In British Flat racing, horses compete over a minimum of five furlongs, a distance that they can cover in less than a minute, so it is imperative, ideally, that all the horses start together, in as straight a line as possible. Consequently, the vast majority of Flat races in Britain are started via numbered starting stalls. Nevertheless, it may surprise you to learn that starting stalls were not introduced in Britain until 1965.
Starting stalls feature an electromechanical release system, operated by a single button which, when pressed by the starter, unlocks the spring-loaded mechanism on the front door of each stall, causing them all to spring open simultaneously. They can horses to become claustrophobic and unruly but, even so, add a level of precision and predictability to the start of a Flat race. Previously, a system of five wires, suspended at head height, was used and, before that, a system of flags, which inevitably led to numerous false starts.
In 1779, Edward Smith-Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby founded a sweepstakes race, for three-year-old thoroughbred fillies, to be run over a mile-and-a-half on Epsom Downs. He called it the Oaks Stakes, after his nearby residence, known as ‘The Oaks’ or, historically, as ‘Lambert’s Oaks’, in Carshalton. Derby won the inaugural running of the Oaks Stakes with his own horse, Bridget, and subsequently celebrated with friends, who included Sir Charles Bunbury, Chairman of the Jockey Club.
Together, the pair co-founded another sweepstakes race, for three-year-old colts and fillies. Legend has it that they tossed a coin to decide on the name of the race but, in any event, the inaugural ‘Derby Stakes’ was run, over a straight mile, on Epsom Downs on May 4, 1780. Bunbury had some consolation insofar as he won the race, with Diomed, and collected the princely sum of £1,065 15s. The Derby Stakes was run over a mile until 1784, when the distance was extended to a mile-and-a-half and the sweeping, downhill turn into Tattenham Corner was introduced.
In Flat racing, an apprentice jockeys’ licence allows young, inexperienced riders – aged between 16 and 26 years – to receive a weight allowance, or ‘claim’, when riding against full professional jockeys to compensate for their initial lack of experience. According to Rule (F) 140 of the Rules of Racing, apprentice jockeys can claim 7lb until they have ridden 20 winners, 5lb until they have ridden 50 winners and 3lb until they have ridden 95 winners.
In other words, once an apprentice has ridden 95 winners, his or her apprentice licence becomes invalid and he or she is said to have ‘ridden out’ his or her claim. He or she is then required to apply for a full professional licence with six months. Of course, it is also possible for an apprentice to turn 26 before he or she has ridden out his or her claim, in which case his or her apprentice licence becomes invalid anyway and he or she must apply for a full professional licence immediately.
The ‘Spring Double’ and the ‘Autumn Double’ still exist, insofar as the races that comprise both still exist, although they are rarely referred to as such and do not attract the same attention, in the press or elsewhere, that was once the case. Traditionally, the ‘Spring Double’ consisted of the Lincoln Handicap – the feature race on the first Saturday of the Flat season – and the Grand National, usually run a week or two later. The Lincoln Handicap, formerly the Lincolnshire Handicap, was run at Lincoln Racecourse, a.k.a. the Carholme, on the western edge of the city, until its closure in 1964. In its heyday, the race attracted huge ante-post interest. So, too, did the races that comprised the traditional ‘Autumn Double’, the Cesarewitch Handicap and the Cambridgeshire Handicap, which are still staged within the space of a fortnight at Newmarket each October, but in the reverse order from what was originally the case.