31 March 2002 (The Queen Mother had died on 30 March)
For jumping racing the Queen Mother had been more than a patron. She was part of it; the most important part in the whole game’s history. I had just one ride for her, finishing last at Cheltenham on Makaldar, but the smile on her face lives with me to this hour.
The Queen Mother’s connection started, as all racing connections should, with a friendship and with a winner. In 1949 Lord Mildmay, champion amateur rider and latter day Corinthian, was among the guests at Windsor Castle for Royal Ascot. His stories inspired Queen Elizabeth, as she was then, to buy a steeplechaser. An eight-year-old called Monaveen duly became the first horse to wear the blue and buff striped racing silks, and in 1950, in the perfectly named Queen Elizabeth Chase at Hurst Park, he became the first of over 500 winners for the most popular owner Britain or any other racing parish has ever seen.
It was her transparent enjoyment of the small days as well as the big, of unsung people on country tracks as well as grandees at metropolitan meetings, that endeared her to us. So too did her determination, learnt in a rather wider arena, to smile bravely when the fates turned bad.
We remember her many trips to the winner’s circle, Special Cargo’s Whitbread, Tammuz’s Schweppes, but it was her rock solid support of the stricken Dick Francis after the Devon Loch Aintree disaster of 1956 that remained most firmly inscribed in the public mind.
She had needed to be steady almost from the very beginning. Lord Mildmay drowned while swimming in the summer of 1950 and Monaveen himself was killed trying a Queen Elizabeth Chase repeat.
Typically undaunted, the Queen Mother then bought Mildmay’s most promising horse, a five-year-old French colt called Manicou who, with perfect symmetry, then triumphed in Kempton’s Christmas highlight called, of course, the King George VI Chase.
Being an entire horse, Manicou could resort to stallion duties on retirement and the pleasure of a growing racing family was a constant with the Queen Mother ever after. Among Manicou’s sons were Inch Arran, Isle of Man and a big bay called The Rip whom the Queen Mother herself bought for 400 guineas from the landlord of the Red Cat Pub at Wooton Marshes near Sandringham. “I really enjoyed that,” she said at a lunch the Injured Jockeys Fund gave to her, our patron, last December. “You see I had never been in a pub.”
Sitting next to her as she told this story was a strange experience. At 101 she was frail enough to need plenty of cushions to keep her upright not to mention my knife and fork to cut up the eggs benedict on her plate. The voice was not strong but as the saga of The Rip’s purchase in the Red Cat backroom was retold a sense of almost girlish relish jumped out of the story.
“You see, Sir Charles Moore was racing manager then,” she said, “and he was, well, a bit stuffy and correct. When we heard about the horse stabled at the back of the pub he said, `You can’t possibly go in there’. But we bought it, and a year later we were all on the train at Paddington ready to go and watch The Rip run at Newbury, when along comes Sir Charles as if it had always been his idea.”
We had a number of these lunches over the years. There would rarely be more than 20 people, we Trustees usually being bolstered by former jockeys who had shared her racing moments. They were convivial, and certainly not teetotal occasions, and the conversation would get so locked into yarns of the track that it was easy to forget the infinite experiences of the guest of honour.
On one occasion we were discussing the merits of the Melbourne Cup. “Have you,” Lord Oaksey asked in that wonderfully unworldly way of his, “ever been to Australia Ma’am?”
“Well yes John.” she replied with a smile which clearly recalled all those state visits as Queen of the Empire on which the sun never set. “Yes John, I have been to Australia.”
Best of all she liked to talk to her jockeys about the days and the horses that they had shared. Dick Francis was there last December. And Bill Rees, Michael Scudamore, Bill Smith and David Mould, the winning-most of them all with 104 victories in those colours and a style that white hair and a slightly thickening waistline has never looked like changing. Mould was at the end of the presentation line when the Queen Mother was leaving. As she gave him her hand, he bowed low, raised it to his lips and kissed it.
Her relationship with jump racing had from the first kept this touching sense of intimacy about it. Pride of place among the present Royal runners at Nicky Henderson’s stables near Lambourn is a big, bold, Sandringham-bred bay called First Love. For a horse of the Queen Mother’s it seems as much a statement as a name.