From Longchamps into oblivion
Just over 75 years ago the most unlikely of horse auctions took place. This is the story of the demise of some of Europe's finest thoroughbreds during and post the Second World War.
On November 21st, 1948, a horse auction was held at Front Royal, VA. A town situated 122km west of Washington D.C. At that time, it was where the US Army kept its warhorses. This however was not an auction of that kind of horse; it was an auction of thoroughbred horses. Nor were these horses bred or had raced in the USA. They were a band of the finest European racehorses.
So why were they being sold at an army base?
This is a story that is not well known and because it has been ignored in most books about the history of the thoroughbred, it is being told here as a reminder lest it be forgotten forever.
It begins in occupied Europe during WWII. This was a harsh and cruel time for racehorses. I will now refer to the fates of three champion racehorses who also excelled as sires. They are Prince Rose (1928-1944), Alchimist (1930-1945) and Pharis (1936-1957). Each suffered a different fate during this war, and each will serve as an exemplar of that kind of fate.
Prince Rose was bred in England by the Earl of Durham. Prince Rose was bought by Belgium interests and raced there. He won 16 of 20 starts and laid claim to the title of best ever in Belgium. After beginning a stud career in Belgium in 1938, when 10 years old, he was moved to Haras de Cheffreville in Normandy.
Operation Overlord, the D-day landings in Normandy, began in June 1944. The final stages of the battle of Normandy took place in August where the German resistance was caught in the Falaise pocket. While fighting was going on, an attempt was made to remove Prince Rose to a safer box, but the horse did not want to enter the new barn. He returned to his usual “home,” his stall, within a few seconds there was a loud explosion. A bomb exploded at the door of that stall, and he was killed.
Also killed at another Normandy stud by these bombardments was the superstar mare Corrida (1932-1944) who had twice won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (1936-7). Corrida had been bred by Marcel Boussac of whom there will be greater mention when the fate of Pharis is detailed.
This was one kind of fate, bombardments, to which this war had exposed elite thoroughbreds. The death of Prince Rose was to prove a significant loss to thoroughbred breeding. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s a magical match up of bloodlines emerged which produced top class performer after top class performer. This was when a stallion with NEARCO on the topline of his pedigree was mated with a mare which had PRINCE ROSE on the topline of her pedigree.
A sample of such greats include:
SECRETARIAT by Bold Ruler by Nasrullah by NEARCO. Dam by Princeqillo son of PRINCE ROSE.
BOLD LAD (USA) by Bold Ruler (as above) ex Princequillo mare.
MILL REEF by Never Bend by Nasrullah by NEARCO. Dam by Princeqillo son of PRINCE ROSE.
RIVERMAN by Never Bend (as above). Dam by Prince John by Princequllo son of PRINCE ROSE.
FORT MARCY by Amerigo by NEARCO. Dam by Princeqillo son of PRINCE ROSE.
SILVER SHARPE (Triple Derby winner in Australia) by Showdown by Infatuation by NEARCO. Dam by Arctic Explorer by Arctic Prince by Prince Chevalier by PRINCE ROSE.
N.B. Arctic Prince was bred on the reverse cross. By Prince Chevalier, a son of Prince Rose out of a NEARCO mare. Because reversing the cross has also proven successful it meant that the positive results from matching up these two bloodlines was no fluke. Also bred on the reverse cross was CHARLOTTESVILLE also by Prince Chavalier by PRINCE ROSE out of a NEARCO mare.
DRUMTOP by Round Table son of Princequillo by PRINCE ROSE ex a mare by Nasrullah by NEARCO.
DIGNITAS also by Round Table ex a Nasrullah mare.
Alchimist was born in France at the Haras de Bois Roussel and imported into Germany. His sire Herold had won the 1920 German Derby and in 1933 Alchimist repeated the feat. In the same year he opposed and defeated the older horses in the prestigious Grosser Preis von Berlin and Grosser Preis von Baden. Due to an injury, he was retired to stud as a 4YO with a career record of ten starts for six wins and three placings.
Alchimist stood at Gradwitz Stud alongside his sire Herold. His fame as a sire came when he produced the champion mare Schwarzgold (1937) who as a 3YO filly beat the colts in the German Derby. In 1945 as WWII was ending there was no horse racing in Germany and the breeding industry was dormant. As Russian troops were approaching Alchimist together with the best mares from the stud were taken west. On April 15th they reached the banks of the Mulde River, a tributary of the Elbe. There, US forces refused to allow these horses to come across because to do so would breach lines of demarcation drawn between them and the advancing Russians.
Alchimist was captured by the Russians. The Red Army had been looting horses and shipping them eastwards. An attempt was made to load Alchimist on to a truck, but he refused. A Russian soldier then shot him dead. The last book of mares he had served was in 1944 nevertheless the quality of his progeny up to 1944 was such that he became the leading sire in Germany in 1946 and 1947. Two of the progenies he had sired in 1944 are in the pedigree of the champion sire Galileo’s dam. They include Birkhahn (1948 German Derby) who sired Galileo’s 4th dam.
