By Michael West
** Originally published in the May June 1990 ‘Upcoming Stars feat. Oran’ issue of The Crabbet Influence magazine.
No one is more deserving of the title “Mr. Crabbet” than Fred Rice. Fred, who was born on 31 August, 1905, in a cottage situated on land that was part of the vast Crabbet Estate, spent his entire working life in the employ of Lady Wentworth.
Fred’s father was a gardener who also did work for Lady Wentworth, so Fred was always about on the Estate. When seven years old, he was amongst children invited to a bonfire party, but, before long, wandered into the large Crabbet house. He was gazing at the horse pictures when Lady Wentworth called down from a balcony, “Little boy, shouldn’t you be outside at the bonfire?” Fred replied that he was more interested in the horse pictures and so the first link was forged in a wonderful and unique career.
For a while he enjoyed childhood days on the Estate, playing with the Wentworth children, Anthony, Anne and Winifred; he recalls that the latter usually ran around barefoot. Many sunny days were spent paddling and trying to swim in the lake beside Crabbet House. Fred never learned to swim because Anthony would jump boldly into the lake causing a wave that frightened young Fred and gave him a fear of water.
Soon he started work with the horses. He says much of his knowledge was gained from Pat Cahill who joined Crabbet Stud soon after the First World War. Many wonderful hours were spent with Pat who had spent a lifetime with horses and was a real character.
At that time Fred was a groom, but he sometimes helped walk the show horses to the local railway station, as show horses had to travel by train if going to a show.
Eventually Fred was given the chance to travel to a London show, as Lady Wentworth had agreed to purchase a mare there called Fidger. He was able to proudly walk the mare from the show to Victoria Station for the rail journey back to Sussex.
Thus started a wonderful showing career that spanned fifty years.
One of Fred’s tasks was the mouthing and breaking-in of the young horses. The very first horse he broke was *Raffles 952 who was to become such a famous sire in the U.S.A. It was Crabbet policy to break all horses as 3 year olds. In fact, the colts were long-reined at 2 years, so were generally easier to break than the fillies who were not worked with until after they had been covered at 3 years. A great many of these horses went overseas and many were the complimentary letters sent to Lady Wentworth regarding their behavior. Of all the hundreds of horses broken, only about four were really bad tempered, and Fred remembers that Najiri was one who would scrape your legs along the school wall.
Fred’s reputation grew and he was asked by the Armstrong-Jones Family (later to be in-laws to the Royal Family) to train a couple of their Arab fillies at Petworth. Lady Wentworth objected, but the stud manager eventually let him go and Fred went on a motorcycle pillion, driven by Anthony Armstrong-Jones (later to be Princess Margaret’s husband). Fred again did a good job and a thank you letter duly arrived at Crabbet Park, so Fred was in trouble! Her Ladyship was none too pleased to let experience and stud secrets travel outside!
Of those very early days, Fred remembers the great beauty of Skowronek who he was able to ride a few times.
Lady Wentworth adored Skowronek and once told Fred, after the horse had passed away, “If there’s a heaven, Skowronek will be waiting for me.”
Fred has a great supply of stories, relating to most of the Stud’s famous names, which I hope to relate in further articles. One such story related to *Serafix 8955. He was fast and high strung. Fred was asked to break him quickly as he had been sold for a great price o the U.S.A. The horse was responding well in the school, but his owners (or agents) arrived and wanted to see him in action out in the park. It was a windy day and Fred was full of worry. In fact, the horse behaved well and went on to great fame.
Lady Wentworth’s daughter, The Lady Anne Lytton, has always been held in great affection by Fred. She was a fine rider and rode regularly around the vast estate. She was also game for a challenge and decided one time to try a horse that could drop his shoulder and get his rider off. Unfortunately, off she came, and Fred also when he had a try.
Then came troubled times for his employer’s family and Lady Anne was not seen around Crabbet for many years. Eventually, after Wilfrid Scawen Blunt’s death, word swept around the Stud that Lady Anne was coming back and a parade of horses was arranged in her honor.
