A classic of high breeding

PRETTY POLLY
Click to follow

When I was about nine my grandpa McKee, a Belfast bookmaker, gave me two volumes about the history of the English Turf in the early part of the century. They were the first racing books I owned and, instantly absorbed, I read, re-read, indeed almost learned by heart, the exploits of the giants of the sport: mighty Bayardo, brave Humorist, globetrotting Papyrus, flying Mumtaz Mahal.

When I was about nine my grandpa McKee, a Belfast bookmaker, gave me two volumes about the history of the English Turf in the early part of the century. They were the first racing books I owned and, instantly absorbed, I read, re-read, indeed almost learned by heart, the exploits of the giants of the sport: mighty Bayardo, brave Humorist, globetrotting Papyrus, flying Mumtaz Mahal.

It was the horses who were, and still are, the magnet. But one above all of those long-dead champions attracted. A strong-quartered dark chestnut filly stood dutifully to attention looking left, like all the others in the book, as she posed with her jockey, Billy Lane, on her back. But her countenance, as she gazed with kindness and curiosity from the page, ears pricked, seemed to own something extra. And the more I read showed that the white diamond between her eyes was the perfect marking for her. She was a gem.

As a racehorse Pretty Polly, foaled in 1901, set standards for the century that will now not be surpassed. She was the best two-year-old filly of hers or any generation since. Ditto three-year-old filly, and older racemare. And not many would argue with her being broodmare of the century as well.

She was bred in Ireland by Major Eustace Loder at his family's renowned Eyrefield Lodge Stud in Co. Kildare. As a young horse she was physically precocious and, although she inherited her dam's gentle temperament, there was mischief in her too; on one occasion she escaped from her lad and raced twice round a narrow path surrounding a quarry, with a 40ft drop on one side and a high wall on the other, before she consented to be caught.

She was sent to Newmarket to be trained for racing, to Peter Purcell Gilpin at his newly built Clarehaven Stables. In her first race, over five furlongs at Sandown, most people assumed there had been a false start when she was seen romping clear after two furlongs. The judge estimated her winning distance at 10 lengths, but a contemporary photo shows it was more like 20. She went through the season unbeaten and unextended in nine races, including both the Cheveley Park and Middle Park Stakes, two days apart.

The question of whether she would transfer her brilliance to Classic distances as a three-year-old was soon answered. She won the 1,000 Guineas in record time in a canter, strolled home in the Oaks (at 100-8 on, the shortest ever price in a Classic) and thrashed the 2,000 Guineas and Derby winner, St Amant, in the St Leger. At four her victories included the Coronation Cup, Champion Stakes and Jockey Club Cup and at five she won another Coronation Cup.

She had an inseparable companion, a cob called Little Missus, who would accompany her in parade rings and sometimes to the start. After a race Pretty Polly would rush to greet her friend in the winner's circle, with much whinnying and rubbing of noses. She became a heroine of the Edwardian age and would have been a marketing man's dream today; before the St Leger 15,000 postcards bearing her image were sold and people wore ties in the blue-and-yellow Loder colours.

She retired to stud at Eyrefield the winner of 22 of her 24 starts, owing nothing to anyone. But she continued to give as a broodmare, though producing nothing like as good as herself, but it's a rare horse who does. She had nine foals and her direct descendants, for the Loder family and other breeders, include such as St Paddy, Brigadier Gerard, Court Harwell, Great Nephew, Luthier, Northern Taste, Park Appeal, Desirable, Donatello, Psidium, Supreme Court, Sigy, Tenby, Marwell and Marling. And her great-great-great grand-daughter Lady Angela became dam of Nearctic, the sire of Northern Dancer.

Pretty Polly died in August 1931, but through her descendants her name will live on into another century. The brilliance and generosity of the high-class thoroughbred, and the continuity of the breed, is a constant fascination, and Pretty Polly sums it all up.

Comments