Great Aboriginal Jockeys


Great Aboriginal Jockeys

In Rural Australia or the Great Outback as the locals call it, the horsemanship skills of the Aborigines are well known and respected. These skills have also been demonstrated on many racetracks throughout the country by some great Aboriginal jockeys. I have selected two outstanding individuals to comment on but there are plenty more.

Peter St Albans

Peter St Albans was born near Geelong in Victoria. He rapidly rose in status from stable boy to champion jockey. After a few rides he found himself in Sydney. His stable was attending the Autumn Carnival with a 2yo filly names Briesis and she was nominated for the 1876 Doncaster Handicap. At the time the best-and still the best- mile race in Australia. Briesis was weighted at 5 stone 7 lbs (77lbs=35kg).and the stable jockey could not make the weight. Enter young 12yo St Albans. Under his guidance, Briesis beat all her older rivals easily.

The Victorian Derby and the Cup

Champion Filly Briesis

Six months later, Briesis was now a 3yo filly and Peter was still a 12yo jockey. History repeats itself. On Saturday, the first day of the 1876 Melbourne Spring Carnival, Briesis wins the Victorian Derby in record time with stable jockey Tom Hales aboard. It was reported that Briesis time for the mile and a half was the second fastest anywhere in the world. Comes Cup day on Tuesday and the filly gets 6 stone 4lbs (88lbs=40kg). Again the stable jockey can’t make the weight and so Peter St Albans takes the ride. He had to leave his school room and get to Flemington to face a record field of 33 runners. Briesis and Peter win again in record time for the two miler.

Peter St Albans was the first aboriginal jockey to win the Melbourne Cup. These two victories alone show what an accomplished rider he was. Twelve years of age and at a body weight not much above 6 stone, it is incredible to believe that he could win two of Australia’s toughest races even if he was aboard an absolute champion. Peter went on to win other important races. In fact, he almost had back to back wins in the Melbourne Cup when Savanaka failed by half a head to win the 1877 race. Illness and injury forced retirement at the age of seventeen but not until he had notched up 10 wins in races which would probably now be classified as G1.

The remarkable achievements of Briesis have somewhat overshadowed those of Peter St Albans but his feats are no less remarkable.

Rae “ Togo” Johnstone

Rae was born in Newcastle NSW in 1905. His early dream was to play rugby League but at a weight of 4 stone 7 lb (29kg) this was not a dream merely a fantasy. A trip to the Canterbury race track with his father pointed the way forward. Apprenticed to a Sydney trainer he rode his first winner at the age of 15. It was evident to all that even at an early age Rae had tremendous talent as a horseman. Fractious flighty horse became soothed when he was in the saddle and he was an excellent judge of pace and renowned for his come from behind wins.

However, to balance this he was a flamboyant character with supreme confidence in his ability who was not averse to a gamble on his own rides. Such a mixture of personality traits usually comes with difficulties with authority. And so it was with Rae. The stewards handed out penalties with monotonous regularity. Gambling and questionable riding tactics were just some of the charges leveled against him and suspensions of some length were imposed. Nevertheless, when he was riding he had winner after winner. In the jockey’s premiership of 1931-32 he was second to Jim Pike of Phar Lap fame.

Riding in France and England

Feeling that continual brushes with authorities was something he could do without, Rae decided to try his luck overseas. Using his industry contacts, he tossed up between England and France. Paris life was more fitted to his lifestyle and he did not take long to get back to his winning ways on the racetrack. Two years after leaving Australia we won the 1933 French jockeys’ championship.

He continued the playboy high life and gambling habits but these were tempered somewhat when he met and married a beautiful Follies Bergère girl Marie Goube. Success on the track followed him to England where he won both the One Thousand and Two Thousand Guineas. The war interrupted his progress and he chose to remain in France rather than return to Australia. Arrested by the Gestapo he managed to escape while their prisoner en route to Germany. With help from the French Resistance he avoided capture until the end of the war.

The Arc and English Derby

Rae Johnstone in Queens “colours”

The next 10 or so years were Rae’s most productive in a racing sense. He rode a number of French trained horses to success in England. In 1948 he became the first Australian to win the English Derby on My Love. Two more Derby wins followed on Galcador and Lavendin. In all, Rae had 3ooo winners before he retired in 1957.  Added to his Derby successes were three English Oaks, and two Prix de l’Arc de Triomphes along with 28 other Classic races.

