Stumbled upon a couple of photos of Hondo Grattan the other day. That’s all it takes to trigger memories of one of the most charismatic harness horses of all time. Did a quick check to learn that it’s coming up twenty five years since the little champ passed away at the Turnbull family’s Loyal Stud near Bathurst. That’s enough reason to take a little trip down memory lane.
GO GO GO YOU LITTLE BEAUTY!
From the moment the lights went on at Harold Park in 1949, the Glebe “hollow” became one of Australia’s most energy charged sports venues.
In daylight hours the scene did little to fire the imagination. The steep stone cliff at the rear of the complex seemed out of character in the middle of Glebe, the historic tramsheds were an uninspiring sight, while the density of housing around the complex was claustrophobic
But after dark when the flick of a switch created the famous “ribbon of light” something happened to that iconic place - and to the thousands of Sydneysiders who’d fallen in love with night trotting.
Hondo Grattan got his first glimpse of the historic venue on June 11th, 1971. He’d won on debut at Penrith a couple of weeks earlier and that was to be his only win in six two year old starts.
At his fifth start he was involved in the only fall of his career when he failed to dodge a scrimmage on the home turn at Harold Park. The colt went down on his knees and Tony Turnbull was ejected from the cart, with no damage to horse or driver.
His fan base multiplied rapidly when he reeled off eight consecutive wins as a three year old before going under to the very talented Jason King in November 1972. He then reeled off another eight straight including a defeat of Adios Victor and Jason King in a heat of the NSW Derby. He was unplaced in the Derby Final and in the Simpson Sprint but finished his three year old term with 17 wins from 21 starts.
By the time he commenced his four year old season he was well on the way to developing a “cult” following. Not even his most ardent fans could have imagined the hype he’d generate over the next twelve months. There was just something about this little brown from The Lagoon.
He didn’t set the world on fire when he resumed in the spring of 1972. He did win a heat of the Australia day Cup at HP before finishing third in the final, but trainer/driver Tony Turnbull was unwavering in his belief that the stallion’s best days were ahead of him.
Turnbull made no secret of the fact that he didn’t have another horse in the stable who could keep up with Hondo on the training track. His capable fast class pacer Just So did an adequate job early, but in the end he was of no use to the budding champ.
As Tony moved up to the tapes for Heat 1 of the 1973 Inter Dominion at Harold Park, he had no inkling that Hondo Grattan was poised to emulate Logan Derby, James Scott and Chamfer’s Star by making a clean sweep of the series.
Sydney turned on some foul weather during that 1973 series. The third night had to be postponed until the following Tuesday and for a few anxious moments that meeting looked likely to be called off which would have pushed the Grand Final back another week.
Visiting Victorian journalist Richard Trembath got a few laughs when he suggested that all buses to Harold Park should be replaced by a “gondola” service. Thankfully the Tuesday fixture went ahead leaving only three days to the Grand Final. The championship had suddenly become the survival of the toughest, and they didn’t come any tougher than Hondo Grattan. A crowd of 31,000 crammed into the iconic venue on the final night, the biggest since 1960 when the Inter Dom Final drew a record 50,000.
It’s now history that the “Bathurst Bulldog” parked outside the leader Jason King for most of the 13fls 98yds (2620 metres) journey with New Zealander Royal Ascot sitting on his back. Hondo looked to be in big trouble when the Kiwi peeled three wide and rushed to a one metre lead straightening for home.
In one of Harold Park’s most memorable finishes, Hondo, with his familiar white nose roll came back to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat - arguably his greatest ever performance and an indelible memory for his fanatical army of fans. The margin was a head with South Aussie Glamour Chief only a short neck away third.
For Tony Turnbull there was no time to reflect on his barnstorming Inter Dominion triumph. Hondo was back at Harold Park on April 6th to beat the talented Local Ayr in the 4YO Futurity and then it was on to the heats and final of the Lord Mayors Cup.
A second to the brilliant but unsound Dillon Light in the first round, a win in the second round, and into the final off a tough 12 yds handicap (almost 11 metres). Tony rates this at least the equal of his Inter Dom performance.
Uncharacteristically he “danced” off the mark and was a hopeless last on settling down. In a finish which had his fans in a frenzy, Hondo got up to snatch an eyebrow decision over Nicotine Prince and Welcome Advice.
Next assignment was the Superstars 3&4YO Championship. He was handicapped off a savage 30 metres and did well to run fourth in a hot field. His individual times were very impressive. Fair to say the little bloke welcomed the paddock after that “gutbuster”.
