1951 – 1960

In a field of sixteen for the 1951 Irish Derby, the betting market decreed that it was in fact a match between Signal Box, successful in the Irish 2000 Guineas and subsequently third at Epsom, and Fraise du Bois II. The latter, one-time favourite for the Derby, had thrown away his chance there when slowly away. In the event it was Fraise du Bois II that held his market rival at bay by half a length. Winning rider Charlie Smirke reported that his mount could have won by six lengths on better ground.

Foaled in France, this sickle-hocked, excitable son of Bois Roussel had cost his owner 8,000 guineas when purchased from his breeder Sir Alfred Butt. Trained in Newmarket by Harry Wragg (1902-1985), Fraise du Bois II carried the colours of HH Begum Aga Khan (1906-2000), fourth wife of HH Aga Khan III. Born Yvette Blanche Labrousse, this statuesque six-footer had been crowned ‘Miss France’ in 1930, marrying the Aga Khan in 1944. Racing on a comparatively modest scale, the Begum enjoyed success with such as Neron and Lavndrier, likewise trained by Harry Wragg. As for Fraise du Bois II, he failed to win again, meeting his end as a four-year-old when breaking a leg in the 1952 Doncaster Cup.

Irrepressible ‘Cheeky Charlie’ Smirke, long established as a big race rider in his native England, seldom failed to take full advantage of his forays across the Irish Sea. Already successful on Turkhan in the 1940 Irish Derby, he retired with a further seven Irish classics to his credit, declining all invitations to go racing as a spectator thereafter.

The completion of the new grandstand, weighroom and enclosure at the Curragh coincided with another record year in Irish racing, even if an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Britain precluded any Irish Derby challengers from across the Irish Sea. However, Paddy Prendergast’s invitation to Charlie Smirke to parent Blue Chariot sufficed to see that Rossmore Lodge inmate share favouritism with Irish 2000 Guineas winner D.C.M.

Paddy Prendergast did saddle the winner, if not through the medium of Blue Chariot. That colt broke down in running while his stable companion Thirteen of Diamonds galloped to an eight-length success under stable jockey James ‘Corky’ Mullane, just as the latter had predicted. Thirteen of Diamonds reappeared to win the Blandford Stakes and was later exported to America.

This chestnut son of dual-purpose sire Mustang carried the colours of AL ‘Henry’ Hawkins, a former lightweight boxer with hotel and brewery interests in his native England. He and his trainer enjoyed a memorable year in 1952, sharing 31 wins including the Irish Oaks with Five Spots. The headed their respective tables, each setting new records in his sphere.

Still only a teenager, Mallow-born Jimmy Mullane – hence ‘Corky’ – had shared the 1950 Irish apprentices’ title with the ill-fated PF ‘Mutt’ Conlon, tragically killed in a multiple pile-up at Kilbeggan. Jimmy went on to head the Irish flat jockeys’ table in 1951 and 1952, surviving the loss of his job to win an Irish 2000 Guineas on 1954 on Arctic Wind. Moving to the north of England Jimmy rode on until 1974 when a road accident brought what had been a roller-coaster career to its end. Particularly adept on two-year-olds and at the starting gate, Jimmy Mullane had the unusual knack of being able to restrain a hard-pulling mount with his toes pointed downwards.

Money clearly suggested that the outcome of the 1953 Irish Derby lay between Vincent O’Brien’s representative Chamier and Newmarket raider Premonition, the former sent off favourite. So it proved, though not before the sensational stewards’ decision to disqualify Premonition, judged the winner by a head from Chamier in the first Irish Derby photo-finish.

As the field turned for home Bill Rickaby set sail on Chamier. His move was instantly covered by Harry Carr on Premonition. In joining issue with Chamier, running the rail, Premonition crossed his closest pursuers, chief sufferers being Sea Charger and Ardent Lover. Battle joined, Premonition and Chamier fought it out every yard of the way, with the former prevailing. Vincent O’Brien (1917-2009) immediately asked Bill Rickaby (1917-1987) whether he had valid grounds for lodging an objection. Rickaby replied in the affirmative, adding that as both he and Harry Carr (1916-1985) were visiting jockeys and this was the Irish Derby he would be reluctant to object.

Undismayed by such niceties, Vincent hurriedly conferred with his owners before getting Rickaby’s consent to lodge an objection on his behalf, on grounds of ‘boring’. It subsequently emerged that the evidence of the Stewards’ Secretary, watching from the far side of the course had proved crucial in the stewards’ controversial decision to disqualify Premonition. An irate Harry Carr, insistent that the stewards had not only acted unjustly but had abused him to boot, cancelled his remaining rides. As for Newmarket trainer Captain Cecil Boyd-Rochfort (1887-1983), he declared that he would never again run a horse in the land of his birth. Furthermore, he obtained a newsreel film of the race, insistent that it be shown every night for a week in the Newmarket cinema.

