Old Jack was the toast of the town!

The 1890 Melbourne Cup won by Carbine is arguably the most significant cup victory. We retrace its history and tell the tale of this much-loved champion. 

 

If horse racing was a popularity contest, Carbine would win most times. In fact, I think he did that regardless, courtesy of a 76 per cent (33 from 43 starts) win/loss ratio? ‘Old Jack’ – as he was known – was unique. A people’s horse, he was a horse of enormous character who drew punters to the track and reached the loftiest heights. No performance was more spectacular than his win in the 1890 Melbourne Cup.

Carrying the extraordinary impost of 10 stone 5 pounds (65.7kgs), Carbine would take on and beat, not only the greatest Melbourne Cup field size on record (39 runners), but a quality opposition. He would face off against the outstanding Melos (a dual classic winner); 1890 Caulfield Cup winner, Vengeance; 1890 Victoria Derby winner, The Admiral and a subsequent (1893) Melbourne Cup winner, Tarcoola.

And, while not obvious to the casual observer, Carbine, arguably the greatest thoroughbred to race in Australia outside of Phar Lap, had to do it the hard way, such was his custom through life. Under different circumstances, he may never have existed at all!

His sire, Musket, was owned by the Earl of Glasgow who had the unfortunate tendency to ‘do away’ with any horse that didn’t quite show early promise. Musket was categorised in the slow group and if not for the timely – or untimely, depending how you look at it – death of his owner, he was saved. Musket raced on to show modest ability, winning nine races including The Ascot Stakes (2½ miles). He stood at stud in the UK but was sold to NZ after a couple of brief seasons after lack of support from breeders. As often is the case, as soon as he left for NZ on a mission to sire coach horses, he ‘came good’, siring the 1880 GB Two Thousand Guineas winner, Petronel.

In New Zealand, he struck immediate success through the 1883 Melbourne Cup winner, Martini Henry (out of 1867 VRC Oaks winner, Sylvia); the 1885 AJC and VRC Derby winner, Nordenfelt and the highly talented Trenton (third and second in the 1885 and 1886 Melbourne Cups respectively), who would become a sire of influence in his own right. But it would be the Musket mating to the well-bred yet unraced Mersey that would bring on his most noted son, Carbine.

Born on 18 September 1885 at Sylvia Park Stud (Auckland), Carbine was described as the lightest bay of all Musket’s stock. Not much to look at but well-built in the right areas with a long back, good shoulders and good length of rein. Typical of the Musket breed, his head was anything but classical. Some experts suggested he threw more to Knowsley, the sire of Mersey and a son of the classic winner, Stockwell. Carbine was sold by his breeders at the 1887 Sylvia Park Sale to trainer Dan O’Brien for 620 guineas.

While not a great walker, he could gallop, winning his first five starts mainly around the Riccarton (Christchurch) area on the South Island of New Zealand where he was trained.

He didn’t spend too much longer in New Zealand before heading to the 1888 Flemington Spring Meeting where at his first start he was beaten a head by Ensign in the Victoria Derby. Carbine was winning with ease when his New Zealand jockey Bob Derrett dropped his hands in the concluding stages of the race, only to be picked up in the last stride by Ensign, ridden by the champion Australian jockey, Tom Hales. Hales would win six of his seven VRC Derbies between 1880 and 1890. Derrett would cop more than a fair spray from O’Brien, as well as the paying public who vehemently vented their displeasure at the ride.

Dan O’Brien, as was always his plan, sold Carbine after the Derby. Flush from victory in the 1888 Melbourne Cup with his horse Mentor, Donald Wallace – a VRC Committeeman and prominent owner – purchased the colt for 3000 guineas – a sizable amount at the time, Wallace was like a roulette player on a roll, going all up on the next to find that his luck had struck again. He was in a purple patch, but that wouldn’t last forever.

After two more wins at the Flemington Spring Meeting, Carbine changed trainers to the well regarded Walter Hickenbotham who would land four Melbourne Cup winners in his
illustrious career. Mentor (1888) was his first.

Carbine, showing his versatility, almost secured the time-honoured VRC Newmarket Handicap (six furlongs) first up for his new stable the following autumn, finishing third. He would soon break and hold track records at seven and 10 furlongs and ultimately two and three miles. He was perfectly suited to what you might call ‘tempo-style’ racing, and would win as adeptly at two miles as at a mile. But that nearly all came to nothing courtesy of a cracked heel. This would be the challenge for Hickenbotham, and Carbine, throughout his entire career.

Carbine (10st) finished second to the lighter-weighted Bravo (8st 7lbs) in the 1889 Melbourne Cup, beaten a length. Not looking for excuses, it needs to be said Carbine
conceded 19 lbs (9.5kg) to Bravo; suffered a split heel in running and was ridden by a jockey (Mick O’Brien) who suffered an asthma attack halfway through the race! O’Brien openly admitted he rendered himself ‘useless’ over the concluding stages of the race.

Carbine went on to win 12 of his next 14 starts including five races within seven days in the autumn, including the Sydney Cup (two miles), the All Aged Stakes (one mile) and the Cumberland Stakes (two miles). The latter two races were run on the one day at Randwick, 10 April 1890.

By the time the 1890 Melbourne Cup came around, Carbine’s reputation was such that he would be allotted 10st 5lbs (65.7kg) in the two-mile handicap. And by this stage, his quirky and eccentric character was fully exposed.

