EPSOM DERBY 1961

The nobbled favourite and the winner from nowhere

Derby Day 1961.
Derby Day 1961.
Photograph by John Warner © 2014
Image source: Epsom and Ewell Local & Family History Centre

Pinturischio, the nobbled favourite

Pinturischio, owned by Sir Victor Sassoon and trained by Noel Murless, was a son of Pinza, the 1953 Derby winner. Murless (later knighted) had a wonderful record, having trained the winners in 1957 and 1960 - the great Crepello and St Paddy, both owned by Sir Victor and ridden by Lester Piggott. Pinturischio's racing debut was delayed by an outbreak of coughing at the Murless stable (Warren Place, Newmarket, later run by his then son-in-law, Sir Henry Cecil), but when he did finally appear, on 13 April 1961, with Piggott up, he won the Wood Ditton Stakes at Newmarket easily, against good opposition, at odds of 2-5.

He next ran in the 2,000 Guineas as 7-4 favourite on 26 April but came only 4th. The placed runners were all outsiders, with the first and second finishers at 66-1. Murless had said beforehand that the going and distance might not suit his horse and he was still confident for the Derby. Pinturischio was due to race at York on 16 May but was 'indisposed' and his odds for the Derby (he had been the favourite) went out to 9-1. He made a recovery of sorts and resumed work but towards the end of the month Murless said there had been a relapse and he would not run. A couple of days later the horse had improved again but, having watched Piggott exercise him, the trainer announced that he would definitely be scratched.

We shall come to the actual race later on, but let's stick with Pinturischio. He was never able to race again and the reason was that he had been nobbled, not once but twice. No one was ever charged in connection with this particular horse, but there is no doubt who did it, and Pinturischio was just one of many victims of a doping gang run by bookie Bill Roper, which cleaned up a large amount of money. The skulduggery came to the authorities' attention only when there was an attempt to carry out a nobbling at the stables of the Queen Mother's trainer, Major Peter Cazalet.

At the time in question the Jockey Club's track record on doping was unreliable - respectable trainers (including the famous Vincent O'Brien) were being accused of doping when they had done nothing and doped horses were not being detected. This all came to a head when the Duke of Norfolk, a former senior steward of the Jockey Club, announced that two of his horses had been got at, a fact confirmed by private testing. Finally the Jockey Club got its act together and announced a new testing regime, but it came too late for poor Pinturischio. It was revealed eventually that the indisposition which had prevented him from racing at York was a large dose of a substance normally used as elephant laxative: this had been administered during a break-in at his stable. Then, when he was seen on the gallops, apparently recovered, they did it again.

The nobblers

The nobbler-in-chief was a bookie called Bill Roper. The way it generally worked was that Roper's young mistress, Swiss-born Micheline Lugeon, would roll up in a chauffeur-driven car (Roper played the chauffeur) posing as a French racehorse owner looking for somewhere to place her horses. Security was so lax that she was usually shown round, with Roper following behind taking note of the layout etc. Then they either bribed stable lads to administer the substance or had their gang break in at night. They only ever targeted highly fancied horses, usually in races with small fields, and once the deed was done placed bets on other horses in the race.

When the story broke trainers started talking. Fred Rimell said that Lugeon had been shown round his stables shortly before the 1961 Grand National and had taken notice of a grey horse. Soon afterwards he saw her at a racecourse with people he knew to be dubious and moved the grey elsewhere, replacing him in the stall with a 'ringer'. The ringer was duly doped, but the original horse, Nicolaus Silver, went on to win the race.

