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  • Writer's picturePeter McNeile

Races that break the mould

We live in an era of globalisation where events worldwide are connected. A virus spreads in China, and within weeks, the entire world is locked away at home trying to avoid a deadly pandemic; the Panama Canal locks do not feed enough water through the canal as a result of local droughts, and the cost of beans rises in the whole of Europe.

These different examples are an illustration of how interlinked the world's economies have become. Humankind has accelerated the interaction of these too by seeking more uniformity between products and services in pursuit of easier world trade. No surprise therefore that the products we see in our high street shops, and the shops themselves, are losing their individual flair through mass production and sale of the same products across vast markets.

This uniformity has also manifested itself in the world of racing, where money dances the tune. In the USA, the pursuit of middle distance thoroughbreds racing over an optimum 1 1/4m has narrowed the use of popular bloodlines to the extent that countries focused on staying horses, like Germany, find themselves as outliers in the global bloodstock market.

The USA is a fine example of where uniformity in racing has been taken to extremes. Most orthodox racetracks are oval, dirt, left-handed and twelve furlongs in circumference. Horses that lead with their off fore, not their near, are being weeded out by the configuration of the track.

However, there remain venues, races, and individuals - horses and humans - who are bucking this trend, setting out a stall of their own. And as a result, they find themselves above averagely popular for being different: more memorable, quirky, and eccentric.

Here are some examples of racing events that don't fit the norm, and are more memorable as a result:

Jenningsbet Grey Horse Handicap - Newmarket

With nearly 30 fixtures a year, it can be difficult to be original at the home of racing. Not every fixture can host a Guineas or Cesarewitch, so race planners have got creative during the summer months.

One result is the grey horse handicap, appealing to the 3% of thoroughbreds who are born grey. It's a niche race for a niche market, but fills well enough, even if you may not see a Derby winner there; 9 runners faced the starter in its most recent renewal in 2023 for the straight 6f sprint up the July course.

To debunk any urban legends, the colour of a horse makes absolutely no difference to the speed it can run, but grey horses have a history of winning public hearts and minds. Arguably the most popular in recent memory was the dashing steeplechaser Desert Orchid, whose front-running gameplan and bright white colouring meant he was easily distinguishable. A never-say-die attitude may also have had plenty to do with the affection in which he was held.

Queen Alexandra Stakes - Royal Ascot

The Queen Alexandra is by far and away the longest race at the Royal meeting, in fact, the longest in the established British Flat calendar, at 2m 6f, more than twice the length of most championship type races. Yet it holds a special place in race enthusiasts' minds.

Perhaps it's the fact that the runners are seen for a full 4m 50s rather then the 2 1/2 minutes of an orthodox middle distance race; or perhaps it's that winners have been seen in the Jumps code, as the race is dominated by trainers more frequently found with thick overcoats and peaked caps than top hat & tails.

Either way, its quirky nature ensures a strong and competitive field each year, and a celebration of the need for stamina in the breeding of the modern thoroughbred.

Grand Military Gold Cup - Sandown Park

The renowned Captain Becher - he of the brook at Aintree - was of the gentlemen riders of the early Victorian era when racing was becoming more formalized in Britain, and areas of the world where the British exerted influence - rather a lot at that time as it happens.

In 1841, 2 years after the Grand National was created, a race was invented at Sandown for horses owned and ridden by current members of the Armed Services. There being no air force at the time, the race was dominated by cavalrymen, as no queue arose from the Royal Navy to take part.

Sadly, the military tradition has faded somewhat, insofar as the cavalry regiments are now all motorized and cavalry charges are only the stiff of tattoos, not battlefields. However, the annual contest, along with its sister race the Royal Artillery Gold Cup, is open only to horses ridden by practising members of the armed services, and is often targeted by trainers who have relinquished the military for a marginally less precarious career choice training racehorses.

Cross Country racing - Europe at large

The original recorded steeplechase was between the Tipperary villages of Doneraile and Buttevant in 1782. It was quite literally a race between two steeples over natural country which initiated the sport of jump racing.

Nowadays, the variety of obstacles is much diminished in pursuit of speed and greater safety, two words that don't readily sit together.

Cross Country racing bucks this trend and then some. Centred around France, a calendar of cross country races, over obstacles unfamiliar to many steeplechasers, afford a look back to a sport of yesteryear, and sometimes need a course in orienteering to navigate.

The Crystal Cup is a series of the best endowed international races of this genre, taking in races in 6 different countries of Europe from Warsaw and the fearsome taxis fence at Pardubice to the most recently created less than 30 years ago at Cheltenham. Esteemed professionals in Britain guffawed at the introduction of a new course of such eccentricity back in 1995, but the crowd of spectators who flock to the centre course to see each of three races each season tells of its popularity, supported by top flight competitors like Tiger Roll, Roll of Thunder in Ireland, and others.

Pegasus Club Race - VWH Point-to-Point, Siddington, UK

You could argue successfully that Point-to-Point racing is, in itself, an anomaly, but through necessity, fixture secretaries have had to find innovative ways of filling races from a diminishing horse population.

The Pegasus Club race is confined to members of the aforementioned club, or their spouses or descendants. The Club is confined to members of the Inns of Court, to which all barristers must belong.

Small surprise therefore that the stewards of the VWH have rarely called an enquiry on this particular race, for fear of coming up against a barrister of note who would put hs own case better than they would be able!

Town Plate - Newmarket

Newmarket's oldest race dates back to 1665, when Charles II created it, just six years before he became the only reigning monarch to win a race as a rider.

The conditions are fairly bizarre, to the extent the race is a fund-raiser nowadays rather than offering a purse in its own right. The winner receives a pack of Newmarket sausages in lieu of cash!

The race runs over a staggering 3m 6f, with conditions as follows:

  • Every rider that layeth hold on, or striketh any of the riders, shall win no plate or prize"

  • "Whosoever winneth the plate or prize shall give to the Clerk of the Course twenty shillings, to be distributed to the poor both sides of Newmarket, and twenty shillings to the Clerk of the Race for which he is to keep the course plain and free from cart roots"

  • "No man is admitted to ride for this prize that is either a serving man or groom"

There are no ages limits to the riders or horses. In fact, an octogenarian rode into third place in the most recent renewal in 2023.

Sanlucar & Zahara, Spain - beach racing

There's no rider who hasn't relished the prospect of a full-blooded gallop on the beach, wind in one's hair - the ultimate adrenaline rush.

In Spain, Brittany, Cuxhaven in northern Germany, and in Laytown, Ireland, they've taken this to the next level. These are racetracks that only appear twice a day when the tide is out.

The most recent of these is Zahara, near Cadiz, where the length of the beach allows for a straight 10f, the same as the Rowley Mile. American horses would feel right at home, except for the lack of bends.

As you'd expect of beach racing, no dress code applies: only sun cream.

The pursuit of unorthodoxy is at the heart of all these events, where finding the fastest horse is still an objective, but handicapped by other criteria to make a spectacle. We should seek more of them; they add to the flavour of the sport no end.

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