Bend Or: racing’s huge debt to an ‘imposter’

Ormonde, the outstanding son of the horse known as Bend Or, is generally considered to be the best racehorse in Britain in the 19th century. Photo:

Renowned bloodstock writer Tony Morris with the third in his series of articles celebrating 100 horses instrumental in shaping the modern Thoroughbred.


Bend Or, ch, 1877, (registered as) Doncaster – Rouge Rose, by Thormanby

There has long been a school of thought to the effect that an apparent country bumpkin called William Shakespeare, a man whose life experience seems to have been limited to time spent between Stratford-upon-Avon and London, could not have been responsible for the exceptional body of work attributed to him.

But there is no doubting the genius of the fellow who wrote the plays and the poems that far exceeded in merit any literature that had been produced before and remain unsurpassed over four centuries later.  While his true identity may be disputed, for argument’s sake we call him William Shakespeare. A rose by any other name...

There is a parallel case in the history of Thoroughbred racing and breeding. Doubts over the pedigree of the colt who won the 1880 Derby were expressed shortly after the event, the suggestion being that the identities of two chestnut sons of Doncaster in the Duke of Westminster’s Eaton Stud had been inadvertently switched as foals.  But, as the rumour was instigated by a stud groom who was under notice to leave the Duke’s service, most people assumed that it was the act of a man with a grudge, hoping to embarrass his employer.

Belated objection

Still, the rumour was taken seriously by the owners of Derby runner-up Robert The Devil, who lodged a belated objection – seven weeks after the classic – on the grounds that the winner ‘was not the horse he was represented to be, either in the entry or at the time of the race’. The Epsom stewards unanimously overruled the objection, but how could they have hoped to resolve the issue anyway?  It was surely best to leave well alone.

Some 130 years later, the tools to establish the truth beyond any doubt were available, and examination of mitochondrial DNA showed that the aggrieved stud groom had been right. The 1880 Derby winner could not have been produced by Rouge Rose, but the Newminster mare Clemence, the alternative proposed so long ago, proved the perfect fit.  It was a bit too late to impose a disqualification now, and the knowledge that it was actually Tadcaster, rather than Bend Or, who won that memorable Epsom classic was not going to signify much after so long.

Even if he was not the horse as registered in the General Stud Book, the one who spent his highly distinguished racing and stud careers as Bend Or, and became the sire of the greatest racehorse of the 19th century, will never be known by any other name.

(Incidentally, the horse who raced as Tadcaster was sold by the Duke of Westminster after winning a two-horse race at Doncaster as a juvenile.  His new owner, in a mischievous allusion to the kerfuffle over identities, re-named him Bend Or II, but he became Tadcaster again before he returned as a gelding, running unsuccessfully in selling races as a 4-year-old.)

Bend Or, who was trained at Russley by Robert Peck, had a flawless first season, collecting the Chesterfield Stakes on Newmarket’s July course, the Richmond Stakes at Goodwood, and the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at York, before signing off with triumphs on consecutive days at Newmarket’s First October meeting in the Triennial Produce Stakes and the Rous Memorial Stakes. He started favourite every time, and was at odds-on on the last four occasions, when Fred Archer was his jockey.

A tale of Fred Archer

Reckoned the best of his generation at two, Bend Or was surely destined to start favourite for the Derby, which would be his first race as a 3-year-old. Archer was naturally keen to ride the colt and was confident of victory, but at the end of April he was savaged and severely injured by a 4-year-old colt, Muley Edris, on the Newmarket gallops.  Torn arm muscles meant there was no chance of his returning to the saddle in the immediate future, and there came a race against time to regain fitness for the great occasion.

Legend has it that when Archer was examined by an eminent surgeon, seeking his opinion as to whether he would be fit for the Derby on May 26, the medic replied that he saw no reason why he should not be present to watch the race. Archer then supposedly re-phrased his query, indicating that, far from wanting to be a spectator at Epsom, he was engaged to ride the favourite. It was one of those tales that, if not true, ought to be true.

Another myth from that time can be readily dismissed as nonsense. Edward Moorhouse, in his History and Romance of the Derby, asserted that Archer had put on weight during his absence from the saddle and had to lose 14lb in four days before getting the leg up on Bend Or. Roger Mortimer, a great writer with a wonderful gift for anecdote, but a lamentable researcher, repeated the error in his History of the Derby Stakes. In fact, Archer returned to riding at Chantilly on May 23, making the set weight of 56kg (8st 11lb) and winning the Prix du Jockey-Club (the French Derby) by a short head on Beauminet.

Defeat in the Leger

Three days later at Epsom, Archer weighed out at the prescribed 8st 10lb for Bend Or in the Derby. With a ride often described as the supreme example of Archer’s skill, the colt secured victory by a head over Robert The Devil.

