Excerpts from ‘A Maharaja’s Turf’ ….. 8 – Epsom Derby 1934 : What the leading writers of the day said

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Some of the best writers of the day on racing were at hand and here is what they saw –

Sir John Foster Fraser in the Manchester Dispatch: A roar of voices, a clamour of wonder. But once the shout ‘They’re off’ had resounded, a sort of stillness fell on the crowd. The horses are hidden behind some heath bushes. ‘It’s going to be Easton’s race I’m thinking’ somebody says sharply. One feels the strain. Rounding Tattenham Corner, it was seen that the Maharaja of Rajpipla’s Windsor Lad was leading, with Lord Woolavington’s Easton at his tail and the cast-iron favourite third. Suddenly the silence is rent; there is a roar, ‘Charlie, Charlie, go it, Charlie,’ a jockey in front of me frantically yells. ‘Yes, Windsor Lad, Windsor Lad, oh, Windsor Lad,’ and the heavens shake with the shout. A clatter of hooves and the shooting past of a multi-coloured streamer. The Derby is over. Everyone round me was breathing heavily. Three cheers to the victor!”.

Hotspur in The Daily Telegraph:On the Maharaja of Rajpipla’s Windsor Lad, Charles Smirke rode a dashing and brilliant race to secure the rails after leaving Tattenham Corner. Windsor Lad was always closely tracking the leaders. Before reaching that point Colombo appeared to falter a little in his stride, causing him to lose a length or so. In the preliminary canter it occurred to me that I might be in error in thinking that Colombo’s style of galloping would be suited to the course. His action appeared all too high, and it was then that I lost some faith in this unbeaten colt. W. Johnstone had the favourite in a nice place, riding a steady race in the early stages in the heals of Medieval Knight and Bondsman. Fleetfoot and Tiberius raced up to Medieval Knight before entering the straight but heading for home G. Nicholl slipped his mount into the lead. They had not gone another furlong before Windsor Lad had been cleverly manoeuvred by Smirke into a place on the rails. Easton drew into second place in front of Primero when Medieval Knight and Fleetfoot were done with. Colombo had no chance to secure an inside berth, and Johnstone was compelled to take the favourite to the right of the two pacemakers. Even then he did not appear to me to be galloping with the smoothness of his two rivals. Nor did he get down to his work as well as Windsor Lad when he was shown the whip. From the time the Maharaja of Rajpipla’s colt got his head in front he did not appear likely to be overhauled. Desperate finish as Gordon Richards rode on Lord Woolavington’s 15,000 gs. purchase, he failed to get on terms, and Windsor Lad won in decisive style by a length. Colombo, who bounced rather than galloped down the straight, was a neck away.”

Meyrick Good in The Sporting Life: “Three furlongs from home Windsor Lad forced his way to the front, closely followed by Easton and Colombo. The favourite came along in the centre of the track, and below the distance his jockey had his whip going. At that point he was almost level with Windsor Lad and Easton, but he could not improve. Smirke kept Windsor Lad well to the rails and, holding off Easton, won a great race, all out, by a length; a neck separating the second and third. The three placed horses were four lengths clear of Tiberius (fourth), who in turn was six lengths ahead of Alishah (fifth). Valerius (ran well) was half a length off sixth”.

Sheffield Independent: “Windsor Lad took command of the field as they raced round Tattenham Corner into the straight, with Easton and Tiberius close behind and Colombo challenging on the outside. As the favourite came with his run there were shouts of ‘Colombo wins’, but as the post was neared it became apparent that Lord Glanely’s colt was about to meet with the first defeat in his career. He had everything in his favour, and his defeat can only be fairly attributed to lack of the necessary stamina. Windsor Lad had put up a remarkably fast gallop, and his time of 2 mins. 34 secs. equals the record for the race, set up by Hyperion last year. Excuses are being made for Colombo on the grounds that he was interfered with and began to drop back at the seven furlong starting gate. Colombo certainly lost his place after he had pursued the leader, Medieval Knight, to that point, but in my opinion Windsor Lad was a winner on merit thanks to the superb way in which he was handled by the Epsom jockey Smirke. This rider had made no secret of the fact that if Colombo and the others did not stay it was a good thing for him to win his first Derby. Smirke saw to it that Windsor Lad came the shortest way round Tattenham Corner, and once in line for home it was not long before the son of Blandford had taken the lead from Tiberius. Having accomplished this much Smirke hugged the rails all the way down the hill pursued by Tiberius and Easton. A quarter of a mile from the finish Colombo began the hopes of his supporters once more, and he could be seen picking up ground in the centre of the course. I thought the speed of the son of Manna would carry him up to the leaders, but after closing the gap he began to hang on to the left, and his fate was then sealed. Meantime Windsor Lad was consolidating his position and in the end Easton beat Colombo by a neck for second place.”

