Many champions have graced the turf since Australian racing’s first organised meeting in 1810 at Hyde Park in Sydney. But just who has been the best?
Over the next five weeks, Roar racing editor Justin Cinque, Roar expert Andrew Hawkins and the Roar’s unofficial historian Sheek will name their top 50 racehorses to have ever raced in Australia.
The series starts today with the countdown of the top five Australian racehorses of all-time which will be followed by the unveiling of the rest of the top 10 tomorrow.
And in case you’re wondering, yes, Kiwis do count!
5. Sheek – Bernborough (b.1939) 37 starts/26 wins/2 seconds/1 third (70% winning strike rate)
When Australians were looking for a ‘pick-me-up’ after seven wearying years of global war, the mighty Bernborough provided them with their ‘fix’. Bernborough’s career was characterised by barn-storming finishes from the rear of the field, often lugging huge weights in the process.
In the 1946 Doomben 10,000, Bernborough was 23rd of 26 with 600m to run, carrying a crushing weight of 66 kgs. He blow-torched the field running away by two lengths! In the 1946 Caulfied Cup he ran an unbelievably awesome fifth under 68 kgs and despite considerable interference in a huge field.
Incredibly, an ownership dispute meant that the horse known as the ‘Toowoomba Tornado’ was restricted to racing in that city until a new owner freed him upon a bigger stage. Consequently, all of Bernborough’s great wins occurred in one single season of 1945/46 when he went from six to seven years old.
How much better he might have been given a normal career, we can only guess.
5. Andrew Hawkins – Bernborough (b.1939) 37 starts/26 wins/2 seconds/1 third (70% winning strike rate)
The story of Bernborough is one of the more remarkable tales of the track. For the first four years of his career, he was only allowed to race at Toowoomba in Queensland, where he won 11 of his 19 starts. Sold and sent to Sydney, he became a star of the track.
After his first start outside of Toowoomba – a fourth at Canterbury – he won his next 15 straight at the highest levels.
The race which cemented his legend was the 1946 Doomben 10000. Carrying the equivalent of 66kg, he was near last on the home turn but still managed to win by two lengths untouched in race record time. It was a freakish performance.
In the spring, he started a short priced favourite in the Caulfield Cup despite his impost of 68kg. He struck major interference, yet still finished like a bullet train in fifth, although trainer Harry Plant declared jockey Athol Mulley had ridden against instructions.
Sadly, he broke down two weeks later in the Mackinnon Stakes and was retired to stud in the United States.
5. Justin Cinque – Ajax (b. 1934) 46/367/2 (78%)
Ajax wasn’t as versatile as other champion horses but he made up for it in sheer quality. He won 22 modern-day Group 1s, only three behind the record-holder Manikato.
He won the nation’s best sprint, the Newmarket (as a three-year old), and best middle-distance race, the Cox Plate (at four), and almost everything in between. At three and four, he went on a winning running of 18.
If I’m harsh I could point to the fact Ajax, our greatest miler, never raced in the nation’s best mile – the Doncaster, but it’s hard to find any other negatives.
Two Sires Produce and a Champagne as a two-year old. At three, he enjoyed victories in the Rosehill and Caulfield Guineas. He won the All Aged, Underwood, Memsie and Futurity three times each.
Ajax was the Black Caviar of the 1930s – he started odds-on 22 times. And he won at distances ranging 1000-2400m.
4. Sheek – Kingston Town (b.1976) 41/30/5/2 (73%)
Three stunning successive victories in the weight-for-age championship of Australia (WS Cox Plate) is enough to place ‘The King’ among such august company. But he was far from a ‘one-trick pony’.
In the 1982 Melbourne Cup, carrying 59 kgs, the distinctive jet-black “King” was forced four wide on the final turn and led for almost the entire 400m-plus straight, sending race fans around the country into a cheering frenzy. But he was caught just short of the winning post by the very good horse Gurner’s Lane.
It is suggested (all too often) his jockey Mal Johnston began his final run too early, leaving the horse spent at the very end.
4. Andrew Hawkins – Kingston Town (b.1976) 41/30/5/2 (73%)
Kingston Town is best known for winning an unprecedented three Cox Plates and for a tremendous 21 race winning streak in Sydney that is unparalleled.
