Then King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were present a month after the joy of VE Day to watch Dante, a horse going blind, become the last Yorkshire winner of the Flat’s ultimate race and lift a newly-liberated nation’s spirits after the austerity of war.
He was more than the ‘great hope of the North’. He was “one of the best horses of the century” according to Timeform’s form guru Phil Bull. He also inspired Sir Peter O’Sullevan, later the ‘voice of racing’.
Yet, just as the absence of spectators at Epsom due to Covid-19 will not diminish the Derby winner’s standing in the history of the thoroughbred, it is the same with wartime Derbies which were held at Newmarket because the Prince’s Stand at Epsom, an uniquely undulating course, had been commandeered by the Army as an officer’s mess.
In 1941, Dante’s owner, Sir Eric Ohlson, acquired the Dark Legend mare Rosy Legend, in foal to the imported Italian stallion Nearco, and gave birth to the future champion on March 7, 1942.
Unsold at the yearling sales, Dante retuned to Middleham to be trained at Manor House Stables by Matt Peacock and word of the colt’s precociousness soon reached O’Sullevan who, due to bronchial illness, had been enlisted with the Chelsea Civil Defence rescue service.
In his autobiography Calling The Horses, he wrote: “In 1944, while German scientists were refining the flying bombs and rockets which were already menacing London, Matt Peacock, a dour affectionately regarded Yorkshireman, was cultivating a rather more wholesome ‘flier’ named Dante.
“Well before his first public appearance (at Stockton on May 10, 1944), it was being said that anyone who backed him to win the following year’s Derby need have only one concern – survival.” No wonder O’Sullevan, who died in 2015 at the age of 97, never needed an overdraft.
Observing that only rumour travelled faster than flying bombs, while pessimistic over his own “odds of survival”, word reached him that a colt called Timanov had won emphatically at Pontefract. The significance? The horse could not keep up with Dante, along with his white star and one white rear hoof, on the Middleham gallops.
Starting at 6-1 for Stockton’s Linthorpe Stakes, Dante and jockey Willie Nevett of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps won convincingly and then landed the prestigious Coventry Stakes – Royal Ascot had been switched to Newmarket – 10 days after the Normandy Landings.
Further success came over the Middle Park Stakes at Newmarket before the fastidious O’Sullevan spent a fretful winter mulling over the Derby – and his shorthand – at the outset of an unrivalled career in racing journalism.
His brief attendance at Pitman’s Secretarial College resulted in his teacher Elizabeth Collinson “being converted to racing before she had converted me to shorthand”. His speed, he said, was 50 per cent slower than longhand and 75 per cent indecipherable.
He then had a job interview with the Press Association. Could he take notes in shorthand? The canny O’Sullevan took up the story in his memoir: “In the time it takes Dante to run five furlongs, I could, I claimed, just about write ‘They’re off’ and even read back the message. Happily, this deficiency was overlooked.”
O’Sullevan celebrated by placing three significant ante-post bets on Dante for his Classic campaign and the horse returned to Stockton, a very fair dual purpose racecourse now home to the Teesside Park retail complex, to make a winning comeback in the Roseberry Stakes.
“You could play polo with him. While I’m talking to him during a race he seems to know what I’m saying, and certainly knows what I mean when I say ‘Go on boy’,” said Nevett in one interview.
But days before the 2000 Guineas, run on Newmarket’s long and galloping July Course 24 hours after VE Day, Dante’s nearside vision gave grounds for concern – it was thought the eye had been struck by a flint.
Drawn 20 on the stands side, reported O’Sullevan, it is thought Dante never saw Court Martial, who held on gamely to win the Guineas.
Then the Derby. “Dante’s eyesight continues to be a source of worry and rumour. In the Derby, he momentarily drifted off a true line, as though losing his way, before running on to win comfortably,” he recorded.
“It was a marvellous performance by a handsome horse of outstanding class, understandably rated by his equally popular Northern partner, Willie Nevett, for whom he was a third Derby winner, ‘the best I ever rode’. The Leger appeared a foregone conclusion.”
Also significant was that Dante challenged towards the centre of the track with his rivals on the right. It meant he could see them. The victory sparked great celebrations in Middleham but Dante, the North’s first Derby winner since Pretender in 1869, did not make the St Leger which was run at York.
The “dark rumours”, which reached O’Sullevan and the Press Association in August, 1945, were true. Dante was almost blind and scratched from the final Classic. “During his races he seldom saw another horse. Now, tragically, he would never see one clearly again,” observed O’Sullevan.
Retired to Theakston Stud, Dante sired the winners of 256 races, including Carrozza, who won the 1957 Oaks under Lester Piggott in the colours of the Queen. He died in 1956 after his eye disease returned.
No other Yorkshire horse has since come close to winning the Derby, though Karl Burke’s Libertarian was third in 2013 and Dee Ex Bee runner-up in 2018 for Mark Johnston.
However, the champion’s legacy was the creation of the Dante Stakes at York in 1958. Now the most noted Derby trial of all, 10 racing greats – most recently Golden Horn – have won this race on Knavesmire and then triumphed at Epsom. Ironically, this year’s renewal will take place on July 9 – five days after the Derby. At least it is being staged.
Meanwhile, The Yorkshire Post’s post-Derby edition in 1945 provided an insight into the race’s significance as the post-war election was fought.
The paper included the returns from Newmarket where the result of the 2.15pm – Dante’s race – was preceded by two words ‘The Derby’ in a more distinctive bold type.
After all, there is only one Derby – then and now. Just as Dante lost nothing by winning his Classic at Newmarket, the absence of a crowd this weekend will not detract from the 2020 renewal of the still iconic race.
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