In The Company Of Champions
This month guest blogger Gill Bendall gets up close and personal with some of the stars of horseracing…
It’s the home of world-class horseracing and a town with a heritage worth celebrating… no wonder Newmarket is nosing ahead as a holiday-at-home hotspot!
With training yards, stud farms, blacksmiths and vets as well as the famous Gibson Saddlers and Tattersalls Bloodstock Auctioneers, at any one time there are thought to be around 2,000 thoroughbreds here. And now, courtesy of ‘official tour guide’ Discover Newmarket, we can all get within a horse’s whisker of the equine characters that are at the heart of a multi-million pound industry.
Specialist outings offer a unique insight into the headquarters of thoroughbred breeding, racing and training, and in the case of my Thoroughbred Breakfast Tour, it’s a case of the early bird catching the best of the action… after a pre-8am meeting with Discover Newmarket guide Nigel Wright, I was driven – along with a fellow group of enthusiasts – through the town centre and up to the ‘gallops’ on Warren Hill where horses were being put their paces on their morning exercise. A former jockey and thoroughly knowledgeable guide, Nigel identified the different trainers’ ‘strings’ of horses and explained what to look for as they sped uphill then sauntered back down again: a true spectacle!
Back in our minibus for a drive to see more of Newmarket’s famous training grounds, Nigel pointed out a number of yards and it was hard not to be in awe of the properties and affluence they portray. But our next stop was the pleasingly down-to-earth Queen Alexandra Stables of trainer Gay Kelleway in nearby Exning, where we were free to wander among the stable blocks, chat to their cheery staff and – a real treat! – stroke the horses that stuck their heads out to say hello. Despite their highly-disciplined, competitive lifestyle, these horses were incredibly friendly – more so than some of those I rode in my younger days! – and their relationship with the stable lads and lasses was somewhat heart-warming. In another block, though, four yearlings just arrived from France were a timely reminder that horseracing is a huge industry. “They’ll be left a while to settle; it’s been a long journey for them,” explained Gay – the first woman to ride a winner at Royal Ascot – when she joined us. If you imagined that someone with such a prized pedigree in their sport would be snooty, think again: Gay continues to ride out, oversees much of her yard’s feeding and training regimes and is often at races to meet up with her owners. Chatting to her it was clear that her horses are treated more like pets than commodities, and I liked her commitment to making racehorse ownership affordable for those of us who love the Sport of Kings but don’t have a purse of royal proportions… leases, partnerships and syndicates mean we could all share in the excitement.
As the horses were catered for it was time to attend to our own now-rumbling tummies, so we climbed into Nigel’s minibus and drove a very scenic route – including along the famous Rowley Mile – back to Newmarket and the Wavertree café for breakfast. Fed, watered and entertained by more of Nigel’s racing reminiscences, we then headed to the neighbouring National Stud, home to some of the leading stallions of the racing world and the only stud that opens its doors to the public.
Cue ninety minutes of cooing over cute newborns in their ‘nursery’ units, audible gasps at the grazing stallions kept here and even sharper intakes of breath at the fees some of the best can command: the famous Frankel earns £175,00 each time he covers a mare, apparently. The science and veterinary care that goes into creating new generations of racing greats is astounding and our tour of the ‘heart of the Stud’, the Stallion Unit – complete with Teaser’s Box (don’t ask… go and find out for yourself!) – was a real eye-opener. As we learned about the Southern Hemisphere mares who come here to foal and are flown home already expecting again, we were reminded once more that a pound of horseflesh comes at a high price – but the standards of care match that, and then some.
With a lunchtime end, my tour left plenty of time for an afternoon amid the history and heritage of horseracing with a trip to the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing & Sporting Art.
A five-acre site in the heart of Newmarket, this comprises three complementary attractions: the National Horseracing Museum in the Trainer’s House and King’s Yard Galleries; the Packard Galleries of British Sporting Art in Palace House, and the flagship home of charity Retraining of Racehorses.
Twelve main galleries chart the history and science of horseracing from its origins to today’s global industry, and explain why Newmarket has become such a centre of excellence. There’s a chance to track the evolution of a horse and understand just what makes the ‘ultimate racing machine’ – specimens of human and horse hearts and brains provide a clue! – and interactive areas even give you the chance to have the ride of your life atop a racing simulator.
And if you’ve ever wondered what happens to the animals once their competitive days are over, you’ll get a chance to learn about that straight (well, almost!) from the horse’s mouth with a walk around the Rothschild Yard, where former elites are retrained in preparation for successful second careers. Daily displays in the nearby Peter O’Sullevan Arena demonstrate the dedication and patience of staff who rebuild their equine clients’ confidence and musculature – it’s a process that can take months, but is testament to British Horseracing’s commitment to the welfare of horses who have retired from racing.
Getting around all the attractions here was rather a race, so I suspect I’ll be making a return trip soon… if you’re after a fun, thought-provoking and eye-opening day out, a trip to Newmarket has to be a winner.
The Thoroughbred Breakfast Tour is available four days a week throughout the year and costs £65 per person, including food and drinks. Discover Newmarket arranges a number of other outings – there should be lots of foals to see at The National Stud at the end of April and in May.
The National Heritage Centre for Horseracing & Sporting Art has a restaurant, bakery and shop on site, so visits can last from a few hours to a full day, and sometimes even more – buy an annual ticket or upgrade on the day you visit and you can come back as many times as you want from 12 months of purchase!
If you would like book a Discover Newmarket tour then you can add one to your booking as a Holiday Extra.
Written by Gill Bendall
Photographs ©Tim Sandall Photography