Hoping to secure a place in Varsity history, amateur jockeys from Oxbridge have been training for a solid six months with the hopes of winning the Vision Varsity Horse Race
Watching the Oxford and Cambridge jockeys chatter and bicker good naturedly as they pose for photos on the Rowley mile at Newmarket racecourse, it is clear this is not a rivalry as fierce as the infamous boat race.
Yet, in a pre-event meet, the two teams spoke keenly of their desire to make this competition every bit as historic as the boat race.
“Ideally, we want this to be just as longstanding a tradition as the rowing is”, said James Alexander, Captain of the Cambridge Varsity’s team and the only jockey to have competed in last year’s race.
“[Horseracing] is such a huge business, which reaches so many, and last year proved what good entertainment this race truly is.”
On 10 October, five jockeys a-piece from Oxford and Cambridge will line up on Rowley Mile to battle it out over eight furlongs to win the Bearstead Challenge Trophy.
The universities’ historic rivalry extends beyond academics to sport, played out in Varsity matches encompassing disciplines that range from rugby to water polo (the latter of which was first played by the two universities in the 19th century).
This year’s Vision Varsity Horse Race is part of the wider Dubai Future Champions Festival, a two-day event at Newmarket that aims to inspire the next generation to partake in the horseracing industry.
As well as feature races which will see the world’s best young horses battle it out for a £2m prize pot, the festival will also include an interactive exhibition which showcases Dubai’s racing heritage, as well as an innovative education programme seeking to engage with tomorrow's champions.
To get there, the students have been whittled down to a final five by way of a gruelling fitness assessment that included a 4-minute plank. They have trained for the last six months at stables all over England and even France, with trainers including Jamie Osborne, Yann Barberot and Gay Kelleway.
The training, the pupils admit, has been tough. Alice Watson, a 22-year-old veterinary student from Cambridge, broke her wrist in a pentathlon event just before her race riding was due to start. “I rode four horses the day my cast came off, which retrospectively may not have been the best idea,” she says.
“But I’m determined to see this race through.”
Though the majority of the students have never had any racing experience, they have all previously excelled at a range of equestrian disciplines.
Alice Stables, the captain of the Oxford team, has been carriage driving since the age of 8, competing nationally and internationally.
Kacper Pancewicz, a mathematics student at Oxford, moved to Dubai for a number of years where he rode what he recalls as “some of the best horses of my career” whilst competing in showjumping and dressage.
But none of them were quite prepared for a gruelling regime over the last six months that involves daily training on the Equicizer (a mechanical horse for the riders to build leg strength), as well as 5:45am starts on the gallops and trying to hold a succession of over-excited two-year-olds.
“These jockeys that do 4, 5, 6 races in a day have just got absolutely supreme fitness,” says Alexander.
“It surprised as all how much training we needed for just one race. It’s been tough, but a fantastic experience, and hopefully our hard work will pay off on the day.”
Dubai Future Champions Festival will take place at Newmarket Racecourse from 9-10 October