The astonishing Frankel is being widely celebrated as the greatest racehorse ever. No one can deny that he is among the very greatest, but, even after his magnificent win yesterday, my own opinion is that he is no better than the late great Brigadier Gerard and perhaps not as good. My view is not based on any expertise: it is based on the unusual experience of being the Brigadier’s sister-in-law, so to speak, and being part of his family throughout his life.
Brigadier Gerard was the cherished darling of the late John and Jean Hislop, carefully bred and nurtured by them, and of much greater interest to them during his lifetime than their two sons or me, their future daughter-in-law. I always felt my father-in-law would have preferred me to be a filly. But at least I had the good fortune, from the age of 19, of watching Brigadier Gerard closely. With family bias I have always been convinced there will never be a greater racehorse.
I am hardly alone. The celebrated jockey Joe Mercer, who rode the Brigadier in all his 18 races, said earlier this year that while Frankel might perhaps equal the Brigadier, he could not better him. A Radio 5 Live panel, convened last Thursday to decide which had been the greatest horse on the flat, came to the same conclusion. Cornelius Lysaght, the BBC’s racing correspondent, the late Shergar’s jockey Walter Swinburn and the jockey turned writer Brough Scott debated the question at erudite length and found the Brigadier the equal of any of the greats.
Whatever the truth, the success of Brigadier Gerard, along with his breeder and owner John Hislop, makes a wonderful British fairy story. It is worth remembering, like our Olympics this year, as a very British achievement. For one thing, thoroughbred racing on the flat as we know it today was a British invention: three great Arab stallions — the Godolphin Arabian, the Darley Arabian and the Byerley Turk — were imported to England in the early 18th century by aristocratic lovers of racing, and all racing thoroughbreds everywhere in the world are descended from these three.
The General Stud Book, the equine equivalent of the Almanach de Gotha, lists every single mating, and my father-in-law was in his day a world expert on breeding. He knew the stud book almost by heart as a result of studying it obsessively during many months spent in hospital after a bad injury while steeplechasing — he was himself champion amateur jockey 13 times running before the war, when, incidentally, he joined the SAS and was dropped behind enemy lines in France. This is a British fable but it’s true.
It was John Hislop’s knowledge of the minutiae of breeding — which bloodlines ran to stamina, which to speed, which to character — that enabled him to breed many successful horses without much money, while he did other work. He earned large sums for advising exotic plutocrats on matings and he was a well-paid racing correspondent. But his heart was in breeding. When a particularly beautiful foal was born to him in 1968 from a mare called La Paiva that he had bred himself, he said immediately that this was the one. He never had any doubt. He named the foal after Arthur Conan Doyle’s swashbuckling character Brigadier Gerard and we, the rather less interesting older siblings in our late teens, realised at once that our new brother was pretty much the Messiah.
Brigadier Gerard was cheaply bred. His sire was a horse of no great distinction owned by a friend and neighbour, the racing enthusiast Lord Carnarvon, who lived at Highclere Castle — now widely known as Downton Abbey — and with whom my mother-in-law played vituperative bridge. Quite apart from my mother-in-law hurling her disputed bridge debts in halfpennies at the unlucky butler at Highclere, this was all a very extraordinary introduction to racing life for me. Up until then I had known only gymkhanas and West Country point-to-points. This was rather different.
I was allowed to visit the Brigadier several times. Even in extreme youth he was the incarnation of the alpha male: an exotic girlfriend of my husband’s brother was kept away from him because, according to my mother-in-law, she wore too much scent and it would distract him sexually. Then, as soon as the Brigadier was old enough to race, he won everything. He never lost. Or, rather, out of his 18 races he lost only one, to Roberto at York, and even then, in coming second, he beat the course record. My mother-in-law used to mutter angrily about anabolic steroids. But while we told her that such talk was slanderous, my father-in-law made the much graver charge that it was unsporting.
Watching the Brigadier race was like a long summer dream, very long ago now, in the early 1970s. Towards the end of a race he would just gather speed and leave the rest of the field behind effortlessly. Then there would be champagne. As things progressed there would be not only champagne, but also roars of patriotic enthusiasm from the crowd for horse, owner and Britain, newspaper headlines, introductions to plutocratic owners, the royal enclosure, the winners’ enclosure, conversations with the Queen, invitations to lunch with the Queen Mother, the full Monty. There was even a moment when the then Duke of Norfolk, to my fury, languidly offered me upon introduction not his hand but his finger. I went about in the turbulent wake of my formidable mother-in-law. As I had few “good” clothes, she would stuff me into dresses she thought suitable; I felt like a female impersonator.
Very early in the Brigadier’s career, when the best was yet to come, my parents-in-law were offered £250,000 for him. That was a huge sum and probably worth at least 10 times more today. At the time there was one of those life-changing conversations in the kitchen discussing it but — although my parents-in-law were deeply mired in debt — the entire family wanted to refuse it. I remember my future husband telling his parents that they would regret it for the rest of their lives if they let the Brigadier go.
Neither my husband nor his brother was interested in horses; they were both highly allergic to them, as was John Hislop himself, but he was able to get extremely powerful injections for most of his life until they became illegal. Even so, both sons urged their father to keep this astonishing horse.
The story doesn’t end well. Brigadier Gerard was not much use at stud. My mother-in-law spent the rest of her life, and the rest of all the money they made, in vainglorious attempts to produce another Brigadier. My parents-in-law died penniless and deeply in debt. But what a life! What a man! What an incomparable horse! And how very satisfactorily British.