Sheikh Fahad Al Thani will have the former Great Britain international showjumper, Tim Gredley, among his rivals when he defends his crown in the world’s oldest surviving race, the Newmarket Town Plate, at the Adnams July Course in Newmarket on Thursday (13th July).
Instigated in 1665, the Town Plate will come under starter’s orders at 12.50pm and mark the beginning of the annual three-day Moët & Chandon July Festival.
It is run over a stamina-sapping three-and-three-quarter mile course, much of which is only used for this single race each year but ending on the same home straight (and in front of the same packed grandstands) as the Darley July Cup.
It is by far the longest flat race staged on a British racecourse - a full mile further than the second longest, the Queen Alexandra Stakes at Royal Ascot.
Once one of the most prestigious races in the land, the Town Plate is now a glorious eccentricity. A contest for true amateurs, in recent years it has been won by both an accountant and a neurosurgeon, and alongside Sheikh Fahad, who is a member of the Qatari royal family, this year’s riders include a dentist, an ambulance driver, a bookmaker and a full-time mum.
The winning jockey gets nothing more than a Perpetual Challenge Plate, a silver photo frame, a voucher from the Newmarket High Street clothes shop, Goldings, and a box of Powters Celebrated Newmarket Sausages.
However, because in 2016 Newmarket was marking its 350th anniversary as the Home Of Horseracing, for winning last year’s race Sheikh Fahad was also given a specially commissioned copy of the King Charles II Challenge Whip.
Aged 28, Sheikh Fahad is a major investor in British racing as an owner and breeder, as well as through his family company, QIPCO, sponsors of both the British Champions Series and the two Newmarket Classics, the 1000 and 2000 Guineas. He only started riding in 2015 and has since taken part in a number of charity races as well as the world’s longest race, the Mongol Derby.
A resident of the village of Stetchworth, just outside Newmarket, 31-year-old Gredley retired from showjumping almost exactly a year ago having represented Britain at the 2008 World Equestrian Games in Aachen. His riding involvement is now restricted to Point-To-Point Racing, under which code he rode his first four winners last season.
A video has been put together to tell the story of the race, including interviews with some of this year’s riders. To watch, please visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CpFgz6Y1sZo
Sheikh Fahad, rider of Almagest in the Newmarket Town Plate, said:
“To win the Town Plate at Newmarket, on the opening day of the July Festival marking the 350th anniversary of racing there was very special, something I will never forget. It was a great honour and a thrill. It was also my first experience of winning a race and it is hard to put into words how that feels, it’s a combination of relief and elation.”
“The horse I rode, Almagest, all he does is gallop and stay and I was focussed on staying in a rhythm and getting the best placing possible, which looked like being second for much of the way, so far ahead was the leader. But then we began to reduce his advantage and in the closing stages I was quite confident we would get there.”
“I got a great reception back in the weighing room, which was very nice. Riding out and riding in races has given me an insight which I obviously never had before and I think jockeys appreciate that. I now see things more from their perspective.'
“I am riding Almagest again. He has been trained for the race and obviously he gave me a great ride last year but he needs every inch of three and three-quarter miles, if not further. We will give it our best shot.”
Tim Gredley, rider of Bivouac in the Newmarket Town Plate, said:
“I am very excited about taking part in the Newmarket Town Plate. I have been going to the July Course ever since I was a kid so to get to ride on the same track as the July Cup is great.”
“It’s completely different to showjumping, a lot more physically demanding, and I certainly still get nervous – I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t. There may not be any jumps in the way on Thursday but there are still plenty of things that can go wrong.”
“Comparing the two sports is like comparing chalk and cheese. Since I have been riding out thoroughbreds I have started using muscles that I never realised I had before.”
“The riding position for racing is much higher in the saddle so every other week I have been putting my stirrups up a peg, which really helps with your balance. Showjumping is all about precision whereas everything happens much quicker in racing.”
“I gave up showjumping because I was getting heavily involved in the family business and it was simply taking up too much time. But now I can ride out with trainer James Owen in Exning in the morning and still be at my desk by 9.00am.”
“My mount is a horse called Bivouac, who used to be with the National Hunt trainer, Nicky Henderson. I bought him to go point-to-pointing and hunter chasing but he seemed perfect for this race too.”
“Looking at replays of some of his races, he looks like he could stay further than three miles but this is almost four miles and a bit of a one-off. But as long as we go a sensible pace I hope he will be fine.”
“I had the chance to walk the course a few days ago and it’s in fantastic shape, which is amazing given that it’s only used for this one race a year so ‘Hats Off’ to the guys responsible for that.”