He returned in the spring of 1973 winning first up at Lithgow before aiming up for the heats and finals of the Spring Cup. Unlucky seconds in the first two rounds were followed by a gutsy third to Bold Jason in the final. The Bulldog had another seven runs up until the end of ‘73, which included a great victory off 15 metres over Paleface Adios in a HP Invitation in early December.
Owners Tony Turnbull and brothers Bill and Bob Webb were satisfied with the horse’s 15 metre handicap in the upcoming Perth Inter Dominion and the little bloke embarked on his longest ever voyage.
There were a few worries for connections when the counting of points came around after three rounds of heats. Hondo won his first heat, was unplaced in the second and could only dead heat for fourth with Paleface Adios in the third - suddenly there was a very real danger that he could miss the cut.
There was great excitement among the Hondo fan base when the Grand final field was announced on the Gloucester Park public address system.
Hondo had scraped into the Final, but the crucial barrier draw was yet to come. Local Product and Welcome Advice were to share the back mark with him.
Hondo drew outside the other two and this turned out to be his salvation.
A crowd of 32,000 witnessed the Grand Final of 1974 which was marred by the worst pile up in Inter Dominion history. Some veterans still argue that Hondo Grattan may not have won had the field remained intact, but I’ve always contested that view.
Hondo left the mark faster that night than he ever had before and he was around the middle bunch before the accident occurred. Just Too Good was the first to go when he galloped and got tangled up in his gear soon after the start. Local Product, Welcome Advice and Paleface Adios had no hope of dodging the trouble and were brought down, with drivers miraculously escaping injury although Colin Pike sustained a bruised shoulder and jaw.
Royal Gaze and Haddock had missed the start initially and had to thread their way through the melee. It seemed the race would now develop into a lacklustre affair, but great interest was soon generated by the four horses who were left on their feet.
Bret Armagh, Yallara, Hondo Grattan and Adios Victor raced indian file for close to two laps, before Turnbull left the fence approaching the bell to park Hondo at the leader’s wheel. Adios Victor was quickly onto his back and keen judges believed he would outsprint his rivals.
Around the turn Hondo headed Bret Armagh, but out came Adios Victor for his final swoop. The Riverina pacer looked menacing but he’d bumped the Bathurst Bulldog in one of his “do or die” moods and failed by three metres to run him down.
At Harold Park three weeks later the eighth edition of the Miracle Mile sparked tremendous interest. Barrier 1 was drawn by the consistent King Frost, barrier 2 by Paleface Adios who’d escaped unscathed from his Perth tumble. In barrier 3 was Reichman shooting for two straight wins in the great race, while Hondo came up with 4. Victorian Royal Gaze drew 5 with Mitchell Victory in 6. Emergencies were Apollo Eleven and Local Ayr.
The race lost a little spark when Royal Gaze fell foul of a virus and was replaced by Apollo Eleven. There was an early sensation when King Frost broke on the first turn checking Mitchell Victory, but Hondo Grattan missed the trouble.
Tony made a snap decision going into the back straight the first time which ultimately won him the race. He could see Paleface was going to get too soft a run if left alone and elected to park outside the Temora champion. The crowd of 22,000 erupted when Australia’s two most popular pacers, settled down to a two horse “war” from the 400 metres.
Paleface clung valiantly to a slender lead until the last few strides, when the little brown stallion found a reserve of courage only champions can produce. He dived and got there by a head with the crowd lifting the roof off the stand.
It was a case of two superb equine athletes producing optimum performance on the night. They were of contrasting appearance and racing styles. The flashy long striding chestnut with the striking white blaze and the no nonsense nuggety little brown with the rapid fire action. The theatre they generated that night has never been forgotten.
Hondo’s first major engagement of the 74/75 season was the A.G.Hunter Cup in which he finished third to Gallagher and Paleface Adios. Next assignment was the Auckland Inter Dominion in which he had the testing handicap of 25 metres. Despite that handicap he recorded a fifth, a third and a second in the heats and a very creditable sixth in the Final won by the brilliant Young Quinn. The late Kevin Newman filled in for the suspended Tony Turnbull on the night.
A few weeks later Tony’s late son Greg Turnbull drove Hondo into fourth place in the Miracle Mile, won in spectacular fashion by Young Quinn.
Tony rates this among his best performances.
It appeared he wouldn’t be winning a major in the 1974/75 season but the Bulldog pulled one out of the hat. He overcame a brutal 25 metre handicap to win his second Lord Mayor’s Cup at Harold Park making him Australia’s leading stakes earner for the season.
The 1975/76 season was Hondo Grattan’s last on the racetrack. He beat one of his old rivals King Frost in the Hurricane Stakes and was a gallant third to Paleface Adios and Don’t Retreat in the Miracle Mile.
