Tall Tales of the Track: And the Winner Is…

March 12th, 2023

The 100th running of the Derby at Epsom came down to a head. Bend Or, the Duke of Westminster’s good colt by Doncaster, won in the race’s final strides, as he chased down Robert the Devil to score the classic victory.

It was a glorious triumph for the Duke, who would go on to win the Derby three more times. For the connections of Robert the Devil, the defeat snatched from the jaws of victory stung, but rumors about the true identity of the horse that beat them gave them hope that perhaps the win could be theirs anyway.

Rumor had it that it was not Bend Or who ran down Robert the Devil at Epsom, but a horse named Tadcaster, an accusation of mistaken identity that was resolved more than a century later.

A Tale of Two Colts

The Duke of Westminster, an avid horseman and member of the House of Lords, established his breeding farm at Eaton Stud, standing two or three stallions and keeping around 20 mares. He purchased Doncaster, the 1873 Derby winner, after the stallion’s retirement and stood him at Eaton. The Duke paired his mare Rouge Rose, a daughter of 1860 Derby winner Thormanby, with his new stallion and got the colt he named Bend Or.

That same year, another Eaton mare, Clemence, foaled a colt by Doncaster, whom the Duke named Tadcaster. Clemence was the daughter of Newminster, sire of classic winners Hermit and Lord Clifden, and she produced other good horses like Sandiway and Mersey, dam of the Antipodean all-time great Carbine. Whereas Bend Or was a golden chestnut, Tadcaster was a reddish one. Bend Or had distinctive black spots in his coat while Tadcaster had one black spot on his hindquarters. Both colts were sent first to Barrows for breaking before going on to Russley, where trainer Robert Porter would prepare them for racing.

In the days after the Derby, Charles Brewer and trainer Charles Blanton, who co-owned Robert the Devil, lodged a stunning protest about the race’s result: Bend Or was not the horse that had crossed the finish line first. Rather, they alleged, it was Tadcaster.

Brewer’s claims originated with the groom Richard Arnull, who had worked at Eaton when both horses were foaled. He alleged that the two colts were inadvertently switched when they were sent to Barrows and handled by persons unfamiliar with both.

It was a stunning accusation and one with consequences: if the stewards ruled in Brewer’s and Blanton’s favor, then ‘Bend Or’ the winner would be disqualified, and Robert the Devil would be elevated to victor. The stewards at Epsom met to consider the evidence and decide once and for all who the true winner was.

Greatness Confirmed?

They heard the evidence from Arnull and his two sons about the identities of Bend Or and Tadcaster. Complicating matters were two things: 1) that the foaling records at Eaton were poorly kept, and no notes about the two colts’ appearance at birth was available; and 2) Arnull was finishing out his notice at Eaton after being dismissed by the Duke of Westminster.

Though Arnull maintained that the two horses had been switched to his dying day, the circumstances of his terminated employment at Eaton certainly cast some doubt on the testimony he gave. The stewards also interviewed trainer Robert Peck and his head man at Russley, but their input was useless to the case at hand: they received the colts after they had been allegedly switched.

After three days of testimony and 45 minutes of deliberation, the Epsom stewards upheld the results and solidified that the horse that won the 1880 Derby was indeed Bend Or, by Doncaster out of Rouge Rose, not Clemence.

Bend Or went on to win the St. James’s Palace, Epsom Gold Cup (edging Robert the Devil again), and Champion Stakes before retiring to Eaton Stud, where he stood until his death in 1903. In his time at stud, he sired Ormonde, winner of the English Triple Crown; Bona Vista, who won the 2000 Guineas and then founded a still-extant sire line; and Fairy Gold, the dam of Fair Play, sire of Man o’ War.

Tadcaster for his part was not quite as accomplished on the racecourse as his stablemate. He did win a stakes on the flat at age two, but was not able to maintain winning form and eventually became a jump racer. He was more successful over the hurdles, which might be unsurprising given that his supposed dam was Clemence, whose sire Newminster was also noted for producing jumpers.

However, more than a century after this controversy erupted and then was allegedly resolved, modern technology shared some surprising information about Bend Or and the true identity of the mare who made him.

Mystery Solved

After Bend Or died in 1903, his skeleton became a part of the collections of the Natural History Museum, where he was preserved alongside other famed horses. In the early 2010s, researchers were able to extract mitochondrial DNA from that skeleton and then test it in an attempt to identify his true dam. Mitochondrial DNA is passed down through the maternal line, so comparing Bend Or’s with that of known descendants of both Rouge Rose and Clemence should yield the identity of the mare who produced this great racehorse and sire of import.

The results confirmed that Arnull was right: the horse that won the 1880 Derby was not the son of Rouge Rose. This horse was actually out of Clemence. The horse purported to be Bend Or was actually Tadcaster and the Duke of Westminster, either out of stubbornness or ignorance, even mated his Bend Or with his own dam at one point during his stud career. Nonetheless, the General Stud Book, that record of the pedigrees of the generations of English horses, shows that Bend Or was out of Rouge Rose.

Modern methods of tattooing and microchipping are intended to avoid controversies like this one, giving breeders, owners, and trainers plenty of evidence to prove the horse they are sending to the post is who they say he is.

Nearly a century and a half ago, the stewards of Epsom did not have those luxuries when they had to decide if the horse that won the centennial Derby was who he was purported to be. That absence of certainty gave rise to another tall tale of the track, the almost-unbelievable story of mistaken identity discovered more than a century later.

Iroquois winning the Derby at Epsom Downs (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress/Wikimedia)