The Honourable Dorothy Paget (1906-1960) was one of the most successful owners of her era. In all, her horses were to win a total of 1,532 races on the flat and over the jumps, including winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup an incredible seven times, plus owning the winners of the Derby and the Grand National. But despite her success, she was without doubt one of the strangest women who ever set foot on a racecourse.
The daughter of an English aristocrat and an American heiress, Dorothy inherited most things at birth, except it appears good looks. She grew into a shapeless, bad tempered lump of a woman and in the glamorous world of the wealthy she stood out as a beacon of dowdiness. A creature of habit, for over twenty years, she nearly always wore the same outfit to the races – a large, shapeless grey ankle-length coat with a plain, dark blue collar and with a cursory nod to fashion, a blue felt hat. Over the years her outfit would be replaced but always with something almost identical.
She hated the sight of men so much that she claimed they made her physically sick. She therefore surrounded herself with a women-only staff who were not called by their names but by colours with the exception of green, which she hated.
Once, when, in the winner’s enclosure, she congratulated Golden Miller (her five-times Gold Cup winner) with a kiss on his nose, a racegoer remarked that this was probably the first male she had ever kissed. Until someone pointed out that Golden Miller was a gelding!
She would also not allow her horses to leave at the end of a day’s racing before she had relieved herself in one of the horseboxes. On more than one occasion horses had to be removed in order for her to complete her ritual. In fact on the day Golden Miller famously won his fifth Gold Cup, she performed her ceremonial widdle twice, on the way back from Cheltenham causing a traffic jam in the process. On her rare visits to the theatre , she reduced the danger of unwelcome male contact by normally booking at least two seats. One seat for herself ,and the others to be occupied by her handbag, a thermos flask and sandwiches . Her visits to the local cinema in Amersham, were equally bizarre due to her habit of booking the entire auditorium. Also if she was not going to the races she would sleep all day, and then would spend all night on the phone to her bookmaker and trainers.
Welcome to the peculiar world of Dorothy Paget.
This formidable woman`s forbears had made a fortune in America through their coal, steel and shipping empires. According to her biographer Quintin Gilbey in his 1973 “Queen of the Turf; The Dorothy Paget Story ,” she knew nothing about politics but declared herself an ardent Conservative ‘because I dislike being ruled by the lower classes’ and goes on to recount the tale that during World War II, she even wrote to the Minister of Transport asking for a special dispensation that she could reserve a railway carriage to herself, because sitting next to a strange man ‘is liable to make me vomit”.
This request was not surprisingly turned down, but the daunting Dorothy was very rarely refused. When her Rolls-Royce broke down on the way to a race meeting, she flagged down the first vehicle that passed her, which was a local butchers van, bought the vehicle off him and then leaving him on the side of the road considerably richer, she completed the journey to Sandown. That evening when she got home, she then ordered another Rolls-Royce to be driven as a “spare” behind her, just in case she broke down again. So the sight of a small convoy of Rolls-Royces approaching a racecourse came to signify that Dorothy Paget had arrived.
She always came with her women only entourage whose various tasks were not only to keep her company but also to find out the prices, carry messages, and place bets. Sitting next to her on the back seat of the Rolls Royce would be a battered old wooden box, which she would entrust to one of her assistants. This box would contain nine sharpened lead pencils. She would take one to make notes on her race card or to send a message, but as soon as it was blunt a lackey would be despatched to get a replacement. However, one Christmas, her secretary presented her with a beautiful gold one, bringing the total of pencils to ten. Paget promptly gave it back to her the following day after losing £35,000 on the Boxing Day race meetings.
No doubt inspired by her grandfather William C. Whitney, a former U.S. Secretary for the Navy who won The Derby in 1901 with Volodyovski. She spent tens of millions in her pursuit to become Queen of the turf . Her best horses were without doubt the incomparable Golden Miller, 5 Gold Cups and a Grand National to his name(still the only horse to achieve that double) The double Champion Hurdle winner Insurance, and her Derby winner Straight Deal, who incidentally sired the Champion Hurdle winner of 1957, Merry Deal..
Her hatred towards men, by which some of her contemporaries attributed to her 20 stone appearance and permanent scowl which consequently meant a distinct lack of suitors, thawed a touch when dealing with her male trainers, but her attitude to them could be summed up by the day her horses won five races and the sixth was a narrowly beaten second, at a six race card at Folkestone.
