Those familiar with British horseracing may be aware of a Class 6 race conducted at Brighton Racecourse outside London each fall. It is a turf race covering just over a mile and three furlongs for three year-olds known as the “Percy Cunliffe Handicap.” What fans may not realize is that the gentleman for whom the race was named was no gentleman at all. In fact, he was the ringleader of one of the most notorious gambling confederacies of all time.
England’s Original Hermits
Alan P. Cunliffe, better known by his middle name “Percy,” was a gold speculator and an Old Etonian city financier, born in the latter half of the 19th century. His brother was governor of the Bank of England, while Percy owned much of the land on Salisbury Plain, which he in turn rented to the British army for maneuvers. Around 1896, the Eton graduate began hitting his stride as a gambler, and he founded the Druid Lodge Stables at Wiltshire Downs to raise his own thoroughbreds for racing.
By the time the new century got underway, Cunliffe had teamed up with an Irish stud-owner named Wilfred Bagwell Purefoy to train horses in secrecy on Salisbury Plain. What went on there was so confidential that the stable boys’ mail was inspected lest word of their doings reach the betting public. Over the next few years, Cunliffe and Purefoy were joined by several other confederates, including Captain Frank Forester, veterinary surgeon Holmer Peard and Edward A. Wigan. They became known as the Druid’s Lodge Confederacy, or alternatively as the “Hermits of Salisbury Plain.”
In 1903, the group began racing a filly named Hackler’s Pride, trained by Jack Fallon. After a strong start at Hurst Park, the horse was deliberately held back in following races, so that by the time that year’s Cambridgeshire was run, high street bookmakers rated Hackler’s Pride at odds of 25-to-1. The confederates began placing wagers on their “ringer” until she became the favorite at 9-to-2. They also “packed” the race with three seemingly better but lesser horses to distract bettors. As a result, when Hackler’s Pride won, the Hermits netted £250,000—equivalent to £10 million currently.
Thereafter, “fixing” races became the group’s specialty. In the same season, another Druid’s Lodge horse, Ypsilanti, was backed in from 25-to-1 to 7-to-2 favorite for the Great Jubilee at Kempton Park, worth £100,000 in winnings. Then, the following year, they reentered Hackler’s Pride in the Cambridgeshire again at 100-to-1 odds and through subterfuge still unknown, managed to win once more as the 7-to-2 joint favorite.
Racing toward Legitimacy
There is little doubt that Cunliffe and his Hermits manipulated the horses, the races and the odds, but in those bygone days there were few ways to prove it. The Druid’s Lodge Stables remained a force in racing for a full decade. In 1906 they won the Royal Hunt Cup with Lally. In 1909 and 1910, they took the Cambridgeshire again with Christmas Daisy. And perhaps their best horse of all was Charles O’Malley, which ran third in the Derby and was the winner of both the Windsor Castle Stakes and the Ascot Gold Cup in 1910.
The Druid’s Lodge Confederacy also produced one other dubious champion, Aboyeur—the winner of the infamous 1913 Derby. That victory was clouded when protesting suffragette Emily Davison was trampled to death and the horse that crossed the finish line first, Craganour, was disqualified (some say by conspiracy), making Aboyeur the victor by default. Cunliffe ended up the winner of a £250 each-way bet that wiped out all of Ladbrokes bookmaker’s profits that day.
Even after Druid’s Lodge closed in 1914, Percy Cunliffe continued his investments in thoroughbreds. One of his horses named Charlebelle won the Oaks in 1920, trained by Herbert Braime and ridden by Albert Whalley. Cunliffe later took out a Flat license to resurrect Druid’s Lodge Stables from 1923 to 1928, but no other winners were produced. The leader of the Hermits lived on until 1942 and he is now remembered in the Brighton event, if not for his great contributions to racing then at least for his incredible success as cheat in the formative days of the sport.