For visitors to Newmarket in the spring there is no finer sight than watching the blueboods of the turf going about their daily routines whether it be galloping or cantering or even just watching horses meander their way home after exercise on the horsewalks in a unique town where the thoroughbred reigns supreme, writes Tony Elves.
With over 50 miles of gallops on the Bury Road Side and Racecourse Side of town the ins and out of the Heath take plenty of knowing and for the uninitiated it can prove a minefield just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Traditionally, the racing year really started for Newmarket trainers when the stable doors were flung open on February 1 and the turf canters on Warren Hill, weather permitting, were used for the first time. The bucking and the kicking from the freshest of horses who had been accustomed to the indoor rides was there for all to see and in many cases necessitated the use of sedalin or similar calming medication to keep the lid on a hot head.
As long as no rider or horses suffered injury, the opening day could be almost comical with some of the really headstrong individual carting off their riders in all directions and there would be plenty of resultant jibes from fellow stable members but the horses soon settled into their routine.
Nowadays there are two polytrack canters which are used throughout the year with the far one usually providing a deeper surface.
The bottom of Warren Hill is in close proximity to Sir Mark Prescott’s Heath House Stables and John Ryan’s Cadland Stables and in those early February mornings the wait to get onto the canters could be more akin to traffic on the M25.
The usual routine for trainers would be to give horses one canter on a Monday, two canters on a Tuesday and then gallop on Wednesday and then repeat the sequence on Thursday, Friday and Saturday with Sunday the chosen day of rest and also giving the opportunity for owners to come and see their pride and joy in the tranquillity of the stable yard.
Before the arrival of the All-Weather surfaces, the first major step forward towards action on the turf and pre-Lincoln Handicap at Doncaster was the use of the Waterhall gallop which entailed a long walk across town to stretch of turf not far from the Boy’s Grave on the road out to Kentford on the outskirts of the town.
That gallop is used more infrequently nowadays and those on the Bury Side of town have the agreeable option of using the Al Bahathri polytrack (9f) which runs parallel to a stretch of ground known as Railway Land. On the Racecourse Side of town there is a similar stretch named the Cambridge Road polytrack (11f) where horses can gallop.
The weather is instrumental in deciding which gallops were open but, in a usual spring when the ground still held plenty of moisture the Across-the-Flat gallop on Racecourse Side (running virtually parallel to the Rowley Mile racecourse) was the favoured spot for most trainers with its opening three weeks before the start of the Flat season.
Many a swan has opened its wings on the easily negotiable four and half furlongs of the Warren Hill canters but the late great work watcher George Robinson passed on some lasting titbits of his vast knowledge many eons ago when telling an exuberant youth to not carried away by a horse’s performance until it had passed the acid test of the Racecourse Side gallop.
Some of those that had resembled Pegasus were like a punch drunk boxer when their merits were tested to the full in examinations that were held on the Across-The-Flat gallop prior to the Craven meeting at Newmarket and the spring meeting at Newbury.
From there on in it was a fairly smooth transition with a couple of weeks to the Guineas and with it the ground starting to dry out. In Newmarket, this was a particularly exciting time as every trainer waited for bated breath for the opening of the Limekilns possibly the most famous gallops in the world.
With the sun rising early there is a desire by several trainers to be the first to use the beautiful velveteen turf that is situated between the roads leading out to Norwich on one side and the road to Bury St Edmunds on the other just past the sets of traffic lights at the end of the Bury Road.
Back in his heyday, Clive Brittain was always renowned to be the first up this or any other gallop as he turned up in half light or near darkness from Carlburg Stables (now Varian Stable) and the reflector jackets that are used in abundance are very much a familiar sight any morning.
The Long and Short gallop in the Limekilns come under the general provision of the Heath Tax which is imposed on all trainers in the town but flanked on either side is the “Golden Mile” and Round gallop which currently incurs an additional charge of £47.30 plus VAT per horse).
Similarly on Racecourse Side when the ground dries out Jockey Club Estates provide the aptly named “Watered gallop” which costs £25 plus VAT for every horse and also runs parallel to the Rowley Mile Racecourse.
The Golden Mile runs parallel to the road out to Norwich and is made up of peat moss and the commencement of the Round Gallop is virtually at the point where the horse jumps off onto the aforementioned and goes into a right-handed dog leg and sweeps up the far side of the Limekilns adjacent to the road out to Bury St Edmunds.
As a rule of thumb these gallops would open in April and carry on through the season depending on weather conditions with a switch to Long Hill (left of Warren Hill on the Moulton Road) should the Summer rains arrive.
The Limekilns attract all sorts of visitors as the weather is starting to warming up around this time and Her Majesty, The Queen, Sir Alex Ferguson, Michael Holding, Steve Harley (Cockney Rebel), Liz Hurley, Lester Piggott and former PM David Cameron are just a handful of famous visitors that have been sighted on the gallop.
This is when the finishing touches for the Guineas are made and the contenders for the Derby and Oaks emerge and on rare occasions the Round gallop is allowed to be used in reverse (left handed) with the horses finishing their work on the Golden Mile.
On even rarer occasions and, only seen a couple of times in my lifetime, the trainers adopt the practice of “twicing” where a Derby contender is sent on his way with a six or seven furlong lead horse and then another stablemate jumps into the gallop at some stage to make it a true test.
The answers to several of the Classics have been found on this stretch and one of the most memorable was watching Commander In Chief powering on from the older Group winner Allegan whilst the rest of the press corps were firmly focused on his short-priced stablemate Tenby.
After the action has taken place there is invariably the discussion between trainer, jockey, work rider and owner as to how the gallop went and even the unveiling of potential plans for a horse once decisions have been made.
Right now not all sinews are being tested on around 3,000 racehorses that are stabled in the town but by necessity that highly strung individuals have to exercise at a time when most would be preparing to make their seasonal debuts on the turf.
The current coronavirus ensures that no gathering are made in any venues but hopefully when the all clear is given and racing resumes then a visit to Newmarket’s gallops for enthusiasts is warmly recommended with the proviso that any spectator remains at least 27 metres away from any horses being sent up either the canters or the gallops.