British racing and the town of Newmarket in particular owe a huge debt to the two disasters that befell London in successive years over 300 years ago. In 1665 King Charles fled the Plague, and although his court went to Salisbury, and parliament met in Oxford, Charles also spent some time in Newmarket, a town he knew well from his childhood. He must have enjoyed the place, as he was back in 1666 after the Great Fire of London, and subsequently steered an Act of Parliament through that set up a race, the Town Plate, which was to be run for ever.
Yesterday The Jockey Club launched its season of events to celebrate 350 years of racing in Newmarket with a new web micro site and an appeal to racing fans. The website, http://www.weare350.co.uk, is in its embryo stage, but will grow as the year progresses. Racing fans can help by submitting their memories of racing in Newmarket, with the opportunity of winning a pair of tickets if their memory is chosen as the "throwback of the week".
"This year presents us with a big opportunity to tell the story of horseracing and to celebrate this fantastic anniversary as a town, as well as securing our heritage for future generations," said Olivia Hills, communications Manager for Newmarket Racecourses.
The town and its three tracks will feature a range of events throughout the year. Worth noting are:
Tuesday 12 April. The season opens with the Craven meeting, and for the first day, the first 5,000 residents of Cambridgeshire and Suffolk to book tickets will get them free. Additionally, the first 350 CB8 postcode residents to book will be offered a free Discover Newmarket tour.
Thursday 14 April. On the final day of the Craven meeting Newmarket will welcome Richard Farquhar at the end of his epic Walking the Courses journey. Since he set out from Newmarket last March, Richard has covered 2,506 miles and raised almost £300,000 for pancreatic cancer and Racing Welfare charities. The walk ends before racing at the winning post on the Rowley Mile.
The Guineas meeting. For the first time, prize money for both the 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas races is over £500,000. On 1 May a time capsule which tells the story of 350 years of racing in Newmarket will be opened.
The July Meeting. The Newmarket Town Plate, the race instigated by Charles II moves from a slot in August to kick off the July meeting. It's the only race in the year to be run over the round course, and with a distance of 3 miles and 6 furlongs, needs a fit horse and rider.
It's true that racing had taken place in the town a good 30 years earlier than the first running of this race in 1666. However, the Town Plate is acknowledged as the first race to be run under prescribed rules, and hence is the trigger for the celebrations. These included:
- Every rider that layeth hold on, or striketh any of the riders, shall win no plate or prize
- Whosoever winneth the plate or prize shall give to the Clerk of the Course twenty shillings, to be distributed to the poor both sides of Newmarket, and twenty shillings to the Clerk of the Race for which he is to keep the course plain and free from cart roots
- No man is admitted to ride for this prize that is either a serving man or groom
Not a bad set of rules if you want to win a box of Newmarket sausages to go with the trophy.
A specially commissioned statue of Charles II will be unveiled, provided it has been finished!
Summer Saturdays. These will feature special children's racecards.
Newmarket Open weekend. This sets seven local trainers the challenge of commentating on a race.
Away from the race meetings, a new Heritage Centre - a rejuvenated National horseracing Museum - is scheduled to open in the Autumn, and plans are in hand to launch a new take on the Monopoly board game in which the stations and hotels are replaced with training yards and stallions. That should be available from July, and I rather hope I'll find one in my Christmas stocking.