Dubai Future Champions Festival: 350 years of racing history

On the 350th anniversary of horse racing in the Suffolk town, Sam Price looks back at the heritage, high points, and the future of racing in Newmarket

Newmarket and horseracing are inextricably linked. The closer you get to the town in Suffolk, East Anglia, the more you notice it.

On the outskirts, there are vast expanses of lush, green grass with horses grazing, full of zest for life. Then, as you move towards the town centre, you see horses trotting along roads with partners in tow – often young lads and lasses, who spend every day of their working lives looking after these beautiful animals. And if you’re lucky enough (or up early enough), you see the union between man and horse at its most exhilarating, as racehorses are trained to run as fast as they can on the Newmarket gallops.

This town, with training facilities unmatched almost anywhere else in the world, is horseracing country.

In 2016, Newmarket Racecourses has been celebrating 350 years of making history – an anniversary acknowledging the year 1666, when organised horseracing was first established in the town. The catalyst for this development was the return of King Charles II, who had fond memories of hacking and hunting on the Newmarket Heath as a youngster, and brought to the town a passion for horseracing that remains its life and soul three-and-a-half centuries later.

On his return, Charles II arranged to build a palace in the centre of town, and racing would take centre stage during his visits in the spring and autumn – meetings that soon became annual fixtures.

This royal heritage can help explain why racing is popularly known as the “Sport of Kings”, and it was Charles II who inaugurated Newmarket’s oldest race, the Town Plate, by passing a law which stated that the race must be run “for ever”. This year, the 347th running of the contest took place, part of it on the same three-and-three quarter mile round course as the inaugural edition.

Charles II died in 1685 but horseracing, and royal patronage of the sport, endured. Training yards sprung up throughout across the region and new races were added to the programme in the centuries that followed, with the fixture list taking on a more settled pattern in 1762 under the direction of the Jockey Club.

The first running of July Stakes – which is the oldest juvenile race in existence – took place in 1786, while in 1809, Wizard won the first running of the 2,000 Guineas. These races still form a central part of the European programme.

Sport of Kings: the horseracing legacy of HH Sheikh Mohammed 

The thrill of the sport, combined with the compelling history behind these races, struck a chord with a young Cambridge student from the United Arab Emirates, who as a young man had been captivated by the power, speed and elegance of the horse, and had ridden bareback races with his friends on the sands of Jumeirah Beach.

Now, nearly fifty years on from attending his first meeting at Newmarket, it is difficult to think of anyone who has made a greater impact on the development of racing in Newmarket – King Charles II aside – than His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai.

In 1977, HH Sheikh Mohammed tasted his first success as an owner, firing a passion that has resulted in the creation of the biggest – and most successful – global bloodstock and racing operation in the world: Godolphin. Aside from HH Sheikh Mohammed’s many personal triumphs on the racetrack in Newmarket, with Oh So Sharp’s victory in the 1985 1,000 Guineas an early example, his investment in bloodstock, training facilities, prize money and community initiatives has helped elevate Newmarket into an unrivalled position as the “Home of Racing” – as Amy Starkey, Managing Director of Newmarket Racecourses, explains.

“[HH Sheikh Mohammed’s] contribution is absolutely invaluable to our town and to the industry,” she says. “Racing as an industry in Newmarket is significant; Newmarket has 20,000 people living here, while at its peak we have 5,500 racehorses living here.

“Forty per cent of people who live in Newmarket are either working in or associated with the racing industry, and a significant percentage of that will come under the banner of Sheikh Mohammed’s operations.

“For me – both as Newmarket Racecourses Managing Director, and as a Newmarket town councillor – the partnership between racing, Newmarket and Dubai is absolutely integral to the future legacy of these different elements.”

Aspirations for future generations

And after a year that has seen a celebration of Newmarket’s unique heritage with a number of commemorative events around the town, which culminated at the second edition of Dubai Future Champions Festival – made possible by the contribution of HH Sheikh Mohammed – the legacy seems tangible, and hugely exciting. The educational theme running alongside this year’s festival included the creation of the Newmarket Academy Godolphin Beacon Project, a new five-year initiative which aims to create aspiration and enhance learning opportunities for students in Newmarket, serving as a perfect example of His Highness’s vision for the next generation.

Meanwhile, this historic year has also seen the gradual opening of the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art, which is situated in the town centre on the grounds of the former royal yard of King Charles II, in another nod to Newmarket’s royal heritage. The centre is made up of the new National Horseracing Museum, the British Sporting Art Gallery, and the Retraining of Racehorses Yard, and is the result of a decade-long project that was supported by HH Sheikh Mohammed among other investors.

Ami Cosgrave, Marketing Manager at the National Heritage Centre, is excited about the potential of the new attraction, which will give visitors the chance to learn about the traditions, science and evolution of the sport since its inception.

“The new National Heritage Centre at Palace House has transformed an area of Newmarket into a cultural quarter of the town,” she says.

“It is a world-class destination that showcases every aspect of the sport of horseracing and sporting art, preserving its past, celebrating its present and safeguarding its future. We hope to see 50-60,000 people a year through the door, which will have a significant impact on the tourist industry and economic benefits in the town.”

Given the feel-good factor and engagement of the local community achieved with the celebration of Newmarket’s past in 2016, the opening of this impressive new facility, coupled with HH Sheikh Mohammed’s continuing investment in sporting and educational initiatives throughout the town, certainly augurs well for the future – not that those in key positions are resting on their laurels.

“We have a responsibility to ensure that we continue the legacy for at least another 350 years,” says Starkey, who will be able to draw upon a fascinating heritage, the support of Dubai, and a passion for racing that is entrenched in the hearts and minds of the local population, as she continues to map out the future of racing in Newmarket.

The National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art will open fully on 24 October 2016. For more information, visit www.palacehousenewmarket.co.uk