and are remembered for a lifetime.” Praise like this is reserved for only the greatest thoroughbreds, making it remarkable that Bernborough (1939) received this kind of accolade from the Australian press. It wasn’t that he lacked the “extraordinary.” It was more that he only got to the big Australian racecourses when he was  six  — and was retired less than 18 months later. But in that short time, Bernborough started 18 times, chalking up 15 consecutive wins against “all comers.” And it wasn’t just that he won — it was the way he did it. 

EMBOROUGH, the sire of BERNBOROUGH descended from the powerful GALOPIN sire line.

EMBOROUGH (1932), the sire of BERNBOROUGH, descended from the powerful NEWMINSTER (1848) sire line. More importantly, he was a son of GAINSBOROUGH (1915), the sire of HYPERION (1930).

The Sun News tribute to BERNBOROUGH on his retirement ran for 33 pages.

The Daily Telegraph’s tribute to BERNBOROUGH on his retirement ran for 33 pages.

Bernborough was bred in Queensland by Harry Winten at his Rosalie Plains Stud, although Winten died shortly thereafter. Bernborough was by the imported British stallion, Emborough, out of an Australian-bred mare called Bern Maid (1921) who, like the colt’s sire, also hailed from the Newminster sire line. Bern Maid was a very old lady when she and Bernborough were offered at the dispersal of Winten’s bloodstock, where they were bought by one John (“Jack”) Bach, who reputedly described the youngster as “the lousiest thing” he’d ever seen. The year was 1940 and World War Two was in full swing. A month later, Albert Hadwen paid Jack Bach 140 APS for Bernborough and in April 1941, he was shipped to the stables of trainer Bob Mitchell, in Toowoomba, Queensland to learn how to become a racehorse.

Young BERNBOROUGH beginning to learn his job.

Young BERNBOROUGH beginning to learn his job, Billy Nielsen up. He was still no beauty as a juvenile, but in the huge chest and powerful neck there seemed a promise of greatness.

It is impossible to say how tall the “trainee” was at the time of his arrival to Mitchell, although a rare early shot of Bernborough at around the age of two (above) shows an imposing frame. At maturity he stood a full 17.1 h with a girth that measured 72 inches and a galloping stride of 25 feet. (Phar Lap’s girth was 74 inches; his stride also 25 feet.)  In other words, Bernborough was a monster of a horse. But like other “gentle giants” of horse racing history, he was sweet-tempered and so docile that a toddler was safe on his back. He was also bomb-proof. Other distinguishing features were a white diamond in the centre of his brow and a mane that fell naturally on the left, rather than on the right, as would be the case in at least 85% of all horses.

The only marking on his otherwise bay coat was the star right in the centre of BERNBOROUGH'S brow.

The only marking on his otherwise bay coat was the star right in the centre of BERNBOROUGH’S brow.

Bernborough made his first start on February 7, 1942 as a 2 year-old at Toowoomba racecourse. He won when the winner was disqualified for cutting him off as the colt launched what would become a signature late charge. Unimpressed by the victory, Hadwen leased Bernborough to a Mr. J. Roberts. Losing his next start, the colt went on to win his next three handily. Owner Hadwen and trainer Mitchell were delighted, perhaps even more so given Bernborough’s size. Colts as large as 17.1 h will never be able to boast the manoeuvrability of smaller thoroughbreds and for the same reason, may also take longer to develop. But Bernborough not only showed signs of settling into his big frame, he was also able to win at the comparatively short distances of 5-5 1/2 furlongs. Quite a feat for such a big juvenile.

Until the end of his 5 year-old season, Bernborough was confined to Toowoomba racecourses despite his brilliance. From August 1, 1942-July 28, 1945, the big bay would come home 9 times a winner in 14 starts, winning at distances from 6-9 furlongs for owner Hadwen. And Bernborough won carrying top weight even though he was often condemned to race against inferior horses. His running style was electric. Bernborough was a closer — but he showed that he could shut down the field from as far back as twenty-third going into the final stretch. As his reputation grew, spectators would wait for the inevitable charge and roar their approval as the champ cruised home. Below is a link to a Southern Queensland (AUS) page; please scroll half-way down to the screen that shows a horse race, subtitled ” Australian Diary: Australia’s Richest Horse Race” to view remarkable footage of Bernborough’s typical closing style:

http://www.nfsa.gov.au/blog/2013/05/02/southern-queensland-time-capsule/

This was the sight that electrified race goers in Toowoomba: "BERNBOROUGH first and the rest nowhere" is the phrase that comes to mind.

This was the sight that electrified race goers in Toowoomba. “BERNBOROUGH first and the rest nowhere” is the phrase that comes to mind.

As his reputation grew over his 3, 4 and 5 year-old campaigns, attempts were made to start Bernborough outside Toowoomba, but all failed.

The reason had to do with his original owner, Frank Bach, who was accused by the powers-that-be of swapping two different thoroughbreds, years before Bernborough raced. In January of 1941, Bach was disqualified for life by the Queensland Turf Club (QTC), which meant that any horse he owned would, in turn, be barred from racing outside of Toowoomba. Even when it was shown that Bach no longer owned Bernborough, the vendetta of the QTC continued against the horse, possibly as a way of getting back at him for managing to overturn his disqualification in a subsequent court battle. There seems little doubt that he was guilty, but the evidence was flimsy, leaving the QTC at a decided disadvantage in making their original ruling stick. Going after Bach horses, especially a champion like Bernborough, likely struck them as a perfect way to get revenge. The QTC had the power to bar any horse they wanted from running in Brisbane and the same horse was barred from running on interstate racecourses anywhere in Australia unless sanctioned by them.

So, as Bernborough’s brilliance grew, so did the frustration of being denied the opportunity to run the him against the best horses in places like Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. He was even transported at least twice to Brisbane and Sydney, only to be denied the right to race in the eleventh hour by the QTC and the Australian Jockey Club, respectively.

BERNBOROUGH disembarks from a "float" as these conveyances were called. Outfitted accordingly, floats were used to transport race horses at this time.

BERNBOROUGH disembarks from a “float” as these conveyances were called. Outfitted accordingly, floats were used to transport race horses all over Australia at this time.

