Remembering Star Kingdom

13 min read
It’s arguable there has ever been a sire as influential to Australian breeding as Star Kingdom (Ire) and, over a half-century after his death, we revisit the legacy of the Hunter Valley stallion that turned the colonial industry on its head.

When the imported chestnut stallion Star Kingdom arrived by boat in Melbourne, no one could have imagined the wild success that would follow. It was 1951 and, if it’s been well-told ever since, the story of Star Kingdom is worth revisiting on facts alone.

The horse’s very first runner won the coveted Breeders’ Plate at Randwick in 1954 and, two days later, his very first filly to race won the Gimcrack S. It was as auspicious a start to stud life as has ever been known in this part of the world.

Star Kingdom (Ire) | Image courtesy of Wikipedia

From a first crop in 1952 of just 20 named foals, Star Kingdom got 18 horses to the racetrack, 11 of which won in town and, among them, three stakes winners. The stallion was the leading 2-year-old sire in Australia with his first crop.

From the third crop came Todman, who rewrote racing history as the first ever Golden Slipper winner. Then came Skyline, who won the Slipper also.

In fact, Star Kingdom sired the first five winners of Sydney’s rich new race, while Todman, his son, sired two of his own.

Todman | Image courtesy of Wikipedia

From the spring of 1951 to the spring of 1965, Star Kingdom never covered a book larger than 49. From 647 mares across 16 seasons, he sired 57 stakes winners of 172 stakes races.

His stakes-producing sire sons were no less than Biscay, Kaoru Star, Skyline and Todman, plus Noholme and Sky High in America. There were others, but these are the lingering legends, and from them came Bletchingly, sire of Kingston Town and Canny Lad, plus Luskin Star and Full On Aces. There was Nodouble (USA) who sired Semipalatinsk (USA), while Sunset Hue was the sire of Gunsynd.

Star Kingdom was Champion Australian Sire five times, and 24 of his sire sons produced stakes winners. In 1981, 14 years after his death, his grandsons Bletchingly and Nodouble topped the Australian and North American sire tables respectively. This hasn’t occurred since in the Australian industry.

Bletchingly who stood at Widden Stud

Without question, no horse since Carbine (NZ) had shaped the Australian breed so aggressively as did Star Kingdom after his arrival in 1951, and the only horse to do it since has been Danehill (USA).

He had his ways

Star Kingdom was a chestnut stallion with a compact, nuggety frame. He was a bull of a horse and, in later life, the crest of his neck was so pronounced that he looked almost distorted.

Hyperion (GB) | Image courtesy of Wikipedia

For all his mass, however, he was a very small thoroughbred. At the withers, he measured little more than 15.1hh, something he inherited from his Hyperion (GB) sireline. This physical fact was something many Australian breeders couldn’t get past after the horse’s arrival in 1951, even if it quickly didn’t matter in the annals of history.

In Ireland, Star Kingdom was bred at Cloghran Stud in 1946, and he raced in England as ‘Star King’ where he was among the highest-rated of horses early in his career. He was a speed animal, winning his maiden by 10l as part of a five-race juvenile haul through 1948.

For 16 overall starts, Star Kingdom won nine races in England before he was sold to a three-way ownership in Australia that included English-based trainer Stanley Wootton, studmaster Reg Moses and Sydney solicitor AO Ellison.

Stanley Wootton and Todman | Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Plucked out of England by Wootton’s sharp eye and good judgement, Star Kingdom went to Baramul Stud, which was then owned by Ellison.

“I used to be frightened of him,” said 71-year-old Paul Hennessy, who is one of the last-remaining of stud staff to have worked with Star Kingdom at Baramul. Hennessy’s brother, the late Noel Hennessy, was the stallion’s devoted groom.

“I was petrified of him,” Hennessy said. “I got to know him in the end and he was a very nice horse. But he had his ways about him with certain things, and if you didn’t run away from him, he’d just drop his head and walk off. If you ran away, he’d come at you with everything he had.”

“... he (Star Kingdom) had his ways about him with certain things. If you ran away, he’d come at you with everything he had.” - Paul Hennessy

Hennessy said Star Kingdom was a kind horse and relatively uncomplicated when anyone got to know him. He liked milk thistles and local apples, but he didn’t like being tethered and he liked Todman even less.

The father-son pair stood together at Baramul Stud for years, during which Star Kingdom kicked and carried on any time the younger horse was in sight. The pair is buried alongside each other to this day.

