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Welcome to a world of travel, entertainment and culture, curated from a global collective of writers, photojournalists and artists. Each article of our award-winning magazine is sure to inspire, no matter which of our destinations you call home.
            Back to Open Skies

Race Town

30 August 2016

Newmarket might appear like just another quaint and picturesque English market town, but behind its sleepy exterior lies the very heartbeat of British horse racing.

Awalk before breakfast will quickly deliver news of what a very unusual place Newmarket is. Horses. The horizon is full of horses. This small town was made fashionable by the Stuart kings in the seventeenth century and its shape today is still determined by the horse racing settlement they created. It might be just a day’s horse ride from London and contain the remains of a few royal palaces, but the real story lies in the 2,500 acres of Jockey Club Estate Land.

On any given morning you’ll find trainers in big winter coats assembled at The Severals, an area of grassland where horses are warmed up before they go on to Warren Hill to canter. As they’ll vary in performance from day-to-day, a good trainer knows to keep a very close eye on his charges.

Continue walking and you’ll head towards the gallops and canters that are open each morning. Here you’ll see the very central working of the industry – the talent – hundreds of horses, each being led or ridden by a Newmarket “lad” in boots, black body-armour and riding helmet.

This scale of the operation in Newmarket is the key signifier. Elsewhere in the UK you’ll find horses simply training on local racecourses, but in Newmarket they have the choice of over 14 miles of artificial gallops and 70 miles of grass gallops. The Heath has been preserved unploughed and uncultivated since the time of King James I. Twenty-six “Heath Men” look after it making sure it’s available 365 mornings a year, regardless of the weather.

This town contains the largest area of mown grassland in the world and up to 3,000 racehorses are exercised here every morning. According to Samantha Hills, who has been riding since she was four and comes from a long line of Newmarket trainers, it’s nothing more than a local joke that Newmarket contains more horses than people. “In fact, there’s a population of around 15,000 – but then a third of them do work in horse-related occupations.”

Newmarket has over 50 horse-training stables, many of which stretched out along the Bury Road. It also has two large racecourses and is home to the majority of British horse racing institutions. It’s the birthplace and spiritual home of thoroughbred horse racing – and even the Queen regularly visits informally to see her horses train.

Centred around a brick house built in 1874 for Prince Soltykoff of Russia, Kremlin Cottage is undoubtedly one of Newmarket’s prettiest stables. After the Crimean War, the prince visited Newmarket on a peace dividend vacation and never returned home. He died living there in 1903, having become a popular figure in British racing and boasting a string of successful horses.

In the 1930s and ’40s the Kremlin trained great horses like Hyperion, Diadem, and Swynford. In 1978 it was sold to Michael Jarvis and in 2011 Jarvis’ widow leased it to Hugo Palmer, who had just received his licence to train. Starting out with just eleven inexpensive horses, Palmer has since had a steady stream of successes. Given the very slow cash flows in horse racing and the very high costs, it was fortunate that he was independently wealthy, but then you have to be to take on this kind of work.

This of course is not true for the jockeys. Veteran, Michael Hills is now 52 and retired. In 34 years he rode around 2,500 winners. The standard fee for a jockey is now US$196 per race plus 7.5 per cent of prize money if they win. Most jockeys race between three and six horses a day at the most, but Hills used to notch up ten, often driving between courses. “You have to save your money,” he warns. “Fortunately I was 30 years old when I was earning well… and I had a very strict wife.”

The finances of ownership, meanwhile, are rather more complicated. Each horse that exercises on the Heath costs palmer US$130 a month. On top of that he has feed, vets bills and wages for all the men and women who look after the horses. Palmer’s yard employs 35 people: three in the office, 26 riders, aged 17-60, and then a further six who muck out. His success has meant that his prize money has doubled every year (the trainer always gets a percentage) and he now trains 70 horses, many owned by syndicates, but some belonging to the top owners in the world. It costs US$32,600 each year to train a horse at Kremlin Cottage Stables.

“There are lots of boxes so the horses can see each other,” says Palmer. “They like that as they’re very sociable animals. It’s a quiet yard too, which is something they respond to. A happy, relaxed environment is what horses need. The more relaxed they are, the more they eat and the fitter they become.”

As an old yard, Kremlin Cottage Stables is also spacious. “The horses can be spread out,” continued Palmer. “It keeps them healthy and it stops infection spreading.” There are also metal cages on the grass beyond the yard where horses can be put to graze. “A lot of new stables don’t have this much space, but I have to be careful because if I keep expanding we’ll lose that.”

Palmer relies on his stable staff, and especially jockeys attached to the stables, to tell him how the horses are doing. “And to tell me which are ready to race.” It’s a big decision advising an owner on when and where to race a horse, especially as you have to declare 24 to 48 hours before. “And it depends on the ground, too. Horses differ. Some are better suited to fast ground and some to soft. Essentially a horse is 500kg travelling at 40mph. It’s all about how you hit the ground.”

After Kremlin Cottage it’s a short drive to the Godolphin Stables, which are owned by the ruler of Dubai, H H Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Godolphin was named after the Godolphin Arabian, a horse from the desert that became one of the three founding stallions of the modern thoroughbred.

The stables were built by the 16th Earl of Derby – another horse-mad English aristocrat – in 1903 and originally named Stanley House Stables after his home nearby. They are set in serene tree-lined grounds with every possible facility a horse might need, even an inclined gallop so that no horse has to leave the grounds to exercise.

If Kremlin Cottage is one of the best stables in the UK, Godolphin might well be the best in the world. Its luxury is a testament to how much horses, and horse racing, means to the elite. No wonder they call it the sport of kings.

Tony Garth won 100 races as a jockey before becoming travelling supervisor at Godolphin (he takes the horses all round the world to race) and he readily admits that Godolphin is “horse heaven”. The horses even have their own swimming pool and hot baths. “When I die I want to come back as a horse in this stable,” said Garth.

The only way to follow something as grand as Godolphin, is lunch at the old Jockey Club Rooms, a remarkable double-fronted brick building on the High Street. Despite its name, The Jockey Club was never for the jockeys, but rather for the moneymen, for those who bet on horses and their riders. It stands not far from Palace House, the remains of a royal lodging that King Charles II – himself a very keen horseman – built in Newmarket. The club houses an extraordinary collection of artwork, from a rather flattering portrait of Winston Churchill that the great man (a successful racehorse owner and breeder in his spare time) donated, to an equestrian portrait by Stubbs that’s valued in the millions.

Leaving the Jockey Club Rooms we headed to the Rutland Arms Hotel where King Charles II used to lodge his mistresses, and then to The July Course. Here, across a distance of six furlongs (1,207 metres), race meets are held on eleven days between June and September every year.

The scene was flash, gaudy and fun; noisy young women in fascinators and men in loud suits. It was an afternoon of surges as crowds moved en masse to the enclosure to see horses paraded before the all-too-brief race, and then back to the finishing line to watch the winners streak past. The crowd, more than anything, is perhaps an indicator of modern racing: not so much the sport of kings but the king of selfies.

But even in a sport such as horse racing – a pastime so entrenched in the establishment – it has no choice but to move with the times. That’s why, at Newmarket, you’ll see, the likes of Little Mix and Mark Ronson performing live, neatly packaged among the hectic racing schedule. Not that embracing modernity will ever change this particular town, of course. Racing is its very heartbeat, and it’s one that’s still beating gloriously.

Words: Adrian Mourby / Images: Kate Tadman-Mourby