Think of the most popular racehorse of your lifetime – not the greatest necessarily, but with the most appeal to the public.
While the answer will depend on how old you happen to be, you are less likely to volunteer Sea the Stars or even Frankel that you will be Denman or Kauto Star, while it’s not much of a stretch to recall the huge appeal of Desert Orchid, or a decade earlier Red Rum, who both opened more betting shops than they won handicaps.
Arkle captured the imagination of an entire nation in the 1960s, but long before Arkle there was Brown Jack, and despite never winning a Classic or a Group 1 – he was ineligible for the former and there was no such thing as the latter in his day – the seven-time Royal Ascot winner was a household name in the true sense of the word. At a time between the wars when Britain was a nation of avid racegoers and horse-lovers, everyone had heard of Brown Jack, and everyone loved him.
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Bred by George Webb in Shinrone, Offaly, Brown Jack was by Jackdaw out of the Kroonstad mare Querquidella. Jackdaw was the winner of the Alexandra Stakes at Ascot in 1912 while Kroonstad was a notably tough and durable winner of the Ascot Derby (Now the King Edward VII Stakes) in 1903. Webb thought his yearling good enough to show, but was disavowed of this notion when his pride and joy was placed last in his class at Birr, possibly as he was notably over at the knee.
He was even less pleased when the apple of his eye failed to attract a bid at Goffs sales in Ballsbridge later in the year, but his sob story found some favour with Marcus Thompson, who viewed the young colt in the unsold pen and decided he had enough about him to be worth buying. He paid the grand sum of £110 for the bay colt and immediately had him gelded, a decision which would have repercussions down the line.
If his original sale owed a little to the chance meeting of Webb and Thompson at Goffs, his next sale was the stuff of fantasy. Charlie Rogers, nicknamed “Romeo” by Dorothy Paget when he became her racing manager, was a young trainer at Balfstown in 1926, but already known as a shrewd judge of a horse. He was on his way to way to saddle a runner at Limerick races when his car broke down near Thompson’s house, and Rogers asked him for a lift.
Driving past the paddock in which Brown Jack was grazing with his donkey companion, Rogers forgot the races and asked Thompson to stop. When he learned that the well-made two-year-old gelding was a son of Jackdaw, who Rogers rated highly as a prospective sire, he determined to buy him, and after some haggling he paid the vendor £275.
Rogers allowed Brown Jack the run of the lush turf at Balfstown rather than attempt to train him as a juvenile, and at the same time bought another two-year-old by Achtoi, called Arctic Star, as a paddock companion. In 1927, having sold Arctic Star to Epsom trainer Victor Tabor, Rogers decided to give Brown Jack a run or two for experience.
He finished last of all in the six furlong Meath Plate at Navan in May, and was again unplaced at Phoenix Park the following month over five furlongs, but he wasn’t bred for speed, and his trainer liked what he saw, and immediately wrote to leading Wiltshire-based trainer the Hon. Aubrey Hastings, telling him that he had a promising young horse which Hastings was sure to buy.
Sure enough, Hastings – who had been tasked by Sir Harold Wernher to find a horse to win the newly-launched Champion Hurdle – was sufficiently impressed by the demeanour and looks of Brown Jack that he agreed to pay £750, with a contingency of £50 should the horse win a race. So it was that Brown Jack left Ireland for Wroughton in Wiltshire, and set in motion one of the most remarkable careers of the century.
Brown Jack was not typical of the Gold Cup and Grand National prospects who made up much of the famous Hastings string, and while he was hardly an ugly duckling, he was small and relatively unfit when he arrived, and was assigned to Alfie Garratt to look after purely because no-one else would have him, and he and Garratt would be an item throughout the horse’s career.
Brown Jack fell sick soon after his arrival at Wroughton, but with the help of the restorative properties of eggs, beer and whiskey, he recovered well enough to make his debut over hurdles at Bournemouth in September, and racing over 1½ miles, he finished third before winning his next five races which came in the space of 11 weeks.
