It’s early morning in Newmarket, 60 miles from London. The town is awakening. Hardly any traffic – maybe one or two garbage trucks. And a couple of blocks from the main street, 35 racehorses walk across a pedestrian crossing. Follow GallopMagazine to the English town where it’s all about horse racing.
Driving into Newmarket is a special feeling: farmland decreases, and full, tall hedges with magnificent wooden fences line both sides of the straight road. Within a couple of miles you see stud farm after stud farm, with glorious names and impressive entrances. Behind the stud farms you can catch a glimpse of enormous, green-grass paddocks. Everything is in mint condition, but never sterile or ostentatious. Here, the horse – specifically the Thoroughbred – is the focus.
As you approach Newmarket, you encounter one of Britain’s numerous roundabouts. An enormous statue of a rearing horse with its groom graces the centre.
Signs point toward National Stud and July Course, one of the town’s two race tracks. The training fields begin right after the roundabout. On each side of the road are huge grass fields dotted with hundreds of small white plastic markers. Parallel with the road, the markers look like they should be on the runway of an old airfield.
“The plastic markers show where you can ride your gallops today,” says Jessica Humble. ”The markers are moved almost every day, so that we always have new grass to ride on. Jessica is originally from Sweden, and has lived in Newmarket for several years working as an exercise rider for many of Newmarket’s 77 professional race trainers.
To walk on the turf in Newmarket is like walking on a beautiful lawn that stretches for hundreds of acres. The land is perfect, and the roots of the grass go down about 10 inches. The calcium rich lower soil layer makes the land self-draining. A little more than half-a-mile away, the futuristic newly-built grandstand of Newmarket’s second racetrack, Rowley Mile, rises from the valley. It’s astonishingly beautiful and almost surreal. If you have ever ridden a horse, you will feel the need to set off at full speed on this track, as have many before.
King James I (Mary Stuart’s only son) was one of the first to ride here. In 1605 while hunting hare in neighbouring Fordham, suddenly he found himself in the moorlands of Newmarket. He fell in love with this “Prime Sporting Country”. He bought the house which today is the Rutland Arms Hotel, and built the town’s first royal palace. He and his staff held races here with local and Spanish horses. The Spanish horses were found on the beaches after shipwrecks from the Spanish Armada in Galloway. (The Thoroughbred didn’t exist yet).
James’ son Charles I built the first stand on the moorland. But it wasn’t until his son Charles II inherited the throne that horse racing became known as the Sport of Kings.
Charles II loved horse racing so much that he built a new palace in Newmarket, to which he moved his entire court every year. He also put formal regulations into place, and in 1665 the world’s first horse race, following these regulations, took place – The Newmarket Town Plate. Charles II himself won the race in 1671, and to this day the race is still run every year, making it the oldest annually held race in the world. At three miles, six furlongs, it’s not just the oldest race, it’s also the longest.
”It’s astonishingly beautiful and almost surreal. If you have ever ridden a horse, you will feel the need to set off at full speed on this track, as have many before.”
The Capital of Horse Racing
As the interest in horse racing grew in England, Newmarket grew as well. Horse institutions started to move there, and in 1750 the Jockey Club was founded. Soon yearly regular conditions for races were written for Newmarket, most of which are still ridden today. In 1809 the 2000 Guineas was ridden (one mile championship for 3-year olds) for the first time, and five years later the 1000 Guineas had its premier (one mile for 3-years-old fillies). These two races set the standard for similarly-named or -distanced contests in many countries around the world.
Today almost 15,000 people work in Newmarket, and approximately one in four works with Thoroughbreds or horse racing. The question is if any other sport has such an obvious capital. More than 2,500 horses are in training here. Additionally, the town is surrounded by 65 stud farms, where another 1,000 horses are trained, including The National Stud and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Makboum’s Dalham Hall Stud (Darley).
When you pass the town sign (Illustrated with King Charles and race horses) and drive around in the town, you feel horse racing everywhere. The Jockey Club is located on High Street, with the statue of the stallion Hyperion in front. Next door is the horse racing museum. Some distance away is the shoe shop, which of course offers tailor-made jockey boots, and the jeweller who sells bronze statues of race horses. Tindall’s bookshop has hundreds of horse books, and art galleries have plenty of Thoroughbred portraits. A block away you see horses in the flesh. Behind a gate in a residential area you can spot a walker and a couple of stalls. And close to all this is Tattersalls, the oldest bloodstock auctioneers in the world.
”If you love horse racing, you love Newmarket,” Jessica says.
”The town is like one big race day. There’s horse racing everywhere. And a lot of young people come here. It’s like a school trip. With people [of] every age and from all over the world. ”The influence of horse culture is pretty obvious, just looking at the pubs on High Street. Jackets with trainers’ and stud farms’ names, queuing for a pint. Today’s races on the Goodwood track are shown on the TV. On the street every tenth vehicle is a horse truck. Men in caps in dented Land Rover pickups stop outside the betting office to have a chat with Ferrari owners. Owners and trainers? Or more-or-less successful gamblers?
Ex-trainer Gillian Hay still has her house at the bottom of Warren Hill: ”Everything is here. Not only the great training facilities, but also all the services you need, literally around the corner.”
Horse hospitals, veterinarians of every thinkable specialisation, horse fertility clinics, farriers with different specialties, horse transportation, saddle makers, lawyers. Everything within walking distance. And the training facilities are out of the ordinary: the Jockey Club has a total of 1100 acres of training area: 50+ miles of turf training tracks and 16+ miles of all-weather tracks (polytrack, wood chips or dirt track).
