Touchstone: an unprepossessing, weak individual who became a sire of immense consequence

This painting of Touchstone is by the artist John Frederick Herring. Photo: Historic England Archive

Renowned bloodstock writer Tony Morris with the 13th in his 100 Shapers of the Breed series.


Touchstone, br, 1834, Camel – Banter, by Master Henry

Though widely regarded as the fastest son of 1810 Derby hero Whalebone, Camel was so often affected by lameness that he ran only seven times during three seasons in training, making it difficult to assess his true ability. But he was smart enough to win five races, including the prestigious Port Stakes, and he finished runner-up in the Newmarket Stakes.

Those performances, along with his impressive physique, which featured great bone and powerful quarters, earned him a shot at stud, and, after setting out at 10gns, he spent his last few seasons fully booked at 25gns. His fame rested largely on St Leger-winning brothers Touchstone and Launcelot, but he headed the sires’ list in 1838 without the assistance of either of those celebrities.

The brothers were sons of Banter, a daughter of Master Henry who had proved useless as a runner and was herself out of Boadicea, a hunter of no consequence. She seemed an unlikely sort to deliver a pair of classic winners, yet in Touchstone, her first produce, she bred not just an outstanding runner, but a sire of immense consequence to boot.

Touchstone was bred by Sir Robert Grosvenor, the 1st Marquis of Westminster, who had a dislike of first foals and a habit of giving them away if he could find a taker. Just why he kept Banter’s son, an unprepossessing, weak individual as a foal, remains a mystery, but it was a decision he would never regret.

Brief juvenile campaign

Touchstone was blessed with a lucky start to his career at Lichfield, where he was engaged in a produce sweepstakes for 2-year-olds and the only two other entries paid forfeit, allowing him to walk over for the prize. The first actual test of his athletic ability came little more than a month later, when Westminster’s private trainer, Godfrey Kirkley, saddled him for the half-mile Champagne Stakes at the Holywell Hunt meeting. He finished only third of the four runners. He could be held in no special regard after his brief juvenile campaign.

Things could only get better, and they did in the colt’s second season. He began with a brace of victories, two days apart, at May’s Chester fixture, first taking the Dee Stakes, then the Palatine Stakes, on both occasions beating Queen Bess, the filly who had won his race at Holywell Hunt in the previous October.

Touchstone met worthier rivals in the Liverpool St Leger in early July, finishing an honourable second to General Chassé, who was winning for the sixth successive time. As he was beaten by no more than a head after having been almost brought down, he was now recognisably a high-class performer.

The renowned Yorkshire trainer John Scott was impressed by the colt’s display, advising Westminster that he would be worth a crack at the real St Leger, the Doncaster classic whose winner he had already saddled on four occasions. The owner accepted that more professional training made sense, promptly deciding to switch Touchstone to Scott’s stable.

The transfer almost failed to happen, as the colt got loose on the journey to Malton, charging around on the Lancashire moors for hours before his eventual recapture. Touchstone required medical attention before Scott could get around to giving him a proper preparation, and it was fortunate that the big race was still two months in the future.

By St Leger day Touchstone was fit, but by no means a fancied contender. The unbeaten Derby winner Plenipotentiary, regarded by many as the best horse they had ever seen, was at odds-on, his Epsom runner-up Shilelagh was seeking revenge, and General Chassé was looking for his seventh consecutive win.

Touchstone was rumoured to be amiss, and the fact that the trainer’s brother, Bill Scott, had chosen to ride stablemate Lady de Gros was another reason for punters to neglect the colt. They let him go off at 50/1.

There can be little doubt that Plenipotentiary was got at. He could barely raise a gallop at any point in the race and came back tenth of the 11 runners. Touchstone was up with the pace throughout and drew clear in the straight to win easily by two lengths. Journeyman jockey George Calloway, winning on the colt for the third time, was said to be “so thunderstruck that he turned his head left and right to see whether the others had been swallowed up in an earthquake”.

His Doncaster mission accomplished, Touchstone reverted to Kirkley’s Delamere Forest stable to contest minor events for the rest of the season. He beat a single rival at Wrexham at the end of September and in the following month he fulfilled two engagements on the same day at Holywell Hunt. Only third of five in the Mostyn Stakes, he walked over for the Chieftain Stakes an hour later.

The best stayer in England

Touchstone remained with Kirkley for his first two ventures as a 4-year-old. He walked over for the Stand Cup at Chester in May, and a week later finished unplaced – for the only time in his career, as it turned out – in the Tradesmen’s Cup at Liverpool. The race was run on handicap terms and he had to give weight to all bar one of his rivals. General Chassé, in receipt of one pound, was the winner.

Back with Scott in the autumn, Touchstone won the Doncaster Cup and collected two prizes at Heaton Park, where he was ridden by his owner’s son, Lord Wilton. He beat three rivals in the Gold Plate, and on the following day walked over for the Gold Cup.

The colt’s season concluded at Holywell Hunt, where he was beaten by the year-younger filly Usury in the Mostyn Stakes, then was allowed to walk over for both the Pengwern Stakes and a Post Sweepstakes on the following day.