Whether Bernborough’s owner Hadwen was moved by financial gain or principle or both, Bernborough appeared in the stables of trainer H.T. Plant of Sydney in 1945, where he was offered for sale. News of the horse’s brilliance had filtered through to the big racing centres and shortly thereafter he was purchased by the flamboyant restauranteur, Azzalin Romano, for a reported 2600 guineas.

Romano, a native of Padua, Italy, arrived in Sydney in 1923 where, four years later, he opened Romano’s restaurant. By the 1940’s, Romano’s was the “place to be seen” in Sydney, catering to the rich and famous. Stars like Maurice Chevalier and Vivien Leigh dined there; during WWII, the future Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, as well as Edgar Rice Burroughs (then a war correspondent), Bob Hope, Gracie Fields and Frank Sinatra frequented Romano’s. Passing into the hands of an influential character like Romano resolved the dilemma of getting Bernborough entered in races beyond Toowoomba for once and for all.

As events in the Pacific theatre of WWII shook the people of Australia and New Zealand, entertainment that distracted became vital. So the arrival of Bernborough at the big racecourses fuelled a surcharge of enthusiasm that rivalled that of Phar Lap. Of course, other great thoroughbreds were racing in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne too.

There was the fabulous mare and Australian HOF, Flight (1940), twice winner of the Cox and Craven Plates, as well as the Mackinnon, Orr, Knox and Colin Stephens Stakes. Flight stood a diminutive 15.2 hands but her girth, a staggering 73.5 inches, was bigger than that of Bernborough’s. Racing fans were dazzled by the talented mare, who would defeat Bernborough as well as the mighty Shannon, another hero of the turf at this time. In fact, one of THE VAULT’S readers has written to say that his grandfather considered Flight the greatest Australian race mare to ever run. Flight might not have gained international attention but she was, without question, one of the greatest Australian thoroughbreds ever.

FLIGHT was one of the greatest mares ever to race in Australia. Although she would succumb to birthing complications in 1953, a daughter produced the champion SKYLINE.

FLIGHT was one of the greatest mares ever to race in Australia. She made 65 starts, with a race record of 24-19-9 and retired at the age of six. Although she would succumb to birthing complications in 1953, her only daughter, FLIGHT’S DAUGHTER (1949), produced the champions SKYLINE (1955) and SKY HIGH (1957).

SHANNON arrives in Brisbane, where he won the 1946 Doomben Cup.

SHANNON in full “travel gear,” circa 1946.

Another champion, albeit one who never met up with Bernborough, was Shannon (1941). A remarkable thoroughbred described by author Jessica Owers as “peerless,” he was also the fastest horse that Johnny Longden — who had ridden Count Fleet — had ever sat astride. Racing to brilliance in Australia, Shannon was imported to the USA  after being bought by Harry Curland. Unlike Ajax, who had also been acquired by American interests, Shannon was bought to race in America, where he became Shannon II. For a summary of this great thoroughbred’s career (who is the subject of Jessica Owers’ latest book) please click on this link: https://www.thoroughbredracing.com/articles/shannon-horse-time-forgot

Now in training at Randwick with H.T. “Harry” Plant, Bernborough’s racing debut was hotly anticipated: could the “TOOWOOMBA TORNADO” really be as good as his record showed racing against Australia’s finest?

BERNBOROUGH shown winning the Spring Handicap at Toowoomba in 1944, shortly before he began to develop foot problems and before his sale to Romano in 1945.

BERNBOROUGH shown winning the Spring Handicap at Toowoomba in 1944, shortly before he began to develop foot problems, and before his sale to Romano in 1945.

In 1945, before shipping to Harry Plant’s stables where he was purchased by Azzalin Romano, Bernborough had been upset when another horse heading to the Toowoomba track behind him had kicked a tin barrier. The champion bolted and fell, injuring a fetlock and sustaining some lameness in one shoulder. Accordingly, he was put away for a bit until his injuries had healed, but when Bernborough returned to competition, carrying crushing weights of between 132-148 lbs., he didn’t seem to have the same sparkle. After a third loss, the 5 year-old came up lame again. Bernborough’s hooves were checked; it was decided that he had soft corns and he was re-shod. However, after only one win and one place in seven starts, Hadwen (who still owned him at this time) switched the big bay to the stables of Ernie Peck. There it was discovered that Bernborough have two in-growing corns in both hooves. Once his hooves were trimmed back and he had time to heal, Bernborough was quick to return to form. On June 30, 1945, he carried 148 lbs, raced twice and won both. These wins were his last appearance in Toowoomba.

H.T. "HARRY" PLANT

H.T. “HARRY” PLANT

In the hands of Harry Plant, the consummate horseman-turned-trainer, Bernborough was readied for the campaign that would transform him into a thoroughbred legend. Like all the greatest of trainers, Plant could “read” his horses and he was intent on doing the best by them and for them. During his time with Bernborough, Plant — who had planned to buy him from Hadwen himself but was outbid by Romano — was instrumental in keeping Romano from over-extending Bernborough … most of the time. A chief concern of the trainer’s was the amount of weight that the champion was assigned; Bernborough was the kind of individual who always tried his best, and a thoroughbred burdened with crushing, “dead” weight, who would perform to his maximum regardless, courted the real possibility of a heart attack or a fatal breakdown. At a time when the sport was harsh on thoroughbreds, Plant was a rare example of a man who understood and respected them.

The “bush champ” ran fourth in his first race for owner Romano and then kicked off a succession of 15 consecutive victories on racecourses in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane against top thoroughbreds like the aforementioned Flight (who was beaten a head by Bernborough in the 1946 Chipping Norton Stakes and lost to him another three times), the Sydney and AJC Plate winner, Craigie (1940) and the AJC Derby and Sires Produce Stakes winner, Magnificent (1942). Accolades rained down from horsemen and journalists alike, while fans made the big, dark horse, whose finishing style left them speechless and whose courage lifted their hearts, a turf hero.

