Donny, Leger and a proper chap

There are few races that don’t have some history attached to them. A fatal accident, a crowd gone awry, a fortune lost, another gained. The St. Leger, not least because of its age, is one such race. Currently, I’m reading Chris McGrath’s Mr Darley’s Arabian: High Life, Low Life, Sporting Life: A History of Racing in 25 Horses, which I urge you to get. Among the fascinating insights and reminders of epic losses simply shrugged off, is the story of Henry Mellish.

A Nottinghamshire family, the local University has this simple observation of his life. “Henry was the second son of Charles Mellish of Blyth. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge in 1800 but did not reside. He had an army career, eventually becoming Lieutenant-Colonel. In the Peninsular War campaign of 1808-1810, he was aide-de-camp to General Ferguson. He was noted for his interests in horse racing and gambling. His horses won the St Leger in 1804 and 1805.  His elder brother Joseph Charles Mellish was disinherited on account of his extravagance. Henry inherited the Blyth and Hodsock estates on the death of his father in 1797. He sold the Blyth estate in 1806 to pay off his own gambling debts, and Hodsock became the main family residence.

All dryly true, but McGrath adds some detail to this, that leads one to suspect that the disinherited Joe, was the least of the family’s problems! Henry would dress entirely in white, and owned 38 thoroughbreds, 17 carriage horses, 12 hunters in Leicestershire, and 4 chargers at the Brighton garrison, where it was rumoured that the Prince Regent had given him permanent leave, so that he wouldn’t taint the younger officers. He was also considered one of the soundest judges of horseflesh in the country and the worst judge of character because dear old Henry wouldn’t have recognised sharp practice if it has been on the end of a drawing pin slammed into his bottom, with a pointy stick.

Anyway, his gambling was epic and it was rumoured that the St Leger of 1806 had over one million Guineas riding on it. (He was 25 at the time!)

The race result was catastrophic, and just two months later, Mellish had to sell off his estate and remove himself to the Peninsular War in Spain. There he was reduced to riding a hack so wretched that another officer scoffed that it would not fetch £5. Mellish promptly wagered that he could secure nine times as much – and spurred the hapless animal at speed towards the French lines, until it was shot dead beneath him. Mellish ‘then went back on foot under a hail of shot, but the winner of the wager, since the government allowed £45 for every horse shot by the enemy’.

McGrath, Christopher. Mr Darley’s Arabian: High Life, Low Life, Sporting Life: A History of Racing in 25 Horses: Shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award . John Murray Press

On the grounds that God loves a trier, here’s what I think about Donny today

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