Finest Hour 125, Winter 2004-05
WINSTON CHURCHILL AND COLONIST II
“Perhaps, he said quizzically, Providence had given him Colonist as a comfort for his old age and to console him for disappointments.” —Lord Camrose, 26 October 19501
By Fred Glueckstein
Mr. Glueckstein is a Maryland writer whose articles have appeared in The Chronicle of the Horse, The Backstretch, The Texas Thoroughbred, The Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred and The Cavalry Journal.
Winston Churchill took a respite from politics on Saturday, 14 May 1951. On that day, Princess Elizabeth invited the eminent stateman to a luncheon at Hurst Park before the running of the Winston Churchill Stakes, a race run at a distance of just over one mile.
Churchill’s thoroughbred, a five-year old grey named Colonist II, was among the runners. Also running was King George VI’s black filly, Above Board, and five other challengers: Cantarello II, Fast Fox, Selskar Abbot, Star-Spangled Banner, and Tourette.
Despite a cold and dreary afternoon, there was a large crowd at Hurst Park. The field was in the starter’s gate at 3:45pm. One minute later, the thoroughbreds bolted from the gate and thundered down the turf. Wearing Churchill’s racing colors of pink with chocolate sleeves and cap, jockey Tommy Gosling and Colonist II took the lead and were in front halfway up the straight.
As the field pelted around the course, Colonist II led at the turn. Charging hard was the King’s Above Board, with W.H. Carr in the saddle, wearing the royal colors of purple with scarlet sleeves and a black cap with gold tassel.
Heading for the winning post, Colonist II was still in the lead, galloping with determination and confidence. Amidst the boisterous cheering of race goers, Churchill’s grey came in first, two lengths ahead of His Majesty’s filly, with Star-Spangled Banner, a black colt, placing third.
That evening, the King sent a telegram to Churchill from Balmoral Castle: “Many congratulations on your win.” Replied Churchill: “I am deeply grateful for your Majesty’s most kind and gracious telegram.”2 Six days later he wrote to Princess Elizabeth at greater length:
I must thank you Your Royal Highness for so kindly asking me to luncheon with you at Hurst Park last Saturday, and for the gracious congratulations with which you honoured me. I wish indeed that we could both have been victorious—but that would be no foundation for the excitement and liveliness of the Turf.
Believe me, Your Royal Highness’ devoted Servant, Winston S. Churchill3
For Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill—soldier, statesman, biographer, historian, orator, and amateur painter—the “excitement and liveliness of the Turf” began two years earlier in 1949, when at the age of 75 he bought his first racehorse, Colonist II. (For an overview of his horse racing experiences see Katharine Thomson, “Racing to Victory: Churchill and The Lure of the Turf,” Finest Hour 102.)
One of the most popular and remarkable horses of his era, the French-bred thoroughbred won thirteen of twenty-four races and placed in five others, all in distances between one and two and one-quarter miles. Beloved by Churchill and thousands of admirers for his courage and steadfastness, Colonist II was known for preferring always to race in front of his competition and never seemed to know when he was licked—which drew comparisons to his indomitable master.
Colonist II also figured in many political jokes because of his preference to turn right, a direction that reflected the political doctrine of Churchill’s Conservative Party. Churchill himself was wont to join the humor. After one unsuccessful appearance he told the press that he had promised Colonist that a win would guarantee that he would “spend the rest of his life in agreeable female company.…Colonist could not keep his mind on the race.”4
After the Conservative Party was defeated by Labour in 1945, relegating the great war premier to a mere Leader of the Opposition, Churchill became bored with the social and economic issues of domestic politics. His son-in-law Christopher Soames, who had married his youngest daughter Mary, thought his father-in-law needed a new interest.
An opportunity presented itself to Soames that year when Epsom veterinarian Major Anthony Carey-Foster saw an awkward-looking colt run a seven furlong race at Le Tremblay in France. Impressed that the big grey came in second despite being in less than top condition, Carey-Foster learned that Colonist had been bred in France by M.E. Nominee. His sire was Nienzo, his dam Cybele by Château Bouscaut. Nienzo had won races in Egypt and France, but Cybele had never won.
Although Colonist II had twice run without placing a year earlier, Carey-Foster thought the three-year-old had shown potential, and bought the colt for Epsom trainer Walter Nightingall, who showed him to Soames, an ardent horseman. Thinking about his father-in-law, Soames talked Churchill into buying the horse for £2000 ($5600) in the spring of 1949.
