The Shearer’s Colt

Part I - Chapter VII

A Racecourse Brawl

Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson

AN AUSTRALIAN backblocks racehorse is the gentleman adventurer of the turf family. His life, like that of the old Scottish freebooters, is mostly travel and combat and he must be prepared to walk any distance, sleep anywhere and eat practically anything. Horses differ in gameness just as much as they do in speed and staying-power, and the humble battler on the outside tracks will generally fight like a bulldog at a finish.

A bush racehorse may have to do a twenty-five-mile walk one day, and the next day he may have to get down to it and race on an iron track with an uneven surface, half blinded by dust and seeing nothing but the straining bodies of the horses which are packed around him. A horse that will stand a few seasons of this and still retain his love for racing is an object lesson to humanity.

The horse Desire that had to oppose Nancy Bell in the last race at Calabash had never been off the Sydney tracks. Bred from a particularly wayward stallion, he had shown something very near classic form on the few occasions that he could be brought to the post in racing trim. But he had developed a blind unreasoning hatred for the barrier, and once a horse gets that bee in his bonnet, he is as hysterical as a girls’ school. He would not only refuse to go up to the barrier, he would turn round and bolt away from it; and not one of the many jockeys that were tried on him could stop him. He was at last voted incorrigible, and was sold into slavery to the Chinaman’s gang. At Calabash he was very upset by his surroundings, and had been terrified out of his wits by the sight of a string of camels he met on the way to the track. His trainer, the redoubtable Sandbag, had secured permission to hold Desire at the post, so he had no doubt that the horse would get away and, as he himself put it, “it would be a shame what he would do to these bush cuddies.”

So now the bell rings for the Town Plate and out come the horses on the track. The little mare Nancy Bell holding herself like a gamecock and looking about twice her usual size goes down for her preliminary without looking to left or right, cool as an old actor stepping on to the stage. The other bush horses follow her, all moving a little short in their action, for they know too much to reach out on this hard rough track until the real business begins. Then, a picture of condition, with a beautiful free easy action, comes the Sydney horse, but camels and blackfellows and an iron-hard grassless track have ruined his morale. He stares about him prepared to bolt for his life at any moment. The Chinaman, inscrutable as an image of Buddha, climbs up on to a log and sticks his betting-book under his arm, for this is a one-bet race and so long as Nancy Bell is beaten he does not in the least care what wins it. The gang’s second string, a heavily built black horse, goes down in business-like fashion. If he can block Nancy Bell at any stage of the race it is long odds on his doing so.

Red Fred, trembling with excitement as he has never trembled over the purchase of a seventy-thousand-pound station, gets up on another log. Moira and Fitzroy have hardly said a word to anybody but each other during the whole day and are in blissful ignorance of the big bet on the mare. But the young lady finds her escort distrait and inattentive—he is awaiting the summons which shall call him to battle with the head of the opium gang. Just as the horses are finishing their preliminaries the local black-tracker arrives at a gallop and hands Fitzroy a letter. This proves to be from Trooper Frankston, alias Bismarck, and runs as follows:


I beg to report that I got kicked in the leg by a draught-horse and doctor thinks leg is broken. He is taking me to the police-station. You must carry on. Orders are to arrest trainer Smith, alias Sandbag, before the last race and do not allow the Chinaman or any one else to see him. Also arrest Chinaman if telegram arrives, but keep them apart. Tracker will give you every assistance but cannot be trusted with any weapon. Please report all

                R. FRANKSTON,

                Mounted Trooper.


Without a word to his companion Fitzroy jumped on the tracker’s horse and cantered down to the post, followed by the black-tracker on foot. Arrived at the post he found Desire’s trainer just stepping on to the track to take that horse by the head, while the others were quietly coming up into line. Handing his horse’s bridle to the black-tracker, Fitzroy walked quickly up to the big trainer:

“Smith, I want you. I have a warrant for your arrest on a charge of opium smuggling.”

“You have a warrant for my arrest! What’s it got to do with you, you cow? You ain’t a trooper! You can’t arrest me! I’ve got to hold this horse.”

Without ever quite realizing how it happened, Mr Smith found himself trussed up like a turkey, his wrists handcuffed behind his back, and thrown like a sack into the police car. Fitzroy jumped in alongside him, and off they went to the police-station. The crowd round the winning-post watched this drama from the distance without in the least knowing what it was all about. Above a babel of shouts there arose a hoarse yell from the Chinaman:

“Whaffor? Whaffor?”

