The Old Lion's Horses

By Bill Shanklin
The train from London takes me to Sevenoaks Station in the gently rolling English countryside. At the nearby taxi rank, finely attired folks are about to embark for Royal Ascot and the afternoon races.

My destination is different. I am here for a visit to the home of the most venerated racehorse owner and breeder of any era. By taxi it's another seven miles to his Chartwell House.

Sir Winston and Lady Clementine Churchill purchased this charming red brick manor and its 80 acres in 1922 and departed it for the last time a few months prior to his death in January 1965. Sir Winston Churchill constructed some of the surrounding brick walls with his own hands and had the picturesque lakes and terraced gardens put in. Lady Churchill's rose garden is in full bloom on this gorgeous June morning.

I enter the house and my attention is riveted on a portrait of an elderly Sir Winston. The likeness is uncharacteristically informal: He is wearing an open-collar shirt and is smiling slightly, sans cigar. But the familiar countenance--the "We shall never surrender" defiance that frustrated the wicked Fuehrer's Luftwaffe and rallied Great Britain during the bombing of London--is unmistakable.

Slowly making my way through Chartwell House, I encounter artifacts of a career full of enough adventures and achievements for several lifetimes--a soldier, escaped prisoner of war, Prime Minister, painter, Nobel Laureate writer, the orator of his times, and a world hero of epic proportions.

I see a statue of a racehorse setting on a table. Hanging over a mantle is a vintage painting of a gray Thoroughbred. I come upon a glass display case filled with nothing but Turf mementos from Winston Churchill--the accomplished racehorse owner and breeder, English Jockey Club member, and onetime polo player, fox hunter, steeplechase rider, and cavalry officer who charged at Omdurman.

There are his racing silks, on a half-mannequin, the pink with chocolate sleeves and cap colors of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, who was a leading owner and son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough; the colors of Churchill College at Cambridge. A racing legacy flowed from Winston's maternal side as well. His American grandfather, Leonard Jerome, built Jerome Park racetrack in the Bronx.

While Churchill was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1920s, he introduced the totalisator machine to protect punters from unscrupulous bookmakers. However, it was not until 1949 that he purchased his first racehorse, the maiden 3-year-old French-bred gray colt Colonist II, and renewed his family's heritage. He would come to own nearly 40 racehorses and a dozen broodmares.

Churchill's personal secretary cautioned him that a racing association could have a harmful effect on his political career. Sir Winston proceeded anyway and led the Conservative Party to a return to power in 1951. When a Labour Party Member of Parliament demanded Churchill sell Colonist II, he rejoined: "I could sell him for a great deal more than I bought him for, but I am trying to rise above the profit motive."

For Churchill, Colonist II won 13 of 23 starts and several stakes, including the Winston Churchill Stakes. Upon the horse's retirement to stud, Churchill feigned chagrin: "To stud--and have it said that the Prime Minister of Great Britain is living on the immoral earnings of a horse?"

Churchill's horses won 75 races and one classic--the 1955 Irish One Thousand Guineas by the filly Dark Issue. Sir Winston ran his own stud, first at Chartwell and afterward at Newchapel Green. Ill health forced him out of racing, just months before his demise. Winston Spencer Churchill died in his 91st year. Queen Elizabeth II, then as now a racing enthusiast, led mourners from around the world in an outpouring of everlasting gratitude.

The Churchill Papers include the letter the Prime Minister wrote to inform his trainer, Walter Nightingall, he was giving up racing: "It is sad for me to end my racing activities owing to the fact my health does not allow me to attend race meetings any more...It doesn't fall to many people to start a racing career at the age of 75 and reap from it such pleasure."

Britain's great Old Lion and passionate racehorse owner-breeder was one for the ages.