A suffragette, a sunken ship, and the infamous Epsom Derby of 1913

Suffragette Emily Davison was stuck by the the King's horse, Anmer, during the 1913 Epsom Derby.

It was British racing’s most infamous incident, the moment suffragette Emily Davison stepped in front of the King’s horse as the field galloped round Tattenham Corner. Yet, even if that hadn’t happened, the 1913 Epsom Derby would still rank as one of the most sensational races in the sport’s history, as Sean Magee reports.

It was, according to the Daily Telegraph on the day after the race, “the most unsatisfactory, sensational, and lamentable Derby in the history of the sport” – and a year after its centenary, the 1913 renewal of “The Blue Riband of the Turf” at Epsom is still considered most extraordinary racing event of all.

The race was won by 100-1 outsider Aboyeur, but will always be always be known as “The Suffragette Derby” in recognition of the moment when Emily Wilding Davison, a fanatical activist for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), ducked under the rails near Tattenham Corner and was flattened by King George V’s horse Anmer.

She sustained injuries that would prove fatal, and that would immortalise her – justifiably or not, according to your point of view – as a martyr to the cause.

But, Emily Davison was only one character in a drama that had more sub-plots than a Shakespeare play, and a dramatis personae that included royalty, feuding members of the English racing establishment, dyspeptic jockeys, and a myopic racecourse judge – plus, for good measure, the sinking of the Titanic

On the run-up to that Derby, the bare bones of the story so far went as follows:

Red-hot favourite for the 134th running of the world’s most famous race was Craganour, owned by Charles Bower Ismay. Despite his exquisite racing colours – officially “Neapolitan violet, primrose hoops, violet cap” – Ismay came with a considerable amount of baggage. His shipping magnate father Thomas Henry Ismay had founded the White Star Line, whose “unsinkable” liner RMS Titanic had made its catastrophic maiden voyage some 14 months before the 1913 Derby.

The loss of more than 1,500 lives had not endeared the Ismay family to the public, and yet more opprobrium was to follow when it came out that Bower’s brother Bruce, chairman of the White Star Line, had been on board the ill-fated vessel, but had survived after taking a place in a lifeboat, leaving others to perish in the icy waters.

Even before the Titanic sinking, Bower Ismay had made himself highly unpopular with certain Jockey Club members – notably Eustace Loder, a pillar of the racing establishment whose dislike for Ismay embraced more than disapproval of his racing practice.

In the scene-setting Prologue of his 2013 book The Suffragette Derby, the definitive account of the whole story, Michael Tanner writes: “Loder’s distaste for Ismay cuts far deeper than suspicions of foul play on the Turf. It’s acutely personal. Quite possibly, in another era they’d have settled their differences with pistols at dawn. Ismay has been brazenly conducting an affair with Loder’s sister-in-law, an affront to his own moral code and a slight on his family honour.”

And unfortunately for Bower Ismay, Eustace Loder was a steward at Epsom on Derby Day.

Craganour himself came with baggage of a sort, since he had been at the centre of a controversy in the 2,000 Guineas, when the great majority of spectators were convinced that he had beaten Louvois – even though the judge declared that Louvois had won.

This led Ismay to change Craganour’s riding arrangements for the Derby, replacing jockey Billy Saxby with Johnny Reiff, one of many American jockeys making a big impact on European racing at a time when the standard of home jockeyship was considered generally poor.

Reiff would ride 6-to-4 favourite Craganour in the Derby, with Saxby now booked for Louvois, a 10-to-1 chance. It can be imagined how Saxby felt about that. 

On Wednesday, June 4, 1913, all these plot lines came together to produce a sensational denouement, but an event far more astounding was waiting in the wings.

That morning Emily Davison – whose previous episodes of direct action had included attacking a Baptist minister on a train, under the mistaken impression that he was Prime Minister David Lloyd George – bought two suffragette flags at the WSPU office in London. She then took the train to Epsom. According to TRC Global Rankings algorithm. Includes runs in all Group or Graded races worldwide over the last three years.

Although the long tradition of Parliament suspending business for Derby Day had by then ceased, the occasion was still England’s unofficial holiday, attracting hundreds of thousands of spectators to Epsom Downs.

Davison joined the throng on Tattenham Hill, in the infield just short of the straight, and waited – and shortly after 3pm the cry went up: “They’re off!”

There are several eye-witness accounts of what happened at Tattenham Corner, none more dramatic than that quoted by Michael Tanner, from one “Mr. Turner of Clapham Common,” who was standing on the outside rail at Tattenham Corner – that is, on the opposite side of the track from Emily Davison:

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“I noticed a figure bob under the rails. The horses were thundering down the course at a great pace, bunched up close to the rails. From the position in which the woman was standing it would have been impossible to pick out any special horse. Misjudging the pace of the horses, she missed the first four or five. They dashed by just as she was emerging from the rails. 

“With great calmness she walked in front of the next group of horses. The first missed her but the second came right into her, and catching her with his shoulder, knocked her with terrific force to the ground while the crowd stood spellbound. 

“The woman rolled over two or three times and lay unconscious. She was thrown almost on her face. The horse fell after striking the woman, pitching the jockey clear over its head.”

The unfortunate Anmer galloped off into his unlikely entry in the history books, leaving jockey Herbert Jones and Emily Davison prostrate – the former not seriously injured, the latter never to regain consciousness. She died four days later, by which time the debate on exactly what she had been intending by her action had already started to rage – and it continues to this day.

Even as spectators were rushing onto the course to help the stricken, the race itself was producing an all-action climax, with hotpot Craganour and the blinkered rank outsider Aboyeur engaging in a brutal barging match all the way to the winning post, where five horses crossed the line with little more than a length covering them.  

Craganour was declared to have beaten Aboyeur by a head, with Louvois and Billy Saxby a neck behind in third, and Great Sport a length further back in fourth – except that Day Comet had finished third on the inside, but had not been noticed by the judge and so was not officially placed.

Bower Ismay proudly led in his Derby winner, and shortly afterward the winner-all-right announcement was made, and the result was official.

For Eustace Loder there was no time to seethe with resentment that his bête noir had won the greatest race of them all. Having learned that Aboyeur’s connections were not proposing to object, despite their standing to win a great deal of money had their horse been upgraded, Loder consulted his fellow stewards, and they lodged an objection on the grounds that Craganour had caused Aboyeur interference. 

Given Loder’s view of Ismay, and given that the witnesses before the stewards’ panel included the aggrieved Bill Saxby, it cannot have come as a complete shock that Craganour was disqualified and placed last.

Such an outcome was highly contentious, with many observers considering that Aboyeur had been as much to blame as Craganour, but it was Aboyeur’s name that was inscribed onto the most historic roll of honour in racing.

Four days after the Derby, Ismay lodged an appeal – but the rules of racing required that any challenge be made within 48 hours of the race, and subsequent attempts via legal channels took Ismay no farther. He was never to own a Derby winner.

As for the horses at the centre of the story, Aboyeur was beaten in his next two races, and then sold for 13,000 guineas to the Imperial Racing Club of St. Petersburg, where he disappeared during the Russian Revolution. Craganour was sold to Argentina, where he became an influential stallion.   

And in 1918, five years after Emily Davison ducked under the rail, the first women got the vote in the U.K. 

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