Bob Batty: The first winner of the Newmarket

5 March 2024 Written by Andrew Lemon

150 years ago in 1874, jockey Bob Batty won the first ever VRC Newmarket Handicap. But was he a forgotten hero of flat and the jumps?

You may never have heard of him unless you noticed his name on the list of past Melbourne Cup jockeys: R. Batty, rider of Wollomai who won the Cup in 1875. But Robert Batty – Bob Batty to the racing world – deserves more recognition than that. His record, particularly at Flemington, is one that few of his contemporaries rivalled – and none could match today, because his other wins in the saddle included a VRC Grand National Hurdle and the VRC Grand National Steeplechase, twice – races no longer held at Flemington.

Robert Batty rode the very first winner of the famed VRC Newmarket Handicap in March 1874, exactly 150 years ago this year. He was nineteen at the time.

The Newmarket: the race has often been the richest six furlong (1200 metre) sprint in Australia, and always the most prestigious. The name pays homage to Newmarket Racecourse, spiritual home of British racing, with its wide, open ‘Rowley Mile’ straight track. Our Newmarket Handicap has a hallowed roll-call of winners too lengthy to detail here, from Malua to Ajax, Bernborough to Takeover Target, Black Caviar to In Secret last year.

Maid of Avenel, bred by Dr James Bathe at his Grange Stud at Dandenong, sired by imported English stallion Stockham from the mare Mary Avenel, was the first of them.

She was a brave little chestnut filly, Maid of Avenel. Her first track appearance had been in a rich race for two-year-olds over five furlongs (1000 metres) up the straight on New Year’s Day 1873. She won by two lengths, with young R. Batty in the saddle. It was his first win at Flemington too. Punters were taken by surprise, as the filly was disdained before the race as  ‘out of place in such company’ and ‘the scrubber of the lot’, with a ‘staring coat’, being ridden by ‘a small boy in a dirty jacket and a tremendous saddle’.

The little jockey had been born in Glasgow, coming to Victoria with his father when just four years old, and raised near Bendigo where he rode errands for a local butcher. His aptitude
on horseback saw him apprenticed to trainer Sam Harding at Moonee Ponds. Dr Bathe was one of Harding’s best clients. Young Robert Batty was described as ‘very wiry’ at the outset, weighing under 5 stone (27 kg).

The boy and Maid of Avenel both grew, in their own ways. Success and maturity turned ducklings into swans. By her next start as a three-year-old in the Victoria Derby in the spring of 1873, Maid of Avenel was ‘handsome and well formed’. Her November campaign at Flemington saw her finish third in the Derby, second in the Oaks and third in the Mares’ Produce Stakes. And her jockey was flourishing.

Bob Batty had five rides on the six-race card on Derby Day. He had a third, a second and won three races including the Hotham Handicap and the rich Maribyrnong Plate. On Melbourne Cup Day, Batty won the Railway Handicap and, on the final day, the All-Aged Stakes.

After the spring campaign. Harding next started Maid of Avenel in the marathon Canterbury Plate on New Year’s Day 1874 – half a mile longer than the Melbourne Cup. The filly was no stayer, and finished last. In February she was outpaced in the two-mile Geelong Cup. They took her to country Beechworth where she won the Flying Stakes ‘in a canter’ – and came out again to win the last race on the card. Next day she ran again, twice, beaten in longer races – Batty riding each time. That was her preparation for the Newmarket.

Later that year Batty and Maid of Avenel won the Craven Plate at Randwick. The boy was in demand. He did not ride the Harding-trained Haricot who won the 1874 Melbourne Cup – that honour went to Paddy Pigott, the preferred jockey of owner Andrew Chirnside. But Bob Batty rode Wollomai for trainer Stephen Moon to win the 1875 Melbourne Cup.

Ominously the jockey, now twenty, was ‘a medium weight’. He struggled to get down to the weight of 7 stone 8 pounds (48 kg) to ride Wollomai. In subsequent years Batty could ride
only above 8 stone, then 9 stone. Despite this, he seized every opportunity, which meant riding in hurdle races and steeplechases as well as on the flat. The next decade saw him winning in New Zealand, Sydney, Adelaide, Tasmania, Melbourne and country Victoria.

These successes included the 1883 Hobart Cup and the AJC Autumn Stakes at Randwick on the 1882 Melbourne Cup winner, The Assyrian. Batty won on a horse called The Ghost in an obscenely dangerous field of 42 starters in a flat race called the Ladies’ Plate at Caulfield in 1882. But the biggest wins now were over the jumps.

Ten years after Batty’s Newmarket victory, the Melbourne Sportsman newspaper praised his ability and profiled his career.

This included multiple steeplechase wins at Randwick, a hotly contested Great Northern Steeplechase in country South Australia, the 1881 VRC Grand National Steeplechase on Sussex and the 1883 Grand National Hurdle at Flemington on Dizzy. He also started training horses from modest stables near Caulfield.

Ten years separated his two wins in the VRC Grand National Steeplechase, on Sussex in 1881 and May Be in 1891. On the first occasion he was riding high, literally and figuratively. The next decade proved tougher: he suffered several bad falls and injuries. By 1896 he had ceased riding altogether. His winners as a trainer became fewer. After a period of illness, he died in Melbourne in 1911 aged 56, lamented by his fellows. ‘As a man he was as straight as a gun barrel, and one of the best riders I ever saw in my life,’ wrote one of his friends.

There had been a marriage in Sydney in 1881, which seems not to have held, and there are no descendants to remind us of his achievements. The 150th anniversary of his win in the inaugural Newmarket Handicap gives us the chance to salute the remarkable Robert Batty.