Advent blog: Three Wise Men

11th December 2013

Christmas is the time of “The Three Wise Men bearing gifts” and today Stephen Wallis and Tony Lake investigate racing’s “The Three Wise Men” and their “gifts”.

Just imagine it. No races for horses younger than 5 years old; all races run over 4 miles; spectators confused, not sure which horse is which. And if that was not bad enough the sport was in the grip of villains and crooks. Talk about the Wild West, but that is what racing was like.

Then three men from the East (East Anglia that is) increased the power of the Jockey Club and transformed the Turf.  Their periods in office at the Jockey Club spanned over a century and “their gifts” have helped to create racing as we know it today.

Our first “wise man” is Sir Thomas Charles Bunbury 6th Baronet, who went by his middle name and is known as Sir Charles Bunbury. He was born in May 1740, at Great Barton, a few miles from Newmarket and was elected MP for Suffolk at 21. By 28 he had become the Steward of the Jockey Club, (there was only one such steward). He gave racing some much needed coherence, faster races and the Classics.

In the early eighteenth century, the Jockey Club’s influence did not extend beyond Newmarket Heath. Under Bunbury’s direction the power of the Jockey Club increased so ensuring that races were conducted in the same way throughout the country.  Races for horses younger than 5 had not been considered desirable, but Bunbury encouraged the moves for racing younger horses. Racing for 4 year olds began in the North in 1727 and taken up by Newmarket in 1744. Racing for 3 year olds started at Newmarket in 1756 and, by then, races for two year olds were inevitable.

With Bunbury’s support of younger horses racing, he encouraged the moves for shorter races and the carrying of lighter weights.  Consequently, speed was seen to be as important as stamina. Naturally, championship races were required and the Classics were founded during his regime.

Bunbury was followed by our next “wise man”, Lord William George Frederick Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, better known as Lord George Bentinck. Born in 1802, Bentinck was a younger son of the 4th Duke of Portland and, at 26, became Member of Parliament for King's Lynn, which he represented until his death in 1848. Initially, politics did not inspire him - it took him eight years to make his maiden speech –but racing administration did. He gave racing some much needed procedure and a degree of honesty.

Racing under him was more orderly and he therefore improved the sport for spectators. He introduced different priced enclosures, including a roped-off smokers’ area in case the ladies were offended!  He also insisted upon numbers on racecards corresponding with a number board and ordered horses to be saddled in a specific area and paraded before races.

He was tenacious in attempting to eradicate cheating. He tightened up the weighing in and out rules; he banned the custom of the winning owner giving a present to the judge and raised the standard of judging. Starts were often shambolic, but he improved them.  Clerks of the course were fined if races started late and a flag start was introduced alongside the simple yelling of ’Go’. He also ensured that the horses were the correct age for their class. Significantly, it was Bentinck who exposed the “Running Rein ringer” in 1844 Derby.

Crooks, dopers, welshers, pickpockets and all manner of villains were bringing racing into disrepute, but Bentinck pursued them ruthlessly and effectively.  Then in 1846, in the middle of the Goodwood meeting, he dropped the bombshell that he had decided to sell all his racehorses.  The Repeal of the Corn Laws debate had lured him back to Westminster and he decided to devote himself to politics.

Our third “wise man” is Henry Rous who was born in 1791 at Henham Hall, Suffolk, the second son of John Rous, the 1st Earl of Stradbroke. To racing folk he is known simply as Admiral Rous. After a distinguished naval career, from 1836, when he was appointed Jockey Club Steward, until his death in 1877, he applied his considerable energy to horseracing. He set about building upon the work of Bunbury and Bentinck to impose order where there was chaos. He gave racing a much needed clarification of the rules and organised handicapping properly.

In 1850, he published “The Laws and Practice of Horse Racing”. Not only was this a history of the thoroughbred but a book of rules. For the first time the Newmarket rules of racing where there to be read, with the duties of officials clearly explained.  For good measure a list of difficult racing cases, with their judgements, was added to make the interpretation of the rules as straightforward as possible.

Although not keen on big handicaps because of the potential for cheating, Rous effectively introduced the modern handicapping system. The 'Weight-for-age-scale' he devised is still familiar, specifying how much weight horses of different ages must carry over different distances and at different times of the year.  In 1855, he was appointed official handicapper.  Inevitably this brought him into conflict with those who felt harshly treated, but his reputation for fairness meant that his authority was not seriously challenged.

From 1836 until he died he did not miss one principal race meeting.  Always on the lookout for non-triers, he usually watched the races through his naval telescope and made a point of seeing how hard horses were breathing at the finish. Sometimes though he would hide in the Bushes at Newmarket to check how vigorously jockeys were riding in the closing stages of races. He even watched horses work on Newmarket Heath in order to assess them accurately.

Although he approved of moderate gambling he did not agree with heavy betting, which he considered criminal and foolish. It was partly due to his influence that the “gambling hells” died out and racing was set upon a more commercial basis. With him taking control of the Jockey Club’s financial affairs their revenue increased from £3000 to £18000. Right up until his death he worked indefatigably for racing, and it is said that racing never had a better friend.

So, our “Three wise men” gave “gifts” that revolutionised horseracing. They turned the crude and dubious 18th century pastime into the professional sport that we know and enjoy so much today.