It passed his understanding that a civilian should come along and carry off his trainer at such a critical moment; but the starting-post was a long way down the track and he had no time to interfere. The starter was the only professional official connected with the charity meeting and he was giving his services for nothing: furthermore, he had about seventy miles to cover before he got home so he had no idea of wasting time over a charity race among a lot of scrubbers.

“Line up here,” he said in reply to the frenzied protest of Desire’s rider, who demanded that the start should be delayed. “If you can’t get him away, you’ll be left.” Then, to the Clerk of the Course, he said: “Get down the track a bit with your stock-whip, Billy, and wheel him if he tries to break back.”

Desire refused to go near the tapes and twice he tried to bolt the wrong way, but was skilfully wheeled by the Clerk of the Course. As he walked up the track after his second attempt at a bolt the starter let the others go, thinking that Desire would follow them, but the curious obstinacy or obsession that possesses a horse, once it has learnt a bad habit, was too strong for him. As the others sprang into their strides, Desire wheeled round and would have been off, only that the stockwhip met him fair over the nose. He propped dead, wheeled round and went after the others, but by this time they were a couple of hundred yards on their journey and only a first-class horse would have any chance of catching them.

Desire soon showed that he had the class, for he settled down after them like a kangaroo dog after a mob of wallabies. Bill the Gunner knew that Desire was left, so he drove Nancy Bell along at the top of her speed to get as big a lead as possible before the chestnut got after him.

Could the mare sustain a run of a mile and a quarter from end to end? Racing alone in the lead is a greater strain than waiting and coming with a run from behind, which was the mare’s usual way of running her races. With the Gunner crouched down on her neck she plodded grimly on, but her small strides were ridiculously inadequate compared to the greyhound action of the chestnut who seemed to eat up the ground without effort. If only the post were a little nearer! To the other riders the Gunner appeared to be trying to ride his mare’s head off and for a while they made no attempt to go after her.

Then the boy on the big black horse sat down as though he were riding a finish and drove his mount along in hopes of getting alongside the mare. Once there, he would soon settle the mare’s chance by forcing her off the track, and he got as far as her rump and her quarter. The Gunner cast a glance back and saw that it was not the chestnut head that he had expected to see, but he knew that he had to ask his mare for an extra effort to beat off this black horse. For twenty yards they ran stride for stride and then the big black horse dropped back, beaten, and the mare still had three furlongs of a bitter battle ahead of her.

Luckily for Nancy Bell, her pedigree was full of the blood of Fisherman—that wonder of the English turf who was never really going at his best until he had run a mile. The others all dropped back, beaten, but still the big chestnut came on and seemed to be going better as the mare began to tire. He was gaining at every stride now, and to the experienced eye of Moira the mare’s defeat was a matter of certainty. Crying with excitement, she shrieked:

“Give her the whip, Gunner. She’ll stand it.”

But the Gunner saved the whip till the big chestnut drew up to her quarters with a furlong to go. It seemed all over. Apparently he could go on when he liked. But the terrific pace he had made in the early part was beginning to tell on him. With a hundred yards to go, there was a savage howl of exultation from the crowd as the boy on the chestnut picked up his whip and got to work with it. From there to the post it was a fierce flogging finish; but the stride of the big horse was sure to tell. In the last twenty yards the Gunner drove home the spurs—spurs that will settle a cur but will get the very last ounce out of a really game horse. The mare had never felt spurs in her life. She made one last desperate effort and fairly threw her head a foot in front as they passed the post.

Talk about pandemonium! Motor-cars hooted, stockwhips cracked, shearers and squatters beat each other on the back. Moira seized the hands of the next person to her, a blackfellow, and danced with him:

“By crikey, Moira,” said the black, “that mare game all same bulldog ant.”

Red Fred was slapped on the shoulders, on the back, on the hat, anywhere, by shearers who had shorn with him and by squatters who had sacked him. Only the Chinaman and his followers drew together in an ugly snarling mob, and the more timid people began to look round to see what had become of Bismarck, the knight of the stirrup-iron. It looked as though there would be plenty of work for him before the proceedings closed. Bismarck, however, was just having his leg set, and there was no representative of law or order in the mob. As the horses came back to weigh, with heads drooping and nostrils stretched to the utmost as they tried to fill their lungs with air, Fitzroy rode up on the trooper’s horse. He was still in civilian clothes and the crowd were wild to know what it was all about. The voice of Dear Boy Dickson made itself heard above the din:

“Why did you grab him, dear boy? Why did you grab him?”

