Horse Diplomacy

Given her enthusiasm for all things English, it is not surprising that it was Catherine the Great who introduced Horse Racing in the English Style to Russia in the 1780’s, and it was only a matter of time before the sport became a vehicle for diplomatic exchange.

On at least two occasions in the 19th Century members of the Russian Royal Family, having enjoyed visits to English race courses,  donated prize money as a gesture of goodwill.  Both gifts have connections with races that still run today.

In 1839, following a particularly uncomfortable period in Anglo/Russian diplomatic relations, Nicholas 1st wishing to improve matters sent his son, the ill-fated future Alexander 2nd, on a state visit to England.  Despite initial misgivings the visit proved to be a success.  Victoria expressed herself to be ‘delighted’ with her visitor, who taught her to dance the Mazurka at Windsor Castle. Palmerston took the Grand Duke to Newmarket Races, where he made a donation to the Jockey Club.  It was decided that an annual race should be  named after him and the Cesarevich, as it is called, continues to be run at the course every October.

A less happy visit by a Russian royal took place in 1844 when the Emperor himself, Nicholas 1st, came to England.  Nicholas was a much more demanding guest, and his visit, while later considered an overall success, was more awkward.  Like his son, the Emperor was also taken to the races, this time to Ascot. Here he announced that he would provide an annual race prize of 500 guineas for as long as he reigned.  The new trophy was called The Emperor’s Plate, which also became the name of the race, although, unsurprisingly, during the Crimean War, the event reverted to being called the Gold Cup.

Gifts of racehorses for diplomatic reasons probably go back to Catherine’s time, and the practice persisted during the Soviet Era.  Simon Dixon, in his article about trends in horseracing in the 19th Century (Slavonic and Eastern European Review 2020), describes how in 1946 Stalin presented two Russian  thoroughbreds to W. Averell Harriman, the departing American Ambassador. Harriman had admired the animals in Red Square where they were taking part in a victory parade. The Russian leader sent the horses to America along with a Russian vet, a jockey and two grooms.  History does not seem to relate if the humans involved ever returned to Russia.

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