Tomorrow’s feature race at York - indeed the whole of the three-day Festival - honours the 1945 Derby winner Dante, one of the outstanding racehorses of the 20th century and the last winner of the great Epsom classic to be trained in the North of England.
Yet the horse who became known as the ‘Hope of the North’ had an inauspicious start to his career. By the great Italian sire Nearco out of multiple winner Rosy Legend, he was foaled on March 7, 1942 at Sir Eric Ohlson’s Manor House Stud in Middleham, North Yorkshire. The plan was to sell him, but he failed to make his 3,500-guinea reserve at the sales and no buyer responded to a sale by public advertisement. So there was no alternative but to put him into training, and his owner, Sir Eric Ohlson, sent him to Middleham trainer Matt Peacock.
Dante enjoyed a blemish-free juvenile season, with a win on his debut at Stockton in April and five further successes, including the Coventry Stakes and Middle Park Stakes.
Come 1945, after a successful pipe opener he was aimed at the 2,000 Guineas, but preparations were interrupted when the horse’s left eye clouded over just before the first classic. Consequently sent to Newmarket short of gallop, Dante experienced his first defeat when Lord Astor’s Court Martial got the better of him by a neck. Some onlookers felt that, had the challenge come on Dante’s right, he would have responded quicker.
The legendary punter and Timeform founder, Phil Bull, was not deterred and, as the Middleham star drifted to 10-1, he went into the ring, backing Dante to win £14,000!
Due to World War Two, the 1945 Derby was run at Newmarket’s July Course. Dante was set to reoppose Court Martial. Meyrick Good, writing in the Sporting Life commented, “I expect to see Dante, Midas and Court Martial draw away from the field, and for the winner I select Dante.”
It was to prove an inspired summary as Dante became Middleham’s first Derby winner since Pretender won the 1869 renewal. Midas finished second, with Court Martial in third.
The victory was celebrated in Middleham, where the church bells tolled, a Dante Ball was held and winning jockey Billy Nevett carried shoulder-high through the streets.
Dante was then aimed at the St Leger, to be run on the Knavesmire that September, and he was rated an even-money favourite. However, rumours that all was not well proved correct as, on August 25, he was withdrawn. Chamossaire won at York in his absence.
Successful at stud
The records show that the eye problems that had blighted the challenge for the 2,000 Guineas had returned and indeed worsened. Dante was virtually blind in both eyes and so retired to stand at Theakston Stud, Bedale, near Middleham.
Dante had a successful if comparatively brief stud career. Among his high-class winners were Darius (2,000 Guineas and Eclipse Stakes), Carrozza (Queen Elizabeth II’s 1957 Epsom Oaks winner), and Discorea (Irish Oaks). This great horse died at Theakston near Middleham in 1956. In all, Dante won eight of his nine starts.
Phil Bull described Dante as “one of the best horses of the century”.
Manor House Stables (current the training base for Jason Ward), in the shadow of Middleham Castle, has a plaque announcing, “Dante, winner of the Derby 1945, occupied this box during his racing career.”