Fitzroy pulled his horse up and dismounted at some distance from the crowd, and it was just as well that he did so. Like a yellow tiger the Chinaman launched himself out of the mob and made a blind rush, shrieking curses and striking out with his fists. When a Chinaman is pushed over the edge of his composure he goes wild as a Malay running amuck. It was a case of a fifteen-stone fighting-man against an eleven-stone wrestler, but the wrestler knew all about the fighting-man, while the fightingman at the moment was incapable of thought. If he had made his attack coolly he might have landed a blow that would have ended the affair. Instead he came on shouting, clawing and striking, leaving himself open to any throw the wrestler chose.

With a movement as quick as the strike of a snake Fitzroy seized the Chinaman’s wrist and jerked him off his balance. Before he could recover, the yellow man’s hamlike arm was bent over the white man’s shoulder. Using the arm as a lever and exerting his extraordinary strength, Fitzroy threw his antagonist’s huge bulk over his shoulder as a coal-heaver might throw a sack of coals. The Chinaman crashed to earth almost stunned, and with one arm out of action. With the snarl of a trapped dingo he reached inside his clothes with his uninjured arm and flashed out a knife. This Fitzroy promptly kicked out of his hand, and snapped the handcuffs on to the Chinaman’s wrists.

As Jimmy the Pat lay on the ground, glaring upwards like a scotched snake, Fitzroy thought over what he should do. He had received no orders to arrest the Chinaman and he knew that the authorities did not wish to make any move till their opium-smuggling case was quite ready. The little matters of a racecourse brawl and the flashing of a knife were not worth talking about, compared to the possibilities of breaking up the yellow man’s criminal organization. Fitzroy had made one mistake over an arrest and he did not mean to make another.

“Look here,” he said, “if you like to behave yourself you can go. You’ve had all you want, haven’t you?”

The Chinaman gave a sulky nod and held out his wrists to be freed of the handcuffs. He climbed into his car and was driven off. And the spectators at the Calabash Charity Race-meeting dispersed, having seen something that they could talk about for the next three years.

In the mosquito-proof enclosure of Calabash homestead that evening, when even the cockatoo was brought in lest the mosquitoes should cause him to do an uneasy kind of step-dance by stinging his legs, the bush millionaire waxed eloquent.

“What did I tell yer?” he said. “Didn’t I say that racing was the way to see life? First of all I gets arrested and then I buys a mare and backs her for two thousand quid and she lobs in. And my seckertary throws the champion of China all over northern Queensland. Will I get paid, do you think?”

The Calabash manager had no doubt on that point.

“Jimmy’ll pay you all right,” he said. “He’s lost enough face now to cover the side of a woolshed. If he welshes you his gang will begin to wonder whether they’d get their cut out of the opium game and the fan-tan joints. Two thousand pounds isn’t a button off his waistcoat. But he won’t care what he does or how he does it until he gets even. You’re talking of racing in Sydney and in England. If I were you I’d reckon that Australia wasn’t big enough for me and the Chinaman. Fitzroy here—well, if I was him I’d dress up as a swagman and I’d put one foot in front of the other and never stop till I got to Sydney. On the boat for England I’d change me name and I’d grow a crop of whiskers.”

Fitzroy appeared to have other things on his mind, for he and Moira looked longingly out into the garden with its deep shadows and its scent of flowers. The breeze brought a breath of myall and pine, and everything in the garden looked lovely; but the mosquitoes that always come in clouds in a good season were waiting outside in their millions, howling for blood, so the party decided to disperse for the night. Just as they were drawing their candlesticks—for Calabash did not run to electric light—Bill the Gunner came in to say that the mare had eaten up and had gone to sleep.

“What did I tell yer?” he said. “She’d lick Desire seven days a week! What about her in the Melbourne Cup with me on her?”

The owner of Nancy Bell appeared to be impressed, in fact, he hung on to Gunner’s every word. But the station manager knew that winning a Melbourne Cup with a bush-bred pony would be about equivalent to taking Gibraltar with a rowing-boat.

“She’s game enough, Gunner,” he said. “The gamest thing on four feet. But do you think she’s class enough?”

“Class enough?” said the Gunner. “She’d lob in.”

The Shearer’s Colt - Contents    |     Chapter VIII - Station Life

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