Tony Lake recalls a National Hunt racing trailblazer
When you hear the “Cheltenham roar”, as the runners race to the first in the Supreme Novices Hurdle, spare a thought for Fog Rowlands. Without Fog there might not have been a National Hunt Chase and consequently neither a National Hunt Committee nor a Cheltenham Festival. As well as the instigator of jump racing's highlight Fog was a successful rider, at home and abroad, and an accomplished trainer.
Mr Fothergill Rowlands, widely known as “Fog", was born in 1826, in Abergavenny. The son of Dr Abraham Rowlands, the doctor at the Nantyglo Ironworks, was expected to follow his father into the medical profession but instead moved to Prestbury to pursue racing.
The landlord of Kings Arms at Prestbury was William Archer, rider of the 1858 Grand National winner Little Charley and father of Fred. The pub became the focal point for the local racing community, which included triple Grand National winners, Thomas Pickernell and Tom Olliver, as well as George Stevens who won five. Dismayed by the decline in quality of hunters, the group, led by Rowlands, wanted to encourage farmers to breed high-class horses. By 1858 they came up with the idea of a steeplechase confined to hunters ridden by farmers or huntsmen. Furthermore, as Peter Stevens says in his History of the National Hunt Chase, “They wanted to discourage the 'keeping in training of a set of weeds useful only for betting purposes' by setting a tough cross-country course.”
Other than from the VWH the idea was not well received, but Rowlands did not give up and rallied support. After the inaugural Grand National Hunt Steeplechase was held at Market Harborough, on Wednesday, 18 April 1860, Bell's Life justly recorded “the chief credit attaches to the perseverance of Mr F Rowlands for bringing the event to successful issue.” By 1863, the committee that drew up the rules for 1860 race had evolved into the Grand National Hunt Steeplechase Committee and started to govern National Hunt racing. At last, on issuing the Market Harborough Rules, National Hunt racing was regulated, as the Flat was regulated by the Jockey Club. In 1911, the Committee's showpiece race was given a permanent home at Cheltenham and a festival flourished around it...
Finishing fifth in the Market Harborough race was Mr R Chapman's Medora and she caught Fog's eye. He bought her for 400 guineas and the pair formed a prolific partnership. In 1861, they won the Wynnstay Cup at Liverpool, a three and a half mile chase at Shrewsbury, an open chase at Chepstow, the Severn Bank Chase and the Worcestershire Cup at Worcester. In 1862, after taking the Abergavenny and Monmouthshire Hunt Open, the combination landed the £450 Grand Steeplechase at Baden-Baden by six lengths. That success, it seems, did not go down well with the Bavarians who subsequently altered the race conditions to deter foreign challengers.
On returning home success continued with a repeat victory in the Worcestershire Cup. Allocated top-weight for the 1863 Grand National, Medora was being acknowledged as the best chaser in the country. However, after making a mistake at the water, she failed to stay the trip and Fog pulled her up. Nonetheless, in October, the mare took the four-mile Liverpool Hunt Cup run at Hoylake, shouldering 14 stone, and in November, won the Severn Bank Chase again. In 1865, the pair were successful at the Abergavenny and Monmouthshire Hunt meeting once more. Medora's final victory came at Cardiff in an Open handicap when she made light of 13 stone; on that occasion she was ridden by William Reeves, Fog's head man.
By the end of 1865, Fog wound down his successful riding career and concentrated on training. Setting up his stables at Pitt Place, Epsom, many of the leading owners had horses in training with him including the Duke of Hamilton, Lord Queensberry, Sir John Astley, Sir Charles Nugent, Lord Marcus Beresford and Mr Reginald Herbert. When the Prince of Wales first went into race-horse ownership, after he acquired an Arab bred, Alep, “a bay with black points and white hind heels”, he too turned to Fog.
The first appearance of the "purple, gold braid, scarlet sleeves, black velvet cap with gold fringe" under Jockey Club rules was at Newmarket at the July Meeting of 1876. Alep, described in The Sportsman as a “beautifully shaped animal, remarkable for his excellent limbs, and gifted with far better feet than are usually characteristic of the Arab” was matched against Lord Strathnairn's Avowal. Racing over the four mile Beacon course, with a stake of £500 aside, Alep was beaten by 30 lengths. It was felt that the Prince's horse had yet to acclimatise but would soon be showing the “Pitt Place polish”.
One horse that definitely benefited from the “Pitt Place polish” was Scamp. Owned by Sir John (“The Mate”) Astley, as a three-year-old, in 1874, Scamp won a Queen's Plate at Shrewsbury and the Goodwood Stakes before finishing third in the St Leger. At four and five though he lost his way and, in the hope of reviving his career, he was sent to Fog to make him into a hurdler.
Acquiring a horse of such potential came at an opportune time for Fog. After a disagreement, Marcus Beresford, Lord Dupplin and Colonel Paget not only removed their horses from Pitt Place but also set up their own stable in Epsom. To make matters worse they even took John Jones, Fog's stable jockey, with them.
Although an indifferent jumper Fog made no secret of his confidence in Scamp's ability to win the £500 added Grand International Hurdle at Croydon in 1877. On the eve of the race he sent a telegram to Astley: "Finished his work rare and well. I fear nothing." Meanwhile Lord Dupplin had a contender for the race in Woodcock, who, it was widely thought, was the best of the Epsom challengers, and was supported accordingly. In the hands of Jim Adams Scamp tracked the leaders until the last hurdle when he headed Woodcock to take the lead. Running out a comfortable winner from his 18 rivals, the 8/1 hope landed some hefty bets for Astley and, no doubt, gave Fog plenty of satisfaction.
Known for his wit once Fog challenged Ben Ellam to a match and regularly before the meeting would say, “You had better forfeit; I'm safe to beat you.” Ellam only laughed, confident of victory. A day or two before the race Ellam asked, “How is your horse Rowlands? I don't see him at exercise.” “Oh, he is as well as he has been for sometime,” came the reply. On race day, Fog announced “I have declared forfeit on that animal.” “But you said that he was as well as he had been for sometime,” said Ellam. “So he is, I suppose,” replied Fog, “but he has been dead for six weeks.”
Fog Rowlands, who for years suffered from gout in the knees and feet, died in April, 1878. “A rare judge of horse, and with wonderful hands,” JM Richardson, in his Gentlemen Riders: Past and Present, classed Fog as “one of the finest cross-country horsemen of his day”. We, on the other hand, are grateful for his pioneering spirit.