A Liberal Patron of the Turf
In 1873 the South Australian Jockey Club was formed under the chairmanship of Sir John Morphett. In the same year Thomas Elder began to race horses and for ten years competed with varying success in Adelaide, interstate and even overseas at Newmarket, which his horse Tyropean won in 1883.
The first race meeting at Morphettville was held in 1875 and was won by Elder’s ‘Red Gauntlet.’ He built up a fine stock of thoroughbreds racing under his tartan colours with yellow cap which became well known across Australia. It was said that ‘It was quite on the cards that Sir Thomas hardly knows how many horses he is possessed of ….” The Adelaide Observer (8 March 1881) described it as one of the largest breeding farms in the world.
In 1876 Elder commissioned Peter Waite to buy a high-class racehorse. He imported the great sire ‘Gang Forward’ at the cost of some 4,000 Guineas, the highest price ever paid for an imported horse. Gang Forward was reported in the papers as being ‘a bit of a tartar to deal with, and sometimes would clear a stranger out of the yard.”
Elder also imported the Arab stallion Ab-del-Kadir and mare Fatima – the only mare which had ever left her home country. Joseph “her native custodian” was arrested and thrown into gaol when it became known that the mare had been exported, and Elder had to use his influence with the English Consul the set the man at liberty.
His Morphettville stud was a picturesque establishment of some 250 acres, with flowers planted along the carriage drive, rows of ornamental trees, green paddocks of lucerne and English grasses, and substantial stables and dwellings, farm buildings and sheds. To the left of the entrance gates stood the trainer’s stone and brick cottage, with another roomy cottage for the Manager set some distance off by the side of Sturt Creek.
At the end of the carriage drive was a two-storied brick building which housed 8 boxes and a saddle room, and a sitting room and sleeping arrangements for the boys. The grounds also contained a copper-house for boiling linseed etc and a blacksmith’s shop, horse rings, loose boxes and featured mains water extending even to the troughs in the paddocks. Many of the young horses were also kept at Elder’s residence at Birksgate.
Elder never achieved great success with his horses, and fortune rarely came his way in the winning of races, although his horses were often placed. The Elder horses were also heavily handicapped, but they were always sent to the post fit to race.
The last race run with Elder’s colours was the Malna’s Adelaide Cup of 1884 run by Conjecture who was beaten by half a length. Following the death of Mr Jenkins, his head trainer, Elder sold his racers and concentrated solely on his stud farm at Morphettville, which became one of the best in Australia. The Morphettville bred ‘Dunlop’ won the Melbourne Cup in the fastest time then recorded.
Following Elder’s death, the Morphettville stud horses were sold at auction on November 11, 1897. The auctioneer remarked that ‘Sir Thomas Elder knew very little about the thoroughbred, but he was a gentleman who always said ‘I want the best’.” The sale of the stud realized 6,330 Guineas, although many were sold for less than their estimated value.
A total sum of £80,000 was won by stock bred by Elder between the first sale of stock in 1884 and the time of his death in 1897.
The Aquatic Sportsman
Elder took a enthusiastic interest in yacht racing, having observed regattas in the Largs Bay of his native Scotland. He inaugurated the yacht club at Glenelg on 21 August 1874 and the club's initial roll of members contained the names of many wealthy and distinguished colonists. It was officially opened on 19 December 1874 followed by a luncheon provided for 60 invited gentlemen guests by Elder in the long room of the Parade Hotel, which was decorated with classical and emblematic figures representing the yachts.
Elder owned a succession of yachts. The first, the brigantine Camilla, was owned jointly by Elder and Captain Bickers in the 1850s.
In 1872 Elder purchased the 42-ton cutter Edith, built in the yard of Mr Taylor at Birkenhead for Governor Sir James Fergusson and named after his wife lady Edith, who died of illness after childbirth in 1871.
The handsome craft was purchased for £1,200 and was subsequently overhauled several times, being caulked, coppered and furnished with new bulwarks and rigging, and fitted out in a most superior style with a full suit of racing sails imported from England. The Edith was always the favourite in first-class races where speed was concerned and was cited as ‘the beau ideal of acquatic grace and beauty.’
However in 1878 Elder commissioned a new cutter-rigged yacht, the 27 ton Enchantress, in order to compete against with the Zephyr which belonged to Mr W.H. Bundey, the Commodore of the South Australian Yacht Club. There was a comradely and healthy competition between the Glenelg and the South Australian Yacht Clubs, both Elder and Bundey enjoying a close run race.
Later races between the Edith and the Enchantress were exciting as, while the Edith was a powerful craft with excellent sailing qualities, the Enchantress was built expressly for speed. Elder however did not crew his own yachts when racing.
Openings of the yacht season were quite an event and were attended by large crowds and promenaders. In 1877 members of the Glenelg Yacht Club celebrated the opening of the season with sailing races for first and second-class yachts, the previous launches being limited to ‘aquatic demonstrations.’ The leading feature of the opening however was the customary luncheon hosted by Sir Thomas Elder for 130 of the officers and members of the Club held in the Institute Hall, with the Governor, Sir William Jervois in attendance. Elder supported the yacht clubs “with his countenance, his example, and his money.”
In his return speech at the 1874 launch Elder “bloomed into poetry … and for hypocondria and other melancholic ailments there was nothing, he said, which he could so strongly recommend as aquatic sports.” (Kapunda Herald and Northern Intelligencer 25 December 1874)