Guest Blog: The Last of the Great Matches

27th October 2013

Our guest blogger, Tony Lake, tells the tale of an Anglo-American match that took place over 100 years ago this month …

Racegoers and the general public have always loved a match. From 1799, when Hambletonian got the better of Diamond to land Sir Henry Vane-Tempest’s 3,000 guineas bet, to 1851, when The Flying Dutchman and Voltigeur drew a crowd of 100,000 to the Knavesmire.  The old school of sportsmen like Lords Exeter, Glasgow and Jersey relished the opportunity to make matches and such contests were the bedrock of the turf.

Time marches on though, fashions change, and matches all but disappeared from race cards.  Then, in the autumn of 1900, the idea was revived, and this time the challenge was between old and new, the “old country” against the “new country”, England versus America. All the archaic excitement was back.

In 1897, the American jockey, Tod Sloan, came to England with his short-stirrup riding style, sitting high on the horse's neck.  His "monkey crouch" was mercilessly ridiculed.  His “ungainly” perch was at odds with the English style of a jockey sitting upright on the horse's back, which was considered to be the ideal.

Sloan, however, was undeniably successful, and he even rode five consecutive winners at the Newmarket in September, 1898.  Soon his success as well as an anti-gambling sentiment in America led other jockeys to follow him across the Atlantic. By 1900 brothers Lester and Johnny Reiff, “Skeets” Martin, Danny Maher, as well as Sloan, were habitually in the winner’s enclosure.

The American jockeys were accompanied by American trainers and by the turn of the century Huggins, Duke, Joyner and Wishard were well established in Newmarket. Undoubtedly, skilful and astute the Americans were soon churning out winners and landing gambles.

Enoch Wishard’s accomplishment was the most eye-catching and with 54 winners (with 26 different horses) he trained more winners than anybody else in 1900.  His triumphs with Royal Flush were particularly notable. The chestnut son of Favo had little to commend him when Wishard bought him for Mr J Drake, but gradually the ex-selling plater was transformed. After running a good third in the Jubilee, he landed hefty gambles in two of the most prestigious handicaps of the year by winning the Hunt Cup at Ascot and the Stewards’ Cup at Goodwood under Johnny Reiff.  Royal Flush seemed to be the epitome of the American way.

Throughout the 1900 season the Anglo-American rivalry was fierce, being widely debated until eventually a match was suggested. Ideally the proposers wanted a clash between a noted English horse, ridden by an English jockey, bred and trained in England, against an American horse, owned by an American, ridden by an American jockey, and trained by an American. The outcome, it was hoped, would demonstrate the superiority of one style over another.

Towards the end of the season, rumours were circulating that the connections of Royal Flush and Eager were keen to meet. The Morning Post, on September 26th, however, said that it was “impossible so far to obtain confirmation. Wishard, on behalf of Mr Drake, proposed a meeting at 7lb, and subsequently offered to run at 9st each, but to the present he has not received acceptance of his challenge.”

Eager was the best sprinter in England at the time.  The bay son of Enthusiast won the Queen’s Stand Stakes at Ascot under 10st 2lb, failed by a head to give over 4st to Running Stream in the July Cup, and ran with distinction again, when asked to give lumps of weight away, in Royal Flush’s Stewards’ Cup.  Many also thought him unlucky not to win Doncaster’s Portland Plate as Sloan, on Lucknow, barged him out of the way just as he was mounting his challenge.

Mr L Neumann’s six year old was trained by Peter Gilpin at Pimperne in Dorset. The former military man had re-located from Ireland and was steadily making a name for himself. Sirenia had pulled off a great success for him in the Great Jubilee Handicap and Clarehaven won the Cesarewitch by a half a dozen lengths, landing such a touch that enabled him to build a yard in Newmarket, appropriately named “Clarehaven”.

