One of my favourite race-meetings of the year takes place this week on Friday and Saturday, but you won’t find details of the runners and riders in any national newspaper.
Between five and ten thousand people descend on Hawick Moor on each day of the meeting, making it the busiest track to stage racing in Britain this weekend. Hundreds of those in attendance will arrive on horseback – most will be paying teenagers to hold on to their horses throughout the afternoon, while the riders go and socialise in the bars, place bets and enjoy the races.
If you ever wanted to know what Newmarket was like in the 17th Century, when racegoers attended on horseback and cantered alongside the runners, this is about as close as you’ll ever get. But this is no theme-park – the race-meeting that takes place as part of the Hawick Common Riding Festival is a serious affair. The racing is competitive, the betting is conducted with real money and most of the crowd enjoy the races as part of a long weekend that lasts for five days (taking nearly as long to recover).
Some of the races are restricted to individuals that have participated in the earlier ride-outs, day-long processions on horseback to the outer-limits of the town’s boundaries. The ride-outs are led by a small group of ‘principals’ including the ‘Cornet’ – who represents the young men of Hawick who repelled an English raiding party in the year that followed the battle Flodden. Their charges are likely to be of mixed-breed and some of the riders probably wouldn’t pass the urine tests that the jockeys at licensed racecourses have to undertake – something to do with the rum and milk that they share with the Cornet at breakfast time.
Other races attract Thoroughbred runners from the flapping circuit which, contrary to popular belief, is not ‘illegal racing’ – it is simply a form of competition which is not staged under the auspices of the British Horseracing Authority. All horses entered are obliged to have valid passports, with identification details, as issued by Weatherbys. Confusingly though, not all of the horses will appear under the same name that they were originally registered with – so punters are generally oblivious to any previous form accumulated under the BHA’s rules.
Except rumours frequently spread like wildfire: ‘Black Dobbin was a star for Michael Stout, before taking a dislike to the starting stalls / White Dobbin won three races in Ireland’. It should be noted that most flapping races are started by flag, which not only creates a market for horses that have fallen foul of the British starting stall system, but also provides a creative opportunity for connections that are seeking to improve a horse’s handicap mark. Some of the horses appear more than once during the meeting and miraculously achieve quicker starts when the money is down. Funny that, I’m sure it’s all a coincidence.
But it’s wrong to cast too many aspersions about the integrity of flapping races. The participants are enthusiastic horsemen with significant pride in their horses and a genuine will to win. No quarter is given by the jockeys on the track and the races offer a terrific learning experience for young riders who aspire to riding under rules.
It’s little wonder, with so much equestrian activity focused in one small town, that Hawick is the source of so many top jockeys and trainers – such as Iain Jardine, who saddles our selection this weekend: Bedrock in the at Musselburgh on Saturday, Bedrock in the 4.20 at Musselburgh on Saturday.
Now where’s my rum and milk…