A look back at one of the most notorious suburban racecourses of the nineteenth century – West Drayton


Originally posted August 6th 2013.


The nineteenth-century suburban racecourses were notorious places. The honest racegoer attended these meetings with the full knowledge that he was extremely likely to be robbed, probably assaulted, and grieviously assaulted at that, should the robbers be resisted. They acted like a rotting carcass, attracting the vultures and lowest classes of society: welchers, brief-snatchers, thieves and ruffians, who roamed with apparent freedom at Brentwood, Bromley, Croydon, Ealing, Edgware, Egham, Eltham, Finchley, Harrow, Hendon, Kingsbury, Lille Bridge, Southall, Streatham, Uxbridge and West Drayton – which was one of, if not, the worst.
Undesirable as it may have been, I have a special affection for that part of West Drayton, which became known as the Garden City, as my grandfather had built our family home on the old racecourse – although this was unknown to me in my childhood.
Virtually an island, surrounded by two rivers, the Colne and the Frays, it was an idyllic place for a boy to grow up in. The rivers were our playground; our canoes fashioned from ex- reconnaisannce, Spitfire, wing-tip fuel-tanks – acquired from a local scrap-yard: split in two, they were the ideal basis for the hull of a canoe. We became the real life Swallows and Amazons.
It was only several years later, when I became interested in the history of the thoroughbred racehorse that I discovered our home had been built on what had been a nineteenth-century racecourse. This, then, is its brief story.


According to the Racing Calendar the course was in the meadows close to the Great Western Railway Station and the village. Perfectly flat, oval in shape, and rather more than a mile round, the two-year-old course was the half of the oval with more than a quarter-mile straight run in. The going was good in the driest seasons.

West Drayton based on an Ordnance Survey map dated 1912-1913. There is no map of the racecourse but it was located on that part of the golf course between the Great Western Railway and the River Colne.

In the annals of the Turf, West Drayton racecourse is undeserving of any recognition that is comparable to the asphodel of the Heath at Newmarket or the Downs at Epsom, although many a celebrated jockey it was who whipped home an equally uncelebrated racehorse at this infamous arena.
However, it would be wrong to assume they were all uncelebrated. Past their best, maybe, but uncelebrated – no!
There was the once famous Blue Mantle (b c Kingston-Paradigm) who had won the New Stakes at Ascot (now the Norfolk Stakes) and run fourth to Macaroni in the 1863 Derby; Mr.T.Steven’s Cambridgeshire winner, Actaea (b f Stockwell-Electra), who won the Colne Handicap at the June 1868 meeting; and, probably the best horse ever to run there, General (b c Monarque-Tolla), a French-bred colt, who won the Welter Stakes at the October 1873 meeting; one of the best two-year-olds of 1870, winning both the Lavant and Molecomb Stakes at Goodwood and the Criterion Stakes at Newmarket, in which he beat Bothwell (br c Stockwell-Katherine Logie), who went on to win the Two Thousand Guineas the following year – just a few of the noted runners at West Drayton.
The inaugural meeting was held on Thursday, March 2nd, 1865; and the first race was The Trial Stakes, of five sovereigns (£530)* each with thirty added: the winner to be sold for three hundred soveriegns (£32,000)*. The distance was about one mile. The winner, ridden by Sam Adams, was Mr.Coney’s brown filly Sister Mary, described by Bell’s Life as a rather weedy-looking daughter of the Derby winner Ellington, but she had no admirers at her price of three hundred sovereigns.

A large number of neighbouring country-folk turned up to witness the races; but owing to a shilling toll (£5.30),* which the majority refused to pay, they had only a distant view.
It was not entirely surprising that the first meeting was not a great success; the reputation of the suburban courses with the thieving and welching fraternity being prominent and the clash of a meeting at Derby, the attendance was not as anticipated. It was however more fortunate than some of its predecessors, especially the steeplechases at Uxbridge, in February, which had been a complete failure.
Although the meeting was not a great success – it was for the well-known American sportsman Mr.R.Ten Broeck, who had five winners, all of which were ridden by George Fordham.



