I first read about the 1844 Epsom Derby back in the seventies in History of the Derby Stakes and have since read pieces about it in Great Sporting Scandals, Horse-Racing's Strangest Races, Eclipse and other books, some running to a few pages but each of them outlining the basic details without giving exactly the same account; the peripheral information differed in each case. I knew there was a big story in that race that deserved greater attention, which eventually came in the form of this book, written by a historian rather than a racing journalist. Apparently, the author learned about the 1844 Derby while researching another book that he was writing and realized that it had potential as the basis for a book about nineteenth century gambling.
Among all sporting scandals, the 1844 Derby stands out because it involved several apparently unrelated scandals. There was cheating to try and ensure victory; the race was for three-year-old horses, but two older horses ran in the race, these being Running Rein and Leander. There was also cheating to stop at least one horse winning; Ratan, who was very likely the best horse in the race, was drugged up to his eyeballs and ridden by a jockey who had bet against him, yet still finished seventh of 29 as they crossed the line. Ratan`s main rival, had the race been cleanly run, was expected to be that year`s 2,000 Guineas winner, The Ugly Buck, who crossed the line in fifth place. It may just be that, like so many 2,000 Guineas winners, he lacked the stamina needed for the extra half mile of the Derby.
Although the 1844 Derby was the inspiration for this book and is ultimately its focal point, much of the book discusses gambling and the English aristocracy as they were in the early nineteenth century. Indeed, the author only gets round to covering Derby Day in chapter 13 (of 20) so this book may appeal to those interested in nineteenth century history as much as it does to horseracing fans. That said, there is much here to interest those horseracing fans who are interested in how the sport developed.
Prior to the nineteenth century, aristocrats had gambled among themselves, whether they were betting on horses, cards or anything else. The early nineteenth century brought about changes that were eventually to transform gambling. Outsiders came into the gambling world with people like John Gully, one of the pioneering racecourse bookmakers (but they weren't called bookmakers then) and William Crockford, one of the men who managed gambling of other types in the West End. Both of these men are discussed extensively.
The central character in this book is Lord George Bentinck, the aristocrat who exposed the 1844 Derby fraud. In his younger days, he had been party to a lot of the cheating that went on in the world of horseracing. He was a racehorse owner too, and sometimes stooped to dirty tricks to achieve success, but it seems that at some point he decided that things were getting out of hand and it was time to clean up the sport. Often accused of hypocrisy because of his earlier cheating, perhaps it is a case of there being much joy in one sinner who repents. He came to be regarded as a hero and his murky past was forgotten - except that enough information was on record somewhere for the author-historian to be able to write about.
Throughout the book, one is reminded that truth is invariably stranger than fiction, which merely reinforces my long-held belief that the 1844 Epsom Derby was the most notorious sporting contest in history.