In his later years he dined only at the best restaurants and was a man of sophisticated tastes in wine and food. He wore the best suits and had his shoes handcrafted. He was reported to be the highest paid sportsman in Europe. Without a doubt he was the best international jockey Australia has ever produced. He also set the ground work for the celebrity sportsmen we see today-but he was better at it than most.

For those interested in the subject of Aboriginal Jockeys I strongly recommend the book by Professor John Maynard Aboriginal Stars of the Turf. It is an excellent read


Is Best to the Best the Best way to find or breed the Best Racehorse?

Breeding From Quality Mares

There has been some recent discussion about the wisdom of old adage “Breed best to the best and hope for the best. “ The apparent failure of the outcome of breeding from quality mares that have failed to pass on their racing talents to their offspring has fueled this discussion. I thought it may be helpful to comment on these matters now Catalogues are available. The information may be of assistance to those wading through the catalogues. Remember the catalogues are primarily selling documents. They certainly give you information about the stallion and the dam but these are racing facts crossed with racing facts. What is needed is information on breeding facts crossed with breeding facts.The horse’s potential racing ability can be established by a more detailed examination of the pedigree at the top of the page. PRI analysis is one way of doing this.

Importance of Genetics

Racehorses are complex individuals whose success at the end of the day can depend on millimetres and there are many factors governing success or failure. Training, health, nutrition, attitude, are all important factors. Luck is the most uncontrollable element of all (wet tracks, barriers, interference in running, jockey competence etc.).  All important but not considered here. However, unless the horse has the genetic ability to perform these factors become inconsequential.

The pedigree of a horse is said to govern only 30% of its ability. If this is true then it is the critical 30%. A good human analogy is the  athlete. Consider a young person of great athletic ability who trains hard, has a great competitive attitude and is willing and looks forward to making the necessary sacrifices in lifestyle each athlete has to make if they wish to reach the top. This person wants to play basketball at the NBL level but this athlete is only 5ft tall. What are the chances of them making the grade? Very little.The task is beyond their genetic capability. So it is with horses.

An Example of Breeding Quality Mares  to the Best that worked

Firstly let’s look at the big picture of crossing the Best with the Best. The English Oaks commenced in 1779 one year earlier than the English Derby. In the last almost 250 years how many Derby winners have sired a Derby winner from an Oaks winner? None, until 2014 when the paradoxically named Australia (Galileo-Ouija Board) saluted. There is some controversy that this was the first example because in 1995 Lammtarra (Nijinsky-Snow Bride) won the Derby but Snow Bride had become an Oaks winner after Aliysa, who was first past the post, was disqualified. Only five other Derby winners have been out of Oaks winners

Australia (Galileo-Ouija Board) winner English and Irish Derbies 2014

The fact that the mare and stallion may not be genetically compatable and able to produce a high quality horse is not usually mentioned in the discussion on the poor breeding performance of successful race mares.   The breeding career of Coco Cobanna shows this. Coco Cobanna was a high quality race mare. In 2000 she was winner of the G1 AJC Oaks, 3rd in G1 SA Oaks, and winner of the G1 Metropolitan Handicap and the G3 Colin Stephens. The Table:below sets out her breeding career

What is a PRI?

The factor PRI (Pedigree Racing Index) in the above Table is a way I calculate a theoretical racing performance from looking at various stallion crosses. In data base I have constructed the PRI values range from 100 to 43.3; only two horses have reached the perfect 100 and they won almost $6m in stake money.  The PRI values calculated for each of Coco Cobanna’s foals pretty well parallel their racing performance. All the major sire lines available in Australia at the time, Danehill, Storm Cat, Mr Prospector were tried using high quality sires (the Best); the only sire line missing is perhaps Sir Tristram.

A breeding strategy of Best to the Best cannot be dismissed on the basis of one result. Coco Cobanna is a good example of breeding quality mares to the best bloodlines around and was definitely a sound plan. But it failed to deliver its objective. To be statistically significant this result will probably require looking at least 20% of the horses in the thoroughbred data base which now probably exceeds 2.5m. Even with modern computers a Herculean task. However, it does show that calculation of an index like PRI will give guidance to the probable racing performance of any horse. In retrospect, armed with the knowledge above Coco Cobanna would have been better served by a Danehill son (2002 was the last year Danehill himself stood).

So my advice to  people who look at catalogues is to do more homework around the mare and its relations. Look at the broodmare sire carefully. Does it have SW from the stallion whose progeny you are looking at. If not, what about other stallions in the sire line?

Good luck, we all need plenty of that.