Part Three: THE MIDDLE YEARS - X. A Respite from Public Life
A Respite from Public Life
MY INTEREST in horses, their breeding, training and racing, has been with me all my life and is of course also part of the tradition which I have inherited, the environment in which I was bred. Persian art, in the various exhibitions which have been held in London and elsewhere, has perhaps helped to make the Western public realize the large and important part which sport played in the lives of that old Iranian ruling class whence I am descended. The chase in its many forms was for them not just a distraction; it was a major occupation all their lives; their hounds, their hawks, their horses were the most beautiful, the swiftest and the finest that they could breed or procure. My grandfather in his young manhood, at the court of Fateh Ali Shah, as the favored son-in-law of that powerful monarch, was as fully absorbed in all the accustomed open-air and athletic sports and pursuits of a sophisticated yet virile society as were any of his contemporaries. After his tribulations and his wanderings ceased and he settled in Bombay, he naturally and happily resumed a way of life not very dissimilar from that which he had known in his youth. And as I have tried to show earlier in this book, such was the atmosphere in which, from the dawning of conscious experience, I spent my childhood and boyhood.
When my father died he left a large and imposing sporting establishment in being -- hawks, hounds, and between eighty and ninety race horses. A good deal of this establishment my mother naturally pared down, but she kept twenty or thirty of the horses; and throughout my minority these were raced at meetings all over Western India in my name and under my colors. I have earlier given a brief account of some of the successes which I -- and with my cousin and racing partner, Aga Shamsuddin -- enjoyed during those years.
One effect of this early and sustained prominence on the Indian turf was that by the time I was in my late teens I had a number of friends who were important and influential in racing circles, two of whom were the brothers Lord William and Lord Marcus Beresford. They were younger sons of the Marquis of Waterford; and Lord William in particular was a powerful and original personality in his own right; he was military secretary to three Viceroys of India in succession, Lord Ripon, Lord Dufferin and Lord Lansdowne. His long tenure of this key post, in which he had won and maintained the confidence of each of his chiefs, gave him unchallenged influence and authority over a diverse and far-ranging field of affairs, military, social, political and diplomatic, in relations with foreign dignitaries and potentates who visited India, and of course with the Ruling Princes. He was an utterly fearless horseman of whom it was said that he had broken every bone in his body in falls sustained while hunting, playing polo or steeplechasing. During his fourteen years as military secretary he became one of India's leading race horse owners, on his own and in association with two princes, with the Maharajah Darbhanga, an immensely wealthy landlord, and with the Maharajah of Patiala, the leading Sikh prince. The bookmakers, it was always said, lived in fear and trembling of Lord William, for he was a past master in the difficult art of bringing off big betting coups. He was a friend of my family's and of mine from an early age; and whenever he came to Bombay we saw a great deal of him.
When I first went to England in 1898 I discovered therefore -and I was young enough to be agreeably surprised by my discovery -that a good deal was known about my hereditary and personal interest in the breeding of horses and in the turf generally, not merely in exclusively racing circles but in the India Office, at Court and in the personal entourage of the Prince of Wales. Either Lord William Beresford or his brother Lord Marcus -- and I have never been able to find out which of them -- had taken steps to have my colors as an owner registered in England. They both knew that in India my family's racing colors had always been green and red; they are also the colors of the Ismaili flag, and when my ancestors were temporal sovereigns -- both in Egypt and in Iran -- green and red were the colors of their standards. Some years later I discovered that my colors in England were registered as green and chocolate; I made inquiries from Messrs. Wetherby, who told me that when the registration occurred, green and red were not available; but they could never tell me whether it was Lord William or Lord Marcus -- or indeed someone else -- who had chosen green and chocolate. Many years later my elder son was able to get a combination of green and red; no doubt by that time I too could have changed, but by then my green and chocolate had become so lucky and so well known that it would have been neither politic nor practicable to change them. In France, I may say, and in Europe generally, my racing colors are and have always been green and red.
