This week’s blog comes from Stephen Wallis, a racing enthusiast who works in the Museum shop and galleries.
The story of Hermit has the hallmarks of a Dick Francis adventure rather than just a Derby winner and future champion sire. The dramatic tale captures two young aristocrats, love, betrayal, financial ruin and a royal connection, along with classic success on a snow swept day at Epsom downs in May 1867 by a brilliant thoroughbred, who later became the supreme stallion of his age. More than your average Derby winner.
Hermit was bred at the Middle Park Stud in Kent, in 1864, the year when two of the principal protagonists in the adventure, Henry Chaplin (later Lord) and Harry Hastings (4th Marquis of Hastings) hit the capital’s headlines over their affections for the beautiful young Lady Florence Cecilia Paget, the younger daughter of the Marquis of Anglesey. Hermit’s owner to be, Henry Chaplin was betrothed to Lady Paget, but just before the wedding she eloped with Hastings. It was undoubtedly one of the juiciest scandals of London society at the time and must have been extremely embarrassing for Chaplin. By late July 1864 wedding arrangements were at an advanced stage with invitations printed prior to Lady Paget’s sudden change of heart. Out shopping in the city, she left her coachman in her carriage and swept through the fashionable Oxford Street store of Marshall and Snellgrove’s (in 1919 the store was purchased by Debenhams) into the arms of Hastings, who she married almost immediately at St George’s Church in Hanover Square. Only the night before she had been to the opera with Chaplin.
Both young aristocratic men in the middle twenties proceeded to have major influences in British racing and were subsequently, through their actions, closely entwined in the colt’s quest for Derby glory, which directly contributed to the ruin of Hastings.
Chaplin had inherited the family estate at Blankney Hall, Lincolnshire and a vast fortune at the age of 21, while Hastings family home was Castle Donington in Leicestershire. Both led lavish lifestyles for the time, living beyond their means purchasing many expensive thoroughbreds in the quest for classic success. Chaplin was a personal friend of the Prince of Wales, spending the majority of his time entertaining in the capital or supporting the local hunt, while Hastings was a heavy drinker and a reckless gambler.
Hermit was sold as a yearling for £1,000 guineas in June 1865 at Eltham, when purchased by Captain James “Jem” Machell on behalf of Henry Chaplin. Captain Machell, who carried out the role of Chaplin’s racing manager, was renowned as a shrewd judge of a horse (he later owned three Grand National winners) with modern training methods and a fearless bettor.
Hermit was a small blaze faced dark chestnut of 15. 2 1/2 hands high by Newminster out of the dam Seclusion. His sire was exceptionally well bred being by Touchstone (featured in our blog by Alice Kay), who won the 1834 St Leger. Newminster was out of Beeswing, who was regarded at the time as one of the greatest mares winning 51 of 63 races including the Ascot Gold Cup in 1842, the Newcastle Cup six times and the Doncaster Cup four times.
On the course Newminster had been something of a disappointment winning only two of 10 races, though he did triumph in the 1851 St Leger and was champion sire in both 1859 and 1863. His most notable progeny was Musjid who won the 1859 Derby.
The well bred chestnut soon showed his qualities in a December 1865 trial over 4 furlongs, conceding 35lb’s to a yearling filly Problem, who he beat comfortably. Once Problem won his first race, the valuable Brocklesbury Stakes at Lincoln in March 1866, the team knew Hermit was a colt with definite promise.
Initially the colt was trained at the Findon racing stables of William Goater in West Sussex, but early in his 2 year old career he moved to Bedford House in Newmarket where George Bloss undertook the training duties
The colt began his 2 year old career at Newmarket’s first spring meeting of 1866 on 17 April finishing 2nd with Marksmen 4th, before achieving his first success at Bath on 8 May. At the 1866 Derby meeting Hermit raced for the first time against the well regarded filly, Achievement, who beat him by 3 lengths in the Woodcote Stakes. Hermit later won the Biennial Sakes at Royal Ascot, concluding his 2 year old career with successive wins at Stockbridge in June, defeating Vauban on both occasions.
Following four wins from six juvenile starts, he went into the winter as leading candidate for next year’s classic races. By then Chaplin, Machell and Hastings were already heavily wagering on the outcome of next year’s Derby, with the latter being obsessed in the belief that Hermit could not win the race. Many of these wagers being gentlemen’s agreements amongst the gentry and London society, which was prevalent at the time and apart from the bookmakers prices on the tracks. Indeed, some of them are likely to be have been made in the Jockey Club subscription rooms, the site of our own National Horse Racing museum.
Hermit did not run in the 2,000 Guineas a race won by Vauban at 5/2, where stable companion Knight of the Garter finished 2nd and Marksmen 3rd. Hermit had developed over the winter into an impressive and powerful animal so hopes were high that the colt would prove a genuine Derby prospect. For a guide to his chances Captain Machell organised a trial against his stable companion, Knight of the Garter, which he won easily and all looked set fair for the premier classic of the racing calendar.
