In addition to rallying his country through World War II, King George VI was a doting father and a lifelong horseman with burgeoning riding and racing stables, so he made sure that his daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, got put in the saddle with dispatch.
Accordingly, at the ripe age of 3, Princess Elizabeth was heaved aboard a pony and never really looked back. Classically, her first personal mount was a modest, bushy-maned, dun-colored Shetland named Peggy, whom George VI gave to Elizabeth when she was four. Surprisingly lean-limbed and fit, Peggy would have been the equivalent of an equine go-kart, low to the ground, agile, enterprising but even tempered, all of which is why Shetlands make such good first horses for children.
George VIunabashedly lived up to the cliche that racing is the sport of kings in also being a keen bloodstock man who sought, bought and bred quality racing Thoroughbreds. When he died in 1952, the indefatigable Elizabeth inherited that huge operation, the aptly-named Royal Studs at Sandringham, Norfolk, in addition to inheriting the King’s stables of runners, hacking horses and hunters, and with all that, she began her immersive seven-decade odyssey into the equine world.
How passionate a horsewoman was she? Despite Covid and her increasing frailty, the Queen hadn’t skipped a Royal Windsor Horse Show since its inception in 1943, so, she resolutely determined not to miss it this May, either. When for medical reasons she had to forego her usual walkabout, but stoically insisted on visiting the show by being driven and by being walked to her seat, her trademark colorful headscarf firmly knotted against the weather.
The Queen perhaps best known to the British racing public for leading the annual spectacularly formal landau carriage parade at the Royal Ascot meeting each June and for running many of her horses in the various stakes over the week. During the her 70-year reign, Elizabeth missed attending just one Royal Ascot, the 2022 meeting this past June. But she deputized her cousin, the Duke of Kent, as her stand-in and according to reports watched it from Windsor Castle on television.
Beginning in the mid-1980s, the Queen began sending many of her breeding stable’s twenty-odd mares to Kentucky to be bred to leading American Thoroughbreds, considered to have greater speed than British racers, who are generally bred more for endurance in longer turf and steeplechase events.
At her side during the Eighties and Nineties—and dutifully played by Joseph Kloska in The Crown—was the inimitable socialite and leading gadabout-of-the-Realm Henry George Reginald Molyneux Herbert, the 7th Earl of Carnavon, aka “Porchey,” a jocular semi-derogatory Eton-ish contraction of “Porchester,” one of the earl’s pre-inheritance courtesy titles. Adding to his aristocratic luster, the Herbert/Carnavon earls own Highclere Castle, most famous as the monumental cinematic setting for the Julian Fellowes’ period television series Downton Abbey. Put bluntly, when the Queen visited “Porchey” over at Highclere, even she knew she was some place special.
In real, non-televised life, however, the 7th Earl of Carnavon was in fact a close, long-standing—and as he took great pains to point out, entirely platonic—friend of the Queen’s. Sitting astride the Herbert family fortune of several hundred million sterling back in the day when the pound meant something other than a dollar, he became the Queen’s (unpaid) racing manager, calling her almost daily from racetracks, barns and sales, rooting ceaselessly around in the pedigrees, urging her to buy this foal or that runner. Carnavon, who died twenty years ago, knew his stuff, and it helped. It was “Porchey” who engineered the Queen’s move with her mares into American bloodstock in Kentucky.
The Queen’s monumental work ethic as monarch—as when she had her valedictory “audience,” in Palace parlance, with her outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson on September 6, all bright and peppery, according to Mr. Johnson, just 48 hours before she died—applied to her level of study and devotion to her horses, especially the breeding and racing operations. Last year, at 95, she was begged by her doctors to step back from her own riding, at least. But, after the Platinum Jubilee celebrations in early June, she was clearly having none of that and the result, as the British would understate it, was that “allowances were made” for her to continue.
When the Fleet Street tab the Sun discovered in mid-June that she was riding again, it was considered “likely” that she was on her sturdy 16-year-old Fell pony, named Fern. (Fell ponies being the working farm breed from the Cumberland region of northwestern England.) They’re built lower to the ground and are easier to handle than the grander, more spirited hunters the Queen rode when she was younger. To be sure, this year’s hacks would be gentle rides around Windsor often with her groom, Terry Pendry, beside her—and sans helmet, please, just the trademark headscarf—but all in all, not a shabby bit of country pluck for a horsewoman well into her 10th decade.
Elizabeth II didn’t quit anything if she could help it, not philanthropy, not government, not public appearances, not her Christmas speech, and certainly not racing. Two days after the Queen’s death, one of her U.S.-based turf racers, West Newton, put on a stellar stretch run at Baltimore’s Pimlico and handily took his one-and-one-eighth mile race. Of course, owners and trainers don’t book their horses on the day of a race. Which is to say: The Queen and her racing managers in Britain and in the States have been entering her horses in races right down into the very last weeks of her life. That’s devotion.
Along with picking up some fine Kentucky-bred foals out of her mares, the Queen fell in love with the Kentucky Bluegrass, those lush, rolling limestone-based horse country counties around Lexington whose mineral-rich water and grass is said to build such fine bones in its Thoroughbreds. She was welcomed there most heartily—in 1984 Keeneland’s track founded the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup, and the race is still held, sponsored by Lane’s End Farm, the leading Versailles, Kentucky, stud owned by the Queen’s friend Ambassador William Farish. In all she boarded and bred dozens of mares in Kentucky and visited five times, staying with the Farishes occasionally to be up first thing and out with here horses there, but also always accompanied by the Ambassador to meetings with other breeders, owners and horsemen.
Not least: With a characteristically sharp eye on the bottom line, she gave a lot to the sport, but she also made it pay. Her horses won all the British classics: Ascot’s Gold Cup, Epsom’s Derby, the lot, and she’s been inducted into the British racing hall of fame.
As calculated from 1988—four years after “Porchey” took her to Kentucky—until 2022, Queen Elizabeth’s racers in all classes and on all surfaces won her £8.7 million, or about $10 million. She entered her horses in 3,441 races in the last 35 years, winning some 566 of them, for a respectable win percentage of 16.4%. The British research outfit that compiled those statistics notes that her stable’s most successful year was, incredibly, 2021, when she won 36 races of the 166 she had her horses enter, for a hefty win percentage of 22%, or more precisely, 21.6%. That is high. She was on track with that percentage in the early months of 2022, proving that perhaps horse racing should be known as the sport of queens.