28 Apr 2023

The sport of kings

Image: Epsom Grand Stand - The Winner Of The Derby Race, James Pollard, 1908

This year the Flat Racing season kicks off on 29th April with the Afternoon Racing event
at Haydock Park in Merseyside. The main British flat races are run in the summer,
between May and October. There is a great deal of money and international reputation
involved, and many English meetings feature prominently on the global equestrian
calendar. There are 59 racecourses in the UK and a further 26 in Ireland, and the most
glamorous of race meetings, Ascot, regularly attracts crowds in excess of 70,000

Horse-racing in Britain dates to the reign of James I in the 17th century when members
of the court helped to establish Newmarket as the home of organised racing in Britain.
James I purchased what is now the Rutland Arms in Newmarket High Street and built
the first royal palace in the town. The royal association with Newmarket continued into
the reign of Charles II – the Rowley Mile was named after his favourite hack, ‘Old

With the import of Arab stallions, the breeding of racehorses began to develop. By the
middle of the 18th century, with the formation of the Jockey Club, horseracing became
the first regulated sport in Britain. It was not long before the Classics races, which pitted
3-year-old horses at the peak of their fitness over shorter distances, were established:
the St Leger, the Oaks and the Derby were all founded between 1776 and 1780.
Horse-racing became increasingly popular throughout the 19th century, especially
following the advent of steam trains, which made racetracks widely accessible to the
general public. Leading newspapers began to give horseracing coverage and betting on
races became a popular pastime. On-course bookmakers arrived to facilitate betting – it
was not until 1961 that betting away from the racecourse was legalised.
With the emergence of television coverage in the 1950s and 1960s the sport became
even more popular and today annual attendance at British horse-racing events exceeds
6 million. At least £10 billion is bet on racing each year.

Horses start flat racing as two‐year‐olds. The shortest races are sprints run over five
furlongs (there are eight furlongs to a mile). The longest flat races are run over staying
distances between a mile-and-three-quarters to two-and-a-half miles.
The five Classic races are the Newmarket 2,000 and 1,000 Guineas Stakes, the Epsom
Oaks and Derby and the Doncaster St Leger, while Royal Ascot is the pinnacle of the
flat racing season. These are prestigious races in their own right, but also landmarks of
the social season. Attended by royalty, the racing aristocracy and celebrities, they are
opportunities to see and be seen. The emphasis is on smart clothes, flamboyant hats,
champagne and picnic hampers.

Horse Racing Etiquette

Stylish Dressing

The Jockey Club was in the news earlier in 2023 when it announced that formal dress
codes at its 15 racecourses would no longer be in place, in a bid to make racing more
inclusive and accessible. But even if there is no formal dress code, many racegoers will
still enjoy dressing up – a day at the races is a special occasion and smart dress
reflects this. Men may opt to wear a suit, or jacket, in both cases with a tie.
Ladies can choose a smart dress and jacket, trouser suits, or tailored trousers teamed
with a smart top. Remember a day at the races can be quiet tiring with a lot of standing
around – toe-pinching stilettos might not be the best choice.
Summer race meetings can be quite chilly so bring a smart pashmina or jacket to avoid
goose pimples.

• Hats Off!

An ideal choice for gentlemen racegoers is the panama hat – particularly stylish with a
linen suit. Wear it low over the brow, with a slight tilt.

Race meetings are an occasion when ladies can wear all kinds of extravagant hats and
fascinators. Ladies’ Days at race meetings are an opportunity for women to dress up
and sport a flamboyant hat (just remember it is notoriously difficult to socially kiss while
wearing a wide-brimmed hat, so should probably be avoided).

If you’ve chosen an extravagant creation, spare a thought for your fellow race-goers –
an elaborate hat might block their view of the action.

• The Knowledge

Backing one or two horses to place will, in the long run, not offer you the same returns
as betting on three or four horses to win. Avoid outsiders – those 100/1 odds may seem
attractive, but there’s a reason why your horse isn’t fancied. Do remember, however,
that if the going is heavy, form generally means nothing – an outsider can be worth a
Study the form guides and look for a horse that has improved gradually. Listen to betting
shop and trackside chatter and keep an eye on any horse that is being well backed.

• Have a Flutter

If you can’t afford to lose the money, don’t bet. Take a punt but moderate any excessive
reactions. If you’ve staked your money on a loser, don’t sulk or give way to petulance or
moodiness. Accept your loss with equanimity and move on.

Don’t gloat. If you’re a lucky winner, you can enjoy a quiet sense of satisfaction – but
don’t get too over-excited – you’ll only make other, less lucky punters, feel even more

• Track-side etiquette

Of course, you will find the race exciting (especially if you’ve backed a real contender)
but keep loud shouting or excited screaming to the minimum – especially if you’re very
close to other people. Be careful to avoid blocking others’ views of the track.
After the race, there’ll be a large crowd of people gathering around the bookies to
collect their winnings – wait patiently in line. If the queue looks too big, you can always
come back later.

• Pace Yourself

It’s a long afternoon, so break up your forays to the racetrack, the winning post or the
winner’s enclosure with a chance to sit down, relax and enjoy the refreshments on offer.
Remember, several hours of drinking on a summer’s afternoon can be highly
intoxicating so make sure you drink plenty of water.

• Gracious Host

If you’re in charge of a racing party ensure that everyone is comfortable, is well supplied
with form guides and drinks, and can sit down when they need to.
If you’re somebody’s guest, remember your manners, go with the flow and don’t forget
that all-important thank-you letter afterwards.


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