Tall Tales of the Track: Bourbon, Bets, and the Beatles

May 16th, 2023

Sometimes stardom starts in the most unexpected of places.

The world’s most famous band took their first steps on the path toward their immortal spot in our cultural consciousness in the basement club of a wife and mother who had her heart set on a house. All she needed was an infusion of cash, and she found the perfect way to do it.

The combination of a well-timed swig of bourbon, a fortuitous wager, and a basement music club made history not just in horse racing, but also in rock and roll.

A House and a Horse

Mona Best wanted to buy a house. The semi-detached home she shared in Liverpool, England, with husband John and sons Rory, Vincent, and Peter was a rental that simply did not have the same expansive feel of her childhood home in India.

In early 1954, Rory spotted a large Victorian home for sale at 8 Hayman’s Green; formerly owned by the West Derby Conservative Club, its 15 rooms and nearly an acre of land made the structure a rare find in Liverpool. To buy the home, though, would require more money than the family had.

Mona took a chance.

The field for the 1954 Derby at Epsom featured an American colt whose name intrigued her, and Best devised a way to raise enough cash to place a large bet on this unlikely candidate. The American was an outsider in the betting, but his pedigree showed why owner Robert Sterling Clark wanted to try this horse in England’s most prestigious three-year-old race. He was by Nasrullah, already one of Europe’s leading sires who brought his prodigious potential to the United States in 1950, out of a War Admiral mare named Singing Grass. She was not a stakes winner, but had shown an ability to stay at a distance, which would come in handy over the Epsom course.

Clark, an American and heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune, was an art collector and philanthropist who had been interested in horses since his earliest years. He mostly raced in England, aspiring to collect wins in classic races like the Derby, the Oaks, and the 1000 Guineas. He paired his homebred mare Singing Grass to Nasrullah in pursuit of those goals, and, in 1951, she foaled a handsome chestnut colt with white socks on his left legs and a wide white stripe cascading down the center of his face.

The delivery was rough, though, and John A. Bell, farm manager for Jonabell Farm in Kentucky, where Clark boarded his American breeding stock, gave the struggling colt a swig of bourbon to revive him.

Surviving his rough debut, the Nasrullah-Singing Grass colt received a name that matched his perseverance of spirit: Never Say Die.

As he strode to the Derby’s starting line, the American colt carried not only the hopes of Robert Sterling Clark but also those of Mona Best.

A Derby to Remember

At the starting line on June 2, 1954, were 22 horses, including the Queen’s own Landau and Clark’s Never Say Die, with a young Lester Piggott in the saddle. A year after her coronation, Queen Elizabeth II was back with another Derby hopeful still seeking her first Derby after Aureole finished second a year earlier. A crowd of 500,000 strained the grounds at Epsom, a veritable carnival amongst the action on the meandering course.

Never Say Die had a clean start, settling in behind the leaders in sixth. Piggott and the American colt waited patiently for the last half-mile to mount their bid for the lead and soon blew past the leaders to take over as the leader of the pack. He put enough distance between himself and the field to withstand the late challenge of Arabian Night to win by two lengths.

An ailing Clark was not on hand for the victory, but rejoiced at his colt’s win, the first American bred to win the Derby since Iroquois in 1881. The victory was historic for that reason alone, yet later it would emerge that this Derby winner would influence another kind of history, one that might seem far away from the undulating greens at Epsom.

But because of Never Say Die’s win at 33-1, the disparate threads of the American colt’s surprise victory and Mona’s big bet would weave together something magical.

The Casbah Coffee Club, Liverpool (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Lipinski)

Mona and the Boys

The house at 8 Hayman’s Green was an opportunity that the industrious mother of three could not pass up. She pawned her jewelry to have the cash to wager on her pick for the Derby, Never Say Die, saying that she “liked its name and what it stood for.” When she collected her winnings after the Derby, it was enough for a down payment on that Victorian home, which featured a cellar with seven rooms. The family renovated the space and turned it into the Casbah Coffee Club.

Born out of the constant stream of young people gathering at her home, Best started the club as a place for her sons and their friends to hang out. She offered snacks, cakes, sodas, and coffee from an espresso machine, a rare treat in the area. The Casbah Coffee Club kept out any undesirables by charging 12.5 pence, or half a crown, for membership and had nearly 1,000 members by opening day. Best hired a band to play live for the opening, engaging a band of young musicians named The Quarryman to entertain the crowd on hand.

On August 29, 1959, John Lennon shouted “Welcome to the Casbah!” as they prepared for their opening number. Behind him, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ken Brown rounded out the Quarryman’s lineup.

Within months, the band would have a new name, The Beatles, and a new drummer, Mona’s son Peter. Three years after their debut at that cellar club, the band played the Casbah’s final evening, ending a brief but monumental phase of their time together. Though the band would famously and suddenly part ways with Peter, the Casbah remains the spot where the evolution from the Quarrymen to the Beatles would begin.

All thanks to Mona Best’s hunch and Never Say Die’s unexpected victory at Epsom.