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Berkshire Family Historian
June 2002

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The sport of Kings (and Queens)

by David Boyd

Horse racing is old; but training stables as we know them are not. In the eighteenth century owners had their horses prepared in their parks by their grooms. Gradually owners noticed that certain areas produced better training gallops and sent their horses there. The grooms became known as 'training grooms', a title still used until the 1870s. Training centres began where the tuff was best; not necessarily near the racecourses. Malton and Middleham in Yorkshire, Hednesford in Staffordshire, Holywell near Flint, Bourton-on-the-Hill in Gloucestershire, Newmarket, Epsom and other places became the homes of several stables where the trainers prepared horses sometimes for single owners as 'private' trainers but increasingly for several owners as 'public' trainers. Training was a trade and remained as such until the 1890s when an increasing number of younger sons decided it was a fit occupation for gentry. Respectability had been achieved long before with John Scott (d 1871), popularly known as 'The Wizard of the North'; he entertained Prime Ministers at his Malton stables and gave the definitive opinion on most subjects within his field.

Sleepy Berkshire's part in this story was late in starting. The Duke of Cumberland kept his racehorses at East Ilsley but others were slower in appreciating the chalk downs. John Stevens came here from Bourton-on-the-Hill in the 1830s. He retired in the 1840s and was succeeded by his son Thomas who was to train in Berkshire for forty years, moving the stable to Chilton in 1852. He had for several years the largest stable in Berkshire. Four of his sons were to train locally. His son Tom jnr. followed him in the i88os and his brother George succeeded Tom in 1899. Of Tom Stevens snr. it was said that he took the Racing Calendar to church. His oldest son, William, set up on his own at Yew Tree Cottage, Compton, in 1871. Like his father he knew the way to make a living was to train many mostly moderate horses and to know when they were going to win. Both he and his father survived with difficulty an incident when an apprentice told the Jockey Club he had regularly 'pulled' horses for both trainers. During the 1890s William Stevens was able to buy much of Compton including Roden House.

Quality as opposed to quantity at East Ilsley came from James Dover who moved here from Hednesford in 1862. He saddled a string of classic winners including Lord Lyon, winner of the Triple Crown in 1866. Unlike the Stevens family he died poor and his son, James jnr, did little of note at Churchill Cottage. George Drewe kept the Swan Inn and trained there up to the end of the 1850s. His stable jockey, Joseph Lowe, who succeeded him, later moved to Kennet House and chaired the parish council. Three of the Dawson brothers, Scots and members of the most important of all training families, were briefly based here though all were to move on to Newmarket; Joseph left Ilsley in 1859, John moved there from Roden House in 186o, and Mat, greatest of all trainers, had stables at Ilsley and Yew Tree Cottage in the early 1850s. After John Dawson's departure from Roden House the American owner Richard TenBroeck leased the house until 1866 for himself and his Virginian trainer. Without reliable owners life could be interesting; James Waugh's long and distinguished training career included two years at East Ilsley in the 1860s for Wybrow Robinson, an Antipodean, who gambled away all of his immense fortune.

Ascot Heath was used by several local stables. The Master of Buckhounds improved the gallops in the 1830s and Berkshire's first classic winner was trained here in 1834 by William Day who occupied Englemere Cottage but died

Mat Dawson (photo)

Mat Dawson

Henry Scott and his son Sam moved here in 1837 while Samuel Death trained nearby for nearly thirty years up until his retirement in 1859. Ben Land who had formerly trained jumpers at East Ilsley had two spells at Englemere Cottage from 1854 to 1863 but Ascot's significance as a racecourse grew as its reputation as a training centre faded.