But the long grass slopes are the heart of all conditioning for many of the trainers.
Warren Hill and Long Hill Warren and Long Hills are two straight uphill grades in the north of Newmarket. To be standing there by the rail is true horse-spotting. Trainer after trainer come with their horses, or their ”string.” Usually the horses are ridden on loose reins through the town. No one in Newmarket would ever think twice about bringing a young 2-year-old Thoroughbred through street traffic. They all do it. Every day. Walking along with heads hanging, like riding school horses. Side by side with buses and strollers.
First out this day are some of the smaller trainers, with five-to-six horses each, and sinewy riders in their 60s. Cigarettes in mouth — although it has plenty of negatives, smoking is a good way to hold the appetite and weight in control.
The next group is about 30 horses or even more. Everyone is wearing the identical jackets and helmet covers. The only one wearing riding pants is the head lad, the group leader. Everyone else is riding in jeans. On an old race horse, the head lad stops traffic at the pedestrian crossings. Riding in front. Making sure everybody is doing right. Reporting to the trainer. At the bottom of the hill, he positions his horse to the side, and watches as the riders shorten their stirrups, or ”leathers.”
”Today’s races on the Goodwood track are shown on the TV. On the street every tenth vehicle is a horse truck.”
In two seconds the riding horses turn into the Formula 1 racers they are bred and trained to be. Two by two they race a mile and a quarter, up the legendary Warren Hill synthetic surface. The string gathers at the ridge and then walks down again for a new round. Then it’s back to walking again, a mile and a half across the town. After this the horses have a break, and rest until the next day. But each rider normally has two more horses to ride.
”It’s sometimes hard,” says Jessica, ”but most of all it’s fun. You get your dose of adrenalin every day! I’ll see how long I’ll manage …”
Two men stand outside the pub at High Street. They’re in their 60s. Tiny. They’d be startlingly small in all other European towns, except for Newmarket. The first thought is kind of tragic: they’re ex-jockeys who know only one thing —how to ride race horses. So what does an old jockey do? Shouldn’t he be allowed to just sit still and relax and get his porridge served while watching daytime television?
As we walk by we hear that they’re talking about horses. Horses that they’ve ridden the very same morning. “You’ll see on Saturday—he’ll show them!” one of them says. He laughs, and you clearly see that a visit to the dentist would be a good way of spending the winnings he hopes to get.
And it’s by then you realise that adrenalin is an interesting life extending drug. That it can make some riders ride longer. Very much longer. At least in Newmarket, where the school trip never ends—if you don’t want it to.
Just walking around the old stables is fascinating. Young grooms sit on folding chairs outside the stalls of the horses they are there to look after. Getting up to brush a horse before it’s about to enter the sales ring, while under the watch of potential buyers and their advisors. In the parking lot horse boxes and Land-Rovers are parked next to Aston Martins. Racing’s ability to get people from all aspects of society together is never more clear than here.
The sales ring with its dome ceiling feels like a mix of a Russian circus building, a church and a courthouse with light coming in from a multitude of windows. Sheikhs in oilskin jackets and Irish ex-jockeys in jeans stand side-by-side at the rail scrutinizing the horses before the equines enter the sales building to be led around the ring as the bids (hopefully) come.
Even if you have no intention of buying a horse, it is a fascinating spectacle to be on location when millions (in any currency) are spent.
GO TO THE RACES
Racing in the UK is not like anything else. Even more so in Newmarket, since “everyone in the business” shows up whenever there’s a race. The small town has two racecourses – and not a single bend! Both July Course and The Rowley mile are straight tracks …
July Course is the coziest of the two with races in the middle of summer. Start off with a parking lot picnic around 11 am before the races. After the last race there’s often a high profile band playing, so a day at the races can easily turn into a night as well.
NAVIGATE AT THE RUTLAND ARMS
The only hotel on High Street. As English as they come. And one of the few hotels in the world where you need to go down stairs and turn left, when your room is up and to the left … Navigating the corridors and stairs is a fascinating experience that many Newmarket visitors can tell stories about. Classic in the best sense of the word!
HAVE A PINT AT The Wagon
The racing pub on High Street. This is where you’ll find “everyone.” Just grab a seat and a pint, and before long you’ll be speaking racing with someone.
VISIT THE Brittish Horse-racing Museum If you are new to British racing this is a great first spot to visit. They have more or less everything – including a silent courtyard where you can rest your feet and have a good lunch at a decent price.
Get up early and go to the training tracks (The Jockey Club has a board where they list all open gallops each day) and enjoy the beauty of Thoroughbreds in the morning mist.
A classic brittish pub in Ashley, three miles outside town. This is where you will hear trainers and owners talking about why the last race came out the way it did.
Cool decorations and great food. Open 7 am-11.30 pm.
Sundays 12-15. Closed on Mondays.
The tack-shop with all you need for racing. Watch out for excess luggage on the flight home!
The Pantry. If you still think that Food Culture and England do not mix (in spite of the fact that every TV cooking show in the world has British chefs) you should visit The Pantry. Here you’ll find English food at its best, presented by a couple who really want to teach us what East Anglian cooking is really all about. Stop by for Sunday lunch and chances are you’ll find yourself at the table next to Sir Henry Cecil. www.thepantryfinefoods.com