From Newmarket: Digging Up Pot8os

by | 12.04.2017 | 12:20pm
A likeness of Pot8os

To a visiting American, everything in England is old. A walk around Newmarket affords views of horses working over the same ground that has supported champion Thoroughbreds for hundreds of years, tucked into the same barns and cobblestoned yards as the generations before them. But even by English standards, the horses at Hare Park Stud, a few minutes' drive from the Rowley Mile Racecourse, had a significant piece of racing history under their hooves for centuries, with no one the wiser.

Hare Park, like many of the Central Kentucky farms we've profiled in the Paulick Report Special, has shifted its borders and its owners many times over the years, but has kept its name. At one point in its life, Hare Park was the occasional base for Richard, the first Earl of Grosvenor. Lord Grosvenor was a wealthy gentleman, member of the House of Lords and avid racing enthusiast who used the house at Hare Park as his residence only if he was in Newmarket on business relating to his Thoroughbreds. Lord Grosvenor was known for keeping a successful stable which included three Epsom Derby winners and six Epsom Oaks winners, but one of his most famous runners was a horse with a very funny name.  

The first foal out of the mare Sportsmistress by Eclipse was a chestnut colt born in 1773 and bred by Willoughby Bertie, fourth earl of Abingdon. He was christened Potatoes, but legend has it a groom with poor spelling skills was asked to write the horse's name on a board on a feed bin and scratched out ‘Potoooooooo' instead. The horse's owner at the time was said to be so amused by the mistake that his name was officially changed, and for shorthand, often written as Pot8os.

Pot8os was sold to Lord Grosvenor after one of his first career starts, possibly to settle a bet. The little horse with the funny name turned out to be pretty athletic, running at the stakes level over contests as long as four miles in a career that continued through his 10-year-old season. He retired to stud at Oxcroft Farm near Cambridgeshire, where he lived most of his life until moving to Hare Park at the age of 23. He died there at 27.

All her life, Alison Schwabe heard the story of Po8os. A horse-obsessed child, she remembers her father showing her horses' bloodlines and pointing out interesting names and accomplished runners.

“He was very interested in archaeology, particularly in horses,” Schwabe remembered. “He was in the civil service and he used to bring some important people to Newmarket to the races or go round to the stable yards. He would tell me these things to make a child faintly interested in what he was doing. I was obsessed with horses anyway so it wasn't very difficult.

“When the Queen was coming to open the National Stud [located near Newmarket], he had to go and check everything was all in order for the ceremony, so I was allowed to go with him and pretended to be the Queen opening the Stud.”

An 1888 copy of the book Galvayne's Horse Dentition also captured young Schwabe's interest, and she studied animal husbandry, eventually becoming a guest lecturer at the Cambridge University Veterinary School, where she taught for 43 years.

When friends of hers purchased Hare Park, Schwabe did some research for them on the history of the property. It was then she learned Pot8os had spent some time there, and that no one knew exactly where the great horse had been buried.

“I thought ‘My god, I must find that,'” Schwabe remembered. “We searched for three years and couldn't find a marker or anything. I found a heap of stones which was just bricks, and I thought something might have been under that, but then there was nothing there.

A pair of horses look over the cedar tree stump that marked Pot8os' grave

“We were talking one day to a guy who used to be the gamekeeper and used to look after the trees when it was an active stud, and he said, ‘Funny enough, in 1990, this huge cedar blew down and he said as it fell down, it uprooted the complete skeleton of a horse. He said people came from the Jockey Club and were very interested in it. He didn't know what it was called or anything about it and he told me where to look, and next to my pile of bricks was a huge tree stump, clearly of at least a 200-year-old tree, and the horse had died in 1800.”

Schwabe recruited neighbors to help her push away some soil, and there, tangled in the roots of the cedar tree (not unlike a potato hanging from a root, actually), was a horse's skull. Her experience with equine teeth told her it was the right age to be Pot8os.

Schwabe called archaeology colleagues from Cambridge and brought in machinery to carefully work around the edges of the grave, which was just a few feet away from a paddock fence. (The horses inside are shown curiously looking on in photos of the excavation.) The team was able to recover all but a handful of bones and did DNA testing against known samples from Pot8os' female descendants. The results confirmed the horse's identity.

Scientists brought the bones to Cambridge and preserved them, then threaded them together, reassembling the skeleton of Pot8os, which now stands in the National Horseracing Museum in an exhibit designed to teach children about equine anatomy.

Pot8os' reconstructed skeleton stands in an old stall on the Palace House property, which now contains the National Horseracing Museum and National Heritage Centre

Schwabe had searched for the horse's grave at a different stud owned by Lord Grosvenor, where he kept most of his stallions in the late 1700s, but looking at the skeleton's pedal bones, she thinks she knows why Pot8os was buried at Hare Park.

“Lord Grosvenor had another stud up in Cheshire and the other stallions were taken up there, and of course they had to walk all the way because there weren't horse boxes then,” she said. “[Pot8os] was too old, he was 23 by then. I suspect he was probably a bit ropy [weak] on his feet, so they brought him to Hare Park.”

The skeleton stands against a painted background designed to look like a George Stubbs portrait, since Grosvenor was fond of having his top horses captured by Stubbs. A Stubbs Pot8os likeness has never been found, but Schwabe suspects it's out there, hiding in someone's attic much like the great horse himself was hidden for so long.

“It was really so funny. I wish my father had been alive for me to tell him about it,” said Schwabe. “We'd be walking across a field and he'd say, ‘Oh this looks a likely spot.' It was a family saying. We'd go walking and pick up a few bits of pottery or a Neolithic artifact or something. My father would be falling over backwards if he saw this.” 

  • Shirley Mae Keller Verhoef

    A wonderful story. I have always wondered about the horse, Pot8os, having seen it in many pedigrees.

  • eshever

    What a fascinating story! I’ve always been amused by the name of Pot8os, too. It’s wonderful to have a full skeleton from a Thoroughbred of that era.

  • Rick Gold

    Another fascinating article by Natalie Voss.

  • Rosana Rivera

    Great story! I wish that just like with Pot8s, the grave of Gay Dalton at Hollywood Park would have been found.

  • Patricia Diers

    Wonderful story

  • MsMoose

    What a great story! It reminds us that we know more about our horses’ lineage than our own!

  • egremont

    Classic stallion, sire of the Derby winners Waxy, Tyrant, and Champion who also was the first Derby winner to win the St leger stakes.

  • Flying J

    Great history , great article!

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