This was another kind of fate, at the hands of soldiers, top thoroughbreds suffered in WWII. There were reports about how German soldiers retreating from the battle of the Falaise Pocket took horses from the nearby studs. Some of these were abandoned but others were slaughtered and eaten.
Pharis had the misfortune to have been born in 1936 which meant that his classic year was 1939. That was the year in which he began racing and he won all his three starts including the Grand Prix de Paris (French Derby). In his last two races Pharis was badly blocked at the rear of the field but once he got clear running, he showed amazing acceleration to come from an impossible position to win comfortably. On that basis he has been ranked as the most impressive winner of that classic.
Across the Channel, Blue Peter had won the Two Thousand Guineas and the Derby. There was talk of a match race between these two colts to decide superiority. Pharis was the pride and joy of his owner-breeder Marcel Boussac. Then on September 1 war broke and Pharis never raced again.
In Pharis’ first season at stud, he sired 13 foals of which 10 were winners of 48 races These included Ardan whose feats as a 3Y0, including the French Derby and the Arc, made Pharis the leading sire (1944) in France. That feat needs to be qualified because by 1941 the number of horses still in training in France was 2000 compared to double that number in 1939. Many racehorses had been killed by Nazi bombardments. By 14th June 1940, the Nazis had entered Paris, the occupation of France was underway.
The Nazis were not only looting art treasures but also top-class thoroughbreds. Joseph Pulte a Lieutenant Colonel in the German Army was given the task of upgrading the German Studs at Graditz and Altefeld with top class French bloodstock. Pulte began by insulting Boussac when offering him very little for the purchase of Pharis and then forcibly took possession of the horse and sent him to Altefeld where he stood from 1941 to 1945.
Another leading French breeder to suffer was Edouard Rothschild. Most of his breeding stock was taken to Germany and the horses of racing age were auctioned off by the Vichy government to German owners. Amongst Rothschild’s breeding stock taken was the great stayer Eclair au Chocolat who had won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. The Australian jockey Rae Johnstone had rated this horse as the best stayer since Phar Lap. In 1945 all trace of this horse was lost. In all, the Germans took about 600 stallions and mares out of France. But the looting of top racehorses was not limited to France; it extended across occupied Europe.
As Boussac had refused to recognise the legitimacy of the German’s use of Pharis, all of Pharis’ progeny born in Germany were marked in the French Stud Book with a Maltese cross. In 1945 Pharis was returned safe and well to Boussac. More than 100 prize broodmares taken from France to Germany were never returned. In 1946 Boussac established the House of Dior which became a household name.
THE AUCTION AT FRONT ROYAL
In the closing stages of WWII, the US Army had come across a band of prize thoroughbred mares which had been taken to Germany by the Nazis from other countries including Hungary. They were with the 4YO stallion Nordlicht (Oleander-Nereide) who had won the 1944 German and Austrian Derbies.
The US Army claimed all these horses as spoils of war. It then brought them all back to the USA hoping to cash them in. There now arose a problem. During the war, the General Stud Book had adopted a policy of not recognising the produce of mares stolen by the Nazis. The (US) Jockey Club followed this lead and so refused to accept them into the American Stud Book. This meant that these mares should be returned to their country of origin. Now the US Congress intervened and forbade that. One of the viable options now left for the Army was to use these horses as army horses. However, that alternative was soon struck down by a decision to replace all horsepower with armour. So, the Army now handed over to the Department of Agriculture, which had a breeding programme for farm horses, whatever animals it thought fit for this programme. Those that were selected were sent West and the remainder were those that were now to be auctioned on November 21st, 1948, at Front Royal.
The auctioneer Humphrey Finney made it clear to prospective buyers not to expect the Jockey Club to register any of the 62 mares for sale, some of them in foal to Nordlicht. There was one horse however which the Jockey Club did register and that was the stallion Nordlicht because he was not stolen. Nordlicht was sold for $20,300 to a syndicate. Unfortunately, Nordlicht proved to be a disappointment at stud. The 62 mares fetched an average price of $662, a fraction of what they would have been worth in pre-war Europe.
“The Blood Horse” remarked: “The finest group of cold bloods ever seen in America is now scattered throughout the country.”
Here was a collection of thoroughbreds of which each had been selected because of prowess on the racetrack or at stud. Had they stayed in Europe and been returned to their country of origin they had the potential to revitalise the thoroughbred breeding industry there in the aftermath of the war.
German breeders sought the return of Nordlicht because he was a son of Oleander who had been the leading sire in Germany nine times up to 1944. That request was ignored. This collection was taken away from Europe because it was not evaluated by the US Army according to its strength but in terms of dollars. That is why it was taken to the USA.
As a result, because of the events just described this gene pool of immense value for the racetrack was devalued into the production of offspring (Nordlicht excluded) destined never to be recorded into the stud book and so cast into oblivion.
Although found alive, all of these mares may well have been described as “lost and no record of them found after 1945”- the same fate as Eclair au Chocolat.