Brown Jack – British Folk Hero
We all have our favourite race horses. For one reason or another certain horses just seem to capture our hearts, whether it is due to performance, character, beauty or some other trait. During the late 1920’s and early 1930’s a brown gelding was the toast of racing fans in England. His name was Brown Jack, the undisputed darling of the race world during the depression era.
Brown Jack was bred in Ireland by G.S. Webb in 1924 and was not considered fashionably bred. He was a late bloomer as a racer, but he had an abundance of character and won at the Royal Ascot meeting seven consecutive years. He brought hope and victory to those that needed it at a time when hope was a distant feeling. He was the working man’s hero.
The only recommendation of pedigree class to be seen in Brown Jack’s pedigree was the fact that he was inbred to St. Simon 4×4. The dam sire of Brown Jack’s sire Jackdaw is St. Frusquin, while the dam sire of his mother Querquidella was Kroonstad, a son of St. Simon’s daughter Sabra. While St. Frusquin was one of the best sons of St. Simon at stud, Kroonstad was the best of the foals Sabra produced. He was an out and out stayer in the traditional sense and was a great grandson of Solon, in turn a son of the immortal West Australian. There was back class in the pedigree of Brown Jack, but that class was quite distant.
Sir Harold Werner purchased the then unraced Brown Jack when the colt was three years old. Brown Jack was not in the best of health when Sir Harold acquired him. The story goes that the colt was nursed and brought back to health with the aid of warm beer, eggs and the odd shot of whisky. Whether this is true or not, it does add to the mystic of this legendary Thoroughbred.
Brown Jack began his racing the next year in hurdles, not on the flat. The Hon. Aubrey Hastings was his trainer and the long winded colt had great success over the jumps. Brown Jack won seven of his ten races with the Ascot Stakes and the Champion Hurdle at the 1928 Cheltenham Festival being his major victories. Such a terrific campaign would normally indicate that such a horse would be kept to the hurdle/steeplechase discipline of racing. However, Brown Jack was destined to become a groundbreaker in race horse management.
There are several theories as to why the change in Brown Jack’s preferred racing discipline was altered. One has it that legendary jockey Steve Donoghue was insistent that the colt was a better performer on the flat, as long as the distance of the race was two miles or further. Another has it that the colt’s connections wanted to win races with larger purse money, and since the flat races had substantially bigger purses than the jumps, this reason was the key. For whatever the main reason, the call to bring Brown Jack to the flat was certainly a wise call. Donoghue would be the only rider Brown Jack partnered on the flat. The two became inseparable.
In 1929 Aubrey Hastings passed away. Former jockey Ivor Anthony, whose brothers Jack and Owen were top jocks and later National Hunt trainers, took over as Brown Jack’s conditioner. Donoghue and Brown Jack began an unparalleled run in 1929 at the prestigious Royal Ascot meet. The Queen Alexandra Stakes is a grueling twenty-two furlongs, or two miles and six furlongs if you prefer, in distance. Brown Jack won the race over Arctic Star and thus began a love affair with the Ascot faithful and the public at large. A new hero had emerged.
The following year Brown Jack again took the Queen Alexandra and added for good measure the Doncaster Cup (18 furlongs) and the Goodwood Cup (21 furlongs). As the public gravitated to this star of the stayers, the quirky points of Brown Jack were now being reported in the racing press. “Brown Jack was a character, lazy at home but all business on the course. He loves his cheese sandwiches and spends most of his days snoozing.” said one reporter of the day. Another report claimed “Brown Jack likes to sit on the edge of the manger in his stall when he wanted to relax and have a nap. When you’ve got style, you’ve got that unique something no one forgets”. The public could not get enough Brown Jack stories to whet their appetite.
1931 brought more trophies to Brown Jack’s mantle. His third consecutive Queen Alexandra Stakes win and victories in the gruelling Ebor Handicap at York, the Chester Cup and the Rosebery Purse were recorded. Wherever Brown Jack ran, attendance at the venue would swell to overflowing capacity. Brown Jack could not defend his previous year’s victories in both the Doncaster Cup and the Goodwood Cup, finishing second in both events. However the huge contingent of his fans was not dismayed. One of the many factors that endeared him to his followers was that he was fallible. Stayers do not win every time out, but in Brown Jack you can be sure that he will give the best he has on the day. One cannot ask for more from any horse.