“Star Kingdom was far and above anything around in my time,” Hennessy said. “He knew he was something special. In those days, he was probably a Danehill, and when you look at it now, he was covering 45 mares a season. They’re covering 200 mares in a hit now, which was four or five seasons for Star Kingdom.”

Jack Ingham | Image courtesy of Sportpix

Hennessy has spent his life in the breeding industry around Scone. He started visiting his brother at Baramul when he was just 11, and his first job was for Ellison during the Star Kingdom years. Hennessy worked at Lomar Park and Yarraman Park Stud, and he did everything in his career from stallions to mares to fences and farm work.

He remembers Jack Ingham coming through to visit Star Kingdom, and Angus Armanasco and TJ Smith. Hennessy remembers the trundling, awkward livestock floats that would bring the mares to Baramul and cart them away after 45 or so days. There was no electricity that deep in the valley, so the stud relied on generators and kerosene.

He (Paul Hennessy) remembers Jack Ingham coming through to visit Star Kingdom, and Angus Armanasco and TJ Smith.

“I loved it there,” Hennessy said. “It could be a bit isolating if you were young and single, but I didn’t mind it. In winter it could get to seven below in the valley, which might have reminded Star Kingdom of where he came from.”

Hennessy said the horse had very few issues through his stud career, even to Star Kingdom’s eventual death from colitis in 1967. There was one exception, however.

“He had foot problems,” Hennessy said. “So did Biscay and Bletchingly, so it must have been hereditary. Star Kingdom had such bad feet that Noel used to take him to the creek and walk him up and down the sandy bottom. It was very seldom you’d see horses shod in those days, but that horse was always shod in front.”

In the sale ring

Star Kingdom’s arrival to Australia in 1951 announced a new era for colonial breeding. He represented an outcross of Phalaris (GB) blood which, many thought, had saturated Australian bloodstock.

Phalaris (GB) | Image courtesy of Wikipedia

There’s little written about Stanley Wootton thinking along these lines, and the accepted narrative is that Wootton wanted simply an injection of early speed for Australian breeding.

When the stallion arrived, even though it was reported his first two books were full, Star Kingdom was widely condemned for his size and his probability of producing only ‘squibs’ that wouldn’t stay beyond 1200 metres.

But even before his first pair of runners won the Breeders’ Plate and Gimcrack S. of 1954, Star Kingdom’s progeny had landed on Sydney trainers with an almighty bang. Nine had started in barrier trials at Randwick for four wins, a second, a third and two fourths. It was a record among yearling trials.

But even before his first pair of runners won the Breeders’ Plate and Gimcrack S. of 1954, Star Kingdom’s progeny had landed on Sydney trainers with an almighty bang.

As a result, it was no great shock when the winners rolled in, and this carried over to the Inglis Easter Yearling Sale, then nearby at its Newmarket complex.

In April 1954, the first of the Star Kingdom progeny went through the ring, the most expensive of which sold for 1550 gns (Star Kingdom’s opening service fee was 300 gns). By comparison, the top seller at that Sale was a Delville Wood (GB) colt at 6500 gns.

It took only a year for Star Kingdom to top the Easter Sale, which he did in 1955. He did it again in 1957, by which point he was standing at Baramul for 600 gns. By 1960, his top-priced progeny cost 15,500 gns, a colt that turned into the AJC Champagne S. winner Columbia Star.

Star Kingdom’s service fee crept from 300 gns to 600 gns, and in 1958 it went to 800 gns. In 1963 it rose to 1000 gns, and it was 1050 gns the following year. In 1966, the horse’s final year at stud, he was standing at $2500 after Australia’s currency went metric.

They suited Australia

Jonathan D’Arcy is the director of bloodstock at William Inglis & Son (Inglis), and he joined the company in 1986, some 20 years after the passing of Star Kingdom.

“My first full year of attending yearling sales with Inglis was 1987, and the dominance of Star Kingdom in that year’s Easter catalogue was remarkable,” D’Arcy said. “I’d estimate that 60 per cent of the lots sold had Star Kingdom in the first four generations.”

Gallery: Advertisements for some of the Star Kingdom-line sires in the 1980s and 1990s

Biscay, such a successful stallion, had 10 yearlings catalogued that year, while Kaoru Star had eight. These were direct sons of the Baramul sire, while grandsons Bletchingly had 16, Marscay had 10, and Luskin Star, Best Western and Mighty Kingdom were all represented.

“Star Kingdom’s dominance was very similar to what we, in the last decade, have seen with Danehill,” D’Arcy said. “In today’s terms, it’s almost like that. More than every second lot had Star Kingdom in and around the sire’s side, but over the years then also on the female side.”

