Sam Chifney & The Escape Scandal
Sam Chifney (1753-1807), at his peak, was the greatest jockey seen on the Turf up to that time. He was the first jockey to introduce riding tactics and became famous for his late ‘Chifney rush’.
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Chifney rode four winners of the Oaks – Ceres (1782), Maid of the Oaks (1783), Tag (1789) and Hippolyta (1790) and the Derby winner Skyscraper (1789), pictured below, with Sam aboard. Note the horse’s clipped ears, which was the fashion at the time.
The Druid describes Chifney in Post and Paddock, “He was about 5ft 5in in height, weighed about 9st 5lb, in the winter months, and could ride, if required for a great race, 7st 12lb to the last. With the exception of Frank Buckle, perhaps no man was so exactly built for his profession.”
Chifney was a dandy in appearance; curls framed his face from under his jockey’s cap and he wore bunches of ribbons on the tops of his riding boots. Whilst there was never any doubt about his ability in the saddle, his race riding was sometimes open to suspicion.
On Thursday, 20th October, 1791 at Newmarket, in what was to become known as “The Escape Scandal”, Chifney rode the 6-y-o Escape, for the Prince of Wales (later King George IV).
Escape, by Highflyer out of a Squirrel mare, was at the time thought by Chifney, “Much the best horse in England”, however, with 8 st 4 lb over two miles (Ditch-in), starting at odds of 1-2, he finished last of four to Mr Dawson’s Coriander.
The following day, against similar opposition, Escape (pictured aside), carried 8 st 13 lb, over an extended 4 miles (Beacon Course) and completely reversing the form, won at 5-1. Accusations that Chifney had pulled Escape the first time to get better odds the next day were commonplace, some suggesting that the Prince was aware of the plan. However, when summoned before the Stewards of the Jockey Club, Chifney claimed that Escape, untried for two weeks, needed the first race ‘to clear his pipes’ for the next day. He therefore, had no bet on him the first time, but 20 guineas the next day, when unbeknown to him two rouges of the ring had seen to it that Escape was over fed on the day of the race. On course, the rouges took much of the Escape money pushing out the price to 5-1 in spite of the Prince’s hefty wager.
In investigating Chifney’s account of the proceedings, I have to say he comes out more sinned against than sinned.
Nevertheless, the Stewards refused to accept his explanation and treated the case as yet another example of the jockey’s dishonesty. Sir Charles Bunbury, the senior steward, then informed the Prince of Wales that if he continued to engage Chifney, no gentleman would start against him. Soon after, rather than make Chifney a scapegoat, the Prince gave up racing and sold his horses. Even so, he continued to pay Chifney’s £200 annuity, telling him: “You have been a good and honest servant to me.”
In 1795, Chifney published his autobiography Genius Genuine, in which he describes his slack rein method of riding “as if you had a silken rein as fine as hair, and that you were afraid of breaking it…..This is a true way a horse should be held fast in running.”
Samuel Chifney married the daughter of Newmarket trainer, Frank Smallman; they had two sons, William, who owned and trained the great Priam to win the Derby in 1830 and Samuel, who rode nine Classic winners, including the Derby winners Sam(1818) and Sailor (1820). They also had four daughters, one of whom married a Mr Weatherby of Newmarket and another, the Newmarket trainer Butler, to become the mother of the Triple Crown winning jockey, Frank Butler (West Australian 1853).
Chifney left Newmarket for London in 1800. Six years later, pursude by creditors, he sold the Prince’s annuity for £1,260.
However, having invented and patented a bit for horses, he proposed, “If the Jockey Club will be pleased to give me 200 guineas, I will make them a bridle as I believe never was, and I believe never can be, excelled, for their light weights to hold horses from running away.” The Jockey Club refused and going alone he became indebted to the saddler, Latchford, for £350. Ironically, the bit named after him is still in use today.
Imprisioned for many years as a debtor in Fleet Prison, when released, he moved to a humble dwelling in Fleet Lane opposite the prison, where he died on 8 January 1807, aged 52.
Escape, went on to win 11 races and became a prominent sire. As a footnote, when an unruly yearling, kicking out in his box, he got his foot wedged between the boards. Bravely his groom released him uninjured, giving rise to his name Escape.