Ormonde – Champion racehorse of 19th century

Ormonde - greatest racehorse of the 1800s

Few racehorses go through their career unbeaten, but one that did was Ormonde, widely recognised as the best horse ever to race in the 19th century. 15 September 1886 was a landmark day in his career, as on that day he won the St Leger and so completed the Triple Crown for that season.

Ormonde was bred to be a successful racehorse. His sire, Bend Or, was himself a Derby winner, who stood at the Eaton Stud, a mile or two away from Chester racecourse, and which was owned by the Duke of Westminster. His dam, Lily Agnes, was a powerful staying horse, who won both the Great Ebor and the Doncaster Cup.

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As a yearling Ormonde was sent to the Kingsclere stables to be trained by John Porter, one of the top trainers at the time. In his first season of racing Ormonde had just three runs, not appearing on a racecourse until well into the autumn. He won the Post Stakes, defeating several experienced juveniles, and followed this up with a three length victory in the Criterion Stakes. Two days later he won the Dewhurst Stakes, a race which continues to this day as a key trial for the following season’s Classics.

Ormonde blossomed as a three-year-old, winning nine races in total during that season. From a rather ungainly yearling he had grown to 16 hands, with a neck that trainer Porter said, “was the most muscular I ever saw a thoroughbred possess. The width of his head behind the ears was remarkable; I never came across another horse that showed this characteristic to such an extent.” Although a little bit awkward when just cantering, at a gallop, “he carried his head rather low and covered an amazing a lot of ground at each stride.”

Opening his season in the 2000 Guineas, Ormonde then went to Paris for his prep race for the Derby. The Derby itself attracted a field of only nine runners, the smallest since 1804, presumably because it appeared a foregone conclusion that Ormonde would be the winner. So it proved, as he took the race by a length and a half from The Bard, himself unbeaten at that time in 16 races. During the summer he went on to win the St James’s Palace Stakes and the Hardwicke Stakes at Ascot, before success in the St Leger “untouched by whip or spur”, and becoming the fourth horse to win the Triple Crown.

It was about this time that Porter became aware of a breathing problem, which became progressively worse during the rest of the season. Nevertheless, Ormonde went on to win a further three races as a three-year-old. During the winter he was treated for laryngeal paralysis, but no cure was effected, and in his final year of racing the roaring in his breathing, something from which Lily Agnes had also suffered, became more apparent.

Ormonde’s four-year-old career was over by mid-July. He was an easy winner of Ascot’s Rous Memorial Stakes, but the following day, in the Hardwicke Stakes, he was hard pressed to overcome some interference and gain a neck victory over Minting and Bendigo. Newspapers reported that “his choking fight for breath was heard all over the racecourse, and the crowd watched in stunned silence as he called upon his last reserves of strength.” His final race, the Imperial Gold Cup at Newmarket saw a straightforward two length victory.

Ormonde was retired to stud, but turned out to be almost infertile. After two years at the Eaton Stud, where he sired just 15 horses, he was sold and shipped out to Argentina, and after an inconsequential five years there, he moved on to California, where over the next few years he never sired more than four offspring in any year. The age of 21, in 1904, Ormonde suffered substantial breathing problems, and was put down and buried, although he was later exhumed, and his bones are now on display in the Natural History Museum in Kensington, London.

Having been bred just outside Chester, it’s fitting that Ormonde, like his dam, lives on through a race named after him, the mile and five furlong Ormonde Stakes, run at the May meeting. In the context of Ormonde’s racing career, I can understand that distance, but given that his dam, Lily Agnes, was most successful over longer distances, why is she remembered in a race run over five furlongs?

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