Race Histories 6: City and Suburban and Great Metropolitan Handicaps

It's quirky! Epsom Oaks previewToday’s Epsom card features two longstanding races whose importance has slipped over the years, but which nevertheless have a significant place in the history of the sport.

The City and Suburban Handicap was first run in 1851. In its early days a high-class field regularly contested it. For instance, in 1854, the filly Virago, had an unorthodox preparation for the forthcoming 1000 Guineas, by completing an unusual double of winning this race and the mile longer Great Metropolitan at the Epsom Spring Meeting. Obviously a tough customer, Virago actually won twice more at York later in April, before triumphing in the 1000 Guineas itself in early May.

The Great Metropolitan Handicap is a little older, as it was introduced to the calendar in 1846. It owes its place in history to the ingenuity of Epsom’s clerk of the course, who set out to upgrade the Spring Meeting by persuading businesses and clubs in the London area to contribute towards the prize money for a new race. He successfully raised the sum of £300 for the purpose, and so the Great Metropolitan Handicap was born, making it one the first races to be sponsored.

Until 1985 it had a unique place in the Epsom calendar, as it was the only race there to be run backwards. For 140 years the race was run over a distance of two and a quarter miles, with the start at the winning post. The first three furlongs were back along the straight, before the track branched right handed to climb the Downs and rejoin the Derby course for its final mile down the hill and round Tattenham Corner.

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The reduction in the race distance to its present mile and a half came about because with the infield being down land and open to the public, it was difficult to maintain this part of the track in good condition. Now, it is the first race in the year to take place over the Derby course.

In the latter part of the 19th century, American racing named handicaps after these two races, with the Suburban starting in 1884 and the Metropolitan seven years later. They have something of a hotch potch history, as they have been run at several different tracks and over a range of distances.

However, they both found a permanent home at Belmont Park, where they now form two legs of the New York Handicap Triple, run in May and June. There is no English precedent for the third race in the series, but that’s called the Brooklyn, so perhaps it’s understandable.

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