His Sydney form was outstanding. In the autumn of 1980, he won the Rosehill Guineas, the Tancred Stakes, the AJC Derby and the Sydney Cup. He also won the Queensland Derby.
It wasn’t until the spring of 1980 that “the real Kingston Town” was seen in Melbourne, winning the 1980 Cox Plate easily.
His third Cox Plate in 1982 is most famous for one utterance from racecaller Bill Collins. Approaching the 600m, Collins declared “Kingston Town can’t win.” But as Kingston Town gathered momentum, he had to backtrack.
“He might win yet, the champ,” Collins stated.
As Kingston Town passed the post in front, Collins seemed slightly jaded. But it was an accurate assessment. In fact, if anything, his call added to the magnitude of his victory.
In the Melbourne Cup ten days later, Johnston broke every rule for riding the Flemington track when he booted the horse clear with 400m to go. “The King” looked like he’d hang on, until Caulfield Cup winner Gurner’s Lane roared up the rails to snatch victory from Kingston Town.
He was retired after winning the Western Mail Classic in Perth at his final start. Today, it is named the Kingston Town Classic.
In the 30 years since his retirement, although we have seen a plethora of good horses, I doubt any come close to the horse they called The King.
4. Justin Cinque – Kingston Town (b.1976) 41/30/5/2 (73%)
“The King” is the most dominant Australian racehorse I’ve ever seen on television – I wish I was born when he was racing. He won three Cox Plates (at four, five and six) and at his best, he was mesmerising – an absolute pleasure to watch.
His four-length victory in his first Cox Plate in 1980 sits with me as the third greatest victory (behind Dulcify in 1979 and Sunline in 2000) in the great race’s history – and this from a horse that wasn’t at home on his Melbourne leg.
As a three-year old, he won the Rosehill Guineas, Tancred (BMW), AJC Derby and Sydney Cup on four consecutive Saturdays – and was regarded by sections of the Australian racing media as the best three-year old in the world at that point.
At his best – as a three and four-year old– I’d have confidence in Kingston Town winning any race, over any distance, against any horse in the world.
3. Sheek – Tulloch (b.1954) 53/36/12/4 (68%)
We will never know how much better Tulloch might have been because illness saw him race just five times as a five-year-old and not at all as a four-year-old.
These are often a stayer’s best years.
In the 1957 Caulfield Cup, Tulloch thrashed all the older horses in the then fastest time for 2400m on turf in the world.
Only a faster time had been recorded on dirt. The sheer dominance of his win was not seen again until Might And Power’s win in the same race 40 years later.
Debate raged as to whether the 3yo should contest the Melbourne Cup. Regrettably he was scratched. Prince Darius, who had finished second to Tulloch in the VRC Derby (eight lengths adrift) ran the Cup winner, Straight Draw, to a neck. Tulloch would probably have won easily had he run.
Then recently retired Test cricketer Keith Miller provided the most prescient piece of advice during the debate as to whether Tulloch should run in the ‘big one’, or not. “If I owned Tulloch”, Miller opined, “I would run him in the Cup. There’s always the chance something could go amiss before the next Cup.” Quite!
When Tulloch eventually recovered from his illness, his one appearance (carrying 64 kgs) in the 1960 Melbourne Cup (the Centenary Cup) proved a massive anti-climax for the huge crowd. A poor ride by jockey Neville Sellwood saw him finish seventh (four lengths adrift).
3. Andrew Hawkins – Phar Lap (b.1926) 51/37/3/2 (73%)
To this day, the legend of Phar Lap is taught in schools, history teachers discussing the impacts of icons like Donald Bradman and “Big Red” upon an Australian psyche so viciously damaged by the Great Depression.
The career of Phar Lap is well recorded. He looked a crab as a two year old and an early three year old, winning one of his first 10 starts and placing one other time.
However, he won the Rosehill Guineas and AJC Derby in September 1929 (both were still run in the spring) before heading to Melbourne to win the Victoria Derby and finish third in the Melbourne Cup.
While he also won numerous other races – two Cox Plates, for instance – it is the 1930 Melbourne Cup with which he is most commonly associated. Sent out the shortest priced favourite in the history of the race, he won comfortably to the cheers of the crowd.
