Durbar, winner of the 1914 Derby

2nd June 2014


Guest Blog by Nick Pemberton

This year marks the centenary of a fateful year in Europe with the outbreak of the First World War. The conflict would have a profound impact on all aspects of society and affect the lives of millions of people in Great Britain and the rest of the world. Horse racing would rather controversially continue throughout the War and those years in fact produced a number of important and highly influential thoroughbreds such as Gainsborough, Gay Crusader and Phalaris.

The running of the Derby in that momentous year of 1914, an event which not long preceded the July crisis and subsequent declaration of War against Germany on 4th August, would turn out to mark the end of an era for the British people totally unaware of the horrors to come in Flanders and across the continent.

The winner of the 1914 Derby was an outsider called Durbar, a colt trained in France; and no French trained horse had ever won the Derby before, so Durbar’s victory was a first for the great race. The more well known Gladiateur, ‘The Avenger of Waterloo’, who won the Derby (indeed the triple crown) in 1865 was in fact trained in Newmarket although he was of course the first Derby winner to have been bred in France.

Durbar was by Rabelais out of Armenia. The Goodwood Cup winner Rabelais, who was by St Simon, was a successful stallion in France where he was three times champion sire.  He also sired Havresac whose daughter Nogara was the dam of Nearco, one of the greatest stallions of all-time. Unbeaten dual Arc winner Ribot also descended from Rabelais in the direct male line.

Armenia was by Meddler out of Urania, who was an American mare and at the time of his Derby win Durbar was not even classified as a thoroughbred as this maternal side of his family were not eligible for inclusion in the General Stud Book. Durbar was bred and owned by the American Mr Herman Duryea and trained in France by another American Tom Murphy.  Like many other American horsemen at the time Duryea had moved his racing and breeding interests across the Atlantic from the United States following the introduction of the 1908 anti-gambling bill in New York state. The influx of American-bred horses following this anti-betting legislation presented a problem in England as many of the pedigrees of these horses contained elements of dubious authenticity in their bloodlines. The notorious Jersey Act had been introduced in 1913; it stated that any horse that could not fully trace their bloodline back to horses previously accepted in the General Stud Book would be prohibited from registration. This primarily affected American-bred racehorses including those descending from the great stallion Lexington whose pedigree on the dam side was considered suspect.

In France Durbar was not particularly successful as a two-year-old in 1913. He ran four times and was unplaced in three of those races and third on the other occasion. But over the winter he strengthened up and improved significantly on the racetrack as a three-year-old winning four times, including the Prix Noailles, all before June. He was then only a disappointing sixth in the French 2000 Guineas but his owner thought this a promising enough performance to send him to Epsom. Durbar therefore travelled over to England where Mr Duryea personally supervised his last minute training.

It has to be said that the field for the 1914 Derby was not the most distinguished ever seen; the recent retirement through injury of The Tetrarch had robbed the race of its undisputed superstar. But even still Durbar was considered a long shot, and ridden by another American Matt MacGee he started at odds of 20/1 in a huge field of 30 runners. He won the race easily by three lengths from Hapsburg, who later on would win both the Eclipse and Champion Stakes. The unexpected result silenced the big Derby-day crowd on the Epsom Downs. The race was felt by many to be have been a most unsatisfactory affair; in particular the start was significantly delayed by the bad behavior of the hot favourite and 2000 Guineas winner Kennymore whose antics cost him any chance of winning the race and who finished well down the field. Other unplaced horses included Black Jester who went on to win the St Leger.

Durbar’s next run was in the Prix du Jockey Club where he was fourth to the French colt Sardanapale. He then finished third behind the same horse in the Grand Prix de Paris, the race taking place on the 28th June 1914. But dark clouds were now gathering over Europe and on the very same day that Durbar ran in the Grand Prix de Paris, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo setting off a chain of events that would lead to the start of the Great War just over one month later. Horse racing in France was soon suspended and Durbar would never run again.



Durbar in Training



The horse himself had a very lucky wartime escape. In September 1914 as Paris was being threatened by the advancing German army, Durbar was taken to safety by his groom from the Chantilly area where he was stabled. The colt was wrapped in an American flag and a banner was fastened to him which read “This is Durbar, the English Derby winner. He is Neutral.”

Later on Durbar would have some success as a stallion. He will be best remembered for his daughter Durban.  Mated with dual Arc winner Ksar, she bred Tourbillon who won the French Derby and would become a very influential stallion. Owned and bred by Marcel Boussac, Tourbillon would stand at his owners Haras de Fresnay-le-Buffard stud in Normandy where he would be three times champion sire in France. His son Djebel, who won the 2000 Guineas and later on the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe, would also be outstandingly successful at stud and champion sire in France. And Djebel’s son My Babu would go on to win the 1948 2000 Guineas; and it was only in the following year that the Jersey Act was finally revised in light of the crisis to the British thoroughbred industry, in part caused by the classic victory of My Babu and those problematic bloodlines tracing back to Durbar.