Race meetings took place at Lambourn from the eighteenth century but the first trainers only arrived in the later 1840s. John Shaw Drinkald, eccentric and disliked, installed his private trainer in the High Street in 1847; the venture never thrived and Mr Drinkald, a bad loser, ended his days in an asylum. Edwin Parr, an owner-trainer, who also trained for others, bought property here and trained with moderate success until 1860. Lord Craven himself showed what the amateur could do. He bought a share in Wild Dayrell, the property of the owner of Littlecote, and the colt prepared by a Littlecote gardener/groom in the grounds of Ashdown Park survived several 'nobbling' attempts to land the 1855 Derby. Joseph Saxon, a self-made Lancashire man, bought a hundred acres on the road to Upper Lambourn and for nearly twenty years up to his death in 1870, having run through all his money, supervised a large and successful string. Luke Snowden, the best of his several outstanding apprentices, is one of the few racing men to be buried in the old churchyard. The lychgate at the church was erected in memory of Charles Jousiffe who was at Seven Barrows from 1877 to 1891.

John Prince took Stork House in 1859 as a public trainer - he had previously trained privately at Ilsley and in Upper Lambourn. A Derby winner did come from his stable, Kettledrum in 1861, but it was prepared by a 'visiting' trainer who afterwards moved

Picnic at Ascot races

Picnic at Ascot races

unsuccessfully to Seven Barrows. Fred Bates, a Dawson son-in-law and Prince's successor, had most of his success elsewhere. James Humphreys who trained there from 1874 to 1896, specialised in winning the great handicaps. Billy Higgs, born in the Mile End Road and a lad in his stable before the railway reached Lambourn, reminisced later: 'Six o'clock in the morning until seven at night....every horse which ran had to walk ten miles to the station.' Higgs was twice champion on the Flat (the stableman's dream came true), but for most lads, often recruited for weight reasons from urban slums, the dream did not, although there were worse alternatives than a racing stable. Fred Lynham ran a successful but secretive stable at Saxon House - he was another of Saxon's apprentices - and continued to own the yard after moving to France. Edward Hobbs, there from 1885 saddled good handicappers in the 1890s. But Lambourn remained best known for a stable which used its gallops but was in fact in Wiltshire. The Rothschild horses were the first trained at Russley Park in 1853 but the stable was for nearly twenty years the base for most of James Merry's horses. Merry, a Scots ironmaster who attracted little affection, gambled heavily but his horses ran on their merits with great success up to 1875. His last trainer, Robert Peck, continued Russley's success under his own direction. Archie Merry, James's son, leased Seven Barrows from the Craven estate after Charles Jousiffe's death, putting the stable under the direction of the Irish amateur rider, Garry Moore. James Peace, the subject of an unkind witticism from an ex-owner ('Ah Mr Peace - the peace that passeth all understanding') trained on a large and successful scale at various stables in the area from 1883 until his retirement nineteen years later; for him quantity counted while James Chandler, at Lambourn House from 1889, handled a higher class of horse. For much of this period there were usually about four important stables at any one time using the Lambourn Downs.

At Letcombe Regis, Edwin Parr's older brother Tom bought Benhams in 1851. His abilities as a trainer of (mostly) his own horses were matched only by his financial ineptitude. High in the table of leading owners for much of the next thirty years - he headed the list in 1856 - he hid at intervals in his loft to avoid his creditors. His most noted lad, Charles Morton, trained in the village up to 1888 and returned there later; his achievements in the next century far eclipsed those of a master whom he held in great regard. At Letcombe Regis too was Jack Hornsby who moved there in the late 1880s and trained the legendary handicapper Victor Wild, perhaps the most popular racehorse of the time. Stables started elsewhere notably at East Hendred, Letcombe Bassett, Sparsholt and finally, in 1897, Whatcombe, but for most of these, as indeed the principal centres in Berkshire, the great racing days lay in the twentieth century.

Recommended reading: for a general history of racing in Berkshire see James Douglas-Home 'Horse racing in Berkshire' (1992); for brief information on specific trainers see David Boyd, A Biographical dictionary of racehorse trainers in Berkshire 1850- 1939'.

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updated 30th June 2002