The Cambridgeshire Handicap is one of the most popular flat races of the whole year. The race, run over 1 mile and 1 furlong, was inaugurated in 1839 in the same year as that other renowned Newmarket handicap, and second leg of the autumn double, the Cesarewitch. Over the years many notable and well-loved horses have won the Cambridgeshire, including in recent times the likes of Halling, Rambo’s Hall and Pasternak. In the Victorian era it was in fact common to see classic winners, such as Bend Or, St Gatien and Triple Crown winner Galtee More run in the race. They were usually burdened with huge weight and therefore rarely successful. The exception was La Fleche, who won the Cambridgeshire in 1892 following victory in the Fillies’ Triple Crown.
One of the more interesting winners of the Cambridgeshire was Polymelus in 1906. Named after a Trojan warrior from Homer’s The Iliad, he was a bay horse by Cyllene out of Maid Marian, by Hampton. Maid Marian was bred and then sold by Queen Victoria; she was a half-sister to two outstanding racemares who won 5 classics between them – La Fleche (as mentioned above) and Memoir.
Cyllene was an outstanding racehorse and the best of his generation, he would probably have won the Triple Crown but unfortunately he was not entered for the classics due to the fact he was so small in his early days. Cyllene subsequently became a top-class stallion; he sired a record equaling four Derby winners and was twice champion sire.
Cyllene himself was by Bona Vista (by Bend Or) out of Arcadia, who was by Isonomy. Another outstanding colt who would have swept the board in the classics, Isonomy instead bypassed the lot and became one of the most celebrated of all Cambridgeshire winners in 1878 by landing a massive gamble for his owner, winning of a low weight at the huge price of 40/1.
Polymelus was bred and initially owned by the Earl of Crewe, son-in-law of that great Victorian racehorse owner Lord Rosebery. As a young man Rosebery was reputed to have said that he would marry the richest woman in England, become Prime Minister and own a Derby winner. He went on to fulfill this triple ambition, first through his marriage to Hannah, heiress to the Rothschild fortune, and then by succeeding Gladstone as Prime Minister in 1894, the same year he won his first Derby with Ladas. Lord Rosebery’s third Derby winner was Cicero in 1905, another son of Cyllene from the same crop as Polymelus.
Initially Polymelus was trained by the legendary John Porter at Kingsclere. Porter had trained the winners of 23 classics including an astonishing three Triple Crown winners, the best of which was Ormonde in 1886. Porter was also the founder of Newbury racecourse. Polymelus ran eight times as a two-year-old, winning three races including the Richmond Stakes at Goodwood, but was unplaced in some of the more important juvenile races including the Middle Park Stakes. He was considered some way below the best; the champion two-year-old that year was none other than Cicero. As a three-year-old Polymelus was comfortably beaten in the Newmarket Stakes by Cicero and therefore did not run in the Derby. He did though finish a good second at Royal Ascot in the St James’s Palace Stakes and the following day won the Triennial Stakes, also at the Royal meeting.
He ran fourth in the Eclipse to the French three-year-old Val D’Or and finished third in the Steward’s Cup. But then two good victories set Polymelus up for a shot at the final classic and he ran a fine race to finish second to Challacombe in the St Leger, although both Cicero and Val D’Or did not make the line up. In all Polymelus ran eleven times as a three-year-old, and would win his fourth and final race of the year in the important Gatwick stakes. With that victory Polymelus became the last winner saddled by John Porter who retired at the end of the 1905 season.
Polymelus was then purchased by Mr David Faber and sent to a new trainer. Having not won in 6 starts, Faber sold him on at the Newmarket October sales to Mr Solly Joel for 4200 guineas. Joel was to get an absolute bargain as that autumn Polymelus, now trained by Charles Peck, won both the Cambridgeshire and the Champion Stakes. In the Cambridgeshire he routed the field to win easily at odds of 11/10 – the shortest priced favourite in the history of the race. That victory by Polymelus took £100,000 out of the ring for his lucky new owner.
Polymelus was kept in training as a five-year-old but only made two starts, winning his final race, the Princess of Wales’s Stakes at Newmarket. In all, he won 11 of his 31 starts.
Polymelus in the colours of Mr Solly Joel.
In 1908 Solly Joel sent Polymelus to his Maiden Erlegh Stud, near Reading where he proved to be an outstanding success. He sired the winners of eight classics, including three Derby winners and was champion sire five times. His classic successes included the 1915 wartime Triple Crown winner Pommern, owned by Solly Joel, and Fifinella who won both the Derby and Oaks in 1916. In addition Polymelus sired Humorist, the ill-fated but very game 1921 Derby winner, who dropped dead just a few weeks afterwards following a massive haemorrhage from the lungs due to tuberculosis. Humorist was owned by Jack Joel, the brother of Solly, and father of the popular Jim Joel who himself owned the 1967 2000 Guineas and Derby winner Royal Palace.
Polymelus also sired Parth, winner of the 1923 Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe, and US classic winner War Cloud who won the 1918 Preakness Stakes. Rather unusually there were two divisions, and therefore two winners of the Preakness that year as 26 horses had been entered for the race. Polymelus also covered the great racemare Pretty Polly, producing Polly Flinders, who showed good form on the track but more importantly proved to be an influential broodmare.
Polymelus at stud
Polymelus will be remembered most though as the sire of Phalaris, who is considered the most influential sire of the 20th century and founder of an immensely powerful male line. Phalaris himself was a high-class sprinter, owned by Lord Derby and trained by George Lambton. But unlike his sire, Phalaris could not win the Cambridgeshire Handicap and ran unplaced in the 1916 race. Unable to sell him following his racing career, Lord Derby fortunately decided to send Phalaris to his own stud. He quickly established himself as an outstanding stallion and through his sons Pharos (sire of Nearco), Fairway and Sickle (Mr. Prospector is a direct male-line descendent), Phalaris has been dominant in the ancestry of the majority of the world’s best thoroughbreds ever since.
Solly Joel would later purchase Moulton Paddocks in Newmarket, currently owned by Godolphin, and his horses were trained there from 1921 onwards. A statue of Polymelus still stands in the centre of the famous stable. And the skeleton of Polymelus is located in the entrance of the Cambridge University Zoology Museum.
Polymelus, although not outstanding, was certainly a very good racehorse. He is celebrated not just as a great winner of the Cambridgeshire, but more importantly as an even greater stallion.
By Nick Pemberton