On a spring afternoon in 1921 a horse owner named Jack Joel and his trainer, Charles Morton, waited tensely at England's historic Newmarket Race Course for the running of the Two Thousand Guineas Stakes. Entered in the mile race, a traditional stepping-stone to Epsom Downs and "The Derby," was Joel's 3-year-old colt Humorist. A handsome chestnut by Polymelus out of Jest, the colt finished second in the 1920 Middle Park Stakes as a 2-year-old and seemed at that time to possess the qualities of a Derby horse. But at 3 Humorist had gone unaccountably wrong, alternating dull and brilliant performances until his owner was about ready to present him to some young lady as a saddle horse. Before he did, however, Morton persuaded Joel to see if he could get the famous jockey Steve Donoghue to ride Humorist in the Two Thousand Guineas. Donoghue, the winning rider in the 1915 and 1917 Derbies, was reportedly seeking a mount for the 1921 classic and might well be interested in Humorist. As it turned out, he was. Indeed Donoghue welcomed the chance to solve the riddle of the fractious colt's in-and-out performances and perhaps gain himself a Derby mount.
At Newmarket they put it all to the test. Donoghue got Humorist away to a winging start. He kept the colt handily in front until the last 16th, when Humorist began to labor and fade. When their horse finished third, Joel and Morton were disgusted; Donoghue, however, felt differently about the animal. Though Humorist had lost a race, he had gained a friend.
Disgruntled bettors promptly branded the colt a quitter, an opinion reluctantly shared by his owner and trainer, but Donoghue disagreed. "Humorist is no quitter," insisted the jockey. "Something is wrong with this colt. I don't know what it could be. He didn't show any signs of injury. He had the race won and then just ran out of petrol. Let's have the vet look him over."
The stable veterinarian found nothing wrong with Humorist except that he was rather seriously underweight. He recommended a lighter training schedule, an extra grain ration in the morning and hot bran mash at night. Care, he said, should also be taken that the colt did not become chilled and thereby risk catching a cold.
October 8, 1972
With the Derby only three weeks off and Humorist his sole eligible starter, Joel held anxious council with Morton and Donoghue. The latter, still believing in Humorist, was all for allowing the colt to start in the Derby—but only if he trained well and looked fit at post time. And so Morton trained Humorist lightly, gave him his extra food rations and kept him in the barn on cold rainy days. At night the grooms checked every hour to make sure the colt didn't shed his stable blanket. Humorist responded to the careful handling with a series of dazzling works. "He's got it now!" exulted Donoghue to Morton after a swift ride aboard the little chestnut on the training strip at ancient Newmarket Heath. "He finished the mile with plenty left and begging to run."
Morton shrugged. "I hope you're right," he said. "But he still has a week to go."
On Derby Day, Epsom Downs was clear and bright, and the vast crowd in a holiday mood. Best of all, Humorist seemed in top form.
"He had gained a little weight and looked extremely fit," wrote Donoghue later. "He nipped at my arm before we went to the post as if he were trying to tell me he was all right. He had never done that before, and so I took it as an omen of victory." But long-memoried bettors, burned at Newmarket, did not share his optimism and allowed the little chestnut to go off at longish odds of 6 to 1.
Donoghue's prerace plan that day was to conserve his mount's questionable stamina by carefully timing his every move, and the jockey was later to call this "my greatest ride." Many of England's top horsemen agreed.
Steve held Humorist off the lead for eight furlongs of the approximately 1½ mile course. Here, Epsom Downs levels out after a brief downhill run, and now the Derby begins to exact its toll and, as the punters say, "The colts are separated from the horses."
Two horses, Alan Breck and Leighton, were leading Humorist at the mile, but now Donoghue was ready to make his move. As the jockey had expected, the long grind had slowed the speed horse Leighton and, as he faltered, Humorist moved into second position one length behind Breck. Humorist was still running well within himself, but Donoghue dared not call on him for more speed at this point. The colt was not all out, yet Steve sensed that he had little in reserve. His smooth action had roughened slightly in the last eighth, enough to warn his experienced rider that he might come to grief in the stretch drive.
It was the habit of Alan Breck, another speed horse, to bear out when he was tiring. This fact presented Donoghue with a tricky tactical problem. If he went out with Breck as the latter drifted, he would lose priceless ground that he could never get back at this stage of the race. If he went inside, he could gain ground and perhaps the winning edge in a tight race—provided that Breck did indeed go into his outward drift.
Watching the leader closely, Donoghue saw Breck flip his tail in the jerky motion that betrays a weary, discouraged racehorse. Momentarily now, according to his past form, Breck should drift out from the rail—but Steve could not wait for that to happen to make his move. To ensure that vital edge, he must gamble on Breck following his usual racing pattern, and so, boldly, Donoghue guided Humorist for the opening that had not yet appeared. The colt hung for a tense instant—then came willingly. As he reached the leader's tail, Breck, as if on cue, moved out from the rail just enough to let Humorist through. The cool gamble had paid off.
Leading the field now, Donoghue used all his racing skills to keep Humorist from running himself out in the stretch, which at Epsom turns into an uphill ordeal for the last 300 yards. Humorist came into the stretch two lengths in front. Now came the last and greatest challenge. Moving up fast on the outside, driving past fading horses, came late-running Craig an Eran, with Jockey Brennan whipping hard. Eran had beaten Humorist in the Two Thousand Guineas. Now, on the longer course, Brennan was confident that his powerful stretch runner could win again. Eran drew even with Humorist's saddle girth, gradually moved up until both colts were eye to eye. Then, as they approached the finish, Humorist inched ahead and won by a neck.
After that great victory in the Derby, Humorist was allowed to rest two weeks at his home barn at Wantage. Entered in a minor race at Ascot, the colt was scratched on the morning of the race, when Morton discovered flecks of blood inside Humorist's nostril after an easy work.
Morton immediately sent the Derby winner home. The colt appeared perfectly well upon arrival, but the stable vet was called in to examine him as a routine precaution. As before the Derby, the vet found nothing wrong.
Several days later Jack Joel engaged A. J. Munnings, the noted painter of thoroughbreds, to do Humorist's portrait for the famed Gallery of Derby Winners at the Newmarket Jockey Clubhouse. Munnings worked on the portrait all one morning before going to lunch. Returning, the artist found Humorist lying dead in his stall. Blood from the colt's mouth and nostrils stained the straw bedding around him.
Two veterinary surgeons performed an autopsy upon Humorist's body. The operation disclosed that the massive hemorrhage which killed the colt had resulted from advanced and long-standing tuberculosis. The tissue of one lung was completely degenerated and that of the other had been severely affected by the disease. Shocked at the news of Humorist's death, Donoghue paid him a horseman's tribute. "He gave me everything he had when it must have been agony for him," said the jockey. "No horse ever showed greater courage."
After Humorist's death, the racing fans who had branded the horse a quitter were—as turf writer Joe H. Palmer later sardonically noted—"somewhat abashed, a few of them for as long as 10 minutes."