Unsurprisingly, the jockeys’ respective autobiographies differed in their versions of that 1953 Irish Derby. As history is traditionally written by the victors, let Bill Rickaby speak first, as inFirst to Finish (1969). ‘The camera patrol has done a lot to iron out these arguments over objections, and I wish it had been in operation when I won the 1953 Irish Derby on the disqualification of Premonition, ridden by Harry Carr and trained in my home town, Newmarket, by Captain Boyd-Rochfort. ‘It was a dramatic race, the two horses drawing clear of the rest of the field and fighting a long duel over the last couple of furlongs, with myself on the far rails and Harry close up on my outside.

‘There is no doubt that Premonition bored in on me in the vital stages, and he was running so close to me that I was unable to draw my whip, which was in my left hand. As soon as the horses came apart and I got my whip going, Chamier swept forward, but by then it was too late and the photograph finish showed that I had lost by a head.

‘It was the largest crowd ever seen at The Curragh, up to that time, and they certainly had their money’s worth, but the tensions out there on the course was nothing compared to the rumblings going on behind the scenes. Chamier’s trainer, Vincent O’Brien, asked me if I thought there were grounds for an objection. I said there were good grounds, but that I would rather not object as this was a Classic race and Harry and I were both English riders on foreign soil. The Irish Derby had never before been won and lost in the stewards’ room, and I don’t like breaking records of that sort.

‘But after consulting the owner, Mrs F. L. Vickerman, and her husband, Mr O’Brien approached me again and I was asked that as I was certain of my ground, would I be prepared to give evidence in the Stewards’ Room if he made the objection. This I agreed to do. My argument was that I was bored and squeezed, that I never left the rails and that I was unable to draw my whip. Harry said: “I admit we touched, but it just as much Chamier coming out to me as my going in on him. It made no difference to the result.”

‘The stewards came down on my side and there was pandemonium as the result of the inquiry was announced, for this meant that the Irish had a home-trained winner of their principal Classic. But more than that, it meant that Mr O’Brien had trained an Irish Derby winner, a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner and a Grand National winner all in the same year. A truly wonderful achievement.’

Harry Carr recorded his version in Queen’s Jockey (1966). ‘I shall always think, and so will captain Boyd-Rochfort, that justice was not done in the Irish Derby of 1953. ‘I won the race on Brigadier W. P. Wyatt’s good staying colt Premonition... and though there was a certain amount of scrimmaging in the final hundred yards I was neither prepared for an objection by the stewards nor for the verbal attack on me at the enquiry by the stewards at the Curragh. Nor was my good friend Bill Rickaby, who after finishing second to me on Vincent O’Brien’s Chamier, shouted across as we were pulling up, “Well done, Harry.”

‘I was accused of rough riding, committing every crime in the book, and Premonition was disqualified in favour of Chamier. I wish there had been a patrol camera in those days, for the stewards might have had second thoughts as to the wisdom of their onslaught on me if they had been able to see the picture of the finish as Premonition and Chamier came head on to the post. I say this because I saw later the news film of the race. So far from barging Chamier out of my way as I came through, the camera showed that I had so much room on either side that I could swing my whip without causing interference. The whole episode was unpleasant in the extreme, but my protests fell on deaf ears, and I not only had Ireland’s premier prize taken away from me but also was treated in a manner by the stewards of the Irish Jockey Club (sic) which did them precious little credit.’

That the Curragh stewards acted correctly was borne out from an interesting source. Michael Moylan, whose father had ridden both Slide On and Piccadilly to consecutive Irish Derby triumphs a decade earlier, acted as Bill Rickaby valet that day. He recalled that the jockey returned to the changing room with his right boot streaked with whitewash, which he could scarcely have contracted from the running rail had Chamier been hanging off the rails and into Premonition.

Having recovered from a setback in training to finish only sixth to Premonition in the St Leger and down the field in the Washington DC International, Chamier was transferred to Noel Cannon’s care in Druid’s Lodge. While there for two campaigns Chamier won consecutive renewals of the Coronation Stakes at Sandown, defeating Aureole, King of the Tudors and Souepi on the first occasion. Retired to stud in Ireland, Chamier sired Chamour and Prince Chamier from his first crop and Light Year from his second. He was exported to Denmark in 1966.