BERNBOROUGH (outside) roars passed MAGNIFICENT

BERNBOROUGH (outside) roars passed MAGNIFICENT to win the Warwick Stakes at Randwick. Photo and copyright, Sun News, Australia

 

In fact, Australian race goers in the big race centres took to the “Toowoomb Tornado” from his very first victory for the Plant-Romano connections, where he unleashed a withering drive in the 1 mile 19 yds. Villiers at Randwick to finish just slightly off the track record. Jockey Mulley had trouble pulling him up and decided to let Bernborough run on before putting on the brakes. As though he knew the roar from the grandstand was for him, on his way back to the winner’s circle Bernborough stopped in front of the grandstand and acknowledged the cheers with a bow.

Of course, even a great horse doesn’t win all on his own. Together with the ministrations of his trainer, Bernborough also had the services of the 101 lb. jockey, Athol George Mulley. Mulley was noted for being a great horseman, as well as for his vivid personality. Although accused by various and anon for his occasional poor judgement when riding Bernborough, he won his first of two Sydney Jockey Premierships in 1945-1946 for his important contribution to the horse’s consecutive winning streak. His behaviour prior to the Chipping Norton Stakes captured some of what made Mulley tick: for days prior to the running, he received substantial bribes, as well as a number of threatening phone calls, but refused to bend to those who wanted Bernborough to lose. (As it turned out, the horse could have lost without all this underworld action, since the brilliant Flight refused to be headed and the two horses hit the wire in a dead heat with Bernborough prevailing by a short head.)

BERNBOROUGH (in the lead) takes a turn with other thoroughbreds on the track at Randwick.

BERNBOROUGH (in the lead) takes a turn with other thoroughbreds on the track at Randwick.

Mulley and his big horse quickly became an indomitable pair. Mulley believed that Bernborough had his own game plan before a race and he may have, although the formula, with rare exceptions, followed pretty much the same formula: break slowly and relax near the back of the pack, hit second gear and move up to the leaders and then roar home. And it worked — 15 times in a row. Bernborough was clocked in one race covering the final 4 furlongs in 46 records — not since 1921 had an Australian thoroughbred run faster.

Photo and copyright,

Photo and copyright, Sun News, Australia

If you’d asked Harry Plant to name Bernborough’s best race, he would have picked the Doomben Cup, run at just under 11 furlongs on June 8, 1946, when the horse was seven years-old. The handicappers had assigned “Bernie” (as he was called by his owner, trainer and stable lads) the crushing weight of 151 lbs. but Romano, swollen with delight at his horse’s repeated victories, couldn’t think of pulling out of such a prestigious race. Romano wasn’t a cruel man, but he was a wheeler-dealer and knew little about thoroughbreds, relying on Plant to guide him. But despite advice to the contrary, Plant lost this round. The trainer was heard to say to his big, courageous horse as Bernborough was saddled, ” You wouldn’t run if I owned you, old fella.”

BERNBOROUGH with trainer Harry Plant.

BERNBOROUGH with trainer Harry Plant.

 

Trailing the field by 14 lengths, Bernborough began to pick up speed with urging from Mulley at about the 5 furlong mark. It was a large field and there was a lot of crowding, causing Bernborough to clip heels with the filly Tea Cake and almost go down in the process. Mulley righted his mount, only to have Bernie run into by another horse, who was beginning to falter, 4 furlongs from the wire. Mulley shot for the rail, mindful of the weight Bernborough was carrying and hoping to save him ground at the finish, but quickly found himself locked in by Scobie Breasley on Tea Cake. Jim Duncan swung Craigie to the outside of Tea Cake, hoping to close any gaps that Bernborough might get through. The only way out was to pull Bernie up and to get around the other horses to the extreme outside. Going five-wide, the mighty horse overtook the leaders, to win by a length going away. The time of 2:14 3/4 was a new track record — and the horse was going easy. It was, as Trevor Denman famously called when the great  Zenyatta crossed the wire to win the 2009 BC Classic, a “simply un-bee-lievable” performance.

BERNBOROUGH DOOMBEN_article22241938-3-001

 

BERNBOROUGH (white headband) shown winning the 1946 Doomben Cup.

BERNBOROUGH (in characteristic white browband) shown winning the 1946 Doomben Cup.

 

The inevitable, given the weights, Bernborough’s popularity and Romano’s largely ignorant enthusiasm, happened on November 2, 1946 in the LKS MacKinnon Stakes as Bernborough challenged for the lead. It was the only time that the superb mare, Flight, would beat him home. Under jockey Bill Briscoe (Mulley having been taken off Bernie when the horse failed to place in the 1946 Caulfield Cup) Bernborough was drawing close to Flight when his foreleg seemed to crumple under him: he had fractured the sesamoid in his right foreleg. Briscoe reported that he heard what sounded like a gun shot and quickly dismounted, fearing that the horse had actually been shot.

The injury proved non-lifethreatening, but it would be weeks before Bernborough was out of danger. In fact, many thought that their turf hero had been euthanized, until the news came that he was safe in trainer Plant’s care. During the whole time his leg was being bandaged up, Bernie laid his head on Harry Plant’s shoulder and whickered his distress. The trainer was so moved that he spent that first night with Bernie in the barn.

In the footage below, Bernborough’s breakdown is caught, as well as the reaction of his fans and some rare footage of Flight crossing the finish line. It speaks loud of the esteem in which Bernborough was held and the uncertainty as to whether or not he would survive his injuries. (Note: Unlike some coverage of breakdowns, this footage is respectful. There are no close-ups of the actual breakdown itself. No need to worry about being confronted with something distasteful, even though it seems a very sad ending for a “wonder horse,” as the reporter’s tone reflects.)

Full recovery would depend on Bernborough not doing any further damage to himself. Being a sensible and calm individual, the champion helped those caring for him by doing everything in his power to expedite a full recovery. It was reported that he would walk on three legs, as though he knew that he needed to keep his foreleg safe, stand on all-fours a bit and then carefully lie down. Plant and Bernie’s lads hovered close and owner Romano brought his champ assorted treats. A month after the accident, the veterinarians attending him declared that Bernborough had made incredible progress. He was finally out of danger, but the mighty Bernborough would never race again.

BERNBOROUGH being led into the van after his breakdown. In the photo, you can see the swelling in his foreleg.

BERNBOROUGH being led into the van after his breakdown. In the photo, you can see the swelling in the injured foreleg.