I was at once made an honorary member of the Grand Stand at Epsom. My first serious racing, I well remember, was the Epsom Spring Meeting of 1898, when I saw the great Ray Ronald win the City and Suburban. I am proud to think that I told my friends that this was a fine horse who was sure to make his mark in the history of bloodstock breeding -- especially proud because this particular win, considering his age and weight, was nothing very wonderful. A few weeks later I went to the Derby; I had a small bet of a sovereign at sixty-six to one on a horse called Jeddah. Though my own bet was at sixty-six to one, the horse actually started at one hundred to one, and then to everybody's astonishment won the Derby. My friend the Prince of Wales happened to spot me in the enclosure and called across to me with a laugh that a horse called Jeddah ought certainly to have belonged to me.
At Ascot I have had a Royal Household badge for well over fifty years; I was first given my badge by Queen Victoria, and it has successively been re-bestowed on me by King Edward VII, King George V, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II.
From the beginning, however, my interest in racing has never been merely idle or transient. From 1898 I went to race meetings in England or on the continent of Europe and I followed the form of the horses very carefully. In India, at Bombay, Poona or Calcutta, I never, if I could possibly avoid it, missed a meeting.
In France in 1905 I made the acquaintance of Mr. W. K. Vanderbilt, then the leading owner in the country. Although he was a great deal older than I was, he took a special interest in letting me into all the secrets of the administration of his great racing stables. He introduced me to his trainer, William Duke, to whom he gave strict instructions that I was to be allowed to visit his stables for the trials and training of his horses whenever I wished. Mr. Vanderbilt said to me, "I think you'll get more pleasure out of a free run of my stables than out of a free run of my house."
Whenever I was in Paris William Duke would send me word if he had any important trials on hand, and often in the early morning I would go out to the stables and watch these trials. During these sixteen years from 1898 to the outbreak of the First World War, while I watched European racing, breeding and training but took no active part myself, my imagination was stirred by, and I have retained vivid impressions of, a few great horses; there were, of course, many others just as good, great and successful, but they and their performances have not stayed in my memory in the same way. I say without hesitation that of all the horses which I saw in England, Tetrarch and Spearmint were the two that impressed me most. I saw mares like Sceptre and Pretty Polly and horses like Ardpatrick and Sunstar in England and Sardanapale in France. Sceptre and Pretty Polly are the only two mares I have ever known that, in quality and character, were comparable with the great horses I have named. They both possessed speed, strength and soundness of wind and limb on a scale equal to any male horse; so good were they that they were raced until they were five years old, and their descendants have left their mark on bloodstock in England. In general, however, there can be no doubt that the male thoroughbred is greatly superior to the mare. Not one of these mares left on me the durable impression of power that I derived from Spearmint and Tetrarch in England, and one outstanding French horse, Prestige. I am not at all sure that Prestige was not the most impressive race horse that I ever saw. Mr. Vanderbilt owned another horse called Maintenon at the same time as Prestige and they were often tried out in gallops together. Maintenon was a good horse and he won the French Derby, but in a hard gallop he could never get within twenty lengths of Prestige. William Duke, who trained both of them, told me again and again that no weight, not even three stone, could have brought the two horses together. Unfortunately Prestige was never entered in a single important race; if he had been he would have won in a canter. He was never defeated and he was never out of a gentle gallop, because nobody seemed to realize the reserve power which he had and could have shown if he had ever been called on to do so. It was the same story with his morning gallops. The jockeys who rode him told Duke that they were actually afraid of pushing him, even to a fraction of his best, lest he run away with them. He was a beautiful-tempered horse; and to this day I have never been able to understand why Mr. Vanderbilt sold him very cheaply and kept far less impressive horses as stallions. True, Prestige never got good mares, but still he sired Sardanapale. When Sardanapale was at the height of his power and his glory, having just won the Grand Prix de Paris and the French Derby, the First World War came. I was then, as I have recorded, in Africa. When I returned to Europe I found that racing for all practical purposes was dead; I myself was busy and intensely preoccupied with the events and doings which I have described. I did not go to a racecourse or follow racing form again until 1921, when the first postwar Derby was run at Epsom. From then until 1921 I got back into the habit of going to any important race meeting, wherever I happened to be, England, France, Belgium, Italy, India or Egypt. I had long ago made up my mind, back in the nineties, to have a few horses in Europe, but the death of my dearly beloved cousin, Aga Shamsuddin, with whom I had intended to open a stable in Europe in 1910, had put an end to all my hopes and ideas on this matter.
