For the duration of World War I all England’s Classic races were staged at Newmarket, and they were notable for the fact that three colts claimed Triple Crown honours – Pommern (1915), Gay Crusader (1917) and Gainsborough (1918). So which of that trio ranked as the champion of that period?

Actually, it was none of them. The best horse to race during the war years was Hurry On, whose only Classic success came in the September Stakes, the substitute version of the St Leger, 100 years ago this month.

When John Randall and I came to analyse the form of all the top runners of the 20th century for our book A Century of Champions we found every justification for respecting the treble scorers. Having examined all the trio’s three-year-old performances, and assessing them on a Timeform-like scale, we reckoned that Pommern deserved a mark of 135, we rated Gainsborough at 137, and we had Gay Crusader on 138, each ranking as the clear best of his year.

But we were so impressed with Hurry On that we felt he merited 139, a figure matched as a three-year-old only by Bayardo (1909) among those who raced earlier in the century. Reputable contemporary opinions backed up our view and we could only wonder what he may have achieved if he had remained sound in 1917. We raised Bayardo to 141 in recognition of his superb four-year-old campaign.

Hurry On was cherished by owner Lord Woolavington (left) and trainer Fred Darling

Hurry On was cherished by owner Lord Woolavington (left) and trainer Fred Darling

Hurry On wrote his own pedigree; there was nothing very exciting about it until he proved its worth. His sire Marcovil was never destined for top-level competition, winning a maiden at Kempton at three, and becoming a useful handicapper at four, when beaten half a length in the Great Jubilee.

What earned him a berth at stud was his victory, as an unconsidered 50-1 shot, in the Cambridgeshire, his only start as a five-year-old. His fee on retirement to Egerton in 1909 was only £25, and, unsurprisingly, he was not favoured with mates of much distinction.

Tout Suite, one of the mares to visit him in 1912, had been sold as a foal, together with her dam, for 80gns the pair. Standing only 14.2hh as a two-year-old, she was deemed too small to be worth putting into training and was covered for the first time as a three-year-old. Just 15hh when she finished growing, she produced Hurry On as her fifth and last foal and died in the year when her only notable product rose to fame.

Hurry On was not built in his dam’s image; far from it. He was big and backward when submitted to the Newmarket July Sales, where he was sold for 500gns to James Buchanan, later Lord Woolavington. The colt was sent to Beckhampton trainer Fred Darling, who wisely decided that such an overgrown, gawky individual was best left alone as a two-year-old.

Boy becomes a man
By the spring of his three-year-old season Hurry On had filled to his massive frame and was a magnificent physical specimen, fully 17hh and with nine and a half inches of bone. His strength made him hard to handle, but Darling had him ready for a modest £100 mile maiden at Lingfield in mid-June, when he started second favourite at 4-1.

Although nine of his 14 rivals had previous experience, and he showed some greenness, he trounced his field to win by two lengths. Four of his five subsequent runs were at Newmarket’s summer course, where he reappeared early in July for the Stetchworth Plate over a mile and a half, evens favourite against four others who all received 5lb, and a dominant performance brought him another two-length victory.

There were only four runners for Hurry On’s next outing over ten furlongs at Newbury in August, when punters favoured 1,000 Guineas heroine Canyon at 6-5, but the filly came back a laboured third, eight lengths behind the colt, who was now being recognised for the champion he was. He started 11-10 favourite for the September Stakes over a mile and three-quarters, opposed once more by Canyon and by 2,000 Guineas victor Clarissimus. Hurry On won in a canter again, by three lengths over Clarissimus, with Canyon tailed off.

The Newmarket St Leger came next, over the same course and distance, with odds of 40-1 laid on him against two negligible rivals. Hurry On was never off the bit, winning as he liked, and when he signed off for the season in November, the new distance of two and a quarter miles and his first experience of heavy ground failed to represent any kind of challenge. The Jockey Club Cup provided a romp by ten lengths.

Hurry On had not been entered for the Derby, but it would have come too soon for him in any case – run two weeks before his debut in the Lingfield maiden. That Classic was won by the filly Fifinella, who followed up with an Oaks victory two days later. Collateral form indicated that Hurry On was comfortably the better of the two.

In December 1916 Fred Darling was called up for war service in the army, Hurry On being switched from Beckhampton to Peter Gilpin’s stable in Newmarket. Sadly, the colt’s new trainer proved unable to keep him sound at four, probably for reasons relating to his size, and in August 1917 it was announced he would start his second career at Lavington Stud in 1918.

The man who had guided him through his flawless season felt he was never properly tested, either at home or on the track. He remained adamant, even after saddling seven Derby winners and exceptional miler Tudor Minstrel, that Hurry On was the best he had ever trained.

No horse ever made a more propitious start to his stud innings, as the very first mare covered by Hurry On was Bellavista, the outcome of that mating being 1922 Derby hero Captain Cuttle, trained by Darling and carrying the colours of Lord Woolavington. In due course he got two further Derby winners in Coronach and Call Boy, had a season at the top of the sires’ list, and was responsible for a top-class stayer in Precipitation, who won the 1937 Gold Cup, a year after his sire’s death.

Hurry On was not built in his dam’s image; far from it. He was big and backward

Hurry On was a tail-male descendant of the Godolphin Arabian’s influential son, Matchem, a fact that was not particularly remarkable during his lifetime; it was widely assumed he – and others – would help to keep the line secure for many generations to come. But Call Boy proved infertile, Captain Cuttle made only limited impact, and Coronach’s influence soon dwindled.

Precipitation’s branch proved more enduring and raised hopes of an extension when Sassafras touched off Nijinsky in the Arc, but those hopes were to be dashed before very long. The line is hanging on by a thread in Europe now, while the American branch, descending via Man o’ War, seems only marginally more secure.

Of course, male lines are not everything, and it is an indisputable fact that the Godolphin Arabian, whose arrival in England might be said to have ‘completed’ the creation of the thoroughbred, is the single most important ancestor of the racehorse of the 21st century.

The Darley Arabian has long been the dominant founding father in the direct male line, and it is interesting to note that its pre-eminence became significantly enhanced by the success of Hurry On’s exact contemporary, Phalaris, and his tail-male descendants.