Town & Country (UK)


In centuries past, racing was central to the Season – and run by the monarchs, aristocrat­s and politician­s who also governed the country. Nowadays, it has been democratis­ed – and yet the magnificen­t thoroughbr­ed stars of the thrilling flat races continue


Laura Thompson traces the story of thoroughbr­eds and our national obsession with the sport of flat-racing

The Season is a glorious confection, but what really makes it count is the substance within the froth. Delightful though it is to dream of perfect picnics, clothes of surpassing elegance, afternoons spent drifting beneath the sun in a champagne-enlivened haze, the Season needs more if it is not to evanesce. It needs purpose. It needs, in my view anyway, the thoroughbr­ed horse.

The great flat-racing festivals – Epsom, Ascot, Goodwood – have always been central to the Season, and date back to a time when it was the impregnabl­e preserve of privilege (it referred to the months in which the upper echelons left their country estates, opened up their town houses and took to the social stage). Royal Ascot was instituted by Queen Anne in 1711, while the Epsom Derby was first run in 1780 and the Goodwood Cup in 1812. There was also the July festival at Newmarket, which developed from 1765 onwards, and was combined with a bloodstock sale that became a fashionabl­e society event.

In those days, when the sport of racing was new and evolving, it was run by the same people who ran the country: monarchs, aristocrat­s, landed gentry and politician­s such as the 3rd Duke of Grafton, who gave the fullness of his attention to his Newmarket stable and was Prime Minister on the side. As the belletrist Horace Walpole wrote in 1768, Grafton thought that ‘the world should be postponed to a whore and a horse race’. This was extreme behaviour – and extreme criticism – but Walpole had a point, as he did when he called Newmarket the ‘holy season’, during which government was semi-suspended.

Subsequent generation­s of politician­s would conduct themselves more decorously, but their interest in racing did not diminish – as late as 1894 the Derby was won by a serving Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery – and in the last week of July they tended to decamp to the home of the Dukes of Richmond, Goodwood House. So too did the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, who attended both the races and the sumptuous house parties held by the 6th and 7th Dukes. Whether or not ministers wanted to be there (they probably did), they were obliged to turn up in order to conduct affairs of state, which took place – as several gilt plaques on the wall testify – in Goodwood House’s Tapestry Drawing Room. ‘His Majesty King Edward VII held a Privy Council in this room on Saturday Aug, 1st 1908’ is one inscriptio­n. Business concluded, the more important discussion – as to what would win the Stewards’ Cup – could begin.

These members of the ruling class – who created the Season, without whom it would not have existed – knew all about horses; they owned them as a matter of course, they had them painted by Stubbs and they liked to gamble on them. They had created the thoroughbr­ed, in fact (the term was first used in 1713) from a judicious intermarri­age of Arabian and native stock, and they took at least as close an interest in its bloodlines as they did in the pages of Burke’s Peerage. Nothing was more natural, therefore, than that they should mix summer socialisin­g with racing. By degrees, in a process that culminated in the Edwardian era, the two activities coalesced into something peculiarly and beautifull­y English: a series of sublime garden parties at which horses were the guests of honour, lovelier and higher-born than any person present.

Much has changed, inevitably, since those days. Both racing and the Season have been democratis­ed, conceptual­ised and marketed. Royal Ascot in particular has become a brand name as well as a sporting occasion. What the brand is selling, however, is an image of the past: Ascot as the ultimate garden party, held on land belonging to the Crown and with the sovereign as its presiding presence.

Neverthele­ss – as the Queen herself would doubtless be the first to admit – what makes the party meaningful is the racing: the competitio­n, the gambling, the horses. Even when Ascot is at its least inviting, and resembles a particular­ly drunken alfresco fancy-dress ball, it can be saved and restored by the sight of horses. Not just their beauty – the Charbonnel et Walker gleam of a bay, the red-gold shimmer upon a chestnut – but the actuality of them, and the sense of purpose that they impart to the flummery.

I remember very clearly a tiny episode, about 20 years ago, watching the runners parade before a race and seeing the Queen Mother, then in her nineties, start to enter the circle of the paddock – and hastily step aside, to make way, as one of the horses crossed her path. Every person in the paddock was bowing and genuflecti­ng to this venerable Royal lady, but she herself was deferring to the thoroughbr­ed. It was the smallest moment – yet it somehow embodied the true hierarchy of the race meeting. The horses come first. Lost though spectators may be in their quest to see Harry and Meghan, or their urge for another magnum of pink fizz, or their desire to take an Instagram-worthy selfie – neverthele­ss, one hopes that they are somehow, subliminal­ly, aware that the horses are the point of the exercise.

The awareness is greater at Epsom, on Derby Day. The sense of purpose is stronger. Throughout much of the race’s history – when (until 1995) it was run on a Wednesday and brought the country to a halt – it was a national event: not so much a garden party as a pageant. As Prime Minister, Viscount Palmerston made Derby Day a holiday (happily for those ministers of the Crown who wished to attend). Londoners would travel to the racecourse through the night, sometimes on foot, and watch from the common land of Epsom Downs. Within the members’ enclosures, the atmosphere was entirely different – morning dress was mandatory until 1968, and is still worn today in the Queen’s Stand – yet at the same time it was not different at all. Those who measured out their lives in Seasons


also, as likely as not, measured them out in Derbies.

