After winning the Grand National at Aintree in 1884, a handsome thoroughbred named Voluptuary abandoned the turf for the stage and went on to a brilliant career at London's Drury Lane Theatre. As a racehorse Voluptuary's record had been spotty, but as an actor he had everything—looks, figure, stage presence, perfect timing and that wholesome pleasure in the sound of applause that marks all really fine performers. Horses had appeared on the stage before Voluptuary, and many came after him because of his success, but none ever matched his triumph in a play called The Prodigal Daughter, quite possibly because no one ever wrote another play whose success or failure depended entirely on the performance of a horse.
Not that Voluptuary had an easy road to stardom. In his case, those long years in cold dressing rooms in provincial theaters found in most stage biographies were replaced by long years of losing in races on tracks all over England. Foaled in 1878 of undistinguished stock, Voluptuary looked like a great racehorse, and owners impressed by his looks bought him. When he lost, as he invariably did, the owners sold him. But his proud and gallant manner in the selling ring after a defeat always led another buyer to take a chance in the hope that with proper handling he might be able to run as well as he looked. After a brief tenure in the stable of Lord Rosebery, the finest in England, Voluptuary was sold to a Mr. H. F. Boyd, who figures in racing history only because he was the owner of Voluptuary when Voluptuary at last won a race—and not just any race, either, but the famed Grand National.
It was probably the ham in him that made Voluptuary love to jump, and he displayed a visible gratification when people applauded his form as he sailed over a fence. He was such an enthusiastic jumper, in fact, that Boyd entered him in the 45th running of the Grand National, on Saturday, March 23, 1884.
No horse had ever won the Grand National on this first attempt, and Voluptuary had never even run in a steeplechase. But the morning of the race was fine, the largest crowd in the history of the Grand National was on hand and Voluptuary was nothing if not a crowd pleaser. He looked so good, in fact, that the odds on him dropped to 10 to 1 before race time, still far down in the field among the bettors.
The favorite was the Prince of Wales' The Scot, at 6 to 1. Victoria's eldest son, profligate Albert Edward, then 42, was making a stubborn effort to gain some public sympathy by patronizing racing and sports generally, and for a while his plan succeeded, since his nags turned out to be consistent losers. After six years of losing, however, His Royal Highness' determination was rewarded by the purchase of The Scot, who turned out to be a great steeplechaser. The prince was in great good humor when he appeared on the balcony of the royal box at Aintree and saluted the cheering crowd.
The start was good, and The Scot took the lead at the first jump directly before the stand. The afternoon had suddenly grown cloudy and a mist obscured the field when the horses rounded the turn and went into the country. Regal, a 40-to-1 shot, was running with The Scot. Voluptuary was far in the rear. The Grand National in those days lasted more than 10 minutes. There was plenty of time for visiting, drinking and hedging bets—betting went on long after the start—while the horses were out of sight from the spectators.
During one of these hiatuses a message was handed the Prince of Wales announcing the death of his younger brother, the Duke of Albany. He read it, turned pale and left the balcony for the seclusion of his private quarters just to the rear. Composing himself, he then descended the stairs to his carriage and drove away. His horse was still leading and the crowd started to cheer the prince, but the cheering was quickly stilled. Betting stopped in the ring. The flag was lowered to half-mast.
Meanwhile, the horses were still racing in the far reaches of the course. Oddly enough, The Scot began to falter just as the bad news reached his owner, and he lost the lead to Cortolou. Then, going over Valentine's Brook, Voluptuary began to pull away from the last horses and to move up on the leaders. At the 14-foot gulf of Becher's Brook, Voluptuary was racing Cortolou, Black Prince and The Scot for the lead. A roar from the crowd gave Voluptuary a visible boost, and when the horses disappeared into the country for the second time, Voluptuary was in second place, crowding Cortolou. A mile from home Tom Jones fell. Then Regal fell. When the horses came into sight of the stands at the head of the stretch Voluptuary was well ahead, although he appeared to be tiring. An unknown Polish horse named Zoedone, ridden by an unknown Count Zinsky, came at him. But the cheers of the crowd reached a crescendo, and they acted on Voluptuary like a shot of adrenalin. Frigate and Roquefort (both subsequent Grand National winners) came at him near the final jump, but the cheering rose, and Voluptuary cleared the last fence smoothly. He won by four lengths.
