Legends of the Turf: Rockfel

11th October 2013

Known as “The Old Lady”, Rockfel was one of the finest fillies of her era, the winner of two Classics and dominant against both genders of her generation and older horses. Both her career and her retirement were sadly cut short, but she made a lasting impression on racing with displays of pure galloping talent.


Rockfel was foaled in 1935 at her owner Sir Hugo Cunliffe-Owen’s Weir Bank Stud. Her sire was the 1928 Derby winner Felstead, a stallion representing the union of Carbine’s sire line via Spearmint, and Cyllene’s line via Lemberg. Rockfel’s dam, Rockliffe was descended from Triple Crown winner Rock Sand and a moderate success as a racehorse. Rockfel was a dark brown filly, not the best looking with a plain head, but possessed of an effortless stride that helped her gallop her rivals into submission. She was markedly intelligent and alert, and liked routines to be kept to, hence her stable nickname.

Rockfel was rather slow to develop, and was still unnamed when she made her racecourse debut in a Selling Plat at Sandown in July. Appearing gawky and running very green, Rockfel finished sixth behind Lovely Scotland, and could actually have been claimed for 550 guineas that day. Luckily, no prospective buyer came forward, and Rockfel continued her progression with two runs at Salisbury and Newmarket before she finally won a maiden plate at York. In the Free Handicap that season, Rockfel was rated at 108, 21lbs below the top rated juvenile filly, Radiant.

Rockfel continued to mature throughout the winter, and as her three year old season progressed she became noticeably stronger and deep through the girth, though she remained very long and lean.


She reappeared in a handicap at Newmarket where she finished third to Lapel, before improving to readily win the Princess Elizabeth Stakes at Epsom by a length and a half. These two runs ensured she was fully fit in the 1000 Guineas, and she used this and her stamina to her advantage by making the running. One filly, Laughing Water, raced with her and the two quickly separated themselves from the field. Running into The Dip, Rockfel took the lead and extended her advantage all the way up the hill to win by a length and a half. The time, on admittedly firm going, was 1min 39secs, 4/5 of a second faster than the time Pasch recorded in the 2000 Guineas.


As the daughter of a Derby winner, Rockfel was expected to improve for the step up in trip and in the Oaks she once again made all the running to win by four lengths from Radiant and Solar Flower. Her jockey, Harry Wragg, was surprised that none of the others challenged her during the race, especially at heading to Tattenham Corner, where the pace was very slow. Rockfel only hit her best stride towards the finish, was unextended and reluctant to pull up. Once again her time was faster than the colt’s Classic, 1.5 seconds quicker than Bois Roussel ran in the Derby. All in all, her Oaks victory was described as very tame.


For her two Classic wins, Rockfel was heavily penalised in her next race in the Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot, where she gave 10lbs and more to the rest of the field. Running in softish ground, she led for the first five furlongs before fading to finish fourth to Solar Power, who was carrying a stone less in weight.


Given a two month break, Rockfel returned in the Hyperion Stakes (a trial for the St Leger) over thirteen furlongs at Hurst Park. She faced a rematch with Solar Flower, who was on a three race winning streak, but at more equal weights she gained revenge on the other filly to win by a length.

Rockfel’s next race was her most impressive yet, in the Champion Stakes at Newmarket. Opposing her were Pasch (winner of the 2000 Guineas and Eclipse Stakes), L’Ouragan III (winner of the Prince of Wales Stakes), and Portmarnock (winner of the Champagne Stakes). In an “astonishing manner”, Rockfel led from the start and beat Pasch by five lengths after only hitting top gear in the final furlong. Despite the fairly slow ground, her race time was again exceptionally good compared to recent renewals.


Rockfel completed her season with an easy three length win in the Aintree Derby over Bombay Duck, Jockey Club Stakes winner Challenge, and Ebor and Jockey Club Cup victor Foxglove II. Although Challenge briefly drew level with the filly, Rockfel quickly asserted and pulled away again.


She was joint top rated at 133 on the 1938 Free Handicap along with Bois Roussel.


Rockfel’s four year old season was repeatedly hampered by injuries and niggling problems, though she managed to win on her only appearance. In the March Stakes at Newmarket, she defeated a field that included Prince of Wales Stakes winner Valerian by just under a length. She was then meant to meet Derby winner Bois Roussel and St Leger winner Scottish Union in the Coronation Cup, but the night before she was deemed below her best and scratched from the race. The Ascot Gold Cup was nominated as her next target, but she again suffered from problems in the build up, couldn’t be galloped, and was withdrawn. After continued setbacks, Rockfel was retired in the early Autumn as the winner of eight of her thirteen starts.


Tragically, Rockfel’s breeding career was also cut short as she died aged just six of a twisted gut. She produced just a single colt, Rockfella, who went on to sire the 2000 Guineas winner, Rockavon.


Rockfel (1935) by Felstead out of Rockliffe (Santorb)

Breeder: Weir Bank Stud

Owner: Sir Hugo Cunliffe-Owen’s

Trainer: Ossie Bell

Major wins:

Princess Elizabeth Stakes (1938)

1000 Guineas (1938)

Oaks (1938)

Hyperion Stakes (1938)

Champion Stakes (1938)

Aintree Derby (1938)

By Alice Kay