The news of Bernborough’s breakdown went viral (by standards of the day!) and in the USA, the reaction was mixed. There had been rumours that Romano was going to ship the horse to the USA to take on Citation and other American champions. After only recently sustaining the blow of having Phar Lap die on its shores, some turf writers expressed relief that Bernborough had broken down at home and not in America. However, not long after Bernborough’s recovery was assured, Azzalin Romano arrived in California, armed with film reels of Bernie’s victories, seeking to sell him to American breeders. A deal was secured with movie mogul Louis B. Mayer who then contacted Leslie Coombs II to stand Bernborough at Spendthrift in Kentucky. Mayer bought the stallion for the equivalent of $310,000 USD — an astronomical price in those days that eclipsed the record amount that had been paid for the stallion Tracery by $51,000 USD.

The news hit Australians very, very hard. When Bernborough left Melbourne in early February of 1947, two hundred well-wishers gathered. In Sydney, a police guard was needed to keep ardent fans from crowding the stallion and nicking hair from his tail as a keepsake. Bernborough travelled to America with his usual relaxed attitude, arriving at Spendthrift in the company of the stud farm manager, Louis Doherty, who had met the ship in San Francisco. There Bernborough and Harry Plant, who had accompanied him on the voyage across the Pacific, said their final goodbyes. They would never see one another again.

There was, however, another Aussie to arrive at Spendthrift — the great Shannon.

BERNBOROUGH "meets" SHANNON II at Spendthrift.

BERNBOROUGH (in barn) “greets” SHANNON II at Spendthrift.

In America, Bernborough did very well as a stallion, with progeny being sold and sent all over the world. Among his best were Hook Money (1951), winner of the 1955 Ayr Gold Cup, Berseem, who set a 6-furlong track record at Santa Anita, Brush Burn (1949), winner of 15 races, Parading Lady (1949), winner of the Acorn and the Vosburgh (against the colts), Bernburgoo (1953) who defeated Round Table (1954) in the Warren Wright Memorial Stakes and Bernwood (1948), who set a one-mile track record at Washington Park. All in all, the stallion had 21 stakes winners that are known (records from countries like Peru, the West Indies, Mexico and Panama being scarce). As well, Bernborough was the BM sire of the great Jay Trump (1957), who won the Grand National in 1965; and Getting Closer (1978), a great-great grandson, won the Doomben Ten Thousand/Rothman’s Hundred Thousand in 1984.

JAY TRUMP is led in after winning the Grand National at Aintree.

JAY TRUMP is led in after winning the 1965 Grand National at Aintree.

HOOK MONEY, champion son of BERNBOROUGH

The gorgeous HOOK MONEY, a champion son of BERNBOROUGH

 

Below is rare footage of another son of Bernborough, the champion First Aid (1950), winning the 1955 Whitney at The Spa (please note there is no sound):

Bernborough lived until 1960, when he died of a heart attack in his paddock as Clem Brooks cradled the great horse’s head in his arms.

Bernborough was inducted into the Australian Racing Hall of Fame in 2001.

Sometime after the publication of Jessica Owers’ book about Shannon, Spendthrift Farm erected two brass plaques to honour both Bernborough and Shannon II.

BERNBOROUGH at stud at Spendthrift in Lexington, Kentucky.

BERNBOROUGH at stud at Spendthrift in Lexington, Kentucky.

 

Recommended books:

Duncan Stearn’s fabulous book, Bernborough: Australia’s Greatest Racehorse. (ISBN: 9780987090218)

Zeb Armstrong’s e-book, The Bernborough Phenomenon

Jessica Owers’ equally fabulous tale of Bernborough’s contemporary, Shannon: Before Black Caviar, So You Think Or Takeover Target, There Was Shannon (ISBN: 9781742750248)

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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.)

ARCHER (1856) was the first thoroughbred to win the Melbourne Cup.

ARCHER (1856) was the first thoroughbred to win the Melbourne Cup in 1861. He then went on to win it again in 1862. The only other horse to accomplish this was PETER PAN (1929). This record stood intact for over 100 years until it was over-turned by the incomparable mare MAKYBE DIVA (1999), who won the Melbourne Cup for a record three consecutive years, from 2003-2005.

 

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.

GLOAMING was destined to become one of the greatest AUS + NZ thoroughbreds of the twentieth century.

GLOAMING was destined to become one of the greatest AUS + NZ thoroughbreds of the twentieth century.

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.

EURYTHMIC would overturn the stakes-winning record of the mighty CARBINE, from whom he descended.

EURYTHMIC would overturn the stakes-winning record of the mighty CARBINE, from whom he descended.

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

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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.

CHATHAM at work. Although he was beaten by PHAR LAP once, the handsome bay would defeat the champions PETER PAN and ROGILLA before his retirement.

CHATHAM at work. Although he was beaten by PHAR LAP once, the handsome bay would defeat the champions PETER PAN and ROGILLA before his retirement. Photo and copyright, THE SUN, Sydney AUS

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.

Australia's "blond bombshell," the incomparable PETER PAN deserves to be considered as great as PHAR LAP.

Australia’s “blond bombshell,” the incomparable PETER PAN deserves to be considered as PHAR LAP’s successor. Indeed, PETER PAN’S trainer believed his colt could beat the “Red Terror” although the two never met.

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.)

PETER PAN wins his second Melbourne Cup in 1934, carrying a bone crushing 138 lbs.

PETER PAN wins his second Melbourne Cup in 1934, carrying a bone crushing 138 lbs.

 

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.

The white-faced ROGILLA (rail) shown here as he narrowly defeats PETER PAN.

The white-faced ROGILLA (rail) shown here as he narrowly defeats PETER PAN in the 1934 King’s Cup.

 

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.

A star of the turf in the 1930's, AJAX is shown here greeting his fans.

A star of the turf in the 1930’s, AJAX is shown here greeting his fans.

 

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 kept the bettors and fans coming to the track: he was simply too good to miss. Photo and copyright Racing Victoria.

AJAX kept the bettors and fans coming to the track: he was simply too good to miss. Photo and copyright Racing Victoria.

Even a champ needs to stay fit: AJAX at swim.