In 1836, Touchstone became the first horse to win both the Ascot Gold Cup and the Doncaster Cup, beating another previous St Leger victor in Rockingham in the former and a subsequent Goodwood Cup winner in Carew – as well as the celebrated mare Beeswing and his old rival General Chassé – in the latter. Both races were won impressively, and once his participation in the Heaton Park Gold Cup was confirmed, it came as no surprise when all nine possible rivals swerved the engagement.

Touchstone was now confirmed as the best stayer in England, but his owner allowed him one more opportunity to underline his dominance as a 6-year-old with a second triumph in the Ascot Gold Cup, a feat he achieved with an emphatic six-length score.

Retired with a record of 16 wins (seven by walkover), two seconds and two thirds from 21 starts, Touchstone had become a great public favourite, while earning the admiration of the sport’s professionals. Always a lazy worker at home, but often a hard puller in his races, he resented the whip and tended to veer left when hit. It was said that he went so wide behind that a barrel could have been driven between his legs at the gallop, but his odd way of going was of no consequence.  

Contemporary reports emphasised that speed was his greatest asset, but that was not to suggest that sprinting was his forte; it clearly was not. What horsemen valued him for was the blend of speed and stamina exemplified by the facility with which he could quicken at the business end of his races.

Touchstone had many assets that breeders naturally coveted, and when he began his stud career at Moor Park Farm, near Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, in 1838 there was plenty of demand for his services at 30gns. Plenipotentiary was then available at 25gns, while Sir Hercules, who would become the principal agent for Whalebone who did not descend from Camel, commanded only 20gns.

Touchstone became an immediate success as the champion sire of 1842, the year when his first 3-year-olds competed. Among them were St Leger heroine Blue Bonnet and Celia, who notched ten victories and finished runner-up in the 1000 Guineas.  

The crop foaled in 1840 was better, featuring Cotherstone, who went close to becoming the first winner of the Triple Crown, a 2000 Guineas and Derby champion thwarted by Nutwith in his St Leger bid. Touchstone was champion sire again, ensuring that he would always warrant keen patronage at his new base, the Westminster family’s Eaton Hall Stud in Cheshire.

Grandsire of Eclipse

There were two notable colts in the 1841 crop. Ithuriel was a smart performer who would wield some influence as a sire, but rather more significant was Orlando, awarded the Derby after the disqualification of the over-age colt who masqueraded as Running Rein.  Orlando would head the sires’ list at home on three occasions – in 1851, 1854 and 1858 – but his ultimately most important product was his 1855 son Eclipse, who was exported to America and became the male line ancestor of such celebrities as Commando, Black Toney and Dr Fager.

Touchstone’s 1842 crop included Derby runner-up Annandale and the filly Cinizelli, who would earn fame as dam of Oaks heroine Marchioness and The Marquis, winner of a 2000 Guineas and a St Leger, but the batch foaled in 1843 proved more notable still.  Among that group were Mendicant, who won both fillies’ classics before delivering Derby hero Beadsman, and Mowerina, a 1000 Guineas runner-up who earned more celebrity as dam of West Australian, the first winner of England’s Triple Crown and hero of an Ascot Gold Cup as a 4-year-old.

The most notable of the 1844 crop were fillies Gaiety and Meanee, who would become dams of classic winners, but there were runners to star among the 1845 crop – sons who won all three colts’ classics between them, Flatcatcher in the 2000 Guineas, Surplice in the Derby and St Leger, their sire inevitably earning a third title.

Touchstone was regularly paired with the great mare Beeswing. The 1846 result of one mating was Nunnykirk, who won the 2000 Guineas and finished second in the St Leger, but there was one much better to follow in 1848 in Newminster, who won a St Leger and became champion sire on two occasions.

Hugely significant

By the end of the 1840s, breeders found many younger, promising horses to divert their attention, meaning that Touchstone lacked the support that had served him so well in earlier years, but there was one more sires’ title to celebrate in 1855, when Lord Of The Isles won the 2000 Guineas, Rifleman ran second in the St Leger, and Clotilde managed third in the 1000 Guineas.

The natural tendency for breeders to focus on young horses and neglect the senior citizens of the stallion ranks affected Touchstone’s opportunities towards the end of his career, but he remained a sure foal-getter until his last years.

Touchstone died at 30, bequeathing a legacy treasured on both sides of the Atlantic. Archer, winner of the first two Melbourne Cups, was by his unraced son William Tell, extending the old horse’s influence to a different environment.

Until quite recent times we could recognise Touchstone as a significant progenitor in branches of several current male lines descending from Eclipse, but it is a different world now. Fifty years ago it would have seemed unrealistic to imagine a line with no direct route from Hyperion, Touchstone’s seventh generation top-line ancestor, but the succession is conspicuously fragile now.

No matter. Male lines have never been the be-all and end-all where pedigrees are concerned, and Touchstone’s contribution to the breed can still be recognised as hugely significant.  

Also in this series

Bend Or
Man o' War
Blushing Groom

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