Then one day in the spring of 1921 at dinner at Mrs. Edwin Montagu's house, I found myself sitting next to Mrs. Asquith, a daughter-in-law of the former Prime Minister and a sister of Mrs. George Lambton. We talked horses and she urged me as vigorously as she could to take up breeding bloodstock and racing in England.
"Why don't you," she said, "send for my brother-in-law, George, and ask him to buy a few mares and yearlings for you?"
Back in my room at the Ritz I sat down and wrote a note to George Lambton asking him to call on me. Our conversation bore fruit. He introduced me to Richard Dawson, a well-known Irish sportsman, and recommended him to take up my training for me, while he himself agreed to buy me a few yearlings. When I went back to Paris I sent for William Duke, whose patron, Mr. Vanderbilt, was dead, and who therefore was free to work for someone else. He began to train and buy yearlings for me in France; in England Mr. Lambton did the buying and Mr. Dawson the training. Then I myself began to study the breeding of the yearlings that came up for sale at Deauville and Doncaster. Among the Doncaster yearlings I chose one in particular that became one of the mares on which I founded my stud, the filly to which I gave the name Teresina. At the same time I picked out another yearling by the same sire Tracery; I wired Lambton and I wrote posthaste to Dawson urging the purchase of this colt. The colt was none other than Papyrus, the Derby winner of 1923 -- my first. Mr. Lambton did not like him, finding him too small and on the stocky side.
That shows how little we ought to go by the make and the shape of a yearling, so long as his legs are sound and he is neither a giant nor a lilliputian. Apart from the all-important factor of his breeding, I have one rule by which to judge a yearling: is he going to be very tall and heavy or will he never be more than a pony? Do his legs look strong enough to stand the hard leg exercises, gallops and so forth of training?
The general public take a great interest in racing; they have their favorites, their likes and their dislikes, but very few people really understand the foundation of the art of training a race horse. The object is precisely the same as that of training a boxer. Your boxer, your wrestler, your weightlifter, by various muscular exercises and movements undertaken daily, in a carefully thought-out and planned program, gets his whole body, his nerves, his muscles, his capacity to give and take punishment all brought to their fullest, most perfect pitch of development -- for the day of his crucial contest.
With a horse, of course, there is no question of putting him down on his back to do all the scientifically planned and disciplined exercises that a human athlete can be put through. There is only one way of building up a horse's muscles -- and the nervous energy that must take charge of those muscles -- and that is by walking, running and, if necessary, a certain amount of jumping. The great trainer is the one who knows how to adjust the pattern of these exercises so that his horses will attain the height of their physical power, fresh and vigorous and with their nervous energy at its peak, on the most important day of their racing careers, just as the prize fighter who wins is the one who is at the top of his form when he steps into the ring in Madison Square Garden.
My recollections of thirty years of European racing, from 1922, when my colors were first seen on English and French racecourses, to 1952, are countless in their variation, both in respect of men and of horses.
Across memory's screen so many great sportsmen come and go -- English, American, French, with all their individual characteristics, their quirks of outlook and temperament. I recall immediately, for example, Mr. Joseph Widener, of Philadelphia, one of my closest and kindest friends, among American owners. He had strong opinions about breeding, particularly on the subject of the importance of the dam, as against the sire, in bloodstock. I once said to him that since he was convinced that the maternal was much more important than the paternal, if he applied his theories to human beings, a family would rapidly degenerate unless its young men married Widener girls. Was my joke in good taste? At any rate he was good enough to laugh at it.
