This week’s Palace House blog by Tim Cox takes a look back at National Hunt Racing at Newmarket.
There will be no official horseracing at Newmarket, the Home of Horseracing until 16th April 2020 when the Craven Meeting starts the new season. The winter hiatus was the established feature of Flat racing in the UK until All-Weather Racing was introduced in 1984. Over the years there have been four attempts to introduce winter National Hunt racing at Newmarket, but they have all been short-lived.
In 1848 a race meeting in mid-winter held out ‘the prospect of a pleasant break in the monotony of this dreary season of strawyards, tan gallops, and hibernating jockeys’. Bad weather forced a day’s delay. The one-day meeting of the Newmarket Steeplechases was held on Friday 11th February. The chosen course was near Moulton, about four miles out of Newmarket. The first race was a Handicap Chase ‘over four miles of fair hunting country’; the second was a conditions chase and the third a match. Part of the course resembled a lake such that ‘nought but an alligator with a mermaid for a jockey could have safely ventured’ but the field returned having ‘escaped a watery death’.
Another attempt to establish jump racing was made fifteen years later in February 1863. This was a two-day meeting held on land owned by Mr. Sabine, the landlord of the Rutland Arms in Newmarket, again near Moulton. This time the course was heavily criticised because very little of it could be seen from the stand or from the carriages that lined the run-in. There were twenty-six fences, including a brook that had to be jumped twice. Newmarket Racecourse provided the two officials in the form of Mr Manning, the Clerk of the Course and Mr F. Clarke, the judge.
There was a much fuller racing programme with four chases on each day, although the races were dismissed as ‘of only local interest’. From twelve o’clock onwards a long procession of omnibuses, flies, dog-carts, waggons, hacks and pedestrians was seen leaving Newmarket. There were few professional speculators, but Admiral Rous was seen amongst the ‘fashionables’. The neighbouring yeomen ‘charged over the ground like a regiment of cavalry’.
It was yet another sixteen years before another Newmarket jumps meeting was put on. This time it was promoted by Captain Jim Machell, the well-known owner-trainer. The course was moved from Moulton to Machell’s estate which was about a mile and a half from Kennett Station and on land used by Machell to exercise his jumpers. The ground sloped upwards from the stables to the highest point commanding a view across the villages of Kentford and Kennett below. The Great Eastern Railway Company put on special trains. The crowd was considered large but ‘welshers and disreputable characters’ did appear, such that ‘some of the visitors were relieved of their watches’.
The original plan was for a two-day meeting in January, but again the weather forced the organisers to move the meeting, this time to March. There were five races on each day, but because of the postponement the number of runners was disappointing. There were only five runners for the Trainers’ and Jockeys’ Gold Cup to which Lady Charles Kerr had added 100 guineas. Fred Archer’s Baroda ridden by his brother, Charles, fell at the drop fence leaving an easy win for Joseph Cannon’s Foxhound, ridden by Fred Webb.
The fourth attempt to introduce jump racing at Newmarket was the most significant and has left its mark on the Newmarket landscape. It was made by Captain Harry McCalmont in 1893. McCalmont had bought the Cheveley Park Estate just outside Newmarket from the Duke of Rutland in 1892. He laid out a course in front of the house. It was a ten furlongs oval with the final half-mile straight along the garden walls. The grandstand was opposite the house.
There were seven races with the highlight being the Newmarket Grand Military Steeplechase. Four horses took part, but it was really a match between Why Not and The Midshipmite, both carrying 13st 5lbs. Both horses had run in the 1893 Grand National, finishing third and fifth respectively. Why Not won by three-quarters of a length and went on to win the 1894 Grand National. The day was a success but McCalmont judged that the domestic setting was not appropriate for a recognised meeting.
In 1894 McCalmont moved the course to the Links Farm, part of his estate, which he had intended to turn into a public training ground ‘for all or any who will pay the nominal sum of 3 guineas a year for the purpose of keeping it in repair’. This became the new course. McCalmont was a popular man and the venture began with great optimism. There were seven races in 1894 with the Newmarket Grand Military as the central feature, but this time Why Not finished last of three.
Permanent grandstands (Figs 1 and 2) were added the next season when there was a two-day meeting in November 1895 followed by one-day in March 1896. The programme was expanded to two two-day meetings in the following season, which included the National Hunt Meeting in March 1897. Before the National Hunt Committee settled on Cheltenham in 1911, the Annual Meeting was moved around the courses. This produced the largest crowd for a Newmarket jump meeting. One of the most important races at the time, the National Hunt Chase was won by a French raider, Vicomte de Buisseret’s Nord Ouest, a four-year-old ridden by M. Morand.
There was a poor crowd on the first day of 1898 Autumn meeting and thereafter there were frequent concerns expressed about the quality of sport and the size of crowds. McCalmont was a Colonel of the 6th (Militia) Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, which was sent out to fight in the Second Boer War in 1899. This meant that there was no jump racing at Newmarket in 1900 and 1901 and then frost forced the cancellation of the 1902 meeting. McCalmont returned from South Africa but died of heart failure at his London home in December 1902. There were four days of racing in the 1903-04 season and then two in the following season. The last day’s racing was on 28th December 1905 when racing finished with the Christmas Handicap Chase.
In total racing on the Cheveley Estate had lasted for thirteen years with a break for the Boer War. There had been twenty-six days of racing with 161 races, 888 runners at an average of 5.52 runners a race. It was a brave attempt to produce jump racing at the Headquarters, but the meetings never caught the attention of the wider sporting community beyond Newmarket itself.
However, McCalmont did leave a legacy. Links Farm was bought by the Jockey Club in 1921, when the Club bought the 8,000 acre McCalmont Estate. The old course provides the training grounds for the jumping horses trained in Newmarket. The eighteen-hole course of the Links Golf Club has been laid out in the centre of the old racecourse. And the stands have been converted to accommodation for staff visiting the races and can still be seen today.
Blog by Tim Cox, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the BSAT.
Fig 1: General view of the National Hunt course in 1896 with the present offices of the Newmarket Racecourse nestling in the trees in the middle distance.
Fig 2: Rear of the grandstands on the National Hunt course in 1896
If you enjoyed this blog and would like to learn more about the fascinating history of horse racing, why not visit Palace House, Newmarket. Tickets here