One of the better winners of the ‘old’ Irish Derby, Zarathustra remains the longest-priced winner in Irish Derby annals, returned at 50-to-1. Bred by the late Sir Harold Gray and carrying the colours of his son and heir Terence Gray, Zarathustra won three of his five juvenile starts, eliciting an end-of-season offer of £10,000. Having persuaded Terence Gray to reject that handsome offer, trainer Michael Hurley put himself under quite some pressure to justify that recommendation.

Making his seasonal debut in the Irish 2000 Guineas, partnered by Aubrey Brabazon, Zarathustra finished a respectable fifth to Arctic Wind, encouraging many to mark him down as an Irish Derby prospect. By Persian Gulf out of a Sansovino mare, Zarathustra was bred to stay. Accordingly, he was sent off second favourite for the Gallinule Plate, a recognised Irish Derby trial, run over ten furlongs in early June. To the dismay of his backers, Zarathustra ran a stinker, finishing a country mile behind Hidalgo.

Just a fortnight later Tale of Two Cities, ridden by Cock o’ the North Billy Nevett, was sent off odds-on to give trainer Hubert Hartigan a long-awaited initial Irish Derby success. In a field of eleven Zarathustra was available at 50-to-1, longer in places. In the event Tale of Two Cities and Hidalgo appeared to have it between themselves, until Paddy Powell brought Zarathustra with an irresistible run to beat Hidalgo by a length and a half, with the favourite a further half-length back in third. Arctic Wind patently failed to see out the trip. The few who kept faith with Zarathustra were rewarded with tote odds of 74-to-1.

Two months later Zarathustra reappeared to win the Desmond Plate over the Derby course and distance, 5-to-4 favourite to do so. In consequence only four opposed Terence Gray’s colt in the Irish St Leger. Promoted from no-hoper in the Irish Derby to odds-on, Zarathustra duly landed the odds with the minimum of fuss. Owner, trainer, colt and sire headed their respective tables, while Paddy Powell came close to making it a clean sweep for Zarathustra’s connections.

Kept in training as a four-year-old, Zarathustra made a winning reappearance at the Newmarket Guineas meeting, finished third in the Coronation Cup and signed off on a winning note in the Royal Whip back on the Curragh. Transferred to Cecil Boyd-Rochfort’s Freemason Lodge stable in Newmarket for a fourth campaign, Zarathustra advertised his handler’s talent with stayers by scoring in the Ascot Stakes, Sandown Stayers’ Stakes, Goodwood Cup and Shakespeare Stakes. Those performances indicated that Zarathustra must have won the 1956 Ascot Gold Cup, had he been entered.

Connections made no such mistake in 1957. Stable jockey Harry Carr remained faithful to the Queen’s Atlas, whereby young Lester Piggott came in for the first of his eleven Ascot Gold Cup triumphs when guiding Zarathustra to victory over Cambremer and Tissot, the leading stayers in France and Italy respectfully. Crowned European champion stayer, Zarathustra was syndicated to stand at the McCalmonts’ Ballylinch Stud in County Kilkenny. Suffering the increasing aversion to stamina-laden sires, Zarathustra was subsequently exported to Japan, remembered as one of the best Irish Derby winners of his era.

The 1956 Irish Derby might have attracted thirteen contenders, but the market said it lay between just two. Panaslipper had finished a good second to Phil Drake at Epsom and was strongly fancied to gain compensation However, Hugh Lupus, winner of the Irish 2000 Guineas but unable to run at Epsom, carried such an aura that he went off even money, with Panaslipper available at 4-to-1. In the event Panaslipper always held the upper hand, beating the favourite by two lengths. Rae Johnstone insisted that it was lack of fitness, rather than lack of ability, that had brought about Hugh Lupus’ defeat. Subsequent racecourse performances suggested that Johnstone was correct. Purchased by the Irish National Stud for £45,000, Panaslipper followed Zarathustra to Japan in 1964.

Odds-on to follow up with Roistar in 1956, the McGrath team could finish only a distant second to English raider Talgo, a six-length winner under stylish Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Mercer and trained in Newmarket by his father-in-law Harry Wragg. Trainer and jockey had earlier combined to carry off the Irish 2000 Guineas with Lucero, likewise owned by Geneva-based financier GA ‘Gerry’ Oldham. Talgo, rated the best of his age in England, was retired to stud in Ireland and subsequently exported to Mexico.