Even a champ needs to stay fit: AJAX enjoying a saltwater treatment at St. Kilda’s.

 

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.

REGARDING COPYRIGHT: THE VAULT is a non-profit website. We make every effort to honour copyright for the photographs used in our articles. It is not our policy to use the property of any photographer without his/her permission, although the task of sourcing photographs is hugely compromised by the social media, where many photographs prove impossible to trace. Please do not hesitate to contact THE VAULT regarding any copyright concerns. Thank you.

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Phar Lap was another of the bright stars in my grandfather’s pantheon of “thoroughbred immortals.” Even in the small town in rural Quebec, Canada, where my grandparents lived, horsemen knew about the mighty Phar Lap whose exploits they watched on newsreels in the town’s movie house. “He must have been just a gorgeous beast,” Grandpa would say in a hushed, reverent tone. “But the Depression was no time to be a horse, ” he added, “Nope. It was a dirty time and they did brilliant to keep Phar Lap out of harm’s way for as long as they did.”  Grandpa’s pantheon was tiny. But here was an exceptional individual who led the life of a working-class hero. The big red gelding who generally cantered home, winning 37 of his 51 starts over a span of three years, was also as gentle as the toddlers who rode, bridleless, on his broad back. 

And of all the narratives that punctuated an incredible life, the story of getting Phar Lap to the 1930 Melbourne Cup has to be the most dramatic. 

Phar Lap with the man who was closest to him and his best friend, Tommy Woodcock.

PHAR LAP with the man who was closest to him —  his best friend, Tommy Woodcock.

Phar Lap might well have died before he ever captured the 1930 Melbourne Cup, had it not been for the quick-wittednessa of a team that included trainer Harry Telford and the big red horse’s strapper, or groom, Tom Woodcock.

The Great Depression hit Australia in 1929, a year before the stock market crashed in the USA. Its effects on Australian society were devastating: in 1929, unemployment was already at 10% and at its peak, in 1932, it was at almost 32%. What jobs there were for the working and middle classes were of short duration, especially in cities like Melbourne. And as is often the case when whole nations are ravaged, the suffering was cloaked by an ominous silence. As one survivor recounted:

People were forced into all sorts of tricks and expediencies to survive, all sorts of shabby and humiliating compromises. In thousands and thousands of homes fathers deserted the family and went on the track (to become itinerant workers), or perhaps took to drink. Grown sons sat in the kitchen day after day, playing cards, studying the horses [betting on horse racing] and trying to scrounge enough for a threepenny bet, or engaged in petty crime, mothers cohabited with male boarders who were in work and who might support the family, daughters attempted some amateur prostitution and children were in trouble with the police.

(Lowenstein, Wendy. Weevils in the Flour: an oral record of the 1930s depression in Australia , 20th anniversary edition, Scribe, Fitzroy, Melbourne, Australia, p.2, 1998.)

This was Phar Lap’s world, where shadows of uncertainty and the desperation of the disenfranchised were the soundtrack of daily life. One escape from despair was horse racing, where men with little chance of finding a job would drop whatever they could find into betting, making that part of the industry a ripe landscape for the unscrupulous. And a horse who seemed to always win was going to evoke both public elation and private rage.

A big, red horse who brought hope to so many, PHAR LAP stirred up more dangerous emotions too. Shown here at the finish of a race in 1930. Photo and copyright: John Fairfax (for The Sydney Herald).

A big, red horse who brought hope to so many, PHAR LAP stirred up more dangerous emotions as well. Shown here at the finish of a race in 1930. Photo and copyright: John Fairfax (for The Sydney Herald).

An ugly, scrawny yearling from New Zealand who arrived at the Telford Stable with seemingly little promise had blossomed into a handsome and powerful “Champion of the People” by 1930. Phar Lap’s sire, Night Raid (1918) carried the blood of the great British stallions Bend Or (1877) and Spearmint (1903); his dam, Entreaty (1920) was a New Zealand-bred who descended from the mighty St. Simon (1881) and Isonomy (1875). Night Raid was bred in the UK and sold off first to J. McGuigan for 120 BPS, then to Australian P. Keith, followed by Sydney horseman A. P. Wade, before ending up in the stable of A. P. Roberts, a New Zealand owner-breeder. Lacklustre as he was asa a racehorse, Night Raid proved a very successful sire.

PHAR LAP'S sire, NIGHT RAID.

PHAR LAP’S sire, NIGHT RAID.

ENTREATY with a full sibling to PHAR LAP at her side.

ENTREATY with a full sibling to PHAR LAP at her side.

The handsome NIGHTMARCH was another excellent son of NIGHT RAID, defeating PHAR LAP in the 1929 Melbourne Cup.

Another excellent son of NIGHT RAID was the handsome NIGHTMARCH, who defeated PHAR LAP in the 1929 Melbourne Cup.

Poor Harry Telford! His despair at seeing the Night Raid colt was without end, for he was the one who had persuaded the millionaire, David J. Davis, to buy him. When Davis saw the colt, he blew up; when he had calmed down enough to think clearly, Davis decided to lease Phar Lap to Telford for three years. Telford would pay for the colt’s maintenance as well as entry fees and Davis would get one third of any earnings the Night Raid colt might amass. Before he turned two, Phar Lap was gelded, the thinking at the time being that as a huge, backward juvenile, the procedure would enhance his development. He was given the name PHAR LAP, derived from a Thai dialect (far lap), meaning “lightening” or “bolt of lightening” or “light from the sky.” Telford dropped the “f” in favour of the “ph” to meet registration requirements.

PHAR LAP'S REGISTRATION CERTIFICATE.

PHAR LAP’S REGISTRATION CERTIFICATE.

Harry Telford was a caring trainer but a tough one and he believed that horses benefitted from long, hard works. He set about preparing the lanky Phar Lap using this method, one that prevailed throughout the gelding’s career. Into the youngster’s life came Tommy Woodcock, who cared for “Bobby,” as Phar Lap was called, as well as several other thoroughbreds in the Telford stable. However, Phar Lap became so enamoured of his young strapper that Tommy was soon assigned to the colt full-time.

