Blog by Tim Cox, a former Trustee of the National Horseracing Museum and owner of the Cox Library.
There is an intriguing link between Palace House in Newmarket and the first running of the Eclipse Stakes in 1886. The Sandown management wanted to offer a guaranteed £10,000 to the winner. That was more than twice the value of the Derby in that year and is the equivalent of just over £1 million today. Leopold de Rothschild who owned Palace House at the time stepped in to underwrite the prize fund.
Sandown Park was making waves. It opened on Thursday 22nd April 1875 as the ‘first’ enclosed racecourse in Great Britain. This meant that everybody attending had to pay to get in. Before then only those using the grandstands or particular enclosures paid when they went racing. There had been an earlier attempt to enclose a racecourse at the Notting Hill Hippodrome in west London but this was a short-lived affair lasting from 1837 to 1842. Nowadays the crowds on the Hill on Derby Day are a reminder of how people used to go racing before there were enclosed courses.
Eleven years after its opening Sandown staged the Eclipse Stakes on Friday 23rd July 1886. This was the first race worth £10,000 to the winner run in Great Britain. It was run over a mile and a quarter by three-year-olds and upwards. There were twelve runners and it was won by the six-year-old Bendigo.
The racecourse had taken a huge financial risk but was richly rewarded by the publicity that it received and the 30,000 people who crowded into the course to watch the race.
How did the relatively new racecourse fund such a valuable prize? Michael Church in his Eclipse: The Horse – The Race – The Awards (2000) suggested that Leopold de Rothschild raised the inaugural £10,000 prize to the winner. However, this is unlikely. There is no contemporary statement to say that the prize had been put up by de Rothschild, nor, to be fair, any statement that de Rothschild had underwritten the prize. But Sandown itself believes that de Rothschild did underwrite the prize.
One of the conditions for the first Eclipse Stakes was that there should be 300 entries. Although there were only 263 subscribers, the Sandown Executive decided to go ahead. As it turned out, owners’ entry fees did cover the cost of the prize fund. In fact, there was a surplus of £430, which was divided between the second and third placed horses.
De Rothschild did not have to put his hand in his pocket, except for the twelve entries that he had made. He did not have a runner in the first race but he did win the race in 1896 with St. Frusquin. St. Frusquin was ridden by Tommy Loates and trained by Alfred Hayhoe, who trained from the Palace House Stables. Hayhoe used the yard, which is now called the King’s Yard and the stables that have been converted into galleries for the National Horseracing Museum.
The Eclipse did not fill in 1887 and therefore did not go ahead. The Executive tried again for a £10,000 race in 1888, but this time they had to add £2,604 to the owners’ fees before it could be staged.
Epsom came under pressure from the Jockey Club to improve the prize money for the Derby. Epsom relied on entry fees to create the prize fund for the Derby. Entries for the Derby had been dropping which in turn led to a drop in the prize money. In response Epsom guaranteed the prize fund from 1890 onwards and made up any shortfall if entry fees were not sufficient. This maintained the pre-eminence of the Derby, although it did not match the £10,000 to the Eclipse winner. It was not until 1922 when Lord Woolavington’s Captain Cuttle won £10,625 that the Derby winner earned more than £10,000.