Legends of the Turf: Isonomy

29th April 2013

“One of the best and stoutest horses that ever faced a flag”, was how legendary trainer John Porter described Isonomy, one of the finest stayers of the 19th Century. Withheld from the Classics to allow his owner to land an enormous gamble in the Cambridgeshire, Isonomy went on to establish himself as the best horse of his generation despite his unusual career path.

Foaled in 1875, Isonomy was by Sterling out of Isola Bella (Stockwell), and featured the great stallion Birdcatcher on both sides of his pedigree. He was a late born foal and not a big horse, but he was sound and hardy, if a little excitable. He was purchased by John Porter on behalf of his owner Fredrick Gretton for 320 guineas and given time to develop as a two year old.

Isonomy Isonomy

Gretton and Porter knew they had a top class horse on their hands when Isonomy ran in a trial against both a fellow three year old, Pistol, and an older horse, Harbinger. Carrying nearly two stone more than the former, he finished second by a neck while the older horse, conceding far less than the weight-for-age scale dictated, was six lengths behind. Gretton cannily kept him from the major races until the autumn, when he appeared as a 40-1 long shot in the Cambridgeshire. Under only 7st 1lb, Isonomy beat Touchet and former winner Le Merveille by two lengths and announced his presence on the racing stage.

As a four year old, Isonomy lost his debut race to top class American gelding Parole, but quickly established himself as a champion of staying races. He ran twice at Royal Ascot, firstly winning the Gold Vase by half a length from Derby winner Silvio, and then triumphing in the Ascot Gold Cup two days later where he beat Prix du Jockey Club winner Insulaire in effortless fashion.

Isonomy next raced in the Goodwood Cup where, despite rival The Bear establishing a large lead, he again won easily by three lengths. A win in the Brighton Cup at 1/10 preceded an assault on the Ebor, where he carried 9st 10lbs in ground that was “fetlock deep”. Despite the weight and conditions, Isonomy roared home by eight lengths to the delight of the watching crowd.

His courage was proved beyond doubt when he won the Doncaster Cup from Oaks and St Leger winner Jannette, despite being injured by rival jockey Fred Archer’s spurs. Isonomy therefore became the first horse to complete the ‘Stayers Triple Crown” of Ascot Gold Cup, Goodwood Cup and Doncaster Cup.


Isonomy’s final start of the year ended in defeat under 9st 10lbs in the Cesarewitch after he was knocked sideways by stablemate Westbourne, who was expected to take advantage of a light weight resulting from Isonomy’s entry in the race. In the end, Westbourne could only finish second while Isonomy struggled home in fourth after his setback.

Isonomy banished any memory of this defeat the following season when he won both of his races. In the Manchester Cup over fourteen furlongs, he conceded 42lbs to 2000 Guineas third The Abbot and beat him by a neck in an outstanding weight carrying performance.

Isonomy’s swansong came in the Ascot Gold Cup two weeks later, where he gained revenge on his Cesarewitch conqueror Chippendale while recording a second win in the race.

Isonomy was succinctly summed up as “the most magnificent horse”, and his record certainly reflected that. He was also an immensely popular horse, and went on to become an extremely influential sire. Among his progeny were two Triple Crown winners in Common and Isinglass, as well as the excellent stallion Gallinule, sire of legendary racemare Pretty Polly. Like their sire, Isonomy’s offspring tended to possess an abundance of stamina and certainly left their mark on the breed.

Isonomy (1875) by Sterling out of Isola Bella (Stockwell)


Breeder: Graham Brothers


Owner: Fredrick Gretton


Trainer: John Porter


Major wins:

Cambridgeshire (1878)

Ascot Vase (1879)

Ascot Gold Cup (1879, 1880)

Goodwood Cup (1879)

Brighton Cup (1879)

Ebor Handicap (1879)

Doncaster Cup (1879)

Manchester Cup (1880)

By Alice Kay