The Disappearance of Racing Randwick

We like to think that racing is age old, and it is. The ‘Sport Of Kings’... named after a time when there were kings. And of so many sports, perhaps this one thinks it honours its past better than most. We remember Phar Lap and Carbine, Persimmon and St Simon, all the way back to the three foundation sires eons ago. We celebrate 150 years of great races. We preserve racing. Or we think we do.

The photograph above was taken Monday last, on a very warm, spring-like day in Kensington, racing suburb of Sydney. The elegant, Federation home pictured is 158 Doncaster Avenue, rested on a large block on the western fringe of Randwick suburb. Leap the back fence and you’re on racecourse land.

Eighty years ago, on the same Monday afternoon in spring, you might have seen Banjo Paterson tugging on a cigarette on that front verandah. After all, this was the home of racehorse trainer Frank McGrath, and McGrath and Paterson were friends. You might have seen Eric Connolly or Bill Pierson, and you most certainly would have seen the men that owned such racing legends as Peter Pan, Amounis and Beau Vite. And in a matter of months, the only thing surviving of this house will be this photograph.

But let’s take a step back for a moment. To understand this issue, you must first know a little about Doncaster Avenue.

Flanking the western perimeter of Randwick racecourse, the busy street has been an artery for horse racing since racing began here, and that’s a while ago by Sydney standards. As recently as 60 years ago, Doncaster Avenue and its offspring (Bowral, Goodwood, Carlton streets) were alight with racing livelihoods – feed merchants, farriers, jockeys, and trainers like ‘Master’ McGrath. Harry Telford was here, and Peter Riddle. Some of the great horses of our nation sprung from this place. At these times, the street came alive every morning to horse iron on footpaths and the smell of molasses and hay in the wind. There was nowhere in Sydney like it.

The racecourse remained, but sadly the livelihoods did not. From my guess, the great push out of Doncaster Avenue began in the 1970s, and the land grab is well and truly under sail. Take a look at the photograph above. This is two doors north of McGrath’s home, the former stables of trainer Harry Darwon. The 1954 Queen Elizabeth winner Blue Ocean (the race’s inaugural winner) came from here, as did countless others.

On any week in any month of the year, I drive around the suburbs that circle Randwick racecourse and see where Randwick’s racing heritage is headed... down a long black hole under forgettable modern design and Hebel and glass facades. McGrath’s home and Harry Darwon’s old yard are next, to be rubbled for a development arrogantly tagged ‘The Stables’. It was sold by John Messara. And I’ve been told that McGrath’s yard won’t be long following its fate. At 158A Doncaster Avenue, it is currently home to the Waterhouse ‘Tempest Morn’ string. But for how long?

I’ve been fortunate. I’ve written two big racing biographies, and the stables and training homes associated with both horses remain. Peter Pan’s not for long, but Shannon’s trainer lived in a still-present home on Norton Street (which sat behind the long-gone Kensington pony track), while his yard on Bowral Street is now the HQ of the Waterhouse operation. I’ve stood in all these places, soaked up their chafed weatherboards and scarred stable doors, picturing them 70 and 80 years ago. But I know they won’t survive my lifetime, so I savoured them even more. McGrath’s home is the first to go. I suspect his yard, and hence the yard that spawned Amounis, Peter Pan (pictured there below in 1935), Beau Vite and Russia, will be next.

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So why is it that racing Randwick is disappearing before our eyes?

I’ve been told the locals are complaining about the rodents and early-rising horses. I’ve been told UNSW has tripled the value of land. Why keep horses when you can go up, commanding $470K a pop (and that’s cheap for this neck of the woods)? Pulling the thoroughbreds off Doncaster, I’ve been told, is safer, more viable for the future of horse racing. And like so much in life today, ‘viable’ has little tolerance for history. Randwick is the great racing suburb of this city, but off the course (and often on it, let’s be honest), there’s not a preservation order in sight.

And so, gradually, slowly, the roots of our sport crawl into the imagination.

