Robin Oakley

The sport of kings

Robin Oakley argues that it was Queen Victoria’s dour disapproval that ironically made racing the sport of kings

Queen Victoria disapproved heartily of the racing set and of her son Bertie’s involvement in the sport. But she must have noted a dinner conversation with Bismarck reported to her by Disraeli. The German Chancellor had asked if racing was still encouraged in England. Never more so, said Disraeli, to which Bismarck responded:

There will never be socialism in England. You are safe so long as the people are devoted to racing. Here a gentleman cannot ride down the street without 20 persons saying to each other, ’Why has that fellow a horse and I have not one?’ In England the more horses a nobleman has, the more popular he is.

The Queen despaired of the future Edward VII as he ruled London society, eating, drinking and gambling, as well as bedding other men’s wives and a series of mistresses. She implored him regularly to turn his back on sporting tearaways. One day at Ascot, after Bertie’s involvement in a libel suit following an illegal baccarat game in which he had been banker, there were catcalls when he arrived at the racecourse. The growing middle class took exception to his philandering. And it was typical of his chosen priorities that when, as heir to an imperial throne, and uncle to both the Tsar and the Kaiser, he was invited to the opening of the Kiel Canal linking the Baltic and North Sea,  he asked for the ceremony to be postponed because it clashed with Royal Ascot.

Christopher McGrath argues convincingly, however, that, over time, Bertie’s racing career established a public confidence in his credentials as a future king, charting progress to the point where ‘his race-horses were no longer mere agents of rebellion: they had opened an artery of public affection long clotted by his mother’.

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