The Heath and The Horse

4th February 2016


Trustee of the National Horseracing Museum

February 2016

The Heath & The Horse* (fig 1) has been a labour of love for David Oldrey and me.  David has had the idea for many years and I was brought into the project about five years ago.  Richard Nash was invited to join us at an early stage because of his work on the eighteenth century Jockey Club.  Richard is a Professor of English at Indiana University and has cleverly linked his love of horseracing with the study of English texts from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Our book finally saw the light of day in late 2015.



The central idea was to tell the story of horseracing on Newmarket Heath.  There have been many books on the town and its personalities, but not one that concentrated on the racing and training grounds where all the action is.  We also wanted to illustrate the book with many of the paintings of horses and racing on the Heath since the late seventeenth century.  But the pictures had to do more than just prettify the book.  We wanted to explore the content of the pictures to help understand more about racing in each individual period.

Ten pictures were chosen as Picture Puzzles.  These are studied in more detail.  Close study can identify when and where a picture was painted.  For example, the Stubbs portrait of Gimcrack that hangs in the Jockey Club is painted at the end of the Beacon Course at Newmarket (fig 2).  The picture is dated 1765.  The Beacon finished almost opposite the present-day cemetery.  The building to the left is the King’s Stable and that opposite is the King’s Stand.  A white wooden fence marked out the last part of the Beacon.  The fence can be seen in other paintings without the buildings and therefore can be used as a guide to the location.  The judge’s box stands in front of the King’s Stand.  But the box is empty and the shutters of the stand are closed.  This tells us that the ‘race’ in the middle distance that is being won by Gimcrack is in fact a trial.

But which trial, and when?  The full line of reasoning has been given in the Picture Puzzle.  Gimcrack was bought and sold by Lord Bolingbroke in 1765.  Bolingbroke’s colours were black, so it is safe to assume that the trial was in the period when Bolingbroke owned Gimcrack.  We also know that the picture was in the Bolingbroke family until 1943.  Another clue is in the fourth horse.  This is a grey horse wearing the colours of Lord Grosvenor.  Grosvenor raced only one grey horse in 1765 so we can assume that it is Cardinal Puff.  Grosvenor bought Cardinal Puff after he had won at the May meeting in the colours of Jenison Shafto.  Therefore the trial was probably in advance of a match for 1000 guineas made between Gimcrack and Ascham on 10th July.

If the timing is right, the second horse with a rider in the white colours of Richard Vernon is probably Cheshire Dick.  Grosvenor had sold this animal to Vernon after he had won at the early May race meeting.  And the third horse is probably Boreas, who was also owned by Grosvenor and was in good form, so a suitable horse for a trial.

What has made the project more exciting for us has been when we have found something that we did not know.  Even after all the work we have had to label the book as work-in-progress.  Just as we were checking the proofs we were making changes as new analyses were forcing us to change our minds.  There is a long list of future projects that will help us flesh out the history even further.

For me there have been three highlights of this kind.  The first was when David made the connection between the strange angle of the jockey’s cap in the Stubbs picture of Conductor (fig 3) and a shooting incident described in the Autobiography of Thomas Holcroft.  Holcroft spent his teenage years as a stable lad in Newmarket and describes the tough life that a lad would endure.  He goes into horrific detail of how Jack Clarke had the side of his face blown off accidentally when a stable lad was playing with a gun.  Clarke is the jockey on Conductor and he is obviously hiding his disfigurement with the peak of his cap.

The second was the rewriting of the early history of the Jockey Club by Richard Nash.  For years historians have referred to Pond’s 1751 Sporting Kalendar as a way of dating the origin of Jockey Club.  The Kalendar contained this notice: ‘Wednesday, April 1 [1752] A Contribution Free Plate, by Horses the Property of the Noblemen and Gentlemen belonging to the Jockey [sic] Club at the Star and Garter in Pall Mall…’.  By induction therefore, the Jockey Club dates from 1750.  However the new digital world enables us to challenge some of these established ‘facts’.  For example, the Burney Collection of 17th and 18th Century Newspapers has been digitised and put on-line in a searchable form.  Frustratingly it has to be accessed through subscription services.

A simple search yields the following in the Ipswich Journal of 2nd August 1729:  “The Jockey Club, consisting of several Noblemen and Gentlemen are to meet one Day next Week at Hackwood, the Duke of Bolton’s seat in Hampshire, to consider Methods for the better keeping of their respective Strings of Horses at New Market”.  A report of the same day in the Universal Spectator and Weekly Journal says that “The Earl of Godolphin, and a great many other Noblemen and Gentlemen who keep Running Horses, are to meet next week at Hackwood, the Duke of Bolton’s seat in Hampshire, to consider of methods for removing their strings of horses at Newmarket.”


What can we make of this?  First, that an organisation called the Jockey Club was in existence before 1750 and that the Jockey Club was almost certainly in existence before August 1729.  Second, the Duke of Bolton and the Earl of Godolphin were members of the Jockey Club in 1729.  It’s frustrating that there are no references to attending regular meetings of the Jockey Club before 1729 in noble diaries.  But we should live in hope.  For the time being Richard speculates that the Jockey Club could date from 1717 when King George I visited Newmarket, and perhaps earlier going back to the days of the Duke of Monmouth in the 1680s.


The third highlight was the discovery of Newmarket Bank in the 1730s operating from Williams’s Coffee House, the same premises in St. James’s Street as the Jockey Club.  This was not a regular joint-stock bank but more like the bank in a casino that was acting as a third-party for the gamblers.  It declared dividends at the end of Newmarket meetings.   As with the Jockey Club, more work to be done but certainly an important contribution to the early history of bookmaking.


The book is available from the National Horse Racing Museum shop.


Fig 1:  Cover of the book

Fig 2: Stubbs picture of Gimcrack

Fig 3:  Stubbs picture of Conductor