The American sportsman Richard Ten Broeck, who had five winners at the innaugural race meeting at West Drayton.

The second meeting, in August, was even less successful. In anticipation of a good attendance the GWR laid on several special trains which were well patronised on the first day; but so dissatisfied were the public with the way things were run that only a handful of spectators turned up on the second day.
Mr.Deere, the secretary, struggled almost unaided to make the meeting into a satisfactory issue but he was powerless to stem the torrent of opposition. And it appeared that unless his burden was shouldered by others the future of West Drayton races would be in jeopardy.
At the beginning of 1866, the committee, undaunted by their ill luck, applied to George French, and he being well known among owners of horses immediately went to work and obtained a multiplicity of entries for the meeting to be held on Monday 21st May.
George French was better known as “Count Bolo” a self-imposed title, which he advertised in no uncertain fashion on his hat and umbrella. He was described as one of the wittiest, impudent dare-devils that ever trod shoe leather. Originally he lived at Worcester, but later came nearer to London, eventually residing at Bedford Cottage, in Trout Lane, Yiewsley, the adjacent village to West Drayton, and becoming course manager at West Drayton.
The weather was perfect for the Bank-Holiday meeting and long before starting there were at least 4000 people present, including a large number of gentlemen and officers – and, it should be added, the usual compliment of thieves, looking for some easy pickings. The removal of a watch from the end of a carelessly guarded chain was a
favourite. And then, the blind cheek to offer it back to the victim for a ‘tenner’. Daniel Webb, a labourer, went one better, removing both watch and chain from Mr.Robert Lane. But for him there was no escaping the punishment of Law, his penalty being a seven year penal servitude.
The last race of the day, The Open Hunter’s Plate, for gentlemen riders, was a disgraceful affair. Doeford should have won by a distance, but her rider, Mr. Orbell, managed to hold her and lose ny a neck. So obvious was it that he had “pulled” the horse that the public hissed and jeered loudly as he passed the judge’s chair and Mr. Orbell, fearing demonstration, sought safety in flight, galloping off the course still in his racing garb, without attempting to return to the stand.
By obtaining an immense number of nominations from owners, George French was beginning to make West Drayton racecourse a prosperous concern, and by 1867 its future was firmly established.
The first meeting of that year was in February, when bad weather failed to daunt the large crowd. On the second day finer weather caused many cockneys and country folk from the neighbouring villages to turn out.
Bounded by the beautiful River Colne, the racecourse was described as probably the prettiest in Southern England, and the glorious June weather brought forth an immense attendance of holiday folk for the Whitsuntide meeting. It was fast becoming a popular resort, especially with the cockneys, and it was reported that people from Uxbridge,
Reading and Windsor attended.
The suburban racecourses had never been the most desirable of places. They were the ideal environment for the thieving community, often operating in organised and sometimes unorganised gangs; and in the case of West Drayton races, keeping the Uxbridge Police Court busy with robbery and assault cases.
A scribe from the period recalls the experience of one racegoer at West Drayton who wore a very valuable, diamond-studded, horse-shoe, scarf-pin. Directly he arrived in the ring he was spotted by half the thieves in London, who observed the valuable pin. Realising the probable outcome he sought refuge in the lavatory, removed the pin and placed it in his note-case, in an inner pocket. On his return to the ring, members of the gang, who individually confronted him, were surprised at the disappearance of the pin, arguing and quarrelling amongst themselves as to who had stolen the pin to keep it for himself.
These ruffians circulated the suburban racecourses looking for rich pickings: Streatham, Kingsbury and Lille Bridge were notorious; West Drayton was their equal, attracting most of the undesirables in London; but under the admirable eye of Superintendent Beckerson, West Drayton gradually began to be held in fairly high esteem. It was
therefore unfortunate that at the August meeting of 1867, a detchment of mounted police had to be employed in anticipation of a repeat of a recent Egham meeting, which had been disrupted by these ruffians.