The gang eventually got cocky and overreached itself in a very stupid way. In August 1962 there were just three runners in a race at Lewes - Countess and Lucky Seven at 4-11 and Dear Joe at 20-1. Countess (trained by Dick Thrale at Downs House, Epsom) looked half-asleep and came in last. A journalist from the Sporting Life used his contacts in the bookmaking world and soon found out that the man placing big bets on the other two horses was Bill Roper. It took the Jockey Club quite a while to act on the information, but in October 1963 Roper, Lugeon and others went on trial at Lewes Assizes. The Pinturischio affair was not brought up, apparently as part of a deal with one of Murless's lads, Snuffy Lawler, who had turned Queen's Evidence to tell of his refusal to dope St Paddy for the gang prior to the 1960 Derby. At the end of a long trial everyone was found guilty, but it hardly seemed worth the trouble - Roper got just three years and Lugeon one, and this was from Mr Justice Melford Stevenson, who was noted for harsh sentencing. The full story of the doping ring is told in the book 'Doped' by Jamie Reid (paperback edition published 2014).

Micheline Lugeon and William Roper in the Daily Mirror 31 Oct 1963
Micheline Lugeon and William Roper in the Daily Mirror 31 Oct 1963
Image source: Epsom and Ewell Lacal & Family History Centre

Psidium, the winner from nowhere

Psidium means guava flower and he was so named because his owner, the six-times married Madame Etti Plesch, named most of her horses after flowers. As Derby winners go he wasn't rated that highly (and nor was Henbit, Mme Plesch's second winner, in 1980), but the race had been opened up by the withdrawal of Pinturischio and Psidium had the advantage of a great jockey - veteran Frenchman Roger Poincelet, who was a late choice. Even so, Psidium had finished only 18th out of 22 runners in the 2,000 Guineas and thus started the Derby at 66-1.

Some horses have one amazing moment and this was undoubtedly Psidium's. He wasn't even trainer Harry Wragg's number one runner in the race (that was Sovrango). To appreciate his achievement we need to understand the course.

The Derby course is 1.5 miles long and shaped like a horseshoe. There is a hill for the first half-mile (184 feet climb) and then a downhill run to Tattenham Corner, which is on a tight bend. Continuing downhill the ground drops by 100 feet and then, a furlong (880 yards/approx. 805 metres) from the winning post, the course rises again. It's all done in well under three minutes and there is a camber from side to side at the end - a difficult course.

The Epsom Derby Course
The Epsom Derby Course
This plan of the course is reproduced here by kind permission of racing historian
Michael Church, who has written many books on the subject, particularly the Derby.
Please see his website www.michaelchurchracingbooks.com for more information.

Psidium got left at the start (Poincelet said afterwards that he had done this deliberately to stay out of trouble) and was last of the 28 runners at the top of the hill (the half-mile point) and still well adrift of the main field at Tattenham Corner, but Poincelet then started to work him round the outside and tucked him in just behind the leading bunch, who were slugging it out amongst themselves. Then, just 150 yards (137 metres) from the finish, Poincelet pounced, urging Psidium into an astonishing burst of speed, and they came home by two lengths running away from Dicta Drake and Pardao - a stunning victory. The racing correspondent of The Times commented in his report that Psidium was the best horse in the field, which was a very easy thing to say after the event - and especially surprising, as the day before the race 'Our Racing Correspondent' had managed to assess the credentials of nearly every runner and had not mentioned Psidium at all. Mme Plesch was astounded, as were most other people I would guess.

In the British Pathe film of the race Psidium is Number 23 and Poincelet is in pale blue with red spots; they are at the back for most of the time, so you don't see them clearly for a while, but watch them fly as the field nears the finish.


Derby Day 1961.
Video by British Pathe via You Tube

Madame Plesch and Psidium
Madame Plesch and Psidium.
Still from above video by British Pathe via You Tube

Soon after his victory Psidium was injured and never raced again; he became a fairly successful sire and was then sold to Argentina.

Researched and written by Linda Jackson © 2014


Main sources
1. The Story of Your Life: A History of the Sporting Life Newspaper (1859-1998) by James Lambie (Extract available at http://books.google.co.uk/books)
2. Jamie Reid's prize-winning book, 'Doped', with photos, is online at Newmarket Journal.