England can truly be said to be the home of horse racing, as almost every historic racing meet that is still in business today just so happens to be located somewhere within the country. You can find ancient racecourses all around the world, that is indisputable, but as for ancient race meets? The UK has this on lock.
Just think about historic racing events and you are almost certain to think of meets such as the Grand National and Cheltenham Gold Cup; horse racing in UK goes back even further than you would imagine. There are records of race meets taking place at those locations as far back as 1174 – no other country can boast such a heritage. Let’s check out the oldest races that are still being ran today in the modern era:
Epsom Derby Officially named “The Derby Stakes”, the Epsom Derby has been running continuously since 1780. That’s 242 years of an event that is often shortened to simply “The Derby”, such is the popularity and widespread knowledge of this famous horse racing meet. Interestingly, the event could have been named the Charles Banbury Derby, who was the 12th Earl of Derby and was on-site to watch the first-ever run. Legend has it that the final decision could have been made by means of a simple coin toss!
Epsom Oaks Also based near the Southern town of Epsom in leafy Surrey, not far outside of the hustle and bustle of the capital of London, the Epsom Oaks meet was first run in 1779 – one year before the Epsom Derby. The course at Epsom Oaks ran over one mile, four furlongs, and six yards, but its structure and competition-enhancing layout have gone on to inspire similar courses such as the Preis der Diana in Germany and the Prix de Diane in France.
Doncaster Cup Moving up North now, the Doncaster Cup may well have been running since as far back as 1595. Back then, Chester was the most popular racecourse in England, though maps created at the time also show a second course located not far away from Chester. This suggests that Doncaster was already active at the time the map was drawn up. There is some contention over the issue, but Doncaster claims to be the oldest regulated horse race in the world.
The first officially documented meet was run in 1776 and was known as the “Doncaster Gold Cup” at that time. This was roughly a decade before the St. Leger meet began official operation (see later in this article) . St. Leger did not have their own course at the time, so ran their races at Doncaster instead. This shows just how important this track was to the horse racing sport.
Today, the Doncaster Cup forms part of the Stayer’s Triple Crown alongside Ascot’s Gold Cup and the Goodwood Cup.
Carlisle Bell Head a little North-East from Doncaster and you’ll find yourself entering one of the most picturesque areas of the British Isles, commonly known as the Lake District. This area is home to all kinds of horse-related events, including the world-famous Appleby Fair. Records still exist which prove the Carlisle Bell has been running since 1599, and the bell part? This refers to the “trophy” which was presented to the winner of the meet. These bells
are believed to be the oldest prize in horse racing and can fetch outrageous amounts whenever one comes up for auction.
A journal from the 17th century mentions that a large number of bells were thought to have been stolen before eventually being found tucked away in a box in the town clerk’s office nearly 200 years later. You have to wonder – do they not clean these offices once a decade? Once a century? The mind boggles.
Whilst some of the other potential “oldest meets” are marred in controversy and debate, the Kiplingcotes Derby stands head and shoulders above all of them thanks to its verified, indisputable documentation which proves that horse racing meets took place here as far back as 1519. Kiplingcotes is located in Yorkshire, just 50 miles or so North of Doncaster and close to the cities of Bradford, Leeds, and York.
The course held a 500th anniversary celebration day in 2019, but what is the secret to its longevity? It all comes down to the quirkiness of the course. Kiplingcotes ran over four miles comprising farm tracks and fields. Horses of any age are permitted to take part as long as they exceed the minimum weight of ten stones.
A strange rule dictates that if the race is not run every year, it must never take place again. Exceptions have been made twice due to the foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001 and a waterlogged course in 2018, but apart from this, Kiplingcotes has run every year for more than half a century.