The Artist, the Spy and the Hennessy Gold Cup: Part Two

Derek Ancil riding Knucklecracker
Image courtesy of National Heritage Centre for Horseracing & Sporting Art

(continued from part one)

After the war, he sought a quieter life and concentrated on racing, with Derek riding for him as an amateur.  When “Ronnie” set up as a trainer at Middleton Stoney, Derek became his professional and in due course took over the licence.

Espionage and intelligence

Horton died in October 1962 and left Ancil not only the yard, but a fabulous art collection made up of 40 paintings by Edward Seago. Jean Goodman, Seago’s biographer says, in “Edward Seago: The other side of the canvas”, that Horton had been introduced to Seago by the famous Baker Brothers, a circus riding act, at an art exhibition in 1933. The artist and businessman shared a mutual interest in racing and the circus and, as their friendship grew, Seago was one of the few people to know about Horton’s intelligence work.

Seago became involved with espionage as well.  Using a European circus as his cover, Goodman says he recorded “anything that, in the event of a war, might be of military significance” such as bridges, fortifications and aircraft, in infra-red paint, which he then over painted with circus or landscape scenes. On returning to England the real images were revealed by photography. Subsequently, when working with ICI, Seago developed the use of anti-infra-red and cellulose paints for wartime camouflage.

Auctioned in 2012

The Ronald Horton / Derek Ancil Collection went to auction at Sotheby’s in 2012. Although Ancil appears in some of the paintings, Knucklecracker does not. The gelding, Leslie Marler’s only horse in training, was bred by Captain Petre, who had won the Grand National with Lovely Cottage. Standing at 17 hands 2 ½ inches he had improved each season and looked to have become a Cheltenham Gold Cup prospect. Although he won four more races in the 1962-3 season, the 1960 Hennessy was the highpoint of his career as he became prone to breaking blood vessels. Sadly, when seeming to be returning to his best, tragedy struck in the Rhymney Brewery Chase at Chepstow, 8th December, 1962. He cleared the water jump perfectly, but after a few more strides went down in a heap. “I heard his hind leg snap,” said Stan Mellor, his jockey, “and he collapsed.”

Ancil rode 11 times in the Grand National and in 1961, deputising for Gerry Scott, he had the leg up on Merryman II, the previous year’s winner, and finished second. At the end of that season, with a career total of nearly 250 winners, the 37-year-old retired from race-riding to concentrate on training. He was a hands-on trainer, ready to school the most difficult horses himself.  After training over 200 winners he gave up his licence in 1989. As he retired he told Sporting Life:

Jump racing has always been a sport; nobody has made any money out of it. I believe you shouldn’t get involved if you think otherwise. As for the bookmakers, racing without them would be like a morgue.

Derek Ancil, the only man to train and ride the same horse to Hennessy Gold Cup glory, died on July 17, 2010, aged 85.

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