Following more than six months of preparation and dedication, the big day had finally arrived for the student jockeys from Oxford and Cambridge, who battled it out for the Bearstead Perpetual Challenge Trophy on Newmarket’s Rowley Mile to kick off day two of the Dubai Future Champions Festival
After months of balancing their studies with early mornings riding out for local trainers, brutal fitness sessions on the equicizer (mechanical horse), and a selection process that narrowed down a field of hopefuls into final teams of five, the Cambridge and Oxford jockeys gathered at Newmarket on 10 October to take part in the second running of the Vision Varsity Horse Race.
The eight-furlong showdown preceded some top-class racing on the final day of the Dubai Future Champions Festival, and the weather was clear as friends, family and fellow students packed into the stands to watch the young riders put theory into practice on the historic Rowley Mile.
Both teams had arrived early that morning and walked the course with their coaches John Reid (Oxford) and Michael Tebbutt (Cambridge), but no amount of visualisation can fully prepare a rider for their first race, and the dangerous nature of the task was demonstrated as the horses cantered down to the start.
Nosey Barker, partnered by Oxford’s Bruno Steinkraus, bolted on his way to post and unshipped the jockey, who fell awkwardly and collided with the rail. The Biochemistry student was taken to hospital for a precautionary check and the horse was withdrawn, leaving a final field of nine.
The dramatic preamble may have been on Oxford’s minds as the horses assembled at the start, when Cambridge’s Holly Mason, riding Realt Na Mara, was quickly away stealing a march on her rivals. Race officials declared it a valid start, and while Mason’s team-mate Anni Bates and The Gay Cavalier closed the gap, Realt Na Mara held on to pass the winning post in front and lead home a Cambridge 1-2. Kacper Pancewicz fared best of the Oxford jockeys, finishing third on favourite Breakheart.
“He just stayed straight, kept going and gave me such a lovely ride”, said the delighted winning jockey. “It’s a dream come true.” The horse was supplied by Newmarket trainer Hughie Morrison, and Mason, who has also ridden out for Gay Kelleway this summer, emphasised how both trainers had helped her get better. She added: “I’ve learned so much. Hughie’s let me ride on so many different horses, I’ve received lots of advice and it’s really helped me to improve my riding experience.”
It was a second victory in the race for Cambridge and their captain James Alexander, who also rode in last year’s inaugural running, was immensely proud of his colleagues. “They have done a fantastic job,” he said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better team.”
Defeat did not sour the occasion for Oxford either as Alice Thomson, who rode Fine Tune, explained. She said of the race: “It was just the best thing, I absolutely loved it. The horse was an absolute angel and I had a really great ride.”
Those lucky enough to be in attendance at the racecourse also witnessed a masterclass from Godolphin jockey William Buick, who rode a treble, which included victories in the two Vision-sponsored races. Buick led from start to finish on Gifted Master when landing the Vision Autumn Stakes, and delivered Godolphin’s Mistrusting at the perfect time to win the Vision EBF Stallions Boadicea Fillies’ Stakes. Between those victories he was out of luck on Emotionless in the featured Dubai Dewhurst Stakes, but a new star was born in that race in the form of Air Force Blue.
The emirate’s sponsorship means that Newmarket, which welcomed 19,770 visitors through its gates over the course of the two-day festival, will continue to raise the profile of horse racing in Britain by revealing and celebrating the future champions of the sport.