I’ve written about the Duke of Wellington’s influence on footwear, aptly named Wellingtons or Wellies.
Now, I thought I might look into Wellington’s horse, an off-the-track-Thoroughbred by the name of Copenhagen.
Copenhagen gives a whole new meaning to the term OTTB. Of course, we know that an ex-racehorse is athletic and can excel in any discipline, whether it be eventing, hunters, jumpers, hunting etc.
What I would not have thought is that a previously raced Thoroughbred would make an excellent war horse.
Yes, the athleticism would certainly come in handy when needing to be fleet of foot, but track horses tend to be a bit sharp and spooky. It’s true, I’ve never fought in a war, but I feel things could get loud and chaotic out there on the battlefield and that’s why an OTTB would not be my first choice to ride into war. Or second.
My point in all this is that Copenhagen started his life as a racehorse. His sire was Meteor, the son of the famous racehorse, Eclipse and he was out of a mare named Lady Catherine who was the daughter of John Bull, the 1793 Epsom Derby winner.
It’s believed that General Grosvenor rode Lady Catherine at the Siege of Copenhagen whilst in foal with Copenhagen, which is how he got his name.
Despite Copenhagen’s sound breeding profile, it would seem the only thing he got from his lineage was his chestnut coloring, from his grandsire, Eclipse.
Copenhagen*, a stallion, was small by today’s standards at 15-1 hands. He ran in 10 races as a three-year-old but was, by all accounts, too slow. Once his short-lived career on the track ended it was discovered that his grand-dam wasn’t a Thoroughbred, but rather an Arab. Due to this minor oversight, his name was wiped from the General Stud Book.
*Even though Copenhagen was more Anglo-Arab than Thoroughbred I shall continue to refer to him as an OTTB as he was trained as a racehorse.
After his time at the track, Copenhagen was sold to General Sir Charles Stewart, who was Wellington’s Adjutant General. At some point after the purchase, Stewart found himself laid up at home and he sold the now five-year-old Copenhagen to the Duke of Wellington for 400 guineas, though there is some debate over the amount paid.
Not surprisingly, Wellington had a stable full of horses to choose from, but Copenhagen quickly became his favorite because he proved remarkably calm under fire. Which, to be fair, is a remarkable achievement for any breed of horse.
Wellington and Copenhagen fought together in the Peninsular Campaign, most notably at Vitoria and in the Pyrenees. But it was the Battle of Waterloo that was Copenhagen’s claim to fame because being an off-the-track war horse wasn’t enough.
Wellington and Copenhagen stuck it out together through Waterloo helping his coalition beat the French and destroy Napoleon’s imperial power. Needless to say, during that long day on June 18, 1815, the Duke and his mount endured a few worrisome moments that could have changed the course of history.
He could have been an eventer
The first incident occurred at Quatre Bras, which is a hamlet near Brussels and the site of a battle that took place two days before Waterloo.
The Duke and Copenhagen found themselves caught between some French dragoons and a sturdy ditch-lined fence with Wellington’s battalion of the 92nd Highlanders hunkered down behind it. With few options, Wellington shouted to his battalion to stay down and pointed Copenhagen at the fence and by God, he jumped the Trakehner-like obstacle, Highlanders included, with gusto.
This would have been an inopportune moment to incur 20 penalties, but that’s the beauty of OTTB—they’ve got guts.
The second close call happened when a case shot flew over Copenhagen’s neck and famously blew off Lord Uxbridge’s leg. Not great timing for Uxbridge but certainly lucky for Copenhagen and Wellington.
The third incident happened after an 18-hour day on the Waterloo battlefield when Wellington sprang from Copenhagen’s back and gave him a hearty pat on the rump. Copenhagen, likely tired and annoyed by the day’s proceedings, kicked out, which, as we know, could have sheared off the Duke’s kneecap.
That sounds a lot more like the racehorses I know, but apparently, Copenhagen was known to be a “bit free with his heels” and so Wellington probably gave him the space needed to fire out behind.
The best horses have quirks.
In the end
Copenhagen was retired at the age of 18 and lived out his days as a national treasure. He died at 28, which is impressive given he was a racehorse, a war horse and lived in the 1800s. He was buried with full military honours at Stratfield Saye, an estate given to Wellington by the British government for his victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.
It warms the heart to know that after more than 180 years Copenhagen’s grave is still there as is the admiration. And while you can take a Duke of Wellington tour around the Stratfield Saye estate, the gravesite is, unfortunately, closed to the public in order to protect the grave.
I doff my cap
Copenhagen was a much-loved horse who did more for his country and OTTBs than anyone could have ever imagined. Ex-racehorses have always been my favorite, and now even more so. Long live the OTTB!