Our latest blog by Amy Bennett looks back at the record-breaking racehorse Isinglass.
In finishing third in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Turf at Del Mar in early November, Highland Reel earned himself a place in the record books as the highest-earning European trained horse of all time, having banked £6,441,225 for connections.
Six horses to have raced in the current decade have surpassed the £5m, a barely creditable mark not so many years ago. Highland Reel joined Cirrus Des Aigles and Treve as the only European trained horses to have earned over £6m, meaning that it has taken him only two years to wrest the crown of leading earner from the gelded Cirrus Des Aigles, who retired in December 2015.
Two years may seem a reasonable time to hold such a record, but if we look back over nearly a century and a quarter, we reach a horse who retired with such prize money that he held the British earnings record for almost sixty years.
That horse was Isinglass, the Triple Crown winner who passed away 106 years ago this week [DECEMBER 5th]. His four-year career spanned 12 races and included 11 victories which banked his owner £57,455, a world record at the time which stood until 1923, and a British record which lasted 57 years.
History is littered with horses who far outstripped their pedigrees and Isinglass is one such. His dam, Dead Lock, never ran and was from a female family with little to shout about. She cost breeder James Machell 19gns and was sold on by him before her first foal, Gervas, had proved himself a useful performer.
A popular story has often been circulated that Machell realised the error of her sale and searched frantically but in vain for the mare so he could breed her to Isonomy. One day a farmer arrived at his stud in a horse-drawn cart, pulled by - you’ve guessed it - none other than the elusive Dead Lock.
She was duly bred to Isonomy but sold on to Harry - later Captain – McCalmont, the man who numbers among his achievements the short-lived introduction of steeplechasing to Newmarket.
Having foaled a filly, Dead Lock was bred back to Isonomy by McCalmont and the result was Isinglass. McCalmont had such faith in his colt that before Isinglass had ever set foot on a racecourse, he reportedly bet £100 at 50-1 that the colt would win the 1893 Derby.
Isinglass is described by all sources as a big, solid bay colt, whose prodigious talent was matched only by his laziness. Although his record has only one blip, he rarely won by far or in a showy way. Trained by James Jewitt, whose stable was managed by Machell, for McCalmont, Isinglass made a winning debut in a maiden plate at Newmarket before heading on to Royal Ascot where he bagged the New Stakes, now known as the Norfolk Stakes.
A lengthy break ensued before he reappeared in the Middle Park Stakes, where he duly scored at the generous odds of 10-1, thanks to a monster gamble on the filly Dame President. Filling the runner-up spot that day was Ravensbury, a colt with whom Isinglass would clash through his career.
A persistently dry spring produced rock hard ground the following year, completely unsuitable for a big colt such as Isinglass. Jewitt was convinced that Isinglass could not be got fit for the 2,000 Guineas when every gallop on hard ground nearly lamed him. Machell was insistent that it could be done, and ordered the colt to be exercised twice daily by being repeatedly cantered up a tan gallop on Bury Hill.
The unconventional preparation paid off and Isinglass duly won by three-quarters of a length in a new record time. Two weeks later he scored again, winning the Newmarket Stakes over a mile and a quarter.
Sent off at 4-9 for the 1893 Derby, Isinglass did not give favourite backers an easy time of it as once again iron-hard ground meant he turned in a lazy performance, eventually winning by a length and a half.
He returned to action in the St Leger, defeating Ravensbury, who had finished third at Epsom, once more by a half a length at Doncaster. Ten days later, Isinglass tasted defeat for the first and only time when beaten into third by Raeburn to whom he was conceding ten pounds in the Lancashire Plate at Manchester.
The hard ground persisted into Isinglass’s four-year-old season when he made his seasonal bow in the Princess of Wales’s Stakes at Newmarket. In the line-up was the 1894 Derby winner Ladas, but Isinglass exerted his credentials over the young pretender, scraping home by a head on the hated hard ground.
The rain gods must have taken note, as the weather broke that very night and the ensuing deluge over the next fortnight rendered the ground at Sandown exactly - and finally - to Isinglass’s liking. He proved it by striding out for possibly the first and only time in his career, leading from start to finish and winning easily from Ladas and his old foe Ravensbury.
Only one start remained at four, when he won the Jockey Club Stakes back at Newmarket, a task made all the easier by the St Leger winner Throstle running off the course.
Isinglass made only one more start, winning his sole race at five in the Ascot Gold Cup. He retired in 1895 to stand at his owner’s Cheveley Park Stud in Newmarket.
Such was McCalmont’s gratitude and revere for his new stallion that he built him a brand-new stable, built into the stallion man’s cottage, so that, by opening a small hatch, the man in charge could check on Isinglass at any time, day or night. A plaque in the wall listed all of Isinglass’s many racecourse achievements.
Isinglass is not regarded as a roaring success at stud, although he did sire Classic winners Kennymore and Louvois (both 2,000 Guineas), Cherry Lass (1,000 Guineas), and Glass Doll (Oaks). He was also responsible for Star Shoot who became champion sire in America five times and sired Sir Barton who emulated his grandsire by becoming America’s first Triple Crown winner, albeit long before that title was officially given to the three races in question.
Isinglass’s legacy was also continued by his son John O’Gaunt who sired the St
Leger winner Swynford for Lord Derby, a name that lives on in modern pedigrees as the sire of the third dam of Nearctic.
Also preserving the legacy is the cottage, stable and plaque built for Isinglass survive to this day at Cheveley Park Stud, where Pivotal now looks out of the box once occupied by Britain’s leading money earner. His Triple Crown Trophy is on display in our Hero's and Legend's Gallery for the public to see.
Blog by Amy Bennett