Review by Katherine Mooney
Christopher McGrath begins Mr. Darley’s Arabian in the starting gate at Newmarket and follows Frankel to victory in the 2011 running of the 2000 Guineas. Watching on YouTube, you can hear the swelling roar of the crowd, the joyous acknowledgement of people who have together seen something numinous. The impetus for McGrath’s book is in that sound, as he spends the next 350 pages explaining how a creature like that came to be in that place at that time. Beginning with the Darley Arabian and following the top line of pedigrees sire to sire for twenty-six generations to Frankel, he tells the story of the modern Thoroughbred.
McGrath grounds his project with Federico Tesio’s maxim: “The thoroughbred exists because its selection has depended…on a piece of wood: the winning post of the Epsom Derby” (292). The Derby gives the book a central focus, but it also dictates the scope of the analysis. If the Derby winning post is the thing that defines the Thoroughbred, then McGrath’s definition of the Thoroughbred exclusively encompasses high-stakes flat racing, mostly in the English Classics, and the stud careers of particularly influential progenitors.
McGrath’s underlying premise is that the racetrack was not just a space of performance; it was a nexus of power. Everyone was there, and everyone cared about racing. His anecdotal examples range from Admiral Rous crossing the Atlantic in a dangerously decrepit frigate to attend the second autumn meeting at Newmarket to 1926’s General Strikers making way through their lines for Spithead, the gutsy winner of the Chester Cup (154, 282). But McGrath is mainly concerned with the men who paid the bills. “[T]he Darley Arabian line has followed a constant arc—as a monument to economic power. However random its biological provenance, for three centuries the thoroughbred has remained a faithful index of a changing world beyond the racecourse” (6). He begins at the turn of the eighteenth century, as political and economic factions battled through the Restoration and the rise of the Hanoverians. From 1750 to 1846, landed aristocracy and gentry controlled the Thoroughbred world. With the repeal of the Corn Laws came the rise of the industrial magnates, and after World War I the turf came firmly into the hands of a fantastically wealthy global elite. These periodizations remain fuzzy, as McGrath does not so much argue as chronicle. But he broadly paints the evolution of the Thoroughbred as a component of the evolution of British national and imperial identity and power. And he suggests that the results of the Classics are invaluable indicators of shifts at the top, as coal barons, diamond merchants, and Jewish bankers were grudgingly accepted into Newmarket, Epsom, and Doncaster (250). Though he describes today’s partnerships between racing professionals and international moneymen as purchased connections “between the lore and the profits,” his own work makes clear that these relationships stretch back centuries (297).
McGrath largely takes the realities of power for granted. Indeed, sometimes this chatty amorality is jarring, as when he drily tells us that John Scott’s Whitewall training stable “was never the same once Colonel Anson was posted to India…. Mind you, nor was India.” Anson was in command of the Bengal Army during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (128). The suffragist Emily Wilding Davison, surely the most famous person ever to treat the track as a political space, appears unnamed in a single sentence (259). But McGrath does sometimes step back and remind us of the cost of accumulated wealth and authority to the most vulnerable people in and out of the Thoroughbred world. He does not mince words about the systemic cruelty of industrialist James Merry to the coal and iron workers who made him rich (190). The genial racing man Lord Derby managed to get the jockey Fred Rickaby a safe World War I post in the Veterinary Corps so he could be handy to ride. But when awkward questions were asked in Parliament, Rickaby was reassigned to tanks. Derby got over the embarrassment and in 1918 became Ambassador to France, where his colleagues drew up a “form guide” to help him stumble through his diplomatic obligations. Rickaby died of wounds in France that autumn at the age of twenty-three, leaving a widow and two young sons (275-78).
McGrath has the advantage of being a superbly gifted writer (this month he was awarded the prize for the Racing Writer of the Year in the U.K. for the third time). He can wield a dependent clause like a stiletto. And his access to today’s mightiest figures in racing greatly enhances the book’s final sections. McGrath’s bibliographical essay references an impressive array of primary and specialist secondary sources. As they tumble over one another in his lists, he demonstrates, in this driest of formats, just how much fun this book was for him to write. It seems churlish to complain about its inevitable shortcomings.
Scholars will find the book frustrating in its lack of readily available citations, and, for those who have closely followed recent publications in the history of the Thoroughbred, there is not much new. The argument is largely implicit and unsurprising. But for both popular and scholarly readers who love horses and horse stories, the book is amply worth reading; McGrath has convinced me that Running Rein’s Derby of 1844 deserves at least a miniseries. It is a tribute to the author and his framing of his subject that, as he speculated briefly about the possibilities for Frankel’s progeny, my first thought was of Cracksman. Frankel’s three-year-old star took the Champion Stakes at Ascot this year. Will it be Frankel, then? Or will Nathaniel, like Frankel a son of Galileo, carry the blood into the next generation? Nathaniel has, after all, already produced Enable, the three-year-old filly who triumphed in the Arc this year, while Cracksman refused to face her. Both are slated to remain in training. And next spring the story will continue.