Phar Lap was Tommy’s horse in every sense of the word. Central as Tommy was to his world, Bobby developed the habit of chewing up Woodcock’s shirts and jackets. To get around this, his young groom taught him a number of games that always ended with a lump of sugar. And Phar Lap’s sweet tooth turned out to be as enormous as his size and as constant as his performance on the turf. Without Tommy’s love, loyalty and friendship it is impossible to say that Phar Lap would have developed into the champion he became, since horses who aren’t happy within themselves seldom realize their potential.

PHAR LAP with Tommy, ears pricked, undoubtedly thinking about the lumps of sugar his friend always carried in his pockets.

PHAR LAP with Tommy, ears pricked, undoubtedly thinking about the lumps of sugar his friend always carried in his pockets.

How big was PHAR LAP? Have a look at these figures! Photo and copyright, Victoria Racing Museum, Australia.

How big was PHAR LAP? Have a look at these measurements of the 3 year-old champion. Photo and copyright, Victoria Racing Museum, Australia.

Phar Lap’s two year-old season was unremarkable, except for the laughter that accompanied the big, gawky gelding when he appeared on a race track. Like most babies, Bobby at first had no idea what he was supposed to do. Add to that the very real difficulty of co-ordinating those long, long legs and one can almost imagine him running awkwardly along well behind the pack. He did, however, conclude his first season by breaking his maiden with a win in the 6f Rosehill Maiden Juvenile Handicap in April 1929.

Finally figuring it out: PHAR LAP breaks his maiden at the end of his very first racing season in 1929.

Finally figuring it out: PHAR LAP wins the AJC Craven Plate under jockey W. Duncan on October 9, 1929. Photo and copyright, John Fairfax (Fairfax Photos), Australia.

But the youngster would actually race fifteen times in 1929, his first year on the track, because thoroughbreds in the Southern Hemisphere celebrate their birthdays on August 1, and not in January. So a fairer analysis of Bobby’s 1929 performances would show that from September 14, 1929, the now three year-old went on an absolute tear, chalking up a record of 9-4-1-1 from August to November. The wins came in the AJC Derby and the two-mile AJC Craven’s Plate (in October), as well as the prestigious Victoria Derby in November, where he was piloted for the second time by the legendary James Pike.

Under Pike’s guidance, Phar Lap had become the favourite to take the 1929 Derby. Unfortunately, “Gentle Jim” (as Pike was known) was not available and Bobby Lewis was given the mount. As it turned out, Big Bobby and Jockey Bobby fought with each other through the first quarter of the Cup, with Lewis trying to wrestle Phar Lap back, to rate off the pace. It was too much for the youngster and Nightmarch came home first with Phar Lap settling for third — an extraordinary performance considering how he had worn himself out. As 1929 closed, Phar Lap had started fifteen times with a maximum rest of 26 days between races, discounting a three-month summer lay-off. He had run at distances from 6 f to 2 miles and carried imposts from 91-122 lbs. (AJC Victoria Derby win) — an unheard of amount of weight by today’s standards.

Jim Pike brings PHAR LAP to the winner's circle after their win in the 1929 AJC Derby. Photo and copyright, Racing Museum, Australia

Jim Pike brings PHAR LAP to the winner’s circle after their win in the 1929 AJC Derby. Photo and copyright, Museum Victoria, Australia.

No surprise, then, that when Phar Lap started his 3-4 year-old season in 1930 he had quite the fan following — and the statuesque red gelding did not disappoint. It was to be the year of Bobby and Gentle Jim, for in all but 5 of his 21 starts, Jim Pike was in the irons. It was a year none would forget: racing at distances from 9f to 2 1/4 miles, the big horse won 19 and finished second and third respectively in the other two. Bobby reeled off nine consecutive wins between March and May, and another ten from September 13 – November 8. The maximum time-off between races that year was 14 days; the minimum, 9. Carrying weight of between 109 and 138 lbs., Phar Lap came home running easily. After his death, jockey Pike would say that he’d never even come close to finding the bottom of an animal with whom he, like Tommy Woodcock, shared a spiritual bond.

The great horse carried as much as 138 lbs. weight in his second season on the turf. But it didn't stop PHAR LAP from winning 19 of 21 starts. Photo and copyright, The Herald, Australia

The great horse carried as much as 138 lbs. weight in his second season on the turf. But it didn’t stop PHAR LAP from winning 19 of 21 starts. Shown here with Jim Pike. Photo and copyright, The Sydney Herald, Australia.

As Phar Lap’s second season progressed through a win in the Cox Plate — his sixth in a row at that point in the season — one thing was becoming eminently clear: the betting houses stood to lose a fortune if the “Red Terror’s” winning streak continued.

In the early doubles betting for the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups, the Phar Lap-Phar Lap double had been heavily backed, as was the Nightmarch-Phar Lap and the Amounis-Phar Lap double.  Telford and Davis had heavily backed the Amounis-Phar Lap ticket, hoping to make a very tidy sum for themselves. Telford had always been secretive about his plans for Phar Lap. Apparently not satisfied with their horse’s substantial earnings to date, Telford, Davis  (and perhaps others) used this same tactic to ferment conditions that would make betting even more favourable for themselves.

As the Caulfield Cup drew near and the war of nerves heightened, several owners, including the shady A. Louisson who owned Nightmarch, withdrew their horses from the race. Five days before the Caulfield Cup, Telford withdrew Phar Lap, provoking rage among those who had determined not to run their horses.

On Caulfield Cup day, Amounis obliged by winning and became Australia’s biggest stakes winner ever at 48,197 AUS pounds — an absolute fortune in 1930.

But Telford, Davis and others who had backed the Amounis-Phar Lap double were equally thrilled, since it seemed impossible that Phar Lap would lose.

AMOUNIS, a champion in his own right was another favoured for the Caulfield Cup.

AMOUNIS, a champion in his own right, was another favoured to win the 1930 Caulfield Cup.

For the bookies — from those legitimate betting enterprises to the ones closely associated with Australia’s underworld, referred to as “illegal starting-price operators”  — the prospect of Phar Lap’s winning the Melbourne Cup spelled disaster. It was estimated that with doubles and straight betting combined, bookmakers would be paying out something in the region of 200,000 AUS pounds should Phar Lap win. The legitimate bookmakers would, albeit begrudgingly, meet their obligations. But the betting underworld was populated with gangsters, gunmen, drug lords and the like — a rough sort, unlikely to pay out such a vast sum.