The rouges and scamping welchers that frequented the suburban race meetings were not the only characters who earnt racing a bad name among honest folk. More often than not the main offenders were the jockeys, who sought to cheat at the great game.
One such incident occurred on a foggy day at West Drayton. A horse fell on the first circuit. The rider managed to retrieve his mount and hide behind a hayrick. He joined the race on the last circuit and won easily. There was no objection, as the author of the tale was the only witness; the other jockeys must have thought he had legitimately
But cheating was not the only prowess of jockeys: abuse to the Starter and disruption at the start was not at all uncommon. Such was the case at the meeting held at West Drayton in March 1868. Mr. McGeorge, the Starter, had considerable trouble with several jockeys, whose disgraceful conduct caused the start of the Iver Plate to be delayed more than an hour. The main offenders: Mordan, Marsh and Viney, were summoned before Capt. Townley and suspended from riding on the following day.
On another occasion Mr. McGeorge again had trouble with the jockeys at the start; their unruly conduct causing so much delay that by he time the fifth race had been run the course was in darkness.
At the close of the season the course, especially the turns, was considerably improved, and having been drained it provided a much fairer trial for the horses.
From the great success with which the races had met in 1868, George French and his partner George Fox, were determined to make the Spring Meeting in 1869 an important affair, and by compiling an excellent programme, which comprised 119 entries on the first day, and even more on the second, their hopes were fully accomplished; there being at least 8000 people present. By May the course had been railed throughout, and it was planned to improve the course further by building a commodious new stand, to be built by Mr.Robert Henson, an Uxbridge builder.
The stand, for upwards of 1000 spectators, was finally erected in September; a leading London newspaper of the period stating that it surpassed anything in the provinces, if not vieing with Ascot and Epsom, and reflected much credit on George French, the manager.
The first two meetings of 1870 were a tremendous success, especially the meeting held in January entitled the South Country Hunt, which sported a large crowd, despite snow falling. Winner of one race was Harvester, who two years later took part in the Grand National, falling when well placed near home.
At the June meeting the large crowd were provided with some excitement owing to the antics of Fitz-Ivan, who three years earlier had run second in The City and Suburban Handicap at Epsom, and had also run in the Derby.
He was a great brute of a horse who displayed a violent temper whilst being saddled for the West Drayton Hurdle, continuing it at the starting post where he tried to savage Robert I’Anson. Fortunately the young jockey managed to avoid injury, but not without the loss of his jacket, which Fitz-Ivan tore from his back.
Yet despite his bad behaviour, Fitz Ivan still managed to win.
The first meeting of 1871, held in April, was again well patronised, and owing to its continued success it was planned to add to the course two large meadows on the north-eastern side, thereby making it a full mile-and-aquarter
Of all the horses that ran at West Drayton the one that probably desrves to be remembered most was Mr.T. Steven’s filly, Wallflower (br f Rataplan-Chaperon). She was, in fact, nothing better than a humble selling-plater, who in her two years of racing won only three races – two at West Drayton and one at Odiham, in 1872. But despite her not so impressive record she had one attribute – an iron constitution. At the Liverpool autumn meeting in 1871 she ran in six races in six days. There were certainly not many that could boast this treatment. Today such treatment would have probably elicited the animal welfare police investigating.
Wallflower was retired to stud in 1872, although her progeny never achieved anything of note on the racecourse. Her granddaughter Gaze (b f Thurigan Prince-Eye Pleaser), who according to the Racing Calendar, never raced, was sold for seven guineas (£800)* on the death of her owner, then resold as a hack for fifteen guineas (£1,715)*. Gaze was the dam of Admiration (ch f Saraband-Gaze), who gave birth to a filly who was to become known as Pretty Polly (ch f Gallinule-Admiration) – one of the greatest horses ever to race on the English Turf. She was a winner of twenty-two of her twenty-four races, among which were the One Thousand Guineas, the Oaks and the St.Leger.

