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The Epsom Derby of 100 years ago was one of the most dramatic in the often-lurid history of Britain's most famous horse race. In this excerpt from "The Pocket Venus" by Henry Blyth, to be published here this month by Walker and Company, we meet Harry, fourth Marquis of Hastings, and Henry Chaplin, both dashing young gentlemen of London society. The two have been enemies ever since Hastings eloped with Chaplin's fianc�e, Florence Paget, a beautiful girl with a tiny but exquisite figure whom the tabloids nicknamed the Pocket Venus. This rivalry extended to racing, in which both men were deeply interested and involved and, in the spring of 1867, it focused on Hermit, a chestnut colt owned by Chaplin and a likely prospect for the 88th running of the Derby.
Harry Hastings began the racing season of 1867 with an ever-deepening resentment against Hermit. Henry Chaplin began it with an ever-increasing optimism about him. Both were thus at a disadvantage, for to be prejudiced against a horse in racing is as harmful to detached assessment as to be biased in his favor.
Yet Henry Chaplin had good reason for his optimism. As trainer at Bedford Cottage he had Old Bloss, who understood the well-being of horses and who could be relied upon to attend to all their needs. As manager there was Captain Machell, who understood all the intricacies of the racing scene. A Newmarket man who was already a part of Newmarket life—shrewd, knowledgeable and modern in his methods—Machell realized that he had a potential Derby winner in his care, and he understood that there could be no rest and no relaxation in stable vigilance until the Derby was past.
Then there was the jockey. Harry Custance had been signed on as first jockey to the stable at an annual retaining fee of �525, a large sum for a jockey in those days. He was young, he rode with dash and brilliance and he had already proved himself to be an Epsom jockey by his victories in the Derbies of 1860 and 1866. He was honest and intelligent and, whereas his honesty would prevent him from being bribed, his intelligence would convince him of the need for doing his utmost for an owner who was known to be grateful and generous to those who served him well.
Custance was a strong and determined rider, and this was at once his virtue and his failing. With a lazy horse, who was reluctant to give of his best, Custance was seen to great advantage, but he lacked gentleness and sympathy. A nervous horse could be frightened by Harry Custance; and a high-spirited one could resent this domination from the saddle.
Finally, there was Hermit himself, the pride of Bedford Cottage and the colt in whom Chaplin, Machell, Old Bloss and most of Newmarket itself began to place their hopes by the spring of 1867. By this time he had grown and thickened into an impressive animal of unmistakable class—a rich, red chestnut with just a trace of white on his forehead, standing a little over 15.2 hands. His hindquarters suggested all the power that characterized the Newminster stock. His action was light and easy, although in his slow paces he was apt to move with a rather listless air, as though indifferent to exertion unless it contained the urgency of speed and conquest.
His temperament was amiable, gentle, honest and proud. But he was apt to become excitable before the start of a race and, being headstrong and determined, he resented restraint when eager to give of his best. He had style and class, and what Charles James Fox used to refer to in the Latin term argutus, suggesting as it did the poetry of grace in motion.
Captain Machell and Henry Chaplin had first "asked Hermit a question" early one cold December morning in 1865 when they had galloped him over Newmarket Heath by Bury Hill. They had matched him then against a filly, also by Newminster, named Problem, whom Chaplin had bought with Hermit. She was thought to be useful, and they had set Hermit to give her 35 pounds over a distance of half a mile. He had won that trial by two lengths, and it was then, in the cold and misty air of midwinter, with the Derby still a year and a half away, that Henry Chaplin had begun to hope.
From then on Chaplin and Machell began to back Hermit in earnest. The ramifications of these Derby wagers of theirs are hard to disentangle. Each was forever on the lookout for a prospective layer who would oblige him by offering attractive odds. It was a period in which a great deal of betting was still carried out between gentlemen, without recourse to the Ring, the bookmakers at the track. This, in theory, had the advantage of being a gentleman's agreement and therefore sacrosanct, but in fact the members of the Ring often proved more reliable in settlement than the young bucks of the gentry and aristocracy.
During Hermit's 2-year-old season, in 1866, Captain Machell was drinking one evening with some racing friends in Long's Hotel, one of the several fashionable meeting places of the sporting fraternity in the Bond Street area. Taking advantage of the prevailing mood of jovial expansion, Machell took out his betting book and invited any sportsman present who was in the mood for a gamble to lay him 20 to 1 against Hermit in the Derby and suggested a bet of �20,000 to �1,000. After some hesitation, the bet was accepted.