Two hundred years ago, this coming Monday, the first running of the 1000 Guineas Stakes took place on the Newmarket racecourse. This race was the last of the five Classic English flat races to be established, all of which are still run today. At the time, this was a very important race for the girls, since it was only the second flat race in England which was open only to fillies. Even so, there was a certain amount of anti-female prejudice at work in the naming of this flat race for fillies. Though the precise date on which it is run changes each year, the 1000 Guineas Stakes is now the second of the classics of English flat racing to be run each year, and it is still open only to fillies.
The origins and the first running of the 1000 Guineas Stakes, …
Thoroughbred horse racing in England initially began with various wealthy gentlemen who bred, raised and trained their own horses and then matched them against the horses which were bred, raised and trained by other wealthy gentlemen. In the early years, horses did not set foot on a racetrack until they were at least five years old and were considered fully mature. And a good thing, too, since each of these races consisted of three to four heats, most well over a mile, which were run over the course of a day, sometimes over only a few hours, leaving the horses little time to rest between heats. These horses were most often ridden by their owners, unless the owner was incapacitated in some way. In those cases, the horses were usually ridden by their regular grooms. Younger horses would not have been able to endure these gruelling multiple heats carrying a full-size rider who sat planted squarely on their backs in the same position as any other horse rider of the time.
These early races served more than one purpose. The race meetings and the races allowed owners to show off their horses in order to demonstrate their taste, knowledge and their skill in breeding quality horseflesh. Until the mid-nineteenth century, there were no professional trainers, so each owner, often with the assistance of his stable manager, trained their own horses. These races were also a means by which to demonstrate the quality of an owner’s stud, with an eye to attracting other breeders to pay for the services they offered or to display a fine horse prior to an intended sale. Many racing men were usually attracted to race meetings anywhere within reasonable travel distance, not only to show of their horses, but to discuss all aspects of horses and racing with other like-minded horsemen.
In the early match races, when one owner raced his horse against the owner of another horse, the races were often run for bragging rights, and for the opportunity provided to other wealthy owners to wager on the outcome. Later, particularly when King Charles II and Queen Anne had both taken a serious interest in horse racing, there were a few races which were established in which multiple horses would be run, with a prize given to the winner. In most cases, these prizes were typically plate, that is, some piece of silver, or occasionally gold, often an actual plate or cup of some kind, richly decorated. These races came to be called "plate" races. All of these early races which included multiple heats took quite a long time to run. This is one of the reasons these races drew few spectators outside the racing crowd. Match races were particularly tiresome, being of interest only to the owners of the horses and anyone who had a wager on one the race. Even those races which included multiple horses running for a plate prize where not swamped with spectators, mostly due to how long it took to run a given race. That all began to change in the 1770s.
By the latter decades of the eighteenth century, race meetings were becoming increasingly expensive to mount. Until the 1840s, entrance fees were not charged to see a race, unless one wished to sit in the stands, assuming a particular race course had one. With only a few exceptions, race meetings were important social events among all classes in the area in which they were held, and it was clear to race committees that funds could be raised within the community, if the races could be made more compelling. There was a growing awareness among many owners that younger horses were capable of running races that could be much more exciting than those long and tedious races run by their elders. A race of a single heat offered a fast, exhilarating race, which held spectators’ attention and the winner was known in just a few minutes, not in hours. There was also the attraction that racing younger horses meant a quicker return on the investment any owner had made in his bloodstock.
The first major single heat flat race for three-year-olds was the St. Leger, established in 1776, open to intact colts (no geldings) and fillies. It was initially run over a distance of two miles. That was reduced to one mile, six furlongs in 1816. Then came the Oaks, in 1779, which was the first flat race in England open only to three-year-old fillies. The Oaks was run over a distance of one mile, until 1784, when it was lengthened to one mile, four furlongs. The following year, 1780, the Derby was established, and like the St. Leger, was open to three-year-old intact colts and fillies. The Derby was first run over a mile until 1784, when another half mile was added. These races were all sweepstakes instead of plate races, meaning that each was a winner-take-all cash prize race. Each owner put down a stake when they entered their horse, and the combined stakes then became the prize for the owner of the winning horse.
