The Women's Derby

2nd June 2017

To horse racing devotees when you mention ‘The Coronation Derby’ thoughts immediately turn to 1953, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Pinza and Gordon Richards winning his first and only Derby, at the 28th attempt.  However, only 16 years earlier, and barely three weeks after being crowned, King George VI graced Epsom on an identical occasion.  Though, unlike his daughter he did not have a runner.

But events at the 1937 Derby led the race to be known as the ‘Women’s Derby’.   Lady James Douglas won the 1918 New Derby with Gainsborough, at Newmarket but no female had owned the winner of the Epsom Derby.  1937 changed the course of racing history.  The winner and runner-up were both owned by women,

The museum’s Stephen Wallis has taken a look back at this historic moment through the two horses, Mid-day Sun and Sandsprite.  In addition, in December 2016  he was fortunate to share some memories of the period with the late John Powney, whose father Hugh trained the outsider Sandsprite.  John, who worked at the National Horse Racing Museum for many years sadly passed away this February.

mid-day-sun Mid-day Sun

Mid-day Sun was a bay horse by the 1925 St Leger winner, Solario out of Bridge of Allan (by Phalaris).  His dam only ran twice winning one minor race at Salisbury.  Solario’s sire was the wartime Triple Crown winner Gainsborough.  After failing to reach his reserve price at the Newmarket yearling sales, Mid-day Sun was bought privately for 2,000 guineas by trainer Fred Butters on behalf of Mrs Lettice Miller and her mother, Mrs J Talbot.

Sandsprite was by Lord Rosebery’s 1931 St Leger winner Sandwich (a son of the 1924 Derby winner Sansovino) out of Wood Nymph, who like the dam of Mid-day Sun was by Phalaris.  Wood Nymph ran five times as a three year old but finished outside the frame in each race.  Hugh Powney purchased the dam for Mrs Florence Nagle for 240 guineas and in 1933 she was covered by Sandwich.

Trained at Kingsclere by Fred Butters, younger brother of fellow trainer Frank, Mid-day Sun made his debut in late May at Salisbury where he was 5th of 12.  Running eight times in the 1936 season Mrs Miller’s colt won only one race, the Ditch Mile Nursery Handicap on Champion Stakes day at Newmarket with Willie Nevett in the saddle.  The horse was placed in two other races at Chepstow (3rd) and in his final race at Newmarket, when 2nd.

john-powney-2 John Powney in Mrs Nagle's silks

Meanwhile, Sandsprite had only three runs as a juvenile.  Based at Saville House, Newmarket, Hugh Powney undertook the role as private trainer to Mrs Nagle where in 1937 he trained nine horses.  “A very formidable lady” recalled Hugh’s son John with an affectionate grin. “You didn’t cross swords with her”.  “Her colours were rifle green with red cross belts, velvet cap and tassel” he added with absolute certainty. 

in 1966 Mrs Nagle successfully  led a campaign against the Jockey Club, which went as far as the Law Lords to allow women to train horses.  She also, however, had an important influence on John’s early life.  “She suggested Eagle House, Sandhurst, Berkshire, a preparatory private school, to my father” said John. who remembered travelling to the school on one occasion in Mrs Nagle’s Rolls Royce. 

sandsprite-2 Sandsprite

Unplaced in all of his three races as a two-year old, each over 5 furlongs Sandsprite’s best performance came in his final run, on Gold Cup day at Royal Ascot in the New Stakes (now the Norfolk Stakes) where he finished 5th.  This was the first of four clashes with Mid-day Sun, (the others were all in the 1937 Classics), who finished 8th of the 19 runners.  A race won by the Aga Khan’s horse Le Grand Duc.

At the end of the season neither of the pair looked like potential Derby winners.  Foray (2nd in the New Stakes) headed the Free Handicap weights at 9st 7Ib, Mid-day Sun crept in 34Ib below at 7st 1Ib whilst Sandsprite failed to feature in the list.

Both colts began their classic season at the Newmarket Craven meeting.  Sandsprite ran on Wednesday 14 April when he came 2nd,   beaten two lengths by the filly Gainsborough Lass in the Column Produce Stakes over a mile.  The next day Mid-day Sun, who had developed over the winter from a sluggish juvenile into a more powerful high spirited colt won the Free Handicap, albeit off a low weight of 7st 2Ib beating the future 1000 Guineas and Oaks victor, Exhibitionist by three quarters of a length.

Two weeks later the pair met for the second time in the 2000 Guineas.  Mid-day Sun ran with credit to finish 3rd of the 18 runners at 25/1.  He was reported to be with the leaders all the way and was beaten by two French colts, Le Ksar and Goya II by four lengths and a half a length respectively.  Sandsprite, a 66/1 outsider ridden by R A (Bobby) Jones, grandfather of Jon Snaith (who works at the National Heritage Centre), finished way out of contention.

