Just Deserts By Elizabeth Bailey

Tuesday, July 01, 2014


I got the idea for Just Deserts from a signpost labelled Chiddingly Stud. But I knew very little about horse racing and even less about breeding. A friend’s son happened to be horse-mad and loaned me a stack of books on the subject. I rewarded this kindness by giving his name to my hero’s trainer Tidmarsh.

I discovered that the English thoroughbred, considered among the elite of race horses, was a product of 18th century breeding programs. The best champions were bred from mixed Arabian and English stock. Your canny breeder would import horses from the Arab lands and the Moorish countries of the North African Barbary coast.

Between the Arabian and the “Barb” there was not much difference. Both were compact horses, with short backs, arched necks and fine small heads. Other characteristics were large expressive eyes and full and flaring nostrils, as well as sensitivity and intelligence. The Arabian was a little faster, but the Barb had endurance. Either one, when mixed with the sturdy English horse, produced animals of stunning beauty.

You can see wonderful examples in the paintings of George Stubbs, a prolific animal artist of the time. There’s a fine painting of Letty Lade on horseback, a redoubtable woman who went from mistress to a highwayman to marriage with Sir John Lade. She was a notable “whip” and an enthusiastic racer on her own account.

These thoroughbreds were also able to keep going at the gallop for a gruelling two miles, which was the norm for races at that time. There were no fenced courses, the distance being marked off by posts. Only three to five horses raced at any one time, and were accompanied by enthusiastic racing aficionados, also on horseback, who rode from point to point and alongside, cheering on the runners.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the thoroughbred had come into its own, and a race horse was valued for its pedigree. A sire (male) who had won races might be mated with a dam (female) who had produced winners, for example. The more winners in the pedigree line, the more valuable the horse.

Even in the 18th century, there was a great deal of money thrown around at race courses, with the result that cheating was rife. A jockey might be paid to throw the race, or a groom would ride along on the wrong side of the marking post and get in the way. Money grabbing villains were not past trying to nobble a champion. “Miss Nightingale died the Sunday before the race and they found two pounds of duck-shot in her stomach.” Another horse, Tosspot, was drugged, and Rosebud was poisoned.

The Jockey Club was formed to keep control. It was run by such notables as Sir Charles Bunbury and since most horses were owned by aristocrats and gentlemen, the organisation was able to curb the worst excesses by blackballing anyone found guilty and banning them from racing. The Club also made rules about betting on races.

Not that today’s RSPCA would have approved of racing entrepreneurs. Their training regimes consisted of sweating off extra weight so that horses became far too thin with their ribs showing through their skin. And the whip was not spared. These matters aside, it was an exciting and explosive time in racing.

For my purposes, the 18th century worked perfectly, giving my hero Chiddingly his life’s aim in wishing to “breed a super-champion and found a money-spinning equine dynasty”. Unfortunately, his hobby proves too expensive for his means, and he is therefore on the look-out for an heiress to supply the want in his own coffers.

Enter the nabob’s daughters, newly returned from Bombay where they have grown up in a much freer milieu than the strict regime of London society. Naturally, our heroine is equally horse-mad, which does not prevent the sparks from flying.

It was joy to be able to include real people from the era in the novel, especially the racing notables: Sir Charles Bunbury and Lord Derby – who won the bet that named the race course after himself, not to mention his actress mistress Elizabeth Farren; Lord Egremont, who owned the biggest stud in the country at Petworth; Lord Clermont, who won the Derby with a horse called Aimwell; and the notorious Letty Lade herself. Finally, we have that lecherous and spendthrift “First Gentleman”, George, Prince of Wales, in due time to become Prince Regent.

With the romance weaved into this background, the story also serves to bring to life again a fascinating aspect of this period in England’s history.

Elizabeth Bailey is the author of 18 traditional historical romances and 2 historical mysteries (the Lady Fan series). Read more about her books on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/dashboard

Please leave a comment for a chance to win a Kindle copy of Just Deserts!