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The legendary legacy of Taj Rossi

4 July 2024 Written by Joe McGrath

Taj Rossi made a remarkable impact during the spring of 1973, leaving a legacy of success that still resonates today. Flemington will once again host the final of the Taj Rossi Series in July, continuing to honour his enduring influence.

When reflecting on his stellar career, former champion jockey Roy Higgins would always talk of Light Fingers and Red Handed. His two Melbourne Cup winners from 1965 and 1967 respectively.

When talking about other very good horses he rode – and there were many – he always paused before talking about Taj Rossi. For some reason there was a deep appreciation of a horse with a constitution unseen in most thoroughbreds.

As cited in a biography written by Patrick Bartley called Roy Higgins – Australia’s Favourite Jockey (2014) a chapter was dedicated to Taj Rossi, Tontonan and Leilani. On Taj Rossi he rated him as the best three-year-old he ever rode: “His spring was incredible,” Higgins reflected in 2009 after another Cummings-trained star, So You Think, won the Cox Plate. “His only real failure, if you could call it that, was a fourth in the Caulfield Guineas. I settled third on the fence and that’s where he finished, under a stranglehold.

“I was waiting for something to move but nothing did. I was climbing over their backs. I said to Bart (that) he could have won by two lengths.” ₁

Next start Taj Rossi took on the older horses at Moonee Valley in the W.S. Cox Plate (2000m) then reverted back to his own age group in the Victoria Derby (2500m) a week later. He would then drop back to a mile one week after that to run in the George Adams Hcp (1600m) and then go on and return to his own age group in the Sandown Guineas (1600m) the following week. He won them all!

In a spring that was extraordinary, Taj Rossi went on to be judged Australian Champion Racehorse for the 1973–74 season.

Bartley’s recount of Taj Rossi goes on to document: “Taj Rossi won nine races from 21 starts with most of them coming from his three-year-old season and earned this plaudit from his trainer: ‘All along I have said that he is one of the best, if not the best three-year-old Australia has known in the last fifty years.’”₂

Taj Rossi (No.2) and jockey Roy Higgins just gets up to beat Leica Lover in the 1973 Victoria Derby. (News Ltd / Newspix)

Cummings would also say in his autobiography titled Bart – My Life (2009): “There was nothing Taj Rossi couldn’t do that spring (1973). I thought Taj Rossi was the best three-year-old ever to have raced, certainly the best I’d trained, and believed that the sky was the limit for him. But he caught a stomach virus the next autumn and just wasn’t the same.”₃

Taj Rossi was raced by Melbourne businessman Victor Peters who, along with his wife Lila, also raced the very good Fulmen in the late 1960s. Their colours of white with brown circles would become synonymous with quality throughout the late 1960s, 1970s and early 80s. They mainly raced horses in their own name and found their way into the top echelon of races across the country. There was a Cummings connection throughout. Feature races were not unfamiliar to the Peters-owned horses.

The Peters would later establish Fulmen Park on the Mornington Peninsula named after their first racehorse, a winner of eight stakes races including the Brisbane and Adelaide Cups.

Taj Rossi was retired to stud in 1975 and leased to Spendthrift Farm, Lexington, Kentucky in the US for a couple of seasons. He would return to stand at Dr Phil Redman’s Turangga Farm in Scone, NSW with the best progeny to include Taj Eclipse (1983 VRC Oaks) and Taj Quillo (1986 VRC Gadsden Stakes) both raced by the Peters family. He’d also sire the popular 1989 AJC Doncaster Hcp winner, Merimbula Bay. He died at the relatively young age of 15 in 1985.

Interestingly, through the Grahame Begg-trained Lunar Flare, an ironic winner of the 2022 Group 2 The Lexus Bart Cummings (2500m) at Flemington on Turnbull Stakes Day given the Cummings – Peters connection, we have seen a return of the famous Peters colours. This has come about via part-owner John Valmorbida who is married to Michelle, a daughter of Vic and Lila Peters. The Peters and Valmorbida families have been long-time friends for many years. Lunar Flare is also raced by Frank Kraps and long-time successful owner and Melbourne real estate authority, Jack Bongiorno.

“He (Taj Rossi) was a great type, except for a plain head, an inheritance from his boof-headed father Matrice. More importantly, he was tough, incredibly so."

From a breeding perspective, Taj Rossi was by Matrice, a high-class sprinter miler which would win the 1956 SAJC Goodwood Hcp as well as the 1956 VRC Cantala Stakes and the 1956 and 1957 VRC Linlithgow Stakes. He sired 24 stakes-winners including Taj Rossi, Manihi, Toltrice, Pago Pago and La Trice – all high-class performers.

From Dark Queen (by Coronation Boy), this is a thoroughbred family which would hold special importance for both the Cummings and Peters families as it would see horses the ilk of Taj Rossi; Saintly (1996 VRC Melbourne Cup; MVRC W.S Cox Plate); Storm Queen (1966 STC Golden Slipper; VATC Caulfield Guineas etc) and even Stormy Passage (1958 SAJC SA Derby) emerge. Stormy Passage was the first Melbourne Cup runner for Cummings back in 1958. It would also produce Dark Eclipse, a winner of the 1980 STC Golden Slipper.

On talking further about Taj Rossi, Bart Cummings had this to say in a book written by the great Les Carlyon called The Master (2011).

“He (Taj Rossi) was a great type, except for a plain head, an inheritance from his boof-headed father Matrice. More importantly, he was tough, incredibly so. He hit his head on the starting stalls before the Caulfield Guineas, bringing up a lump as big as a cricket ball, yet still ran fourth. During the spring he just kept walking up, week after week, and winning. He won the Victoria Derby, the Sandown Guineas and Ascot Vale Stakes against his own age. Against all comers he won the Cox Plate and George Adams Handicap (now the Kennedy Champions Mile) at Flemington.”₄

Whilst there have been many horses grace the hallowed turf at Flemington, few could do it in the manner that Taj Rossi did. He raced in an era which included other top 3YOs the likes of Imagele, Grand Cidium and Leica Lover. Through the popular Taj Rossi Series, his memory lives on.

₁ Bartley, P (2014): Roy Higgins - Australia’s Favourite Jockey, Pages 177-178
₂ Bartley, P (2014): Roy Higgins - Australia’s Favourite Jockey, Pages 177-178
₃ Cummings, J.B (2009): Bart – My Life, Page 147
₄ Carlyon, L (2011): The Master – A personal portrait of Bart Cummings, Page 238