Today marks the 75th anniversary of the death of a paragon of the turf, an individual whose magnificent exploits captured the imagination of the public like few before or since and without whose legacy this sport would be the poorer. Pretty Polly, the greatest filly or mare ever to look through a bridle in the stable yard or a headcollar in the paddocks, was put down on 17 August, 1931.
The cleverly named dark chestnut, by Gallinule out of Admiration, won 22 of her 24 starts over four seasons, including the filly Triple Crown in 1904 and Coronation Cups the following two years. Bred by Eustace Loder at Eyrefield Lodge on the Curragh, she was trained in Newmarket by Peter Gilpin.
Both her style and substance as a runner pass the closest scrutiny. On her debut in a five-furlong contest at Sandown in late June, she was so far in front of her nine rivals before a furlong had been covered that most watchers expected the flag to go up for a false start. She won by an eased-down 100 yards, estimated as 10 lengths.
Her nine victories from as many runs that year included, uniquely, both the Cheveley Park and Middle Park Stakes, with one day between. In the latter race she was chased home by the subsequent 2,000 Guineas and Derby winner St Amant, who never beat her in five meetings.
Her debut was the only time in her career she failed to start favourite. She once started at 55-1 on, twice at 33-1 on, twice at 25-1 on and her Oaks price of 100-8 on is the shortest recorded in any Classic.
Her winning range was from five furlongs to two and a quarter miles and she achieved the extremely rare feat of being the champion, of either sex, at two, three and four. But on her best rating of 137, which puts her ahead of the likes of Sun Chariot, Allez France, Sceptre, Dahlia and Pebbles, there would still be 50 colts better on the all-time list. Pretty Polly's reputation suffered not one jot for her two defeats, for both of which there were valid reasons. At three, she was sent to Longchamp for the Prix du Conseil Municipal (the Arc had not yet been invented) in October, an ill-starred venture from the off.
Her journey to Paris, across a rough Channel and by slow train, was a nightmare, and the ground had turned into a bog. Ridden by Danny Maher for the first time (her regular rider Billy Lane had been hurt in a fall), she still beat all bar trailblazing mudlark Presto.
Her second defeat came on what proved to be her final run, the 1906 Ascot Gold Cup. Sweating and out of sorts after having had a boil lanced on her belly in the racecourse stables, she was beaten by the dour stayer Bachelor's Button who, aided and abetted by a pacemaker, set a new record time.
During her career, Pretty Polly achieved celebrity far beyond the track. Her talent was immense, but so was her charisma. She was a big, handsome horse with a sweet, generous nature and a laid-back, intelligent outlook. She was accompanied everywhere in public by her comfort blanket, a cob named Little Missus, and the affection of the pair was obvious and touching.
She raced in an era when horses were part of everyone's everyday life and racing, which featured the élite of the species, was a majority interest sport.
Before the St Leger, some 15,000 Pretty Polly postcards were sold, as well as button badges and sticks of rock. Women wore rosettes and men ties in the yellow and dark blue Loder colours. PP was the MUFC of her day.
Her worth at stud was not immediately apparent; she started with two barren years and then slipped twins. But through her four daughters Molly Desmond, Polly Flinders, Dutch Mary and Baby Polly she has wielded huge, still flourishing, influence.
The list of top horses who are direct descendants is legion; the names Donatello, Nearctic, Brigadier Gerard, St Paddy, Psidium, Supreme Court, Great Nephew, Northern Taste, Vienna, Unite, Sigy, Swain, Fantastic Light, Marwell, Park Appeal, Vintage Tipple, Russian Rhythm and Cape Cross only scrape the surface.
A contemporary writer called Pretty Polly not the mare of the century, but the mare of all the centuries. One hundred years after she retired, the verdict is unchanged.
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