Excerpts from ‘A Maharaja’s Turf’ ….. 23 – Chapter 14 : Poignant Moments

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The euphoria over the Derby triumph had barely faded when Maharaja Vijaysinhji faced a setback. A month after Epsom, Windsor Lad was beaten to third place in the Eclipse Stakes. Marcus Marsh reflected in Racing with the Gods: “No owner, in my experience, ever took more pride in a horse than Pip took in Windsor Lad. Since the Derby, Rajpipla had found a new-found popularity with the crowds on the race courses. So Windsor Lad’s defeat was a sudden reversal. It had clearly been lying heavily upon the mind of the Maharaja and, ten days after the race, he sold him to Martin Benson for £50,000. I didn’t know the deal was coming off until rather late in the day and I suspect Pip was a bit worried about my reaction, but he was kind enough to make it one of the conditions of sale that the horse stayed with me. So, as you can imagine, I wasn’t too pleased at the subsequent meeting in Pip’s house at Old Windsor when Martin Benson told me, ‘I think you’re a very lucky fellow to keep the horse in training’.” Martin Benson, one may add, was owner of Beechhouse Stud, near Newmarket, and founder of Douglas Stuart Ltd., the biggest firm of racetrack bookmakers in the world.

It might have been a poignant parting but Michael Seth-Smith paid tribute to the champion horse in the January 19, 1984 edition of Country Life, calling him “…..one of the greatest thoroughbreds of the past sixty years,” elaborating, “He had beaten two very good colts, Easton and Colombo, at Epsom, much to the undisguised delight of his owner, The Maharajah of Rajpipla, who was affectionately known as ‘Mr. Pip’. In the Eclipse Stakes a month later Charlie Smirke rode an ill-judged race, Windsor Lad was defeated, but he was never beaten again. He scored at York before taking the St. Leger in record time, with Smirke wearing the cerise, dark blue quartered cap of Mr. Martin Benson, who had bought him from ‘Mr. Pip’ after the Eclipse.” Windsor Lad took the 1.75 miles (14 furlongs or 2800 metres) St. Leger Stakes by equalling Coronach’s 1926 record time of 3 minutes 1.6 seconds, which still stands to this day. Tiberius was placed second and Lo Zingaro third.

Such was Marsh’s confidence in Windsor Lad that he felt certain that, braving the odds, the great horse would be a winner even the next year. Seth-Smith elaborated: “Benson agreed to Marcus Marsh’s proposal that Windsor Lad should be kept in training as a four-year-old. By the spring of 1935 he was the epitome of a champion thoroughbred, and ‘looked fully capable of carrying 15st. to hounds across Leicestershire’. During the summer he proved his courage, brilliance and versatility by winning the 12-furlong Coronation Cup and the 10-furlong Eclipse Stakes.” Windsor Lad, with Smirke still in the saddle, thus rounded off a brilliant career by claiming the race that had brought so much disappointment the previous year after his exhilarating Derby triumph.

There had still been doubters, as Seth-Smith explained: “Sandwiched between these victories was an even greater triumph. Many people expected that he would run in the Ascot Gold Cup, and when they learned that he was not to contest the race, they had the temerity to claim that Benson and Marsh were funking a confrontation with the outstanding French stayer, Brantome. The real reason was that Benson thought that the owners of top-class mares were reluctant to send them to Ascot Gold Cup winners. Marsh was furious with the unjust insinuations and ‘determined to prove that Windsor Lad had no cause to fear anything that trod grass’, he entered him for the 7-furlong 155yd Rous Memorial stakes at Royal Ascot. He was promptly ridiculed by critics who expressed their belief that it was courting disaster to run a 12-furlong horse over less than a mile.”

That was when Windsor Lad left a permanent, stamp of class. Seth-Smith described the glorious moment: “Windsor Lad confounded them, for on soft ground, which he disliked, he won impressively from a three-year-old to whom he was giving 25lb and whom Gordon Richards thought to be unbeatable. It was an outstanding performance and which poses the question: ‘What contemporary colt is capable of such achievements?’ and as a corollary ‘How many trainers and owners would be prepared to plan and execute such a campaign with a colt who had won the Derby the previous summer?’ ”

Windsor Lad’s final record was awesome:

Born 1931, Colour: Bay, Breeder: Dan Sullivan, Trainer: Marcus Maskell Marsh                                                       Owners: HH Maharaja Shri Sir Vijaysinhji of Rajpipla and Martin Henry Benson                                                                 13 Starts: 10 Wins and 1 Third Place; Career Earnings $174,038

1933                                                                                                                                                                                               1st  Criterion Stakes                                                                                                                                                          

1934                                                                                                                                                                                               1st  Chester Vase,  Newmarket Stakes,  Epsom Derby,  3rd Eclipse Stakes,  1st  Great Yorkshire Stakes,  St. Leger.                                                                                                                                                                          

1935                                                                                                                                                                                               1st  Burwell Stakes,  Coronation Cup,  Rous Memorial Stakes,  Eclipse Stakes

Windsor Lad died in 1943, one of the finest racehorses that ever lived.

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

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