The Field: “…..coming round Tattenham Corner, Gordon Richards on Easton put in a strong challenge. But here Windsor Lad came upon the scene, and overhauling Easton and Colombo, ran on as straight as a gun barrel with the staunchest courage of any Derby colt since the war. It was one of the most exciting of Derbys, with a great finish, and a well-backed favourite beaten into third place. Once again the Chester Vase proved a criterion of Derby form.”

Captain Heath in News Chronicle: “What a great race it was up the straight! Tiberius was just in front of the pace-making Medieval Knight as they swung round the ‘Corner’. When the others faltered Windsor Lad came along and, racing on the rails, he had but to be shown that his jockey had a whip to pull out that fine stuff of which I believe him to be capable. First Easton had a go at him, then came Colombo, racing on very gamely, to have another cut. But Windsor Lad refused to yield an inch, and in the end Judge Hancock had to give it a length and a neck.”

The Picquet in News Chronicle:Windsor Lad ran on like a good stayer and Easton, too, ran on well, but the French-bred colt was not good enough to beat the Irish colt. Lord Woolavington has, however, the consolation that in buying Easton, after he had run second to Colombo in the Guineas, he made no bad bargain. Alishah was one who had bad luck, for Perryman, who came off a sick bed to ride him, lost both irons when another horse gave him a bump at the top of the hill. He was nearly brought down, and travelled two furlongs more before he recovered them.A nice sight I should have been coming down the straight without my irons,’ was his comment. Alishah ran a good race in the circumstances, for he finished fifth.”

Ferdinand Kuhn jr. in The New York Times: “Windsor Lad, the superb 3-year-old owned by the Maharajah of Rajpipla, won the English Derby by a length today after one of the most thrilling last-minute struggles in all the 151 years of racing on Epsom Downs. Lord Woolavington’s Easton finished second. He was ridden by Gordon Richards, England’s champion jockey, who narrowly missed gaining the first Derby triumph of his career. A neck behind Easton came Lord Glanely’s Colombo, the overwhelming favourite, who had failed only after an effort which left most hardened racegoers spellbound. From a good start Medieval Knight was the first to show in front. At the mile post he was still in front but yielded the pace setting to Tiberius as the field sped downhill on the back stretch. At Tattenham Corner Tiberius was still in the van but jockey Smirke had moved Windsor Lad fast into second place. Down the broad straightaway under the eyes of King George and perhaps half a million of his subjects these three had shot ahead out of a field of nineteen and until the last three had thundered along almost neck and neck. Close to the rails was Windsor Lad, his jockey crouching low and cracking the whip to urge the horse on. In the middle was Easton, with Richards straining every nerve to win. On the outside, nearest the packed grandstand, Colombo was making the fight of his life as if conscious of all the hundreds of thousands of pounds that had been staked on him. His jockey had lost his position against the rails rounding Tattenham Corner, but Colombo soon forged ahead from behind. To the astonished crowd it looked as if the favourite might snatch the victory away from Windsor Lad after all. But fifty yards from home the strain was too much. Once they headed for the judges, the Maharajah’s colt quickly bounded for the front while Colombo swung wide. That move may have cost the race as Smirke took Windsor Lad the shortest way home. Colombo, who had never been beaten before, dropped behind while the purple and cream colours of the Maharajah flashed past in front. Windsor Lad finished in 2 minutes 34 seconds, thus equalling the all-time record established by Hyperion last year. Sir Abe Bailey’s Tiberius finished fourth. All the rest were hopelessly beaten, including the only American-owned entry Bondsman, who struggled home in eleventh place.”

