Racing: Dramatic Derby of 1913 puts Sir Percy in the shade

Sue Montgomery
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:20

It was, undoubtedly a thrilling, emotional roller coaster of a Derby. But Sir Percy's win in Saturday's 227th edition of the Classic was nothing compared to the 134th. The 1913 Derby not only produced a four-horse finish of noses with tragedy in their wake, but also a disqualified favourite, a 100-1 winner, royalty, politics and all the downsides of human life: despair, spite, hatred, incompetence, jealousy, racism, injustice. Oh, and the Titanic.

The dramatic race is best-known in retrospect as the Suffragette Derby, the one in which misguided militant protester Emily Davison suffered fatal injuries after she burst from the crowd on Tattenham Hill, rushed into the path of the King's horse Anmer and brought him down. But those sensational events were at the time barely observed or known by the crowds in the grandstand. The main concern was the extraordinary finish and its aftermath.

There were 15 runners for the fateful contest, worth £6,450 to the winner. The favourite, at 6-4, was Craganour, trained at Foxhill by Jack Robinson. Where he was concerned the plot had already begun to thicken. There is little doubt that in the 2,000 Guineas he passed the post first, beating Louvois a half-length, a result that was clear to all bar one.

Unfortunately, that one was the judge, who declared Louvois the winner by a head, and that was that. But Craganour's owner, Bower Ismay, took the reversal on the chin and aimed to put the record straight at Epsom.

The name Ismay, though, was held in opprobrium. The family business was shipping; specifically, the White Star Line, whose flagship the Titanic had gone down with the loss of 1,513 souls the previous year. It was Ismay's older brother, Bruce, who had reportedly taken a lifeboat place by disguising himself as a woman.

There was also bad feeling in the weighing room. Early last century English jockeys were not much good and riders from France usually got the call for big races. For the Derby, Ismay replaced William Saxby, who had ridden Craganour in the Guineas, with Johnny Reiff, an American from Paris.

The running was made by Aboyeur, ridden by unfashionable Edwin Piper. The blinkered long-shot held the call into the straight, where a brawling struggle ensued. Three furlongs out Craganour drew alongside Aboyeur and they slugged it out, iron to iron. Others began to close; the leaders started to roll as they hit the camber.

After the two-marker Shogun, trying for a gap on the rails, was almost knocked over by Aboyeur, shouldered to his left by Craganour. Piper gave as good as he got and though Shogun's balance was gone Louvois and Day Comet thrust into the space. On the outside Great Sport was bang there and Nimbus, impeded by Anmer's fall, was closing fast, with Sun Yat and Bachelor's Wedding.

Craganour and Aboyeur carried on their bumping match and the pattern of colours shuffled with every stride, like the turn of a kaleidoscope. As they flashed past the post, it seemed the yellow-and-violet had prevailed from the white-and-black. The judge seemed to agree; up went Craganour's number 5; favourite backers began to collect.

Then came shock news: that the stewards, Lord Rosebery, Lord Wolverton and Major Eustace Loder, had objected to the winner and, after an enquiry (including evidence from Louvois's rider, Saxby, who had every reason to loathe the cocky Reiff), Craganour was disqualified for not keeping a straight course.

Most observers felt this an outrage; sure, it was a rough finish, but six of one. Aboyeur's owners, a syndicate of gamblers, would have objected had they felt they could get the race.

The stewards acted as prosecutors and judges and for Ismay, it was infamy, as per Frankie Howerd. Rosebery had it in for him; the upright former Prime Minister abhorred Bruce Ismay's cowardly behaviour on the Titanic. Loder's venom was two-fold; he could have owned Craganour, for he bred him and sold him as a foal, and there was bad blood between him and Ismay over extra-marital activity. And to cap a bad day's work by the officials, the judge failed to spot Day Comet, who finished on the rails in the leading group. He probably finished third, but was never acknowledged. The promoted Aboyeur was judged the victor, with Louvois second, Great Sport third and Nimbus fourth.

The photograph of the finish clearly shows four heads in the front rank, Craganour with the light browband, then Aboyeur in blinkers, and the two white blazes of Louvois and Day Comet. Nimbus, nearest the camera, has a white noseband, with Great Sport and white-faced Shogun on his left. Sun Yat follows in dark silks, and Bachelor's Wedding's tail and hind-quarters are visible behind him. But, of course, celluloid evidence was unavailable on the day.

Ismay, disillusioned, sold Craganour to Argentina, where he was an outstanding sire. Aboyeur ended up in Russia and disappeared during the revolution. The Guineas and Derby left Robinson a broken man; he died less than two years later.

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