Derby Day Magic: The Filly and the Drongo

3 November 2023 Written by Andrew Lemon

Changed your mind and missed the winner of the Derby? You must be a drongo!

Is that great piece of Aussie slang falling into disuse – like drop kick and flamin’ galah? The drongo who turned the name into a sometimes affectionate insult was a racehorse a century ago. As a thoroughbred, he was far superior to most but he never quite made it to the top.

Magic sometimes works that way. Usually the result is happier. Last year a colt sired by the French Derby winner Almanzor magically transformed the lives of the Flannery family from Queensland. Manzoice was the third horse they had ever raced, and at just his sixth start he won the 2022 VRC Penfolds Victoria Derby.

Derby Day does that. It creates magic. If you can explain magic without spoiling the mystery, it has something to do with time travel. The past – here, 168 years of tradition at Flemington – intersects with today. A new Victoria Derby winner will appear.

Many champions immortalised in the Australian Racing Hall of Fame first achieved recognition through the Victoria Derby. Eighteen winners went on to take a Melbourne Cup, the most recent Efficient who won the 2006 Derby and the 2007 Cup. The most famous was Phar Lap. An additional eighteen Derby winners became subsequent Cup placegetters.

The roll call of champion Victoria Derby winners extends far beyond these. Tulloch, for a start, Tobin Bronze and Sailor’s Guide; in more recent times, Dulcify, Taj Rossi and Daryl’s Joy, Mahogany and Red Anchor. The sprinting champion, Sky High, won the 1960 Derby.

Slip back further into Australian racing last century, between the two world wars. Whittier and Manfred are there. So too is Frances Tressady – the last filly to have won the Victoria Derby against the colts and geldings, exactly one hundred years ago. Inadvertently, she helped make the runner-up, Drongo, a household name.

Michael Dee congratulates Manzoice's dedicated groom, Jin Takahashi, on his Group 1 classic success in 2022 Penfolds Victoria Derby. (Morgan Hancock/Racing Photos))

Like the Flannery family with Manzoice, the owner of Frances Tressady was new to this side of the sport. Alex Barlow raced as ‘Mr A.G. Vauxhaull’. He bought the filly cheaply enough at the Sydney yearling sales in 1922. He entrusted her to Sydney jockey Billy Foulsham, embarking on his training career.  

Frances Tressady was foaled in New South Wales. Her mother was a fourth-generation descendant of 1877 Victoria Derby and Melbourne Cup winner, Chester. With a sustained run home, ridden brilliantly by champion jockey Frank Dempsey, Frances Tressady held off a late challenge. To add to her story, the filly saddled up again three days later and finished a good fifth in the Melbourne Cup – and then won the VRC Oaks, as odd-on favourite, on the Thursday.

As for poor old Drongo, although bred in the purple and competing throughout his career only in the highest class events, he had a run of near misses that few have matched. In 37 career starts – all on city tracks, including the Derby and two St Legers – Drongo finished second five times, with seven thirds. He never won a race.

Sporting journalist Bruce Walkley has written a whole, affectionate book about Drongo, giving the definitive account of how the horse got his name. The original reference was not unkind. The drongo shrike bird is found in the north and east of the continent. It has glossy black plumage with iridescent blue-green spangles, a long forked tail and blood red eyes. It is of the genus Lanius – the name of the sire of thoroughbred Drongo.

At his final two career starts, in 1925, Drongo finished fourth in the Adelaide Cup and then second in a classy handicap at Adelaide’s Victoria Park – beaten a neck. Sam Wells, cartoonist with the Melbourne Herald, was one of the first to lampoon the horse who could never win. The name made its way into Australian vernacular. A slow footballer in 1934 was ‘a drongo’. The expression morphed into ‘a bit of a dill’, and worse. By 1940, a poem in Air Force News described a hapless airman: ‘He was just a —— drongo, although he did his best. He was just a drongo, a bit behind the rest.’   

Bobbie Lewis had ridden seven Victoria Derby winners before he rode Drongo in the 1923 race. Afterwards he described him as the unluckiest Derby colt ever beaten.

Experience the Magic of the 2023 Melbourne Cup Carnival

Prepare for a truly unforgettable Cup Week, where equine athleticism meets Melbourne style in a spectacular showcase of thoroughbred excellence. Be there to experience the magic trackside as new champions etch their names into racing folklore. Tickets still available, don't miss out!.