And this doesn’t even include all the individuals who had lost money betting on a Phar Lap- Phar Lap and/or Nightmarch/Phar Lap double, or disgruntled owners like Louisson, who had pulled perfectly good horses from the Caulfield Cup and headed home penniless.

BOBBY and his best friend, Tommy Woodcock, were front page news no matter where they went or what they were doing.

BOBBY and Tommy were front page news no matter where they went or what they were doing.

BOBBY with Tommy and a young friend. Photo and copyright, Fairfax Photos, Australia

BOBBY in his rugs, with Tommy and a young friend. Children were always welcome to meet and greet the Champ — and especially when he was on holiday! BOBBY was a gentle giant and children were always safe around him. Photo and copyright, John Fairfax (Fairfax Photos) Australia.

At the same time, Phar Lap had woven his way into the hearts of a nation. Everything he did was front page news, from rolling around in the sand to carrying toddlers on his back to going for works with the grey pony who was his constant stable companion. It seemed impossible that anyone would try to take down a horse who had become a national figure.

About a week before the running of the 1930 Melbourne Cup, Tommy Woodcock looked up from attending to Phar Lap to see a friend of trainer Telford and a man “who stood high in my estimation…A person who had entry to Telford’s stables at any time” entering the barn. After a bit of smalltalk, this mystery man (Woodcock never identified him by name) tactfully suggested that, should Phar Lap win the Cup, “… the bookmakers would be calling for the bridle to make the weight.” Tommy laughed off the observation, even though he knew it was a reference to the plight of bookmakers should the big horse win.

Thinking that Woodcock would be easy to convince, the visitor tried again,  “I’ll wager you could get a fortune from some of those who are deep in if you doped Phar Lap before the race.” But Tommy wasn’t paying much attention — he was too busy “dressing” Bobby.

PHAR LAP, with Pike riding the white "pony" who was also the Champ's constant companion, heads out for a work. Photo and copyright, Fairfax Photos, Australia.

PHAR LAP, with Pike riding the grey “pony” who was also the Champ’s constant companion, heads out for a work. Photo and copyright, Fairfax Photos, Australia.

The Melbourne Cup was (and remains) THE race on the Australian calendar and on Cup Day the entire country shuts down. The pressure on anyone who has a Cup horse is already enormous. Added to the pressure assailing Tommy was that he was receiving threatening letters on a daily basis about what might happen to his beloved Bobby if the horse ran. Whether or not the mystery man was behind these threats has never been made clear, but they included spraying Phar Lap with acid and sticking him with needles. Others, of a similar bent, were seen by the young lad as patently ridiculous. But one letter made his blood turn to ice: this one threatened that Phar Lap would be “shot down like a dingo.”  It went on to say that “Phar Lap was used by gamblers unfairly to trick bookmakers and that if {Phar Lap’s} life was valued his name should be struck out of the Cup.”

The mystery man showed up again at Joe Cripps’ stables at Caulfield where Phar Lap was stabled. This time, “…He told me that the Ring would never get over the knock it would receive {if Phar Lap won} at the same time saying he knew of men who would give a heap of money to be relieved of their responsibilities. ‘Tommy, you could set yourself up for life if you listened to them,’ he added.”

The third visit was more straight forward. ” ‘ Tommy, the best I can do for you is four thousand (AUS),’ he said. I looked at him in astonishment. He must have thought that I was disappointed in the offer as he went on to tell me that there were only a couple of bookmakers in it, and four thousand pounds was a lot of money.”

To a young strapper during the Depression era, if not in general, it was indeed a fortune. Grooms and stable folk didn’t earn anything near to what owners, trainers and jockeys made — even when they were rubbing a champion. But Tom Woodcock was an honest youth and he loved Phar Lap. His response to the bribe was swift: he ordered the man off the premises and advised him to not return on threat of bodily harm. Then he called Harry Telford.

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The most frightening letter that Woodcock received stated that Phar Lap would be “shot down like a dingo” if he contested the 1930 Melbourne Cup.

First, Tommy told the trainer about the bribe. There was a long silence. Telford replied, “… Phar Lap {will} be lucky if he {sees} the post in the Cup, as more than one person {is} anxious to see him out of the way.” Telford went on to say that he,too, had been offered a bribe: ten thousand (AUS) pounds; Woodcock later heard, from reliable sources, that Jim Pike had also been bribed. But, although all three regularly bet (in fact, Jim Pike ended his years in poverty because of his gambling addiction) none accepted, leading Woodcock to conclude “…Whatever those who tried to engineer the defeat of Phar Lap thought of Telford, Pike or me for refusing to be a party to their scheme, they must at least have realized we were honest men.”

Woodcock then told the trainer about the threat to shoot the horse and a 24-hour guard was put on Phar Lap. As Tommy observed, ” …The only way they could maim him was to shoot him, so close was the guard on him, and it would have to be a shot at long range as little opportunity was afforded anyone of getting close to him.” Tommy moved his bed from near Bobby’s stall right into it. As his fears mounted, Woodcock confessed to be suffering from “imaginitis,” causing him to lie awake most of the night next to the giant gelding and to look as though he had eyes in the back of his head whenever they left the Cripps’ stable for Caulfield race track.

Like many who have trained famous thoroughbreds, Telford’s team habituated the early morning hours, when it was still dark, to work Phar Lap. So it was that on a Saturday that was also the morning of the Derby and the opening day of Melbourne’s Racing Carnival, Tommy on his pony and a hooded Bobby left the stable for Caulfield race track, where they would meet up with Bobby Parker, who had escorted the Cripps’ horses to the track and would, in turn, work Phar Lap.

Another lad who worked for Cripps, as well as a newspaper reporter, noted the car near the track. The reporter noticed that the numbers on its licence plate were scrawled crudely in what looked like chalk. (Cars were still rare in Australia at this time and it was even rarer to find one anywhere near a race track that early in the morning.) Tommy didn’t take note of it because he had taken a different route to the track, since Phar Lap liked to look at everything around him and always appreciated an improvisation to his usual routine.