D’Arcy recalls that there were very striking characteristics across the breed.

“I saw Biscay’s progeny and Kaoru Star’s progeny, as well as Bletchingly’s, and they were all short-backed and nuggety with good muscle tone,” D’Arcy said. “There wasn’t a lot of height to them but they were powerful horses, real sprinting types, and that’s what Star Kingdom was himself.”

“... they (Star Kingdom-line progeny) were all short-backed and nuggety with good muscle tone. There wasn’t a lot of height to them but they were powerful horses, real sprinting types, and that’s what Star Kingdom was himself.” - Jonathan D'Arcy

Stanley Wootton had nailed the brief, but it was more than just an astuteness for Australian breeding. Wootton understood local trainers and conditions, and the Star Kingdom horses held up well. Les Carlyon would say they responded brilliantly to hard riding.

“They suited our trainers,” D’Arcy said. “They were tough horses with good bone and good muscle tone, so they really suited the likes of TJ Smith that were getting horses at the Sale, breaking them in and then sending them to the 26 2-year-old heats in September. After that, they were straight onto the track. The types they were really suited our 2-year-old racing.”

What you see, what you get

For so long, Star Kingdom was a peerless force in Australian breeding. That’s not to say he didn’t have competition, because he stood against the likes of Champion Sires Wilkes (Fr), Delville Wood and Agricola (GB). By the 1960s, he was competing against Todman on the sales circuit.

Nevertheless, it is often written these days that the Star Kingdom sire influence has disappeared, and that it disappeared quickly.

Paul Hennessy said that’s owing to time, and he’s correct if the great stallion Century is anything to go by. A sireline cannot remain electric forever because at some point, new blood will emerge and fashions will change.

A sireline cannot remain electric forever because at some point, new blood will emerge and fashions will change.

What is interesting is the modern comparison with Danehill and whether, like today, the saturation of the breed became unpopular.

“I think there was a bit of negativity,” D’Arcy said. “We’re going back a long time, but there were certainly people out there saying there was too much Star Kingdom, that they didn’t have scope and they couldn’t get past six furlongs. That was fair criticism because a lot of horses didn’t get to 2000 metres by that sireline.

Jonathan D’Arcy | Image courtesy of Inglis

“I think breeders started looking for a balance of speed with stamina coming through, and he started getting New Zealand mares towards the latter part of his stud career. But Star Kingdom by and large was a precocious stallion and that’s what he threw, and trainers weren’t looking to him to win mile races. They were trying to win 1000 and 1200-metre races.”

Thank you Star Kingdom

Worldwide, the Australian breeding business is renowned for speed. The instigation of the Golden Slipper in 1957, and subsequently the rise of such races as the G1 Blue Diamond and G1 Coolmore Stud S., have each shaped the industry’s reliance on precocity.

Stay Inside, winner of the 2021 Golden Slipper | Image courtesy of Ashlea Brennan

It’s often criticised, but was Star Kingdom the genesis of that reliance?

“Being the dominant horse through the 1960s and 1970s, when they introduced the Slipper and prizemoney rose with quick returns on investment, Star Kingdom was certainly one of the catalysts for our preoccupation with 2-year-old racing,” D’Arcy said. “But it’s also been one of the growth factors of the industry. Investors can get a quick return and, as we know, the stallion-making races are the Golden Slipper and the Coolmore, even the Caulfield Guineas perhaps.”

“Being the dominant horse through the 1960s and 1970s... Star Kingdom was certainly one of the catalysts for our preoccupation with 2-year-old racing.” - Jonathan D'Arcy

This isn’t because of Star Kingdom, but the old horse has a lot to answer for.

When he died in April 1967, Star Kingdom’s body was autopsied, and it’s a little-known fact that Ellison is quoted as saying the horse’s heart was about the same size as Phar Lap’s at nearly 7kg. It’s an extraordinary fact given Star Kingdom was two hands shorter.

Over time, most of the characters in the stallion’s story passed away too.

Stanley Wootton died in 1986, and AO Ellison a year later. Noel Hennessy died in 2019, and even Baramul Stud was passed along until Gerry Harvey’s current tenure. But still the Star Kingdom legacy keeps on.

It’s arguable that any stallion will ever shape the Australian breed as he did, which might be incidental to the times they were. Nevertheless, he was a leviathan in every way bar size, “a big little horse” by all accounts.

Star Kingdom
Baramul Stud
Paul Hennessy
Jonathan D'Arcy