The turf

The dark world of Victorian horse racing

12 October 2019

9:00 AM

12 October 2019

9:00 AM

Two hours after showing her father, the Marquess of Anglesey, the wedding dress in which she was to marry the country squire Henry Chaplin, Lady Florence Paget took a carriage to Marshall & Snelgrove’s department store. Leaving by a side entrance, she was escorted to St George’s Church in Hanover Square where she married Harry Hastings, the fourth Marquis of Hastings. They were back at his Leicestershire estate of Donington Hall before her family knew a thing. It was the ultimate Victorian scandal: the stunningly beautiful Lady Florence was known as the Pocket Venus, Harry Hastings was a rakehell addicted to the cheap cheers of those for whom he bought drinks in East End alehouses and opium dens. He was also a profligate gambler who would hazard £500 a time illegally pitting his cockfighting birds against those of the Duke of Hamilton.

After first consoling himself with a lengthy tiger-shooting expedition to India, Chaplin returned home to pursue a targeted revenge. Hastings had become a racehorse owner on the grand scale, eager to win a Derby. His huge gambles attracted a raffish young racecourse set who followed the fortunes of horses running in the ‘scarlet, white hoops’ of ‘the Plucky Markis’, so Chaplin too became a significant purchaser of racehorses. In the Derby of 1867 Chaplin owned the well-fancied Hermit: Hastings, already in desperate financial straits, opposed Hermit in the betting markets, accommodating those who wanted to back Chaplin’s horse to the tune of £120,000 (£10.1 million in today’s money). For a moment Hastings looked to be in luck: in his final trial Hermit stumbled and coughed, covering his jockey with blood. He had broken a blood vessel and Chaplin was first inclined to scratch him. Although then dissuaded, he publicised the setback to protect unwary punters and Hermit’s price went out from 8–1 to 66–1. Had Hastings possessed a modicum of sense he could have protected his liabilities by staking just £1,800 to win at 66–1 but he refused. Hermit, given a rest few of the overworked horses of his time were allowed, went on to win the Derby.

Chaplin had his revenge on the man who had stolen his bride and Hastings was ruined, forced to sell his horses. Within 18 months, having spent his way through an inheritance of more than £40 million at today’s prices, he was dead. Chaplin, having made his point, sold all his horses too, save for Hermit and a few two-year-olds. The Pocket Venus, however, hadn’t learned much: she then married the professional gambler Sir George Chetwynd. The tale is told in meticulously researched detail in racing historian Paul Mathieu’s Duel (Write First Time, £20) but Mathieu’s book is so much more than a revenge melodrama: his forensic examination of the racing world of the times explains why bookmakers have struggled ever since for respectability and why so many outsiders still regard the sport as irredeemably corrupt. He exposes the venality of a record-breaking family of trainers, noting that there were few racing scandals in the 19th century in which the Day family were not implicated. But others of higher standing fare no better: Lord George Bentinck, one of racing’s great reformers, is revealed as being party to shameless manipulation of form for betting purposes. Rightly, Mathieu concludes: ‘In the 1860s a search party was required to find a wholly honest jockey, trainer or owner.’

I declare an interest in that I wrote the foreword to Antony Johnson’s A Crack of the Whip (Killer Hill Press, £20), but here today’s racing folk will find cheerier fare in the anecdote-rich memoirs of the former amateur rider, trainer and later hotelier in Barbados. It was Jeffrey Bernard, late of this parish, who bestowed on the colourful then Lambourn handler the distinction of the ‘Croix de Gucci’ and I would love to have been at the lunches over which they and the irrepressible practical joker Doug Marks cooked up Bernard’s contributions to The Spectator and Private Eye. Antony reveals how the non-driving Jeff used to arrange lifts from his cottage down into the village for lubrication. Every day he would write himself a letter and hitch a lift when the postman drove up to deliver it.

The four-times-married Antony reveals how he drew the line at one wife having an affair with his vet, but racing people know how to have fun and the tale of a celebration party at Peter and Bonk Walwyn’s being interrupted by the local constabulary certainly rings true. ‘I’m not being burgled, I’m having a party,’ said big Pete, who had just won the Derby with Grundy. ‘Just then,’ says Antony, ‘a rather shamefaced Pat Eddery appeared and explained that he had inadvertently pressed the panic button while giving the nanny a good seeing-to upstairs.’ Lester Piggott, too, appears in familiar guise: after giving his jockey a lift to Deauville in the owner’s plane, trainer Johnson received an invoice: ‘To travel expenses £150’. ‘Worth a try,’ grinned Piggott when challenged. They don’t seem to have quite so much fun these days.

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