Unfortunately both Hermit’s sire and dam were bleeders and passed the condition on to him and disaster struck the colt a mere ten days before the race when he broke a blood vessel in his nose during a serious Derby trial on the Newmarket gallops.
The question now was could Hermit be ready for Epsom on May 22nd. Machell managed to persuade Chaplin to keep him in the race as Bloss carefully tendered the horse, sleeping in the horse’s stable in the build up to the race, trying to keep him cool at all times. Gradually there were signs of improvement and Hermit made the trip to the downs more in hope than expectation.
Unfortunately, Chaplin gave permission for stable jockey Harry Custance to be released to ride The Rake, who had beaten Achievement in the autumn of 1866 and was well fancied for the race. Despite desperate attempts to reengage him, an appeal to the Jockey Club stewards failed, the team were left without a rider on the morning of the race. Custance was an experienced jockey who had won the premier classic in both 1860 and 1866. Together with this news and the injury scare the colt drifted in the betting, but against this background Hastings refused the chance to lay off some of his wagers as insurance for his enormous potential liabilities.
A young Newmarket born 20 year old Johnny Daley was given the leg up only hours before the start on terms believed to be £100 the ride, £100 if placed and £3,000 if he won, very sizeable amounts at the time. Daley was the son of a trainer and although not a fashionable jockey he was to follow Machell’s orders to the letter.
Henry Chaplin watched the race in the company of the Prince of Wales and after ten false starts, which caused an interminable delay; the thirty runners in the 88th Derby Stakes were underway. At Tattenham corner Vauban, the 6/4 favourite was in the lead, but as he faltered in the straight Marksmen took up the running with a furlong to go. Daley then following Machell’s advice brought Hermit with a powerful late run passing the favourite in the last 100 yards and in the last few strides Marksmen (10/1) to win a sensational race by a neck in Henry Chaplin’s rose coloured silks.
Daley completed the Epsom double only two days later when guiding Hippia (11/1) to success in the Oaks ahead of the hot favourite Achievement (1/3), the 1,000 Guineas winner.
Chaplin had achieved immortality on the turf, but more importantly on a personal level a vast fortune, believed to be £140,000 (in excess of £5million in today’s money) including £20,000 from Hastings, who in total had lost the devastating sum of £120,000.
Within 18 months Hastings extravagant lifestyle caught up with him, which led him to sell his Scottish estates, almost all his thoroughbreds, hunters and hounds, he was master of the Quorn hunt and being constantly at the mercy of dangerous money lenders, which also led to his resignation from the Jockey Club, Hastings died a broken man on 10 November 1868, at only 26. He was alleged to have said to one of his friends in his declining days that “Hermit’s Derby broke my heart. But I did not show it”.
Following the Derby with Custance back in the saddle Hermit, looking much better, won both the Biennial Stakes and the St James’s Palace stakes at Royal Ascot in successive days before being primed for a crack at the St Leger, where he lined up as the 5/4 favourite.
At Doncaster he was beaten by the highly regarded filly Achievement, in both the St Leger and the next day’s Doncaster Cup, the latter over 2m 5 furlongs, finishing 2nd in both races. Furthermore he raced twice on the cup day in what transpired to be his last ever victory in a sweepstake, over the Leger course.
Hermit continued to race as a 4 and 5 year old but never recaptured the magic of 1867. The rigours of the Doncaster St Leger meeting may have taken their effect and in both seasons he failed to win a race finishing his career with a 4th place in the Stewards Cup over 6 furlongs at Goodwood at odds of 50/1, where he carried top weight 9st 4’lb’s. In total he raced 23 times winning eight races being placed 2nd on nine other occasions.
He then retired for stud duties at Chaplin’s Blankney estate, initially for a fee of 20 guineas a figure which rose to 300 guineas with some cases of 500 guineas were being paid for some nominations, as he proved a wonderful stallion. Hermit became the leading sire for seven seasons, between 1880-86. Hermit fillies were his treasures, winning six of his seven classics, Thebais (1,000 Guineas and Oaks), St Marguerite (1,000 Guineas), Shotover (2,000 Guineas and Derby), Lonely (Oaks), while his son St Blaise won the 1883 Derby. Hermit died in April 1890 at his owners’ Blankney stud. Shortly after the horses’ death Chaplin had one of his hooves fashioned into an ink stand, which he gave to the Prince of Wales.
Henry Chaplin reduced his involvement in the turf after his Derby triumph, becoming actively involved in politics, first becoming an MP in 1868 rising to become the first Minister of Agriculture in 1889, a cabinet post. He was also made a peer in 1916. However, financially he suffered through some bad harvests in the agricultural depression of the age and eventually sold Blankney in 1892. He died in 1923.
Few horses in the history of the British turf have been part of such a colourful story, which encapsulated so many human emotions and frailties, one which would easily suit a modern day bestseller.