That was Voluptuary's moment of racing glory, and it was the only one. He was entered in other Grand Nationals but was never again even close and would have been remembered only as a fluke winner of a melodramatic race had it not been for the theatrical genius of Sir Augustus Glossop Harris. Along with staging grand opera at Covent Garden, managing five London theaters and five touring companies, Sir Augustus had taken over the immense Drury Lane Theatre, whose stage was so big that mere actors were lost on it. But it occurred to Harris, why not use a big horse for a star? The theater had been dark for months when he conceived his boldest venture—to duplicate the Grand National on the stage with Voluptuary in the leading role. With Henry Pettitt, a onetime schoolteacher, Harris wrote The Prodigal Daughter, whose third act included an entire scene given over to the race.
Otherwise the play was lively, colorful, implausible melodrama. In Act 1 Sir John Woodmere turns down the Honorable Julian Belford, who wants to marry his daughter Rose. Then he turns down a gentleman rider, Captain Vernon, who wants to marry his niece Violet. Rose and Julian decide to marry secretly, and Rose goes to Paris with Captain Vernon to meet Belford, whereupon Sir John, who is fairly simpleminded. thinks Rose has run off with Vernon and does not know who is living in sin with whom. Act 2 opens with a brilliant set of the Grand Hotel in Paris, with carriages arriving, crowds in evening clothes and Sir John searching for Rose. It develops that he will lose his fortune unless Belford rides his horse to victory in the Grand National. So the stage is set for the next scene, accounted at the time the most remarkable piece of stagecraft in the history of the British theater. "There have frequently been mimic races presented upon the stage," said The Stage, "but never has this representation...been in any way approached."
An attempt is made to poison Sir John's horse. Voluptuary. Frustrated, the villain has Belford arrested so he cannot ride. Who will take his place? Captain Vernon! Seeing the man he (mistakenly) thinks has ruined his daughter mounted on his horse, Sir John flies into a speechless rage, which is just as well, as the lines in The Prodigal Daughter were pretty bad. However, it was too late to do anything about it: a dozen thoroughbreds were on the stage. All the familiar sights of a race were included—"the weighing-in scene, the preliminary canter, the trial jump, the clearing of the course.... Then the roar of hoarse voices, 'They're off!' waving of hats and the excited gestures of an almost maddened crowd."
The horses dashed across the scene and vanished into the depths of the Drury Lane stage as they went into the country at Aintree. Sir Augustus even furnished a little comic relief while they rounded the backdrops. "The scenes of the stables are animated enough," said The Era, "but the excitement gets to fever heat with the wondrous pictures of the Aintree course, the water jump, the winning post and the grandstand, with the big and motley crowd of men and women, bookies, backers, welshers, telegraph boys, stable boys, loungers, loafers, racing swells, tricksters, cards-of-the-race sellers, with roughs, riffraffs and respectability curiously comingled and policemen on foot and on horseback endeavoring to get order out of the general disorder."
Around came the horses again. Voluptuary was first over a hurdle in the distance and then cleared Becher's Brook. "Never was such a scene witnessed in the theatre," said The Stage. "A scene the like of which the stage has never known before," said The Era. The Theatre made some caustic observations on the plot (which Sir Augustus tied up in an anticlimactic fourth act) but added that nobody noticed these lapses because Voluptuary "romped away with all the honors, whether on the racecourse or in the evening...he is more important than anyone—it is through his exertions that The Prodigal Daughter is saved."
It might have been added that Voluptuary also saved the Drury Lane. The play ran for a year and was taken off only because Sir Augustus had discovered the popularity of sports melodramas and wanted to produce more of them. His next show featured Heavyweight Champion James Corbett in Gentleman Jack. The size of the stage did not make much difference in this case, for the entire third act consisted of a prizefight, with no more dialogue than is ordinarily heard between two fighters in a ring. Then Harris produced The Derby Winner, another spectacular piece of stagecraft in which 16 thoroughbreds crossed the Drury Lane stage, and later shows of the same type were The Sporting Duchess and Sporting Life, with casts of hundreds and many horses. As The Era observed, "The public have not had too much of the drama of sport." Voluptuary was 14 years old when he made his last appearance in The Prodigal Daughter, and in the hundreds of times he raced over the Drury Lane stage he never missed a performance, never missed a cue and never missed a chance to take a curtain call.