Elizabeth II’s passion for running and horse riding
As well as coming home to his country during World War II, King George VI was a keen father and lifelong horseman with thriving riding and racing stables. So he made sure his daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, were put into the saddle diligently.
As a result, at the ripe old age of 3, Princess Elizabeth was hoisted aboard a pony and never really looked back. Classically, her first personal mount was a modest, bushy-maned, brown-colored Shetlander named Peggy, which George VI gave to Elizabeth when she was four years old. Surprisingly lean and fit, Peggy would have been the equivalent of an equine kart, low to the ground, nimble, enterprising but even tough, which is why Shetlanders make such great first horses for children.
George VI shamelessly lived up to the cliché that racing is the sport of kings by also being a man of passionate blood who sought out, bought and bred quality racing thoroughbreds. On her death in 1952, the indefatigable Elizabeth inherited this huge operation, the aptly named Royal Studs at Sandringham, Norfolk, in addition to inheriting the King’s stables of racers, hack horses and hunters, and with all that , she began her seven years of immersion. -decade odyssey in the equine world.
How keen a rider was she? Despite Covid and its growing frailty, the Queen had not skipped a Royal Windsor Horse Show since its inception in 1943, so she adamantly decided not to miss it in May either. When for medical reasons she had to forego her usual walkabout, she still went, stoically insisting on touring the show by being driven and escorted back to her seat, her colorful trademark scarf tied tightly against the severe weather.
The Queen is perhaps best known to the British racing public for leading the annual parade of spectacularly formal landau carriages at the Royal Ascot meeting each June and for racing many of her horses in the various stakes during the week. During her 70-year reign, Elizabeth missed attend a single Royal Ascot, the 2022 meeting last June. But she deputized for her cousin, the Duke of Kent, as a substitute and, according to reports, watched him from Windsor Castle on television.
From the mid-1980s, the Queen began sending many of the twenty mares from her breeding stable in Kentucky to be bred to the best American Thoroughbredsconsidered to have greater speed than British runners, who are generally higher for endurance in the longer turf and steeplechase events.
By his side in the 80s and 90s—and dutifully played by Joseph Kloska in The crown– was the inimitable socialite and leading gadabout-of-the-Realm Henry George Reginald Molyneux Herbert, the 7th Earl of Carnavon, aka “Porchey”, a semi-pejorative Eton-ish joking contraction of “Porchester”, one of pre-inheritance courtesy titles. Adding to its aristocratic luster, the Earls Herbert/Carnavon own Highclere Castle, most famous as a monumental film set for Julian Fellowes’ period television series. Downton Abbey. Frankly speaking, when the Queen visited “Porchey” at Highclere, even she knew she was somewhere special.
In real-life, non-televised life, the 7th Earl of Carnavon was actually a close, lifelong – and as he took great pains to point out, entirely platonic – friend of the Queen. Sitting astride the Herbert family fortune of hundreds of millions of pounds back when the pound meant more than a dollar, he became the Queen’s (unpaid) race manager, the calling almost daily from racetracks, barns and sales, endlessly rooting in pedigrees, enticing him to buy this colt or that runner. Carnavon, who died twenty years ago, knew his stuff and that helped. It was “Porchey” who arranged for the Queen to move with her American-bred mares from Kentucky.
The Queen’s monumental work ethic as a monarch – like when she had her farewell ‘audience’, in palace parlance, with her outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson on September 6, all shiny and peppery, according to Mr Johnson, just 48 hours before his death – applied to his level of study and devotion to his horses, especially the breeding and racing operations. Last year, at 95, she was begged by her doctors to retire from her own constituency, at least. But, after the Platinum Jubilee celebrations in early June, she clearly had none of that and the result, as Brits would underestimate, was that “allowances were made” for her to continue.
When the Fleet Street tab Sun found out in mid-June that she was riding again, it was considered “likely” she was on her sturdy 16-year-old Fell pony, named Fern. (Fell ponies being the farm breed of the Cumberland region of North West England.) They are built lower and are easier to handle than the taller, more spirited hunters the Queen rode when she was younger. Of course, this year’s hacks would often be gentle strolls around Windsor with husband Terry Pendry by her side – and no helmets, please, just the trademark scarf – but overall not a shabby bit of country for a rider well into her 10th decade.
Elizabeth II gave up nothing if she could help it, not philanthropy, not government, not public appearances, not her Christmas speech, and certainly not racing. Two days after the Queen died, one of her US-based turf runners, West Newton, performed a stellar stretch run at Baltimore’s Pimlico and easily won his race by an eighth and a mile. Of course, owners and trainers don’t book their horses on race day. That is to say, the Queen and her race directors in Britain and the United States entered her horses in races until the very last weeks of her life. It is devotion.
In addition to picking up beautiful Kentucky-bred foals from her mares, the Queen fell in love with Kentucky Bluegrass, those lush, rolling limestone-based counties around Lexington whose mineral-rich water and grass are believed to build so well-boned in his thoroughbreds. She was warmly welcomed there – in 1984 the Keeneland track founded the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup, and the race is still run, sponsored by Lane’s End Farm, the main stud farm in Versailles, Kentucky, owned by the friend of the Queen, Ambassador William Farish. In all, she boarded and bred dozens of mares in Kentucky and visited them five times, occasionally staying with the Farishes to get up first and go out with horses here, but also always accompanied by the Ambassador on meetings. with other breeders, owners and riders.
Not least: With a characteristic keen eye on the bottom line, she gave a lot to the sport, but she also made it pay. Her horses have won all the British Classics: Ascot’s Gold Cup, Epsom’s Derby, the Lot, and she has been meinducted into the British Racing Hall of Fame.
According to calculations from 1988 – four years after “Porchey” took her to Kentucky – until 2022, Queen Elizabeth’s runners in all classes and on all surfaces earned him £8.7m, or around $10m. She has entered her horses in 3,441 races over the past 35 years, winning some 566 of them, for a respectable winning percentage of 16.4%. The UK research team that compiled these stats note that their stable’s most successful year was, incredibly, 2021, when they won 36 of the 166 races they entered their horses in, for a percentage high win rate of 22%, or more accurately, 21.6%. It’s high. She was on track with that percentage in the early months of 2022, proving that horse racing could very easily be known as the sport of queens.