Pretty Polly, winner of twenty-two of twenty-four races, including the One Thousand Guineas, Oaks and St. Leger, great great granddaughter of Wallflower, who won two races at West Drayton and one at Odiham.

The Whitsun meeting of 1873 was the peak of West Drayton races success, an estimated 10,000 attending the two-day meeting. It was on the second day of this meeting that Mr. Willins’ horse, Moslem (b c Knight of St.Patrick-Besika) who had dead-heated with Formosa (ch f Buccaneer-Eller) for the 1868 Two Thousand Guineas, created a great sensation in running for a Welter Handicap, the first race of the day.
After one or two false starts, the gigantic Moslem bolted. Overpowering the helpless Potter, he careered off down the course, diagonally jumped a footbridge over a tributary of the Colne and carried on towards the town, before Potter managed to pull him up in the station-yard. Potter rode him back to the saddling-enclosure and dismounted,
refusing to have anything to do with the brute.
Alan Sadler, the Newmarket trainer, was hoisted into the saddle. Moslem, however, had thoughts of Calgary, promptly depositing Sadler on the ground. As a last resort a stable-lad – who was at least a couple of stone below the allotted weight – was given the leg up. When the Starter’s flag finally fell, Moslem shot off, and before halfway was a hundred yards in front of the field. But in the straight the brute proceeded to stop and swerve. Opposite the stand he collided with the railings, the spectators aghast as to how he miraculously missed going through them. He eventually finished second, although he lost nothing by being beaten, owing to the reduced weight he was carrying.
By 1875 the number of Meetings at West Drayton had diminished from four to two, and the last Meeting of the year, held in September, did not pass without some unpleasantness.
The majority of the public, which were not entirely of a gentlemanly nature, were under the impression that Sherrington “pulled” Maidstone, in the Drayton Hurdle, and on returning to the weigh-in he was seized by the ugly crowd, who made an attempt to lynch him. However, after a severe struggle the police managed to free him from
his tormentors.
In 1876 there were again only two meetings, both of which were completely unsuccessful, only three of the six races being run on the second day of the final day of the meeting held on June 5-6.
George French was declared bankrupt and in 1877 the grandstand, which was reputedly insured by the Liverpool, London and Globe Insurance Company for £1,000 (£100,000)* was destroyed in a mysterious fire just two days before the fire insurance policy expired. The company suspected some malfeasance and a reward of £100 (£1,000)* was offered to any person who would give information leading to the conviction of the offender. No
information was forthcoming; and the insurance company, being suspicious of the whole affair, refused to pay a cash compensation, offering instead to rebuild the grandstand. But before it could be used the Metropolitan Racecourse Act of 1879 was passed, supressing the number of suburban race meetings. This and the innauguration of the London park courses, no doubt, played a great part in the decision to close the West Drayton course.
And that was very nearly the end of the suburban racecourses. The sullen, gloomly and uncleanly mob, which gathered on the hill at Streatham, or on the banks of the Colne at West Drayton – with the welchers and their defrauded customers, diving, struggling and swimming about in the river, fists and sticks being freely used – was no more. Kingsbury was about the last to go where the great game was played and where the mob had their swansong.
In a matter of seconds, a backer receiving his winnings of seven sovereigns from a bookmaker was turned on his head, relieved of his winnings – and the cash that had fallen from his pockets. Within seconds the bookmaker underwent the same ordeal. Neither did the occupants of the few broughams, which lined the rails opposite to the
winning-post, escape the mob; the ladies being relieved of their jewellery – even the rings in their ears. The chief of the racecourse detectives had to be barricaded and locked in the weighing-room in order to escape the violence of the mob which they would have readily meted out, had they came upon him.
And West Drayton!
There was only the rebuilt grandstand, laying neglected and derelict, to remind passers-by of this pretty little riverside racecourse – most famous of all the suburban racecourses.
Almost a century-and-a-half has passed since its closure, the changing face of West Drayton having finally left its mark of respectability on the Garden City.
Looking across the estate from the railway, perhaps, if one has enough imagination, you will see Blue Mantle, Actaea, General and old Wallflower, passing in the parade. As the train passes on its way the fading vision finally dies, leaving but the memory of West Drayton racecourse.