Both horses wanted longer distances, which their breeding suggested and this was confirmed in their Derby trials at Lingfield and Chester respectively.   Mid-day Sun won the former’s Derby trial when ridden for the first time by Irishman, Michael Beary (known as ‘Angel Face’)  whilst Sandsprite ran on strongly to finish 3rd in the Dee Stakes.

Derby Day was a fine and sunny day with the ground on the firm side of good.  The bookies certainly believed the 21-runner race to be very open as the joint favourites Cash Book owned by Lord Astor and the American bred horse Perifox were 7/1.  The first two home in the 2000 Guineas, the French pair,  Le Ksar and Goya followed at 9/1 whilst Mid-day Sun was eighth in the betting alongside Gainsborough Lass at 100/7  with Hugh Powney’s colt one of the 100/1 outsiders.  Mid-day Sun had been backed down on the day from 20/1.

michael-beary Michael Beary

Hugh’s son John, then aged 7 could not remember 2 June 1937.  “I can’t remember anything about Derby Day, no one said anything about it to me” he recalled.   Indeed, it was a normal school day for John in his shorts at Eagle House.  “ I hated shorts and I still do now.”   However, he did remember watching his father’s string working on the gallops and attending Newmarket races at about five or six years of age, as well as visiting  the stables which were adjacent to the house.

One thing did still rankle with him, as it had his father, and that was who rode Sandsprite.  Apparently, Michael Beary had been booked to ride Mrs Nagle’s colt, but in John's words “He got off Sandsprite to ride Mid-day Sun.   He left my father in the lurch a bit and left him without a jockey”.  John (known as Jack) Crouch got the ride at the last minute.

Steve Donoghue riding Renardo, in his last Epsom Derby set the early pace and remained there, hugging the rails at the top of the hill. Mid-day Sun was just behind the leading group of six with Cash Book, while Sandsprite was still last.  Coming down the hill Jack Crouch made significant headway, but with three furlongs to go five horses were almost in line abreast, Fairford, Le Grand Duc, Goya II, Cash Book and Perifox.  Two furlongs out Le Grand Duc took the lead to give the Aga Khan hopes of a third successive Blue Riband success. (He had won the race in 1935 with Bahram and the following year with Mahmoud, both trained by Frank Butters)  However, the fast finishing pair of Mid-day Sun and Sandsprite took command at the distance with the former holding off the gallant outsider by one and a half lengths.  Le Grand Duc, trained by Frank Butters was a further length and half back in 3rd with the Perifox 4th.

Mrs Miller led the horse in and was afterwards presented to the new King and Queen in the Royal Box.  Mid-day Sun was only the fourth horse Mrs Miller and Mrs Talbot had ever owned and at the time their only horse in training.

“My father definitely backed Sandsprite” said John.  It's apparent that Mrs Nagle also backed her horse as in The Bloodstock Breeders review of 1937 she was quoted as saying “I backed Sandsprite for only £1 each way, so I have not made much; but I don’t race for money.”

Mid-day Sun went on to win the Hardwicke Stakes at Royal Ascot and finish 3rd when favourite, in the St Leger, where many experts thought he may have won with a clearer run. Sandsprite had also headed to Royal Ascot after Epsom but was beaten by a short head, when evens favourite for the Prince of Wales’s Stakes.  Subsequently, the Derby runner up with Brownie Carslake in the saddle came 8th in the final classic of the season.

The Derby winner was officially rated as the top three year old of 1937 and planned to race as a four year old with the Ascot Gold Cup, a race won by his sire, the principal target.  However, he became difficult to train and at the end of April it was decided to end his racing career.  Mid-day Sun was sent to stud in 1939 for an original fee of 300 guineas but produced no offspring of note.  He was exported to New Zealand in 1950 where he died in 1954.

Sandsprite continued in training but failed to win any of  his five races in the 1938 season, running twice at the Royal Ascot meeting, which included coming last of seven in the Hardwicke Stakes.  He was retired at the end of the season, still a maiden after running 16 times.  He was sent to stud for a fee of 19 guineas but was put down at the start of his stud career after breaking a leg.

Meanwhile our dear friend John Powney became a racehorse trainer like his father, Uncle Harry and grandfather.  After leaving school he served his apprenticeship with Walter Earl, private trainer to the 17th Lord Derby before going on to spend  most of his working life in the racing industry in a wide variety of roles.  For a short period in the 1970’s he even trained back at Saville House.

If every Derby has a theme, 1937 was undoubtedly the ‘Women’s Derby’. Only nine years after obtaining equal voting rights, a woman, or in this case, two, Mrs Miller (28) and her mother Mrs Talbot had entered a gentleman’s club through the front door and snatched the most prestigious prize in sport from under the noses of the racing establishment. 



We would like to thank the late John Powney, his wife Ena and daughter Emma for their kind help with this blog.

We would also like to thank Jockeypedia for allowing us to use the image of Michael Beary.