How The First Horse Van Shocked The Public And British Bookmakers - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

How The First Horse Van Shocked The Public And British Bookmakers

An 1836 depicting Elis’s trip to Doncaster

The thresholds of Keeneland's property will be tread upon by an endless stream of horse vans during the two weeks and change of its September Yearling Sale, effortlessly bringing horses in from around the country and redistributing them to destinations around the world.

It's easy to take for granted a van hauling several horses at a time, quickly and directly from place to place, and delivering them no worse for wear, given the relative simplicity of the concept. It's likely technology and horsemanship would have advanced to this point anyway, but the first steps were taken because a gambler wanted better odds on a horse.

Until the 1830s, the standard mode of transportation for racehorses was to walk or ride them to the track. For an English horseman stabled at Goodwood that wanted to travel north to race in Doncaster, that meant traversing a 250-mile trail by foot, which could take up to three weeks. Not only did this put incredible wear and tear on a horse before it even set hoof on the racetrack, it gave a long warning signal when an imposing horse was targeting a specific race, which had ramifications for handicappers.

Lord George Bentinck cared little for either of those things.

Lord Bentinck would go on to become a leader in British politics, but in the early 1830s, he was best known as a racehorse owner and heavy gambler.

In 1836, Lord Bentinck had a standout 3-year-old in his barn by the name of Elis, who was demolishing rivals across southern England while spotting them up to 21 pounds. His schedule would have broken most modern Thoroughbreds, regularly racing over a mile and a half, sometimes running multiple races on the same day, and moving from track to track by foot.

Elis had been considered a contender for the English St. Leger since his 2-year-old season, and the bookmakers put the colt's odds at 5-1 in the weeks before the race. A 1929 piece in the Thoroughbred Record described Lord Bentinck as being dissatisfied with such a low price, leading him to announce the colt would skip the race. When the threeweek travel window passed and it appeared impossible for Elis to make the race on time, bookmakers were happy to take Lord Bentinck's money at 12-1 odds. Satisfied with the number, Lord Bentinck bet 1,000 British pounds – approximately 121,000 pounds adjusted for inflation.

Knowing this might happen, Lord Bentinck and trainer George Kent already had a secret weapon in place.

Lord Bentinck had seen horses clumsily transported from place to place on the back of ox carts, but he needed something faster, safer, and more discreet to haul his runners.

According to the book “Glorious Goodwood: A Biography of England's Greatest Sporting Estate” by James Peill, Lord Bentinck enlisted a coachbuilder known in the record books only as “Mr. Herring” to construct the massive wooden contraption. So top-secret was the project, Lord Bentinck swore Mr. Herring and his builders to secrecy, he permitted no visitors other than himself and his trainer, and he didn't inform the workers the exact purpose of their project.

The vessel was described in a 1945 article in The Thoroughbred magazine as “heavy and cumbersome.” The 18-inch wheels were completely underneath the giant wooden box, which made the contraption so top-heavy, it would have been difficult to load and unload its passengers from level ground. To solve the problem, workers created a dirt ramp to back the wagon up for an even exit.

The inside walls were padded, and the horses stood on a hard-stuffed mattress. There were windows at the top of the box, but they were so high that no one on the ground could see who was inside. This helped keep Lord Bentinck's secret as they made their way north. A team of six horses pulled the trailer carrying Elis and workmate The Drummer from Goodwood to Doncaster, covering 80 miles a day. The big, mysterious box on wheels drew crowds in each town it rolled through, given its unusual look and the mystery of its contents. At Lord Bentinck's insistence, the horses inside the van ate only hay and grain from his Goodwood stable during the trip.

The passengers were let out for exercise at Lichfield Racecourse after the second day of the journey, and they arrived at Doncaster a day later. In The Thoroughbred's retelling of the story, the hardest part of the trip was finding a properly-sloped place to unload the cargo in Doncaster.

Horse vans have come a long way from their invention in the 1830s

The trip was so fast, Elis arrived with two days to spare before the St. Leger, giving the horse plenty of time to recuperate from any travel lag there might have been.

When Elis went postward for the St. Leger, he had been bet down to a 7-2 second choice, but Lord Bentinck's odds were already locked in at the much more generous 12-1. By New Sporting Magazine's account of the race in 1836, the colt made a late move under jockey John Day and drew off to win by two lengths.

While the horse grabbed the headlines, the van was the main attraction among Doncaster's horsemen. The more progressive of them took note for their own designs, and even Lord Bentinck was quick to commission Mr. Herring to embark on the next model, working out some of the major bugs from the prototype.

This time, the secret was out, and horse racing was never the same again.

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