Queen Elizabeth II: A Life with Horses

September 15th, 2022

The announcement of Queen Elizabeth II’s passing on September 8 was a reminder of the inevitability of life and the expansive influence of England’s longest reigning monarch. As the world took in the news, memories of the person she was flooded in: her grace over her seventy years as the head of the country’s constitutional monarchy, her sense of humor, and her love of family were cited over and over as condolences poured in from across the globe. Among those mourning her passing was the sport of horse racing, who remember Queen Elizabeth for her skills in the saddle, her passion for breeding, and her affinity for the racetrack.

A Family Famous for Horses

Decades before she was crowned as Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was a little girl with a pony named Peggy. The Shetland was a gift from her grandfather, King George V, on the occasion of her fourth birthday. The young princess had started riding lessons at age three and the gift of her own pony gave the future monarch the opportunity to hone her riding skills. By her teenage years, Princess Elizabeth was a consummate equestrienne who won the Pony and Dogcart class at the first Royal Windsor Horse Show at age 17. She would continue to ride throughout her life, appearing in royal processions like the Trooping of the Colour and pleasure riding at Windsor Castle.

She came by her love of horses honestly, regularly joining her father King George VI on horseback alongside her sister Princess Margaret. After her father’s death in 1952 and her own coronation as Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, the new monarch continued her family’s investment in equine pursuits. Over her lifetime, the Queen personally owned at least a hundred horses and bred many more, advocating for Britain’s native breeds, including Shetland, Fell, and Highland ponies. She encouraged her children to continue the family’s passion for horses, with her daughter Anne and granddaughter Zara most notably following in her footsteps.

As the Queen’s second child and only daughter, Princess Anne knew that pursuing a career outside her royal duties was not an option to her. Like her mother the Queen and her father Prince Phillip, the princess felt at home on the back of a horse, taking riding lessons from her earliest years and continuing through her years of education. Once she graduated, Anne pursued eventing as a respite from her royal duties, winning the 1971 European Eventing Championships aboard her beloved gelding Doublet. She went on to compete as part of the British team at the 1976 Olympics, though her time was marked by a tumble and a concussion. Princess Anne continued riding well into her later years, even riding in this year’s Platinum Jubilee edition of the Trooping of the Colour alongside her brother Prince Charles and her nephew Prince William.

Following the example of her grandmother and mother, Princess Anne’s daughter Zara Tindall has carved out an equine career of her own. She won an individual gold medal at the 2006 World Equestrian Games and later competed as part of the British equestrian team at the 2012 London Olympics, winning a silver medal on her horse High Kingdom. Tindall continues to ride competitively while also raising her family with husband Mike Tindall. Their daughter Mia appears poised to continue the equestrienne tradition within the House of Windsor, another generation finding a home on the back of a horse.

Photo courtesy of ascot.co.uk

A Racing Queen

In addition to her fondness for riding, Queen Elizabeth II had a lifelong love of racing, another passion she inherited from earlier generations. Her great-grandfather King Edward VII had bred Epsom Derby champions Persimmon and Diamond Jubilee, who then became a Triple Crown winner as well. At age twelve, she joined her father King George VI in touring the Royal Stud at Sandringham and was able to quote one mare’s pedigree when racing manager Captain Charles Moore drew a blank. That prodigious knowledge at such a young age was a preview of not only the monarch to come, but also of the owner and breeder she became over her long life.

Upon her father’s passing, Elizabeth pledged to continue the racing stable, which counted Captain Cecil Boyd-Rochfort, who prepared Triple Crown winner Omaha for his turn in the 1936 Ascot Gold Cup, as its trainer. Her horse Aureole finished second in the 1953 Epsom Derby and later won the Coronation Cup also at Epsom, the Hardwicke Stakes at Royal Ascot, and most notably the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, a race named after her parents.

The Queen got her first English classic win with Carrozza in the 1957 Epsom Oaks and then added a Two Thousand Guineas courtesy of Pall Mall the following year. She also won the One Thousand Guineas and Prix de Diane, the French equivalent of the Oaks with Highclere in 1974, and the Oaks and St. Leger Stakes with Dunfermline in 1977.

In total, Queen Elizabeth II won all of the English classics except the Epsom Derby, falling short twice. In addition to Aureole’s second-place finish in the 1953 edition came Carlton House’s turn in that classic in nearly six decades later. Sent off as the favorite, Carlton House carried the Queen’s colors, purple jacket with gold braid, red sleeves and a black velvet cap with a gold fringe, to a third-place finish in 2011. However, the Queen’s biggest victory was yet to come.

The Queen attended every major racing day that she could throughout her seventy years on the throne, rarely missing a Derby Day at Epsom or a day of Royal Ascot. In 2013, she was on hand for Ladies’ Day at Royal Ascot, with the Ascot Gold Cup that day’s feature. Clad in the royal silks, Ryan Moore rode the filly Estimate to a neck victory over Simenon, giving the Queen her 71st win at Royal Ascot. Her look of delight as her horse held on for victory and then as the Queen received the trophy from her son Prince Andrew in the winner’s enclosure showed just how much the win meant to this lifelong lover of the sport.

She not only raced Thoroughbreds, but also bred them, sharing her philosophy on the pursuit: "I enjoy breeding a horse that is faster than other people's," she was once quoted as saying. The Queen was a patron of the Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association and maintained the Royal Stud at their Sandringham Estate as her father had. She regularly visited with her horses, inspecting them as foals at the Royal Stud, as yearlings at Polhampton Stud, and then as members of the barns of the various trainers she engaged, including Sir Michael Stoute and John Gosden.

Queen Elizabeth II marked her years of service to the United Kingdom with visits from heads of state, travels around the world, and more, but of all of those duties many of her biggest smiles came whenever she could be around a horse.

A Connection Beyond Time

In her final days, the Queen’s connection to racing remained in the forefront. Two days after her passing, the gelding West Newton, bred by Queen Elizabeth II, won a race at Pimlico, his victory a fitting tribute to this patron of the sport. West Newton also shared another special connection with the late monarch: she also bred his dam Queen’s Prize. In 2021, she enjoyed a successful season as an owner, winning thirty-six races. Her final winner came Tuesday, September 6, when Love Affairs won a two-year-old race at Goodwood.

As remembrances of the late monarch came in from across the world, details of her visits to Kentucky were part of the conversation here. When she visited in 1984, she toured several farms around the Lexington area, including Lane’s End, Gainesway, and Claiborne. She inspected multiple stallions as potential matches for her own bloodstock and attended races at Keeneland. The Queen made four more trips to the Bluegrass, taking in Street Sense’s win in the 2007 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs during her final visit to the area. Those visits leave racing fans with warm memories of not only the late monarch, but also the lifelong horsewoman that she was.

In 1953, as she prepared to follow in her beloved father’s footsteps and assume the throne, the Queen appeared distracted as she prepared for the ceremony. One of her ladies-in-waiting asked her if she was all right, to which the new monarch replied, "Oh yes, the Captain has just rung up to say that Aureole went really well.” Even as she faced the awesome responsibility of leading a nation, as a lifetime of duty lay before her, the consummate equestrienne Queen Elizabeth II was thinking of her horses.