Monday, 19 August 2013

Equestrian Pursuits - Regency Style



The Godolphin Arabian

For the nobility and the landed gentry, the horse has long been an instrument of pleasure as well as a practical part of normal life. In Regency England, the quality of the horseflesh either under saddle or between the shafts reflected a person’s position in Society and the depth of his or her purse. In the case of the gentlemen in particular, the type of ‘cattle’ also defined the driver or rider’s skill, knowledge and horsemanship. Not the least of these testaments to wealth – as it so often still is today – was the breeding, purchasing and running of racehorses.
     Throughout the centuries, horse racing has quite rightly been dubbed ‘The Sport of Kings’. From Charles I, through Queen Anne, George IV to Queen Elizabeth II, many of the British monarchy have been avid supporters of what is now a multi-million pound industry.
     Commissioned by Lucius Septimius Severus, the Emperor of Rome, it is believed the earliest racetrack recorded existed in Yorkshire between 208 and 211 AD, while the earliest account of horse racing in Britain seems to have been written by a monk from Canterbury. In 1174, during the reign of Henry II, William Fitzstephen wrote of races which took place at a horse fair held at Smithfield in London, describing the horses as being ‘strong and fleet’. It is believed that a trophy was first presented at Chester in 1512, during a fair, when the winner of a race received a small flower-decorated wooden ball.
     Prior to the reign of Charles II, the horses raced were home bred, racing ‘galloways’, as they were known, the ‘hobby horse’ or ‘running horse’. When James I (1603-25) was on the throne, race meetings were established near Richmond (Yorkshire), Croydon and on the Enfield Chase. In addition to building a hunting lodge at Newmarket in Suffolk, he was responsible for the first grandstand on Newmarket Heath.
     Charles I (1625-49) put up the prize money for the first Gold Cup race at Newmarket in 1634 and annual races have been held there since 1667. Racing was banned in 1654 and 1655 by Oliver Cromwell, but was re-established by Charles II (1660-85), who increased both the number of races and the prize money. He took part himself and also instituted rules and guidelines for the running of races. Epsom Racecourse came into being during his reign, although it was not until 1780 that the Epsom Derby was first run.
     During her reign (1702-14), Queen Anne and her consort Prince George of Denmark imported Arabian horses to improve their racehorses, leading to the development of the English Thoroughbred as a breed. In 1711, she inaugurated races at Ascot, which is still home to the Royal Ascot meeting in the summer, and held regular race meetings on heathland near Windsor Forest.
     In 1728, George II was a spectator at Newmarket races, where ‘nothing was spared to make them successful’, while George III regularly attended race meetings at Egham and Ascot. The Prince Regent, later George IV, was a superb horseman who adored all forms of equestrian sport.
     Private race ‘matches’ were held by gentlemen and there were even races for ladies only. In 1723, the first race for female jockeys was held in Ripon, making that town the subject of national interest. A Racing Directory was being issued by 1727 and in 1752, the Jockey Club was established at Newmarket by the foremost gentlemen of the day, evolving from the Red Lion Inn (probably) to a private coffee room. With the addition of the New Rooms, it has remained the Jockey Club Rooms ever since. From 1750 they had also convened at the Star and Garter in Pall Mall.
     Rules were set out to govern and regulate courses, races, breeding and licensing. Richard Tattersall started Tattersall’s horse sales in 1766 and in 1773, James Weatherby was appointed Keeper of the Match Book, in which was noted all course records. The introductory General Stud Book was first published in 1791, the first volume of which was then issued by Weatherby’s in 1808. Jockey Club stewards were required to attend every race meeting.
     Prior to 1744, most horses entered for races were five years old or over, but in that year a contest for four-year-olds began and in 1756, two races were established for three-year-olds, followed by one at Newmarket for two-year-olds in 1786. The five British Classic races are still considered the most prestigious prizes in racing today. The world’s oldest Classic race – the St. Leger – came into being at Doncaster in 1778. The Oaks was introduced for three-year-old fillies by the Earl of Derby at Epsom in 1779, with the Derby’s first running, over a mile, the following year. The 2000 Guineas was inaugurated at Newmarket in 1809 and the 1000 Guineas came into being at the same course in 1814.
     In the early days, and even into the 1800s, races were run in a series of heats. The winner was the horse that won most heats and sometimes this amounted to as many as four over a four mile distance. Before the ascension of the Thoroughbred, horses were untrained and bred for stamina rather than speed and the jockeys more skilled in nefarious tactics such as jostling rivals or attempting to ‘unship’ them than in equestrian dexterity. Many of the horses were owner-ridden.
     Traditionally, Assize week was the time for the races, when the market towns were filled with the gentry in order to attend the courts and markets. A festival atmosphere prevailed, with hangings, cock fights, fairs and other entertainments. The local landowners would follow an afternoon at the races with a ball in the evening.

County Cork in Ireland was the site of one of the first recorded steeplechases, which took place in 1752. Cornelius O’Callaghan and Edmund Blake competed against each other on their respective hunters, over the four and a half mile distance between Buttevant Church and the St. Leger Steeple. Blake won and was presented with ‘a hogshead of claret, a pipe of port and a quarter cask of Jamaica rum’. It was the ‘steeple to steeple’ nature of the contest which led to the sobriquet ‘steeplechasing’. Other hunting gentlemen indulged in ‘wild goose chases’ across country, in which one rider led the way, while his pursuers had to follow the same line, yet try to catch the leader.
     The first such recorded event with more than two starters was in 1792. Charles Meynell beat Lord Forester and Sir Gilbert Heathcote in a gallop over eight miles of Leicestershire countryside, from Barkby Holt to Billesdon Coplow and back. However, the first official steeplechase did not occur until 1830, at St. Albans.