For those that are unfamiliar with the story of Fred Archer, I’m posting a copy of an article that appeared in yesterday’s Racing Post, by Julian Muscat.
“At lunchtime on this day 125 years ago Fred Archer pointed a gun to his head and fired a single shot. The consequences were immediate. The Prince of Wales sent a telegram demanding every last detail and London’s newspapers printed special editions reserved for the passing of major public figures.
Archer was certainly that. His status as the first British sportsman to permeate the public conscience was challenged only by his contemporary the cricketer WG Grace. Archer was 11 years younger, yet he predated Grace’s entry to Madame Tussaud’s waxworks. He had ridden the winners of five Derbys and 21 British Classics.
He was 29 years old.
Archer’s story is inspirational and harrowing in equal measure. His strength and raw ferocity in the saddle made him a phenomenon, yet the brutal regime he used to keep his weight in check was debilitating in the extreme.
The delirium induced by wasting, a typhoid fever, and acute depression made him turn on himself the gun he kept by his bedside to confront intruders. He died in the room in which his wife had perished in his arms two years earlier during childbirth, as he helplessly endeavoured to keep her alive.
Falmouth House, Newmarket, which Archer built in 1883, is no more. It was demolished in the 1960s but Falmouth Lodge, from where he planned to train on his retirement, survives as Pegasus Stables. It is the home of James Fanshawe, who has restored it to its former glory.
“The place was very run down when we moved here in 1988,” the trainer says. .‘Every repair had been botched but from the day we arrived we treated it as our own, although we only rented it for the first six years.
“It’s a monument to Fred Archer and we have tried to do it justice,” Fanshawe continues. “Fred planted all the trees, which are now mature, and the place has a special feel to it. The whole thing is tied in to having relaxed horses. When decisions need to be made I often find myself asking what Fred would have done.”
Does he ever get a reply? “Most trainers believe in the supernatural,” Fanshawe says. “If we didn’t, we’d all give up. Luca Cumani believes in God after the sea parted for Presvis to win the Dubai Duty Free in March.”
In that respect Fanshawe borrows from Newmarket folklore that has Archer’s ghost dwelling at his Pegasus Stables — or alternatively, along the Hamilton Road. Archer is said to patrol the Heath on misty pie-dawn mornings aboard his favourite grey hack, Scotch Pearl. There have been many reported sightings.
Fanshawe is far from alone in entertaining the idea. In 1993 his best two-year-old, Unblest, was due to contest a Nottingham maiden. The night before some of his lads elected to summon the spirit of Archer through a ouija board.
“They called Fred up. Apparently he told them Unblest would win,” Fanshawe recalls, laughing at the memory of the 7/4 chance who duly obliged “But that wasn’t all.
“Some of them weren’t blessed with the brains to have known what else Fred told them that night- such as where he was buried, which proved correct. Fred also told one of the lads that his girlfriend would be pregnant by the following week, although I never kept tabs on that one.”
The story is typical of how legends such as Archer live on long after their death. In Archer’s case there was plenty on which to hang the hook. He was the jockey who set standards to which others had to aspire.
His achievements beggared belief. In all he rode 2,748 winners from 8,004 mounts at a strike-rate of nearly 30 per cent. And the 246 winners he posted in 1885 formed a record that stood for 48 years until Sir Gordon Richards beat it.
Yet they were just the bare bones, which is what Archer himself was reduced to. He stood 5ft 10in in his socks, a full three inches taller than Lester Piggott, whose spartan diet would have seemed a feast to Archer.
Breakfast consisted of half an orange washed down with one spoonful of hot castor oil. For lunch he ate one sardine with a glass of champagne. He would then go out and ride like a man possessed, as ruthless on his horses as he was to jockeys who got in his way. Hence the vernacular adopted by London cabbies in a hurry: “Archer’s up’.
Despite minimal rations he was forced to douse his body with a purgative known to his doctor as Archer’s Mixture. He would drink by the glass a concoction that induced nausea in others who took a small mouthful. Then he would sit for hours in a Turkish bath.
