- In Search of Running Rein: The Amazing Fraud of the 1844 Derby
Back in 1996, I published a short article in the International Journal of the History of Sport on Lord George Bentinck, the Jockey Club, and racing morality in mid nineteenth-century England, which in part explored the various famous racing scandals attached to the 1844 Epsom Derby, setting it in the broader context of British racing culture. The Derby was and is the leading English race for three-year-olds. Only the best of young horses coped with its mile-and-a-half of undulating and demanding turf, and by 1844 it was a major betting focus. That year there were two attempts to substitute secretly three-year-old entries with similar horses a year older and so stronger and more mature. These potential substitutions were already rumored well before the race, and formal objections by Bentinck and others owning horses were made in the week before the Derby. But both the Epsom stewards and the Jockey Club strangely refused to act. One of the substitute horses, racing under the name of Running Rein, actually won. The notorious gambler and defaulter Abraham Levi (a.k.a. Goodman) was the man behind this audacious fraud. The other substitute horse, Leander, owned by the German horse dealers the Litchwald brothers, was struck by Running Rein’s hoof during the race and later destroyed. The substitution was revealed when his body was examined. Bentinck’s own horse Ratan, a leading favorite, was rumored to have been “made safe,” and though Bentinck checked the betting book of his jockey, Sam Rogers, and had the horse guarded closely, it finished a poor seventh. Later in the year Rogers was “warned-off” by the Jockey Club. After the race Bentinck took up the cause of the second horse Orlando and tracked down the evidence to ensure that Running Rein was disqualified.
The tale is a fascinating one, merging complex contemporary attitudes to gambling and social class mixing with honor on the turf and ethnic prejudice, and the race has recently attracted more substantive coverage in the form of two book-length studies. In 2010 professional writer Nicholas Foulkes brought out Gentlemen and Blackguards: Gambling Mania and the Plot to Steal the Derby of 1844 (2010). This was extremely well constructed, entertaining, and hugely readable. However it exploited few new sources, whilst Foulkes’s actual understanding of racing, horses, and the wider context was relatively limited. .
By contrast Tony Byles is not a professional writer or historian but has a love of horses and racing. To his credit he exhibits many of the historian’s skills, and he provides us with a stronger account than hitherto, for three main reasons. Firstly, the depth of his historical research stands out, as does his exploitation of a much wider range of sources than previously. Among these were material in Jockey Club and Weatherby’s files, court transcripts, county archives, records offices, and the newspaper archives at Colindale, especially the sporting press. Second, this was a very complex, difficult case both in its details and in its aftermath, and both are handled well, with a strong sense of the cultural context, drawing [End Page 498] attention to new insights and findings. Thirdly, the book, rarely for a sports history, conveys a sense of place as well as time. Byles visited training centers and racecourses associated with the event, such as Newmarket, Epsom, and Norton (Malton, Yorkshire) as well as the country houses of some breeders and owners and even traveled to Poland in his pursuit of what happened to “Running Rein” afterwards.
There are a few reservations. The bibliography of secondary works is relatively brief, and the footnoting is limited. Byles has a love of horses and racing, but historians of sport may well find the occasional chapters and appendices devoted largely to conformation and breeding of the horses involved less interesting than they undoubtedly are to those readers whom anthropologist Kate...