At the age of eight, Brown Jack was being toasted as one of the greatest stayers in Thoroughbred history. He had given so much too so many, but could he continue to keep atop the stayers ranks? Brown Jack returned to Ascot and won his fourth consecutive Queen Alexandra at Royal Ascot. Now one must remember that this race is the longest of the distance races on the flat racing calendar. With this win Jack was entering elite company. It was the fifth year in a row that he won at Royal Ascot, a record at the time that has yet to be reached. Brown Jack in the next two years would extend this record to an unreachable level.
Brown Jack won the Queen Alexandra in 1933 and finished second to Sans Peine in the Goodwood Cup. Now nine years old, many Thoroughbred observers were of the opinion that he might be slowing down. What more could the beloved Brown Jack have left in him. He has nothing left to prove to anyone. Surely this must be the end for the great gelding.
Well not so fast. Brown Jack had one more thrill to give his fans and the turf world in general the following year. The 1934 Queen Alexandra Stakes has gone down as one of the most memorable and universally satisfying events to have ever taken place in racing history. Let’s set the stage.
Prior to the race, Ivor Anthony had told the press that this edition of the Queen Alexandra would be the final race in the gelding’s glorious career. Win or lose. Brown Jack had already finished third in the Chester Cup. The old warrior still loved to compete. He may be “long in the tooth” according to the press, but he was still the darling of the thousands of race fans that showed up at Ascot on this day. A ten year old taking on high class stayers half his age, and in their prime, would surely be up against it. I’m reminded of the old saying “Experience trumps youthful enthusiasm every time”. Brown Jack was about to prove that even equines live by this credo.
Ivor Anthony was a nervous wreck before the Royal Ascot race. He knew in his heart that Brown Jack was ready, but he could not bear to watch the race. After he gave Donoghue a leg up to mount Jack, Anthony sat alone behind the stands. He could hear the huge crowd in any case so he would know the result. Shouts of “Good Luck Jack” and banners all around the course and on the drive to the venue read “Brown Jack Today”. Never has so much support and good will been bestowed on a single horse before.
Brown Jack did not disappoint. The usual cheer for as horse ridden by Steve Donoghue was “Come on Steve!” However on this day the cheers were for his mount. “Come on Jack! Come on Jack!” rang throughout Ascot on this glorious sunny day. The crowd watched as the grand old fella of racing crossed the finish line two lengths in front. The crowd noise was so loud that the stands rocked in the thunderous volume. Jack had done it. Hollywood could not have scripted a more heartfelt victory, and it really did happen!
“I have never seen such a sight anywhere, and especially at Ascot. Hats were raised in the air in every enclosure. Eminently respectful ladies in the Royal Enclosure raised their skirts and ran with as much dignity as possible to meet the victorious horse and rider. Such as scene could only be witnessed in this country, and in my time, never with such intensity”. These words from author Robert Lyle in his book about Brown Jack summed up the moments following Jack’s final race.
Steve Donoghue stated “Never will I forget the roar of the crowd as long as I live. Ascot or no Ascot they went mad. All of my six Derby wins faded before the reception that was awaiting Jack and myself. I don’t think I was ever so happy in my life”.
The “King of Ascot” bowed out on top. Six consecutive victories in the gruelling Queen Alexandra Stakes and seven consecutive wins at Royal Ascot. Safe to say that this is a record that is unapproachable, let alone untouchable. Brown Jack was famous before the day, now he became immortal. As popular as Seabiscuit was to American fans during depressed times, you can magnify that feeling five time more, then you get the magnitude of Brown Jack on the English racing fan.
The one race he did not win was the prestigious Ascot Gold Cup. Why you may ask? Well since he was a gelding, he was not eligible to enter, thus he never had the chance to compete. So he made the Queen Alexandra Stakes his own private domain at the annual Royal meet. The debate still rages on as to what he could have achieved if he were eligible for the Gold Cup. To stay sound for such a long career and win the longest race on the calendar six years in a row is an accomplishment like no other.
Brown Jack lived a happy carefree life after his racing career ended. At the age of twenty-four, Brown Jack passed away. Ascot visitors can pay homage to Jack at his life sized bronze statue on the grounds. Apropos setting for the horse that literally owned the Ascot course.
Never will there be such a beloved horse. When I speak of “Glorious Geldings” the name of Brown Jack is right there at the top.
( Photo of Champion racehorse Brown Jack with jockey Steve Donoghue up, circa 1928. courtesy of Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
(1936 Gallaher Cigarette Card trading card of Brown Jack, Steve Donoghue up.)