Instead of celebrating like any other owner, she made the trainer, the legendary Fulke Walwyn, sit in another room like an errant schoolboy while she shouted insults through the doorway.
The fear she instilled in her trainers can be summed up in a story about the 1939 Royal Ascot meeting. Dorothy arrived at the course, full of confidence that her Colonel Payne would win the Cork and Orrery Stakes, following her trainer Fred Darling’s glowing reports of his exploits on the gallops. Colonel Payne had cost Paget 15,000gns as a yearling, and she was keen to recoup her outlay. After having an enormous bet on the horse she then watched Colonel Payne finish well down the field. Paget then menacingly strode into the unsaddling enclosure to confront her trainer. “Where’s Mr Darling?” she demanded of jockey Gordon Richards. “I wouldn’t be quite sure, Miss Paget,” Richards replied, “but I’ve a pretty shrewd idea he’s on the top of the stand, cutting his throat.”
A chain smoking, compulsive gambler she wagered millions backing her own horses, but according to a study made by the splendidly named Professor Wray Vamplew of the University of Stirling, her sojourn on the Turf was a financial disaster, costing her over £3 million (£90m today) this was in addition to her vast gambling losses.
She would bet huge sums daily. Her largest recorded bet was an eye-watering £160,000 (£4m today)at 1/8 on to win £20,000, and even though this particular punt was successful, others were not.’ Vamplew points to1948 being a particularly bad year when she lost over £100,000, the equivalent today of nearly £4m.
So it should come as no surprise to discover that bookmakers employed people to stay awake all night just to take Dorothy’s calls. She would frequently bet on races that had already run, assuring the bookies that she did not know the result. This most peculiar and somewhat one-sided arrangement was happily accepted by the bookmakers, who knew that the majority of horses she backed tended to be losers.
Domestic life at Hermit’s Wood, her mansion in Buckinghamshire was equally odd. She would eat dinner at seven in the morning, then retire to bed. Breakfast would be at 8.30 in the evening, when staff would receive their instructions for the following day in little white envelopes. “Tell the gardener to grow Hyacinths” would be followed by a duplicate version which would then be distributed to all her house staff. A trip to the races involved a tidal wave of notes, instructions and memos. One of which was always to remind Hall, the gardener, to stand in the middle of the road stopping any traffic to enable Paget’s chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce to make an unobstructed exit from Hermit`s Wood. There would be messages announcing Paget’s frequent visits to the toilet, messages instructing a trainer to load a horse into a horsebox, followed a little while later by another message instructing the same trainer to unload the same horse.
Her long suffering gardener, a Mr Hall became known as “the eunuch”, because the locals could not believe that Paget, with her well known antipathy towards men, would tolerate an ‘entire’ on the premises. The poor fellow was forbidden to mow the lawn during the day, even though he complained that he could not see to mow it at night, a cook was on duty all night in case Dorothy became hungry and a member of staff was tasked to ensure that the under floor heating in the dog kennels was always switched on.
Throughout the early hours of the following day, Dorothy would be on the phone to her trainers discussing the next day’s racing. When one of her trainers, Frenchie Nicholson decided enough was enough and disconnected his phone. A member of her staff was then despatched to Prestbury stables to wake him up and to tell him in no uncertain terms to reconnect it.
For the last few years of her life, she was a virtual recluse , very rarely venturing out, depending on nocturnal phone calls to her trainers and bookmakers for news about her horses and the outside world. The only other human contact was with her small, devoted, house staff.
Her continued loathing of men even extended to those who had come to save her life. One Sunday afternoon her house caught fire whilst she was still in bed. Apparently, she opened her bedroom window and yelled down to her staff “ I have no intention of getting up until the flames are licking my pyjama legs” It was only when smoke started to appear through the bricks at the back of her bedroom fireplace that she then decided to get dressed and went down to sit in her car. As she was about to be driven off, she told her staff “Now you can send for the fire brigade”
Twelve days before her 55th birthday in 1960, Dorothy Paget was poring over her racing calendar and wondering which of her trainers to annoy next.
When at 4.30am in the morning she suffered a massive thrombosis and before the ambulance could arrive she went to that great winner’s enclosure in the sky, After her estate was settled and despite all the millions spent on horses and her spectacular gambling losses she still left a not inconsiderable £20 million fortune.
The wonderfully eccentric Dorothy Paget, a true Queen of the Turf.