Not surprisingly Tony, Bill and Bob were in accord that the champion’s last race should be at Bathurst. Six thousand fans turned out on a cool April night in 1976 to bid farewell to the horse they’d taken into their hearts.
Many years later much would be made of the last race defeats of champion thoroughbreds Octagonal and Lonhro. The mood was similar at the Bathurst Showground on the occasion of Hondo Grattan’s swansong.
There was an eerie silence when he was beaten into third place by King Frost and Radiant Group, but despite their disappointment the fans rallied to give their idol a warm and boisterous send off.
The NSWTC arranged a “Farewell To Hondo” night at Harold Park a couple of weeks later. A huge crowd watched the great horse jog a few laps after which he was stripped of his harness item by item. He exited the track to the strains of “Auld Lang Syne”, and many misty eyes.
The remarkable horse retired with a record of 119 starts for 58 wins and 35 placings for $215,402 and we’re talking 43 years ago. He was twice NSW Harness Horse of the year before the Australian Horse of the Year Award was introduced - he almost certainly would have won both.
He was the first horse to win consecutive Inter Dominions and the first to win the Inter Dom and Miracle Mile in the same season.
He stood at the Turnbull’s Loyal Stud for eighteen seasons, producing only fifty six winners, none of which approached his own great ability.
Allow me to take you back to a conversation at a Perth Hotel in 1974. Bill and Bob Webb told me about some song lyrics written by Jean Buchanan, mother of Bob’s wife Barbara. He asked me about the possibility of having music written to accompany the lyrics and the chances of finding a record company willing to distribute a song about a standardbred horse.
Dave Bridge was the musician to accept the challenge of providing the musical arrangement. Dave had earned great recognition during his days as lead guitarist for Col Joye and the Joy Boys, and by the 1970’s was enjoying freelance composing work.
A fledgling record company called M7 ( jointly owned by Ch 7, 2UE and 2GB) decided to have a crack at the project. The company was managed by Ron Hurst, an innovative thinker who had noted the success of the “Goondiwindi Grey” a year earlier. Tex Morton’s recording of the tribute to the popular Gunsynd had been a commercial success.
When you’re flat out carrying a tune at a Christmas Party it’s a pretty intimidating experience to suddenly find yourself in a recording studio attempting a task of this magnitude.
The presence of a “harmony duo” gave me some moral support. Jack Blair and Rod Tennant were regulars on the Sydney club circuit as the “Rhythmaires”, and they could have harmonised with a screeching white cockatoo.
In a nutshell it was one hell of a night. We had to do “Little Hondo” as it was to be known and the reverse side of the 45 rpm disc. This song was called “The Joneses” which M7 had been sitting on for months. When “Hondo” came along they decided to shove it on the flipside and I’ve got to say it was a catchy little tune.
The studio was in a long-gone building in Pier St, Darling Harbour. With the music track already recorded, we started the vocal at 6pm on a Monday night. A combination of nerves and many “retakes” saw us still going in the wee small hours.
By the time we’d had a post recording session and several coffees the first hint of dawn was visible through the window. Driving home I had serious doubts about my judgement in taking the project on. I kept reminding myself that the famous actor Lee Marvin had insisted on singing Wand’rin’ Star in the 1970 movie Paint Your Wagon. He proved that you don’t have to be Caruso to make a record.
Nobody got a bigger shock than I did when “Little Hondo” appeared in the Top Forty charts a month later. It sneaked in at number 39, hovered there for two weeks and quickly disappeared.
The appeal of Hondo Grattan and the wonderful simplicity of the song, gave it a following among the horsey brigade. It was always a thrill when kids pulled me up and offered me a quick “Go Go Go You Little Beauty”.
I don’t think Tony Turnbull himself could tell you how many horses passed through his hands in a career embracing more than sixty years. He trained enough horses to win eleven NSW premierships. He trained enough to make him the first driver to reach 2000 wins in his home state. He trained several who reached tight marks at Harold Park and many more who were prolific winners on country tracks. But he only trained one Hondo Grattan.
Tony is now 89 years of age and never puts his hand on a horse. He potters around with a few cattle and a million memories. I’m sure there are moments when he imagines he’s sitting in the sulky behind that little brown dynamo. Moments when he can still experience the feel through the reins that Hondo used to give him. Moments when he can still feel the rhythm of Hondo’s golden gait. Moments when he can still feel every muscle and sinew straining when the fight was on in earnest.
Hondo Grattan has got a lot to answer for. Here we are still writing about him forty three years after he had the audacity to get beaten in that farewell race at Bathurst.