Sir Chester Manifold: Best of the best

7 December 2021 Written by Andrew Lemon

Some names are synonymous with Victorian racing and the Victoria Racing Club: Sir Chester Manifold is one of them.

When the Australian Racing Hall of Fame began in 2000, five horses were named as inaugural inductees. These were the best of the best. Anyone with a passing interest in the rich history of the sport in this country would know their names: Carbine, Phar Lap, Bernborough, Tulloch, Kingston Town.

It was the same with the inaugural jockeys and trainers: five of the most famous names in each of those two categories.

What about inaugural inductees among the ‘Associates’? The Thompson family of historic Widden Stud is still a player. Poet and racing writer Banjo Paterson won’t be forgotten so long as The Man From Snowy River endures. Sir Chester Manifold is a name that may not be as commonly known, and remembered for the Listed Chester Manifold Stakes each January, but he is a vital part of the history of the racing industry and the Victorian Racing Club. Just who was the man behind the name? 

On Saturday 11 January the Victoria Racing Club proudly presents Chester Manifold Stakes Day, the Club’s annual tribute to one of the most important figures in Victoria’s racing history. I described him in the Australian Dictionary of Biography as ‘a solid imposing figure whose silver hair and bushy eyebrows suggested owl-like wisdom’. Sir Chester, knighted in 1953, chaired the VRC for eleven crucial years to 1962 and was a committee member for 35 years, to 1972.

Newspaper writers late in his life dubbed him ‘The Father of the TAB’. It seems hard to imagine in today’s world that until 1961 betting on racing was illegal in Victoria except on racetracks on race days. The same was generally true of the rest of Australia. The result was a vast network of illegal off-course ‘starting-price’ bookmakers. Being illegal, the betting was unregulated. It risked corrupting the sport, police and politicians. It provided no revenue to racing or to the Treasury. Instead governments took money from racing by taxing admissions and on-course bookmakers. Stake money and racecourse facilities were the sufferers.

Chester Manifold campaigned to change this and create a statewide ‘Totalizator Agency Board’ – the TAB – originally financed by the racing industry. This provided legal off-course tote shops linked to on-course totalizators. It took courage to achieve this goal against entrenched political opposition. Victoria became the first Australian state to introduce the TAB. The first branches opened in time for the 1961 autumn carnival. Sir Chester became inaugural Chairman, a post he held until 1968. 

The TAB has since changed beyond recognition, not least through privatisation in the 1990s. From its modest beginnings it revolutionised Australian racing and has underwritten its prosperity.

Sir Chester Manifold was born in 1897 into a life of privilege, part of the third generation of a family that owned great tracts of pastoral land in Victoria’s Western District. Historian Paul de Serville explains:

‘The Manifolds were prepared to give time, money and leadership to district, church and state. Generous, horsey and conservative, they adapted the role and duties of an English country gentleman to Australian conditions, and gave back to the country much of the wealth acquired by their pioneering predecessors.’

Chester inherited the family tradition of public service. He fought in both world wars. In the first, aged twenty, he was seriously wounded at Ypres in 1917. In the second, in his forties, he joined the AIF, served in Papua New Guinea, was Mentioned in Dispatches, attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and then played a key role in the training of militia in Australia.

Between the wars he had six years as an elected Member of the Legislative Assembly but, in his own words, ‘I decided it was not my cup of tea.’

In 1936 Chester Manifold revived the stud farm that his father, James Chester Manifold, had established in the 1890s at their property and family homestead, Talindert, near Camperdown.

His father and his uncles Thomas and Edward had all been great sportsmen, passionate for polo and steeplechases as owners and participants. These Manifold brothers won big jumps races in Victoria and South Australia.

Tom, who also played football for Geelong, tragically died in 1895 from a fall from his horse in a hunting accident.

Uncle Edward served for 33 years on the VRC committee from 1898. His contribution is recognised through the Edward Manifold Stakes for fillies early each spring. By joining the VRC committee in 1937, Chester simply continued the family tradition.

At Talindert, Sir Chester bred excellent racehorses. Arbroath won the 1953 VRC St Leger for him, and the Australian Cup. 

Above them all, late in Sir Chester’s life, was the champion steeplechaser Crisp, surely the greatest ever seen in Australia. His statistics of six steeplechase and five hurdle race wins do not convey his brilliance, athleticism, speed and stamina.

After one race start in the USA, Crisp travelled to England where he continued to break records. His defeat after leading all the way in the 1973 Aintree Grand National Steeplechase, carrying top weight, beaten at the post by Red Rum, is often nominated as the greatest horse race in Britain in the twentieth century.

Manifold never boasted, but Crisp’s performance at Aintree in 1973 gave him special pride. He wrote, ‘His jumping was superb … Many old timers described it as the best exhibition of jumping ever seen at Aintree and classed him as the world’s top steeplechaser’. 

Crisp finally made his own way into the Australian Racing Hall of Fame in 2013. They are there together. 

Sir Chester Manifold and Crisp: the best of the best.