* Today’s approximate values, using the Bank of England inflation calculator



The 1973 Prix de L'Arc de Triomphe Revisited

Originally posted in November 2012


             My, how the Hippodrome de Longchamp had changed. I was last here in 1973 and it was now time for at least one more nostalgic reunion with the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe, before departing to the shades.

             Memories of the three-mile trudge through the Bois, from Porte Maillot were a thing of the past. My photographer friend Ed Byrne, recalls the walk, carrying half his own weight in equipment. However, the organisers have shown some compassion and now lay on a fleet of shuttle buses from the nearest Metro stations.  

             Qatar was not shy in proclaiming their sponsorship of what aficionados would consider the most important race in the world calendar: Qatar banners everywhere and hordes of Arab minders aimlessly hanging around. The magnificent statue of Gladiateur, which welcomes you to the course, was completely obscured by a rostrum on which a Qatari rock band (I’m being facetious) belted out a dirge that had not the slightest semblance of a melody … but what would Qataris know about the Avenger of Waterloo! The old grandstand, now commandeered by a tourist company, had not changed and still bore its Victorian appearance, but the main grandstand was as palatial as Ascot, and, as I understand, soon to be demolished and made even more palatial.

             France Galop had provided an excellent two-day meeting: four group two races on the first day and seven group one races on the second; value for money that the BHA could never hope to match – or would even wish to. The Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe did, however, provide a disappointing result, obviously affected by the ground. Ofevre, the best horse in the race, came with a tremendous run from the worst possible draw, only to be collared on the line by Solemia, who three weeks earlier had finished over two lengths behind Shareta in the Prix Vermeille and back in May, three lengths behind Prix du Cadran winner, Molly Malone, in the Prix d’Hedouville.


Solemia going out to win the Prix de L'Arc de Triomphe

I left Longchamp somewhat disappointed. I had expected better. This was a poor renewal. As I made my way back to Auteil, I wondered how this lot would have compared with the stars of 1973.

            What an exceptional year that had been. It was dominated by some outstanding fillies, of which Allez France, a daughter of the remarkable Sea Bird, stood out. So scintillating was her performance in the Poule d’Essai Pouliches that her connections were considering running her in the Derby. Unfortunately she disappointed in the Prix Lupin and we were denied her presence at Epsom. What a sight that would have been!

              She swept all before her in the Prix de Diane and Prix Vermeille; in the latter defeating Hurry Harriet, El Mina and Dahlia. Ah, yes. Dahlia. Although always Allez France’s inferior, she was certainly some racehorse, as she proved in the Irish Oaks, where she took the shine out of the One Thousand Guineas and Oaks winner, Mysterious, to the tune of three lengths. A week later she reappeared in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. Turning into the home straight she was last, but produced a blistering burst of speed to beat Rheingold by six lengths; and even further back, Hard to Beat and Roberto.

              These were some impressive scalps: Hard to Beat had won the Grand Criterium and the Prix du Jockey Club; Roberto the Epsom Derby and Rheingold, winner of the Prix Ganay, twice a winner of the Grand Prix de Saint Cloud (in fact he was never beaten in France), and only just touched off by about a nose, by Roberto in the Derby. 

               Another remarkable filly that year was Lady Berry. With the exception of her defeat in the Prix de Diane – and generally avoiding Allez France and Dahlia – she had been unbeaten, and became the first filly to win the Prix Royal Oak, since Calandria, in 1929.

