The evolution of the Newmarket Racecourses.
When we watch the horses thundering towards us on the July Course this week, it is worth reflecting that the horses are running on the same strip of land that has been used since the seventeenth century. The July Course, as we know it today, is part of the old Round Course set up by Charles II in 1666 to celebrate his return to Newmarket after The Restoration in 1660.
There have been many changes in the way horseracing is conducted since then, but Newmarket is unique in retaining its old courses over such a long period. The two main drivers of change have been the reduction in race distances and the building of larger grandstands for the paying spectators. The longest earlier races were run over the Long Course of 8 miles and the race starts and finishes could be placed along the course to provide a variety of distances and racing conditions. In those early days the spectators were prepared to ride across the Heath and therefore were not inconvenienced if race finishes were not near each other.
The evolution of Newmarket Racecourses is easily told in a series of maps taken from The Heath and the Horse: A history of racing and art on Newmarket Heath by David Oldrey, Timothy Cox and Richard Nash (2016). The courses have been superimposed on a modern day aerial map.
In 1787 there were three main courses. The oldest (in red) was the Beacon Course. This was a four-mile course that started near the Four Mile Stable Farm on the A1303 and finished opposite the Newmarket cemetery near the current entrance to the Rowley Mile Course. The original starting post is now on display in the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art and a replacement post still stands in a field.
The Beacon Course was part of the old 8-mile course, which started in the area of what is now the Wadlow Wind Farm that you see on your right as you approach Newmarket from the south. It crossed the A1304 (London to Newmarket Road) at Six Mile Bottom (i.e. 6 miles from the finish and the start of the 6-mile races). The Rowley Mile, which is used for the Guineas races is part of the Beacon Course.
The second course was the Round Course (in yellow). This was 3 miles 6 furlongs and was used for the King’s Plates, which were the Group I races of the day, and the Newmarket Town Plate amongst others.
The third course was the four-mile Duke’s Course (shown in purple). This was first used in the late 17th century. It is named after the Duke of York, later James II and links the first two courses. It was little used and was abandoned in 1806.
In 1810 the early part of the Round Course was realigned to start at the Well Gap in the Devil’s Dyke, not at the Cambridge Gap, as part of the Enclosure Acts. This revised course is now used for the annual Newmarket Town Plate and runs across land now owned by The National Stud.
By 1887 both the Beacon and the Round Courses were being used for shorter races. The starts and finishes were chosen to produce races of different ‘stiffness’. For example the Two Thousand Guineas for 3-year old colts finished with a stiff uphill climb at the finish of the Rowley Mile. By contrast the One Thousand Guineas for 3-year old fillies was run over the easier Abingdon Mile that finished after a downhill run into the Dip just after The Bushes. Both races now finish at the same finish. Owners and trainers would choose the races that best suited the racing temperament of their horses.
The various sections of the main courses would be named after famous racing men. For example, the Rous Course (last 5-furlongs of the Rowley Mile) was named after Admiral Rous. The Beaufort Stakes Course (last 7 furlongs of the Round Course) was named after the 8th Duke of Beaufort.
An additional straight course (purple on the 1887 map) was set up to finish at the end of the Beacon. This was originally called the Ancaster Mile and then was extended to 9-furlongs in 1843 for the first running of the Cambridgeshire Stakes.
In 1875 the Jockey Club approved the building of the first public grandstand at the finish of the Rowley Mile under the leadership of Sir John Astley. This was the first provision of viewing facilities for a paying public. Before then small stands had been used by the Jockey Club members and their guests. Such a major investment meant that race finishes began to be concentrated at the end of the Rowley Mile. And then at the end of the July Course as well.
Today both the Rowley Mile and the July Courses have a single finishing post in front of the main grandstand. The Beacon Course and the Old Cambridgeshire Course were last used in 1912, although the last part of the Duke of Portland’s Stand at its finish was not removed until the 1960s.
Two defunct courses, the Sefton Course and the National Hunt Course are shown. The Sefton was a round course in front of the Rowley Mile Grandstand and was used from 1959 to 1973. The National Hunt Course across the road was used from 1893 to 1905. It now houses the Links Golf Club and is also used as the training gallops for National Hunt horses.
We would like to thank Jockey Club Estates, who have copyright, for allowing us to use the maps.
The July course photo is courtesy of Discover Newmarket.
Blog by Tim Cox, Trustee of the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art