The proposed match captured the public imagination. Even before the showdown had been confirmed the Hurst Park executive proudly announced the conditions.  The six furlong contest would be worth 500 sovereigns with the two owners adding a further 500 each.  Both horses were set to carry 9 stones. The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent correspondent was able to tell his readers a little more as he had been informed, “on the best of authority, that the cup to be given to the winner … is the Ascot Gold Cup won by Robert the Devil in 1881… and cost originally over a thousand guineas.  It is a very handsome cup, and very much admired.”

Then, as enthusiasm for the contest was reaching fever pitch, Lord Durham dropped a bombshell.  On October 10th, he warned the Jockey Club that, “the Turf was getting into a very serious state, and that was chiefly owing to the prominence of American jockeys.”  He felt that “irregularities” were being explained by the “American style” and “acclimatisation”.  Furthermore he considered that when they were reprimanded they were treated more leniently than their English counterparts.

Not only did this ratchet up the challenge, but Royal Flush’s owner, Mr John Drake, took a dim view of such insinuation.  Although following a recent enquiry into the running and riding of his Escurial, he and Wishard had been completely exonerated, his jockey, Lester Reiff, was not, although the stewards did not go so far as to say that he “pulled it”. Drake announced that he would sell all his horses at Newmarket except Royal Flush who would be put up for auction after the Eager match.

It was Lester Reiff who was to have the leg up on Royal Flush. He was a brilliant exponent of the “American style” and won 143 races out of 549 mounts in 1900, becoming the first non-British jockey to become Champion Jockey.  Eager was to be partnered by Mornington Cannon. “Morny” had been Champion jockey six times in the 1890’s and was considered by some to have perfected "the art of jockeyship".

As the big day loomed the match was being reported all over the country and even The Isle of Man Weekly Times and General Advertiser, of Saturday, October 27, carried the story (if not accurately!)


The crowd was a huge one.  On returning from the Boer War, the City Imperial Volunteers,   had been scheduled to parade through the streets of London.  However, with their ship delayed and with the celebrations put on hold, many decided to go to the Hurst Park races instead.

In pouring rain, the two horses were applauded loudly as they made their way to the start. They both looked well but many felt that the strong headwind would favour the American crouching style of riding and believed that Wishard could produce miracles. However, sound judges realised that the match was in fact a “mis-match”.  For the first time in years Eager was set to carry only 9 stone, the trip and the soft going were to his advantage, and with only one opponent he was sure to get a clear run. Meanwhile bookmakers started to make a market and Eager was backed into 8/13 favourite.

The race proved to be a tame affair and was as good as over at flag fall. Although, favoured by the inside draw, Royal Flush soon conceded that advantage, and Cannon was able to take the rail. Gradually, Eager increased the tempo and was well in command with shouts of “Eager wins” heard long before the finish. Although Reiff worked hard it was to no avail and his mount was totally outclassed. Without being fully extended Eager’s (rather slow) time was 1 min 15.4 secs. The big crowd shouted itself hoarse as the English jockey passed the post three lengths clear.


Later, Mr Mainwaring, the chief handicapper at Hurst Park, commented, “if two English owners could have been found to make such a reckless match , I would have been disqualified if I had not given Royal Flush at least twelve pounds the advantage. It was a game thing for Mr Drake to make such a match, and it is a tribute to Mr Wishard’s capabilities that, under prohibitive conditions, his horse was so close up.”

After the race, Mr Drake was the first to congratulate Mr Neumann and later spoke to the press. “I made the match in the interest of sport alone. Many people in England wanted to see the horses meet again, but 28 pounds weight is too much to give away.” Then, as previously agreed, Royal Flush was put up for auction. Drake’s 400 guineas purchase barely 12 months earlier now made 1250 guineas when knocked down to another American sportsman Mr F Gardner.

Although a scene of great enthusiasm, the victory was not really a great achievement and proved very little, if anything at all.  Within a couple of years Sloan, Wishard and the Reiffs had left England to ply their skills in France. Styles of jockeyship in England gradually changed, however. As his retirement loomed Morny rode a little shorter and further forward, whilst Danny Maher, soon to become the dominant jockey, modified the “American style” to cope with the varied British racecourses. As George Lambton said, “his seat became a perfect mixture of the old and the new.”