“I gotta horse!” That was the catchphrase of Ras Prince Monolulu, a horse-racing tipster who made his fame on the race courses of England in the 1920s and would eventually become the most famous black man in Britain until his death in the 1960s.
An extraordinary and funny fellow, Monolulu was often seen in his bizarre costume of baggy trousers, a headdress of ostrich feathers, ornate waist coasts and colourful jackets and was always present at the major race meetings where he would sell his tipping sheets in envelopes.
Historians state that even when newspapers did not carry many photographs and television was just in its preparatory stages, Monolulu was widely known and could easily be recognized more than the top jockeys.
So who was this man who brought so much charm to the race courses and Britain as a whole?
Monolulu was born Peter Carl McKay in St Croix, Danish West Indies (now part of the United States Virgin Islands) though he claimed to be a chief of the Falasha tribe of Abyssinia.
He took up the royal persona after being shanghaied on board a British ship heading for the African coast. He had hoped that styling himself as a tribal prince might afford him better treatment but he was wrong.
His ship was subsequently shipwrecked on the Portuguese coast, from where he made his way to New York and did various jobs on shore and at sea before getting to London in 1902.
He soon joined forces with an Irish tipster at Epsom of the 1902 Derby and through his style of appearance and trademark calls of “I’ve gotta horse” and sometimes “Black man for luck”, he attracted a lot of horse race fans in Britain and soon decided to go solo.
He travelled around Britain and Europe, doing odd jobs around stables and later visiting Saint Petersburg with an American “negro show”, otherwise called minstrel show.
The eccentric tipster was in Konigsberg when World War I broke out and was held in Ruhleben internment camp near Berlin for the duration of the war.
He returned to London in 1919, and soon emerged as Britain’s most famous tipster, although he regularly appeared in court on charges as diverse as using bad language, disturbances at political rallies over Abyssinia and fortune telling.
His rise to prominence was at the 1920 Derby when he reportedly won £8,000 ($9,221) on the Derby, one of the five classic English horse races, after putting all his money on an unfancied horse called Spion Kop.
That was a huge sum of money at the time and from that moment, Monolulu decided to live his life as a tipster, and with his colourful attire and trademarks, punters could easily spot him in the crowds at race tracks.
“When anyone bought a tip from him (at Epsom at the height of his fame he would charge ten shillings) he’d hand over a sealed envelope inside of which was the name of the horse written with careful handwriting on a piece of paper. He’d lean over to the punter and whisper:
“If you tell anyone, the horse will lose”.
“It seemed that someone always told someone because Monolulu’s horse nearly always lost. Although no one ever complained,” according to accounts by trip down memory lane.
That was the extent of love and fame he received and in November 1936 when the BBC began its television service, Monolulu was the first black person to appear on screen, making him the first black man to appear on British TV screens.
During the same period, any British film that featured a race course would include Monolulu playing his own self, and consequently, he appeared in over ten films including Derby Day (1952) and Make Mine a Million (1959).
His fame travelled outside Britain as in March 1957 he appeared on the American TV quiz show, You Bet Your Life, hosted by Groucho Marx.
With such an extraordinary personality, Monolulu claimed to have been married six times, though documentation exists for only three of those.
His first wife, a Jewish girl, was reportedly taken away by Moscow police after their marriage in 1902. The second wife was a German Catholic who left him and got killed in a car accident after. Elizabeth Arnold, who was the third wife, died in 1911 after three years of marriage.
His marriage to Nellie of Edmonton, the daughter of Edward Adkins, a helmet maker in 1922, however, attracted lots of publicity than the others largely because it was an interracial marriage. This marriage also broke down though other romantic affairs followed for the famous tipster.
In 1964, just before that year’s Derby, Monolulu collapsed and was taken to Middlesex Hospital, where he remained for several months.
Then on Valentine’s Day, February 14, the unfortunate happened after the famous tipster was visited in the hospital by a popular racing journalist, Jeffrey Bernard who had come for an interview.
Bernard had brought with him a box of Black Magic chocolates and offered Monolulu a ‘strawberry cream’. The 84-year-old, according to several accounts, choked to death on the chocolate, and that was the end of such an amazing personality who had brought so much colour to horse racing and joy to many.
He is commemorated in the National Horse Racing Museum at Newmarket which has some of his dazzling jackets, and he is the only racing tipster to have his picture in the National Portrait Gallery in London, according to theracingforum.
There was once a pub named after him called Prince Monolulu at 28 Maple Street, but the name was unfortunately changed to Potion after some years.
Apart from bringing so much colour to horse racing in Britain, Monolulu, through his amusing character, contributed to the fight against racism.