A Cesarewitch caught in the limelight

2nd October 2014

A Cesarewitch Caught in the Limelight

In the lead up to one of Newmarket's favorite autumn races, The Cesarewitch, Tony Lake looks back to a memorable Victorian running of the race.

The Victorians liked nothing more than a sensation and the 1897 Cesarewitch provided it in triplicate. That the winner of the season’s most competitive long distance handicap was an Australian import was enough to satisfy turfists. However, that that winner was owned by the world’s most famous celebrity thrust the race on to a much wider audience. Then, when tragedy struck, with the owner’s estranged husband being found dead, most of the country was fascinated by the Newmarket race and its fallout.

Bred at the Hobartville Stud, in 1892, Merman was the son of the 1880 Melbourne Cup winner Grand Flaneur. Early in his career, when owned by WR Wilson and trained by CL Macdonald, he won some minor races in Melbourne and Adelaide but did not show real ability until 1896. In a blanket finish for the Caulfield Cup he finished fourth behind Cremorne, and followed up by winning the Yan Yean Stakes and the Williamstown Cup.

This latter win attracted some attention and a telegram was sent to William Allison, an English bloodstock agent, informing him that Merman could be purchased for 1,600gns and would be capable of winning big handicaps in England. Allison quickly concluded the deal, and later sold the horse for £2000 to Lillie Langtry.

Lillie Langtry

“The Jersey Lilly”, as she was known, was the most famous beauty of the day. As a successful actress she attracted a legion of admirers, including the Prince of Wales, and it was “Bertie” who introduced her to racing. However, it was the “spoilt little rich boy”, George “The Squire” Baird, who gave Langtry her first racehorse, Milford, in 1891. At a time when women were discouraged from owning racehorses she used the nom de course of Mr Jersey.

After a two month voyage Merman arrived at Langtry’s Ethelreda House Stables, Newmarket, in time for the start of the 1897 season. It was left to trainer Fred Webb to plot the 5-year-old’s campaign. In April, Merman made his English debut in a mile and a half contest at Kempton. Unfancied, he made the running under Jack Watts, and finished a well-beaten fifth. In May, he ran in a Newmarket handicap over the Cambridgeshire course and finished out the back when partnered by Sam Loates. Loates was in the saddle again for his next outing, when he finished a well beaten fifth in a mile handicap at Hurst Park. It was not until his next race, a mile and a quarter event at Leicester, that he made the frame, when finishing third of six, again with Loates abroad.

Having acclimatized Merman began to thrive and in August he won the Lewes Handicap (1 ½ ml) worth £1200. Starting at 100/7, he was partnered by James Sharples and ran out a comfortable winner from eight rivals, including Carlton Grange, who subsequently franked the form by notching up a hat-trick. Merman was now on target for the Cesarewitch.  Set to carry 7st 5lb Webb thought that the chesnut had “a stone in hand” and advised the owner to have a bet.

As well as the best of the British long distance handicappers the field of 23 had an international flavour. Apart from Merman representing Australia; St Cloud II, the mount of Tod Sloan, and Cartouche III, represented France; and Mr August Belmont’s Keenan challenged from America.  Having himself won the great race as a 16 year old Fred Webb had no qualms in engaging similarly aged James Sharples to wear Mrs Langtry’s turquoise and fawn hoops, turquoise cap colours. The teenager rode well, settling his mount early on before taking a prominent position approaching the Bushes. Gaining a slight lead close home the Australian responded gamely to his jockey’s urgings to hold off a sustained challenge from the Charley Wood ridden The Rush by a neck, with Carlton Grange four lengths back in third.


Lillie Langtry's boots, which are on display in gallery 1 at the Museum

A 20/1 shot when the book opened Merman was consistently supported into 100/7 and Langtry is reputed to have won £21,000 although sums up to £50,000 circulated. With the victory coming on her birthday, 13th October, the 44 year old, who was accompanied by the Duke of Cambridge, “wore no wrap, though it was cold, but was dressed quietly in mauve, with a sable boa and white gloves, her hat being decorated with violet-coloured flowers”, and was overwhelmed with congratulations. Indeed having “tired out her right hand she had to shake hands with her left.”  Even usually passive Webb reportedly could not hide his joy.

Elation soon turned to horror. On Saturday 16th whilst enjoying a party at Regal Lodge, her home just outside Newmarket, Lillie was informed that her estranged husband, Ned Langtree, had died in mysterious circumstances. Having been found wandering in a drunken and dazed condition with injuries to his head, a magistrate committed him to Chester’s Lunatic Asylum, where he later died.

Over the next few days the newspapers spoke of Lillie’s triumph alongside her husband’s sad downfall.  It turned increasingly sore. Firstly, the victory was belittled. Although Sharples was given deserved credit Wood was criticised for making his move too soon. Furthermore Meteor in the Daily News claimed that the handicapper “virtually presented” the Cesarewitch to the Australian challenger. Secondly, salacious “rumours widely circulated” : that Lillie had hired thugs to murder Ned; that Ned had thrown himself in front of the Irish Mail train in which Lillie was travelling; and that she sent a wreath to his funeral made up of flowers in her racing colours.

Eventually, to put an end to the matter, Lillie’s management issued an official statement making it clear that she regularly made Ned an adequate allowance and had not arranged his murder.

In the fullness of time Merman can be reassessed and according to the Australian Racing Museum “Although now relatively unknown in Australia, Merman is arguably the most successful Australian horse to have ever competed abroad”. In 1898, Merman won the Jockey Club Cup; in 1899, he brought off the Goodwood Stakes - Goodwood Cup double on consecutive days; and crowned his career with victory in the Ascot Gold Cup, in 1900, ridden by Tod Sloan. At the age of eight, Merman is the oldest entire horse ever to win the Gold Cup. Subsequently, he took up stud duties but his progeny achieved little success.

Lillie continued to enjoy racing with the Cesarewitch appearing to be her lucky race. In 1908, she had a second success, with Yentoi, and in 1909 her Raytoi finished third.  However, the sensations of 1897 were never repeated and for that, I’m sure, Lillie Langtry was grateful.