Surely the oddest of races: for a box of sausages
Across Europe, in every racing territory you can imagine, there exist quirky races that have no place in the modern sport. Yet these races are often among the most popular with spectators and participants. At one end of the spectrum might be argued the Grand National, which no sane race programmer would devise today. At the opposite end is a little known contest called the Newmarket Town Plate to be run this year on Saturday August 28 after a 24 month interlude brought about by the pandemic.
Run over the stamina - sapping 3m 6f of Newmarket's July course, the race has to be about the longest flat race in the western hemisphere, starting in Cambridgeshire and finishing under the tree-lined straight of the July course in the neighbouring county of Suffolk.
But make no mistake. This race is older than the oldest classic, and has a pedigree many would hanker after. First created in 1665 or the following year (no-one seems quite sure which) by Charles II, it has run annually seemingly ever since, as regal decree stated the race shall be run "forever":
Articles ordered by His Majestie to be observed by all persons that put in horses to ride for the Plate, the new round heat at Newmarket set out on the first day of October, 1664, in the 16th year of our Sovereign Lord King Charles II, which Plate is to be rid for yearly, the second Thursday in October for ever.
It's a challenge no racecourse administrator is likely to turn down. But unlike the classics, which have been copied by one after another racing authority, the Town Plate remains unique. No such other race exists anywhere in the world.
However, unlike the grandest classics and challenger races across the globe, with their spectacular prizes funds, this race carries no cash prize; merely a box of Newmarket sausages from local butcher Powters in 1952, and a voucher from Goldings, the men's outfitter in Newmarket High Street. Nor does this diminish the enthusiasm of amateur riders to participate, as this is not a race where you will find Frankie Dettori in the vanguard.
What's more, the winning rider pays a toll for the privilege of winning! The grand sum of 20 shillings (£1) to the Clerk of Course, to be distributed to the poor in Newmarket, and a further 20 shillings to the same man to ensure a good racing surface from year to year. The charitable element has become a leading feature among riders participating in the modern era, with many thousands raised for good causes both within and outside the racing bubble.
Charles II was a man ahead of his time too. The Plate has been open to women riders from the outset, unlike under professional rules, when the fairer sex were only permitted in 1972.
If style in a finish is a little lacking after 3 3/4 miles, the race lacks nothing in enthusiasm from riders who now raise money for charitable causes as a condition of entry. Recent winners have included trainer John Berry, Sheikh Fahad of Qipco fame, and Tim Gredley, one-time leading British show-jumper. Even former Health secretary and Newmarket MP, Matt Hancock, has ridden in the race.
And the race achieves as great a crowd now as in yesteryear, courtesy of switching from October to the end of a professional card before the July course closes and racing reverts to the Rowley course for the big autumn calendar.
If variety is the spice of life, then Newmarket's Town Plate fulfils the brief admirably.