This is an out-take from If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of Equine Obsession. I’ve just found an image of her in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection: click here and again on the picture to enlarge.
Twenty-two year-old Mrs Alicia Thornton, the daughter of a Norwich watchmaker and wife of a Colonel Thornton, pitted her horse, Old Vingarillo against her brother-in-law Captain Flint on Thornville over four miles at York in 1804. More than £200,000 was wagered on the race by one hundred thousand spectators, “nearly ten times the number appeared on the Knavesmire than did on the day when Bay Malton ran, or when Eclipse went over the course,” as Thomas Brown noted in his Anecdotes of Horses. She wore a blue jockey’s cap over her fair hair and, above her voluminous skirts which, in an engraving of the match, are blown against her thighs, a man’s silks with a “leopard-coloured body, with blue sleeves, the vest buff.”
She started the favourite among the menfolk on the course, who’d been impressed by an earlier exercise ride she’d turned in, and for the first three miles of the race, “the oldest sportsmen on the stand thought she must have won,” only for her horse to go lame and her to pull him up. “Never, surely,” wrote Brown, “did a woman ride in better style. It was difficult to say whether her horsemanship, her dress, or her beauty, were most admired – the tout ensemble was unique … She flew along the course with an astonishing swiftness, conscious of her own superior skill.” In 1805 she matched top jockey Francis Buckle over two miles, and – sporting embroidered stockings and a purple waistcoat – trounced him by half a neck to the ecstasy of the crowd.
Here’s a poem by a contemporary spectator:
See the course throng’d with gazers, and lots of ‘Old rakes’,
To view the ‘beautiful Heroine’ start for the stakes;
With handkerchiefs waving, the spectators all clap,
Half dressed like a jockey, with her whip and her cap.
With spirits like fire, behold her mount the gay prad,
And the cheers and the smiles make her heart light and glad;
And Mrs Thornton’s ‘the favourite’ through thick and through thin,
And the swell and the jockeys all bet that she’ll win.