It started as a scam, evolved into a way to hide identity, but eventually became antiquated. Tony Lake's latest blog is about assumed names in racing...
An owner by any other name
The nom de course, or an assumed name for racing purposes, is almost as old as racing itself. In the early days of turf history an owner could run as many horses as he liked in a race under as many different names as he liked. Inevitably, it is said, unscrupulous men, even some “pillars of the turf”, would sometimes have three or four animals in a race, all supposedly under different ownership. Of course, those in the know would know which of the runners was the one to bet on. No doubt, in some cases, the jockeys were in on the secret and were under orders not to interfere with the plans!
This disreputable state of affairs was eventually dealt with by the Jockey Club who introduced new rules concerning assumed names. Any owner or rider who did not wish to be recognised, on payment of £30 a year, could register a name by which he would be known on the Turf. He could not register more than one and was not allowed to run horses in his own name while the registration held good.
There were often excellent reasons why a man preferred to hide his identity...
Those connected to the Church thought it prudent to use an assumed name rather than risk causing offence. Thomas Pickernell, one of the outstanding riders of the nineteenth century, rode as Mr Thomas so as not to upset the clerics in his family. When he won the Grand National on Anatis in 1860, Mr Ekard on Bridegroom finished sixth. Mr Ekard was actually the Reverend ET Drake (NB Ekard spelt backwards) who did not wish to upset his parishioners. In 1874, after Apology won the St Leger for Mr Launde it transpired that he was in fact owner-breeder John William King, the vicar of Ashby de la Launde. The Bishop of Lincoln was not pleased and issued an ultimatum to the clergyman urging him to choose between the Turf and the Church. King chose the Turf.
Some businessmen were fearful of their reputations being tarnished by an association with racing. After Mr Dunbar's Tormentor won the 1866 Oaks the owner was “outed” as “a prosperous saddler carrying out his business in the neighbourhood of Piccadilly”. It soon became apparent that Mr Dunbar was Mr Ben Ellam. Some of his customers abhorred racing and, he claimed, took their business elsewhere.
Sometimes noms de course were adopted for purely personal reasons. Lord Royston wanted to prevent his two elderly aunts worrying about him as they were convinced riding in steeplechases was an unhealthy pastime. Each morning they would scan the racing pages fretting over the injuries of fallen jockeys; the future Lord Hardwicke therefore chose to ride under the name of Mr Yorke. George “The Squire” Baird inherited a fortune as a teenager and, because his trustees disapproved of racing, rode and owned under the name Mr Abington.
Inevitably, the disguises became transparent, especially in the cases of prominent people. Alfred Cox, who enjoyed classic success with Lemberg, Bayardo and Gay Crusader, campaigned his horses under the assumed name of Mr Fairie but was universally known as “Fairie” Cox. Similarly, everyone, inside and outside of racing circles, was aware that Mr Manton was the prolific owner Caroline Duchess of Montrose. It has been suggested that sometimes the assumed name helped their owners gain publicity, with even the famous actress Lily Langtry known as Mr Jersey.
With the practice of assumed names appearing increasingly archaic, in October 1913, the Jockey Club discussed its abolition. Frederick Lambton introduced the subject, and emphasised that the stewards felt “it was not wise or right that the Jockey Club should have anything to conceal.” Quoting Dr Johnson, he said, “that when secrecy or mystery begins vice or roguery is not far off.” Such a sweeping assertion was not met with universal agreement and at the meeting held on 29 October the proposal was rejected. However, after the Great War, the matter was brought up again, in December 1919. Sir Hedworth Meux's suggested compromise that the anonymity fee should be increased received little support and the tradition of assumed names was deemed unlawful.
Rule of Racing 89 which states “No owner shall make use of an assumed name for the purpose of entering or running horses, and any horse running under an assumed name will be disqualified” was enforced after the running of New Century Steeplechase at Hurst Park on 16 February, 1924.
Mr A Walker's Mitchells, ridden by Bob Lyall and trained by his brother Frank, had beaten Le Cellier but was disqualified because the “nomination” was “irregular”. In March, Mitchells won at Fontwell and was nominated by Capt JT Ainslie Walker and all was well. Undoubtedly, that success smelt sweet.