A history-maker whose incredible feat may never be repeated
Celebrating the extraordinary achievements of Dorothy Paget and Golden Miller
In this excerpt from Dorothy Paget: The eccentric queen of the sport of kings, by Graham Sharpe and Declan Colley, the legendary Golden Miller captures the 1934 Gold Cup
The pre-war era was indeed a great one for racing, and horses like Golden Miller and Brown Jack – the great Flat gelding who won the Champion Hurdle in 1928, and then the longest race in the Flat calendar, the Queen Alexandra Stakes, for six successive years from 1929 to 1934 – caught the imagination of a public which adored its sporting heroes, both two- and four-legged. Part of their appeal was their longevity and familiarity, allowing racegoers to get to know and support them and their connections for years on end, taking public ownership of them in the process. People turned out in vast numbers to race meetings to see their idols in action.
The late Sir Peter O’Sullevan was a very young man back then, but he recalled the times with characteristic clarity.
"I remember the Golden Miller era and the public love of the horse. An analogy of that era would have been the popularity of Brown Jack, because he evoked a similar sort of hysteria to Golden Miller, with ladies plucking hairs from his tail and that sort of thing.
"There were enormous crowds, because there were no real alternative attractions. You’d get hundreds of thousands at Aintree, because it was a punctuation point in the sporting calendar. The Manchester November Handicap and the Leger at Doncaster were two meetings that were populated by miners – look at any pictures of those meetings and you will just see rows and rows of flat caps. Apart from football, there were few other attractions for people to go to, and most of the footballers were miners anyway. There was no suggestion of women having any say in anything – it just wasn't the way of it back then."
In the run-up to the 1933/4 season there was no doubting the Miller’s growing popularity, but for his trainer the focus was on getting the horse to Aintree and getting him to win there. Dorothy had left Briscoe in no doubt that this was the primary aim: if Gold Cups and other successes came along, well and good, but the real goal was to win the Grand National.
Having prepared the horse throughout the summer months, Briscoe set the Lingfield Open Steeplechase at Lingfield Park on 25 November 1933 as the race in which his charge would open his season. The man chosen for the ride was Gerry Wilson, the champion jockey from the 1932/3 season. A superb horseman as well as a tough and uncompromising jockey, Wilson had ridden the Miller in his first steeplechase, finishing second to Rolie at Newbury in February 1931. Wilson was a hard man in the saddle, but to the outside world he presented a positive and jovial demeanour. Dorothy was said to be disarmed by his general breeziness, her overwhelming shyness moderated by the jockey’s overt personality and his disinclination, unlike many others, to bow and scrape in her presence.
The renewed partnership lined up at Lingfield, facing a very strong field which included old rivals Thomond II and Kellsboro Jack. It was very unusual for the reigning Gold Cup and National winners to be pitched in against each other so early in the season, but there were few complaints from the huge crowd which turned up to see them going head-to-head. Thomond II had already had two outings that season, winning both, while Kellsboro Jack also had a run under his belt. Briscoe was confident of a good run, and his horse duly started as 8-11 favourite for the three-mile contest on good ground.
As probably the fittest of the five runners, Thomond II made the initial running. But coming to the fourth last Kellsboro Jack and the Miller eased past Jock Whitney’s horse and entered into a gruelling duel to the line. Wilson felt his horse jink to the right at the third last as both he and the National winner winged the fence, and his mount soon found out that the jockey was not amused by such behaviour.
As they approached the second-last Wilson got his whip out and hit the Miller down the cheek. The Miller got another smack in the face as he veered right at the last, but he cleared the fence easily and came home six lengths clear in a course record of 5 minutes 56 seconds, beating Thomond II, who ran on well.
The Miller now suffered a couple of setbacks, beaten into second at Kempton on the day after Boxing Day, before finishing third as Southern Hero won with Persian Hero second at Hurst Park three weeks later. Neither of these races were amongst the horse’s main targets for the season, yet after the second defeat, the Sporting Life declared, ‘It can be questioned now whether he is entitled to be styled champion’. "He was trying to do the impossible, as Southern Hero was a really useful horse and Persian Sun won his next race by six lengths," felt Briscoe, maintaining that while the Miller’s many backers grumbled when he got beaten, "possibly at Hurst Park he put up one of the greatest performances of his career, as time eventually proved".
