In the fifth episode of season three of Netflix’s “The Crown,” Queen Elizabeth II travels to Kentucky and spends a month in the commonwealth looking for horses to breed with her mares, some of whom were stabled in Central Kentucky. In the episode, she spends her time in Kentucky lamenting “the unlived life” and the restrictions that accompany her station as a monarch.
Fans of “The Crown” love to parse through the show’s events and storylines to mine what is based on fact and what is based on fiction. This episode provided much fodder for those students of “The Crown’s” allegiance to history.
At this point in the show’s third season, it is supposed to be 1967. But Queen Elizabeth II didn’t set foot on Kentucky soil until 1984. And though she did spend time looking at stallions during that six-day trip, her real reason for the visit was to attend the inaugural running of the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland Race Course.
Queen Elizabeth II had been to the United States six times prior to that visit in October 1984, but this was her first visit to Kentucky and her first to an American racetrack despite the fact that she was a lifelong fan of horse racing. She visited nearly a dozen horse farms during the visit and many of the farms reportedly offered to mate their star stallions with her mares free of charge.
The queen then attended a party at Lane’s End as a guest of William S. Farish III and Sarah Farish, and about 120 invited guests mostly from the Kentucky horse racing community. Will Farish had met the queen in 1974 through her son Prince Charles while playing polo in England, and they had remained friends, connected through their shared love of horses and racing. Sarah Farish, a du Pont heiress, said that “it was the most wonderful week either of us had ever had ... it was almost beyond words.”
In “The Crown,” the queen’s visit to Kentucky is cut short by word of a coup attempt back home, a story that does have some root in actual fact. While no actual coup attempt was in fact ever made, there were discussions of a coup among a group of wealthy industrialists, military generals, and Lord Mountbatten in 1968 about the possibility of pushing out the elected Labour government. Nothing much came of those talks, and certainly nothing rose to the level seen in “The Crown.”
However, during Queen Elizabeth II’s actual trip to America in 1984, her visit was cut short by an act of political terrorism back home. An IRA bomb in a Harrod’s department store in London killed nine people on her last day in the United States, sending her home to face a tragedy and political crisis. At the time of the bombing, she was no longer in Kentucky but had flown to Canyon Ranch in Montana to stay with her racing manager, Lord Porchester, whose wife was an American.
In addition to being the queen’s racing manager, Lord Porchester had been her friend since childhood. The two of them bonded over a shared love of horses, and Porchester served in the Royal Horse Guards during World War II.
From childhood until his death in 2001, the queen and Lord Porchester shared a uniquely close relationship. Some said he was the only person who could contact her at any time. Naturally, there were rumors about the nature of their relationship, and “The Crown” certainly stokes those fires in this episode. There is a strong insinuation that one of the reasons for the queen’s trip to Kentucky to check in on her horses is to spend time with Lord Porchester, with whom her husband suspects she is having an affair. This insinuation has enraged defenders of the royal family, who say there is no basis for it. And, they’re right — like a lot of “The Crown,” this episode and incident are a work of fiction. But it isn’t a totally imagined narrative. The writers took their inspiration from actual events and the rumors that surrounded them in order to come up with this particular fiction.
“The Crown” shows Queen Elizabeth II feeling conflicted about returning to England after her stay in Kentucky. After a day of riding horses alongside of Lord Porchester she tells him over dinner that “today has managed to be one of the most enjoyable days of my life, and at the same time one of the most depressing.” She then confesses to him, “this is how I’d like to spend all of my time. Owning horses, breeding horses, racing horses, that’s what makes me truly happy. And I actually think it was what I was born to do … until the other thing came along.”
Queen Elizabeth II continues to breed and race horses to this day. A sizeable chunk of her net worth has come from horse racing: she has earned nearly $10 million in the sport over the last 30 years. Her involvement in horse racing is well known and documented among American racing fans. In 2018, she sent one of her horses, Call to Mind, to Belmont Park where he won the Grade 2 Belmont Gold Cup Invitational Stakes. Queen Elizabeth II’s Magnetic Charm competed in October in the 2019 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup Stakes Presented by Lane's End at Keeneland.
The queen has returned to Kentucky four times since that first trip in 1984. While much of “The Crown” is fiction, the notion that Queen Elizabeth II was truly happy racing horses seems to be undisputably true.