Max Presnell has written on this subject many times, most recently this weekend in the ‘Herald’ (
click here to read). He has an elephant’s memory of who lived up and down Doncaster Avenue, from the earliest McGrath days to the later Tommy Smith era. But at any stage you can access the ATC archives, and there discover just about every racing name that ever lived around the racecourse. And pretty soon this will be the only way to know, because McGrath’s home will be gone, probably soon his yard, and then every box and broom along Randwick’s famous avenue. People will die, until the only record of who was where is on paper.

As with most things in life these days, the bottom dollar is everything in horse racing. And while admitting that I am in the business of racing history, it is certainly the case that the betting dollar and the real-estate dollar come well before the preservation of times past in Randwick. It doesn’t always need to be this way. At Saratoga and Churchill Downs, racetrack tours transport paying visitors over the course, through the stands and into the backstretch homes of the horses. History is front and centre of these tours, and they operate almost every day. So, a little ingenuity anyone?

If there is anything Black Caviar reminded us of in this country (and Atlantic Jewel is starting to do the same), it’s that racing can crawl deep into the national affection... more than league or union, more than cricket. So why are we so reluctant to save its past?

The Time Capsule of Saratoga

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Three hours north of New York city, off the I-87 that ploughs all the way to Montreal, Saratoga Springs sizzles in high summer. It is August, a few weeks after America’s hottest July ever, and as I led the rental car off the highway and along Union Avenue towards the racetrack, the smell of horses was tangled with heat, humidity and screaming crickets.

Saratoga Racecourse came up on me quickly, not because of its size or swelling presence, but because it sprawls across both sides of Union Avenue... pretty, rustic barns in neat rows, resting paddocks, and the Oklahoma training track. The Oklahoma (pictured below) and its surrounds are magnificent, like a time capsule. The fences are chipped and weathered, the yards dusty and spotted with flower baskets. There are trees everywhere, sighing over the barns in the heat of the afternoon. If you wanted to picture 1940s horse racing, this is where you’d come.

The main racecourse is a wonder, like a scene from Boardwalk Empire. There are red and white tent-roofs everywhere, in the betting pavilion, the parade ring, over the grandstands. It feels like a carnival. Like Santa Anita, Saratoga has tried very hard to beautify its track, and it has succeeded. There is an intimacy here that I haven’t felt in any other racecourse. It is truly fantastic.

Downtown Saratoga is a high-class spot, as decorated as its racetrack. It is a horse-lover’s dream. There are little shops everywhere selling totems of racing, just about any racing-related product you could think of. And then there is Lyrical Ballad bookstore on Phila Street, with the classiest, most extensive collection of racing books I’ve ever seen. Over an hour and $210 later, I hustled myself out the door (still managing to return for another book a little while later). If I lived here, I’d be permanently poor.

Shannon didn’t race in Saratoga. Outside of his stud life in Kentucky, he never left California during his US racing career. So why was I here, in this lush, ludicrously hot hamlet in upstate New York? Well, I was here for the racing library, and the superb Hall of Fame museum. I dug up information on Shannon’s US pilots, Hall of Famers Jack Westrope, John Adams and Johnny Longden. I read a bit more about Willie Molter, about the San Mateo track Bay Meadows, and the ownership history of Neil S. McCarthy. Shannon’s long-quiet story was unraveling in my hands, the horse revealing himself as I picked up the breadcrumb trail.

I’ve been in Saratoga three days, and each day I peeled off the I-87 to come in I would swing past the racetrack to get back on it. The pull of the Oklahoma complex was extraordinary. I found myself drawn to its barns and fences, staring at it by the
side of the road, winding down the window and leaning out. (At one point, having cheekily, ‘accidentally’, driven in to check out D. Wayne Lukas’s barn in the restricted zone, I was promptly escorted out by security.) It’s heat, its peace and quiet in the stale, still afternoons was magnetic. Even Blood-Horse correspondent and new friend Steve Haskin told me it was special, hardly touched, he said, since the days of Citation, Coaltown and Shannon.

You get an idea about racing from reading books, about how tracks and barns looked 50 and 60 years ago. When you come across a place like this, you wonder how racecourses in other corners of the world have become ugly concrete jungles, completely oblivious to their roots as places of horses. Saratoga, to me, embodies everything a racetrack should be. It is colourful, inviting and intimate. There is greenery everywhere. The barns are rustic and charming, visible from all sorts of views - from the track, from the highway, from the backyards of local neighbourhoods. It makes racing a popular sport here, a people’s sport. Above all, you can feel there are horses here. It’s how it should be.