Even by 1877, aged 20 and with the full set of Classic victories, he was plagued by weight problems. Distant were the days when he rode his first winner, over fences at Bangor in 1869, when Archer, then 12, tipped the scales at 4st 11lb.
Four years later and he failed by just three winners to land the jockeys’ championship when still apprenticed to Mat Dawson, who trained in the Heath House Stables now occupied by Sir Mark Prescott. It merely delayed the inevitable: Archer would be champion for the remaining 13 years of his life.
He took no prisoners along the way He once put his brother Charlie over the rails for daring to poke up his inside and wielded the whip as an instrument of pain. In those days the whip narrowed to a sharp point for the purpose of piercing a horse’s skin. Archer used it without mercy.
His deeds set him apart. When not required by Lord Falmouth, who retained him, he was in huge demand with an aristocracy which accorded him far more respect than customary in those feudal times. He was also courted incessantly by well-heeled women with ulterior motives, whom he kept at arm’s length.
Introspective out of the saddle, he became a foul-mouthed tyrant on weighing out. Evidence of a psychotic will to win abounded. When he duelled aboard Jannette with hot favourite Isonomy in the 1879 Doncaster Cup, Isonomy returned with blood seeping from his shoulder.
Archer was also a notoriously bad punter in an era when jockeys could bet. He did so in large amounts, sometimes on horses he rode against, thus leaving him vulnerable to accusations of foul play. These would envelope him in his later years.
The sequence of events leading up to his suicide drove Archer to the brink. Convinced that St Mirin would take some beating in the 1886 Cambridgeshire, a rare big race Archer had yet to win, he went without food for three days to make the weight.
Come the day and he complained of feeling unwell, which was totally out of character. He then rode what he felt was an ill-judged race and was beaten a head, in the process losing fortunes for himself and his friends. The perfectionist was inconsolable.
Six days later Archer gave up his rides at Lewes and returned home. He was deliriously sick. His skeletal frame looked every bit as shrivelled as in his depiction by Spy, the famed caricaturist who portrayed him with shoulders hunched and head stooped like a man of advancing years.
For four bed-ridden days at home he told all and sundry he felt sure he was dying. Then, when the backs of his doctors and nurses were turned, he fulfilled his own prophecy.”
I would add to this story that I have heard another version of his death, which suggests that many people, then and now, believe that Fred Archer was murdered. Apparently the Prince of Wales at the time offered money for anyone who could give information, so convinced was he that Archer had met with foul play.
As it was put to me by a racing historian – Archer was at the top of his game, wealthy and had a daughter he doted on. Why would he kill himself?
He was also known as an incredibly organised man. When he died he left just one outstanding debt – with Goldings the gentleman’s outfitters on Newmarket High Street. The shop is still there and they keep Archer’s bill in the shop.
I’ve yet to see Fred and Scotch Pearl, though have heard plenty third-hand stories from lads who claim to seen a ghostly shape on the Heath, or heard the clip clop of a horse’s hooves, trotting down the Fordham Road back towards Pegasus Stables in the early hours of the morning.
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And the cartoon reffered to in the article:
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Good read PN.
Brings back a few memories.I did a project on Fred Archer at School and enjoyed researching a remarkable,and remarkably truncated,career and life.
My friends thought I was such a retentive nerd...they still do!...and I am...
Princess, great Article! He must have been one hell of a rider- maybe the best of all.
Great read PN, love a bit of history.....
Glad everyone has enjoyed it!
Great stuff Princess. Archer's achievements in such a short life were extraordinary.
My family in Lambourn knew a former trainer called Jimmy Rhodes who died in 1966 at the grand old age of 95. Rhodes rode against Archer shortly before Archer took his own life and when Rhodes was just 14. This made Rhodes the last surviving ex-jockey to ride with Archer and it is remarkable that someone was around relatively recently who could talk of his days riding against the great man.
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