Sunday, 26 July 2009

World's Weirdest Racetracks: The Original One, or two

In the beginning, the Lords spoketh: "let there be three". But so it didn’t quite come to pass.

According to a 1740 parliament directive, British thoroughbred racing was to be limited to the three most important racecourses of the time:

The first one, located on the Knavesmire moor in York, continues to stage top-class race meetings in May and August, with a number of quality racedays held throughout the season.

The second one, Hambleton, is used as a minor training center to this day. Its location right on top of Sutton Bank in North Yorkshire ultimately proved too impractical for a racecourse, but at least today's workout riders can enjoy one of the best panoramas of any training center in the world.

The third one is known as the seat of The Jockey Club and remains one of the most prestigious on Earth - Newmarket Racecourse.

Fortunately the Lords didn’t explain the “only three”-part quite as extensively as Monty Python later would, and therefor it was never really heeded - or enforced, for that matter.

Newmarket’s claim to the title of oldest racecourse in the world is controversial, but its pivotal role in the development of modern thoroughbred racing isn’t. Starting in the 17th century, the town became home to Britain's most important racing and training center, its very name a synonym for excellence on the turf.

Much less appreciated, but no less stunning, are Newmarket’s contributions in the field of racetrack weirdness, where it remains #1:

(Image from the great site)

What’s commonly known as Newmarket Racecourse is actually two courses, consisting of nothing more than three long straights, one of which they share.

The best-known of the three is Rowley Mile, which – as you would assume from the World’s Weirdest Racetrack – isn’t actually a mile. It’s ten furlongs long, narrowly edging out Maisons-Laffitte’s 2000-meter straight for the title (Maisons-Laffitte, btw, deserves a honorable mention as WWR #11, mainly on the merits of having three winning posts at different points of a strangely-shaped course). The Rowley Mile’s most famous feature is The Dip, created by a downhill penultimate furlong and a rather steep climb for the final one.

Races over distances of more than 10f start on the Cambridgeshire Course, another straight of a full mile which owes its name to the fact that it starts and ends in the namesake county - the turn into the Rowley Mile occurs exactly on the border of Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. From June to August, no racing is conducted in Suffolk, but there is still racing at Newmarket Racecourse. Horses and jockeys just make a sharper turn a little before the end of the Cambridgeshire Course and enter straight number three – the July Course.

Another straight of a mile, the July Course has its own stands and paddock area, which are located to the South of the track, facing the Rowley Mile’s. So even though both straights are run from West to East, the Rowley Mile runs clockwise while the July Course is run counter-clockwise. This layout also makes the July Course the only track in the world where half the course is actually outside the grandstand’s field of view.

Not that patrons are missing anything they could see from the Rowley Mile’s grandstand. After all, even very good binoculars don’t help much when watching a 20-strong field head-on with nine furlongs to go. And you can’t see anything before they enter the stretch either, because most of the Cambridgeshire Course is hidden behind the estate of the National Stud.

"There is no race course in the whole of the world like Newmarket. It is a severe course from the easiest five-eighths to the severest two miles. There is no horse who does not stay who will win any race there. That is what stamps the mark on any horse that wins at Newmarket. It stands to reason that Newmarket makes a heavy call upon all the art that a jockey possesses - the nursing of a two-year-old, the judgment of pace, the different gradients, the knowledge of the mount under you, whether to take the lead an eighth from home or wait to got your advantage till you are on the post"

The quote above is out of a May 3, 1919 article in the DRF, as stated by “Brownie” Carslake, an Australian jockey who after establishing himself in his native country became one of the best jockeys to ride in Britain. Carslake’s bigger point was that Australian (and North American) tracks are build with the interest of the spectators in mind, while English racecourses were designed to bring out the best in horses and horsemen. He was arguably right on both counts.

Newmarket Racecourse is at the same time the best and the worst in the world. The best track for champion racehorses and jockeys to compete against each other, and the worst track for spectators to witness them doing so. It's, in short, the World's Weirdest Racetrack.

("I think the 3 horse is a head in front with a mile to go"; Panoramio images by Footix [above] and Jonathan W [top])


  1. Outstanding series, Malcer...kept me entertained for the 10 days!

  2. Aha! Nice. Not disappointed by #1. Just disappointed we don't have cool turf tracks here in the US.

  3. Greetings, my friend! Some pertinent information about this topic was sent to me by an impeccable source, pedigree and racing historian and writer Ann Ferland. She read your series after linking from mine but wasn't sure whether she could post without signing up somehow, so she asked me to forward you the comments. ... And I read her mail while traveling and promptly forgot to do it after getting back home.

    Ann's contribution follows:
    "Actually, there is a third course at Newmarket, one that is used on one day a year for a race whose conditions were written by a king. How's that for weird?

    The start of the round course is situated about half-way down the July course, at a right angle to it. After about a mile, it makes a turn to the right and continues on until it reaches the Cesarewitch course (aka the Cambridge course, the Cesarewitch being the name of the most famous race run over the entire length) and takes another right to join it. From there on it follows the Cesarewitch and Rowley courses to the finish.

    Charles II instituted the Newmarket Town Plate in 1664 and wrote its rules, whereby the horses are ridden by their owners over the 4-mile round course. It is not, of course, an 'official' race for statistics; it's a race for sportsmen and -women (Eileen Joel, daughter of prominent owner Solomon Joel, was the first female to ride a winner of the Town Plate).

    And the greater part of the Cesarewitch Course is not hidden from view from the Rowley stands by the National Stud; it is hidden by the height of an Anglo-Saxon defense earthwork called the Devil's Dyke. The Dyke runs for 7.5 miles from Reach to Woodditton, and is up to 11 meters high in places. The July Course runs parallel alongside the Dyke for its (the July course's) entire length. There are breaks in the Dyke at various places, one of which was enlarged to allow the Cesarewitch course to connect up with Rowley Mile.

    Besides being a pedigree nut, I am also a history nut. History has weirder things than anything people can dream up.

    Ann Ferland"

  4. Thank you very much for your contributions!

    While I deliberately skipped over many of Newmarket's weird features and interesting trivia to keep the article at a reasonable length, I was completely unaware that the Town Plate (first run in 1665 and considered the very first TB race under written rules) is still run today, and that the round course which circles the National Stud is still used for competitions.

    Apart from sponsoring the Town Plate, Charles II. can be described as the founder of Newmarket Race Course (around 1660). He also rode races there himself, including on his favorite mount - a horse which shared Charles' nickname: Old Rowley.

    p.s. I was aware of the Devil's Dyke, although I didn't know for sure that it is high enough to block the view from the Rowley Mile's grandstand (which is why I attributed that to the National Stud, which would do it anyway). It's really hard to get good photos or detailed maps of Newmarket.

    Thanks again. If you want to leave further comments without signing in, just leave them as an "Anonymous" and sign your name at the end, I don't think there will be much trouble with impostors.