Horse Racing During The Wars

Most people are aware of the role the horse played during the First World War, of course back then horses were vital tools in warfare. Michael Morpurgo’s best-selling book ‘Warhorse’, which was recently made into a film by Stephen Spielberg, tells the story of one such horse – but what happened to the racehorses and racing in general during the World Wars?

After the First World War horses continued to play an important role in both the economic and social rebuild that was required. Between the First and Second World Wars the world was changing rapidly and the importance of the horse in commerce and agriculture began to decline. Whilst this was going on the ever popular Sport of Kings continued to grow in popularity, perhaps partly as a result of this general decline. Horseracing was one of the nation’s favourite sporting pastimes with dozens of courses all over the country.

With the threat of the Second World War the sporting life of the nation changed virtually overnight. On the day war was declared the Telegraph reported that 16 League football matches scheduled for that Monday evening would be cancelled and it wasn’t until the September of 1945 that the FA Cup resumed on a two-leg basis.

In the world of Rugby, a sportsmen’s lunch to celebrate the arrival of the 1939 Australian rugby team was cancelled, and instead of playing rugby they spent two weeks filling sandbags and helping to erect coastal defences until they sailed home.

With so many sports on hold a large proportion of sportsmen enlisted to fight in the war, some never returned. The much admired bowler Hedley Verity, with 191 wickets to his name, joined up immediately. He was killed leading an assault on a heavily defended ridge just outside Catania in Sicily in 1943 – and in the world of racing another sporting career was about to end.

Blue Peter, one of the most famous horses of the pre-war years, had already raced to victory in the 2,000 Guineas and the Derby. He was all set to claim the Triple Crown with the St Leger at Doncaster when the four-day meeting, along with all other race meetings, was cancelled. Blue Peter never got the chance to race again.

Hotspur, the Telegraph’s racing correspondent, wrote at the time: “Blue Peter is the greatest three-year old I have ever seen and there has never been any doubt in my mind that he would have won the Triple Crown.” Many years later after the war, Blue Peter’s owner, Lord Rosebery, declared: “He was the best horse I ever had and was the best I had ever seen and he had only half a career as a racehorse.”

Unlike most sports which were totally suspended during the Second World War, horseracing was allowed too continue, albeit amidst controversy and political pressure calling for it to be abandoned. Whilst most sports put their normal competitions to one side, holding alternatives which held only entertainment value, racing remained as close to ‘the real thing’ as wartime pressures and sensibilities would allow.

With the fall of France in 1940 the ongoing debate which raged around wartime racing came to a head and there was an attempt to suspend all horseracing. This was avoided only when some influential members of the government argued that the recreational and morale-building benefits of the sport outweighed the negatives. The detractors on the other hand saw racing as a wasteful luxury and a drain on scarce resources in terms of transport, feed and manpower, and there were constant attempts to stop or reduce it. 

The movement against racing was championed by Philip Noel-Baker, himself a fine sportsman who had won an Olympic 1,500 metres silver medal. Noel-Baker was a high-minded intellectual with no time for horse racing and, unfortunately for the sport, he was also Parliamentary Secretary to the Department of War Transport. When it came to fuel he preached a message of utmost economy and transporting horses around the country came pretty near the top of his list of targets.

The Home Office and the Jockey Club went head to head throughout the war and there was constant and unseen political infighting which led to the initial suspension and then reinstatement of racing in 1940. This was followed by ever-tightening restrictions on events, number, and location of courses in 1941/2 and even more minimal racing programmes in the later years of the war. Programmes were restricted to local meetings where travel requirements were minimal. This not only affected horse racing but also the very popular sport of greyhound racing which was cut to one or two meetings a week.

The British betting public were seeing less and less opportunity for a flutter in a time when people were consumed by a determined effort to enjoy their lives as much as they possibly could – after all, who really knew how long it would last?

A day at the wartime races was a very different, and in many ways, more exciting racing experience. It could include a bombing raid as it once did at Newmarket, a riot of bitter anti-racing campaigners as it did on occasion at Cheltenham, or even an unlicensed meet, with the murky world of illegal racing raising its ugly black-market head.

Of course horse racing in Ireland continued unaffected by the war, providing a regular and available betting market. Illicit gaming houses which masqueraded as clubs and illegal betting began to spring up everywhere. During only the first half of 1941 police raided 133 such premises in London alone. It seemed that no matter what, horseracing and gambling was such a part of the Nation’s entertainment life-blood that it just couldn’t be put down.

Even so – just as many flat and jump racecourses had floundered in the dark days of the First World War, with Cheltenham’s National Hunt Festival affected badly and racing at Sedgefield abandoned from 1915 to 1920 – the Second World War, with its background of restriction and opposition saw only a handful of courses kept open.

Ripon, Hurst Park, Newmarket, Windsor, and Edinburgh all saw actual or at least proposed racing activity. Newmarket’s July course played host to all of Britain’s classic races during the both the First and the Second World Wars. But there was no Grand National from 1941 to 1945, as Aintree became an Italian P-O-W camp, and the Cheltenham Gold Cup was cancelled in both 1943 and 1944.

Other racecourses were utilised in the war effort – Newmarket’s Rowley Mile course became an RAF base, Bath was used as a landing field by the Royal Air Force, Redcar (which had been used as a Royal Naval Air Service flight training airfield during World War One) was redeployed as a British army camp, Ascot was turned into a German refugee interment camp, Haydock Park became the first port of call for incoming French sailors, Nottingham housed the 7th Leicestershire’s, Epsom Downs Racecourse was used for an anti-aircraft battery, racing at Cartmel was suspended for the duration as was racing at Fakenham, and most other courses were used in some war-focussed way with even a few being ploughed for food production.

Despite the limitations created by the war though, it still managed to give rise to some great horses including: Sun Chariot, Big Game, Nasrullah, Dante and perhaps the most famous of them all – Owen Tudor.

Owen Tudor was a British Thoroughbred racehorse whose career lasted from 1940 to 1942. He raced twelve times, coming first in six of them – his most important win came as a three-year-old, when in the summer of 1941, he won the “New Derby” at Newmarket. He also won the substitute “Ascot Gold Cup” at Newmarket in 1942, before being retired to stud at the end of that season.

The last wartime race meeting was held at Stockton on the day of the Japanese surrender. The war had left the world of racing badly damaged, with many horses and jockeys either no longer racing or simply not around to race at all. Horseracing and betting, despite the best efforts of the spiv-bookies, was at an all time low and many courses would never reopen. Despite all of this though racing had survived the war and, as it came to a close in 1945, seemed ready to begin its long road to recovery.