OF ALL the enduring legends of the turf, the most imperishable is the tale of Archer’s 850-kilometre odyssey from Nowra to Flemington to win the inaugural Melbourne Cup in 1861.
The story goes that a horse trainer from the Shoalhaven, Etienne de Mestre, who was to win a record five Melbourne Cups by 1878, prepared Archer for the two-miler by walking the five-year-old bay stallion all the way from the South Coast to claim the first of back-to-back Cups.
But a grand, English-born lady, Mrs Olive Royds, who has spent more than 40 years of her life in the Braidwood area near where Archer was bred and born on Ballalaba station, scotched the theory with a chuckle, declaring it to be a myth. "But he didn’t! No, I’m very sorry," Mrs Royds said of Archer’s presumed remarkable Cup preparation. "I told my husband when we found it out: ‘This is the ruination of a jolly good story!’ No, he went by boat from Sydney to Melbourne."
In 1842, Thomas Molyneux Royds, great-grandfather of Olive’s husband, Richard Royds, migrated to Australia from England as a spirited young man of 18, buying a property known as Ballalaba. "Thomas was mad on horses," Olive, the family historian, said. "In 1845, he went to a Charles Smith dispersal sale in Sydney and bought a mare named Maid of the Oakes."
Sadly, Thomas’s love of horses proved a fatal attraction. In 1852, he fell from his mount and received critical injuries, passing away at the age of 28, leaving his wife with two young sons. Two years later, his widow married Rowland Hassall, planning to sell off all her late husband’s horses only for her brother, TJ Roberts, to retain six of the broodmares, one of which was Maid of the Oakes, and likewise a stallion imported from England, William Tell.
Roberts retained the horses as an inheritance for Thomas’s two young sons. In 1855, Maid of the Oakes produced a foal by William Tell. The colt was named Archer. In the stud books, it was recorded that the horses were owned by Roberts and Hassall without mentioning the Royds brothers. As a consequence, there has been prolonged controversy about Archer’s ownership.
When she heard the story of Archer, Olive suggested to her late husband that Archer’s exploits deserved a thorough investigation because of the horse’s association with their family.
"I’m from London, and I thought it was absolutely fabulous to have this story, this wonderful horse, walking all the way to Melbourne," she recalled. "I’m thinking: ‘Oh, wonderful. What a marvellous horse.’ When we were trying to check something about our family history, I said to my husband: ‘If Archer walked all that way, there had to be something written about it at the time. It had to be reported in the various newspapers.’ We went to the national library and did some research in the papers.
"We found Bell’s Sporting Life and looking back in that period, September, 1861, the correspondent gave all the local news and wrote that Mr de Mestre’s three horses had arrived in Sydney to go to Melbourne. That’s when I saw the piece about the arrival in Melbourne of the three horses, Archer, Exeter and Inheritor, and a reference that they had been transported by steamship from Sydney to Melbourne."
Mrs Royds’s son, James, now 30, confirmed he had seen the newspaper evidence when he and his parents visited the National Library in Canberra to investigate Archer’s racing background. According to Mrs Royds, it has long been held within the family that the limestone-rich springs of the region saw broodmares sent down to the Araluen Valley for the stock to return "with good, strong bones".
Significantly, the limestone theory seems to hold true, with two other Melbourne Cup winners, Tim Whiffler (1867) and Bravo (1889), coming from the region as well as the international champion, Strawberry Road.
Archer certainly was the grandest of stayers. The day after he won the 1861 Cup, he ran and won the Melbourne Town Plate over two miles. He won the Cup again in 1862 by 10 lengths, carrying 10 stone two pounds. He retired in 1865 due to injury.
In 1851, a decade before Archer won the Cup, gold was discovered at Araluen and the following year at Mongarlowe. Archer’s burial place is unmarked but thought to be on Exeter Farm near James’s home at Durham Hall, near Braidwood.