Hannen Swaffer in the Daily Herald, “The most disappointed woman on the course was probably Madame Volterra, wife of the owner of Admiral Drake, who ran in Captain Cohn’s name. The horse, interfered with, came in last. She watched the finish in tears!”.

Medieval Knight’s jockey Steve Donoghue to Trevor Wignall in Daily Express: “Bondsman tried to do a bit of bolting when we got to the gate, but after that Umidwar simply wouldn’t turn his nose in the right direction. The start, however, was a good one, and I jumped into the lead almost from the first stride. I like myself and my horse until we were nearing Tattenham Corner, but then I discovered that he was fading on me. What I did then was to make way for the others; actually I waved them on. I was really beaten before we got to the Corner. But listen to this. I am as happy as a sandboy that Smirky has made such a comeback. You will remember that he had a bit of trouble some five years ago. Gosh, do you know what that means to fellows in my trade? He went down to Brighton to keep himself in condition. Today he has won the greatest race in the world. I have taken the Derby six times, but nobody is more pleased than I that Smirky has come back into his own.”

The Times summed up, “It remains only to congratulate Marsh on his training of the horse, Smirke on his riding, and the owner on being lucky enough to have such a combination of horse, trainer and rider to represent him in the greatest race of the year. An account of the race was broadcast by Mr. R.C. Lyle and came through perfectly.” 

Windsor Lad had shown a clean pair of heels to his two challengers, and Maharaja Vijaysinhji created history. He became the first, and even till date, the lone Indian owner to bag the coveted title. Certain of success he might have been before the race, but the glorious triumph, when it did arrive, took time to sink in. There was almost a sense of disbelief. As he sat, seemingly dumbstruck, he had to be reminded by his friends in the box that he now had to go down to lead his victorious horse back. He rushed out, tailcoat, top hat and all, binoculars dangling from his shoulder, acknowledging cheers and accepting congratulations all around, quietly dignified, but all excited inside. The composed horse, the jubilant jockey in the purple and cream Rajpipla colours, and the beaming, gleeful trainer completed a memorable picture. Never again in the annals would such an intriguing combination win the greatest horse race in the world. If it seemed unlikely to begin with, it definitely looked exotic now.

The Illustrated Weekly of India in the Coronation Supplement dated May 9, 1937 referred to this  “red letter day”, adding: “A wonderful demonstration took place when H.H. the Maharaja of Rajpipla led Windsor Lad (Smirke up) into the paddock, after his horse had won him the Blue Riband of the turf. Cheers rang out for the Maharaja and his gallant horse with the cry resounding in the air ‘Good Old Pip’. His Highness was delighted with the nickname and repeatedly waved his grey top hat to the cheering crowds. Later on, he said, ‘I am glad Windsor Lad won, not so much for my own sake as for the British public which gave me such a wonderful reception’.” It was indeed a memorable scene out in the middle of the course as an estimated populace of a quarter to a half million from Britain and the world over hailed the Indian prince. As People reported, the triumphant Maharaja returned the salutations of his good friend the Aga Khan who waved congratulations with his umbrella.

Trevor Wignall described spotted an amazing incident that he described in the Daily Express, “The most astonishing spectacle of all arrived when the Indian prince was leading in his colt. Right behind him, with feathers waving in his hair, was another dusky man, who calls himself a prince, but who makes a living by selling tips.”

The formalities over, King George V invited Maharaja Vijaysinhji to the Royal Box high atop the finishing post, where also present were Queen Mary and other members of the royal family, and their guests. The monarch raised a toast to the brilliant win. The Coronation Supplement to The Illustrated Weekly of India recapitulated that the Maharaja “won the heartiest and personal congratulations of His Imperial Majesty the King-Emperor on his splendid victory. India naturally received the news with great joy.”

(Author Indra Vikram Singh can be contacted on email singh_iv@hotmail.com).

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