The annals of racing fail to cite a parallel event to Archer’s achievement in 1880. After nearly a month out of action he returned, barely half-fit, to win the top races in France and England; having fulfilled his commitments at Epsom, where he won on eight of his 14 mounts, he recognised the need to regain full fitness. He missed Ascot, and he missed the July meeting at Newmarket. He was not seen in action again until Goodwood at the end of July.

George Fordham deputised for Archer when Bend Or won the St James’s Palace Stakes at Ascot to preserve his unbeaten record, but there were to be no more victories as a 3-year-old. The colt patently failed to stay when odds-on for the St Leger, which was won by his old adversary Robert The Devil, and in two later races that season – the Second Great Foal Stakes and the Champion Stakes, both at Newmarket – Bend Or found Robert The Devil too good. On the latter occasion, the margin between them was ten lengths.

Bend Or’s reputation undoubtedly suffered a bit in the second half of his 3-year-old campaign, but he came back at four in tremendous style, starting with a victory in the City and Suburban Handicap at Epsom, where he gave lumps of weight to most of his rivals. Over the Derby course in the Epsom Gold Cup, Bend Or and Robert The Devil were the only runners, and the verdict was as it had been in 1880, again by a slim margin.

In the Champion Stakes, Bend Or proved a ready winner, and by relegating the latest Derby hero Iroquois to third place he gained further kudos. He was sent off as 9-2 favourite in a field of 32 for the Cambridgeshire, but had a stiff task at the weights and came back among the ‘also-rans’ to close his career.

Who was the true champion of the 1877 crop in Britain? It was possible to make a case for both Bend Or and Robert The Devil, the former perhaps a shade speedier, the latter easily the better stayer, proving successful up to the three miles of Ascot’s Alexandra Plate.

Horse of the century

The pair joined the ranks of stallions in 1882, and few were surprised that the chance-bred Robert The Devil turned out a failure. He died aged 12, but remains visible at Gibsons saddlery in Newmarket, a fine example of the taxidermist’s art.

It appears that the Duke of Westminster was very keen to scotch the rumour about Bend Or’s alleged inaccurate pedigree, as one of the mares he sent to the novice stallion in 1882 was Clemence.  

If the Duke had thought there was any truth to the rumour, would he have had Bend Or cover his own dam? Be that as it may, the mating took place and had a positive outcome in a filly subsequent named Lenity. Westminster quickly sold her and she ran unsuccessfully for James Machell in selling races as a 2-year-old. The public would continue to believe what it wanted to believe.

Lenity was one of only six foals listed as products of Bend Or’s first stud season. Another, rather more consequential, individual was the bay colt delivered on 18 March 1883 by the Macaroni mare Lily Agnes. Westminster named him Ormonde, and over three seasons he ran unbeaten in 16 races, including the Triple Crown at three and the July Cup – Britain’s most important sprint – as a 4-year-old. Ormonde ended any debate over who was the Horse of the 19th Century.

Runner-up on the sires’ table in the year when represented by his first 3-year-olds, Bend Or never made it to the top, but was second again in 1892, having reached third in 1888 and 1890. Titles came his way as leading sire of broodmares in 1901 and 1902.

Phar Lap and Man o’ War

Much of Bend Or’s success as a sire was achieved in conjunction with Macaroni mares. None of the later stars bred on that cross could hold a candle to Ormonde, but such as Kendal, Martagon, Orvieto, Bona Vista and Laveno, all became major winners and made notable contributions as stallions. Kendal sired Triple Crown hero Galtee More, while Bona Vista was responsible for Cyllene, sire of four Derby winners and the grandsire of Phalaris.

Great things were naturally expected of Ormonde at stud, but sickness and relatively low fertility hampered his chances.  

Nevertheless he sired one real star in dual Eclipse Stakes winner Orme, whose sons Flying Fox (Triple Crown) and Orby (Derby) stood at the head of male line branches that flourished for long periods.  Ormonde’s sister, Ornament, became the dam of Sceptre, unique outright winner of four classics in 1902.

Bend Or’s last son of note was Radium, an outstanding stayer foaled in 1903, a matter of weeks after his sire died of a heart attack at Eaton at the age of 26. Radium, whose ten wins included the Goodwood and Doncaster Cups and two editions of the Jockey Club Cup, became the sire of Night Raid, in turn famed as progenitor of Australasian superstar Phar Lap.    

A daughter of Bend Or acquired for America in the year of his death was Fairy Gold, whose son Fair Play was overshadowed by the great Colin at the track, but who subsequently achieved undying fame as the sire of Man o’ War.

Bend Or, a golden chestnut with flaxen mane and tail and a prominent blaze, was a particularly distinctive individual, albeit one who masqueraded as a different horse from his description in the General Stud Book.  

Who knows what his fate might have been had he been recognised as an impostor and disqualified from his Derby win? The breed was all the better for the failure to ‘out’ him.

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