My friend the late Lord Wavertree was another who attached little importance to the sire and great importance to the dam. Lord Wavertree indeed went further than anyone else I have known, holding that if your mares are good, it really does not matter what sort of sire you mate them with. My own view is that you must try to secure the best and most suitable breeding through both sire and dam, bring it by both inbreeding and outcrossing as nearly perfect in the abstract as you can. Success will depend on whether any particular foal takes after his dam and the majority of her maternal ascendants or after his sire and the majority of his paternal ascendants. Thus with two horses which are full brothers, unless they are identical twins, it is not possible to say with certainty whether they will possess similar or dissimilar characteristics. One may display the paternal ascendant qualities of the sire and be a very great horse; the other may have the maternal ascendants of the dam and be a poor horse. On the other hand, both or either may possess the maternal ascendants of sire or dam and be a failure. Thus after a great deal of study and careful thought and weighing-up of much experience, I have come to the conclusion that I still must leave it to chance, for it is quite impossible to say in advance that a horse, possessing the best blood in the world, will turn out any good, and this despite anything his own brother or sister may have done.
I advised Mr. Lambton to buy some excellent mares, and he himself picked out some fine ones, like Mumtaz Mahal and Cos; and he picked up a couple of very good colts, Diophon and Salmon Trout. My immediate success, I am convinced, was owing to the fact that I began my European racing career with two of the greatest trainers of all time to look after my horses, William Duke and Richard Dawson.
Trainers as capable as Richard Dawson no doubt exist today, but I do not think there is anyone who has his supreme courage -- unless it be Madame Tesio of Italy. Dawson's great quality was that he would risk everything in order that his horse should be at his very best, muscled up to perfection, for the most important event of his life. From all I hear today, the methods that are fashionable both in England and with the majority of French trainers are far more tender. In general, trainers now spare their horses a great deal more than did men like Dawson and Duke, or, for that matter, the man whom I consider the greatest trainer of all, Frank Butters. There is far too much coddling at present, far too much cotton wool. Since nearly all trainers subscribe to the current fashionable views, it does not matter greatly, but I think if any of them came up against one of the hard men of the past or Madame Tesio, they would show up badly. The reason given is doubtless that in the old days many horses were broken down in the process of training. I have been told that Gilpin, one of the greatest of old-time trainers, only a few days before the Derby broke down the filly with which he had expected to win it. Gilpin was not in the slightest bit ruffled; he did not even apologize to the owner. He said, quite rightly, that if he had spared her the gallop in which she broke down, she would never have won the Derby, and that it was his job to take every chance for a win rather than by insufficient preparation ensure defeat.
From 1931 I had the great good fortune of having my very dear friend, Mr. Frank Butters, for whom my family have the greatest affection, train for me. Mr. Buttersx, one of the most delightful human beings one could ever hope to meet, with a nature as clean and clear as a diamond but without its harshness, was one of the greatest and most successful trainers in the world. He began his career in Austria and Hungary and rose immediately to the top of his profession. He moved on to Italy and there too in no time he was at the top again. Later he took Lord Derby's stable in hand, and with horses like Fairway and others he was the leading trainer in Britain for several years and made his patron the leading owner. When he left Lord Derby and came to me, the tables were quickly turned and I took the front again as leading owner and breeder. For me he trained a succession of magnificent horses like Bahram, Mahmoud, Tehran and Firdaussi, and a great many splendid twoyear-olds. Even more wonderful than his success with great horses was his way with quite moderate ones. He had a wonderful knack of getting out of any horse the very best that horse could do.
In some ways Butters and Duke were alike, particularly in that neither of them attached the importance that most other trainers attach to the detailed appearance of the yearlings which came to them. Mr. Duke used to go out of his way to pooh-pooh people who chose yearlings on appearance and make and shape; he held that one yearling was as good as another if it were properly trained and had in it the natural qualities of health and nervous energy and -- most important of all -- the capacity to rest and to sleep. When he bought yearlings for me he never bothered to make any elaborate inspection of them; in fact I doubt if he ever gave them a second thought. If while an auction was in progress he failed to buy one yearling for which he had been bidding, he was never disappointed but would laugh it off and say that the next would probably be better still. To him it was almost like putting numbers in a hat and pulling them out -- plus, of course, absolute confidence in his own methods of training. He believed in himself, not in his yearlings. Long before they were in general use he employed vitamins and other natural methods of sustaining a horse's health and nervous energies. Duke was a man who had a number of enemies, the source of whose hostility was jealousy. Those whose expensive yearlings had been beaten by the ones that Duke had picked up cheaply were apt to hint that he doped his horses. Nothing could be further from the truth. He would laugh and tell me that his dope was first-class food, a great deal of fresh lucerne grass, fresh vitamins, lots of fresh air in the loose-boxes and hard work for every horse.
