This isn’t the first story ever written about Carbine. Countless journalists and historians have recorded their interpretations over 130 years, all of them in total awe of the great horse’s achievements.
Older racing enthusiasts continue to be fascinated by the legend of Carbine, and I’m hopeful younger fans will be curious enough to check him out.
Since Carbine’s time, Australian racing has seen a plethora of outstanding horses, but only a handful who will be talked about well into this century. Phar Lap graced the turf four decades after Carbine, and it was another 15 years before Bernborough exploded onto the scene. Tulloch was the next phenomenon, and his influence lasted until the dashing Kingston Town appeared. Suddenly the mares took over. Fancy seeing superstars like Makybe Diva, Black Caviar and Winx within a 15 year period. I’ve always felt that Sunline deserves a place not too far behind those incredible mares.
Modern day champions like Winx enjoy a luxury that Carbine and Phar Lap were not afforded. Winx has been painstakingly looked after. Her racing and her spells have been carefully coordinated, and her races are never too close together. Connections want her to hold together, for as long as she wants to be there.
I wouldn’t have the audacity to suggest that Carbine was the best horse to race in Australia, but I’m absolutely convinced he was the toughest. The things he did, and the issues he dealt with, make interesting reading. Remember he raced in the straightback era, when jockeys looked like a smaller version of John Wayne, and the tracks were not the manicured stretches of turf we know today. In fact when it was time to tidy up a track for a major meeting in Carbine’s day, they would turn a flock of sheep out on the course proper.
Carbine was bred by the New Zealand Stud Company, and was by Musket who’d been a pretty good racehorse in England but a slow starter at the stud. He was virtually “culled” to New Zealand, destined to achieve great distinction at the stud. Carbine foaled in 1885, was out of the unraced imported mare Mersey, and from all reports, a quality youngster. He was purchased by Dan O’Brien as a yearling, and quickly showed he was two year old material.
He was unbeaten in 5 starts as a juvenile, and beat older horses in the Challenge Stakes.
As a precursor to the torrid tasks he would be set in the future, Carbine was sent to Melbourne for the Victoria Derby of 1888. That’s right the Victoria Derby(1 ½ miles) at his first run for 7 months. He was beaten only a head by Ensign who was ridden by Tom Hales, a legendary jockey of the day. According to reports at the time Hales “rode the pants off” Carbine’s NZ jockey R.Derrett.
Five days later (that’s right 5 days) Carbine won a 7fls race at Flemington, then backed up 2 days later to win again over ten furlongs. Dan O’Brien must have been short of funds at the time, because he surprised the turf world by suddenly putting Carbine up for auction.
He was purchased for the equivalent of $6,300, by Donald S. Wallace whose horse Mentor had just won the Melbourne Cup. His new trainer was Walter S. Hickenbotham, a 19th century Chris Waller, who insisted on an immediate spell for Carbine.
Hickenbotham, born at Bathurst NSW, learned his craft at Randwick from the prominent trainer John Tait. Hickenbotham rode successfully for several years, but always wanted to focus on training. He built a house and stables at Flemington in 1886, and went on to achieve great fame in the racing world, winning four Melbourne Cups and a total of 136 feature races. Hickenbotham was 81 when he died in 1930, the year Phar Lap won the Melbourne Cup.
Carbine resumed in the Autumn of 1889, winning 7 of his first 10 starts. He was actually beaten in the first two. He was poorly ridden when third in the Newmarket, and then went under by ¾ of a length to Lochiel in the Australian Cup (then over 2 ¼ miles), spotting the winner 17 lbs. Why did Hickenbotham run Carbine first up over 6 fls, then step up to 2 ¼ miles only 3 days later?
That’s the way they did it in the nineteenth century!
Just two days later he won the Flemington Champion Stakes over 3 miles, and it’s a good thing he got that run under his belt, because two days later Walter decided to send him around twice in one day. He won both races, the first at a mile, and the second at 2 miles. Was Carbine so superior that he was just cantering alongside the opposition? Were the owners of good horses in that era just plain greedy? The answers to these questions will remain a mystery.
Walter was astute enough to realise, that if he spelled Carbine straight away, he would have a horse in the right frame of mind for the following Autumn.
Carbine would have had only a few weeks off because just 7 weeks later he lined up in the Autumn Stakes(1 ½ miles), going under by a neck to the year older Abercorn, one of the best stayers of the time. If he needed a run that day, he sure as hell wouldn’t have needed one for the rest of the preparation.
Two days later (remember he’s still a 3 year old) he lines up in a field of 13 in the Sydney Cup . He humped 57 kgs and ran a race record of 3.31, about a week after the sheep had prepared the course proper. The very next day (that’s 24 hours later) around goes Carbine in two races. He won the All Aged Stakes at a mile, and just three races later, the Cumberland Stakes (2 miles).
The Autumn Carnival was due to conclude just two days later, and Walter was happy with the horse’s demeanor. He decided to send him around in the AJC Plate of three miles and Carbine prevailed again, beating his old foe Abercorn by only half a length. When you’re winning races by only half a length you’re not exactly coasting, and history tells us Abercorn was a very good horse. Tom Hales once said he never rode a better stayer. From seven clashes, Abercorn actually beat Carbine on three occasions.
I’ll say one thing for Walter Hickenbotham. He could give them plenty to do during a carnival, but he’d stop before they burnt out.
