Looking back

4th February 2015

Tony Lake imagines an interview with a racing personality and veteran of the Crimean War who died 120 years ago ...


Captain Thomas Manners Townley


Were you always destined for a career in racing?


Not at all! Being the third son of Mr Richard Greaves Townley of Fulbourn Manor, I was expected to take up a clerical career. However, after completing my formal education at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, I had other ideas. Growing up near Newmarket I was a regular on the gallops and I became friendly with leading jockey Sam Rogers. Many people remarked that I looked like the 1842 1000 Guineas winning jockey but I concentrated on learning to ride like him.  I adopted his upright seat and stylish finish. It paid dividends and soon I was winning races in Cambridge's “happy valley”. Consequently, I opted for the cavalry, leaving the clergy clear for my younger brother, William.


How did your military career fare?


In 1847, aged 21, I became a lieutenant in the 10th Hussars. Stationed in India there was plenty of time to indulge in race-riding and I quickly made a name for myself.  However, with the outbreak of the Crimean War, in 1854, the regiment was ordered to make for the peninsula. It was on this journey that I rode my greatest race...


Travelling across the desert between Cairo and Alexandria, the regiment had just set up camp at Gubaris, when an Arab Sheik, joined us. He asked permission to look over the horses and was not impressed with what he saw.  He then challenged the regiment to a match against his good-looking grey. The CO at once sent for me.


I had already realised that although the Sheik's horse was well-bred it was not as fit a cavalry charger and encouraged the Colonel and my brother officers to have a good bet on me. Furthermore, the boy riding the Sheik's horse was no match for a Newmarket-trained jockey, even at catch-weights. To the cheers of the regiment I romped home in the 2-mile contest. Sporting in defeat, the Sheik, settled his bets and treated the Hussars to an unforgettable banquet.


By the time the 10th Hussars got to the Crimea there was little or no use for the cavalry. Whilst we were besieged at Sebastopol I met an old school pal and that great racing man, Sir John Astley, who was in the Scots Guards. To break the boredom, we often played cricket together - something Sir John was always happy to recall when we met on the racecourse years later.


After the proclamation of peace, the Sultan put up three cups to be raced for. Sir John described them as “very pretty little ohjets d'art” and  “though not much bigger than egg-cups they were studded with precious stones, and were said to be worth the best part of a hundred pounds each.” “The Mate”, as Astley was known, was keen to win one but was unlucky.   In fact, I won two of cup races, riding horses belonging to my friends, but missed out on a clean sweep when narrowly beaten on my own charger.  Sir John complimented my riding and years later wrote “Tom Townley (a perfect horseman), who rode the winner Pathfinder, slid his horse down the first bank and scrambled up the opposite side — I can see him doing it now — and won in a canter.”


When did you start to concentrate on racing full-time?


I retired from the army in 1858 and from then on I divided my time between England and Ireland. Whilst in Ireland I usually stayed with George “The Squire” Bryan at Jenkinstown Park, near Kilkenny.  It was there that I met John de Heley Chadwick who became a great friend and whose horses I managed for years.  I was also introduced to Denny Wynne and benefited from riding morning exercise with him. Not only had Denny ridden in the Derby but also Matthew, the first Irish trained winner of the Grand National in 1842. Certainly, he was one of the most brilliant horseman on the flat and “between the flags”.


Those were great days. Riding, or acting as steward, at the Howth, Baldoyle, Cashel and Bellewstown meetings was fun. I was noted for my “splendid riding” of winners on The Curragh and at Jenkinstown Park, and when the racing was over, I often played cricket, including matches at Phoenix Park and the Viceregal Lodge. 1858 was a successful year for me; in July, I rode a treble at Odiham (a meeting confined to officers stationed at Aldershot) and finished the season with six winners, putting me sixth in the Gentlemen riders' rankings.


Did you have any luck in the Grand National?


