Britain's horse racing history told through fortunes won and lost by twenty-five racehorses

Written by Tony Millett.

Chris McGrath at the White Horse BookshopChris McGrath at the White Horse BookshopIn July journalist Christopher McGrath came to the White Horse Bookshop to talk about his first book:  Mr Darley's Arabian (2016, John Murray).  For anyone interested in history or racing - or both - it is a fascinating read:

Following the descendants of the three Arab stallions that founded the British thoroughbred line and so spread flat racing around our islands, could land you up to here in bloodstock riddles.

For stud book fanatics it might be interesting to trace the line through the centuries and see how Mr Darley's Arabian (born 1700) and his progeny came to rule stables far and wide.  However it might also become extremely tedious - as tedious as those lengthy Old Testament chapters about who begat whom and how long they lived.

Chris McGrath - the one-time racing correspondent of The Independent - eschews the safety of the rails and takes us onto a far more interesting part of the course. His long book has a long and very instructive sub-title: "High life, low life, sporting life - A history of Racing in twenty-five horses."

McGrath introduces us to an amazing array of 'characters' and takes us through a whole series of extraordinary tales, scandals and races. It is a bit as though William Powell Frith's famous painting of Victorian racing - The Derby Day - has been crossed with some of Hogarth's most distressing satirical prints.

There is a great sketch of the Running Rein scandal - the horse that won the Derby (a race even in the 1840s confined to three-year-olds) and turned out to be a four-year-old called Maccabaeus.  

In case that name rings a bell, there was an Old Testament priest called Judas Maccabaeus who led a revolt against Greek imperialists - racehorses have always been saddled with strange names.  In the 1770s a son of the great racehorse Eclipse  (painted by Stubbs and still honoured with Sandown's Group One Eclipse Stakes) was named Potatoes.

But when a groom with little education was asked to write his name on his corn bin, his name came out as 'Potoooooooo'.  The horse's owner, the eccentric Lord Abingdon, was so taken by this that he changed the horse's name to Pot8os - not a name to please present day racing authorities.

As we follow racing into the realms of 'big money', things get worse with a number of jockeys and gamblers committing suicide or, in the case of some jockeys, dying early or in penury - proving again how fleeting fame can be.

Beneath McGrath's colourful collection of 'blacklegs, betting men and loose characters of every description' lies a grand if not always very cheerful vista of social history.  After all, over the centuries racing as has been claimed to be the one sport that brings together all classes and conditions in one place - the racecourse.

Among McGrath's stories is one that tells us a lot about the nineteenth century.  A trainer won £25,000 betting on his entry in the 1856 Derby - in terms of living standards worth about £2.4 million today.  He put the money in a hat box and left the hat box on train.  It was returned to him some days later with the money intact - after it had travelled to Aberdeen and back.

Local interest in this book centres on one place - Russley Park near Baydon - and on one man - Robert Sangster.

Russley Park was where the Glaswegian 'iron master' James Merry had his stables in the 1850s and launched many winning horses and two famous trainers, Mat Dawson and Robert Peck who both favoured gentler training methods.  But trainers had not yet won a dominant place in the sport and Dawson was paid £5 a week by Merry.  There is still a house at Russley called Trainers House.

James Merry - he called himself 'the Glasgae body' - was a new money man of the Industrial Revolution who was despised by the aristocrats of the turf: "James Merry conformed to the crudest caricatures of the new smokestack barons...As a perennial outsider, he trusted nobody and was constantly sacking even the most upstanding trainers and jockeys."

In the twentieth century, Robert Sangster's obsessive desire was, in his own words, 'to get hold of the racing business by the neck, and shake it.'  Or, as some might have put it, shake the money out of it.  In 1985 he paid £6 million for Marlborough's famed Manton House stables - his father had founded Vernons football pools.

Manton became the centre of his racing operations in Britain with a string of great horses and great trainers: Michael Dickjnson, Barry Hills, Peter Chapple-Hyam and John Gosden.  Sangster died of cancer in 2004 - leaving his great rivals Dubai 's Maktoum brothers to make their indelible mark on the sport.

After the dark days of the two world wars, this marvellous history book closes with the terrible story of the great trainer Henry Cecil and the greatest horse he trained, Frankel.  

This was an era reported on daily by McGrath - and you can tell he feels the ups and downs of the story really personally.  However, my abiding response to the book is that McGrath adored his research - and it is this that shines through the pages.

If you are into pub quizzes there is arcane information galore in those pages.  You can astound your team by telling them how Lester Piggott's first name came from the jockey Fred Rickaby - a winner of five classics.  

After an MP accused Lord Derby - a First World War government minister and major racehorse owner - of shielding Rickaby from war service, the young jockey was drafted into the forces and died of wounds a month before the Armistice.  His sister, Mrs Iris Piggott, marked Frederick Lester Rickaby's death by giving her newborn son her brother's middle name.