Each of these races became the centerpiece of an important race meeting and each was therefore very important to the regions in which those race meetings were held. The St. Leger was run at Doncaster, while both the Oaks and the Derby were run at Epsom Downs. The racecourse owners made a great deal of money on the renting of stalls and booths to bookmakers and vendors of food and drink. Even though there was no entrance fee, those racecourses which had stands also made a tidy profit on admittance to those exclusive viewing areas. Local tradesmen, such as inn-keepers, publicans and others who stood to profit from a large influx of people into the area all benefited financially. Owners and breeders typically would not make a lot of money on one of these races, unless their horse won. However, these important races drew large numbers of other racing men, so owners had an opportunity to show off their best horses, and to see the best horses of other breeders, enabling them to discuss horses, bloodlines and dicker over stud fees and/or sales of their horses.
By 1800, these three races had set the new trend in thoroughbred horse racing. There were very few races of multiple heats still being held at any of the major English race courses by the turn of the nineteenth century. Though some two-year-old races were held, they would not become popular, or sanctioned by the British Jockey Club, until 1827. Single heat races for three-year-olds were the most popular and they gradually brought in a number of changes to the way races were run, in addition to the elimination of multiple heats. Races were shorter, usually kept to a mile, and owners and grooms no longer rode their own horses. Smaller, lighter jockeys became the norm, to give each horse the best possible chance to win. Professional jockeys had begun to emerge, and though they were physically smaller and lighter, they had not yet developed the racing position most jockeys take today, riding with short stirrup leathers, crouched over their mounts’ withers in order to place their weight where it is easiest for the horse to carry. The jockeys of the early nineteenth century only slightly shortened their stirrup leathers, but the bulk of their weight was on the horse’s back, not over its withers. Nevertheless, these professional jockeys had developed a host of competitive skills by which they might out-ride the other jockeys in a race and bring their horse across the finish line first. The three-year-old races were fast, exciting and drew vast numbers of spectators. And most of those spectators spent quite a lot of money during the course of a race meeting.
On the eve of the Regency, the St. Leger, the Oaks and the Derby had clearly proven the popularity and profitability of racing three-year-olds. They were almost certainly the top three races in the country, but not a one of them was run at Newmarket, considered to be the headquarters of flat racing in England. Doncaster and Epsom Downs were doing well financially, in large part due to the success of these races, while Newmarket, the oldest race course in Britain and the home of the English Jockey Club, was floundering. Newmarket had been associated with royalty since 1605, when James I discovered the small village on Newmarket Heath, where he had enjoyed racing horses along with his Scottish nobles. In fact, he spent so much time there that eventually, the House of Commons petitioned him to " … turn his gracious attentions to the affairs of state." But it was James I’s grandson, Charles II, an avid horseman himself, who put Newmarket on the racing map. He developed a set of rules for racing and became the arbiter of all racing issues. He personally established the Newmarket Town Plate race, and even rode his own horse to victory in the first running of that race, which is still run today. His contributions to racing at Newmarket are commemorated in the name of the Rowley Mile race course, which was named after his favorite stallion, Rowley. That stallion was particularly active at stud, and Charles II himself eventually got the nickname of "Old Rowley" for similar reasons.
From the time of Charles II, Newmarket was the center of flat racing in England. And, with the royal stamp of approval, Newmarket race meetings were attended by most future kings and members of the royal family, as well as all of the horsey aristocracy. Until the reign of King George III. Farmer George had little interest in horse racing, and it was not until his eldest son, the Prince of Wales came of age, that a member of the royal family once again regularly attended race meetings at Newmarket. The English Jockey Club was established in 1750. They made Newmarket their headquarters and became the principal authority in English flat racing. Gradually, they bought up the existing race course and added additional surrounding acres. In the process, they excluded all but the aristocracy and the upper classes from any of the race meetings held at Newmarket. But in order to attract all those affluent horsemen, it was important that a member of the royal family be in attendance. In the latter decades of the eighteenth century, that was the Prince of Wales, a young man who was devoted to racing. He kept his own stud and raced his own horses at Newmarket. Until October of 1791. At Newmarket that month, the Prince of Wales’ horse, Escape, was entered into two races, one on the 20th and one on the 21st. Escape lost the race on the first day, but won the race on the second day. The Prince’s jockey was Sam Chiffney, a man who was considered to be dishonest by the members of the Jockey Club. They believed Chiffney had thrown the first race in order to raise the odds on the second race and thus make more money for those who wagered on Escape. One of the Jockey Club stewards, Sir Charles Bunbury, told the Prince of Wales that he must terminate Chiffney’s employment at his stables or no other gentleman would ever run a horse against one ridden by Chiffney. The Prince was furious. He refused to fire Chiffney, and instead, he sold his entire stable of horses and vowed never to set foot on Newmarket Heath ever again.