I leave Saratoga tomorrow, for a Chicago connection bound for Ireland. I can’t believe how much I’ve learned about US racing just by being here, by feeling it and seeing it. They are doing so much right here, which I wasn’t expecting given the sour headlines that are plaguing US racing. But I will leave with a healthy respect for what I’ve seen. I will spout about Lexington and Santa Anita for months to come, and now Saratoga too.

In addition to all this, as if there could possibly be more, I have peeled back the layers of Shannon’s US life, which has left me humbled and a little sad. I introduced the horse to his American audience today, appearing on Steve Byk’s immensely popular radio show ‘At The Races with Steve Byk’. The response was brilliant, and I thought to myself, Shannon deserves this. Time to come out of the shadows good horse.

My New Kentucky Home

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Hot and motionless in Kentucky tonight, the scent of horses in the air. It is so still here that even smells move in slow motion, hanging around longer than you might expect without a puff of wind to blow them away. It’s a perfect night for horses to be out, picking the Bluegrass under the long, perfectly tiered rail fences, or lilting under the American beech and fringetrees. I think I died and went to heaven when I arrived here last week. It will be so hard to leave.

I came to Lexington, Kentucky, on the trail of Shannon, the same reason I had found myself in LA. Between December 1948 and May 1955, Shannon had stood stallion duties at Spendthrift Farm, alongside Bernborough and Alibhai. To say that Spendthrift is some sort of magnificence is just simple talk. The place is a sanctum of rural peace, a stunning hamlet tucked into rolling vales and tattooed with long, weaving fences. To the casual ear it is quiet. Listen harder, though, and Spendthrift is deafening with crickets and bird life. It is the kind of place you might read about in children’s stories, like Watership Downs, or The Folk of the Faraway Tree.

There is next to no evidence that either Shannon or Bernborough were ever here. Few people remember their names. At Spendthrift, neither horse has a headstone or marked grave recording where they were buried. The wall of fame in the stallion barn, in the very building (pictured below) where both horses were housed, recognises neither of them. The criteria to be up there, Spendthrift’s Des Dempsey tells me, is to be a classic winner, or the sire of a classic winner. That both Shannon and Bernborough are Hall of Fame horses (one an inaugural inductee) counts for little here. It made me sad, really sad actually, and a little more impatient for the release of Shannon’s book.

A stroll around Spendthrift is like a who’s who of Bluegrass history. There is the sculpture of Nashua with Clem Brooks, and the massive, newish (1950s) stallion barn that was built to house the horse. (The insurance companies, so Dempsey tells me, wouldn’t insure the uber valuable sire if he was housed in the old quarters, so up the new one went.) It is immaculate, like everything here. There are the headstones of some incredible horses from our past... Majestic Prince, Gallant Man. Dark Star was here, as was Jet Pilot, Seattle Slew, Foolish Pleasure, Tudor Minstrel, Swaps, Raise A Native, Never Bend. Need I go on (because I can)?

I’ve spent days on the roads around Kentucky, breathing in the surrounds of Lexington, Versailles (pronounced Ver-sales here), Keeneland and Churchill Downs. I’ve looked at the grand, old homes dotting the downtown suburbs with their broad front porches and pillars, American flags on every second lawn. Around the lanes that wind through the Bluegrass, off I went with the rental car (I have this wrong side of the road thing down now). I greeted the gates and dry-stone walls of Vinery, Stonestreet, Ashford (second pic), WinStar, Calumet (first pic) and Gainesway. I know, now, what the Iron Pike and Paris Pike roads look like, how the red roofs of Calumet sit into the hills, how the trees fall over the roadways like they do in Ireland.

Starstruck, I was, not a human in sight.

