Racing in Kenya – the early days

Delamere -colonist, horseman

Delamere -colonist, horseman

Starting racing in a new country must be a difficult task. It took four years from the establishment of the East Africa Turf Club in 1900 before the first official meeting took place. There had been pony racing a couple of years earlier, organised for Government officials, but the sport only took off once the settlers who had colonised parts of the country became involved.

Hugh Cholmondeley, the third Baron Delamere, had regularly caught the eye of the masters at Eton College for the frequency with which he was absent at Ascot races, where he was once said to have put down £3,000 on a single bet. Finding intellectual pursuits not to his liking, he took part in numerous expeditions to Africa to hunt, shoot and fish. He became a leading spokesman for the settlers, and in time, the first President of the East African Turf Club.

Nairobi race week took place twice a year; in July and again at Christmas. It was as much a social occasion as a sporting one, although as virtually the only time that the settlers could visit Nairobi, it provided a major opportunity to complete business deals as well. The first track was nothing more than a patch of dirt near the railway station, with most people riding there either on a pony, donkey, camel or the animal they were to ride on later in a race. Some, it’s true, came by cart or rickshaw.

It was hardly Epsom in other ways, too. Government officials and officer of the King’s African Rifles would be bedecked with medals, ceremonial (and other) swords, uniform sashes and plumed helmets. The colonists dressed in worn out hunting jackets, multi patched breeches and wing collars with aged regimental or old school ties. The large Asian population sported waves of highly coloured saris and turbans. And many of the indigenous Africans wore little beyond pendulous ear ornaments, anklets, shields and spears.

Mounts were in short supply for several years, which led to some race meetings being supplemented with mule races. It wasn’t unusual for a rhinoceros to turn up, and if one happened to wander out towards the horses, they were likely to bolt. One story, probably apocryphal, has it that the Government sat in emergency session before issuing an edict to its staff that anyone who failed to turn up and enter something on four legs would be transferred off to a difficult outpost somewhere in the Protectorate.

They all managed to find a creature to enter, the meeting went ahead, and has continued to this day. Indeed, although the standard remains low, with few races having more than eight runners, and heats for horses rated 16 and below are common, racing in Kenya has its place in racing history. Back in 1957 it became the first Commonwealth country to allow Sunday racing, fully 35 years before that happened in England.