A one-horse town it ain’t

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A one horse town it ain’t


Morning exercise at Newmarket

To find out everything you wanted to know about breeding and racing horses but were afraid to ask, go to Newmarket – at the heart of Britain’s sixth-largest industry. Gillian Thornton did

Early morning on Newmarket Heath, and whichever way you look there are horses. Not just any old Dobbins, but sleek, strutting thoroughbreds, all bred for a single purpose – speed.

Stand on the brow of the heath any time after first light and you’re surrounded by them. Strings of racehorses in monogrammed sheets wend their way towards the gallops along the walking tracks that skirt the town centre. Others pound up the all-weather track under the watchful eye of the trainer, manes and tails flying like banners in the slipstream.

Newmarket, on the Cambridgeshire-Suffolk border, is more than a bustling market town: it’s the internationally recognised headquarters of British horseracing. It has not only two racecourses – the Rowley Mile and the July Course (www.newmarketracecourses.co.uk) – but also the world’s most extensive training grounds on the world’s largest expanse of tended grassland, all owned by the Jockey Club. It’s home to about 2,500 racehorses, 70 licensed trainers, more than 60 stud farms and the National Stud.

A good place to start a visit is at the tourist information centre (tel 01638 667200) in Palace House, the remaining pavilion of a palace built by Charles II. Newmarket’s association with racing began with his grandfather, James 1, who found the open heathland and springy turf ideally suited to his equestrian interests. It was Charles II who really put the town on the sporting map, setting out rules and adjudicating in disputes. The Rowley Mile course is named after his personal hack.

"Find out about feedstuffs, feel the weight of a racing saddle, and handle the lightweight shoes worn by thoroughbreds"

For a good insight into racing past and present, a visit to the National Horseracing Museum (www.nhrm.co.uk) on the High Street is a must. It’s packed with memorabilia of equestrian legends such as Eclipse and Hyperion, Desert Orchid, Shergar, Red Rum, plus jockeys, trainers and broadcasters. The Practical Gallery allows children to tack up a replica horse and gives wannabe jockeys the chance to race down the home straight on a mechanical horse.

You can find out more about breeding racehorses at the National Stud (www.nationalstud.co.uk) on the edge of town, adjacent to the July Course. The purpose-built stud farm spreads over 500 acres of countryside leased from the Jockey Club for the princely sum of £1 a year. Tours operate twice daily between March and September, as well as on autumn racedays, and last for up to 90 minutes.

The foals you see grazing in the paddocks at the National Stud today could well be winning races in a couple of years, but a lot will happen in-between. You can book a behind-the-scenes tour with Hoofbeats (www.hoofbeats.co.uk), which shows visitors parts of the racing industry they can’t go and see for themselves. Itineraries vary, but we chose a morning tour which included the gallops, equine swimming pool, the British Racing School and a training yard.

There are more horses in Newmarket now than ever before, largely thanks to the Arab money which has changed the face of British racing. Peter Feilden, retired trainer and owner of Hoofbeats, pointed out a string of 50 horses, all belonging to one Arab owner who has two other yards in the town. “The British aristocracy which once dominated our racing scene has mostly gone and hasn’t been replaced,” he told us. “But we now see many more syndicate horses, which give members of the general public a chance to get personally involved.”

Peter stopped the minibus to give us a panoramic view across the Rowley Mile course, where some of the horses we’ve seen may one day race. It hosts high-calibre spring and autumn meetings; summer meetings are held at the July course.

It’s the colour and excitement of the racetrack that captivates all who come here, and you don’t need to be a millionaire to enjoy it. At the Rowley Mile course, admission tickets can be had for less than £10 a head. If you want to splash out, book a table in the Millennium Grandstand, where you can watch the races, enjoy a meal, and place your bets without ever leaving your seat. Even your winnings are brought to the table. The ultimate day out, whatever the weather.

The author

• To contact Gillian Thornton, e-mail gillian.thorntons@btinternet.com

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