Once again he came down with a high fever, and off until February, he was unfit when beaten at Newbury before winning his sixth race of the season at Leicester in late-February. He was second to Peace River on his final prep run at Lingfield the weekend before the Cheltenham Festival, but turned the tables in the Champion Hurdle, beating Peace River into second with favourite Blaris, the winner of the inaugural Champion Hurdle in 1927, six lengths back in third.
It is said that Brown Jack never touched a hurdle at home or on the racecourse, but despite his impeccable jumping, he never faced an obstacle again after that Cheltenham success in 1928. One of those who gathered to watch Brown Jack unsaddled after his big win was the legendary Flat-race jockey Steve Donoghue. “Well,” asked Hastings to Donoghue after the race. “Do you think he could win on the Flat?” The reply was in the affirmative, and Donoghue added: “And I’ll ride him!” So was a great partnership formed.
One thing to remember about Ascot in the days before WWII, is that there was just one meeting a year at the course, and no jumps track, so it is truly remarkable that Brown Jack managed to race as many as 11 times at the track, and since Ascot was synonymous with not only racing, but royalty and high society, it was natural that a horse who could turn up 11 times to compete at the season’s primary fixture would become popular with the public. So long as he could run, of course.
A horse of real intelligence and perhaps a little haughtiness, Brown Jack refused to exert himself on the gallops, but came alive when boxed up to go racing, to the extent that Hastings had to box him off to unfamiliar gallops to get him fit, and used to plan phantom trips to the races just to get the gelding’s blood pumping.
When he was called on to race, he always put on a show, from paddock to winning post, seeming more aware of his role and status than a mere racehorse ought to be. His immediate popularity stemmed from his innate curiosity; he was interested in what was happening around him, but not at all abashed by the crowds who thronged to see him. They, in their turn were taken by his gentle demeanour and took him easily into their affections.
In his first season on the Flat, Brown Jack won at Windsor and Kempton before landing the Ascot Stakes, then a two-mile handicap. He was rested until the Cesarewitch, but showed his dislike for Newmarket (he never won there) by finishing unplaced. The race was won by his old paddock-companion from Balfstown, Arctic Star.
In 1929, Brown Jack was unplaced in his first three starts at up to 1½m. Sadly, Aubrey Hastings died shortly after the last of these runs in May, and Ivor Anthony, his assistant and former champion jump jockey, took over the licence. It isn’t generally noted, although it should be, that much of the responsibility for the operation of the yard fell to Hastings’s widow, Winifred, but as a woman she was not allowed to hold the licence herself, and history does not record her great influence – indeed it barely remembers her name.
The horse provided Anthony and Mrs Hastings with an emotional win in the Salisbury Cup just days after Hastings died, before going on to be a gallant second in the Ascot Stakes to Old Orkney, conceding 10lb. Not done for the week, Brown Jack showed his toughness by making his debut in the Alexandra Stakes on the final day of the meeting, and he justified 2/1 favouritism in the extended 2¾m event by beating his old friend and rival Arctic Star by four lengths. Ten lengths separated second and third, and those few who hadn’t rated Brown Jack before were now aware that he was perhaps the finest stayer in the country. Perhaps, because as a gelding he was prohibited from running in the Gold Cup, and therefore unable to don the champion’s mantle.
The King of Ascot
Between 1929 and 1934, Brown Jack won every running of the Queen Alexandra Stakes (the race was known simply as the Alexandra Stakes until 1930), and it is those victories, and his habit of finishing his races by performing what was described as a “curious little two-step shuffle” by his biographer R C Lyle, and something akin to a victory celebration, which endeared him forever to the public.
He was certainly an Ascot specialist, but when he ran twice at the Royal Meeting, he was always beaten in his first race, and with no other prizes to aim for after June at the Berkshire venue, he had to be effective elsewhere to maintain his reputation. Always burdened with top weight in his races, he was often heroic in defeat, but won the Goodwood Cup and Doncaster Cup in 1930, the Chester Cup with 9st 6lb and the Ebor under 9st 5lb the following year, and several other valuable staying handicaps of the period.