French training grounds were very bad in those days, though I am told that they have much improved of late. Duke therefore had more or less to train his horses on the racecourse. He had one very honorable rule: that in countries in which the training grounds were impossible, the public had no business judging a horse until he had shown his true form at least once; thereafter any marked inequalities of form were against the public interest, and a good trainer ought not to keep a horse that ran thus but should turn him out of the stable. A horse should be consistent in his form once he had shown it, but the public had no right to expect a trainer or an owner to break his horse on impossible training grounds.
Frank Butters, on the other hand, never needed races as preparation for his horses. If his two-year-olds were ever capable of winning, they won the first time they were out. The great Bahram, for example, before his Derby had one race -- the Two Thousand Guineas -- and he cantered away with that as he did with the Derby. No nonsense about his needing two or three eye-openers.
I have often been asked which I considered to be the greatest horse I ever bred. Until Tulyar came on the scene I would unhesitatingly have said Bahram. But Tulyar has shown a certain capacity for always doing just enough, which makes it difficult to assess his limits as compared with Bahram's. Bahram was probably the most dominating horse I ever saw. From the first, he looked and acted the champion. Tulyar running is a greyhound. In my youth I saw the great Flying Fox as a two- and three-year-old -curiously like Tulyar, he ran with his head in line with his body or perhaps even lower; practically every horse runs with his neck carried higher than his body, and some with their heads up. Tulyar and Flying Fox have been the only two exceptions to this rule that I have ever seen. But the present Lord Rosebery, that great figure in English racing -- and how widespread is the regret that he does not take a more leading and active part in its administration -has told me that the famous Eclipse, the ancestor of almost all the good horses in the world, used to gallop with his head down, almost as if he were smelling the ground. When Tulyar gallops, he is straight as an arrow. We must however face the fact that Tulyar -unlike Bahram -- is on the small side for a great race horse. Bahram was the tallest Derby winner of modern times, and Tulyar is probably one of the shortest. And there is no getting away from the old, old saying: "A big good 'un is better than a little good 'un."
I am not sure, however, that there is not another side to this question. Many sound judges -- like Mr. Frank Butters and the late Captain Greer -- have told me that English breeders have gone too much for size and bone and that we need a smaller run of stallions to achieve that concentration of vitality which is so often found in small men and animals. I think that there is a great deal in this, and I am therefore glad to think that Tulyar will remain in Ireland to influence new generations and to check this overemphasis on size and bone. Many of us had hoped that the Derby winner, Manna -also a small horse -- would help to bring down size, but Manna un fortunately was a comparative failure. The great Hyperion of course was a small horse, and one of the greatest stallions of all time. But we need more than one Hyperion if we are to prevail against the present tendency to sacrifice vitality and nervous energy to muscle and bone.
Looking back in this fashion over my memories of owning, breeding and racing horses, I do not propose to give a detailed account of my wins, my prizes, my bloodstock sales and so forth. For those who want that sort of record it is admirably supplied by Ruff's Guide to the Turf. My own recollections stretch back well over fifty years, to the late nineties, to a generation of jockeys, owners and trainers long since departed, and to methods of riding entirely forgotten except in old prints and pictures. There was the first Duke of Westminster, for example, gentle and kind in appearance, yet with a strain of irascibility in him. When Mr. Gladstone, who had many years before given him his dukedom, announced his support of Irish Home Rule, the Duke unceremoniously bundled Mr. Gladstone's portrait out of his house and into a public auction. He was small and lightly built and -- so I was told -- actually rode some of his own best horses at trials. He had one odd sartorial whim: always, whatever the occasion, he wore, either with a morning coat or a frock coat, a blue shirt, a blue collar and a blue necktie.
