Newmarket, England: Trainer Sir Mark Prescott’s stable yard at dusk is a contrasting color scheme of green, orange, and white. Green stable doors with a cheerful orange light emanating from each stall. White trimming around the doors with red bricks filling the space between each one. The wrap-around building of the main yard encapsulates a hedge-lined grazing area. Orange cones line the grass on the outside of the hedges, preventing it from being trod on and left with divots.
One of the horses likely to have grazed in the space between the hedges was the turf sprinting filly Marsha. Most U.S. readers will recall the name from her narrow defeat of American pride and joy, Lady Aurelia, in the 2017 Group 1 Nunthorpe at York.
As Prescott explained to my Godolphin Flying Start group throughout our tour of the facility in December 2018, this place was constructed with a horse’s brain in mind. On the yearling side, each stall has a black rubber guard on either side of the entrance so developing youngsters do not bump their hips walking in. One stall, designated for anxious horses and tucked out of sight from the yard, contains a goat box for introducing a horse to his or her new buddy. Prescott explained the height of walls and shape of pathways, how they please equine psychology and encourage them to follow without hesitation. His indoor track is a beach sand mixed with ground sea shells. The practice starting gate stall is designed to be narrowed incrementally. That way a horse is not intimidated by immediately walking into a constrictive space.
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The indoor track opens up to Warren Hill, a 4 ½ furlong grass gallop that gradually climbs uphill. This is one of many gallops cared for by The Jockey Club Estates, which oversees 2500 acres of training grounds, 50 miles of turf gallops and 14 miles of artificial tracks. Prescott’s yard was built around the horse, but so was essentially all of Newmarket – the motherland of horse racing. Training on the Heath, the land surrounding Newmarket, dates back over 400 years. Racing greats have lengthened their strides and toned strong backs and hindquarters over these grounds, including Enable and Frankel, and legends of centuries past such as Eclipse.
As a child, my mother doodled pictures of the Godolphin Arabian, illustrated on the front cover of her Marguerite Henry classic, “King of the Wind.” This fictional rendition of the breed pillar is one of the books I grew up with. I read it over and over again, admiring the devotion of young character Agba to the horse Sham. The penultimate chapter starts like this: “Newmarket! The word set Agba on fire. Since first he had come to England he had heard horseshoers, jockeys, water boys, exercise men, saddlers, capmakers, whipmakers, the Earl, and even the Duchess say the word as if it held ice and flame in its syllables.”
These images reignited in my mind when I visited the grave of the legendary Godolphin Arabian in Cambridgeshire, a short drive from Newmarket. A humble slab of concrete surrounded by chains, the memorial is nestled under the stable block of Wandlebury House in the Gog Magog Hills.
Most of us who love racing have a special place that emits a nostalgic squeeze. It comes from memories of sunrises and fog and the resonating of galloping hooves. Perhaps it’s Saratoga, or a track few have ever heard of. When my fellow trainee Issy Paul talks about Newmarket, she smiles and her face lights up as she recounts riding up the gallops or along the streets back to trainer David Simcock’s yard, where she worked.
“I think it’s the scope and depth of the history in Newmarket that’s so incredible,” Issy told me, trying to sum up her sentiments about the place. “When you work in Newmarket, you’re part of that every day, working with and around the best racehorses in the world and on the Heath at the same time with them. The history of the yards, and even the history of some of the gallops like the Golden Mile is so impressive. It’s a hard thing to explain.”
Hard to explain, but we all know the feeling.