Author: John Berry
AS REGULAR READERS of this column may be aware, the author spends plenty of time living in the past. When the news broke last week that the Grand National won’t be run this year, it inevitably prompted reflections on the few occasions in the past when Britain’s great races have had to be cancelled. The biggest causes of disruption to Britain’s racing programme have been the two World Wars. (We can only hope that this current hiatus will not end up as having been of similar scale, bearing in mind that WWI lasted for four years and WWII for six!). Britain itself was not nearly as threatened during WWI as it was during WWII, when the country itself was under attack (by German aircraft) for an extended period and when shortages of basic supplies such as food and fuel were far more severe as a result of the strength of the German Navy.
There was a very real possibility in 1940 and 1941 that racing would be suspended entirely for the duration of the hostilities. (Not, of course, that anyone knew that there were still several more years of war still to come). The Second World War had started on 3 September 1939 but the early months became known as the ‘phoney war’, with not much happening, on the surface anyway, as far as everyday life in Britain was concerned. However, things took a severe turn for the worse as the German army routed the allied forces on the continent during the second quarter of 1940 with the falls of Belgium and France, prompting the urgent evacuation of retreating allied troops back to Britain out of Dunkirk at the end of May. The subsequent intense aerial bombardment of Britain, which was designed to soften the country up in preparation for an invasion, became known as the ‘Battle of Britain’ as allied aeroplanes fought with their German counterparts in the skies over the south east of England.
This turned the tide of the war in so far as it halted the momentum of the German advance and ensured that there was no invasion, the heroism of the small number of allied fighter pilots ensuring that the Germans were not able to gain the aerial dominance required to make an invasion across the English Channel feasible. As the British prime minister Sir Winston Churchill so memorably observed in a speech in the House of Commons on 20 August 1940, “The gratitude of every home in our island, in our empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was owed by so many to so few”. (He had previously coined the phrase used to describe that stage of the conflict, having declared on 18 June that, “The Battle of France is now over; I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin”).
However, while the Battle of Britain halted the German advance, it did not prompt any counter attack. The pressure under which Great Britain was labouring did not start to ease until 1945 (and then continued for some considerable time even after peace had been signed, with rationing not being ended until 1954) even though the advance through Europe had started with the allied landings on five beaches in Normandy on D-Day, 6 June 1944. Set against this background, when beleaguered British people were half starving and the country had effectively ground to a halt because of severe shortages of both food and fuel, it would have been easy to understand if no racing had taken place at all during the Second World War. As it was, though, a skeleton programme was maintained.
The justification for keeping racing going through the war was that the supremacy of the British Thoroughbred was one of the country’s commercial strengths, with strong demand for British stallions and mares from just about every country in the world. It was deemed important, therefore, that the Classics and the other big races be run each year to establish the relative merits of each year’s crop of horses so that, if and when normality returned, the proven worth of British stock would remain thoroughly tested. Thanks to skilful political lobbying by a handful of influential racing figures including Lord Rosebery, this viewpoint prevailed, notwithstanding that plenty of politicians were strongly opposed to the idea of any racing taking place at all during a time of such widespread national deprivation.
Permission was given for a skeleton programme to be maintained, with only three courses racing during the middle of the war (Salisbury in the south west, Newmarket’s July Course in the south east, Stockton in the north) and horses only permitted to run in their own region other than when travelling to Newmarket for the feature races. (For anyone interested in looking further into the details of the British racing programme during the Second World War, John Saville’s book Insane and Unseemly is highly recommended. The title derives from a question about the continuation of a racing programme asked by Labour MP Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Shinwell in Parliament on 26 June 1941: “Is it desirable to allow these insane and unseemly spectacles to continue?”). The first major racing casualty of the Second World War was Doncaster’s St Leger Meeting in September 1939. There had been racing at Manchester on 1 September.
The following day was a Sunday so no racing was scheduled. War was declared on the Monday morning and the racing programme was immediately suspended as a short term measure, which was particularly unfortunate as that year’s St Leger had been shaping up as a vintage edition. Lord Rosebery’s Jack Jarvis-trained colt Blue Peter had won the 2000 Guineas and Derby and looked very likely to complete the Triple Crown, notwithstanding that he was set to face an outstanding opponent, M Marcel Boussac’s unbeaten Pharis, who had been an ultra impressive winner of the Prix Noailles, the Prix du Jockey-Club and the Grand Prix de Paris and who had already arrived in England in advance of what was to have been his first run outside his native France. Happily, that proved to be the only Classic lost during the war, although none was held in its proper venue until 1946.
Newmarket’s Rowley Mile racecourse was requisitioned by the Royal Air Force in September 1939 to be the airbase RAF Newmarket Heath, and the 2000 Guineas and 1000 Guineas were run on the July Course for the next six years. With Epsom similarly out of use, the Derby and Oaks were also run on Newmarket’s July Course from 1940 to 1945 inclusive. As regards the St Leger, it was held at Thirsk in 1940, at Manchester in 1941, on Newmarket’s July Course in 1942, 1943 and 1944, and at York (the war in Europe having ended but Doncaster not yet being ready to hold racing again) in 1945. Doncaster’s Town Moor racecourse had similarly been unavailable for racing during the First World War and the St Leger was run (as the September Stakes over 1m6f) on Newmarket’s Rowley Mile from 1915 to 1918 inclusive. The Ascot Gold Cup was another of the great races which was run on Newmarket’s July Course during the Second World War (bar during 1940, when the race was not run).
Funnily enough, another Gold Cup was lost subsequently (in 1964) for a reason one does not expect at the height of summer: waterlogging. The outlook for National Hunt racing during the Second World War was considerably more negative. There was no export market for National Hunt horses, no contribution made to the nation’s balance of payments by these geldings. For a large part of the war, geldings were not allowed to run. It would not be true to say that there was no National Hunt racing during the war, but there was very little, and for an extended period there was none. The Grand National was not run from 1941 to 1945 inclusive, while the National Hunt Meeting at Cheltenham (nowadays popularly referred to as the Cheltenham Festival) did not take place in 1943 and 1944. The Grand National had also been subject to alteration during the First World War, when three runnings took place at Gatwick as Aintree was not available.
The course at Gatwick was modified so that it could provide a test similar to the one posed by Aintree’s unique circuit, and the race was run there in 1916 as the Racecourse Association Steeplechase and in 1917 and 1918 as the War National. In recent years, moving big races to other courses as and when required has become commonplace. In 1987 a hurricane hit England the day before the Dewhurst Stakes was set to be run at Newmarket. There was extensive damage all across south eastern England. It was not feasible to run the Dewhurst because of the damage sustained by the course (and because so many access roads were blocked by fallen trees) so the race was lost. So many people asked why it was not restaged a few days later that it soon became the norm for races to be rescheduled.
There was actually a precedent on which to base such questions: in 1978 the third and final day of the Cheltenham March Meeting had been lost because of snow, so the Gold Cup was run that year at the April Meeting. Two years after the loss of that Dewhurst, Doncaster racecourse became unusable the day before the St Leger when holes were discovered on the course (they came to light when there was a ‘pile up’ in the Portland Handicap in which jockeys Paul Cook and Ian Johnson sustained career ending injuries) and, the practice of restaging big races otherwise lost having been instituted, that year’s final Classic was run the following week at Ayr. It is a sign of the massive disruption to life caused by COVID-19 that we have lost the 2020 Grand National with no hope of it being run at another time or place. We can only hope that this current war against our invisible foe does not last as long as previous conflicts.