Remembering a hero born 100 years ago

Humorist may not rank among the finest Derby winners but he will always be a hero to me

Humorist and Steve Donoghue are led into the winner’s enclosure by owner Jack Joel after winning the 1921 Derby

Every sport-mad kid needs heroes, and I was no exception to the rule. As soon as I realised – aged nine or ten, I guess – that nothing in life could hold more fascination, it became natural to identify the star performers and learn all about them. It didn’t matter that I was a weedy asthmatic with zero prospects of emulating any of them.

The heroes I ‘collected’ are still heroes to me now – Stan Matthews and Ferenc Puskas in football, Emil Zatopek in athletics, Pancho Gonzales in tennis, Denis Compton and Jim Laker in cricket, Reg Harris in cycling, Geoff Duke in Motorcycling, Jim Clark in Motor racing.

I actually got to meet some of them for moments of in-person worship, and in Laker’s case I obtained a signed photograph by writing to him and enclosing a stamped addressed envelope. Hard to believe now, perhaps, but his home address was easy enough to find; he was listed in the London phone directory.

I soon found other heroes as I delved into the history of the sport. Hyperion, from the same era as Brown Jack, was one, and further back in time the achievements of such unbeaten celebrities as Eclipse, Highflyer, Kincsem and Ormonde were there to be marvelled at

When racing came into my orbit I had to find heroes among the horses as well as the humans involved, and the first to make an impression was Brown Jack, thanks to my purchase from a second-hand bookshop of Bob Lyle’s admirable biography of the gelding. I didn’t need convincing that it was quite an achievement to win at Royal Ascot in seven consecutive seasons. The feat remains unique, of course.

I soon found other heroes as I delved into the history of the sport. Hyperion, from the same era as Brown Jack, was one, and further back in time the achievements of such unbeaten celebrities as Eclipse, Highflyer, Kincsem and Ormonde were there to be marvelled at. Ormonde, by virtue of a Triple Crown and a July Cup, had to rank as my number one, and still does. My home bears his name; a shoe that he wore in the 1886 Derby is my most prized possession.

There was also a hero from the very time when racing was becoming my obsession. Ribot was emphatically the best racehorse of the 1950s, unbeaten in 16 races, including two Arcs de Triomphe. He remains no less special now, and I recall that he was the subject of the first article ever to appear under my byline, when I paid homage to him in the Bloodstock Breeders’ Review as the champion sire of 1967. My second byline appeared when I celebrated him as champion again in the next edition of that annual a year later.

I have penned columns galore on all the above horses, along with a host of others who have engaged my attention over the years. But there is one hero I acquired early, for a different reason than all the rest, and he is one of whom I have never written before. In the month that marks the 100th anniversary of his birth, it is high time to remedy that omission.

Humorist was an impeccably-bred, handsome chesnut colt – it would have been hard to invent a better pedigree

Humorist was an impeccably-bred, handsome chesnut colt, foaled on April 11 1918. Bred by Jack Joel, he was by Polymelus, a multiple champion sire whose stock included Triple Crown victor Pommern, Derby and Oaks heroine Fifinella, and Phalaris, who would become recognised as the most influential sire of the 20th century. And he was the first produce to survive out of Jest, who had won the 1,000 Guineas and Oaks in 1913 and was herself half-sister to Black Jester, winner of the 1914 St Leger. It would have been hard to invent a better pedigree.

Joel sent him to be trained at Wantage by Charles Morton, who had handled Jest and Black Jester, and it was not long before he was receiving good news about the colt’s progress. Humorist started 11-8 favourite on his debut in the Woodcote Stakes at Epsom, and he duly won by a neck from previous winner Highlander.  More than three months passed before he returned for second place in Doncaster’s Champagne Stakes, a length behind the recent Gimcrack runner-up Lemonora.

Humorist had three more starts as a juvenile, all at Newmarket. First he recorded a six-length victory over a solitary rival in the Buckenham Stakes, then took the Clearwell Stakes by two lengths, conceding a stone to his runner-up. He took on tougher company in the Middle Park Plate, only fifth in the betting at 10-1, but his run exceeded expectations, finishing a neck behind Monarch in second place.

The official handicapper granted the blaze-faced colt respect in his ratings for the season. With 8st 11lb Humorist ranked joint-third, 3lb behind Monarch and unbeaten Leighton, who shared top spot. Many felt that he had the scope to figure significantly at the top level as a three-year-old.

Leighton was not engaged in the 2,000 Guineas, and encouraging reports of Humorist’s home gallops in the Spring of 1921 meant that he became ante-post favourite for the Newmarket Classic while there was no more than lukewarm support for Monarch.

On the big day – a unique occasion when the 2,000 and 1,000 were contested on the same card – Humorist headed the market at 3-1. He was among the leading group from the start and held a clear advantage on the descent into the Dip only to shorten stride after seeming to have the race won. On the rising ground he gave way to Craig an Eran and Lemonora to be beaten three-quarters of a length and the same. The favourite had supposedly failed for want of stamina.

But Humorist had been Joel’s Derby colt all along, and the public’s favourite in ante-post wagering over the winter. He might not seem the likely winner now, but he had to take his chance. And the fact that Steve Donoghue was keen to take the mount again had to be regarded as positive.

After his Guineas debacle Humorist could be backed at 16-1 for the Derby. But as the Epsom date came closer he was down to 8-1. Rumour had it that some form of physical ailment, rather than lack of stamina, had been responsible for the sudden capitulation on the Rowley Mile. And he now seemed to be in top form again.

It wasn’t the fact that Humorist had won a Derby that made him one of my heroes. It was what happened 18 days after his great triumph

When the 23 Derby contenders were sent on their way, Humorist was third favourite at 6-1, and Donoghue soon had him up with leaders, evidently confident of his stamina. The jockey said later that he knew at Tattenham Corner that he could go to the front whenever he chose. And he chose right, fending off Craig an Eran, who had been his only serious challenger in the closing stages, by a neck at the line.

Humorist was a Derby winner, and one thing I learnt early when I caught the racing bug was that a Derby winner always deserved respect. But I was learning about lots of Derby winners, and there was one every year. It wasn’t the fact that he had won a Derby that made him one of my heroes. It was what happened 18 days after his great triumph.

After the Epsom victory Humorist was scheduled to reappear in the Hardwicke Stakes at Royal Ascot. He duly arrived at the course, was given a preparatory workout there, and was found to have bled afterwards. It seemed no big deal, but Ascot would have to be off his schedule.

Back home at Wantage there was no hurry to find a new date for Humorist’s return to action. The hiatus actually provide the opportunity for Alfred Munnings to visit the stable and make a start on a portrait of the colt for presentation to Jack Joel.

On Sunday June 19, the Ascot meeting over, Munnings was present at Wantage, and before lunch was happy to sample some of the champagne that Joel had sent to Morton after the Derby.  The first bottle went down well, so Morton found a second to accompany their midday meal.

Seeking fresh air and rest afterwards, Munnings found shade under a yew tree and slept. He was rudely awakened by a shriek from Mrs Morton, announcing: “Humorist is dead.”

It was a fact. A trickle of blood escaping from his box said enough, the profusion of blood all over his box just underlining the tragedy that had occurred. A burst blood vessel in the lungs was eventually given as the cause of death.

That verdict seemed to explain how things had gone wrong in some of his races, and made it all the remarkable that on occasions he could overcome the physical problems that beset him.

I was never going to be able to rank Humorist among the finest of Derby winners.  But courage is worthy of celebration as much as class, and Humorist will always be a hero to me.

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