               The three-year-old colts had been unimpressive. Tennyson unraced as a two-year-old and considered unlucky in the Prix du Jockey Club, surprisingly was to start as second favourite; and Balompie had finished well behind Morston in the Derby.

               Of the four-year-olds, Rheingold was probably the best twelve furlong horse in Europe; and Hard to Beat, the best of the others. The previous year’s winner San San, alleged to have been administered a narcotic, had shown little form.

               Of the older horses, Mister Sic Top was having his third run in the Arc; Parnell, a good honest horse but probably requiring a longer distance, and Card King, ridden by Frankie Dettori’s father, had won the Grand Prix de Deauville and generally had reasonable form, which may have enabled him to run into a minor place. 

               Rain Trickled down on race day. In the parade ring Allez France looked magnificent; her coat sparkled as if in the throes of a St.Martin’s summer. Rheingold also looked in top form and fit enough to run for his life. “Come on, Rheingold – do your family proud.” I remember saying to myself. Lester had been engaged to ride him. The pair had not performed well in the Benson and Hedge’s Gold Cup, and Lester’s record had not been impressive in the Arc, having been second on Park Top and Nijinsky – both races which he should have won. Such was Dahlia’s reputation that despite being drawn 18 and having been injured in the Prix Vermeille, she started at 8-1.

                The start was delayed by about fifteen minutes owing to the antics of Hurry Harriet. Living up to her name, she tore off to the start, dumped her jockey, Angel Cordero, and promptly bolted, ruling out any chance she may have had.

                When the field finally got away, Direct Flight led; Rheingold, who had a good draw at 7, was in about fifth and the favourite Allez France, drawn 5, just behind. Dahlia was at the rear of the field, accompanied by the previous year’s winner San San, and Lady Berry.

                 At the top of the hill Direct Flight led from Hard to Beat’s half-brother Authi, second in the Grand Prix and Prix Royal Oak. On the descent and into the straight, Authi had taken the lead. Dahlia and Lady Berry were making slight progress but Lester hadn’t moved on Rheingold, who seemed to relish the yielding ground. Just over two furlongs out, as Authi and Direct Flight weakened, Lester drove Rheingold into the lead, with Allez France in hot pursuit. Dahlia, possibly not recovered from her injury in the Prix Vermeille, began to fade; and Allez France closed on Rheingold, but Piggott, driving him on, had a shade over two lengths to spare over her, at the post. Next came Hard to Beat, Card King and Lady Berry.

                 How fortune favours some. Rheingold was the first horse owned by Henry Zeisel, a dab hand on the violin, and a member of the Vienna Philharmonic. One of his favourite pieces was Wagner’s Das Rheingold – hence the name.

                Rheingold’s victory was certainly impressive and stamped him as one of the great winners of the Arc. He turned out to be a far better racehorse than his pedigree would have suggested. His sire Fabergé II could only be described as moderate. His one good performance was to finish second to Baldric II in the 1964 Two Thousand Guineas. Rheingold’s dam, Athene, purchased as a foal for 140 guineas was even more undistinguished, as was most of her immediate family. But this family has, from time to time, a habit of throwing up great champions. It is, of course the family established by Queen Mary, one of the greatest broodmares of all time, who in the mid-nineteenth century established a dynasty that is still prolific today.  

                Through her daughter Bonnie Doon, her last foal, born at the age of twenty-seven, her descendants include the first post-war Derby and St.Leger winner, Airborne, the Derby winner Arctic Prince, the Prix de L’Arc winner Helissio and more recently the Lockinge Stakes winner Peeress.

                As his pedigree would suggest, Rheingold was not a great success as a stallion, but neither was he a complete failure. Like Brigadier Gerard, a year his senior, he was a far superior racehorse to stallion and showed on that wet day in the Bois de Boulogne, when he beat a truly classic field that he was a racehorse to be reckoned with.