Anyone who is a real fan of horse racing ought to go to Newmarket, not only for the races, but for the atmosphere that’s so thick you can hardly see through it. We’d had Newmarket on our wish list for years, but finally our wishes and the timing of our visit to England coincided, and we started making plans months before we left home. Our friends Sally and Jack McGill, formerly of Sarasota, now live in Norwich, so we decided to take the last week of our stay in England and travel to East Anglia to see them and that beautiful part of the country. They had never been to the races, so we bought tickets for the July 28 race meet at Newmarket for the four of us via the internet from home with a click of a mouse, quite a change from our first ticket-buying experience for Royal Ascot five years earlier. Then, in order to get tickets for the Royal Enclosure on Ladies’ Day, we had to go through the U.S. State Department and submit a detailed application, together with a letter of reference from a public official who knew us personally. Luckily, one of my good friends from my time in Oregon was the former Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, and he was delighted to write a letter certifying that we were respectable citizens and unlikely to embarrass the United States in front of the Queen. For Newmarket, we only had to read the dress code for the Premier Enclosure (nice afternoon attire, hats encouraged but not required, no shorts, sneakers, torn jeans, or other unacceptable clothing choices) and decide whether or not we wanted to reserve places in the prix fixe restaurant or dine a la carte.
Because it rained during so much of our time in England, we hadn’t really taken advantage of our beautiful woodland setting. But our last Monday in West Sussex, Clive the woodsman gave us a walking tour of the woods and showed us why he is so valuable to Pom and her woodland skills program. He knows every plant and tree, every clearing and trail, and he can make a “living” fence simply by partially cutting through a tree branch and bending it into place, where it continues to grow.
He built a charcoal burner and makes charcoal every year, just as the people did in those woods six hundred years ago. He has more woodcraft skills than we knew existed, using tools he fashions himself. If we were ever in a nuclear holocaust, I’d want Clive to teach me how to survive and take care of myself. He is truly amazing.
I gave William, the Irish cob, his daily treat the evening before we left Keeper’s Cottage after our five weeks’ stay. He had become very friendly by then, and we knew we would miss him. It felt strange to drive down the dirt lane from the house the next morning for the last time, not sure when or if we would ever return, but we took only good memories with us. The weather, of course, was beautiful that day, as if to remind us that the summer’s rain had been all our fault. We’d told the staff and the locals that they would have perfect summer weather as soon as we left, and it appeared that our promise would be fulfilled.
Because one of the most famous aspects of Newmarket during the summer is watching the horses — hundreds of them — walk from their stables around the town to The Gallops, acres and acres of rolling meadows on which the horses train every day, we drove straight to Newmarket and checked into our downtown hotel so that we could see the horses going to the Gallops early the next morning.
Newmarket is generally considered to be the birthplace of thoroughbred racing (in 1174, so if there’s a better claim out there, they’ve had plenty of time to make it) and now is home to more than fifty training stables and sixty-plus breeding studs, in addition to seventy trainers and three thousand horses. One of the largest training stables at Newmarket is owned by Godolphin Racing, headed by the Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Godolphin’s distinctive blue racing silks are copied in the jackets of its exercise riders at the Gallops, as we saw.
Racegoers from everywhere come to Newmarket to watch some of the best horses in the world compete on its two racetracks, the Rowley Mile and the July Course.
We love English racing, not only for the pastoral beauty of the setting, but because all the races are run on the grass, on wide swaths of green, green turf that blanket the gently undulating race courses.
Some of the tracks have mile-long straightaways, which means that the horses don’t have to negotiate any turns. It also means that a field of twenty-plus horses in a race is common, since no one has to battle for an advantageous position coming out of a turn.
Racing is mostly about the horses, of course, but the jockeys are the second most-important factor in this incredibly exciting sport. We know that racehorses are great athletes because we can see their conformation, their musculature, their gait, their temperament. But jockeys are, pound for pound, the finest athletes in the world, in our opinion.
A good flat-racing jockey (as opposed to a steeplechase jockey) might be just over five feet tall and weigh 115 pounds, but every ounce of that weight is muscle. And that small person has to control a 1,200-pound animal capable of running a mile in 96 seconds, using only his knees and hands, steering the horse out of traffic, not allowing the horse to use up its speed and stamina too soon, and staying aware of the position of every other horse in the race. And all this while balancing on his toes in the stirrups, bent low over the horse’s back but never touching the saddle. What these athletes do every day boggles the mind, especially considering the injuries all of them suffer during their careers. There are more and more women jockeys nowadays, as we’ve seen in the U.S. in races our own horses have entered, and they are just as strong and tough as their male counterparts.
Before each race, the horses are saddled and led out into the paddock, where their owners are permitted to see them up close and where their trainers give the jockeys any last-minute instructions.
Every track has its own unique paddock setup — for instance, at Ascot the paddock is almost like a show ring, with seating around the outside of its enclosure where spectators can watch. When the Queen has a horse entered in a race, she often goes into the paddock to talk with her trainer, which gives the rest of us quite a thrill. At Newmarket, the arrangement is much less formal, with the paddock set in a rectangle just beyond the finish line and viewing areas along both of the long sides. We like to get a closeup look at the horses before we place a bet on the race (not that we know much about what to look for), and then we make our picks. I look at a horse’s pedigree, past racing history, and recent workouts, and if all else fails, I choose the horse by its name, the color of its coat (I’m partial to greys), or the silks worn by the jockey. All very unscientific, of course, but sometimes it works.
Before the races at Newmarket, the four of us (Jack and Sally McGill, Gerry, and I) had lunch at one of the restaurants at the track, where a woman at a neighboring table offered to take our picture. Sally and I wore hats, as did a few of the other women, especially the younger ones.
We saw several quite attractive young women that day, including one spectacular-looking example of why you need a very good full-length, three-sided mirror to check all angles before you leave the house in a dress that forgives absolutely nothing. Luckily, she didn’t have a single bulge or blip to spoil the effect, and she was gorgeous, as well. I don’t think either Gerry or Jack even looked at the horses in the paddock for that race.
Nobody came away a big winner that day, but everyone cashed at least one ticket, and we had a wonderful time. The weather was perfect, with sun and fluffy clouds and a light breeze, and the horses were all beautiful. Racing may be called “the sport of kings,” but we’re very glad that it’s outlasted most of the monarchies and has become accessible to everyone.
Next, a brief look at historic Norwich and then on to Ipswich and “Constable country” and some of the English country houses in the eastern part of England.