As a lifelong fan of all things equine, Newmarket’s latest visitor attraction was always going to be my idea of horsey heaven. Opened by Her Majesty the Queen in November 2016, Palace House is the short name for the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art – an attraction that combines a brand new horseracing museum with Britain’s first gallery dedicated to sporting art, plus some real live Thoroughbreds.
But this isn’t just an excursion for racing fans. A trip to Newmarket provides a fascinating insight into Britain’s second most popular spectator sport after football, and an industry that’s the our fifth largest employer.
Newmarket became fashionable in the early 17th century when James 1 came here to hunt rabbits on what is now the training gallop of Warren Hill. His courtiers challenged each other to ‘match races’ and this passion for horseracing has been passed down through the Royal Family ever since.
When I visited the original Horseracing Museum on Newmarket High Street many years ago, historic artefacts were displayed in a building behind the bronze statue of famous racehorse Hyperion. Now they have new premises just five minutes’ walk away in a house that once belonged to trainer Bruce Hobbs, the youngest jockey ever to win the Grand National, aged just 17 in 1938.
Inside The Trainer’s House, visitors can browse artefacts from the earliest days of horseracing and admire personal memorabilia such as A P McCoy’s boots and even hairs from Desert Orchid’s tail. Interactive displays reveal everything from how horses move to how champions are bred, and there’s a chance to ‘meet’ some of the greats of today’s racing industry. Two brand new galleries house temporary exhibitions and there’s a well-stocked gift shop.
Adjacent to the Trainer’s House, I found more themed displays in the boxes around The King’s Yard and particularly liked the story of a skeleton thought to be that of an 18th century champion called Pot8o. His stable boy was told to write his name – Potato – on the stable door but wrote Potoooooooo and the name just stuck!
In a corner of The King’s Yard, The Tack Room restaurant is open to all – no museum ticket needed – and has quickly proved a popular refuelling stop for local residents. I only had time for a coffee, but the menu looked tempting and there are tables outside for warm days beside a lovely statue of Frankel.
Up to 3500 horses can be in training at any one time around Newmarket in more than 80 racing stables. But arrive after morning exercise and you may never see one. So the adjacent Rothschild Yard has been incorporated into the heritage centre as a showcase for the Rehabilitation of Racehorses charity. Now visitors are guaranteed a close-up view of former racehorses being retrained for a second career, with riding demonstrations twice daily in the Peter O’Sullevan arena.
Across Palace Street from the museum, the imposing red-brick building named Palace House is all that remains of Charles II’s extensive royal residence. Now the staircases and panelled rooms where Stuart courtiers once bustled about their business are hung with the cream of sporting art. A big fan of Stubbs and Munnings, I’m thrilled to find old favourites as well as make new discoveries – many on loan from private collections and national museums.
Sporting art really began at Newmarket, but gradually artists began to commit other sports to canvas – hare-coursing and hawking, fishing, shooting and cricket. I love the captain of Manchester Golf Club, pictured with club in hand and sporting a traditional red hunting jacket!
Heritage centre tickets include access to the gallery, museum and RoR yard so you can easily spend a few hours here: Adults £16.50; Seniors £15.50 – full details from www.palacehousenewmarket.co.uk. But I was also booked in for a very special overnight stay in the sumptuous surroundings of The Jockey Club Rooms. Fronting onto the high street but with extensive walled lawns behind, this private members’ club opens its doors to the general public on a B&B basis outside of race meetings.
It’s a unique opportunity to see behind the scenes of one of sport’s most famous organisations and to soak up a little more of that traditional racing atmosphere. Sit down in one of the members’ lounges and you have your own personal view of more priceless sporting art and artefacts.
Our bedroom had a huge bay window overlooking the lawns and beyond the garden wall, I could see the head of a young Thoroughbred going through its paces in a circular walker. The furnishings are traditional; the paintings, equestrian; and our enormous bathroom boasted deep marble bath, twin basins and separate shower.
With prices starting from £240 a night, this is a special occasion stay, but would make a unique present. The Jockey Club Rooms also run a series of Open House events each year, ranging from Champagne Afternoon Tea & Tour, to Sunday Lunch, and Fine Dining Evenings.
If you still want to know more, book in with Discover Newmarket who organise half-day and full-day tours for individuals and groups. Join an established tour or customise your own. We started with an early morning visit to watch horses training on the Gallops, then a visit to the National Stud, before sitting in on the last day of the November bloodstock sales at Tattersalls. No bidding though!
Finally, we pulled up by the entrance to the Rowley Mile Racecourse to see the new statue of the Queen, sculpted larger than life with a beautiful mare and foal, and unveiled by Her Majesty during her November visit. A close-up view is almost irresistible and I posed for a photo amongst the group, the closest I’m ever likely to get to Royalty. Or is it?
While we were admiring the statue, a maroon helicopter landed across the grass on the corner of the heath and a tall young man got out of the pilot’s seat. Was it …? Could it be …? It was! Prince William, just dropped in for a quiet visit. Clearly the royal connections with horseracing are set to last for at least another generation.