Sandown Park played host to a very different racegoing crowd on Friday. Military men and women donned their Barbours and country tweeds for the 164th Grand Military Race Meeting.
The Grand Military Race Meeting is held each year on the Friday before the Cheltenham National Hunt Festival. It has been held since 1841 and hosted at Sandown Park since 1881.
This unique meeting provides an annual opportunity for servicemen and women to ride under the rules of racing as amateurs, at one of Britain’s most prestigious National Hunt racecourses.
In the past military racing was an important part of military life, as horses accompanied cavalry officers around the world. It was an opportunity for horses and riders to hone skills and reactions while providing a social event for military personnel serving abroad.
The showcase race of the day was The Alvis Grand Military Gold Cup. This 3m1/2f steeplechase is for horses who are the property of past or present members of the Navy, Army or Air Force of any country. They are ridden by amateurs serving in the regular, territorial or reserve forces of any country.
Mounted cavalry officers escorted the 12 runners to the track, and both the Surrey Union and the Royal Artillery hunts paraded their hounds in front of a supportive crowd as the jockeys made their way to the start.
In a fiercely battled race, jockeys hailed cabs over ditches and yelled wildly at their mounts. In the end, last year’s winning jockey, Capt. R.T. Sturgis of the Royal Horse Guards / 1st Dragoons, drove eight-year-old Mercato to victory. He was followed closely by last year’s winner and this year’s hotly tipped favourite, King’s Mistral.
There were a further two military races on Friday’s card: The Barclay’s Handicap Hurdle Race, which opened the fixture, was won by 9-4 joint favourite Silk Trader, ridden by Lord Manton, who won the race for the third year in succession.
In The Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Memorial Hunters’ Steeplechase, favourite Tales of Bounty romped home under Lt. J. Snowden of the King’s Royal Hussars.
The military races were interspersed by The Thales UK Novices’ Handicap Steeplechase and two hurdle races: The Leander Handicap Hurdle Race and The HMS Sandown National Hunt Novices’ Hurdle Race.
Racegoers were treated to star performances by champion jockey AP McCoy, with his fractured cheekbone still strapped. McCoy has been on better winning form than ever since his return to the saddle after a short absence and he has shot ahead of contender Richard Johnson in the championship tables.
McCoy rode Martin Pipe-trained Quick to victory in the handicap hurdle, and was aboard 4-7 favourite Back to Ben Alder as he defeated the rest of the field in the novices’ hurdle. In the novices’ chase, Mounsey Castle under Paul Flynn took eventual victory in a close finish.