The sport of princes. And rabbits, apparently.

I’ve been reading about horse racing at the turn of the nineteenth century and have been both charmed and appalled by some of the things I’ve discovered. While I’d been aware of some of the Prince of Wales’s less savoury characteristics, I hadn’t realised he was believed by some to have cheated on the turf.

The prince’s horse Escape, offspring of the mighty Highflyer, was the clear favourite in his first race at the second October meeting at Newmarket in 1791, a view formed because of Escape’s form before the meeting.  He finished last.  The result of this – along with several angry punters, undoubtedly – was that Escape was ranked as a 5-1 outsider in the following day’s race. He won emphatically. Suspicions were raised not only because of his uneven form but because neither the Prince nor his jockey had backed the horse for the first race, while both had done so for the second.

Escape’s jockey, Sam Chifney, asserted there was nothing suspicious about the results. Chifney said that he had entertained reservations about Escape’s fitness for the first race as he had not been sweated, ie worked while wearing a heavy rug, but he felt that the first race had opened the horse’s pores sufficiently to enable him to run well in the second race. The Jockey Club didn’t buy it, perhaps because Chifney was regarded in some quarters as being less than honest.

Sir Charles Bunbury, the leading figure within the Jockey Club, interviewed Chifney, and then informed the Prince that if he were to use Chifney again as a jockey, no gentleman would be found to start against him. The prince awarded Chifney £200 a year to compensate him for loss of earnings – an annuity which Chifney subsequently sold. He spent all the proceeds, eventually dying in a debtor’s prison. The prince continued to race his horses, but never returned to Newmarket. Having been seen to stand up to the heir to the throne, the Jockey Club’s power and influence over British racing increased yet further.

Highflyer by John BoultbeeHighflyer by John Boultbee

A rather depressing tale is told of Newmarket’s first Spring Meeting in 1811, where a number of horses were poisoned by the addition of arsenic to a drinking trough. Several died as a result. A well-known tout, Daniel Dawson, was accused of the crime after one of his associates had laid information against him in return for a £500 reward offered by the Jockey Club. The case against him was dropped on a technicality. He was arrested again on a different charge of poisoning horses, and confessed to poisoning twenty or so. He was subsequently sentenced to death and hanged.

On a much happier note, I came once more upon the tale of the stallion Waxy, whose stable mate was a rabbit. The trainer, John Kent, Snr. (1783-1869), told his son about the doe, who ate oats from Waxy’s manger and would nestle up to him when he lay down. According to Kent Snr., the doe made her nest in the middle of Waxy’s stall, where “…family after family was reared in this risky home, and no harm ever befell one of its members from any action on the part of the horse. The old horse would thrust his nose into the nest, as though he would fondle its tiny and helpless occupants.”

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3 Responses to The sport of princes. And rabbits, apparently.

  1. Leonie says:

    I love cross-species friendships. Does Mabel count as half of one, do you think?

  2. I’m not in the least surprised by some of Prinny’s tricks – not the most savoury of characters, I fear. Counterbalanced, though, by the doe in the manger. I love that story. Isn’t research fun?!

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