Thousands of spectators thronged the race meet at Knavesmire in York on August 25, 1804. The crowd was much larger than usual and curious onlookers strained for a view of the upcoming race. The reason for all the commotion was simple: a woman was challenging a man in a horse race. It was a staggering event, both derided as a pure novelty by some and lauded as step toward equality by others. For many of the day’s spectators, it meant drama and entertainment, and they turned out in droves to see it.
The race was a family affair. Mrs. Alicia Thornton (1782-18??) of Thornville Royal had challenged her neighbor and brother-in-law, Captain Flint to a race. Her husband, Colonel Thomas Thornton (1757–1823) was the original sporting gentleman of the 18th Century. He was an expert rider, went shooting, hawking and fishing, could leap his own height, and had a voracious appetite for gambling. Col. Thornton had placed a bet of 1,000 guineas on his wife in this contest, and both he and Flint were intent on victory.
Alicia rode on her husband’s horse Old Vingarillo. Flint rode his prized horse Thornville. Mrs. Thornton’s riding prowess was well-known as she regularly rode to hounds with her husband. In fact, it appears that her equestrian skills might have pressured Flint into some less-than-gallant behavior. He insisted on barring Alicia from being accompanied to the start of the race by an attendant. When she arrived at the start, Flint claimed the side of the course that helped him most. Since Alicia rode sidesaddle, she was prevented from using her usual whip hand without fear of interfering with her opponent.
To the racegoers, Alicia was the popular wager: betting began at 5 and 6 to 4 “on the petticoat,” and over the first three miles, betting ran to 7 to 4 then 2 to 1 on a Alicia’s victory. By all accounts, she was by far the superior rider during the race before disaster struck. In the final mile of the race, Old Vingarillo’s saddle-girths loosened and Alicia’s saddle slid sideways on the horse. She pulled up immediately to avoid a dangerous fall. Flint would later receive criticism for ignoring Alicia’s plight and riding hard the whole way to the finish to win by the maximum distance.
It was the Thornton side’s turn for less-than-gallant behavior. Col. Thornton refused to pay his wager for the loss, claiming that the bet had been nothing more than a friendly joke. Following her loss, Mrs. Thornton wrote a scathing complaint against Flint in the newspaper and issued a challenge to repeat the race again the following year. Flint refused to race again, likely prompted in part by Col. Thornton’s failure to pay.
Alicia would go on to race again in the next two years, becoming the first woman to win a match race in 1805 against Frank Buckle (1766-1832). At that race, Flint confronted Col. Thornton in the grandstands for payment of the prior year’s bet. Upon Col. Thornton’s continued refusal, Flint beat Thornton with a horse whip and had to be restrained by the other racegoers. The incident led to arrests, lawsuits, and a deep bitterness between the Flints and the Thorntons, who before the race had been on very friendly terms.
As for Alicia, her relationship with Col. Thornton began to sour in 1806 as Thornton’s fortune dried up. In the end, he was obliged to sell his massive Thornville royal estate. By the end of 1806, she and her husband parted ways and she eventually remarried a naval officer before disappearing from the pages of history. She would be remembered as the first female jockey in England, and was the only woman victor listed by the Jockey Club until 1943.
John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Head Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2014. He is responsible for the care of the Library collections, including books, magazines, photographs, diaries, letters, and much more. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact John by e-mail