The public had its first inkling that Churchill had ventured into horse racing when the Jockey Club publication, T , reported on June 30th that the former PM had registered racing colors: chocolate with pink sleeves and cap. Three weeks later the colors were altered to pink with chocolate sleeves and cap, which matched those once held by his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, a leading race horse owner between 1889 and 1893.5
Not everyone agreed with the decision to buy a race horse; Clementine Churchill expressed grave doubts. Unperturbed, Churchill went ahead anyway. T. Hawcroft was the jockey at Colonist’s debut in Churchill colors, at the Upavon Stakes (one mile) at Salisbury on 25 August 1949. Visitors to the track that day were interested in what they termed the “Tory double,” including Churchill’s and another horse named “Conservative.”
Although Churchill was unable to see the race, his son-in-law Christopher Soames recorded the results: “At the start he jumped off in front and…never looked like being caught…. There was a terrific cheer from the crowd when he won—and they all surged forward to see him come in and gave him a wonderful reception.”6
The crowd, who had backed Colonist II at odds of 6 to 4, shouted “Winnie wins!” The other half of the “Tory double,” Conservative, also won a preceding race.
On 11 September 1949 Churchill, who had suffered a minor stroke at Lord Beaverbrook’s Monte Carlo villa in late August, was well enough to see Colonist II win in the Lime Tree Stakes (1 1/4 miles) at Windsor, again with Hawcroft in the saddle. Two weeks later, Nightingall was invited to Chartwell, where Churchill asked him to train all of his horses, which had grown in number with the help of his son-in-law. During the next fifteen years, Nightingall trained seventy winners for Churchill, who during that time owned thirty-six racehorses and twelve brood mares.
On September 22nd, Churchill was at Ascot to watch Colonist II win the one and one-half mile Ribblesdale Stakes. The crowd cheered and applauded loudly and enthusiastically as Colonist crossed the winning post eight lengths ahead. Fans greeted the former Prime Minister at the winner’s enclosure, cheering when he shook hands with Nightingall and Hawcroft.
The correspondent for The Times wrote the next day: “Colonist II is certainly an improving horse. He has now won three races, and none of them more easily than yesterday’s when he was on a tight rein for nearly all the journey. Racegoers are delighted that his eminent owner has entered the turf with the same ready success that he has achieved in all of his many pursuits.”7 Colonist II as a three-year-old ran six times in 1949. He won three races, was second and third once each; in only one race did he fail to place.
Before Colonist’s opening 1950 race, the Salisbury Spring Handicap on 6 April, Churchill and Soames were in the paddock watching the grey being prepared. Disappointingly, the horse finished fourth. Next scheduled was the Winston Churchill Stakes at Hurst Park on 29 April, about which Christopher Soames wrote to his father-in-law:
This will be a very difficult race to win, as he will be competing with the best horses in the world, but bearing in mind the good which the race at Salisbury will have done him, and the fact that he has another fortnight to improve, I am quite sure that he will not be disgraced. He is in my opinion quite good enough to run in such a race, though I do not think it will be a race to bet on him.8
Colonist II did not disgrace himself. With Tommy Gosling the jockey, he finished second behind Wild Mec, a French entry. Wearing a hat and a long coat, Churchill was seen afterwards in the paddock leaning on a cane, head bent and puffing on a cigar, listening attentively as Gosling told him how Colonist II had performed.
The first 1950 win came before a big crowd at Kempton Park’s Victor Wild Stakes on May 14th. At a distance of one and one-half miles, Colonist II showed the stamina and fortitude of a champion. Gosling held off a late charge by Jai Mahal, crossing the winning post for the fourth time in his career. A second victory occurred in the Paradise Stakes at Hurst Park, a distance of one and three-quarter miles.
On 9 July Churchill learned that a thoroughbred owner’s life was not always pleasant. One of his promising two-year-olds, Canyon Kid, died within an hour after breaking a blood vessel during a workout. But less than a week later on July 14th, Colonist II with Gosling aboard won the Sandown July Stayers Stakes at a distance of two miles, the longest route of his career. The colt then ran off successive first-place finishes in the Bentinck Stakes, Goodwood; the Florizel Handicap, Kempton; and the Kensington Palace Stakes, Ascot.