Her mother gave her a nice filly and from then on she was a frequent visitor to Crabbet.
Sadly, Lady Anne went to Australia, judging, and apparently wrote a letter to the press there which upset her mother. Fred doesn’t recall ever seeing Lady Anne at Crabbet again.
Meanwhile, the Stud had become world famous. Notable visitors included the King and Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and King Farouk of Egypt.
One day Fred was alone in the yard, having been told by lady Wentworth that she wasn’t to be disturbed, when an important looking man arrived and asked for Her Ladyship. Fred was in a quandary, but eventually went off to report to Lady Wentworth. She complained, but sent Fred back to get the man’s business card. When Fred looked at it, who should the man be but the Shah of Persia! Anyway, a lucrative sale was made and Fred thanked.
Lady Wentworth went to considerable trouble to ensure that tips were equally shared amongst the staff. In the earlier days, especially, she would hold end-of-show season gatherings for the staff. Fred remembers them with great fondness. Her Ladyship was a vegetarian, so instead of meat, they cooked kippers over open fires and sat in the long harness room. Fred’s nose wrinkled as he recalled the smells of leather, the smoke and the fish.
Lady Wentworth would come and sit among them wearing a veil and Egyptian costume. She was a romantic figure then, said Fred, with lovely eyes and auburn hair.
All this time, Crabbet was sending out a stream of winners. The shows were hard work but lots of fun. Usually, the grooms would sleep in a loose box but, if the Welsh had done any winning, they would be singing all night.
Fred would always ensure that he was last into the ring. That way, his horse always pranced into the ring to join the others rather than be waiting around in the arena getting bored. Eventually Mr. Musgrave-Clark, owner of the famous Courthouse Stud, realized what Fred was doing and instructed his handler to hang back as well!
Despite having so many horses, Lady Wentworth could not resist buying any horse she admired. Two such horses were Oran and Dargee.
Oran always reminds Fred of Bert Stace who was a great friend and neighbor. Bert cared for the big chestnut stallion all of his time at Crabbet. Fred considered Oran rather excitable and nervy, also probably over used when very young.
As for Dargee, he was a one-man horse. It was reckoned that he had been badly treated before coming to Crabbet. He was very ticklish and only Fred could pick his feet out. One time, when Fred was too sick to take Dargee to a show, another of the staff took him and came back unplaced. Dargee apparently wouldn’t allow anyone to touch his legs or hooves.
In later years, Lady Wentworth asked the show staff to report back on any horse that it might be worth buying in. However, Mr. Covey, the Stud Manager, told them not to say anything since he considered the Stud to be overstocked.
One day, however, Lady Wentworth caught Fred on his own and asked him straight if there were any outside horses he admired. He mentioned Bright Shadow, and some time later Her Ladyship mentioned she had bought him.
Fred was again in trouble, but the horse proved a wonderful buy. “Teddy,” as he was called, was an exceptional ride.
For three stud seasons Fred rode him on the busy road to Frogshole Farm where he was used initially for teasing. Later he won a lot and became a popular stallion.
Years were passing by and Lady Wentworth had passed on. Fred recalls that Hanif was the last horse he broke in. Eventually, Mr. Covey decided to sell up. Only Bright Shadow and Indian Magic remained. The Duchess of Rutland took Bright Shadow, and Indian Magic, without horse company, lost condition and eventually was put down.
Fred today lives on old Crabbet land near Crawley, West Sussex. He retains all his enthusiasm for Arabian horses and visits the main shows. Last season he was proud to see his old friend, Hanif, doing so very well in the Veteran Stallion Classes.
If there was a class for veteran men, Fred would be a sure winner!
**All of the articles included in the re-launched Crabbet.com site from the original website, Georgia Cheer, Silver Monarch Publishing and The Crabbet Influence magazine are shared here with permission of Georgia Cheer given May 16, 2012.**