The Suffolk town King James was told off for visiting too much
- Credit: National Horseracing Museum/H.R. Sherborn
There’s no doubt that the world over, Newmarket is synonymous with horse racing. Often dubbed the ‘birthplace of thoroughbred horse racing’, this Suffolk town has a deep-rooted equine heritage running through its veins.
But how did it all come about? And why Newmarket in particular? Here to explain all is Dr Alexandra Fletcher.
Curator at the National Horse Racing Museum in Newmarket since September 2020, she’s a font of knowledge when it comes to all things equine.
“Horseracing came to Newmarket due to the royal interest in the town - and that first began with James I in the 17th century,” Alexandra explains.
King James – who ruled England between 1603 and 1625 – first visited the town in 1605. “He would regularly come here for a variety of pastimes, including hunting, hawking, hare coursing, and of course horse racing.”
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He was so taken with the town that at one point he was reprimanded by Parliament for spending too much time in Newmarket, and not enough time running the country.
And during his reign, he ordered the construction of a royal house, close to where the present-day Jockey Club Rooms are.
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He originally leased an inn, The Griffin, but demolished it and built himself a new residence from scratch - Newmarket Palace. This palatial complex was spread across an acre of land, and it was here where he entertained ambassadors and spent his days hunting. And shortly before he left the throne, Newmarket saw its first-ever recorded match race in 1622.
The two-horse race, which took place on the Heath, had a grand prize of £100 - which is worth around £13,000 today.
It was between horses owned by Lord Salisbury, and George Villiers, Marquess of Buckingham and King’s Master of the Horse - with the former emerging as the eventual winner.
With the town now abuzz with the excitement of horse racing, things were only going to get bigger thanks to the two successors to the throne.
“It was James I and his interest that really kicked Newmarket off as the place to be when it came to horse racing – but it really expanded under the monarchies of King Charles I and II.”
King Charles I, who reigned between 1625 and 1649, would regularly visit Newmarket with his Court, and spent a great deal of time in the town.
Newmarket remained loyal to the king during the Civil War (1642-1651) and Charles I was captured here in 1647. He was placed under arrest in Newmarket before being taken to London for trial, and was executed two years later.
During the Interregnum that followed between 1649 to 1660, the Newmarket palace was sold and left to decay. Horse racing was also banned by Oliver Cromwell and the Puritan government in 1654.
“It’s not until Charles II comes to power in 1660 that horse racing gets exciting again – and he’s really passionate about it. He visited Newmarket a lot as a child with his father King Charles I, and the sport comes back after his Restoration to the throne.”
Charles soon became known the country over for his love of the sport. Competent in the saddle, he spent many hours on the track – even winning the Newmarket Town Plate in 1671 and 1675.
He also founded the Round Course, a three-and-a-quarter mile course. While it is now technically part of the July Course, it is still used once a year for the Town Plate – a race commissioned by Charles II himself around 1666 – which must take place annually thanks to a law he passed which decreed it must be run ‘for ever’.
From 1669 to 1671, Charles II had a palace built after purchasing additional land east of the High Street. Designed by William Samwell, the king moved his court here twice a year for the horse racing season, where he would conduct state affairs alongside spending his time racing, and hawking.
It survives today as Palace House and is home to the Fred Packard Galleries of Sporting Art under the care of the British Sporting Art Trust and the National Horse Racing Museum.
But what was it about Newmarket that drew the royals in, time and time again?
“I think it’s down to the natural environment, and what’s underneath the horse’s hooves,” explains Alexandra.
“Newmarket has a lovely, free-draining grassy heath – which is great for racing, breeding and keeping horses locally. The landscape was, and still is, just perfect for it, and that’s why these monarchs kept coming back.”
Newmarket is currently home to two prestigious, world-famous racetracks – the Rowley Mile and the July Course. The two come together to form Newmarket Racecourse, and the Rowley Mile is named after Old Rowley, one of King Charles II’s favourite racehorses.
Legend has it that Old Rowley was also King Charles II’s nickname, and alluded to his many illegitimate children he was known to have fathered.
Founders and racetracks aside, what about the stars of the show? The horses themselves.
Who are some of the biggest and best horses to have raced through Newmarket over the years, or have connections with the town?
“One that instantly springs to mind is King Edward VII’s horse Persimmon,” explains Alexandra.
Persimmon was a thoroughbred racehorse and sire whose career lasted two years. During those two years, he ran nine times and won seven major races, including the 1896 Epsom Derby (one of the first races ever captured on film), and the 1896 Jockey Club Stakes which took place in Newmarket.
“Persimmon’s preserved head is currently on loan to us from the Royal Collection, and is on display in our gallery. He was bred by King Edward when he was the Prince of Wales, and he’s got a fascinating bloodline, with some famous horses in his heritage.”
Persimmon was sired from St Simon, an undefeated thoroughbred racehorse who raced towards the end of the 19th century and was foaled at William Barrow’s Paddocks near Newmarket.
“Eclipse is another famous racehorse that we currently feature in our displays here in Newmarket. He was undefeated in 18 races, and Eclipse is an incredibly important horse as many of our modern-day racing thoroughbreds can trace their lineage back to him. He was a hugely successful sire, and he appears in so many bloodlines.”
Just some of the iconic horses who can trace their roots back to this 18th century sire include King Fergus, Young Eclipse, Saltram, and Potoooooooo. Further down his sire line, Bold Ruler (sire of the world-famous Secretariat) and Mr. Prospector (ancestor of American Pharoah) can also be linked to him.
For anyone who wishes to find out more about famous racehorses and the history of the sport, the National Horse Racing Museum is a great place to visit.
“At the moment we have a special exhibition on jump racing called ‘Mud, Sweat and Tears’, featuring Red Rum and Arkle. Arkle was a 20th century racehorse who was famous in Ireland. He was so popular that graffiti appeared across Dublin that read ‘Arkle for president’. We also have the skeleton of Potoooooooo on display at the museum,” adds Alexandra.
Potooooooo – or ‘Pot8os’ – was an 18th century racehorse who ran over 30 races, but is perhaps best remembered for the odd spelling of his name.
“The groom was asked to write his name, pronounced ‘Potatoes’, on the stable door. But he wasn’t particularly literate, so he literally wrote ‘Pot’ followed by eight Os, hence – Potoooooooo.
“Much like his sire Eclipse, he’s become something of a legend over the years.”
With a deep and fascinating horseracing history right here in Suffolk, it’s incredible how crucial a role our county has played when it comes to the historic sport.
Four hundred years on, and Newmarket and its horseracing heritage is still going strong.
To find out more about horseracing here in the county, visit the museum's website.
What’s your favourite Newmarket horseracing fact, or do you have a favourite horse? Get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org to share your thoughts and opinions.