On 11 October 1950 Churchill was elected to the Jockey Club, whose members included King George VI, the Duke of Windsor, and the Duke of Edinburgh. Churchill was gratified with the honor, knowing that seventy years earlier, his father had been a member.
On the day of his election to the Jockey Club, Churchill was in Denmark, where he had been named Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Copenhagen and decorated with Denmark’s highest honor, the Order of the Elephant. The next day, October 12th, the Churchills bade the King and Queen of Denmark farewell and flew to London, where Churchill said good-bye to his wife and took a chartered plane for a quick thirty-minute trip to Newmarket to see Colonist II run in the Lowther Stakes, a distance of 1 3/4 miles.
It was a classic duel. With Tommy Gosling in the saddle, Colonist II led from the gate. The grey’s only challenger at the end was a three-year old brown filly named Plume II, ridden by Lester Piggott. With a 27-pound handicap advantage, Plume II drew up to Colonist II about 150 yards from the winning post and forged ahead by half a length.
“This would have been the end of most races,” wrote the racing correspondent of The Times, “but Colonist II would have none of it. He chased her again and with supreme courage, thrust part of his head in front of the line. The judge gave an immediate decision, and the delighted crowd cheered both owner and horse with the greatest zest.”9
Two weeks later on October 26th, Churchill flew again to Newmarket to watch Colonist II run in the Jockey Club Cup, a stakes race of 2 1/4 miles. Showing he could run at any distance, the colt with Tommy Gosling aboard beat Paso de Calais, a black colt from France, by a length and a half. As Colonist crossed the winning post and trotted to the winner’s enclosure, owner and horse were repeatedly and exuberantly cheered.
Racing journals lauded Colonist and his owner. The Tatler wrote: “…this amazing little grey” had won the Jockey Club Cup “exactly as he had won all his other races, by grit and determination.” Another journal wrote: “The past season will surely go down to history as Colonist’s, for in truth, this tough and indomitable grey horse has performed miracles. No horse in living memory has put up such a sequence of wins in good-class races in one season. Eight wins (six in succession, ending with the Jockey Club Cup), once second and twice fourth in eleven races, reads like something inspired, and that in truth, was just what this horse seemed to be, by the great spirit of his indefatigable owner.”10
Politically, too, Colonist II was far from the liability some had expected. Lord Derby told Churchill lightheartedly that “the Tory cry at the next election would be ‘the Conservatives and Colonist.’”11
Churchill asked Sir Alfred J. Munnings, the renowned equine artist and past President of the Royal Academy, to paint his favorite racehorse. Munnings had seen Colonist run often and thought the animal a “wonder.” Visiting South Hatch Stables at Epsom to see the horse close-up, the artist wrote his observations of the “plain, queer-looking animal….At once we see why he is so sound, why he can be asked to race so often. Note those clean limbs. Study the horse’s points. A good head, a strong jaw, a fair length of neck, the right shoulder and girth, and what a back and loin! But see, what bone! Last, but not least, the horse has the strongest and best of hocks.”
Munnings went on: “I see his wall eye as I write—his galloping action, as he passed me, leading the two French horses in the Jockey Club Cup two days ago. So near the course was I standing between the five-and six-furlong posts that I saw the wall eye fixed on the ultimate goal.”12
As a five-year-old, Colonist II won the Winston Churchill Stakes at Hurst Park, as recounted earlier, to start the 1951 season. Churchill’s colt and the King’s filly met again two weeks later in the White Rose Stakes at Hurst Park for a race of a little more than a mile. Although it looked like Above Board and another challenger, Pan II, would catch and pass Colonist, the grey and Gosling pulled away from them both at the end.
Clementine Churchill was surprised and perplexed by her husband’s keen interest in horse racing, but must have seen that he derived a great deal of happiness from his new hobby. Despite his busy schedule, Churchill often found time to watch Colonist run. Typical was 5 June 1951, when WSC saw the colt run at Kempton Park, and dined at Buckingham Palace that night.
Colonist II finished second in the 1951 Gold Cup at Ascot, and fourth in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, also at Ascot. With Clementine Churchill convalescing in France after surgery, Winston wrote her a letter on events at home on 3 August 1951. His letter opened with news about the horse.