PHAR LAP (foreground) training with other horses from Telford's stable. Photo and Copyright, Museum of New Zealand.

PHAR LAP (foreground) training with other horses from Telford’s stable. Photo and Copyright, Museum of New Zealand.

After Phar Lap’s breeze, the little band started out for home. It was about 5:20 a.m.

Usually the trio wound their way back at a leisurely pace along Roseberry Grove, but for some (fortuitous) reason, Tommy decided to take an alternate route along Manchester Grove instead. Which meant that they came up behind the car that Parker and the journalist had spotted earlier, instead of in front of it. Tommy saw its whitewashed, chalky plates immediately. The hairs on his head bristled. But he was almost alongside it before he knew something was not right and, as he passed, the occupants buried their heads in their newspapers. (He would subsequently recount that he saw a shotgun barrel peak out of the rear window as they passed by.)

Phar Lap and his pony moved alongside and passed the car, but before they got far enough away Tommy heard its engine start up. Digging his heels into the pony, he hustled around a corner and pushed Phar Lap up against a fence, planting the pony and himself between Bobby and the car. But the Studebaker came careening after them, its horn blaring, making straight for Phar Lap. The gelding became agitated and reared up, turning himself around 360 degrees in the process.

As Tommy tells it, “Lucky for him {Phar Lap} he did so, as the back seat passenger poked out a double-barreled shotgun and fired point blank. The pellets were embedded in the picket fence where Phar Lap had been standing…It was all over in a second. They didn’t stop to fire a second shot. The shooting took place at 5:40 a.m. and with the report of the gun and the honking of the horn it wasn’t long before heads were appearing out of gates and windows.” Woodcock failed to mention that he himself was thrown to the ground by the frightened pony, who was subsequently grabbed by a milkman.

It wasn't long before the shocked nation heard the story.

It wasn’t long before a shocked nation heard the whole story.

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Phar Lap had been entered in the Melbourne Stakes as a kind of prep race on November 1, three days before the Cup, and — incredibly — his team decided to go on with it. Two policemen were stationed just feet away from the horse’s stall and remained with him up until the evening of November 1, when a victorious Phar Lap returned to the Cripps’ barn.

Having read the newspaper reports of the shooting, a Mr. H.G. Raymond, of the Victoria Racing Club, stepped forward to offer his property at St. Albans near Geelong as a hiding place for Phar Lap until Cup Day. The offer was jumped at by Telford. At about the same time, jockey Jim Pike went into hiding as well, since if the gunmen couldn’t get to the horse, he judged that he might well be their next victim.

Later that same night, horse, pony and Woodcock were shipped off the Cripps’ premises in the middle of the night. Bags were laid out on the ground to muffle the sound of horse and pony being loaded into the trailer. And before the van moved away, trainer Telford (who, with Cripps, was the only one other than Raymond, Woodcock and Stan Boyden, Telford’s trusted driver, who knew of the plan) handed a gun to both Tommy and Stan.

Fortunately, nothing happened that required either of them to use their weapons. All arrived safely at St. Albans, Bobby being a model passenger, since he was always happy if his beloved Tommy was close by.For the two days leading up to the Cup, Woodcock slept right beside Phar Lap, while another horse, Old Ming, was selected to pose as the champion and duly stabled at Cripps’ Stable. Telford later confided that Old Ming was rather shocked by all the fuss and bother that greeted him, dressed in Phar Lap’s tack of rug and hood, when he went to Caulfield to train.

The morning of the Melbourne Cup, Phar Lap had a short work with some of the St. Albans’ horses before being tacked up and loaded onto the horse trailer at 11 a.m. Arriving at the Flemington track in good time, the trailer entered via the member’s drive. At race time, Phar Lap was escorted to the track by armed guards.

Police accompany PHAR LAP to the start of the Melbourne Cup.

Police and armed guards accompany PHAR LAP to the start of the Melbourne Cup.

A crowd of 72,000 had turned out to see him and Tommy had groomed Phar Lap’s red coat to a burnished, gleaming copper. As Jim Pike sent him down to the start at a canter, a wave of cheers of tsunami proportion accompanied the gelding. It was a small field — not usually the case — likely as much due to the Depression as to Phar Lap’s reputation. But no-one minded. All were there to see the greatest thoroughbred that Australia had ever known win its most prestigious Cup.

Gentle Jim never touched him and carrying the staggering impost of 138 lbs. as though it was nothing, Phar Lap turned into the home stretch and cruised up to the wire, his ears pricked. Hearts that had been so tested by the Depression were swept up in a joyous abandon that shook the grandstand.

But no heart sailed higher than Tommy Woodcock’s. Later that night, feeding Bobby sugar while cradling his head, Tommy told him that he was “the best horse in the whole world.”

Which, of course, he was.

The winnings were 9, 229 pounds (AUS), together with the Gold Cup, worth another 200. Tom Woodcock received ten pounds from Phar Lap’s owners …. as a bonus for taking such good care of Bobby.

The headlines and celebration of the day follow, together with some remarkable footage of Phar Lap.

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PHAR LAP comes to the wire, ears pricked, to win the 1930 Melbourne Cup.

PHAR LAP comes to the wire, ears pricked, to win the 1930 Melbourne Cup.

Coming home, Jim Pike hugging his neck. It was Pike's first Melbourne Cup after trying for it 14 times!

Coming home, Jim Pike hugging his neck. It was Pike’s first Melbourne Cup after trying for it fourteen times. And just look at the expression on the faces of those watching their champion — those faces say it all.

PHAR LAP in the news_02lrg

BONUS FEATURE: an absolutely stunning documentary entitled “The Mighty Conquerer” made about PHAR LAP just before his departure for New Zealand and then the USA. Nothing we have ever seen comes closer to its message of love for the mighty Phar Lap.

PRIMARY SOURCES

Carter, I. R. PHAR LAP: the Story Of The Big Horse. Melbourne, Australia:1964.

Woodcock, T. PHAR LAP MEMORIES  serialized in THE MERCURY, Hobart, Tasmania: 1936.

THE ARGUS, Melbourne, Australia 1929-1930.

THE SYDNEY HERALD, SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA 1929-1930.

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