DAVID ARNOLD - Lillie Langtry’s horses were Lewes winners

Lillie Langtry (known as 'Lily' Langtry in the USA) was fond of racehorses and owned dozens, two of which won races at Lewes.

Lillie Langtry (known as 'Lily' Langtry in the USA) was fond of racehorses and owned dozens, two of which won races at Lewes.

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We are only a week or so away from the 50th anniversary of the closure of Lewes Racecourse.

We are only a week or so away from the 50th anniversary of the closure of Lewes Racecourse.

A painting of Diomed, winner of the very first Epsom Derby in 1780. He was unsuccessful in his very last race which was run at Lewes in 1783.

A painting of Diomed, winner of the very first Epsom Derby in 1780. He was unsuccessful in his very last race which was run at Lewes in 1783.

The actual closure date of Sunday September 14 will be marked with a number of events in Lewes and at the site of the course on the Downs to the north west of the town. There will also be an exhibition of Lewes Racecourse memorabilia in the White Hart on Saturday September 13. I’m sure full details of what’s going on will be reported on other pages in the Sussex Express.

So I thought it more apt for me to take a different tack in highlighting some of the fascinating history attached to Lewes Racecourse. In particular I have been amazed to discover just how international was the trade in racehorses even as long ago as the 18th century. Here are just a few stories concerning thoroughbreds with Lewes connections that made journeys of epic proportions just to get to and from a starting post or stud farm.

Diomed was the winner of the very first Epsom Derby in 1780. He won 11 of his 19 starts and was in the first three in all but one of his races. That race turned out to be his last and was run at Lewes in 1783 where he was unplaced after pulling up lame.

Owned by Sir Charles Bunbury, founder of the Classic race The Oaks, Diomed was just six when he was retired to stud where he failed to make a big impression, causing his stud fee to fluctuate somewhat. At age 21 he was sold to agents in the USA looking for British stallions to support an American breeding programme. Following an Atlantic crossing he was stabled at Bowling Green, Virginia.

In America Diomed’s fortunes took an unlikely turn for the better and he went on to found a robust and lasting American equine dynasty. When, at the venerable age of 31, Diomed died he was declared a national hero; one US newspaper reported: “there was as much mourning over his demise as there was at the death of George Washington”. Bowling Green today is considered the “cradle of American horse racing”.

Another horse that clocked up an impressive record of sea miles was the Australian-bred Merman. Owned by the celebrated music hall singer, actress and Royal favourite Lillie Langtry, Merman became an impressive winner of the Cesarewitch (prize money £120,000), Ascot Gold Cup, Goodwood Cup and Jockey Club Cup. He also won the prestigious Lewes Handicap in 1897. The Field magazine reported that Merman, as in the tradition of Australia, ran without plates (shoes) therefore finding himself instantly familiar with the hard ground that was characteristic of the Lewes course.

Lillie Langtry considered Merman the best horse in her large string and even named her cottage in Beaumont, New Jersey, after him. Another of her horses, Uniform, also won at Lewes in 1899. I couldn’t find a record of Lillie being present at a Lewes race meeting but would be surprised if she had not attended as she was known to frequent nearby Brighton.

For a short time Lewes was home to another American horse, Duettiste, who had actually been born in France before “emigrating” to the USA.

Sent over to England in 1922, he trained on the Lewes gallops but never raced on the course. That was because he was a champion steeplechaser and winner of the American Grand National.

In Lewes he was under the care of Harry Escott, considered to be England’s best trainer of jump horses. Duettiste’s target was the English Grand National but in the end he didn’t run in that year. The horse won a major race at Kempton and went on to take part in the National in 1923 but unfortunately fell at the third fence. Taken back across the Atlantic he soon resumed winning ways and is lauded as the best steeplechaser the USA has ever produced.

If you would like to find out more about the county town’s equine history I very much recommend you buy a copy of Cheryl Lutring’s excellent book “Lewes Racecourse: A Legacy Lost?”. Copies are on sale in Lewes Tourism Information Centre at £10.