Jockeying for Sport

September 24, 2009

From the Populous Magazine archive: Issue 01, 2009

Horse racing is one of those sports with the capacity to reach beyond its core fan base and become part of a nation ’s very culture. These 10 global meetings, chosen by Financial Times journalist Colin Cameron, have all managed to do that.

Horse racing is a truly global sport. Few developed countries don’t race. Not many developing nations, either. Yet racing everywhere has unique qualities.

No domain can be considered the same. Even concepts like the Triple Crown (a series of three championship races over a range of distances contested by three-year-old horses which exists in many racing nations) are not homogenous. In the US, for example, the sequence runs for five weeks, beginning with the Kentucky Derby in May. Runners never race over more than a mile than anything you find stateside.

Confused? Instead of common themes in the sport – of which, incidentally, there are also many – it’s better instead to savour the differences. From the Grand National, in Britain, with its 30 fences and four-plus miles, to five-furlong sprints, the variety in racing is no less remarkable than the Thoroughbreds themselves.


The Grand National

Aintree Racecourse

Liverpool, UK

The world’s greatest steeplechase, part cavalry charge, part equine marathon, testing man and horse over a unique set of obstacles and two circuits of a left-handed track. Over four and a half miles, fields of 40 face fences like The Chair, Becher’s Brook and Canal Turn. Local Liverpudlians make up the bulk of a 65,000 crowd with the rest of Britain gambling £100 million-plus on the race that has spawned Hollywood feature films such as National Velvet.

Gold Cup Day at Ascot, also known as Ladies’ Day, attracts a crowd of 70,000.

Kentucky Derby

Churchill Downs Racecourse

Kentucky, USA

The Run for the Roses. America’s most important race takes place in the Bluegrass state, famous as the heart of the US bloodstock industry. A crowd of over 100,000 spectators serenade and toast runners and riders with the anthem “My old Kentucky home” and Mint Juleps, respectively, before the field travels one and quarter miles on a dirt surface. The winner, finishing in front of Churchill Downs’ famous grandstand spires, claims the first leg of the US Triple Crown last scooped by the mighty Secretariat in 1973.


The Melbourne Cup

Flemington Racecourse

Melbourne, Australia

This is the race that stops a nation. Run on the first Tuesday in November and now into its third century, the Melbourne Cup is a Victoria State event with a national following.

Crowds arrive from breakfast time to make an all-day party of the afternoon while Australians everywhere join in with office sweepstakes. Horses compete over 3,200 metres. Prizemoney today tops AUS$5 million.

Phar Lap, Australasia’s most famous racehorse, won in 1930, while growing numbers of foreign-trained raiders were rewarded in 1993 with a first ever win for Ireland’s Vintage Crop.


Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe

Hippodrome de Longchamp

Paris, France

Longchamp, set in the Bois de Boulogne and over 150 years old, hosts this unofficial European championship. The Arc, as it’s known, attracts thousands of race-goers from both Britain and Ireland, as well as a sophisticated Parisian set. The winner usually parades in front of packed stands before passing through a tunnel to reach a paddock. This then doubles up as a winner’s enclosure where vocal tributes in all of Europe’s many tongues, together salute laps of honour.

  • Kentucky Derby

Breeders’ Cup Classic

Various racecourses across the USA including Belmont Park and Santa Anita Park

The Breeders’ Cup is the official world championships of racing, with the Classic over 2,000 metres the pinnacle of a day’s high-quality international racing. The now two-day event, which began in 1984, rotates around the premier tracks of America – and Canada – with West and East Coast crowds reflecting local traits and customs.

The Classic, with a purse in 2008 of US$5 million, is run on dirt and the winner is usually acclaimed as America’s Horse of the Year. Conditions favour the home nation so European winners – the British Raven’s Pass in 2008, for example – are relished by visitors.


The Epsom Derby

Epsom Downs Racecourse

Epsom, UK

The cornerstone of English racing’s summer is now well over 200 years old. Formerly run on the first Wednesday in June – the Houses of Parliament would adjourn so that members could attend – the Derby today is on the first Saturday of that month. From the morning coats and top hats in the Queen’s Stand to those on Tattenham Corner, it’s a day out to celebrate the mother country’s finest single race day. The field races uphill, then left before a downhill home straight with steep right-to-left camber. Having negotiated such a challenge, the winner instantly earns a potential stallion career and sterling valuation into eight figures.


The Ascot Gold Cup

Ascot Racecourse

Ascot, UK

This is the centrepiece of Royal Ascot, the world’s best-known race meeting now over 250 years old, and immortalised in the film My Fair Lady. Over five days, the great and the good, along with the not-so-good, descend to the Queen’s own racecourse. Gold Cup Day, also known as Ladies’ Day, is Thursday and attracts a crowd of 70,000. The Gold Cup itself is over two and a half miles, providing a unique test of stamina. The 2009 winner, Yeats, was successful for a fourth time – a unique feat.

The Dubai World Cup

Nad Al Sheba Racecourse

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

This is the world’s richest horse race with a purse of US$6 million. First run in 1996, it was the creation of the Maktoum ruling royal family. The event, on a dirt surface over 2,000 metres, is the high point of the Dubai Spring Carnival, which draws outsiders to join local expats and watch top-quality runners from America, South Africa, Europe and Australia. In 2010 the race moves to Meydan Racecourse.


The Japan Cup

Tokyo Racecourse

Fuchu, Japan

The first Japan Cup was run fairly recently (in 1981), yet the race is today well established as the premier Asian event in the sport.

By invitation only, its growing reputation reflects the importance of Japan to world bloodstock. A mix of local and overseas-trained runners compete over a mile and a half for a first prize exceeding 250 million Yen. Support for home runners verges on fanatical with badges and scarves the fashion, while runners from France, Britain, Australia and America have all been successful.


Gran Premio Asociaci ón Latinoamericana de Jockey Clubes e Hipódromos

Racecourses throughout

South America

This is South America’s most important multinational horserace. Like the Breeders’ Cup, it rotates racecourses throughout the continent. The most recent running in 2008 was in Brazil. A purse of US$250,000 reflects the relatively low world ranking of South American horse racing, but success in the 2,000-metre event, on grass, is considered important internationally and can be a springboard to a racing career in North America.

  • The Ascot Gold Cup

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