by Gai Waterhouse Posted on 11:58AM, 27 August 2010 Be the first to comment
The mind boggles at what the aboriginal chief, Bennelong and his curious, indigenous colleagues, thought of the extraordinary events on that historic day –January 26, 1788 -- when 1030 white skinned humans disembarked from the ships moored in Sydney Cove, Port Jackson.
Unquestionably , Bennelong’s shock would treble about two hours later when these strange, pale skinned humans led nine four-legged animals (horses) from the ships into the shallow waters of the Cove and out on to the harbour bank where the horses devoured the grass, just like the more familiar Kangaroos.
Neither Bennelong nor any of his baffled mates had ever seen a horse or anything resembling an equine animal. Were these never-seen before four-legged creatures, kangaroos or perhaps overgrown wallabies?
Certainly, they were not related to the wombat or the koala bear.
Can you imagine the native’s shock- and probable hilarious amusement, a day or two later when Captain Arthur Phillip and his men saddled those horses and started to ride them along the aboriginal tracks towards the route that is now Old South Head Road.
Yes, horses were very much “First Fleeters” – true Australian pioneers - and they were to play a major role in the rapid development of this great country. 1788 was, of course, the era of the horse.
Everyone in the settled world; men, women and children, could handle a horse just as the majority in our era can drive a motor car.
Captain Arthur Phillip left Plymouth (England) for Botany Bay in 1787 with 1030 male convicts in the first fleet. Additionally, there were 188 female convicts but there were no English thoroughbreds aboard.
Early colonial census records show that by 1792 there were 15 horses still alive in Australia.
Perhaps some of those were to become the ancestors of some of our great Aussie bred stars of the turf such as Bernborough, Peter Pan, Kingston Town, Heroic, Chatham, Shannon, Flight, Northerly, etc etc.
My husband, Robert Waterhouse is justifiably proud of the fact that one of his forbears, Captain Henry Waterhouse, imported one of the finest early blood horse stallions from England to Australia in 1799.
His name was YOUNG ROCKINGHAM (by Rockingham) and he appears in the pedigrees of some of Australia’s finest gallopers of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Australia Day or Anniversary Day, as it was known for more than 100 years, has always been recognised by the Australian Jockey Club and other Principal Racing Clubs as an important race day.
My late father, Tom Smith, trained many of his best horses for special races such as the Australia Day Handicap and the longer distance Anniversary Handicap; two events run over the holiday week-end for at least the last 100 years, to celebrate our most important history date here in Sydney.
The year 1860 – only 72 years after the English arrival in 1788 - was very important in the annals of Australian thoroughbred breeding history. Our breeders imported quality thoroughbreds in 1860.
These foundation stallions included The Hermit, winner of the 1854 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket; Fisherman , winner of two Ascot Gold Cups and Panic – as a two-year-old. He developed into a champion stayer in Victoria and carried 10 stone (63.5 kgs) into second place in the Melbourne Cup.
The colony’s horse population had increased to more than 450 by the year 1860 and Australia was well on the way to developing its unique sporting culture which so clearly embraces horse racing as a thriving industry and a long-running, exciting entertainment enjoyed by almost every section of our community.
I recall the old, very true story about the establishment of country towns in the 19th century. First, they would erect a church, secondly there would be a school, thirdly a pub then a racecourse… and not necessarily in that order of priority.
As for me, I am especially proud that a horse I part-owned as a young girl, ONCIDON, won the Anniversary Handicap at Randwick in 1974. I owned him in partnership with Percy Sykes’s daughter, Averil, and of course, he was trained by my father Tommy Smith whose horses won the Anniversary Handicap at least a dozen times starting with Codicil (ridden by George Moore) in 1947.
Our Australian horses, owners, trainers and jockeys will continue to play an important part in Australia Day celebrations, especially that renowned “first-fleeter” - the horse itself.
The great English born Australian poet Adam Lindsay Gordon got it right about 100 years ago when he wrote: “OF THE WORK OF GOD’S HAND, by SEA OR BY LAND, THE HORSE MAY AT LEAST RANK SECOND.”
(Adam Lingsay Gordon himself once rode thee winners over the hurdles at Flemington. He was a fearless horseman and horse lover.).
Gai Waterhouse is an Australian Living Treasure and one of the countries greatest racehorse trainers of all time. In 2000, she was awarded the Australian Sports Medal for "outstanding contribution to Thoroughbred Racing" and was inducted into the Australian Racing's Hall of Fame in late November 2007.