Perhaps because her racing career was brief and was not followed by a career as a broodmare, Godiva is a filly whose name rarely crops up when the subject of Britain’s greatest racemares comes under discussion. She deserves to be remembered and celebrated for what she achieved, and this is an appropriate time, 75 years after her death in August 1940.
Bred and raced by Esmond Harmsworth, who would later become the 2nd Viscount Rothermere, the filly was foaled on April 8, 1937 a product of Hyperion’s second crop and the third foal of Carpet Slipper, a National Stud-bred Phalaris mare who had been a 400gns yearling purchase in 1931. She won at Newmarket as a juvenile in the Harmsworth colours, showed nothing in minor handicaps at Wolverhampton and Bath as a three-year-old, then was sent to her owner’s Mereworth Stud in Kent.
In common with many other of Hyperion’s daughters, Godiva was a difficult, temperamental subject
For some unexplained reason Harmsworth decided in October 1938 that he would give up breeding and send all his bloodstock to the forthcoming December Sales. The Hyperion-Carpet Slipper filly was to be in the draft, but her breeder allowed himself to be persuaded to keep her by his trainer, William Jarvis, who recognised her promise and made the valid point that she would be unlikely to fetch her true value months after the regular yearling sales had been held. The filly, already named Godiva, was sent to Jarvis to be broken, while her dam, in foal to Windsor Lad, went to Tattersalls and realised 2,000gns, bought on behalf of Lord Furness. The foal inside Carpet Slipper at the time would win the 1942 Irish Triple Crown as Windsor Slipper for Joe McGrath.
In common with many other of Hyperion’s daughters, Godiva was a difficult, temperamental subject, but she got on well with her teenage lad Doug Marks, who looked after her, rode her out, and forged a relationship with her that was built on mutual tolerance. Noting that rapport between lad and filly, Jarvis decided that Marks should also lead Godiva up for her races, and the plan met with instant success; she was on her best behaviour for her debut at the Kempton Easter fixture, and she bolted up by four lengths in the hands of stable jockey Jack Crouch.
It was a different story a fortnight later when Godiva reappeared for the Sandown Park Stud Produce Stakes. She dug her toes in at the start, defied Crouch to get her to move, and won the argument. This was a filly who clearly had ability, but if she were to persist in such self-willed antics, it might never be expressed. However, punters trusted her next time in a minor event at Newmarket, and, as 2-1 favourite, she came home three lengths clear of her nearest rival, who was receiving 7lb. Crouch returned, enthusing about the filly’s future prospects, but, alas, he had hardly any future himself.
Only 20 when appointed Royal jockey to King George V, he had retained that role for George VI and had come close to Derby glory when riding 100-1 shot Sandsprite into second place behind Mid-day Sun in 1937. By 1939 the former Epsom apprentice had bought a property close to Tattenham Corner that was to be his marital home. His wedding day was set for July 1.
On June 20, engaged to ride one of the King’s horses in a race at Newcastle, he boarded a light aircraft for the journey from Surrey. The plane never arrived, and it was three days later before the wreckage and the bodies of Crouch, pilot and radio operator were located.
The tragedy could not interfere with the running of Newmarket’s Egerton House stable. Godiva was due back in action in the Stud Produce Stakes at her home meeting on June 28, and Jarvis informed Marks that he would not be leading up the filly; this time he would be riding her. There were 13 runners, but only two attracted real support.
Snowberry – later the dam of St Leger hero Chamossaire – had won the Queen Mary Stakes at Royal Ascot, so was most people’s idea of the winner, but the 4-7 favourite was made to submit, 3-1 shot Godiva taking her measure in the last furlong and holding on to win by a length. Marks was understandably elated at besting Gordon Richards in the finish.
Godiva’s connections were beginning to think she might be a serious racehorse, and they elected to find out by pitching her into top company in the Middle Park Stakes. She had a lot on her plate, trying six furlongs for the first time, in heavy ground, against 19 opponents, all but one of them colts. Just to make things more difficult for herself, Godiva missed the break and gave away lengths to all her rivals before Marks could induce her to pursue them. It was anybody’s guess what she might have achieved if she had got off on terms. She finished third, beaten two lengths and three-quarters of a length by Djebel and Tant Mieux, the respective champion juveniles of France and England.
In the two-year-old Free Handicap Godiva ranked second among the juvenile fillies of 1939, placed 3lb behind Golden Penny, another daughter of Hyperion out of the Oaks heroine Pennycomequick. A novice form student could tell that Golden Penny’s form was clearly inferior to Godiva’s, but at that time the official handicapper’s brief required him to take a view on how horses would progress as three-year-olds; he might well speculate that a daughter of a Derby winner and an Oaks winner would do better in her second season than a temperamental filly who could be dodgy at the gate.
Wartime conditions made many aspects of racing different, an early example being the transfer of Newmarket’s First Spring meeting to the July course. In the 2,000 Guineas on May Day, Djebel and Tant Mieux, the pair who had led Godiva home in the Middle Park, took first and third places. That result might have served as a pointer to Godiva’s chance in the 1,000 Guineas two days later, but she was allowed to go off at 10-1, with Golden Penny, already a winner at the Craven meeting, at odds-on. Godiva was always among the leaders and left the favourite for dead coming out of the Dip, eventually scoring by five lengths.
A ten-furlong Oaks Trial Plate was staged at Hurst Park on June 1 with Godiva now odds-on. She was last away from the gate, but Marks had her in front after a furlong and she was never threatened, scoring by three lengths. After those results it was expected that Godiva would start an overwhelming favourite for the Oaks, but she was value at 7-4, while Golden Penny’s party, gluttons for punishment, vowed revenge, backing her down to 2-1. Godiva seemed more determined than ever to give her rivals a chance in the Oaks, ignoring the start. After half a mile she was still tailed off, 14th of 14 and apparently going nowhere, but well into the straight there came an amazing transformation. Travelling easily, Godiva progressed from last to first, and once she had assumed command her rider had the cheek to turn around and urge the pursuers to ‘come on!’
Three lengths clear at the line, recording a faster time than that of Pont L’Eveque in the previous day’s Derby, Godiva had to be hailed as a champion. Apprentice Marks had had only seven race-rides that season, but he had won three times on the filly, beating Gordon Richards into second place each time.
Where was Godiva to go next? Her owner/breeder reckoned she had nothing more to prove and, with phoney war developing into real war, he felt that the best place for his prize filly was neutral Ireland. In July he despatched her to the Fort Union Stud in County Limerick. She had been there barely a month when she trod on a nail and contracted septicaemia. The prognosis was soon hopeless and the best three-year-old of either sex in 1940 was lost.
When John Randall and I analysed 100 years of form for our book A Century of Champions, we credited Godiva with a rating of 134. The only fillies trained in England whom we could rank above her in the 20th century were Pretty Polly (137), Sun Chariot (136), Sceptre and Pebbles (both 135). It would be a crime to forget her.