Carbine enjoyed a lengthy break, and wasn’t that far into his Spring preparation when disaster struck! He sustained a quarter crack, a painful heel injury which is the bane of all horse trainers.
The injury was destined to hinder the stallion for the rest of his racing life, and certainly curtailed his Spring campaign of 1889. He was beaten by Dreadnought first up in the 9fls Caulfield Stakes, and didn’t race again for three weeks, suggesting the heel gave trouble after that race. Second up he finished third to good old Abercorn and Melos in the 10fls Melbourne Stakes, and three days later lined up in his first Melbourne Cup with a whopping 10st (63.5kgs).
He was gallant in defeat finishing only a length from Bravo, with Melos a desperately unlucky third.
Hickenbotham was obviously happy with the troublesome heel after the Cup, because he opted to line up him up two days later in a 7flgs WFA sprint called the Flying Stakes. Carbine made the mistake of winning that one easily, which prompted Walter to go again two days later in the Canterbury Plate(2 ¼ miles). Carbine struggled all the way to finish last of four, the only unplaced run of his amazing career. He couldn’t stretch out, and it was obvious the quarter crack had flared again. Thank God the great horse went straight to the paddock, and at long last the split heel had a chance to grow out completely.
Carbine was a new horse when he resumed on March 1st 1890, with a zest for racing and a dazzling season ahead of him. Walter obviously knew how to give a horse a decent foundation. If you don’t get the miles into their legs before they resume racing, they “fall apart” after a few runs. He had four starts in seven days, all at Flemington, and won three of them. He did the job well, and pulled up in excellent order.
Sydney race fans were excited to see Carbine again, when he arrived for his Autumn campaign, and what a campaign it was! Five starts for five wins beginning with the Autumn Stakes, followed by his second Sydney Cup. Then two wins on the same day(All Aged Stakes and Cumberland Stakes), followed two days later by the AJC Plate(3 miles). Walter would have been keen to get him into the paddock, with a Melbourne Cup beckoning in the Spring.
His final season on the racetrack left little doubt that he was a horse of extraordinary powers.He won two races at Randwick before heading south for an effortless victory in the 10 furlongs Melbourne Stakes, and the stage was now set for another shot at the Melbourne Cup, this time free from the ravages of the split heel. He also had a new jockey, with Bob Ramage taking over from Mick O’Brien.
He’d been allotted a massive 10st 5lbs (67.5kgs), and the figures men of the day declared he could not win the Cup. The 1890 Cup was one of the most exciting on record. No horse had ever engendered as much public adulation, and a crowd of 85,000 flocked to Flemington to see “Old Jack”.
Thirty nine runners lined up for the Cup of 1890 (still a record) for record prize money of 10,230 pounds, and Carbine was favourite at 4/1 ahead of Victoria Derby winner The Admiral. The champion went onto the track amidst wild applause. He often ‘propped” in the parade when he heard the applause (shades of Gunsynd), and wouldn’t budge until he got an encore. Walter Hickenbotham had to open and close his umbrella a few times behind “Old Jack”, to entice him to move.
It was obvious early in the race that the lightweights were going to set a cracking speed, to make Carbine carry every ounce of his huge weight. It made no difference. The champ won the great race by 21/2 lengths in race record time of 3.281/4. Kingston Rule is the fastest Melbourne Cup winner of all time at 3.16.3, while last year’s winner Rekindling recorded 3.21.19, only 7 seconds faster than Carbine one hundred and twenty seven years on. He conceded the runner up Highborn a massive 4 stone (25 kgs). Five months later, Highborn won the Sydney Cup with 9st 3lbs.
Carbine’s old foot problem recurred after the Melbourne Cup, and he had to be turned out immediately. The 5 year old was destined to have only seven more starts, and missed a clean sweep by a freak of nature. Walter made the curious decision to send his champion out for the All Aged Stakes, unshod. Heavy rain had made the track greasy, and Carbine couldn’t get a grip on the surface. He was beaten by Marvel, but Hickenbotham immediately had him shod, and he went out 90 minutes later to win the Cumberland Plate.
On April 4th 1891 this magnificent thoroughbred stepped onto a racecourse for the last time, and bolted away with the AJC Plate, to a stirring reception. He was retired with a record of 43 starts for 33 wins and 9 placings, for the equivalent of $59,000, a staggering sum in the late nineteenth century.
Carbine stood four seasons at stud in Victoria, leaving the winners of 204 races. He sired several classic winners including the brilliant Wallace, winner of a Caulfield Guineas,Victoria Derby and Sydney Cup. Wallace later became one of Australia’s most successful sires.
Carbine was sold to the Duke of Portland for a then record 27,300 Pounds (approx $48,000), to stand at the Welbeck Abbey Stud in England where he had the distinction of siring the 1906 English Derby winner Spearmint. His name appeared in the pedigrees of many outstanding horses for generations to come.
I realise his story has been written many times by many different people. I simply wanted to express my admiration for this unique equine athlete. It’s well documented that the colours carried by Super Impose during his illustrious career, were the colours made famous by Carbine a century before.
Whenever I called Super Impose in his Sydney races, I was always aware of the conspicuous black jacket with white sleeves and red cap. It was as if the ghost of Carbine, was once again thundering down the Randwick straight.