Horse people should see this place, more than they should see the Hunter Valley or Kildare. The Bluegrass turns over more cash than any other breeding hotspot in the world (the Hunter is second), and if you trickle back through time you will find Northern Dancer’s ghost here, Mr Prospector’s too, and Man O’War’s. But it’s not just the dollars and dimes of the game. Here, where beauty is so drippingly obvious, where nature is sculptured yet natural and overwhelmingly beautiful, it is impossible not to be rolled away by the charm.

When I close my eyes now, I have a picture of what it was like for Shannon here in 1949. I’ve been trying hard to see him in fields and pastures, knee-high in grazing, or in the stallion barn at Spendthrift, sidling past Bernborough. I know, now, what the air felt like on a stale, steaming night in August, and when the sky was clogged with storm clouds, just a slight suggestion of tornadoes. Yes, it will be terrible to leave, like picking open stitches. I might have to invent an excuse to return when the snow has settled on it and the nights are stiff and brittle. Still magnificent, I bet.


On The Trail Of Shannon

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Los Angeles is a massive city, a sprawling, scrambling colony of human activity. I’ve been here 48 hours, and the sky is clogged and smoky, the highways labyrinthine. Directing the rental car through the underpasses, overpasses, into the exits, around the right turns, down the wrong side of the road (for an Australian), not to mention the wrong side of the car, has been a lesson in life preservation. ‘Jesus, jesus, not that exit’. ‘What the @*#!, I just left the freeway. Another one!’

The rental car took me (safely) this morning to Santa Anita racetrack, in the palm-tree enclaves of the San Gabriel mountains. It’s a racecourse like no other, splendid and exotic and tidy. And in August, hot. Its thoroughbreds were parked in their barns, wiling away the oily heat of the late morning, and I was left, delightfully, with bronze renditions of Seabiscuit (presiding in the parade ring) and John Henry, the latter quite possibly the very best racehorse statue I have ever seen (pictured below).

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I had come to Santa Anita on the Shannon trail. My 1940s racehorse had turned the turf here in 1948, racing on the track in his first four American starts. It must have been quite a shock for him. American racing is fast and brittle, even in 1948 much more about the bottom dollar than Sydney racing. But the track itself, even that must have been explosive for Shannon. Santa Anita is lush and tropical, palm trees as populace as daisies. I couldn’t help but say it aloud: ‘here you were, Shannon, in 1948’.

I found a narrow gap in the barriers and slipped through onto the home straight. You can do these things when a racecourse is empty (when its full, it’s Suffragettes stuff). I was surprised at how solid the dirt felt underfoot. It was compacted and tight, rock solid, like a wet beach. Staring up the stretch I thought about all the horses that had charged over the spot I stood on - 77 winners of the Santa Anita Handicap, 77 winners of the Santa Anita Derby, and so many American champions from Seabiscuit to Round Table to Affirmed and Lava Man. Every racecourse can boast these things, but for a foreign racing fan on new, hallowed turf (or dirt, in this case), it’s a precious recollection.

Tactically, the track is far, far different to Randwick or Rosehill. In 1948, Shannon was plunged into a whole new game in California. Santa Anita, like Hollywood Park (visited yesterday) is a tight, oval track. The bend into the straight is much more of a squeeze than he would have been used to. Poring through Shannon’s charts in an American diner a few hours later (it had to be done, a burger in a diner), I noticed that he ran wide on many of his runs. He just couldn’t lean into the turn the way his stablemates could. It didn’t help that he was overraced to an inch of his sanity... more of that, however, in spring 2013.

I wasn’t sure what to expect of California’s racecourses. I’ve seen only two, but both have been magnificent (exclude the unsightly casino strapped to Hollywood Park’s flanks). There is age, still, in the grandstands of both courses, in their white picket fences and exquisite little parade rings, their plant pots and tributes to champions. There is a suggestion, still, of times past, in the architecture and layouts. I don’t sense this at Sydney courses anymore.

Maybe it’s just me, landing my time machine on the home straight of Santa Anita and stepping out in 1948. Maybe I’m seeing the past because that’s why I’m here. But as I drove away from Santa Anita this afternoon, sending myself and the poor rental car back into the maniacal arteries of Los Angeles, I realised I had fallen in love a little bit, with a racecourse and its history, and the Australian horse that had pelted around it in 1948.
Hollywood Park