The story of Voltigeur, and the day 100,000 flocked to the Knavesmire

‘Voltigeur’ by Sir Edwin Landseer. It was the only time the renowned artist painted a racehorse. Apparently he was intrigued by the two cats that shared Volti’s accommodation - and the huge commission he received from Lord Zetland. The picture is still on display at Aske Hall. Photo:

There’s never been a crowd like it before or since at a race meeting in northern England. It was May 13, 1851, before TV, before radio, before easy transport links, and this was the event everyone wanted to see. So they walked - from all over the county and beyond - to York Racecourse for what had become known as ‘The Great Match’, or the ‘Match of the Century’.

It is thought that between 100,000 and 150,000 people crammed onto the Knavesmire to see the action. That’s more than the total number that will pass through the turnstiles there all this week for the four days of the Welcome to Yorkshire Ebor Festival, one of the sporting highlights of the European summer.

The two protagonists were The Flying Dutchman and Voltigeur, winners of the two most recent Epsom Derbys and considered to be the outstanding horses of the time. They had faced each other once before, in the previous year’s Doncaster Cup. Voltigeur, the horse we are focusing on in this article (for a very good reason), had triumphed that time, but it was a contest mired in controversy. Everyone had a view as to which would emerge victorious in round two.

The Flying Dutchman, a year older and reckoned the superior animal (he went off the 2-11 favourite to beat Voltigeur at Doncaster), won the Derby and St Leger in 1849 and the Ascot Gold Cup the year after. His defeat in the Doncaster Cup was his first defeat in 14 races.

Failed to meet the reserve

Voltigeur, who like his rival was bred in Yorkshire, hadn’t looked particularly promising in his early days. Indeed, an unexceptional pedigree and a stocky, ungainly physique meant he failed to meet his reserve when sent to the sales at Doncaster. Eventually he was bought as a 2-year-old by Lord Zetland and put into training with his trainer, Robert Hill, at Zetland’s Aske Hall in North Yorkshire - but only after Hill had galloped him against the best older horses in his stable, and been astonished by how far Voltigeur had beaten them.

He was one-for-one as a juvenile, winning a barely significant local race, and so it was with little expectation as far as the public was concerned that he appeared at Epsom Downs on Derby Day. He had plenty of supporters, though, especially in Yorkshire, and there was near uproar from them when Zetland announced his intention to withdraw the colt rather than pay an extra £400, which was required because the correct Derby entry payments had not been made by the breeder.

In the event, Zetland was persuaded to pay up, Voltigeur was allowed to start at 16-1 by a largely unsuspecting betting public, and the colt raced to an impressive victory.

Trainer Hill didn’t believe in taking it easy with his charges. He worked them hard and raced them hard. In the mid-1800s, it wasn’t unusual for horses to race very, very often. But the task Hill and Zetland set Voltigeur that September was bordering on brutal - the St Leger one day, the Scarborough Handicap the next, and the Doncaster Cup the day after that.

There was bad news and good news for Voltigeur. The bad news came in the Leger. The odds-on favourite was boxed in deliberately early on as rival jockeys conspired to defeat him. Rider Job Marson worked him free, then took up the running, but he was caught on the line in a furious finish by Russborough and the pair were judged to have dead-heated.

Drunken jockey

That meant a run-off. Over the same mile and threequarters. That same afternoon.

Second time of asking, Voltigeur was too strong for Russborough, and Marson had him a cosy length clear at the finish. Then came the good news. The Scarborough Handicap the day after would be a walkover.

Voltigeur, it seemed, was scaring off the opposition. Indeed, for the Doncaster Cup the following day, only one horse was going to take him on.

That horse, though, was The Flying Dutchman.

As already mentioned, this was a controversial race - because of The Flying Dutchman’s jockey, Charles Marlow, and the session of heavy drinking he is thought to have indulged in. Certainly Marlow made a complete hash of the race, sending the 4-year-old tearing off at an unsustainable pace and allowing Marson and Voltigeur to pick him off at will and win by half a length.

And so to the re-match the following May. Each owner put up a thousand guineas, winner-take-all. The younger horse had received 19 pounds in the Doncaster Cup, but that difference was reduced to 8½ pounds for the match. And Charles Marlow was sober.

Voltigeur made the running with The Flying Dutchman just in behind. Marlow moved alongside inside the final furlong and edged ahead to win by a length.

But even this was unsatisfactory. Voltigeur’s rider, Nat Flatman this time, dropped his whip in the closing stages. Did that make a difference? Racing was never to find out. ‘The Flyer’ was retired to stud.

After a short period in England, he was sold to stand in France, where he became highly successful - and highly influential. He is present in the pedigrees of Man o’War, Secretariat, Ruffian and Affirmed, in fact in every U.S. Triple Crown winner (except Seattle Slew).

Legacy on the breed

The horse his army of fans dubbed ‘Volti’ had a tougher time of it, though. Indeed, he raced again the next day. Conceding 37 pounds in the Ainsty Hunt Cup, he went down by a length to a filly called Nancy, who went on to win the Ebor Handicap and the Goodwood Cup later that season.

Hill and Zetland consented to let him rest until the following season, when his first race, ironically, was ‘The Flying Dutchman Handicap’ at York. Volti won under top weight.

That was his final victory, however. He was unplaced in the Ascot Gold Cup on very soft ground, unplaced in the Ebor Handicap over two miles at York under top weight and, bizarrely, last of five in a five-furlong sprint later that same afternoon.

At stud in Yorkshire (eventually back at Aske Hall), Voltigeur had some success. His best son was 2000 Guineas and dual Doncaster Cup winner Vedette, who was also an influential stallion. Vedette was the father of 1975 Epsom Derby winner Galopin, three times champion sire and the father of St Simon, who became one of the most important stallions in Britain in the early 20th century.

Voltigeur was put down on February 21, 1874, at the age of 27 after breaking a thigh.

He was placed 30th in an 1886 poll of experts ranking the best British racehorses of the 19th century. The Flying Dutchman, however, was ranked sixth (and St Simon was fourth).

Yet Voltigeur is the one best remembered today. The hugely popular Thoroughbred - the subject of a famous portrait by the artist Sir Edwin Landseer - is celebrated at York this afternoon, when one of Britain’s most prestigious classic trials, the £170,000 Group 2 Betway Great Voltigeur Stakes, is run on the Knavesmire.

The horse also gives his name to the racecourse’s Voltigeur Restaurant.

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