My darling, We had a rotten day at Goodwood. Nightingall should not have proposed running COLONIST only ten days after his effort in the Festival Stakes. He was undoubtedly an overworked horse. Also he lost a shoe early in the race and hurt himself, though not seriously. There is no reproach on him, but undoubtedly, his immediate sale value has been reduced….13
But the loose shoe had cut Colonist’s foreleg more gravely than first thought. Two months later, Walter Nightingall announced that the injury had ended the grey’s racing career, and he would be retired. Meanwhile, events on the political stage were demanding more of Churchill’s time as the nation moved toward the General Election. On October 25th the Conservatives narrowly defeated Labour, and Winston Churchill became Prime Minister for the second time, serving until 1955.
Although Churchill’s energies as Prime Minister upon taking office refocused on political issues, he found time to watch his horses and to discuss them with Soames, Foster-Carey, and Nightingall. It is said that when Nightingall suggested that Churchill put Colonist II out to stud, Churchill vetoed the idea: “And have it said that the Prime Minister of Great Britain is living on the immoral earnings of a horse?”14
In December 1951 Churchill offered Colonist II at the Newmarket bloodstock sales. The now-stallion had run in twenty-three races, winning thirteen and placing in five, earning about £13,000 ($36,400) in purses. On the same day a two-year-old filly, Pol Roger, the first horse to run for Churchill since he became Prime Minister, was narrowly beaten at Windsor.
Captain P.G.A. Harvey, who ran a small stud farm at Newmarket, bought Colonist for £7350 ($20,580). With the proceeds of the sale and race purses, Churchill made a profit of nearly £18,000 ($50,400).
Churchill had six other thoroughbreds at the time of Colonist II’s sale, and would enjoy many more triumphs on the turf, but Colonist II had a special place in his memory. His doctor Lord Moran, visiting the PM after his stroke in mid-1953, noted that a painting of the horse decorated his bedroom, alongside a print of the King and Queen.15
Evidently reconsidering the value of his horses’ immoral earnings, WSC acquired a small stud farm at Newchapel Green, Lingfield, Surrey, not far from Chartwell. Major Anthony Carey-Foster, who had first seen Colonist II in France, managed the farm. (On Churchill’s death Newchapel Stud was purchased by E. L. Knight, who, with the permission of Lady Churchill, renamed it the Churchill Stud.)
Among Churchill’s breeding successes at Newchapel was Le Pretendant, Colonist II’s half-brother, who won the Churchill Stakes and ran in the Washington International. Another thoroughbred, High Hat, won the Ali Khan International Gold Cup at Kempton, and a third horse, Vienna, took the Prix Ganay in France.
Although not bred by Churchill, his filly Dark Issue gave him a victory in the 1955 Irish 1000 Guineas, a race politics forced him to miss: “The General Election was my owner, and I was already entered among the runners.”16
Over the next nine years, ill health curbed Churchill’s attendance at racecourses. In 1964 at the age of 89, a year before his death, WSC wrote a last letter to his trainer Walter Nightingall:
It is very sad for me to have to end my racing activities owing to the fact that my health does not allow me to attend race meetings any more. I know that this decision will cause sorrow to you too, since we have had such a long association.
My mind goes back to the Spring of 1949, when Christopher persuaded me to buy COLONIST . He gave us all great excitement and pleasure, and he was also the forerunner of many successes….It doesn’t fall to many people to start a racing career at the age of seventy-five and to reap from it such pleasure.17
1. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill VIII, “Never Despair,” 1945-1965 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988), p. 563.
2. Ibid., p. 613.
4. “Ear Witness” in Kay Halle, Irrepressible Churchill (Cleveland: World Publishing, 1966), p. 285.
5. “Mr. Winston Churchill’s Racing Colours,” The Times, 1 July 1949, p. 6. See also The Times, 22 July 1949, p. 6.
6. Churchill Papers, CHUR 1/46/311-12.
7. “Colonist II Wins at Ascot,” The Times, 23 September 1949, p. 6.
8. Quoted in Gilbert, op. cit. , p. 524 n. 2.
9. “Racing,” The Times, 13 October 1950, p. 7.
10. Gilbert, op. cit. , p. 563 n. 2.
11. Churchill Papers, CHUR 2/162/26-27.
12. Sir Alfred J. Munnings, The Finish, volume III (Devon: Halsgrove, 2001), p.137.
13. Gilbert, op. cit. , p. 627.
14. Gilbert, op. cit. , p. 488 n. 2.
15. Charles Moran, Taken from the Diaries of Lord Moran (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966), p. 448.
16. Churchill Papers, CHUR 1/93/177.
17. Churchill Papers, CHUR 1/158/262.