Advent blog: Mincepie, anyone?

15th December 2013

This advent blog comes from Museum friend, Nick Pemberton.

We all love a mince pie at Christmas; naturally we would never consider eating one for the other eleven months of the year - much like the underrated Brussels sprout and a fine Stilton (more’s the pity), but in the festive season they are a firm favourite.

But did you know that mince pies have been made in ‘ye olde Englande’ since medieval times? In fact crusaders brought the ingredients for the original mince pies back from the Holy Land. In those days they were more like a meat pie with added fruit and spices; the humble mince pie has changed much over the centuries.

Oliver Cromwell famously banned Christmas in the 17th century. Along with the Christmas dinner and decorations such as holly, the Lord Protector also banned mince pies but thankfully the well-known myth that it is still illegal to eat mince pies on Christmas day is not true. I should point out that Cromwell also banned horseracing and pretty much anything else that was fun during his puritanical reign.

The mince pies we know today became popular during Victorian times. Of course Christmas was really invented by Prince Albert, who introduced Britain to the Christmas tree, Christmas cards and ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ by Slade.

And it was in the Victorian era that a filly called Mincepie won the Oaks. More precisely the year was 1856 and the chestnut three-year-old, the 5/2 favourite, was ridden to victory by Alfred Day and trained by John Day, Jr. Mincepie’s winning time of 3 minutes and 4 seconds in the Oaks may well have been the slowest on record.

Disappointingly and rather ‘un-festively’, the pedigree of Mincepie was not by Mincemeat out of Shortcrust Pastry.  Instead Mincepie was by Sweetmeat out of Foinnualla by Birdcatcher. Sweetmeat was a successful stallion who also sired the well-named Mincemeat, the winner of the Oaks two years earlier in 1854.

Sweetmeat’s own sire was Gladiator, second to Bay Middleton in the 1836 Derby, and not to be confused with the 1865 Triple Crown winner Gladiateur, the ‘Avenger of Waterloo’.  Gladiator did though sire Miss Gladiator, the dam of Gladiateur. Still with me?

More importantly Gladiator sired the hugely influential Queen Mary, dam of Blink Bonny and famous tap-root mare.

Mincepie was owned by a rather shady character called Harry Hill, one of many blackguards prominent in racing circles at the time. This was not long after the infamous 1844 Derby won by the four-year-old Running Rein. Amongst other dubious activities, Hill acted as commissioner (an agent to place bets) and spy for Lord George Bentinck, who happened to be the chief reformer of the Turf at the time.

Mincepie had been second to Manganese in the 1000 Guineas prior to her victory in the Oaks, which she won by a neck from Melissa who would later beat her in the Park Hill Stakes. In between these races Mincepie would also win the Nassau Stakes at Goodwood.

Alfred Day, the jockey of Mincepie, rode 7 classic winners and was nicknamed ‘King Alfred’ by the public due to his continual success. His brother, John Day, Jr, trained the filly from his Danebury stable. A very good if rather dishonest trainer, John Day, Jr would train a total of 12 classic winners (and rode another) in total.

Their father John Barham Day was perhaps the most successful of the Day family dynasty. As a jockey, ‘Honest John Day’ as he was ironically known, rode 16 classic winners and then went on to train a further 7 more. John Barham Day in common with the rest of his family could not have been considered trustworthy. They really had no moral standards when it came to horse racing, and gambling in particular, and there were not too many racing scandals in the mid 19th century that did not involve a member of the Day family.

Of note the maestro Lester Piggott is a relation; his great-grandmother was the daughter of John Day, Jr.

So, Reader, you have learned a little bit about the Oaks winner Mincepie and the unscrupulous family who were associated with her, and maybe a little something about mince pies too.

Enjoy the holidays and please remember to leave a mince pie out for Santa this Christmas Eve. A glass of port wouldn’t go amiss either.