Fifty years after Orby’s historic Epsom success Irish-trained raiders had yet to win a second Derby. In 1957 Ballymoss came closest, foiled only by the brilliant Crepello. It really did appear that Vincent O’Brien’s chestnut only had to turn up at the Curragh to collect his consolation Derby. Sent off long odds-on, Ballymoss duly delivered in the hands of TP Burns, by four lengths from Fred Myerscough’s Hindu Festival.

Owned by American millionaire builder John McShain, Ballymoss went on to make history when becoming the first Irish-trained winner of the St Leger at Doncaster. As a four-year-old Ballymoss became European ‘Horse of the Year’, carrying off the Coronation Cup, Eclipse Stakes and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, prior to making further history as the first Irish-trained challenger to succeed in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. He bowed out as the leading stakes winner in European racing history, his earnings amounting to £107,166.

Retired to the Banstead Stud, Newmarket, Ballymoss went on to become the leading first-season sire in Britain, the best of his get being Derby winner Royal Palace, together with a brace of Irish Oaks winners in Ancasta and Merry Mate. As his fortunes dipped Ballymoss was rumoured to be about to join the steady exodus of stallions to Japan. Public outcry soon saw that idea dismissed, a measure of the affection in which he continued to be held. Ballymoss died in July 1979, by then in semi-retirement at Whitsbury Manor Stud in Hampshire.

Where Panaslipper and Ballymoss had come so close, Hard Ridden succeeded in becoming the first Irish-trained Derby winner since Orby when running out an easy winner from compatriot Paddy’s Point in 1958. In Hard Ridden’s absence Paddy’s Point was sent off favourite to gain compensation at the Curragh. He came agonizingly close, beaten a head by Sindon, the first maiden to triumph in an Irish Derby since Piccadilly in 1945. Owned jointly by glamorous Anne Bullitt-Biddle and his trainer Michael Dawson, Sindon went on to confirm his class when beaten only by dual classic heroine Bella Paola in the Champion Stakes at Newmarket. Exported to America and thence to Japan, Sindon failed to add to his laurels either on the racecourse or at stud.

Successful in 1956 with Talgo, owner Gerry Oldham and trainer Harry Wragg repeated that success in 1959 with Fidalgo, Talgo’s half-brother. Second to Parthia at Epsom, Fidalgo was odds-on to go one better at the Curragh. Joe Mercer’s mount duly obliged, four lengths ahead of Anne Biddle’s Bois Belleau. Having reversed Epsom placings with Parthia when second to Cantelo in the St Leger, Fidalgo retired, injured, to stud, exported to Japan in 1966.

The ‘Epsom second, Curragh first’ formula seemed assured of extension in 1960 when Alcaeus, trained locally by Paddy Prendergast, went off 1-to-3 to beat six rivals headed by the controversial Chamour, recent winner of the Gallinule Stakes. Six weeks previously – on Friday, 13 May, the racing world had been shocked by two events. The first was news of Prince Aly Khan’s death in Paris, killed in a car smash. The second, later that same fateful Friday, concerned the shock announcement to the effect that the Stewards of the Turf Club had warned off trainer Vincent O’Brien, from 13 May 1960 until 30 November 1961, on foot of the ‘presence of a drug and stimulant in the samples of seat and saliva taken from Chamour, trained by him, after the colt had won the Ballysax Maiden Plate at the Curragh on April 20th.’

In Vincent’s enforced exile from his home and stables in Ballydoyle, younger brother AS ‘Phonsie’ O’Brien had deputised. Shocked and incredulous at this generally perceived miscarriage of justice, the Curragh crowd fervently wanted Chamour to avenge his trainer’s disgrace. When wizened Australian ace Garnet ‘Garnie’ Bougoure finessed Chamour home by a length from Alcaeus the Curragh crowd rose up as one, repeatedly roaring: “We want Vincent!” Co-owner Walter Burmann spoke for the vast majority present. “Chamour is a really good horse, who was trained by the greatest trainer in the world.”

Ironically, Chamour never got another opportunity to underline the injustice done to his trainer, dying in a freak stable accident in February 1961. Vincent O’Brien recounted the circumstances to biographer Ivor Herbert. “We were holidaying in Monte Carlo and at a dinner-party of thirteen people, including the two owners of Chamour, Walter Burmann and Jacqueline, and Bob Griffin, our vet. We received a call from Dermot. Chamour was found by the nightwatchman dead in his stable. The horse had apparently got cast in his box and died when the buckle of his rug pierced the jugular vein. It was the most bizarre accident, and a tragic end to a gallant horse.” Ivor Herbert went on to reveal that in consequence all stable rugs in Ballydoyle were stitched together and slipped over the horse’s head.