As an Australian there are few better things to claim in your pedigree then descent from a convict. Only one other thing could possibly trump that… and that is claiming a connection with a famous horse. I can claim both… and, oddly, they are related.
Before we continue… the horse is not the famous Phar Lap, but the next most famous horse, the winner of the very first Melbourne Cup, Archer.
Archer’s owner and trainer was my Great+ Uncle, Etienne DeMestre, grandson of Mary Hyde, my convict ancestor. Etienne’s mother, Mary Ann Black had married an interesting Frenchman by the name of Prosper DeMestre, who established himself as a businessman in Sydney in about 1818. They had a large family of which Etienne was the youngest son and my own great+ grandmother, Annette, the youngest daughter.
Anyway, back to the horse. The DeMestres owned considerable property on the Shoalhaven River in NSW (to the south of Sydney) where they bred and trained horses. The DeMestre stables at Terara were a model of how such stables should be run and informal race meetings were often held at their private race track. Horses dominated their lives and as anyone involved in that industry will tell you, it was drought or plenty. I have read some very amusing correspondence from one of the deMestre women complaining about her beloved horse being sold from underneath her when funds ran low.
The great horse, Archer, was foaled in 1856 and came into Etienne’s hands in 1860. Archer was one of three horses DeMestre sent to Melbourne for the running of the first Melbourne Cup. One of the many, many family legends is that in order for his horse to reach, Etienne walked Archer from Shoalhaven to Melbourne (some 850kms). So great is this myth that it was even made into a film (Archer’s Adventure 1985 starring Nicole Kidman – yes really!). However like all good myths, it is just that… the furthest Archer had to walk was the 8 miles to the wharf on the River. Before railways, boat was the only way to transport horses (and sadly DeMestre’s 1876 cup entry was lost at sea along with nine other racehorses).
That first Melbourne Cup was a modest affair, watched by a mere four thousand spectators. Ridden by popular aboriginal jockey Johnny Cutts (wearing the all black livery of the DeMestre stables), Archer took out the field of seventeen to become the first winner. He won again the following year and would have raced in the third cup, but the entry was received too late. The refusal to allow the entry led to a boycott by interstate trainers and the smallest field in the history of the cup was run that year.
Archer was retired to stud after injury and lived out a long and happy life. In total, DeMestre trained five winners of the Melbourne Cup (a record only bested by Bart Cummings). However he was plagued by financial and health difficulties and died in 1916 at the age of 84.
Which brings me to one of the strange coincidences in life… I was talking to my friend, Australian historical romance writer, Tea Cooper about her latest release THE HORSE THIEF… and in the course of conversation Tea told me that she had drawn heavily on the story of Archer for her own story, set in the lovely Hunter Valley (north of Sydney) which lays its own claim on Archer…
Tea writes “… there is a local Hunter Valley myth that Archer was in fact a ‘Hunter horse’ and indeed a famous Hunter horse by the name of Young Dover was frequently ridden from Maitland to racetracks across NSW. He won many races after travelling over 100 miles in one day.
Today the Hunter Valley in NSW is regarded as one of the most important horse breeding areas in Australia, but it wasn’t until the 1870s that the first Hunter horse won the Melbourne Cup. Perhaps the reason the Hunter lays claim to breeding the first winner of the Melbourne Cup is that the stories of Young Dover and Archer have melded in the minds of Hunter Valley residents over the years. In some of the more ‘historic’ watering holes in the Hunter Valley, Archer is still claimed as a Hunter animal.
For fiction’s sake I have adopted the Hunter version of the myth. The Kilhamptons did not exist other than in my imagination, nor did their property, Helligen. It is loosely based on the historic homestead, Tocal, near Paterson in the Hunter, north of Sydney…’
It therefore seems appropriate that here on Melbourne Cup Day I introduce Tea’s wonderful story of a horse… and a dream.
THE HORSE THIEF - Tea Cooper
When India Kilhampton is caught up in the excitement of the first Melbourne Cup her mind is made up. She will breed a horse to win the coveted trophy and reunite her fractured family. Determined to make her dream a reality she advertises for a horse breeder.
Jim Mawgan arrives at Helligen Stud in the Hunter Valley to take up the position. Jim however has a mission: he must fulfill his father’s dying wish to right past wrongs and prove his ownership of his prized stallion Jefferson.
Jim and India discover they share a common goal but as the secrets of the past unravel old enmities surface.
Will India save Jim before he is branded a horse thief and sentenced to death?