On a cold December evening, GLHS members and visitors were treated to a lively account of horseracing history by one of our own members, Charlie Brown. The talk ranged over the origins of key events in the British racing calendar, key figures who had shaped the rules of racing, the genealogy of some of the greatest racing horses, and the background to famous jockeys. In presenting the story, richly illustrated with slides and anecdotes, we learned the origin of famous terms, like ‘steeplechase’ and ‘Derby Day’.
At the start, Charlie introduced the talk by presenting a famous painting of a day at the races. This underlined that ‘all human life was there’, with all classes mingling as they enjoyed the racing, the betting and the various entertainments that could be found. We then heard about the racecourse that used to be at Belford, one of the most important in our area. It was active from the early 19th century, and perhaps from before. It ceased to operate towards the end of the century for reasons which are not quite clear, although people were coming from Newcastle by rail during the middle of the 19th century.
Nationally, the Jockey Club was founded in 1753, prompted by the need for some form of regulation as, by this time, horseracing and betting were closely linked. In Charlie’s view, three key figures shaped how racing rules evolved. The first was Charles Bunbury who, with Lord Derby, introduced the racing of 3-year old horses and modified the system of heats prior to the main race, which had often exhausted the horses. Racing 3-year olds helped to test the abilities of young racers. Bunbury and Derby were particularly active at the Epsom Downs racecourse, which is now the premier event in Britain, and The Derby is of course named after Lord Derby. The second was Lord George Cavendish Bentinck, in the mid-19th century, who was particularly concerned to eliminate fraud. Until then there had been all sorts of tricks – substituting numbers and colours between horses, jockeys and the programme, to confuse the outcome of bets, presumably a form of ‘insider trading’. The third was Admiral Rous, who was a stickler for enforcement, upbraiding any jockey who had flouted the rules.
Then as now, the quality of the horses was a central preoccupation. A famous racer often had a genealogy of winning ancestors and sired new generations of winners. All the racing stock is descended from one of three racehorses brought from Arabia in the late 17th/early 18th Century. We were introduced to the genealogy of ‘Dr Syntax’, a very successful horse owned by the Felton Park family. His ancestors included winners, and one of the original ‘foundation sires’. His descendents included Beeswing, born in 1833, who was even more successful than Dr Syntax, and whose descendents continued to breed winners. One of these was Hermit, who in 1867 unexpectedly won a race on which the Marquis of Hastings had placed a large bet. The Marquis lost millions and died soon after. Hermit’s descendents are still winning on the turf today.
Horses needed good jockeys. Jockeys often came from families working in the racing industry, and their future depended on their weight. We were introduced to Fred Archer, who was very successful in a short life which ended when he was only 29 in 1886. By this time, the railway network enabled him to travel across the country to participate in many races. But perhaps the stress of keeping a low weight and maintaining a winning record cost him his life. Jockeys could also be injured, often falling on the course. But they could be philosophical too. Captain Becher fell at the first Grand National held at Aintree in 1839, which then consisted of a fence and a brook. He fell at the brook and sheltered under the fence as all the other horses jumped over him, and this jump has ever since been referred to as Becher’s Brook. Phlegmatically, he is said to have commented that water is much better with whisky in it. The Grand National is of course a steeplechase, with fences and ditches to negotiate. It apparently originated in Ireland in a challenge to race between two church steeples!
For many of us this was a quite new field of history, and we expressed our warm thanks to our speaker, also thanking him for his work with the GLHS Committee from which he has recently retired.
Our next meeting will be on January 14th, when Jim Herbert will talk on aspects of Berwick History. Visitors are most welcome.