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Francis McGrath (1866–1947)

by Richard Waterhouse

This article was published:

Francis McGrath (1866-1947), jockey and racehorse-trainer, was born on 17 October 1866 at Boorowa, New South Wales, eldest of three sons of James McGrath, carpenter, and his second wife Catherine, née Cahill (late Kane), both from County Tipperary, Ireland. Frank learned to ride early and had his first win on his father's horse, Killarney, at the Gullen races in 1875. Apprenticed to Sydney trainer John Alsopp in 1877, he moved to Edward Keys and in 1880 joined the Newcastle stables of John Mayo, for whom he rode Prince Imperial in the 1885 Caulfield Cup: McGrath suffered head and eye injuries when sixteen of the forty-one runners fell in the straight. Although he was plagued by constant headaches, he returned to the saddle, won the 1886 Epsom Handicap on Zeno and continued to ride until 1892.

By 1898 McGrath was successfully training ponies at Canterbury, Sydney. His winnings from Stormy enabled him to buy a house and stables in Doncaster Avenue, Kensington, in 1900 and to obtain a No.1 trainer's licence from the Australian Jockey Club. On 23 July that year, at St Mary's Catholic Church, Crookwell, he married 25-year-old Bridget Stapleton. His early successes included Abundance, winner of the 1902 Australian Jockey Club Derby and the 1903 Victoria Racing Club and A.J.C. St Leger stakes, and Little Toy which won the 1906 Doncaster Handicap. He trained Prince Foote for 'J. Baron'; the horse won the A.J.C. and Victoria Derbys (1909), the Melbourne Cup (1909) and both St Legers (1910). McGrath later maintained that the prize-money he collected early in his career provided him with the 'kick along' to sustain him through the inevitable lean years.

Despite rarely having more than twenty horses in training, McGrath prepared the winners of many major events, among them the Epsom Handicap (Amounis 1926, 1928), Caulfield Cup (Amounis 1930, Denis Boy 1931), Metropolitan Stakes (Denis Boy 1932, Beau Vite 1940), A.J.C. Derby (Tanami 1910, Peter Pan 1932, Pandect 1940) and W. S. Cox Plate (Beau Vite 1940, 1941). His greatest horse was R. R. Dangar's Peter Pan. In addition to taking numerous V.R.C. and A.J.C. weight-for-age trophies, Peter Pan overcame severe interference to win the 1932 Melbourne Cup (returning to scale with grass-stains on his nose), and ploughed through the mud carrying 9 st. 10 lb. (62 kg) to 'blitz' the 1934 Melbourne Cup field. Supported by experienced racing officials and some seasoned jockeys, McGrath always maintained that Peter Pan was a better two-miler than Phar Lap.

McGrath was never accused of malpractice by any of the principal club committees. He was always willing to provide advice to young trainers, and to extend a helping hand to those who had fallen on hard times (during the Depression he often 'forgot' to collect the rent from tenants of the cottages he owned). In 1941 he was elected president of the New South Wales Breeders', Owners', and Trainers' Association. He retired in 1945, handing over his stables to his son, Frank junior. Survived by his wife, two sons and three of his four daughters, McGrath died on 28 October 1947 at his Kensington home and was buried in Waverley cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £15,537.

Select Bibliography

  • Herald & Weekly Times Ltd, Turf Men and Memories (Melb, 1912)
  • N. Penton, A Racing Heart (Syd, 1987)
  • J. Pollard, Australian Horse Racing (Syd, 1988)
  • M. Painter and R. Waterhouse, The Principal Club (Syd, 1992)
  • Australian Jockey Club Racing Calendar, Sept 1989, p 11, Oct 1989, p 9
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Sept 1940, 28 Oct 1941, 28 Oct 1947
  • Smith's Weekly, 28 June 1941
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 28-29 Oct 1947
  • private information.

Citation details

Richard Waterhouse, 'McGrath, Francis (1866–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 17 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


17 October, 1866
Boorowa, New South Wales, Australia


28 October, 1947 (aged 81)
Kensington, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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