After his third attempt at the Melbourne Cup – he faltered under the back-breaking weight of 68kg – he travelled to the United States. He won the Agua Caliente Handicap in Tijuana, proving his class to the world. Two weeks later, he was dead.
His untimely death in California, still a mystery to this day, caused an almighty outpouring of grief back home. Just like a human who dies in their prime, Phar Lap has attained mythological status, his story romanticised for the masses.
He is already higher than I’d have him purely on his racetrack stats. Just Black Caviar, he was a horse that even to this day transcends racing. That alone elevates him above most champions.
But on the historical facts, taking his racetrack record into account, I have to rate him third.
3. Justin Cinque – Phar Lap (b.1926) 51/37/3/2 (73%)
What separates Phar Lap from many of the pre-television champions is that he won overseas. In Mexico’s Agua Caliente Handicap, his last race, he beat some of the best horses in America.
In Australia, he was by far the best of his generation. He won at handicap and weight-for-age conditions – 13 modern-day Group 1s (from 1400-3200m) in all; scaring away all creditable opposition and eventually growing too big for Australian racing. He raised the nation’s hopes during the depression.
Four times Phar Lap won three races in the space of a week and as a four-year old he won on each of the four days of Melbourne Cup week – from the mile of the Linlithgow (now Patinack) on Oaks Day to the two miles of the Melbourne Cup two days prior.
The only stain on his record is that he wasn’t very good as a young horse. He only won one of his first ten starts before winning 36 of his last 41 races.
2. Sheek – Phar Lap (b.1926) 51/37/3/2 (73%)
‘The Red Terror’ clearly holds the distinction of being Australia’s greatest racehorse of the twentieth century. Most of his racing coincided with the Great Depression. Phar Lap gave people joy, something to take their mind off their daily misery.
Winning only one of his first 10 starts, once Phar Lap grew into his body allowing his huge heart to function at capacity. He was by all accounts a massive presence on the racetrack, often sweeping up the leaders in a few bounds before careering away effortlessly.
Perhaps his greatest race was the 1931 Futurity Stakes over only 1400m. Carrying a hefty 65 kgs on a bog track, he came from last to first to win against a top sprint field. His win in the 1930 Melbourne Cup also saw him treat the field with contempt, winning easily by three lengths despite carrying 62.5 kgs.
In his final race, the Agua Caliente Hcp at Tijuana in Mexico, Phar Lap missed the start and trailed the field for half the race, before sweeping around the outside into the lead.
Another horse, Reveille Boy, challenged him in the straight, drawing up to his neck, but another burst from Phar Lap saw him win easily by three lengths.
2. Andrew Hawkins – Tulloch (b.1954) 53/36/12/4 (68%)
The best synonym for champion is Tulloch.
Tulloch was a star two year old, but was unlucky to run into Todman, the first winner of the Golden Slipper and one of the best two year olds Australia has seen.
As a three-year-old, he won the Warwick Stakes, Rosehill Guineas, AJC Derby, Caulfield Guineas, Caulfield Cup and Victoria Derby. In all likelihood, he would have won the Melbourne Cup but he was scratched.
Over the next few months, Tulloch added the C B Fisher Plate, Queensland Derby, VRC St Leger, the Rawson Stakes, the Chipping Norton Stakes, the AJC St Leger, the Queen Elizabeth Stakes and the All Aged Stakes to his record. It’s a champion’s CV.
At his prime, in April 1958, he was struck down by a mystery ailment that left him on death’s door for a number of years. Retirement was a foregone conclusion – he’d never be strong enough to race again, it was said. Even if he built up his strength, he wouldn’t have the same ability.
How wrong they were.
In the true spirit of a champion, Tulloch returned from the dead to return as mighty as ever before.
In March 1960, Tulloch returned to win the Queens Plate, Chipping Norton Stakes, Craven Plate and P J O’Shea Stakes, before returning in the spring to win an emotional Cox Plate.
He’d also win the Mackinnon Stakes before heading into the Melbourne Cup as favourite. Unfortunately, he was unable to make up for the missed opportunity in 1957, finishing seventh at his only unplaced run.
2. Justin Cinque – Tulloch (b.1954) 53/36/12/4 (68%)
Tulloch won 16 races that are now recognised as Group 1s. In my mind, his 1957/58 season was easily greatest by a three-year old in history. He won two Guineas, three Derbies, a Caulfield Cup in turf record time (third fastest overall) and six races (four of which are now Group 1s) at weight-for-age.