With the horse’s fitness in mind, after the Hurst Park failure Briscoe hired the cultured Flat jockey Harry Beasley to ride the Miller in his gallops and to make him settle into his work and exorcise his sometimes headstrong habits when working out on the Newmarket Heath. After one such gallop Beasley reported – appropriately for an owner who drove such vehicles herself – that the horse was "a real Rolls Royce". Briscoe was able to report to Dorothy that the Miller was shaping up fine for his forthcoming tilt at a third Gold Cup, and he could certainly not advise her against taking a plunge on the outcome. She took his advice and duly waded in, and undoubtedly her investments had a marked effect on the horse’s starting price when he lined up at Prestbury Park in early March.
This time around, the Miller’s trip to the Cotswolds would be made alone, as his good friend Insurance was unable to accompany him. His forelegs had proven unable to withstand the work necessary to get him fit, and he would not be able to defend his Champion Hurdle title. The Miller, 6/5 favourite, lined up in a strong 7-runner field which included several familiar faces and a few new ones too. Newspaper reports recounted a dull, dreary and wet morning ahead of racing, dampening the spirits of the massive crowd, but much pleasing the Miller’s connections, who felt their horse was crying out for a bit of give in the ground.
As the field came into view from the old Gold Cup start behind the stands a massive roar arose from the crowd. Gerry Wilson was getting such a good feel from the Miller, whose jumping was pitch-perfect, that at the water jump he moved him alongside the front-running Delaneige, taking the lead after a big leap. The Miller remained at the head of affairs as the run to the post got serious. Danny Morgan, aboard Kellsboro Jack, briefly took the lead at the third last, but the Miller had plenty left and lengthened his stride to crush Morgan's hopes, easing back into a lead he would not relinquish, running on up the final climb for a 6-length win.
Dorothy and Briscoe were overjoyed as their horse landed a true hat-trick of Gold Cup wins, passing the record of her cousin’s legendary Easter Hero in the process. Dorothy, whose fleetness of foot had often been remarked upon, largely because now it belied her increasing size, dashed from her vantage-point in the main stand down to the chute to lead her horse in to the unsaddling enclosure and a rapturous reception. Ironically, in the moment of one of her greatest racing successes thus far, she appeared stony-faced, perhaps alarmed by the size and noise of the huge throng.
Press reaction to the victory was somewhat curious: it was as if the daily newspapers still did not know what to make of the distinctly unconventional ‘Miss Paget’. Their stories painted a picture of a fantastically wealthy dilettante willing to squander money whimsically on horses and cars, even if she did display some element of social conscience by entertaining the lags in Wormwood Scrubs. There was very definitely a sense of societal jealously seeping in – something perhaps no different today.
Golden Miller wins the Grand National
Dorothy ran from her private box down to the winner's enclosure with her usual surprising alacrity and, Quintin Gilbey later recalled: "No other woman owner would have been able to fight her way through that dense, cheering, dancing throng and seize Golden Miller's rein and lead him in . . . Dorothy Paget was in the limelight she has ever since detested."
The victory was, he stated categorically, "the greatest moment in Dorothy’s life, made all the more wonderful by the disappointments which had preceded it". "If Miss Dorothy Paget ever wins the Grand National again," reported the Daily Mirror, "she will come prepared with a bodyguard to save her from her friends!"
"Never have I seen a woman receive such a good-natured buffeting as she underwent before she escaped to the shelter of the grandstand," recalled the paper’s Special Correspondent breathlessly. "Her back was thumped by innumerable fists, her right hand was almost wrenched off as entire strangers made a grab at it – she had to fight her way through a surging, shouting mass of well-wishers."
The cheering hordes gathered around the winner's enclosure would find more to applaud when word went around that the Miller had not only won the race, but had also done so in a record time of 9 minutes 20.4 seconds, knocking almost 8 seconds off the time set the previous year by Kellsboro Jack. There was much to cheer for all concerned, although when the cry went up for "Three cheers for Dorothy Paget" the recipient of this accolade was reported to have been appalled at such commonness, although she did give an awkward acknowledgement to the mob.