When Choisir was sent from Australia with a view to contesting the King’s Stand and the Golden Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot in 2003, we were inclined to treat the venture as an intriguing novelty. Few people took the burly colt seriously before the Tuesday race, especially as he was still a three-year-old in southern hemisphere terms and had to carry a Group 1 penalty, so the offers of 25-1 did not seem especially attractive.

Of course, he won, making all the running, then repeated the feat four days later, and those results ensured that in the years that followed Royal Ascot would feature on the itinerary of the top Aussie sprinters, and we became accustomed to their successes. In 2012, amid unprecedented hype, Black Caviar came to defend her record of 21 undefeated starts, and as soon as her participation was confirmed she was automatically installed as odds-on favourite for the aptly renamed Diamond Jubilee Stakes. We have become used to the idea that Australia breeds more accomplished sprinters; we expect them to beat ours.

Australia’s pre-eminence in the sprinting department is a relatively recent phenomenon. A key contributory factor was the importation in 1950 of Star King, who had almost dead-heated with Britain’s greatest post-war sprinter Abernant in the National Breeders’ Produce Stakes at Sandown as a two-year-old, and who – thinly disguised with a new identity as Star Kingdom – proved an outstanding sire of top-class, speedy stock down under.

The inauguration in 1957 of the Golden Slipper Stakes, won in its first year by Star Kingdom’s exceptional son Todman, and that race’s rapid elevation to the status of the nation’s most important and most valuable juvenile event, placing a premium on precocity, accentuated the trend away from stamina and toward speed in breeders’ aspirations.

Australia’s pre-eminence in the sprinting department is a relatively recent phenomenon

Until those developments the image of Australian racing recognised by the rest of the world was pretty much all about stamina; yes, we knew about Bernborough, and we knew he was fast, but it was really only the Melbourne Cup that registered with us routinely and that was a two-mile handicap. The horse that Australians most revered – actually an Enzedder, but they chose to overlook that when it suited – was Phar Lap, and he was an outstanding Melbourne Cup winner under a prohibitive weight in 1930. For generations those in the northern hemisphere thought of Australia as the land of the staying horse.

Melbourne Cup respected
Our first reason for having that perception dated from the last years of the Victorian era, and it was a horse from Australia who triumphed at Royal Ascot who was largely instrumental in propagating that belief. British breeders already respected Australian horses and the Melbourne Cup, and among the horses they had imported from down under for stud duty were the exceptional Carbine, winner over 38 rivals, giving nearly 4st to the runner-up in the 1890 renewal, and Carnage, second in the 1893 race.

Merman was not a Melbourne Cup winner but he had run with distinction in the two races regarded as the country’s next most important, finishing fourth in the Caulfield Cup and winning the Williamstown Cup. A cable sent to English bloodstock agent William Allison in November 1896 advised that Merman could be purchased for 1,600gns and would be capable of winning big handicaps in England. Trusting his informant’s judgement and having a wealthy client in mind, Allison quickly concluded the deal, awarding himself a nice commission when he persuaded Lillie Langtry to buy the horse for £2,000.

A celebrated beauty and prominent actress on the London stage, Mrs Langtry had been the mistress of the Prince of Wales and had been introduced to racing by her royal lover, who openly escorted her to Ascot and Goodwood, the great society meetings that he patronised. A later lover, the notorious hell-raiser George Alexander Baird, had given Langtry her first racehorse, and she had adopted the nom de course of Mr Jersey, a reference to her place of birth as Emilie Charlotte le Breton in 1853.

Merman set sail for England in December and landed at his destination in mid-February 1897. After a brief spell to recover from the journey at Allison’s Cobham Stud in Surrey, he was delivered to trainer Fred Webb in Newmarket. A strongly made chesnut, already five years old, he was a son of Grand Flaneur, unbeaten winner of the 1880 Melbourne Cup, from a family that had formerly thrived in England. His early performances under Webb’s care proved unspectacular, but that was probably the plan; he ran unplaced three times before finishing third of six in a Leicester handicap.

Then came improvement. Merman won the competitive Lewes Handicap before heading for the Cesarewitch, in which he was allotted the handy weight of 7st 5lb. Webb was sure that he had the horse in prime condition for the big Newmarket handicap and advised his owner to back him.

Fond of a punt, Lillie got stuck in; she reputedly won £80,000 when Merman turned in a game effort to score by a neck, the excuse for very public celebrations on the course and back at her Kentford home, Regal Lodge.

That was all well and fine until, with the party in full swing, Lillie was informed that her long-estranged husband, Ned Langtry, had died two hours after the Cesarewitch. Found drunk, incoherent and with a wound to his head, he had been taken to hospital and released after treatment. Soon afterwards he was found again, still drunk and insensible, lying on a heap of straw, and when he identified himself as Lillie Langtry’s husband, he was at once removed to a lunatic asylum, where he died.

Nowhere was the result more enthusiastically received than down under

The next day’s papers carried the contrasting stories of Lillie’s great success and her husband’s pathetic demise. The wholly positive publicity she had expected to enjoy inevitably failed to materialise. Over the next few days she was having to make statements to the effect that she had regularly made Ned an adequate allowance since their separation, and even to deny that she had arranged his murder.

March of Merman
Merman won again, a minor long-distance event at Worcester before the end of that season, and in 1898 he notched another important success, winning the Jockey Club Cup over the Cesarewitch course. That was the horse’s only victory that season, but in 1899 – the year in which Lillie married a scoundrel 20 years her junior, Sir Hugo de Bathe – there were three wins, including a prestige double at Goodwood. On the Wednesday he won the Goodwood Plate under top weight and on Thursday he added the Goodwood Cup. Lillie missed those victories, receiving word of them at her newly established home on Jersey, named Merman Cottage in his honour. Merman next finished a creditable second in the Grand Prix de Deauville, conceding 22lb to the three-year-old winner.

At the age of seven Merman was still capable of high-class form, though his last three runs of the season seemed slightly disappointing, hinting that perhaps he was nearing the end of his career. In fact there was one more great triumph to come, and it came in the most extraordinary circumstances on the greatest stage of all.

By now Merman was in the care of Jack Robinson, who trained at Foxhill, in Wiltshire, and he had the usual authority to act when making entries on behalf of his patrons. Robinson had planned to run Merman in both the Gold Vase and the Alexandra Plate at Ascot but Weatherbys rejected both nominations on the grounds that the signatures on the forms were not genuine; Robinson admitted that he had told his head lad to sign in his (Robinson’s) name. Merman was ready for a race and he did have a valid entry for the Gold Cup, so that became his Ascot target.

The switch represented anything but an affirmation of faith in Merman’s merit. There was a 1-4 favourite in French challenger Perth, whose victories at three had included the Poule d’Essai des Poulains and Prix du Jockey-Club, and who tuned up for Ascot by winning the Prix du Cadran by ten lengths. Most judges assumed that he was unbeatable.

To the consternation of those who laid the odds on Perth, there were actually three who beat him and one of them, out on his own two lengths clear, was Merman, friendless in the market among the 14-1 others. Had she been there, Lady de Bathe would have received a tremendous ovation from her countless admirers, but she was home alone in Jersey on the occasion of her most notable triumph as an owner.

Nowhere was the result more enthusiastically received than down under. An Australian horse had ventured to England and taken Ascot by storm. It might be 100 years before that happened again.