While we know Holmes was not a social creature, disliking company for its own sake, I can easily imagine him establishing a routine with three or four similar-minded gentlemen at one of the less tony clubs to engage in some lucrative hands of whist or baccarat over the years. And if the occasional out-of-towner, especially a well-heeled American, should come along as a guest, why, all the better!

Holmes’ inclination to gamble at cards became so well known around London
that Baron Adelbert Gruner, himself no mean risk-taker, should immediately set the tone of their confrontation with a card metaphor: “It really is funny to see you play a hand with no cards in it...Not a colour card there, Mr. Holmes, nothing but the smallest of the small...Let me make the thing clear to you, for my own hand is so strong that I can afford to show it.” (ILLU)

I leave the turf for the last because there are some fascinating, as yet undisclosed, undercurrents there. Holmes puts off explaining the miraculous reappearance of Silver Blaze to Colonel Ross with a hurried “There goes the bell, and as I stand to win a little on this race, I shall defer a more lengthy explanation until a more fitting time”— this from a man who never failed to take the opportunity for dramatic disclosures to an astonished audience.

The man to whom Holmes was more indebted, despite Col. Ross’ generous fee, was Desborough’s owner, the peculiarly named Lord Backwater. This is the real mystery to

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me in this story: who was this guy and what was his connection to Holmes?

The great researcher of Canonical name sources, Donald A. Redmond, notes that Lord Backwater is one of the very few undocumented names — it’s not a fellow medical student or cricket buddy of Doyle’s. It’s made out of whole cloth. One would think that “backwater” as a name, no matter how nobly acquired, is one that probably would not get its owner invited to the best parties during the London season. “Backwater” is a disguise, but one that hints at a seriously impoverished ancestral manor in an isolated corner of England, perhaps in remote Yorkshire, Holmes’ own ancestral county.

Remember that this is the second appearance of Lord Backwater, whoever he may be. It is he who recommends Holmes to Lord Robert St. Simon, the soon to be disillusioned noble bachelor. St. Simon writes: “Lord Backwater tells me that I may place implicit reliance upon your judgment and discretion.” The item to be judged is not horseflesh, which Lord Backwater knew pretty well, but a woman, specifically a wealthy American bride. I believe Lord B. had considerable experience of this situation himself, probably acquired right in Saratoga.

Edith Wharton’s novel The Buccaneers describes in fine detail the marriage market of the 1870s and 1880s during Saratoga’s heyday as a spa and gambling resort. Wharton based her novel on the real incident of the most successful American heiress to snag an English peer, Consuelo Vanderbilt, whose daddy paid about $20 million to make her Duchess of Marlborough. His Grace’s comment on the match was: “There was no need for sentiment”.

A quick check of dates, incorporating Baring-Gould’s chronology, shows some intriguing possibilities: Saratoga Track is built immediately after the Civil War, and a decade later becomes the happy husband hunting ground for wealthy but socially inadequate Americans. NOBL takes place in 1886 and SILV in 1890. Here’s my hypothesis: Lord Backwater brings his best pieces of horseflesh over to Saratoga in the late 1870’s or early 1880s in a last ditch effort to revive the flagging family fortune. While there, he manages to woo and wed an heiress (one conjures up a Miss Gertrude Flugelhorst, the only daughter to the Sausage King of Milwaukee) for whom an English “backwater” is a big improvement over Wisconsin. Yet His Lordship is a little uneasy about the match, especially as Daddy’s fortune is coming under Congressional investigation — profiteering during the war, don’t you know — so he asks Holmes to do a little discreet investigating to help him determine whether or not to marry Trudy.

While Backwater can’t actually pay Holmes until the marriage occurs and the dowry is firmly in hand, he can give Holmes insider tips not only on his horses, but those of other owners and breeders whom he knows well. And so a lucrative sideline to detection is established. Lord Backwater’s marriage succeeds well enough financially to suggest to Lord Robert that he follow the same matrimonial route to solvency and use Holmes’ services when things go awry.