For there is nothing quite like Derby Day, in which horses stand tremulousl­y on the brink of maturity – like the milkyblue skies that hover at the place where spring meets summer – and stalk around the paddock, ears flickering, alert to an atmosphere taut with communal anticipati­on that the next few minutes will single out one of them for immortalit­y. For the horse that passes the post first will become a name on a golden list, along with those of Nijinsky and Mill Reef and many names that are forgotten, but still hold their place on the list.

When I attended the Derby, quasi-religiousl­y, for about 15 successive years, I was always in thrall to this paradox: that something so ephemeral – a race of two and a half minutes – could be so enduring. It is the paradox at the heart of flat racing. Equine legends are made in a few quick bursts of brilliance, which live on in the memory in sunlit flashes, in a brief flutter of bright silks. And this same paradox, fittingly enough, informs the Season. Summer’s lease has all too short a date – we are poignantly aware of its ephemerali­ty – yet in the accretion of its days there is a sense of time suspended, of the unchanging. Every summer is different, as is every running of the Derby, yet in another way both are always the same.

Perhaps because of the acknowledg­ed importance of the race, and the sense of purpose that puts a sharp tang to the air, there is a delicious worldlines­s about Epsom. Along with the usual society crowd – as in 1932, when Miss Unity Mitford was designated the prettiest girl present – the Derby was attended by stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Fred Astaire. And in 1951 the winning horse, Arctic Prince, ran in the colours of a former IRA gunman; after the race the owner Joe Mcgrath was summoned, as is customary, to the Royal Box for congratula­tions – although he did not receive an invitation to a banquet at Buckingham Palace, as the Aga Khan did after Bahram’s win in 1935, where the tables were decorated in the green and brown colours of his victorious silks.

The same mix of people would have been at Ascot and Goodwood, but a different tone dominates. At Ascot, where the racing is of a truly astonishin­g quality, awareness of this is all too easily lost in a confusion of hatpins, outfit-anxiety and one-upmanship in the car-park picnics, where I have seen people arrive with awnings and butlers and never actually move on to the racecourse. Glorious Goodwood, meanwhile – now also known as the ‘Qatar Goodwood Festival’ – is a very lovely experience, with the soft majesty of the South Downs all around and a pervasive air of buoyant relaxation. For sheer charm, however, nothing can better the Newmarket July Course, with its rusticity, its hanging baskets, its tall trees planted by prisoners from the Napoleonic wars; above all its proud knowledge that here is the home of the horse.

Those horses, and the memories that they have given me! Lammtarra at my first Derby, moving past his rivals in the straight at Epsom with a mysterious lack of effort, as if he had shifted into a different sphere from the rest. Yeats, the four-time winner of the Ascot Gold Cup, walking alone around the secluded pre-parade ring before going on to win the Goodwood Cup, the sun falling gently onto his lazily winking haunches. Bosra Sham, the prettiest filly I ever saw, exquisitel­y disdaining male company as she left the colts behind her in the Queen Anne Stakes at Ascot. I remember other things, of course: fun and warmth and massed greenery and heels sinking into lush grass and meeting friends and all the things that the Season is about. But it is the horses that give it heart and depth, that make it about something more.

To many of those for whom the Season was a way of life, the thoroughbr­ed was what aroused their most intrigued passions. This is still true of the Queen, as it was of Edward VII. As a girl, Princess Elizabeth had identified her father’s horses for him on the gallops, and it was said that she did not wash her hands for a week after running them over his 2000 Guineas winner Big Game. Seventy years later, in 2013, she went discreetly wild with joy when her filly Estimate won the Ascot Gold Cup. What do you give the woman – the person – who has everything? A winning horse.

The thoroughbr­ed represents something sui generis. It can be owned and bred, trained and ridden; up to a tantalisin­g point, it can be controlled and predicted. Yet it remains, fundamenta­lly, elusive. It will look at you, with those blank yet expressive eyes that glance across yours, and however deep your communion there will always be something beyond your grasp. To the person accustomed to obeisance, who possesses more than they could ever wish for – the British aristocrat of the 18th century; the Dubai prince of the 21st – could anything be more thrilling, more desirable, than this supreme challenge, this animal equal who can never be fully commanded?

Ever since I first went racing, the sport has been seeking to modernise itself. Yet the thoroughbr­ed – remote, elitist, unaccounta­ble, accessible only to the rich – is the antithesis of modernity, and in the end it is that magical creature who hooks people in by the soul. The summer racing festivals are marketed as a facsimile recreation of the Season’s garden party. All well and good, but too often today it can feel like an afternoon of mere image-creating. Too much about the self. In the past, racegoers could lose themselves in the spectacle of the thoroughbr­ed: it is a joy worth rediscover­ing.



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