This month marks the centenary of the death of a mare who owned a claim to recognition as the best runner of her sex in the 19th century. Winner of the Fillies’ Triple Crown and unlucky runner-up in the Derby, accomplished at all distances from five furlongs to two and a half miles, La Flèche was 27 years old when she died at Sledmere Stud in Yorkshire on April 22, 1916.
By the breed-shaping multiple champion sire St Simon, she was out of the Toxophilite mare Quiver, whose racing career had been spent exclusively at Newmarket, with a record of two wins, two seconds and three third places from seven outings, all at sprint distances. Acquired at the age of eight in 1880 for the Royal Studs, presumably without the cognisance of Her Majesty, she produced a useful winner in the gelded Archer (by See Saw) and the rather more accomplished filly Satchel (by Galopin), a winner twice at Goodwood and once at Liverpool.
None of the next three foals was up to winning, the third of them, Maid Marian (by Hampton), failing seven times as a two-year-old, including four in selling company, before being retired to stud. Remarkably, that dire performer would become dam of high-class runner and notable sire Polymelus (by Cyllene), whose son Phalaris was to become the most influential sire of the 20th century.
Having delivered Maid Marian in 1886, Quiver was mated with St Simon, and the outcome was Memoir, who should have won the 1,000 Guineas and did win the Oaks and St Leger. Her Oaks win was timely – shortly before her sister was due to appear in the 1890 draft of yearlings submitted to auction from the Hampton Court Stud.
By general consent, Memoir’s sister stood out as the cream of the crop, but few could have imagined she would break the record price for a yearling, which had stood at 4,100gns since 1876. In fact she shattered it, being sold for 5,500gns to Lord Marcus Beresford, on behalf of Baron Maurice de Hirsch. By all accounts, the Prince of Wales egged Beresford along during the bidding, apparently keen the filly bred by his mother should join John Porter’s string at Kingsclere, where his own horses were trained.
The Baron was never to regret the price he paid. La Flèche retrieved more than half that outlay in her juvenile campaign, winning all four of her races, including the Molecomb Stakes at Goodwood and the Champagne Stakes at Doncaster. It was a moot point whether she or stablemate Orme, the best son of Ormonde, was top UK two-year-old. Orme won five times, including the Middle Park Plate and Dewhurst Plate, failing only when runner-up to four-year-old Signorina in the valuable Lancashire Plate at Manchester.
Best yet to come
At the end of her first campaign La Flèche was recognisably a precocious, accomplished sprinter. She revealed many more qualities in her second season, which she began by winning the 1,000 Guineas. Her reputation was such she started at 11-10 against a dozen male rivals – none at single-figure odds – in the Derby. Her chance was compromised by an irresponsible ride from George Barrett, who had her ten lengths off the pace at Tattenham Corner, but she flew home to earn second, beaten three-quarters of a length.
The highly-strung La Flèche sweated and appeared fretful two days later, when asked to confirm her superiority over her own sex in the Oaks, but she was able to land odds of 8-11 by a short head. Rested until Goodwood, she won the Nassau Stakes, giving lumps of weight to four other three-year-old fillies.
A busy autumn followed. In the St Leger she was ridden by Jack Watts, as Barrett rode Orme, but the colt ran disappointingly while the filly collected her third Classic in fine style, with her Derby conqueror Sir Hugo in second. Further wins came in the Lancashire Plate, Grand Duke Michael Stakes, Newmarket Oaks and Cambridgeshire, that last triumph being particularly meritorious, as she carried 8st 10lb – an extraordinarily big weight for a three-year-old – and won by a length and a half, giving 34lb to runner-up Pensioner, a colt of the same age.
After two seasons in which La Flèche had won 12 times from 13 starts and earned £29,368, Porter might have expected to have earned the gratitude of his wealthy patron. In fact, for reasons he never discussed, Baron de Hirsch removed the filly and all his other horses and sent them to Richard Marsh. The Prince of Wales’s string departed at the same time, bound for the same destination.
La Flèche did not improve for the change of yard. At four she was not seen out until the Eclipse, in which she was a modest third behind Orme, and he beat her again in the Gordon Stakes. The filly’s bid for a second Lancashire Plate proved unsuccessful, her third place representing one of two surprises in the race, Raeburn making the most of a 10lb concession from Isinglass and ending that Triple Crown winner’s unbeaten record.
Remarkably, La Flèche won only twice from seven starts in 1893, those victories coming in the Lowther Stakes at Newmarket and the Liverpool Autumn Cup. In the latter contest she gave between 15lb and 48lb to 11 rivals. She finished unplaced for the first time in her life in the Cambridgeshire, in which she had 9st 7lb – the winner had 3st less – and was again off the board when attempting another severe task under 9st 11lb in a Manchester November Handicap contested on heavy ground.
La Flèche began her stud career at five, but she had not finished with racing. Indeed, she enhanced her record with triumphs in the Gold Cup and Champion Stakes – an unprecedented double in the same season – and did so while carrying a filly by Morion. In between those victories she finished second to Ravensbury in the Hardwicke Stakes (run the day after the Gold Cup) and fourth, beaten half a length, a neck and a head, while as usual giving lumps of weight away. She retired the winner of 16 of 24 races, having earned upwards of £35,000 – a significant return on what she cost.
Baron de Hirsch died in 1896, and La Flèche was the inevitable headline-maker when his bloodstock was dispersed at auction. Sir Tatton Sykes made the successful bid of 12,600gns that meant she spent the rest of her life at Sledmere, but her stud career proved less productive than one might have hoped. She was barren nine times, delivered one set of dead twins, and had a filly who died as a yearling.
But she did produce two foals who achieved distinction, one of each sex. Her 1901 son John o’ Gaunt (by Isinglass) finished second in the 2,000 Guineas and the Derby, subsequently becoming the sire of Swynford, a champion both on the racecourse and at stud. Her 1900 daughter Baroness La Flèche became the dam of 1,000 Guineas and Coronation Stakes winner Cinna (by Polymelus), whose descendants proved hugely influential at stud in New Zealand.
It was unfortunate for La Flèche’s reputation that within a few years of her retirement along came two other exceptional racemares in Sceptre and Pretty Polly, whose performances tended to overshadow hers. Sceptre accomplished what La Flèche unluckily just failed to do, winning four Classics outright, and some thought she ought to have won all five. Pretty Polly, another distaff Triple Crown heroine, was beaten only twice in 24 races, routinely routing her rivals.
Even so, La Flèche accomplished some feats neither of the other pair managed, and was arguably the most versatile of the trio in terms of distances conquered. The Gold Cup found even Pretty Polly out.