A tendency to lash out at his rivals if in fact he was beaten was not unusual; as was his aversion to water falling on his head, prompting connections to custom build a miniature umbrella that would sit on his head to protect him from the elements. But it would be his tendency to freeze when going onto the track that would become his ultimate party trick. He would stop, prop and gaze into the distance waiting for the raucous applause of the crowd or, more commonly, a small umbrella open and shut near his feet. Like a lot of the great horses, he knew he was pretty good and he didn’t mind playing up to it. And the crowd loved it.

As the 1890 Cup approached, there was high expectation following his effortless performance in the Melbourne Stakes on the Saturday before. Despite his huge weight, Carbine was sent out a hot favourite (4/1). He gave all of his rivals weight and still got home by 2½ lengths under the guidance of Bob Ramage. His time of 3:28.25 set a race record. It was not lost on analysts that second placed Highborn went on to win the 1891 Sydney Cup carrying 9st 3lbs (58.5kg) the following autumn. Carbine had given him 24kg in the 1890 Melbourne Cup and still beat him by 2½ lengths!

On the day, the most seasoned racegoers were seen to throw their hats into the air and others wept openly with excitement, while an enterprising group looked to pluck hairs off the tail of a national favourite. His win was applauded far and wide and everyone wanted a piece of the champ. He landed some sizable bets on the day, none more so than that by a nineteen-year-old Melburnian, John Wren, who became famous for ruffling the feathers of the Melbourne establishment in years to come.

Pictured: Finish of the 1890 Melbourne Cup. A crowd of 85,000 in attendance to cheer home their champion "Old Jack".

It was Carbine’s Cup win that gave Wren enough cash to chase his entrepreneurial pursuits, extracting him from the impoverished life in Collingwood, a working-class suburb of Melbourne. He became best known for establishing the illegal Collingwood Tote and later operated the so-called pony tracks at Richmond, Fitzroy and Ascot Vale. When Wren died in 1953, aged 83, he left an estate in excess of £2 million – an absolute fortune at the time – reportedly one of the richest men in Australia.

For Carbine, the cracked heel continued to cause havoc, restricting him to only seven more race starts post his 1890 Cup win, winning six. But like most aspects of his life he showed enormous heart, not allowing his imperfections to become an issue. Certainly not on race day.

Carbine was retired to Donald Wallace’s Lerderderg Stud in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria standing at 200 guineas and on serving his first mare, Melodious, the aptly named Wallace would be conceived. Wallace would win – among other races – the 1895 Victoria Derby and the VATC Caulfield Guineas. He became one of the leading Australian sires from the turn
of the century for over a 15-year period. He would sire Melbourne Cup winners Kingsburgh (1914) and Patrobas (1915) – a rare prize that escaped his illustrious sire.

Sadly his namesake, Donald Wallace, fell on hard times as the depression of the 1890s hit hard. As a consequence, he sold Carbine to the Duke of Portland in the UK for 13,000 guineas to stand alongside the great St Simon at Welbeck Abbey. More than 7000 fans farewelled the champ on Saturday 20 April 1895 as he loaded onto the RMS Orizaba at Port Melbourne bound for the motherland. And not before a final performance as he baulked the runaway and refused to take up his position.

Although not regarded for some time as a huge success in the UK, Carbine did sire English Derby winner Spearmint (1906 GB Derby), the Ascot Gold Cup winner Bomba and the Kings’ Stand winner Camp Fire. He also sired Greatorex (10 times Champion South African sire) and Ramrod (among leading French sires), Pistol (leading Australian sire) and of course, in Australia, Wallace, as well as Amberite (1897 Caulfield Cup) and La Carabine (1900 Sydney Cup).

While the Duke of Portland may not have acknowledged it, time would record Carbine as one of the most influential sires of all time, weaving his way into the pedigree of the great Nearco, the unbeaten Italian Derby winner who has had a profound influence on the modernday thoroughbred through the likes of Northern Dancer. Each year, 90 per cent or more of the Melbourne Cup field will trace their pedigree back to the 1890 Cup winner.

Carbine lumped the most weight to victory in a Melbourne Cup. He also did it courtesy of a chronic heel problem. He found his way on a boat to the UK and fought off a colic attack in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He lived a grand old life until the age of 29.

‘Old Jack’ made the difficult look easy and uniquely did it his way. He was a true character of the turf. 130 years on, as the field assembles for the Melbourne Cup, we remember him as a galloper of enormous talent and unquestionably the most influential Cup winner in the history of the race. His expanded legacy is proof beyond doubt that he is one of the all-time greats,

SIZING IT UP

The 1890 Melbourne Cup boasted the greatest field size on record – 39. This was more or less courtesy of prizemoney being doubled from one year to the next with the take-home first prize a record £10,230.The smallest Melbourne Cup field size was just seven, back in 1863 when Banker won the Cup. Archer was denied entry due to an administrative ruling. His entry was stuck in the post and received a day late.

Both Nightmarch (1929) and White Nose (1931) won in small fields of 14. Possibly the presence of Phar Lap scared away the opposition. Numbers climbed back up to 35 for Russia’s Cup of 1946.

Field sizes would continue to hover around the 30 plus mark throughout the era of the stand start, but numbers started to reduce once the mobile barrier stalls were introduced in 1958.

1960 was a significant year for change as Darby McCarthy, who passed away in 2020, fell from his 100/1 mount Dow Street early in the race. Post-race, Darby wrote to the VRC Committee the field was too large in the Cup. The next year the limit was reduced to 26. A field of 24 runners is the limit today.