Her Majesty the Queen’s horses were her pride and joy, and her interest in racing was no state secret. Indeed, generation after generation, the Royal Family has shared a profound passion for horses. Join us on a ride through Britain’s equestrian scene.
Words by Kristel Richard
|Horse racing: Sport of Kings? Most certainly Sport of Queens. If you need evidence, enquire about Her Majesty’s engagements every third week of June during her reign. Her diary would have shown one major entry, Royal Ascot. In 1945, she was a young princess when she first attended this iconic event in the racing and social calendar and, since then, as Queen she never failed to open each day of the meeting, arriving along the track in a fine horse-drawn carriage.|
From the comfort of her landau, this unusual race fan was said to be able to gauge the going simply by listening to the sound made by the hooves of her harness horses as they hit the ground. No doubt, then, that, for the most celebrated guest in the Royal Enclosure, trendy Royal Ascot offers more than a feast of eye-catching hats and impeccable dresses. At times, Her Majesty’s regal composure barely contained her enthusiasm for the battles unfolding at her feet.
As a keen thoroughbred owner, she often had a stake in these contests and was probably anxious to check her own runner’s prowess on the course. She had every reason to be hopeful, as 20 times her horses proved their superiority at Ascot.
Top hats were raised high to salute her first win when Choir Boy, a 100-to-six shot, took the Royal Hunt Cup in 1953. Forgetting the strict etiquette, the chic punters last cheered when her two-year-old colt, Free Agent, stormed from last to first to land the Chesham Stakes in 2008. “I’ve done it,” are reported to be Her Majesty’s first words, as she was delighted to put an end to a ten-year low at the meeting. Maybe, she still aspired to repeat her past multiple successes when, in 1954, Landau won the Rous Memorial Stakes and Aureole won the Hardwicke Stakes, or when, in 1957, she had four winners during Ascot week.
|HM The Queen at the Windsor Horse Show|
Her Majesty’s binoculars never missed the equine chase at another quintessentially British event in the sporting agenda, the Derby, at Epsom. During this Classic race, a horse, when aged three, has got one chance and one chance only to win and that’s what makes the Derby so special. With a touch of sadness, Her Majesty must have remembered when Aureole passed round Tattenham Corner, thundered downhill, came close to enter history, but was left four lengths behind Pinza carried away by Sir Gordon Richards. That same year, 1953, Her Majesty made history…
Despite her intense schedule, The Queen always found time to enjoy her racing passion at various famous and less famous races throughout the country. Officially or in a private capacity, she delightsed in watching her horses running.
Very knowledgeable about horses and horse breeding, she closely monitored the progress of her current and future champions at the Royal Stud, at Hampton Court, and at the studs at Sandringham and Wolferton in Norfolk and Polhampton in Berkshire. At the moment, she has about 25 horses in training. John Warren, her well-regarded racing advisor and bloodstock manager, helped the young steeds defend The Queen’s colours (purple body with gold braid, scarlet sleeves and black velvet cap with gold fringe).
|The Derby at Epsom|
Who can blame Her Majesty for her dedication? She was not the first monarch to have caught the racing bug. According to the official website of the British monarchy, ‘Queen Victoria is said to have become so excited while watching a race at Ascot that she broke the window of the Royal box in a rush to see the finish’.
Graham Snelling, curator of the National Horseracing Museum, concurs, “The Stuarts were responsible for the development of Newmarket”, now home to the largest number of training yards and many key horse organisations in Britain. “James I loved the place for the facilities it afforded for hunting, hawking and had a royal palace built there. Charles I, despite his many difficulties, did his best to maintain the royal connection. It was Charles II who really made Newmarket a centre for horse racing. He loved the sport, rode in many races himself and founded the Royal Plates. In 1665, he instituted the Town Plate which in a different form is still competed for today.”
|King Charles II make Newmarket horse racing fashionable|
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II learned how to get the best from these fantastic animals at a young age and mounts, in particular, when in residence at Windsor. Notoriously, she rode every year during the Trooping of the Colour from 1947 until 1986. Her Majesty chose to be driven in a phaeton rather than training a new charger when Burmese retired after 17 years of good and loyal services. The faithful black mare was a gift from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police made in 1969 at the Royal Windsor Horse Show.
The Show, with over 3,000 horses and ponies present, remains one of the Royal Family’s favourite festivals. And they are not alone. In May or June, thousands head towards Windsor Horse Park to attend the first big outdoor equestrian Show of the season. On the Sunday afternoon, top show jumpers fight hard to win the Alltech Royal Windsor Grand Prix. And if that’s not thrilling enough, there is The Land Rover International Driving Grand Prix which put the drivers’ skills and the fitness of their horses to the test.
While driving competition had long been present in continental shows, it was not until 1969 that it was recognised internationally as a competitive sport, thanks to the perseverance of the then President of the FEI (the International authority for equestrian affairs), who was none other than the late The Duke of Edinburgh.
|Coaches at the Windsor Horse Show|
“Prince Philip has been Patron of the British Driving Society for over 40 years. The BDS is the national organisation responsible for harness horse driving in Britain. His involvement has helped to raise the profile of carriage driving both at home and abroad.” said John Parker, LHHI, Chairman of the British Driving Society.
He adds, “Prince Philip is a very experienced and enthusiastic Driver, and is well respected throughout the harness horse world for his skills and knowledge.” Since 1973, The Duke took the reins, deftly manoeuvring his team when representing Britain at several European and World championships. His Royal Highness got hooked (a polo term) to the sport he once qualified as ‘geriatric’ when he left polo, in 1970. He had fought each chukka with a great deal of energy at the Household Brigade Polo Club, a club he co-founded in 1955 at Smith’s Lawn in Windsor Great Park.
