The first important anniversary of the new year arrives this month with the centenary on January 24 of the birth of Gainsborough, who achieved distinction in various categories. A son of the exceptional performer Bayardo out of Oaks heroine Rosedrop, he became the Triple Crown hero of 1918, collected two champion sire titles, headed the broodmare sires’ list once, and earned further renown as a significant sire of sires.

Gainsborough, named after the town in Lincolnshire rather than the artist, was bred by Lady James Douglas, a commercial breeder based at Harwood Lodge, near Newbury. Along with a dozen others from the stud, the colt was offered at the Tattersalls July Yearling Sale; considered the pick of the draft, he carried a reserve of 2,000gns, a sum nobody gave. His breeder was unconcerned. Indeed, when she fielded queries about a possible private sale, she raised her asking price to 2,500gns. There was not going to be a deal at that time.

Gainsborough’s form at two did not make him anything special, but he had scope and could be expected to improve

The well-made, medium-sized colt was put in training with Colledge Leader in Newmarket, but that young man was soon afterwards called up for war service. It was not difficult to decide on alternative lodgings; Gainsborough’s parents had both been inmates of Alec Taylor’s Manton yard, and both had thrived there.

Gainsborough ran three times at two, all at Newmarket. Taylor sent him, quite unfancied, for his debut in a minor five-furlong event on July 31, and fourth place in a field of 21 was encouraging. A month later he ran a creditable third in another, more competitive, sprint, and a fortnight after that he notched his first victory, comfortably by two lengths, in the six-furlong Autumn Stakes. There were plenty of would-be buyers now, but his breeder made it clear that the colt was no longer for sale ‘at any price.’

Gainsborough’s form at two did not make him anything special, but he had scope and could be expected to improve. His pedigree read better, too, since Gay Crusader – another son of Bayardo – had completed his Triple Crown. Oddly, given Gainsborough was to be set the same targets as Gay Crusader, the race chosen for his reappearance in the spring was the five-furlong Severals Stakes, which seemed unlikely to show him to advantage. He finished a modest fifth, but he might well have done no better in the mile Craven Stakes, as everyone could see that he was nothing like ready for a race.

Gainsborough presented an altogether different image a fortnight later, the paddock critics asserting that Taylor had achieved a minor miracle in bringing the colt out in superb condition for the 2,000 Guineas. Third favourite at 4-1 in the field of 12, Gainsborough moved smoothly into second at halfway, quickened well to lead going into the dip, and won easily by a length and a half from his stablemate Blink.

That performance was enough to convince most observers Gainsborough was the natural leader of his crop, and as he was surely only going to improve for longer distances, the Derby – or New Derby, as it was known during the war years – seemed at his mercy. He started at 8-13 and won as he liked by the same margin over the same runner-up as in the Guineas. Next stop was the substitute Gold Cup, run over two miles of the July course, and, unsurprisingly, there was no other three-year-old to take him on. He readily accounted for the two four-year-olds who provided the only opposition.

Different ground, same result
The ground was firm on Gold Cup day, but soft for the September Stakes, the substitute St Leger. Nobody doubted Gainsborough would cope with the different conditions and he started 4-11 to emulate the feat of Gay Crusader a year earlier. There were five runners, three of them from Manton, and it was the Taylor trio who garnered all the prize-money. Gainsborough won, easing up, by three lengths and four over Oaks heroine My Dear and Prince Chimay, who was fresh from a handicap in which he had trotted up conceding huge amounts of weight.

Gainsborough was so clearly the best of his generation he went off 2-11 for the Jockey Club Stakes, then contested over a mile and six furlongs. The race was staged half an hour after the great sprint filly Diadem had landed odds of 1-8 – albeit narrowly – in the Snailwell Stakes, and who could doubt a second champion was about to confirm his status, closing his career in glory? What occurred provided yet another example of the glorious uncertainty of the Turf. Perhaps it was the heavy ground, perhaps jockey Joe Childs overdid the waiting tactics; for whatever reason Gainsborough did not show his true form, going under by a length to Prince Chimay, who received 3lb. As the Bloodstock Breeders’ Review reporter observed, most people would have backed Gainsborough if he had been required to give his stablemate 21lb.

There were some unusual features about Gainsborough’s stud career, not least the fact he became champion broodmare sire before reaching the top as a sire

Gainsborough was unquestionably top-class. When John Randall and I made form assessments for our book A Century of Champions, endeavouring to align with the Timeform scale, we gave him 137. That made him 1lb below Gay Crusader, and 2lb below 1916 champion Hurry On in that vintage era for English-trained horses. Our highest-rated horse up to that time was Bayardo, whom we assessed at 139 as a three-year-old and 141 at four. Although he was taken out of training at the end of 1918, Gainsborough did not commence stud duties until 1920. The year’s hiatus was evidently all about emulating what had occurred in the case of St Simon, who had supposedly been given a year off before becoming the greatest sire in living memory. In fact, the notion St Simon was deliberately left idle at four was myth. He had been in training and broke down in his preparation for a second Gold Cup bid.

Gainsborough may have started late as a stallion, but he reached fourth place on the sires’ list by the time he had three crops at the races, and he was to feature 11 times among the top ten in a long innings. His first real star, from his second crop, was Solario, who won the 1925 St Leger, added the Coronation Cup and Gold Cup at four, and became a highly successful sire himself, heading the table in 1937, when Mid-day Sun won the Derby and Exhibitionnist both distaff Classics; Straight Deal provided another Derby six years later.

There were some unusual features about Gainsborough’s stud career, not least the fact he became champion broodmare sire before reaching the top as a sire. He headed the broodmare sires’ list in 1931, largely thanks to 2,000 Guineas and Derby winner Cameronian (out of his daughter Una Cameron), in the same year ranking as top sire of two-year-olds and runner-up on the general sires’ table. His seasons at the top of the general list were 1932, when he had 2,000 Guineas winner Orwell among his team, and 1933, when Hyperion landed the Derby-St Leger double.

Although he had that year as champion broodmare sire and on four other occasions figured in the top ten, Gainsborough was overwhelmingly more successful with his colts than with his fillies. The prize-money breakdown over his entire career showed that 83% of earnings accrued from his sons. His most notable daughter at the races was Gainsborough Lass, who finished third in the 1,000 Guineas and won the Coronation Stakes, while Mah Mahal emulated Una Cameron as dam of a Derby winner when Mahmoud scored in 1936.

In Hyperion, Gainsborough got one better than himself, both as runner and sire. In A Century of Champions we gave Hyperion a mark of 142, making him second only to Brigadier Gerard among horses trained in Britain, and his six sires’ titles underlined his outstanding merit in that sphere. The male line descendants of Hyperion proved prominent as progenitors in many parts of the world for several generations, rivalling the Nearco tribe, but it is a different story now, when Bahamian Bounty is its highest-profile representative at home.