I am not a gambler by nature but I have to admit that I enjoy attending the occasional horse race meeting.
The colour, the excitement, the overall atmosphere and, particularly, the sight of finely tuned thoroughbred horses rippling with muscle and ready for the chase, can be quite intoxicating.
My knowledge of ‘the sport of kings’ was somewhat limited but I was always aware that the Suffolk town of Newmarket was known as ‘the home of horseracing’.
When we received an invitation to visit the town to learn more, it was readily accepted.
The four star Bedford Lodge Hotel provided an ideal venue for our overnight stay. It was originally a Georgian hunting lodge built for the Duke of Bedford in the 18th century and was converted into a hotel in the 1940s.
Today, Bedford Lodge Hotel retains the charm and character of a country house yet offers the very best in modern comfort and luxury. It boasts 77 beautifully appointed bedrooms, a fantastic Spa and a reputation for excellent dining. Surrounded by some of the most famous stables in the world, it is only a short walk to the centre of the historic town of Newmarket.
Our hosts had organised a private tour of The Jockey Club Rooms.
In 1752 The Jockey Club leased a plot of land in Newmarket where a Coffee House was constructed as a meeting place for the Club's members. When the lease expired, The Jockey Club bought the freehold.
Over the years the buildings have grown as the result of a series of additions to the original Coffee Room. In 1933 the front part of the premises was rebuilt to a design by Sir Albert Richardson. When the back quarters were gutted by fire, the buildings were reconstructed, again to a design by Sir Albert, and the arrangement of rooms and attractive High Street frontage comprises The Jockey Club Rooms today.
Surrounded by millions of pounds worth of horse racing related paintings, donated to the club by members over the years, our guide explained the role that Newmarket had played in the development of the sport.
The Royal connection was particularly important from James I, who built the first grandstand on Newmarket Heath, Charles I, who was in residence here when the English Civil War became an inevitability, and, in particular, Charles II. During his reign the entire court would relocate to Newmarket twice a year. The ‘Merry Monarch’ was able to indulge his passions for horse breeding, horse racing and his dalliances with the opposite sex - most notably with his mistress Nell Gwyn - away from prying eyes.
What remains of his royal palace, Palace House, can still be found in the town today.
It was Charles II who did more than any other monarch to advance the sport of horseracing in this country. He instituted, by Act of Parliament in 1665, the first race to be run in Britain under written rules and exported the name of Newmarket and the sport of horseracing to America that same year.
All modern Thoroughbreds trace back to three stallions imported into England from the Middle East in the late 17th and early 18th centuries: the Byerley Turk (1680s), the Darley Arabian (1704), and the Godolphin Arabian (1729)
Today, The Jockey Club Rooms are open to visiting groups enabling them to enjoy excellent accommodation, superb food and service, all part of a truly five star experience.
Newmarket has over 50 horse training stables, two large racetracks and some of the most extensive horse training gallops in the world. With over 3,000 thoroughbreds in training at any one time, the town, and surrounding area, is one of the few places in the world where horses enjoy precedence over all traffic.
A visit to the town is not complete without a tour of one of the racing stables and the famous gallops.
We were exceptionally lucky to be able to visit the historic Bedford House Stables owned by Luca Cumani, one of British racing's leading trainers. His wife Sara provided the guided tour of the facility explaining the training operation and showing us some of the state-of-the-art facilities that have enabled the stables to become, and remain, one of the most respected in European racing.
Afterwards Luca welcomed us to the gallops to see 100 or so of his string of racehorses being put through their paces.
Well worth the 6.00am start!
Sadly, there was not enough time for us to visit the world famous National Stud or the Museum of House Racing or sample a day at the races (it was a non-race day when we were there) but we will returning soon to enjoy all these facilities.
Newmarket provides a unique visitor experience.
Visitors don’t need to be followers of horseracing to be impressed by the attractions available. To do justice to those in the town, and the many historic destinations close by, will require more than a one night stay.
Ambient Tours offer a personalised fully hosted package for groups of 20/30 people. This is based on a day night stay at the Bedford Lodge Hotel with guided tours of the main attractions.