When you reach my stage in life, you risk being accused of living in the past, but there's another purpose to this story besides the celebration of a life well-lived. A week ago, the Brits commemorated the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill's passing, and many things have been said, mainly good but interspersed with the usual smattering of negatives that are the prerequisites of credibility among modern day journalists, most to do with the deliverance of victory in Second World War for England. You can't recall VE day, it seems, without remembering Gallipoli. All of them ignore the fact that there was more to Churchill than war and speeches, and that on the equine front, he was not only a lucky owner, but a demon of a breeder.
Michael Ross, a former member of the pedigree department of that great dinosaur of the horse racing world, the British Bloodstock Agency, reminded us this week of Churchill's flirtation with our sport, and the word “flirtation” is used advisedly. Several followers of these columns have questioned their participation in the breeding business at their advanced age, and we've always appeased them with stories of astonishing achievement by breeders who only wet their feet late in life. Sir Winston was one of those, buying his first racehorse at the age of 75 for years after the war ended. Relieved of the demands of the office of Prime Minister as Leader of the Opposition he acquired a grey three-year-old named Colonist II on the advice of the Epsom vet, Major Anthony Carey-Foster, who'd discovered him on a trip to France. Colonist II visited the winner's enclosure on no fewer than thirteen occasions for his new owner, including the Jockey Club Cup and appropriately, the newly-inaugurated Winston Churchill Stakes, as well as running second in the world's most arduous staying race, the Ascot Gold Cup.
While the distractions of his military and political careers obviously delayed his entry into horse ownership, a deep vein of involvement ran through the family, his father Lord Randolph's victory in the Oaks at Epsom with L'Abbesse de Jouarre in 1889 being a source of considerable joy for the 15-year-old Harrovian. Apparently his early interest in the sport was fired by his American maternal grandfather, Leonard Jerome, founder with August Belmont in 1866 of the Jerome Park Racecourse, where the Belmont Stakes was initially staged. In his senior years at Harrow and as a young soldier, Churchill rode in point-to-points and steeplechases in his renowned chocolate and pink silks, though it has to be said, without any great success.
Churchill's aide-de-camp during the Second World War was Captain Tim Rogers, founder of Ireland's revered nursery, Airlie Stud, which is still run by his widow, Sonia, a recent Summerhill visitor. Tim Rogers became Churchill's principal advisor on bloodstock matters, and soon the flame that Colonist II had sparked raged into an inferno when Prince Arthur and Le Pretendant prevailed in two more stagings of the Winston Churchill Stakes. In 1955 he scored his first Classic success in the Irish 1000 Guineas with the filly Dark Issue, trained by his advisor's brother, Captain Derby Rogers.
The itch to breed racehorses finally got to him at the sprightly age of 80, when he decided to keep a few broodmares at his country house, Chartwell in Kent. In May 1955 he added the Newchapel Stud, close to Linkfield Park Racecourse in Surrey, to his portfolio of farm properties. Former owner of the 1969 Durban July hero, Naval Escort, Gold Circle chairman and prominent South African breeder, Chris Saunders will tell you that he visited Newchapel in 1961 with the intention of buying a filly from the big man just a few years before the latter's death. That was a matter of months after the stud's stirling triumphs of 1960, when Vienna and High Hat ranked with the best three-year-olds of that year. Vienna was a grandson of Lord Derby's inimitable creation, Hyperion, sired by The Queen's outstanding racer, Aureole. Besides an illustrious career at the track, Vienna is remembered for getting the world's top runner, Vaguely Noble, who plundered the Prix de l' Arc de Triomphe in 1968.
It is often said that the mark of a really good stallion is the ability to generate better stock than himself, and as brilliant as Vaguely Noble was at the races, it's arguable that he was at least as good a stallion. He quickly made his case with Empery's victory in the Blue Riband, the Epsom Derby, and followed up with his brightest star, Dahlia, whose eleven Group One victories, including the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes twice and the Washington DC International, put her at the head of one of the all-time best generations of fillies, among them Allez France and Ruffian. Vienna's legacy lies in the pedigrees of the modern day giants Treve, Goldikova, Canford Cliffs and Sir Percy.
While High Hat is often remembered by pedigree buffs as the broodmare sire of the brilliant classic-winning filly, Glad Rags, and the tough-as-teak Ela Mana Mou, his greatest accomplishment was his outstanding son High Line, winner of the Jockey Club Cup on three occasions and sire of the exceptional performers Adonijah and the Derby runner-up, Master Willie. Google him and you'll find his name in the ancestries of the current luminaries Dubawi, Dansili, The Fugue, Harbinger, Rail Link, Animal Kingdom, Makfi and Al Kazeem.
We all know Cecil John Rhodes' lament that there was “so much to do, and so little time to do it”, but he was in his 30s and on his deathbed already. If you take the long view about your prospects in life, it's never too late to make a name for yourself in the horse business, and as Churchill so clearly illustrated, there's some fun to be had on the road.
Sir Winston Churchill in front of a painting of himself and Colonist II
Raoul H.Millais/My Councellor/Dreweatsts (p)