When running in the Queen Alexandra and other conditions races where the fields were likely to be small and the pace not assured, he was accompanied by stable-mate Mail Fist, who was primarily his pacemaker, but also his travelling companion, and the horse he shared his winters with at the Wernher’s estate at Thorpe Lubenham, near Market Harborough.
Today, Brown Jack’s unfortunate gelding would be no bar to his participation in the Gold Cup, but while his ineligibility for that great race leaves something of a mark on his legacy, he undeniably showed when racing against Gold Cup horses that we would have won that race with a modicum of luck could he have tried.
In the 1931 Chester Cup, he beat Trimdon giving him 6lb before that horse won the Gold Cup, and was ahead of him again in the Goodwood Cup at level weights. He was beaten more than once by 1933 Gold Cup winner Foxhunter in the 1932 season, but was conceding that horse a massive 34lb in the Gold Vase and Doncaster Cup, being beaten four lengths on the second occasion, and he was well ahead of Foxhunter when the pair met in the Goodwood Cup the following year, albeit with the latter picking up an injury.
Icon of the 30s
So there was no Gold Cup to crown Brown Jack’s achievements, but his place in the affections of the public was assured, and that is probably best demonstrated by the fact that on the Friday of the 1934 Royal Ascot Meeting, the newspaper headlines read simply: BROWN JACK TODAY 4:30.
Everyone knew the script, and none more so than Brown Jack, who played his part to perfection as he stretched away to beat Solatium for his sixth win in the race he had made his own. On his return, huge crowds lined the path from the course to the unsaddling enclosure, all wanting a view of their hero, and most who were able trying to pat him as he passed, with many getting the prize of a hair or two from his tail. Police made an impromptu guard of honour for the horse and the man who had ridden him to the vast majority of his successes.
To heighten the sense of occasion, Brown Jack refused to re-enter the paddock while the crowds were still rushing back to see him take his rightful place. It might have been simple recalcitrance, but R C Lyle among others was convinced that the great horse was just waiting for his adoring public to take their places before he made his own grand entrance. And so he walked calmly into Ascot’s place of honour for the seventh time in a little over six years, his head held high and his ears pricked as if the final chapter of this story was one he had written himself.
Dear old Mail Fist was there to the end, but after many miles setting an honest pace in all conditions for his stablemate, he had finally had enough, and came back to unsaddle hopping lame. Neither he nor Brown Jack would race again, but they would be able to keep each other company in retirement at Thorpe Lubenham.
Philip Larkin’s poem “At Grass” - reproduced below - was inspired by a newsreel feature on Brown Jack and his companion in retirement, and was written, unknown to the poet, shortly after Brown Jack died at the age of 25 in 1949. Despite his indifference to horse racing, Larkin found himself oddly moved by the short film, and his beautiful, evocative composition makes for a fine epitaph.
The eye can hardly pick them out
From the cold shade they shelter in,
Till wind distresses tail and mane;
Then one crops grass, and moves about
- The other seeming to look on -
And stands anonymous again
Yet fifteen years ago, perhaps
Two dozen distances sufficed
To fable them : faint afternoons
Of Cups and Stakes and Handicaps,
Whereby their names were artificed
To inlay faded, classic Junes -
Silks at the start : against the sky
Numbers and parasols : outside,
Squadrons of empty cars, and heat,
And littered grass : then the long cry
Hanging unhushed till it subside
To stop-press columns on the street.
Do memories plague their ears like flies?
They shake their heads. Dusk brims the shadows.
Summer by summer all stole away,
The starting-gates, the crowd and cries -
All but the unmolesting meadows.
Almanacked, their names live; they
Have slipped their names, and stand at ease,
Or gallop for what must be joy,
And not a fieldglass sees them home,
Or curious stop-watch prophesies :
Only the grooms, and the grooms boy,
With bridles in the evening come.
Champion Hurdle (1928)
Ascot Stakes (1928)
Queen Alexandra Stakes (1929, 1930, 1931, 1932, 1933, 1934)
Goodwood Cup (1930)
Doncaster Cup (1930)
Chester Cup (1931)
Ebor Handicap (1931)