The Prioress’s Tale

“My lady prioress, and by your leave,
So that I knew I should in no way grieve,
I would opine that tell a tale you should,
The one that follows next if you but would.
Now will you please vouchsafe it, lady dear?”
“Gladly,” said she, and spoke as you shall hear. (Chaucer’s The Prioress’s Tale)

I began, as always, with the NYRA website, in the section devoted to their stakes races, on the page for today’s Prioress. It was a promising start:

The PRIORESS was named for the first American Thoroughbred ever to win in England. Prioress was bought by Ten Braek (sic) from General Wells as a three year old in 1857 for $2,500. She was then sent to England where she won both the Great Yorkshire Stakes and the Cesare Witch (sic) Handicap in 1858. In the latter, Prioress finished in a triple dead heat with El Hakim and Queen Bess; she then won the run off.

The coverage of the Cesarewitch, which sounds like a pretty remarkable race, is spotty on both sides of the Atlantic; the Times of London provided coverage of the betting and odds in the weeks prior to the race, but surprisingly, I uncovered nothing about the race itself.

Beginning in the summer of 1857, when Prioress and her stablemate Pryor went to England, the New York Times included segments from both reporters and readers as the weights for their races were assigned, provoking much discussion. The Times printed articles and responses from Americans and Brits, appalled by the high weights assigned to the American horses and accusing the Brits of being unsportsmanlike.

Both Pryor and Prioress finished poorly in the Goodwood Cup, and as a result, Prioress was assigned lighter weight when she ran in the Cesarewitch. The race was reported as one of a series of items in an article entitled “Important From Europe.” Prioress went off at 100 – 1, and we are told of the finish:

One of the most exciting Cesarewitch finishes ever seen then ensued. Prioress half way up the cords seemed to be about coming in alone, but the tiny jockeys of El Hakim and Queen Bess made a determined set to, and the judge unable to separate the first three pronounced a dead heat…

Prioress was the second choice in the three-horse deciding heat, and she won by a length and a half. The article tells us that “a loud and prolonged cheer hailed the American colors, and Mr. Ten Broeck was warmly congratulated upon the first victory achieved by him in England.”

Alas, not everyone looked so favorably upon Prioress’s historic victory, and the New York Times published two terrifically smug letters from a reader in Newmarket, England, the town in which the Cesarewitch takes place. The Cambridgeshire Handicap to which the writer refers takes place within weeks of the Cesarewitch, and the races are known as the Autumn Double.

The first letter was written following Prioress’s victory in the Cesarewitch but prior (pun not intended but acknowledged) to the running of the Cambridgeshire Handicap, and our writer doesn’t hide his disdain for the American Thoroughbred:

The very childish elation evinced by most of the papers in regard to this race, and particularly by one of this City that pretends to a profound knowledge of the merits of English racers and racers, is, to say the least, perfectly ridiculous. Any one who can claim for Prioress a victory over all England by the result of the race for the Cesarewitch, must certainly be ignorant of racing, or be possessed of an unaccountable share of impudence…

Following a detailed discussion of the horses Prioress beat and the weights they carried, the author concludes,

After reviewing the matter fairly, I think all racing men will agree with me that Prioress is only a very second-rate animal, though possessing good lasting qualities, which, when very favorably weighted, (she was certainly was in the above race, as well as the Goodwood Cup,) will enable her to fall through occasionally.

He finishes his letter by predicting that Prioress will finish no better than fourth in the upcoming Cambridgeshire. The letter was published on November 6, 1857, and unfortunately proved right, as Prioress finished last in the Cambridgeshire, prompting our writer (who beautifully presages the advent of the blog commenter a century and a half later, in both tone and content) to follow up.

Sir: I am curious to learn how that portion of the American Press which so confidently anticipated that the Cambridgeshire Handicap would be carried off by one of Mr. TEN BROECK’s horses will account for their signal defeat in that race.

The result of the Cambridgeshire Handicap must, I think, convince every unprejudiced mind that the view I took of the racing qualities of Prioress, namely, that she is only a very indifferent mare, and could have no chance with a good English horse, at fair racing weights, was the correct one [here, he is referring to his assertion in his earlier letter that Prioress carried unfairly low weight in the Cesarewitch].

While going on to offer some sporting insight into Prioress’s abilities and how they were suited to the two courses on which the Autumn Double was run, he can’t resist a final parry:

When America can produce a nag to beat the first-class English horses in a weight for age race, I for one (and I think I can answer for the English press and people too) shall hail their success with as great pleasure as would any native American. As the racing season in England is now pretty well closed, I shall bid you adieu till the commencement of the next campaign, when, with your permission, I shall occasionally trouble you with my thoughts on forthcoming events; and by that time I hope a fresh influx of American horses will be there to contend with English blood and bone.

How happy the Times editors must have been to know that they could count on being “occasionally troubled” by our writer’s insights on “forthcoming events”…

Sifting through various articles about Prioress, I came across more interesting tidbits of information about mid-19th century racing than I can reasonably include here, but I hope to pop them into future posts. What is unclear to me is why Prioress has a Grade I race named after her. Her racing career is interesting but undistinguished, and while she is the holder of an obscure and somewhat esoteric distinction—being the first American Thoroughbred to win a race in England—I’m not sure that that puts her on the same ground as horses like Ruffian, Go for Wand, and Personal Ensign, others fillies and mares with eponymous Grade I races. Even the list of winners of the Prioress doesn’t include a lot of fillies whom we would consider especially significant to the sport.

For a filly who didn’t do much of note on the racetrack, Prioress certainly occasioned a lot of conversation and excited some strong feelings. Not perhaps, as much, as her Chaucerian namesake, but as that tale comes to an end, so too does this, and “Here is ended the Prioress’s Tale.”


“American Racers in England—A Peep at the Cambridgeshire Handicap.” Letter. 6 November 1857. 5 July 2008.

“American Races in England.” 28 August 1857. 5 July 2008.

“American Races in England.” Letters. 4 September 1857. 5 July 2008.

“Important from Europe: Victory of the American Mare ‘Prioress’ at Newmarket.” 26 September 1857. 5 July 2008.

“News of the Day.” 13 September 1857. 5 July 2008.

“Result of the Cambridgeshire Handicap—Talk about Races and Racing.” Letter. 18 November 1857. 5 July 2008.

4 thoughts on “The Prioress’s Tale

  1. Could you imagine if we asked our dead heat finishers now to run a deciding race?Maybe the AGSC is made up of the same members that award self esteem trophies to every team in little league finals.

  2. Indian Blessing’s a fine filly but that race is at BESTa Grade II. WIll surely be downgraded.I knew a dog named Chaucer, used to jump at his own shadow. I knew a dog named Shadow, didn’t jump at the chance to read Chaucer.

  3. Winston–remarkable, isn’t it? And I believe that the race was run at two and a quarter miles.Ernie: be glad I didn’t post the quotations in the original Middle English. Believe me, I was tempted…

  4. This is fascinating, thanks for posting it. I’m a horse racing fan to the core, but I don’t wager … not that I’m opposed, I’m just a terrible handicapper. So the history and being around the horses are the things that motivate me, the history especially (I have separate bookshelves just for all my racing history books). So this post was right up my alley.

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