Haphazard History: Doc English and the horse races

Another remarkable character who appeared in the Williams Lake area during the gold rush years was Benjamin Franklin "Doc" English.

Another remarkable character who appeared in the Williams Lake area during the gold rush years was Benjamin Franklin “Doc” English.

He was born in Missouri in 1841 and, at the age of seven, he came west with his parents along the Oregon Trail, riding virtually all the way on various horses.

At one point during this journey the boy and his father separated from the main group to do some berry picking.

They were accosted by an Indian war party and one of the horses they were riding was struck in the rump by a poisoned arrow.

It dropped dead just as they caught up to the wagon train.

When he was 15, Doc returned to Missouri and successfully guided more friends and relatives across the country to Oregon.

Three years later, in 1859, Doc and several members of his family, after hearing tales about the abundance of gold, came north to the Cariboo via the Okanagan Valley.

Along the route they were ambushed by hostile natives and had to fight their way through the unfamiliar territory.

The 1860s saw Doc running a pack train from Yale to Barkerville.

Eventually, he branched out and went into partnership with Thomas Hance (for whom Hanceville in the Chilcotin is named) and they opened a trading post/store in the Clinton area.

It is said that he ordered $10,000 worth of goods and supplies from the Hudson’s Bay Company, and when asked how he would pay for them, he replied that he was always ready to pay, but not right then.

Eighteen months later, he returned to the HBC with $40,000 in furs and gave them first option to purchase the lot.

The HBC made an offer but a rival company outbid them by $6,000.

Doc was able to repay his outstanding debt with ease.

It should be noted here that Doc was neither a doctor, nor was he even educated beyond a rudimentary level.

His nickname came about because of his passion for horses and his innate ability to diagnose and nurse their ailments.

Doc lived by his wits and his cunning, and some of his schemes were legendary.

By the late 1860s Doc was working part time as a horse trainer for William Pinchbeck on the huge Williams Lake ranch.

At that time, horse racing was the major sport in the Cariboo region.

A regular racing circuit had been established with tracks at Barkerville, Quesnel, Becher’s Prairie, Williams Lake, Lac La Hache, 100 Mile House, Cache Creek and Ashcroft.

Race meets would last for up to a week, and they were real social affairs. People would camp out, betting on their favourite mounts during the day, and socializing (partying) well into the night.

The liquor flowed freely, and huge amounts of money were bet.

One could find oneself a rich man or a pauper after any one of these events.

In 1873, Doc took up 360 acres of bench land on the west side of the Fraser River.

Since the gold rush days, the area had been known as Deer Park after its abundance of deer, and that was what Doc named his ranch.

He worked the land and used it to pursue his love of horses and horse racing.

Often he would import outstanding or promising race animals into the country. Doc thought so highly of one such horse, named Chinaman, that he had gold-plated horse shoes made for it.

One year Doc brought in two horses from San Francisco. They were fast and expensive, and Doc was certain they were winners.

He convinced his old partner, Thomas Hance, to bet on this “sure thing.”

Unfortunately, the local horses proved to be faster and both Doc and Hance lost their shirts.

Not discouraged at all, the next year Doc returned with a new horse, determined to make up for the previous season’s losses.

He had a hunch that his jockey was being approached by his opponents and being paid to throw the race.

The rider in question was young Archie McLean, who later with his two brothers became part of the notorious McLean gang in the Kamloops/Douglas Lake area, and was hanged for murder.

One morning a couple of days prior to the race, Doc had breakfast with Archie and his younger brother, Alex.

The boys were visibly nervous and wouldn’t maintain eye contact.

Archie left to see the horse and Doc asked Alex straight up what the problem was.

The boy broke down and confessed that the fix was in.

Doc swore him to silence and paid him a bit to ensure that he kept quiet.

On the day of the race, as the riders weighed in at the starting post, Doc told Archie that he would not be riding for him in this race, nor in any future races.

Archie, who had a quick temper, pulled a derringer and was about to fire on Doc, but a man standing nearby grabbed and disarmed him.

He was turned over to the local constable.

Doc then substituted 12-year-old Jimmy Isnardy as the jockey.

Jimmy was so light that the other horse owners insisted that weights be fastened to the saddle to make it a fair race.

However, while the horses were lining up at the starting line, Doc went out to keep his horse calm and focused.

After the race began he returned — with the saddle weights.

Doc’s horse won easily, and Doc made thousands of dollars from the wagering.

In another famous contest, a match race, Doc had a jet black stallion which was to race a fast sorrel owned by Doc’s friend, Phil Grinder from Cache Creek.

The race was to be over a 600-yard straight course from a standing start.

It was agreed to hold the race on the flats at the west end of Williams Lake, and the race was heavily advertised.

On race day, at least $75,000 had been wagered (about $2 million in today’s dollar) and the excitement ran high.

It was reported that all mining on the gold field creeks had stopped for two weeks prior to the event to allow the miners to attend.

The race must have been a big disappointment for many, since it wasn’t even close.

The black stallion won by several lengths, and Doc had another big pay day.

Nevertheless, Doc and Phil knew a good thing when they saw it.

They decided upon a second challenge race, and this time, the sorrel would win.

That would lead to a third tiebreaker race, and the money would roll in.

The only problem would be how to slow  down Doc’s horse enough so he would lose the second race without being obvious.

Together, they came up with a scheme to give the big black horse an arsenic pill — just enough to put him out of sorts.

Phil, who had bet everything he had on his sorrel, agreed to administer the pill while Doc watched.

Just before the race, Phil came to the stable with the pill rolled up in a lump of bread.

The horse didn’t want to co-operate and Phil had trouble getting its mouth open, so Doc volunteered to hold the bread lump.

Phil got the jaws open but, by then, Doc had switched the bread for a lump with no pill.

Again in this race, Doc’s horse won handily. Doc English made another fortune.

Phil Grinder lost everything, but what could he do?

He couldn’t complain that Doc had cheated him from fixing the match.

Phil and Doc never spoke to each other again and there was no third race.

Just across the Fraser River bridge on Highway 20 is a large promontory which is known as Doc English Bluff.

It is now an ecological reserve protecting unique flora as well as some rare bird species.

From the top there is a spectacular view of the Fraser River and some of its bench lands.

It is an enduring reminder of one of the area’s most colourful pioneers.

Note: I leaned heavily on Buckaroos and Mud Pups by Ken Mather for this one.

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