An overdue visit to the home of racing for Horse & Hound's features editor has her hooked on a town where horses come first...
How has it taken 28 horse-mad years of my life to go to the home of racing? I blame growing up in Somerset — which feels like the other end of the earth from Newmarket.
From a muggle’s perspective (by muggle I mean unhorsey), there’s not a huge amount to write home about. For high-street highlights we’re talking Peacocks and Greggs the bakers — New Look is probably the closest to haute couture you’ll get in this corner of Suffolk. This is no bustling Cheltenham or quaint Burghley. But anyone who scoffs is missing the point.
Litter bins adorned with horses
A 75th anniversary celebration of the Animal Health Trust (AHT) yesterday (28 March), seemed like a very good reason to make my debut visit.
As the train approached Newmarket station, the swathes of white fencing for the gallops came into sight.
Walking into town I noticed the litter bins adorned with pictures of horses and punters strolled in and out of shops in breeches and boots.
And suddenly it dawned on me. I had arrived in some sort of equestrian nirvana. This is no normal provincial town.
Mistime your morning commute here, and you find yourself stuck in traffic waiting for the strings of horses coming off the gallops to cross the road and make their way onto the specially designated pavements and back to their yards, which are interspersed down side streets on seemingly residential roads.
And you could be waiting a long time — there are at least 3,000 horses in training with over 80 trainers.
But being stuck in a taxi trying to get to the AHT’s centre on the outskirts of the town was no great hardship, with a driver who could reel off stats about eye-watering stud fees and prolific sires with the ease that your regular cabby talks about football scores.
Talking to a local journalist as we marked the astounding achievements that the AHT has made in veterinary science during its long history, she regaled a time when she was standing behind the late Sir Henry Cecil in Newmarket Waitrose to see him buying only smoked salmon and champagne. Jilly Cooper couldn’t write it any better.
A museum that doesn’t make you yawn…
Trying to get your (equestrian) bearings in this town and pinpointing the ‘sights’ can be overwhelming.
Newmarket Heath extends to over 2,500 acres, with 50 miles of turf gallops and canters and there are two racecourses (The July Course and The Rowley Mile), Tattersalls, the National Stud and copious yards of varying degrees of glamour (and security) to navigate.
Which is where the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing & Sporting Art (pictured above) comes into play. Built in the remains of Charles II’s palace and racing stables and opened by The Queen in November last year, it should be compulsory for Newmarket first-timers and racing buffs alike.
You can immerse yourself in the best of sporting art (think Stubbs and Munnings), get to grips with the genetic code of the thoroughbred and understand how Newmarket developed as a hub for racing. Revel in the sports’ heroes (both equine and human) and shed a tear watching some emotional replays — The Queen’s face lighting up to see Estimate storm to victory in the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot is a highlight.
Once my brain was saturated with the legendary runners and riders that make up Newmarket’s past and present, I made a beeline to the Tack Room next door for dinner with a friend — a restaurant named after its original use.
Delicious food, yes. But all the better for the décor — saddles hang from the walls, jockey silks replace paintings and you can watch horses munching on their hay in the Rothschild Yard outside, which is the flagship home for Retraining of Racehorses.
Pulling out of the station (one platform, no loo, no shop, no ticket office…) and hurtling back towards London, it was like waking from some sort of horsey dream. In the world away from Newmarket, shop assistants no longer know who Frankel is and taxi drivers can’t tip you a winner for the Guineas Festival in May…