On a spring afternoon in 1921 a horse owner named Jack Joel and his trainer, Charles Morton, waited tensely at England's historic Newmarket Race Course for the running of the Two Thousand Guineas Stakes. Entered in the mile race, a traditional stepping-stone to Epsom Downs and "The Derby," was Joel's 3-year-old colt Humorist. A handsome chestnut by Polymelus out of Jest, the colt finished second in the 1920 Middle Park Stakes as a 2-year-old and seemed at that time to possess the qualities of a Derby horse. But at 3 Humorist had gone unaccountably wrong, alternating dull and brilliant performances until his owner was about ready to present him to some young lady as a saddle horse. Before he did, however, Morton persuaded Joel to see if he could get the famous jockey Steve Donoghue to ride Humorist in the Two Thousand Guineas. Donoghue, the winning rider in the 1915 and 1917 Derbies, was reportedly seeking a mount for the 1921 classic and might well be interested in Humorist. As it turned out, he was. Indeed Donoghue welcomed the chance to solve the riddle of the fractious colt's in-and-out performances and perhaps gain himself a Derby mount.
At Newmarket they put it all to the test. Donoghue got Humorist away to a winging start. He kept the colt handily in front until the last 16th, when Humorist began to labor and fade. When their horse finished third, Joel and Morton were disgusted; Donoghue, however, felt differently about the animal. Though Humorist had lost a race, he had gained a friend.
Disgruntled bettors promptly branded the colt a quitter, an opinion reluctantly shared by his owner and trainer, but Donoghue disagreed. "Humorist is no quitter," insisted the jockey. "Something is wrong with this colt. I don't know what it could be. He didn't show any signs of injury. He had the race won and then just ran out of petrol. Let's have the vet look him over."
The stable veterinarian found nothing wrong with Humorist except that he was rather seriously underweight. He recommended a lighter training schedule, an extra grain ration in the morning and hot bran mash at night. Care, he said, should also be taken that the colt did not become chilled and thereby risk catching a cold.
With the Derby only three weeks off and Humorist his sole eligible starter, Joel held anxious council with Morton and Donoghue. The latter, still believing in Humorist, was all for allowing the colt to start in the Derby—but only if he trained well and looked fit at post time. And so Morton trained Humorist lightly, gave him his extra food rations and kept him in the barn on cold rainy days. At night the grooms checked every hour to make sure the colt didn't shed his stable blanket. Humorist responded to the careful handling with a series of dazzling works. "He's got it now!" exulted Donoghue to Morton after a swift ride aboard the little chestnut on the training strip at ancient Newmarket Heath. "He finished the mile with plenty left and begging to run."
Morton shrugged. "I hope you're right," he said. "But he still has a week to go."
On Derby Day, Epsom Downs was clear and bright, and the vast crowd in a holiday mood. Best of all, Humorist seemed in top form.
"He had gained a little weight and looked extremely fit," wrote Donoghue later. "He nipped at my arm before we went to the post as if he were trying to tell me he was all right. He had never done that before, and so I took it as an omen of victory." But long-memoried bettors, burned at Newmarket, did not share his optimism and allowed the little chestnut to go off at longish odds of 6 to 1.
Donoghue's prerace plan that day was to conserve his mount's questionable stamina by carefully timing his every move, and the jockey was later to call this "my greatest ride." Many of England's top horsemen agreed.
Steve held Humorist off the lead for eight furlongs of the approximately 1� mile course. Here, Epsom Downs levels out after a brief downhill run, and now the Derby begins to exact its toll and, as the punters say, "The colts are separated from the horses."