The decade of the 30’s was a remarkable one for sports in Australia. It started with the remarkable exploits of a horse named Phar Lap. Elsewhere, Don Bradman was establishing marks the like of which the world of cricket had never before seen, including a trip to England where he showed the Limeys a thing or two about how a proficient batsman practicing with a golf ball and a cricket stump could rise to nearly unimaginable heights.
Footy fans were marveling at the exploits of Harry and Albert Collier when it seemed as though no other team but Collingwood played in the VFL, only to see Haydn Bunton and Dick Reynolds win the Brownlow Medal three times each between 1931 and 1938.
Right in the midst of the decade, another thoroughbred came along to pick up where Phar Lap left off. His name was Ajax, after the Greek hero and grandson of Zeus, who figured prominently in Homer’s Illiad.
It was an apt name choice for a horse that would achieve mythical status for his almost incomprehensible achievements on the turf.
Ajax was the 1934 product of the Australian sire Heroic and the Irish dam Medmenham, although previous generations on both sides of the bloodline were exclusively British. Heroic was quite accomplished, winning or placing 36 times in 51 starts, including a win in the 1926 W.S. Cox Plate, a feat Ajax would duplicate in 1938. He was the sire of Hall Mark that won, amongst his 18 wins, the 1933 Melbourne Cup when the 1932 and 1934 winner, Peter Pan, was held out due to a deadly virus that swept through the Sydney stables. Heroic had been a 4-1 favourite in the 1924 Cup, only to be disqualified by the VRC for an incident involving his owner and the running of the Coongy Handicap that left the bagmen with a free bounty of punters’ money when Heroic could not run the Cup.
Even though he drew top weight, 9.9 for the 1939 Cup, Ajax was never considered equal to the two-mile distance, and so did not run.
Our subject made six jumps as a two-year-old in the 1936-37 season. He won his first two before winning the 1937 VRC Sires Produce Stakes. He also won convincingly in the AJC version of that race, along with another easy win in the AJC Champagne Stakes.
He won first up as a three-year-old, setting a record in the Rosehill Guineas. In the AJC Derby, it was his half-brother, Hua, another of Heroic’s estimable progeny that relegated Ajax to second, mainly due to a substantial weight advantage. Another second place followed in the Victoria Derby.
From that point onward, Ajax was unbeatable. He won his next 18 races, something that would not be bettered until Black Caviar rewrote the record books with her undefeated string of 25 victories.
Beginning in November of 1937 with the Linlithgow Stakes, Ajax would not finish anywhere other than first until his final win in April of 1938, a victory in the C.W. Cropper Plate. He had considerable success in major races in his four-year-old campaign.
He won the Cox Plate in 1938 as a prohibitive 1-2 favourite in what was then a 9-1/2 furlong race, an easy two-length record setting win for Ajax and jockey Harold Badger over Royal Chief, that jumped at 4-1 with E. Bartle steering, and third place getter 10-1 Young Idea steered by Darby Munro. Ajax also took the C.B. Fisher Plate in November of 1939 when the distance of 1.5 miles was the longest at which he succeeded.
His unbeaten streak eventually ended in the 1939 Rawson Stakes. He lost by half a length whilst being a 40-1 odds on choice.
That narrow loss did not deter him as a five-year-old in the 1939-40 season. He won his first two, ran third and second after, and then won the Futurity Stakes for a third time, even though he was 13 ponds beyond the second place finisher. Later in the season, he won the All-Aged Plate and another C.W. Cropper Plate. He won the Memsie and Melbourne Stakes towards the end of his time on the track, failed in his bid to win another Cox Plate, and then concluded with a second placing in the Caulfield Stakes.
His final tally was 36 wins, seven second placings and two third placings. He did this despite facing stiff competition at sprint and middle distance events, inviting comparison with the Super Horse of the late 70s, Kingston Town. Ajax actually jumped and won more times.
He stood stud starting in 1941. He sired multiple stakes winners, although nothing of his equal. In 1948, as a fourteen-year-old, he was sold to the American entertainer Bing Crosby, but nothing of consequence came of that experiment.
Ajax, for reasons known only to those who hold the final say in such decisions, had to wait until the third class of horses was inducted into the Australian Racing Hall of Fame in 2004 alongside Better Loosen Up, Gloaming, Poseidon and The Barb. It would not be much of a stretch to say that he was the head of the class. A group 2 race, the Ajax Stakes is held at Rosehill in Sydney to honour his memory.
The 1930s were heady times for thoroughbred racing in Australia. The name of Ajax deservedly can be mentioned along with those of other legends, including the aforementioned Phar Lap, Amounis, and Peter Pan, with our sincere apologies to fans of many other deserving candidates whose names we have not mentioned.