1897 - 1968 | Victoria | Sports journalist
Wolfe was a widely respected turf writer who took his famous byline, “Cardigan”, from the 1903 Melbourne Cup winner, Lord Cardigan. After war service, Wolfe began veterinary studies, then became a racing writer. He spent four years as sports editor of The Argus in Melbourne before Sir Keith Murdoch hired him for The Herald. He covered 21 Melbourne Cups, picking up a phone after each Cup and dictating 4000 words of copy from shorthand notes. In 1932 he accompanied Phar Lap to Agua Caliente, and was present at the horse’s death. In 1934 he exposed a notorious ring-in.
Legend has it that when Sir Keith Murdoch told Bert Wolfe he was planning to hire the best racing writer in Australia for The Herald, the response was “you’re looking at him”.
By all accounts, Herbert Austin Wolfe was not shy about expressing an opinion on racing matters. But if his glowing self-assessment was premature when Murdoch hired him in 1933, it wasn’t for long.
As racing editor of The Herald for 22 years, Wolfe covered 21 Melbourne Cups. He was renowned for his ability to dictate 4000 words of copy over the phone within an hour of the race, while referring to a few shorthand jottings in his racebook, and covered some of the turf ’s most dramatic stories of the era.
He wrote under the byline ‘Cardigan’, taken from a three-year-old colt called Lord Cardigan who won the 1903 Melbourne Cup carrying a staggering 3st 6lb (22kg) less than the champion mare, Wakeful. Wolfe was only a few years older than Lord Cardigan at the time, but was clearly proud of the fact the Cup winner was bred by his grandfather at his stud north of Maitland, where Wolfe was born.
Wolfe, who spent considerable time at his grandfather’s property during his childhood, might just as easily have chosen a different pseudonym. He was reportedly present at the foaling of Lord Cardigan’s three-quarter brother, Lord Nolan, who won the Melbourne Cup in 1908.
Wolfe enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force at the age of 19 and served with the 6th Field Artillery Brigade in France in 1917-18. He began veterinary studies after the war, but abandoned them when his grandfather persuaded the sporting editor of The Daily Telegraph in Sydney to hire him as a racing assistant. By 1923 he was racing editor of the Sydney Referee, then spent the next four years as sports editor of The Argus in Melbourne.
In 1927, Wolfe decided to look at racing from the other side of the fence and became chairman of stewards of the Queensland Turf Club, where he developed skills he was later to apply in the coverage of one of his biggest stories. He returned to journalism three years later and wrote for several Sydney newspapers until Sir Kith Murdoch recruited him for The Herald.
Wolfe was highly regarded and respected for his knowledge of thoroughbred racing and breeding and his instinctive ability to identify a quality horse. In 1938 he was commissioned by the flamboyant bookmaker and racehorse owner Sol Green to go to England to buy broodmares.
Wolfe was closely involved in some of the biggest racing dramas of the ‘30s.
In 1932 he accompanied Phar Lap to Mexico, where Australia’s favourite horse won the Agua Caliente Handicap. Wolfe had obtained permission for a light plane to land beside the course and fly him to San Diego to cable home the story of the Red Terror’s famous victory. A fortnight later he was present when Phar Lap died, and was convinced the horse had been poisoned. A pair of horseshoes worn by Phar Lap during his last race was later donated to the Melbourne Museum by the Wolfe family.
Wolfe was again on the spot in 1934, when he exposed one of the most notorious ring-ins in Australian turf history. A talented Sydney horse called Erbie was at the centre of the scam, racing under different names in three states and landing betting plunges each time. Erbie’s official record before his last recorded start was an impressive 23 wins, but he was believed to have claimed at least another dozen wins under other names before the rort was revealed.
Wolfe became suspicious when a mediocre galloper called Redlock won easily at Murray Bridge, in South Australia, and cleaned out bookies in the process. When Redlock won his next start by 12 lengths, at Kadina, the cynical scribe was on course and asked if he could examine the horse after the race. Wolfe, the ex-steward, said he had seen Erbie win races in NSW and knew his markings and characteristics.
Although the Kadina winner’s white blaze was missing and his brands disguised, Wolfe had no hesitation in declaring that “despite his new face, the gelding is Erbie”. The real Redlock was later found in a paddock at Malmsbury, north-west of Melbourne, and Erbie’s trainer was arrested and jailed for two years for fraud.
Wolfe, who by then was acknowledged as the best racing writer in Australia, had a reputation for writing without fear or favour. Victoria Racing Club chairman Sir Ross Grey-Smith, who had clashed with him on occasions, praised Wolfe’s “fearless and sometimes ruthless criticism”. Wolfe, he said, was “much more than a wonderfully skilled reporter – he had a detective instinct”.
Wolfe died in 1968, but the most prestigious award in Victorian racing journalism – first awarded in 1970 – still honours his name and his reputation. He was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1990.
Geoff Wilkinson OAM is a crime writer who retired from daily journalism in 2012 after 43 years, but is yet to retire from punting on racehorses. He was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Melbourne Press Club in 2010.
Pharlap at Agua Caliente in Mexico in 1932 shortly before he died mysteriously in California.
The Redlock-Erbie ring-in scandal exposed by Wolfe.
The Redlock-Erbie ring-in scandal
Herbert Austin Wolfe
‘Wolfe, Herbert Austin (1897–1968)’, Peter Pierce, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press