No! I enjoyed success both over the jumps and on the flat, however, success in the Grand National eluded me … but I came desperately close. In 1860, when partnering The Huntsman and going well, we blundered at Becher's Brook second time round and I lost my irons. We got back into contention only to make another mistake at the last.  In a desperate finish I was deprived of victory by a head. Rumours that close home I offered a £1000 bribe to Mr Thomas, Anatis's rider, I refuse to discuss.  Unfortunately, I did not have the mount on The Huntsman when he won the 1862 renewal so that success was bitter-sweet. My next ride in the race came in1863 when I finished third on Yaller Gal behind Emblem. I had high hopes of winning in 1865 on Jerry and struck hefty bets accordingly. However, Jerry broke down in a gallop just before the race.


Was Jerry one on the best horses you ever rode?


Without any doubt. He was bred by Palmer, the notorious poisoner, just before he was hanged. He was owned by my friend Chadwick and trained in Newmarket by C Green. We had some fun with him; racing all over the country, we went pot-hunting. In 1864, he won at Birmingham, Rugby, Stratford, Cheltenham and Worcester. I shared the riding with professional Ben Land jun. and the Grand Annuals Ben won at Cheltenham and Worcester were highlights of his riding career. 


We always wanted to get our money on and sometimes we upset other punters. At York, for instance, I was in my colours and weighed out only to get news that we could not place all our bets so I scratched him. It was not popular, but we won at Stratford the following day.  A little while after, at Newmarket's Houghton meeting, I had a great laugh when riding Jerry. In a match for 200 sovereigns aside against "Fog" Rowlands on St. Stephen, Jerry won so easily I even had time to shout to judge Clark.  I told him to expect Mr Rowlands in the course of the evening!


Set to carry 11-12 in the 1865 Grand National he would have taken all the beating.


Tell us about one of your betting coups.


I remember landing a touch when in cahoots with Count Batthyany.  His good horse, Suburban, was entered in Warwick's Great Autumn Welter Handicap. Prior to the race the Count flitted around the betting ring looking for the best odds on Suburban.  Dressed in his riding britches, with his pale green colours under his coat, the bookies assumed that he would be taking the mount. Not known for his prowess in the saddle the layers were happy to offer him 6/1 rather than the 4/1 which was generally available. However, I took the ride and we won very easily.


Did you have much luck as an owner?


Racing under an assumed name, “Mr J Dixon”, I had my string trained by William Goodwin at Newmarket and had a fair share of success.  Chartreuse won the Royal Hunt Cup at Windsor and the Great Barr Handicap at Sutton Park in 1872; Purveyor was a multiple winner as were New Guinea and Preston. I enjoyed success at important meetings including Newmarket, Liverpool and Chester. 1868 was my best year when I won £1501 in prize-money and was 43rd in the owners' list.


In 1869, I owned a promising chaser, Fortunatus, who was favourite for the Grand National. I sold him to Edward Brayley, who was a prominent owner at the time, but he went wrong before Liverpool. My best chaser was Musketeer. He gave me my greatest success when winning the Grand Annual Steeplechase at Warwick. With “Mr Edwards” riding one of his greatest races, he won by a head at the very rewarding odds of 20/1.


Did you know “Mr Edwards” well?


George Ede was a friend. Eight years my junior, a fellow Old Etonian, we raced together for years. He often rode for me and as well as Musketeer he won on my Snowdrop ... at Liverpool of all places.  Liverpool was the scene of his greatest triumph, when The Lamb won the Grand National, but also the scene of his fateful fall in March 1870.  Along with Mr Crawshaw, Captain Day VC and Lord Poulett, who owned The Lamb, I was a pall-bearer at the funeral, which took place at St Paul's, Southampton.  He was buried at the cemetery on Southampton Common, appropriately near the racecourse where he rode lots of winners.  Racing is a great sport but often a sad one.


After a long illness, at the age of sixty-nine, Captain Townley died at his home in Welbeck Street, Cavendish Square, on the 9th April, 1895. He was buried at the family home of Fulbourn Manor alongside his brother, Charles, Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire, who had died two years earlier.