The hefty membership fee and long waiting list make it one of the most exclusive polo clubs in the world. Not a big issue for King Charles who quickly followed in his father’s stirrups. And it will surely come as no surprise that both Princes William and Harry share the same interest in this adrenaline-charged game as their illustrious predecessors.
|Arley Hall Horse Trials|
The Princess Royal is also a famous horsewoman with a long list of accolades attached to her name. In 1971, Princess Anne, competing as an individual in her only second Three-Day Event, became European Champion at Burghley and was declared BBC’s Sports Personality of The Year. Daughter Zara Philipps has certainly followed in her footsteps and in 2003, she came second at the prestigious Burghley Horse Trials, a competition previously won by both her parents. To mention Zara without citing her horse, Toytown, would be unfair. Together, they took gold medals at the 2005 European Eventing Championship in Blenheim and gold and silver medals at the 2006 World Equestrian Games in Germany, making her the reigning Eventing World Champion.
With the life of the Royal Family so intertwined with horses throughout the ages, one should be excused for wondering whether the symbol of the longevity of the Kingdom should not be a proud stallion, rather than a raven. Maybe, it’s time to start another legend.
|Finish of the 1833 Goodwood Cup by J F Herring Snr|
Further information about the history of horseracing: The National Horseracing Museum, Newmarket, Suffolk. www.nhrm.co.uk.
The British Horseracing Authority: events information and more at www.britishhorseracing.com.
THE ROYAL MEWS
- Adjacent to Buckingham Palace, the Royal Mews is a working stable, which houses the Royal family’s horse-drawn carriages and, as a concession to modern time, cars. Do not miss the Gold State Coach, an enclosed, eight horse-drawn carriage used at the coronation of every monarch since George IV. It last graced the streets of London during The Queen’s Golden Jubilee which took place in 2002. Members of the Royal Family, Heads of State, and other important visitors are transported in other carriages during official events.
- Among the 34 carriage horses who happily live at the Royal Mews, ten are Windsor Greys. They were thus named when they were kept in Windsor during Queen Victoria’s era. Windsor Greys traditionally draw Her Majesty’s carriage. The other horses are mainly Cleveland Bays, the only British breed of carriage horse, together with a few Dutch and Hungarian horses.
- Each horse is broken at Windsor, before learning its trade in the Royal Mews. Their career begins when they are four and spans about 15 years. When not transporting the Royal Family or a guest of honour, they follow a carefully orchestrated daily routine. Some of them start exercising as early as 7am, in hand or ridden. Others start at 8.30am, working with exercise brakes and carriages. In August and September, the horses are sent on vacation at Hampton Court where they can enjoy eating grass, away from the noise of the London traffic. If you want to see the horses, time your visit to the Royal Mews (Tel: (020) 7766 7302; www.royalcollection.org.uk) so they are not away on duty or on a break.
- Cheltenham Gold Cup, Gloucestershire. Each March. Grade One National Hunt race. Tel: (01242) 513014; www.thejockeyclub.co.uk/cheltenham
- Epsom Derby, Surrey. Each June. Group One flat horse race open to three-year-old colts and fillies. Tel: (01372) 726311; www.thejockeyclub.co.uk/epsomdowns
- Royal Ascot, Berkshire. Historic race meeting each June, founded by Queen Anne in 1711. Tel: 0870 727 1234; www.thejockeyclub.co.uk/ascot
- St Leger, Doncaster. Established in 1776, the St Leger, each September, is the oldest of Britain’s five Classics. Tel: (01302) 304200; www.doncaster-racecourse.co.uk
- The Grand National, Aintree. The world-famous National Hunt race each April. Tel: 0844 579 3001; www.thejockeyclub.co.uk/aintree
- For further event details: go to he British Horseracing Authority; www.britishhorseracing.com; and try www.horseracing.co.uk.
- Badminton Horse Trials, Badminton, Gloucestershire. Each May. Tel: (01454) 218272; www.badminton-horse.co.uk.
- Blenheim International Horse Trials, Woodstock, Oxon. Each September. â¨Tel: (01993) 813335; www.blenheim-horse.co.uk
- Burghley Horse Trials, Burghley House, Stamford Lincolnshire. Each September. Tel: (01780) 752131; www.burghley-horse.co.uk
- Gatcombe Park International Horse Trials, Stroud, Gloucestershire. Each August. Tel: 0843 208 7455; www.gatcombe-horse.co.uk
- Horse of the Year Show, NEC, Birmingham, West Midlands. Each October. â¨Tel: 0844 581 8282; www.hoys.co.uk
- Royal Windsor Horse Show, Windsor Castle, London. Each May. Tel: 0844 412 4631; www.royal-windsor-horse-show.co.uk
OWNING A HORSE
What do Dame Judi Dench, Elizabeth Hurley, Sir Alex Ferguson and Jodie Kidd all have in common? They all belong to a horse syndicate. Owning a horse isn’t only for the Royal Family and celebrities. You can purchase your own share in a racehorse and then reap the rewards when it has a good run. The British Horseracing Authority (www.britishhorseracing.com) has an extensive Owning and Breeding section on its website, to help with buying a horse, plus a Partnership Directory which has details of racing clubs such as Elite, and partnerships such as Highclere Thoroughbred Racing (www.highclereracing.co.uk), an ownership company, with syndicates made up of a maximum of 20 shares so that they remain highly exclusive. Shares start from £9,500. You can also visit the stables at Newmarket and Berkshire, join in special owner’s events â¨at Highclere Castle and have access to a box at Newbury. Racecourse.
Images: Badminton Horse Trials, Windsor Horse Show/Kit Houghton. National Museum of Horseracing, Newmarket – Finish of the 1833 Goodwood Cup by J F Herring Snr © courtesy of Jockey Club Estates.