Friday, 15 December 2017

Off to the Races

This was the third assignment submitted for Writing the Family Saga. Once again the word limit was 750 words plus a reflection.

As Etienne and his staff walked three horses along the shady bank of the Shoalhaven River, they could not have imagined that they were walking into history. Although Etienne’s horses regularly travelled by ship to Sydney to race, this time they would transfer to another steamship for the journey to Melbourne.

Etienne de Mestre was a successful trainer in New South Wales. On his dairy property, Terara, Etienne had built training stables plus a racecourse. Usually Etienne was content to race the horses in New South Wales. However when a new handicap race in Melbourne was announced, he decided to enter. Rivalry between New South Wales and Victoria was strong, so imagine the prestige if one of his horses won this inaugural race."

Travelling to Melbourne with horses aboard a small steamship, City of Melbourne, was not without risk. Ships did not always arrive safely and several race horses were lost at sea. However it was, realistically, the only way to get the horses to Melbourne.  Before the race, the de Mestre horses were stabled away from public view at South Yarra and trained at St Kilda Beach. Consequently, when Etienne and his horses arrived at Flemington, not many race goers took notice of the horses from the north.

On Thursday 7 November 1861 Archer lined up in front of a relatively small crowd of 4,000 for his first race in Melbourne. News of the death of Burke and Wills reached Melbourne only a few days before, possibly deterred many people from attending the race meeting. 

The favourite for the two mile handicap race was a Victorian horse, Mormon. Although two of the seventeen starters fell during the race, there was no dispute about the winner - Archer defeated Mormon by six lengths.

The following year Archer, returning to Flemington, carried the top weight of ten stone 2 pounds. Archer defeated Mormon by ten lengths. 

Although Archer was entered for the third Melbourne Cup in 1863, his application was rejected as the Separation Day holiday delayed its delivery. Victorian racing authorities therefore prevented Archer from racing at Flemington for a third time.

However, this was not the end of Etienne’s involvement with the Melbourne Cup. In 1867 he trained Tim Whiffler to a win, as well as Chester in 1877 and finally Calamia in 1878. Being a five time Melbourne Cup winning trainer was a record only broken many years later by Bart Cummings. 

The training achievements of Etienne de Mestre make the Melbourne Cup a significant event in the family saga. However, research shows that another branch of the family produced the owners of the winner of the 1920 Melbourne Cup.

William and Fred Moses owned a horse breeding and training property, Arrowfield, on the Hunter River. When one of their horses failed to sell at the 1916 Yearling Sales, the brothers decided to keep him. That horse was Poitrel. Poitrel had a number of defects for a race horse including his upper-jaw being larger than his lower-jaw. The horse’s hooves were also brittle making him an unlikely candidate as a stayer. However, trained by the property’s trainer, Harry Robinson, he had a successful racing career in New South Wales.

Communication had improved by 1920 and, arriving in Melbourne for the Cup, Poitrel’s reputation as a racehorse was well known making him a crowd favourite. His ten stone handicap was only two pound less than the weight carried by Archer in 1862 and five pound less than the weight carried by Carbine when he won in 1890. 

By the 1920s horses from all states participated in the Melbourne Cup – a race that drew huge crowds to Flemington each year. On Tuesday 2 November 1920, more than 110,000 people watched the race. Poitrel initially remained towards the end of the field but eventually wove a path through the other horses, passing his stablemate, Erasmus, 50 yards from the winning post. Poitrel won by half a length. 

According to the newspapers the large and colourful crowd roared their approval as Poitrel won. Although not the favourite, he was heavily backed and the bookmakers consequently did not share the public’s enthusiasm.

As the Governor General presented William and Fred Moses with the Melbourne Cup, they knew that keeping Poitrel was definitely the right decision. During his racing career Poitrel won fifteen times from thirty-seven starts – not a bad record for a horse that no-one wanted.

Etienne de Mestre and the Moses Brothers were not the only members on my extended family tree involved in horse racing. However they are the only ones to have had success at the Melbourne Cup – so far.

Reflection: Sport is a major thread in my Australian family saga. Researching the many branches of the family shows the importance of sport, including cricket, swimming, golf, lawn bowls, hockey, athletics and horse racing, in lives of family members. 

For most family members, sport was primarily a recreational pursuit. However for some it provided a livelihood. Family members, including my father, have also been sport writers. Family participation in sport is therefore an area requiring further investigation.
Trove has made it much easier to find information about events affecting family that may not necessarily be passed down the family by word of mouth. One example is horse racing.

The family connection with horse racing began in 1810 when Simeon Lord and George Guest both had horses participating in the first official racing carnival. Not surprisingly with the dependence in the nineteenth century on horses for farming and transport, opportunities were also taken to race horses throughout the country. Newspapers show family members with training tracks on their properties and racing horses at country race meetings.

Horse racing, particularly the Melbourne Cup, is a national passion. However it was not until I investigated stories of extended family members that I discovered the family connection with this race. I also discovered a story of risk taking – not just in the transportation of horses by sea but also racing a horse no-one wants. 

With the continued involvement of the present generation in sport, including horse racing, this thread in the family saga will continue.

‘Victoria Turf Club Spring Meeting’, The Argus, 9 November 1861, p 5.
‘The Cup Race’. The Argus, Wednesday 3 November, 1920. pp 9 – 10.
Bernstein, D L. First Tuesday in November: the story of the Melbourne Cup. Melbourne: William Heinemann, 1969.
Hutchinson, Garrie. They’re Racing!: the complete story of Australian racing. Ringwood, Viking, 1999.Rolfe, Costa. Winners of the Melbourne Cup: stories that stopped a nation. Fitzroy: Red Dog, 2008.

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