One day the Duke of Westminster went into his stables, and a mare, Vampire, attacked him. He at once ordered Vampire to be destroyed. He was begged to reprieve her and finally agreed. Two or three years later she got him The Bat and later Flying Fox.
There was the Duke of Portland, whom in later years I came to know very well; after the Derby of 1935 he listed for me the points of resemblance between his great St. Simon and my great Bahram. There was Sir J. B. -- "Blundell" -- Maple, the father-in-law of my friend Baron von Eckardstein, big of build, loud of voice, self-confident, even perhaps self-satisfied, certainly self-made, but withal a truly kindhearted and generous person. However, as founder and owner of his furniture store in Tottenham Court Road, he was not popular with the supremely aristocratic little clique which in those days ruled the Jockey Club; time and again they blackballed him. One day it became known that he was dying; there was remorse all round, and he was elected to the Jockey Club posthaste. There were the brothers Reuben and Arthur Sassoon, two of the kindliest old men I ever met, generous and gentle. They had no hint of snobbishness in them, but they were extremely well liked in society at its highest levels, and were both close personal friends of King Edward. I have always understood that they did his modest betting for him at race meetings; his stakes ranged from twenty-five to fifty pounds, but the Sassoons placed them with as much care and trouble and anxious inquiry as if they had been for thousands of pounds.
The great event in racing in the late nineties, of course, was the revolution in riding that came from America. Lord William Beresford brought over Tod Sloan with his American mount. All the leading owners, like the Dukes of Westminster and Portland, pooh-poohed it at first. But it upset every applecart. Race after race was won by Sloan and his American imitators, who invaded both England and France. The old-fashioned champions, if they were too old or too stubborn to move with the times and change, had to give up and retire altogether. Not long after this, doping was introduced -- also from across the Atlantic. This also upset everybody, and it took several years to get it finally barred in England and in France and its perpetrators sternly punished. The American mount, however, was a quite different matter. It had come to stay, and nobody thereafter thought of returning to the old cavalry seat in racing, with its erect posture. In its own way this was as big a revolution in racing as the discovery of gunpowder in warfare. It is undoubtedly true that the results are an immense improvement on those of the past, but aesthetically the disappearance of the old seat, with its dignity and grace in the rider as much as in the horse, is a great loss.
I have often been asked how the best horses of today compare with the best horses of the late nineties and the early years of this century. Are today's best really much superior to their predecessors? I personally have not the least hesitation in saying that great progress has been made in the past fifty years. And why not? If it had not been, racing, with its countless and elaborate methods of breeding and selection, would be senseless and time-wasting. The whole object of picking and choosing in mating horses is constantly to improve the breed by letting artificial selection assist natural selection. We who breed race horses firmly believe that the combination of these two, if it is carried out conscientiously and scientifically, can and does produce steady and marked improvement in racial characteristics and qualities. There is a time test not only of record performances but of average races over long but comparable periods of weeks in, let us say, 1914 and the present day. Statistically tested thus, there is no doubt that today's horses do run faster. The exceptional horse apart, the average speed has increased out of all recognition.
We are told that the horses of the past could sustain a gallop twice or three times as long as the ordinary course of today. The veterinary services in India too produced a crank of their own who maintained that the ordinary Indian horse -- the Katty -- is superior to the thoroughbred because he can jog along at a regular pace for miles and miles and miles without stopping. Well, what of it? We have bred for speed, and surely the answer to these croakers and cranks is that the English thoroughbred is not called on to sustain a six- or nine-mile gallop, or to keep going all day; he can sprint a few furlongs and then lie down and sleep -- let the Katty horse amble away -- and in that brief sprint he has done all the work that the other horse could have done, without the same long draw on his constitution and vitality. Whatever the distance, long or short, the thoroughbred will defeat the jogger because he has that extra vitality which will produce the effort needed. The race horse is bred for a highly specialized purpose, and he fulfills that purpose very well. The sheer facts sustain all the theories about breeding and selection and prove -- it seems to me beyond the possibility of contradiction -- that there is a steady and continuing improvement in the quality of the English thoroughbred race horse. Even if you compare the pictures of the horses of today and those of fifty years ago, you will see that the horse of today obviously looks faster, if there is anything in looks.