By ‘ancient’ I mean of course ‘old’, though as far as racing is concerned the age between the wars can easily be looked upon as the time of the ancients. And in ‘ancient’ times occurrences occurred that would never, not in a million years happen today.
For instance the 1882 winner of the Grand National, Seaman, was ridden to victory by his owner Lord John Manners, a serving officer with the Grenadier Guards. Remarkably it was Lord Manners first ever ride in a steeplechase. Indeed his first ride on a racecourse. On his second ride in a steeplechase he won the Grand Military Gold Cup. No doubt thinking race-riding too easily conquered the good lord retired to the hunting field. Of course the Grand National continues to provide remarkable and romantic stories but Seaman’s victory was one of the best as not only was he ridden by a complete novice without any experience of race-riding but the horse was thought by his previous owners as too small and frail to compete in arduous races, a point perhaps substantiated by the horse breaking down after the last fence, or hurdle as it was back in 1882. It is also interesting to relate that the first three horses, the only three to finish from a field of twelve, were aged respectively six, five and five.
Nowadays, even in the main racing centres like Newmarket and Malton, it is no doubt speeding lorries that are cause for worry amongst trainers and their staff. In the mid 1880’s it was the bicycle that was the scourge of the horseman. Let me quote from Arthur Yates’ biography, and even he, writing in the 1920’s, thought what you are about to read to sound ‘prehistoric’: “There are places where the good taste of the cyclist should prevent him from using his vehicle, and one of those is emphatically Newmarket. Hard words break no bones, or the few youths who have lately introduced these affairs into the headquarters of the Turf would be seriously fractured. The effect of a bicycle coming along a road past a string of young horses on their way to exercise is remarkable. Stable-boys know how to sit tight; if they did not, on Monday morning there would have been half-a-score of loose horses careering over the heath, or very likely slipping about on the stones in the town. Where young race-horses are concerned it is easy to do a great deal of damage in a very short time, and I do not know a readier mode of proving this than driving a bicycle round about Newmarket.”
Sir Mark Prescott does not realise how easy his life is if all he has to concern himself with is the ‘99% of his horses doing their best to injure themselves and the 95% of his staff doing what they can to aid and abet them.’
Arthur Yates’ biography is a gem of fact and Turf anecdote, made ever more fascinating as he writes about a world that seems so different to one we live in today that he might be writing about the Greeks or Romans in the pre-dawn of civilisation.
Yates trained Cloister, the winner of the Grand National in 1893 carrying 12st 7lbs in a then course record, and who finished second the previous two years and the greatest horse Yates ever trained. For instance in Yates’ book we learn that The Lamb, winner of the Grand National in1868 and again in 1871, had his last race at Baden-Baden in the Grand Steeplechase. There were only 3 runners and The Lamb was destined for victory when he broke a hind fetlock joint. As Yates’ poignantly put it, ‘thus ended the career of one of the finest horses that ever jumped a fence’.
He tells of buying a horse for £6 out of a mowing machine that went on to win him a multitude of races, another he bought for £10 out of a dog-cart. And there was little sentiment about in his time as it seems it was not unusual for Grand National winners to be sold days if not weeks after their great victories. He writes of the Metropolitan racecourses such as Croydon and ‘plungers’ as they were termed, people who threw their fortunes into owning racehorses in expectation of winning even greater amounts of money, with more than many of them ending up penniless. Yates seemed to have no sympathy for such people, thinking racing to be better off without such dreamers and schemers.
We may not learn much that would improve our sport if we revisited those times and such a study will only doubtless confirm how fortunate we are to have reached the point of excellence we have undoubtedly come to but there was a freedom in the sport, with the skill and horsemanship of the rider more to the fore than any other aspect. But we live in differing times, though it would be interesting if we could perhaps glimpse now and again at the sport as it was, though of course that is what we do every April at Liverpool, the race that dominates our sport as equally as it did back in Arthur Yates’s day.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.