He won three Sires Produce as a two-year old; missed his entire four-year old season with through illness before completing his fifth year undefeated. At six he won a Cox Plate and Mackinnon in the spring before bowing out with his first victory over two miles in the Brisbane Cup which was his last race.
Tulloch dominated at almost every distance, in every season, he competed. And that’s why I’ve got him above Phar Lap.
1. Sheek – Carbine (b.1885) 43/33/6/3 (77%)
Remove the emotion of Phar Lap giving people hope during the depression, the mysterious circumstances of his death and the current hype surrounding Black Caviar and Carbine remains the greatest thoroughbred to race in Australia – just!
He possessed all the qualities of a champion racehorse – a perfect profile, a superb action and combined all the necessary ingredients of speed, strength, stamina, adaptability, versatility, courage and high consistency.
The fact that he raced nearly 125 years ago means that present day racing fans need to familiarise themselves with his great deeds. He carried a record weight (66 kgs) to win the 1890 Melbourne Cup. The previous year he finished second with 63.5 kgs. He remains the only horse to place in two Melbourne Cups (1st and second) carrying 10st (63,5 kgs) or more.
‘Old Jack’ as he was known, won other notable races such as two Sydney Cups, two Champion Stakes (then the WS Cox Plate of its day) and Mackinnon Stakes. He won races from 1000m right up to 4800m. He raced twice in a day five times, winning nine of those races, plus a second. He puts today’s pampered puffcake thoroughbreds to shame!
Just to top it all off, Carbine was also a great sire at stud. Perhaps his greatest direct descendant was Spearmint, who won the 1906 Epsom (English) Derby. It is said that more than half of the Melbourne Cup winners between 1914 and 1979 can trace their bloodlines back to Carbine, including Phar Lap!
1. Andrew Hawkins – Carbine (b.1885) 43/33/6/3 (77%)
I am of the firm belief racing has not seen a horse as good as Carbine in the 200 years of organised competition in Australia.
Old Jack. What a horse.
Carbine won 33 of his 43 starts, placing another nine times. The only time he missed a place, he was tailed off after suffering from hoof problems, an ailment that plagued his career but affected him badly only once.
He won over five furlongs, he won over three miles. He won races that would be considered Group 1s in the modern era on the same day: one over a mile, one over two miles. Imagine a horse winning the Doncaster Mile and the Sydney Cup on the same day!
In fact, in the autumn of 1889, he finished second by a neck in the Autumn Stakes (1 1/2m – a2400m) first up, won the Sydney Cup (2m – a3200m) two days later, won the All Aged Stakes (1m – a 1600m) the next day, the Cumberland Stakes (2m – a3200m) mere hours later, and the AJC Plate (3m – a4800m) another two days later.
You’ll never see a campaign like it these days.
His crowning glory came in the 1890 Melbourne Cup. Carrying 10 st 5 lb (66kg), which remains a weight carrying record, he beat the largest ever Melbourne Cup field – 39 runners – in race record time. He was conceding the equivalent of 24kg to the runner up Highborn, and he returned to scale sore. Quite incredible.
He deserves every accolade thrown his way.
1. Justin Cinque – Carbine (b.1885) 43/33/6/3 (77%)
Carbine is the greatest thoroughbred to have ever raced in Australia. He could be the greatest to have raced anywhere in the world.
I doubt he will ever be surpassed. Over all the other champions Carbine has three things – sustained greatness, unparalleled versatility and supreme toughness.
Starting off in New Zealand, he was undefeated as a two-year old – winning five times over 1000-1200m. In Australia, Carbine had six starts over 4800m, for five wins and a second.
In April 1889, he raced five times in six days over a combined distance of 15200m (average 3040m/race) for four wins and a second. He did it again the following season but won each of the same five races, including a Sydney Cup with 61kgs.
Carbine won the 1890 Melbourne Cup with 66kgs. When Phar Lap was asked to carry 68kgs in the 1931 Melbourne Cup, he couldn’t handle the weight and wasn’t pushed by his jockey in the straight – he finished eighth. These are crushing imposts.
Carbine won 17 of his last 18 races – he was retired as a five-year old with nothing else to achieve.