The loss of the Prince of Wales’ patronage was noticed at Newmarket and over the years, fewer and fewer of the premier racing men bothered to come to the Newmarket race meetings. In 1805, the Jockey Club invited the Prince of Wales back to Newmarket. They said they regretted the Escape affair and wanted it to be "buried in oblivion." They asked for the Prince’s "condescending attendance.” He refused their invitation, probably because he still had very hard feelings for Sir Charles Bunbury, who was still a steward of the Jockey Club. In the end, the rift with the Prince was not healed until 1828, when he had become King George IV, almost certainly because Sir Charles Bunbury was no longer one of the stewards, having died in 1821.
Since it was clear they could not count on the Prince of Wales to attract more people to the Newmarket race meetings, the Jockey Club had to look for other means to accomplish that end. Sir Charles Bunbury was not unfamiliar with single heat races for three-year-olds, since he had actually been one of the founders of the Derby, back in 1780. He and the Earl of Derby flipped a coin for naming rights. The earl won the coin toss, but Sir Charles won the first running of the race, with his great horse, Diomed. In 1809, at the suggestion of Sir Charles, the Jockey Club established the 2000 Guineas Stakes, a sweepstakes race similar to the Derby, open to three-year-old intact colts and fillies, to be run over the Rowley Mile course. It was named for its prize money, which totaled two thousand guineas for the first race. This was the fourth of the English classic flat races, and it was a very popular race. More people started coming back to Newmarket.
Once the 2000 Guineas Stakes had proven successful, in 1814, Sir Charles and the Jockey Club decided to establish a sweepstakes race for three-year-old fillies. This race was also to be named after the total prize money, but apparently because this race was only for fillies, the entrance fee was set at only £100 and only ten horses were entered for the inaugural running. Thus, the race was called the 1000 Guineas Stakes. This race was also run over the Rowley Mile course at Newmarket. The first 1000 Guineas Stakes was run on Thursday, 28 April 1814. Though ten fillies were originally entered, in the end, only five started; Charlotte, owned by Mr. Wilson; Vestal, owned by the Duke of Grafton; Medora, owned by the Duke of Rutland; Mr. Payne’s filly, owned by Mr. Payne; and Gossamer, owned by Mr. Crockford. The winner was the filly Charlotte, serendipitously, bred and trained by Mr. Christopher Wilson, whose horse, Wizard, had won the first 2000 Guineas Stakes, in 1809. Betting was one to five against Charlotte, so those who placed bets on her did very well. Medora came in second, Mr. Payne’s filly came in third and Vestal was fourth, with poor Gossamer coming in last.
From the spring of 1814, the 2000 and 1000 Guineas Stakes races were both run annually at Newmarket during the Spring race meeting, as they still are today. Between them, those two stakes races drew many more of the top racing men back to Newmarket than had attended for over a decade. Once again, Newmarket reclaimed its title as the true center of English flat racing. This year, the 1000 Guineas Stakes will be run on Sunday, 4 May 2014, with prize money in excess of £400,000, and it will still be run over the Rowley Mile course at Newmarket, the same course over which the first 1000 Guineas Stakes was run two hundred years ago.
The first running of the 1000 Guineas Stakes at Newmarket might make an interesting setting for all or part of a Regency novel. There are any number of things which can happen in the build-up to a race which could be woven into a story of romance. During that time, all horses had to be walked to the racing venue, as there was no other way to transport them. Thus, most breeders had premises near the racecourses where they most often raced their horses. There were more breeders who had stables in the vicinity of the Newmarket course that anywhere else in England during the Regency. It is estimated that there were at least 400 horses in training at Newmarket at any given time during the Regency, even more near any of the racing meetings. It would be nearly impossible to find accommodations in the town when race meetings were in progress, so having private quarters and stables would be very convenient. It must also be kept in mind that wagering on races was big business during the Regency, and the course would be crawling with "legs," the usual term for bookmakers. Some unscrupulous bookmakers were not above doing something to nobble a favorite horse, in order to improve their betting odds. The horse might be injured, but sometimes more drastic measures were taken. In 1811, one bookmaker arranged to have four different horses poisoned, to improve his betting odds for multiple races. Therefore, a knowledgeable and prudent horse owner would take care to ensure his horse’s safety in the days prior to the important race. He would also probably take care to protect his jockey as well. Certainly, the horse’s owner would want to gallop his horse at least once or twice over the Rowley Mile course prior to race day. But he would need permission from the Jockey Club. But what if he were not on the best of terms with the stewards? How might that be resolved? Dear Regency Authors, how might you work the 1000 Guineas Stakes race into one of your upcoming stories?