Durbar II has been shocking people for more than a century.
When the 3-year-old, French-bred, American-owned Thoroughbred won England’s prestigious Epsom Derby in 1914, despite going off as a 20-1 long shot, the genteel world of English horse-racing was turned upside-down. When he made it out of war-torn Paris in the early days of World War I, at a time when many horses were being pressed into military service, he again bucked the odds. And today, when people hear that this famed Thoroughbred is buried in Bel Air, on the grounds of Harford Community College — well, it’s safe to say that’s news to most Harford County residents.
“It is pretty interesting to think that the winner of the Epsom Derby is buried in Bel Air, Maryland,” says Maryanna Skowronski, director of the Historical Society of Harford County, life-long horse-racing fan (“one of my first crushes was on Man O’ War,” she says with a laugh) and organizer of an upcoming exhibit at the college’s Hays-Heighe House looking at Harford’s oft-overlooked horse-racing legacy.
The exhibit, opening this month focuses on part of the story of Prospect Hill, a horse-breeding farm that once occupied the land on which the college now sits. Some 17 years after his moment of glory at Epsom, Durbar II ended up at Prospect Hill, where it was hoped he would sire many a future Thoroughbred legend.
Unfortunately, he died only a few weeks after arriving in Bel Air and was buried on the farm. No one knows precisely where, but that makes little difference to Skowronski, who has made it her mission for the past 18 years to bring Durbar II the recognition he deserves. The exhibit, named for Durbar II’s owner, Herman B. Duryea, includes a recently acquired photogravure portrait of the horse that appears to have been signed by Duryea.
“We are so excited to acquire our first piece of art depicting Durbar II,” says Hays-Heighe House and HCC library director Carol Allen.
Contemporary accounts suggest that Durbar II’s Epsom win in 1914 was a thrilling affair, coming at a tumultuous time in British and European history. A year earlier, at the 1913 derby, a British suffragette, Emily Davison, stepped onto the track — most likely in an attempt to focus attention on the struggle to win women the right to vote — and collided with a horse owned by King George V. Four days later, she died from her injuries.
Predictably, Epsom officials were determined to run a quiet race the following year. They did not succeed, however. Shortly before the start of the race, a 28-year-old spectator shot off a pistol with blanks at a policeman, panicking many of the horses, including favorite, Kennymoore, and delaying the start of the race some 20 minutes.
Durbar II went on to win Epsom by three lengths. “The crowd was so utterly amazed by the result,” the Baltimore Sun of May 28, 1914, reported, “that the cheering was distinctly feeble.”
“Durbar’s always described as not much to look at,” says Skowronski. “He was rather small, especially by our standards of today. But when he moved, he really turned it on.”
Back at his Paris stable just over three months later, as Europe was spiraling into the chaos that was the opening days of World War I, Durbar II narrowly escaped before being either — depending on whose account you believe — pressed into service by the French or seized by the invading Germans. Popular legend says the horse’s groom had wrapped the horse in an American flag with a note pinned to it that read, “This is Durbar II, the English Derby winner. He is neutral.”
Duryea died in 1916. Ten years later, his widow, Ellen, sold their Normandy property; Durbar II, whose ownership she retained, was brought to the United States. Following her death in 1928, the bulk of her estate was inherited by her nephew, Bob Heighe.
From there, Skowronski admits, Durbar II’s story gets a little murky. As best she can piece it together, Durbar made his way from Saratoga, N.Y. (where he was purchased at auction for $25,000), to Claiborne Farm in Kentucky, where he remained until 1931. He was then, at age 20, brought to Bel Air and Prospect Hill, where Heighe hoped to have him sire a new generation of racing Thoroughbreds. The horse died just months later — although, again, no one’s exactly sure how. “I’ve heard people say he was fed bay hay and he colicked,” Skowronski says
As for Durbar II’s final resting place? That’s also a mystery. Bill Boniface, a prominent racehorse owner and breeder in Harford County as well as a long-time equestrian writer and editor for The Baltimore Sun, spent his teenage years at Prospect Hill; his father, Fritz Boniface, was the farm manager. He remembered Durbar II being buried in one location; others, however, remembered the horse being buried elsewhere on the farm.
“At one point we contemplated bringing in a company to look for evidence of bones,” says Allen, the college librarian, “but our anthropology professor …who did some research on what this would entail, found that it would be cost-prohibitive to do.”
Plus, Allen notes, “Since it is likely that other horses in addition to Durbar may well have been buried on the property, it would be difficult to determine whether any bones that might be found remaining were actually his.”
The Durbar II portrait going on display at the Hays-Heighe House was acquired from Peggy McNamara, a riding instructor and trainer in Boston. She inherited the portrait from her great-aunt and -uncle, the late Bridget Delaney Lang and Walter Michael Lang, of Watertown, Mass.
“Durbar hung in my uncle’s library for as long as I can remember as a small child, and the library is where I stayed during visits, mesmerized by the beautiful horse picture,” McNamara writes.
The picture is inscribed by, and seems to be the work of, Clarence Hailey, an artist, racehorse owner and bloodstock exporter who worked in Newmarket, England, from 1903 to 1933. It bears a signature that appears to be Herman B. Duryea’s.
Allen said officials still are hoping to one day have a plaque or some other marker made to commemorate Durbar on the community college campus.
Chris Kaltenbach is a features reporter for The Baltimore Sun; he also teaches film at Harford Community College. Allan Vought is news editor for The Aegis.