Monday, August 25, 2014

The Horseracing Craze

by Sue Millard

Was there ever a time when men didn’t want to compete against each other to see who’d got the biggest, the fastest, whatever? As soon as men had enough horses to spare from necessary work and transport, they surely must have tested their speed against each other.

We may not know when horseracing itself began, but horses were first domesticated in Kazakhstan about 6,000 years ago so to my mind, if men had domesticated horses then, that’s probably how old horseracing is!


Horses were definitely in use here before Julius Caesar arrived – he commented on the British charioteers’ nimbleness and daring in battle – but it seems it was those pesky Romans who commercialized the idea of racing in Britain. They built at least one circus or hippodrome where chariot races could take place. The one excavated in Essex in 2011 is the first ever discovered in Britain.


There are still placenames that describe racecourses – “Hesket” refers back to Norse hesta-skaeth, the place where the stallions (hesta) run. It may only have been a smooth stretch of land where horses were shown off to potential buyers (what the gipsy boys at Appleby Fair would call “the flashing lane”!) but it’s unlikely such a tempting bit of grassland wouldn’t also be used as an impromptu racecourse.


In the middle ages the broad grassy space known as Smooth Field was just outside London Wall. William Fitzstephen described in 1171 how “every Friday there is a celebrated rendezvous of fine horses to be sold” and he listed all the different kinds he saw, but he didn’t mention any kind of horse purely for racing. Does that suggest no races were taking place? Perhaps it only means racing was impromptu, not regulated or organised.

Organised races

“Scratch” or informal races must have been common wherever men with horses got together. Trotting races and galloping races took place without any advertisement or race card in areas such as the Lake District until the middle of the 19th century. The first records of organised races, however, seem to date from the mid-16th century.

The first recorded race at Chester on the Roodee was held on 9 February 1539, in the reign of Henry VIII. There was an annual race on Shrove Tuesday – the Tuesday before the start of Lent, after which such frivolity would have been frowned upon until Easter – and from 1609 the race was held on St George's Day (23 April). The Chester Goldsmith Company supplied a silver bell and in 1744 a gold cup was awarded annually by the Grosvenor family. In keeping with the tradition of ancient races, the Gold Cup is still one for stayers, being run over 2 miles 2 ½ furlongs.

Carlisle is the home of the Carlisle Bell, one of the oldest horse races still in existence. There are two bells. The larger one, 2 ½ inches in diameter, was donated by Lady Dacre in 1559 and bears the inscription: The sweftes horse thes bel to tak for mi lade Daker sake (The swiftest horse this bell to take for my lady Dacre's sake) and the second, smaller bell is inscribed 1599 H.B.M.C. This race, however, is much shorter in modern times, being only a distance of 1 mile.


King James I

Newmarket already had a small reputation for horse racing when James I established himself there in 1605. The King took a lease on The Griffin inn for £100 a year. Then, in 1608, he decided to buy it for the sum of £400. Clearly he was very keen to have somewhere to hold court when he went racing! In 1609 he bought land in the High Street.

King Charles II

Peter Tillemans - The Round Course at Newmarket,
Cambridgeshire, Preparing for the King's Plate
Google Art Project.
Charles II was also a keen horseracing fan, and was probably a very good horseman since he rode his own horses and won with them (I wonder whether anyone ever dared to beat him?) He set up the Newmarket Plate in 1665: “in the 17th year of the Reign of King Charles the Second, which Plate is to be rode for yearly the second Thursday in October, for ever, Anno Dom. 1666.” Charles won the Plate on two occasions, 1671 and 1675 when “Blew Capp” was the horse he rode. The distance was, and is, 3 miles 6 furlongs.

Royal Ascot

Queen Anne

Queen Anne, who loved horses, riding and hunting, raced her own horses at Newmarket and elsewhere. In 1711 she realised that Ascot Heath, where the royal hounds were kennelled, was an ideal location for a racecourse. The Queen and her courtiers attended the opening day, a Saturday in August, which began with a race for a purse of 50 guineas. Seven horses took part.

The Ascot Gold Cup goes back to 1807 when the race was watched by George III and Queen Charlotte.  Again, this is a race for “stayers” being run over 2 miles and a half.

It was George IV in 1825 who began the carriage procession up the course and made Royal Ascot a key event of the aristocratic social season.

Racing and Times of Year

Horseracing “on the flat” has retained much of the aristocratic glamour that has surrounded it in history. Partly this is because it traditionally takes place in summer, when good weather makes it easy for people to dress up without fear of being drenched.

“Jump” racing on the other hand, under National Hunt Rules, takes place from autumn to late spring, with the less formal Point-to-Point racing from December to June. More about these in another post!


Sue Millard is the author of “Coachman”, a historical novel set in 1838, and a modern novel about steeplechasing, “Against the Odds”, to which she is currently writing a sequel.
Sue Millard, Jackdaw E Books

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