Tudor Minstrel’s Year
A short Story from Ripping Gambling Yarns
Tales of a Misspent Youth
One summer holiday of which I have a vivid recollection was in 1947, known in racing circles as ‘Tudor Minstrel’s year’.
Travelling from Woking to East Wittering by train and taxi, Mum, Dad and I, together with my Grandmother (Nan) and her sister Kate, settled into a smallish bungalow, just off the main road a few minutes walk from the sea, shops and the Royal Oak.
Holidays then ran from mid-day Saturday to Saturday, and the last Saturday of our fortnight was Derby Day. This was the first peacetime Derby run on a Saturday and the date, June 7, was therefore not known to my parents at the time of booking, but they were soon made aware of this oversight by my constant protests. For not only would I miss seeing the race, but our return train schedule meant I would also, in these pre-transistor days, be unable to hear the radio commentary.
Nevertheless, every morning I would get up early to walk our terrier Judy to the Newsagents for the papers. Back at the bungalow I would cut out all the news and photographs of the Derby horses, in particular from the Daily Graphic which had a photograph and form guide to a different Derby contender every day. These I pasted into a scrapbook with loving care.
At this time it seemed almost everyone had a shilling each-way on their fancy in the Derby. But since betting was then illegal, unless on the course or with a credit account, our family and everyone we knew placed their bets through an assortment of bookies runners, milkmen, hairdressers and publicans.
Gordon Richards, then the perennial champion jockey, had ridden the winners of every Classic race except the Derby. Having continually chosen the ‘wrong horse’ when his retaining stable had more than one runner, he was thought by the superstitious to have a Derby jinx.
This year however, was deemed to be ‘Gordon’s year’, for his Derby mount was the brilliant Tudor Minstrel. Top of the Free Handicap the year before, Tudor Minstrel had recently won the Two Thousand Guineas by eight lengths in a canter from Saravan and Sayajirao.
On reaching the age of 11 earlier that year, I had got a job as a newspaper boy, and remembered the headlines ‘Horse of the Century,’ with further superlatives written around photographs of Tudor Minstrel, with arrows pointing to various parts of his anatomy.
Now certain to start at odds-on for the Derby, stories abounded about punters who had waded in to win fortunes before the Guineas. And such was the charisma that surrounded the horse and the Derby of that year, that 30 years later, after having my appendix removed, the man in the next hospital bed told me that he had taken 7-1 to a week’s wages about the horse, more than a year before the event.
All this hype however, had made very little impression on Aunty Kate, who insisted that Saravan would turn the tables on Gordon. Mum liked to back a grey, so chose Migoli, Dad followed the Australian jockey Edgar Britt and hoped Sayajirao would win. Nan fancied the Irish horse Grand Weather, on the grounds it had been the hottest week of the year, with people frying eggs on the pavement!
It was also decided that the dog should not be left out of the excitement and Merry Quip was chosen to be her runner. As we would not be back in time to get our bets on with our local hairdresser, a shilling sweep was arranged. But due to the considered reasoning that had gone into our selections, everyone wanted to keep the horse they had chosen, rather than risk the hazards of an orthodox sweep. And in view of my protest at missing the race, I was allowed to have Tudor Minstrel, but I had to put in the dog’s shilling to level up the odds.
The holiday continued in the usual tradition with trips to the beach where I played French cricket, made sandcastles and splashed about in a car-tyre’s inner tube for, despite the patient efforts of my father, I never learned to swim.
Returning to the bungalow in the evening, Mum and Nan would cook up some beans on toast, followed by tea and cakes. Dad and I would wash up and later a green baize cloth would be thrown over the table for a game of cards or dominoes. Cards were a particular feature of our family evenings, with games such as Whist or Solo and, if there were more than four players, Switch, Newmarket, Race the Ace, Pontoon and Banker. These games were always played for small amounts of money to keep the interest alive.
On this and some other holidays, Auntie Mary, Uncle Henry and Cousin Peter would arrive for the day but stay over-night, sleeping on settees and in arm-chairs, to return the following day. But always there would be cards in the evening.
One morning, Auntie Mary, seeing me pasting cuttings into my scrapbook, asked me who I thought would win the Derby and, on hearing of our sweep, wanted shilling tickets for herself, Henry and Peter. However, on learning that all the fancied horses had already been taken, she had to be persuaded into taking two outsiders for the price of one. She chose the two streets, Tite Street and Castle Street, ahead of Henry who picked two French horses, Cadir and Parisian. Henry had always wanted to go to Paris and, as he was on holiday, thought it a lucky omen.
When Peter, (aged seven), came in from the garden, he was asked to pick two horses from the remaining five.
“I’ll have Firemaster, ’cos I pass the Firestation on the way to school. And has Merry Quip gone?” he chirped.
“Has it?” enquired Mary.
“Yes,” I said, “We picked that one for the dog.”
“Can you change it?” Mary asked anxiously.
“Not really,” I said, “We have written it down now and we don’t want to disappoint her.”
Peter, a stubborn little blighter, wouldn’t budge, for apart from liking the name he had been told at school that Tommy Weston, the jockey, had great faith in the horse. To avoid tears, a compromise was agreed – Peter was to pay sixpence and share Merry Quip with the dog. Further discussions went on when it was known that I had already paid the dog’s stake, but no refunds were made.
As the holiday came to an end, so Derby Day loomed nearer. The cases were packed, Judy given her last walk and the sea was said goodbye to for another year. On the train journey home, no one spoke of the Derby. But from 2.30 onwards, I began checking the time at ten-minute intervals, imagining first the saddling up, the paddock scene, and then the parade, followed by the canter to the start. As the train pulled into Guildford Station I knew the race was over. I now dreaded overhearing the winner’s name from a passenger’s casual conversation.
On arriving at Woking Station, we took a short taxi ride home. Without any explanation from me or comment from my parents, I asked to be dropped off at Charlie Young’s Hairdresser’s Shop at the corner of our road.
Pushing into the smoke filled back-room where all the bets were taken, I blurted out to Charlie’s wife “Who won the Derby?”
“A French long-shot, Pearl Diver, 40-1,” came the reply.
“Second and third,” I squeaked.
“Migoli and Saya-watsit,” she responded.
“What happened to Gordon?”
“Led at Tattenham but didn’t stay; finished fourth”.
“Charlie won a packet on the race – says there’s a jinx on Richards in the Derby!”
For those who like a tidy finish, the sweep, not won, (Pearl Diver was the only horse under 200-1 that we hadn’t picked), was carried forward to the following year, when Nan picked and backed the Aga Khan’s My Love at 100-8. As for my torture of missing the Derby, this only recurred twice in the next 53 years.
For more racing history see Michael’s Books for Sale