The last grey horse – in fact, the only grey horse – to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup was Desert Orchid in 1989. The iconic grey had been beaten of five previous appearances at the Cheltenham Festival, twice in the Champion Hurdle, once in the Arkle Challenge Trophy and twice in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Nevertheless, on treacherous, barely raceable ground and going left-handed – he was, according to jockey Simon Sherwood, ‘a two stone lesser horse going that way’ – Desert Orchid was sent off 5/2 favourite for his first attempt in the ‘Blue Riband’ event of steeplechasing.
‘Dessie’, as he was affectionately known to his legions of supporters, raced prominently for most of the way and was left in the lead when Ten Plus fell at the third last. However, the confirmed mudlark Yahoo, clearly relishing the atrocious underfoot conditions, arrived on the scene, travelling well, on the home turn and looked all over the winner. Galvanised by Simon Sherwood, Desert Orchid rallied gamely between the final two fences and was almost upsides again jumping the last. On the climb to the winning post, he first drifted right towards the stands’ side and then left towards his rival but, in the last hundred yards or so, Desert Orchid forged ahead to win by 1½ lengths, with Sherwood punching the air in celebration.
The Kiplingcotes Derby is reputedly the oldest and arguably the ‘wackiest’ horse race run in Britain. As the name suggests, the race has been run, on the third Thursday in March, on a four-mile course from Etton to Londesborough Wold Farm, near Kiplingcotes, a hamlet in the East Riding of Yorkshire, every year – with a few notable exceptions – since 1519. The course is virtually straight, but precipitous in part and easily waterlogged; country lanes, roadside verges and farmland all form part of the four-mile journey.
The traditional rules of the Kiplingcotes Derby state that if the race is not run once it can never be run again. So, in the event of cancellation – as happened in 1947, because of snow, 2001, because of foot-and-mouth disease, 2018, because of damage to the course and 2020, because of coronavirus –
a lone jockey ‘walks’ the course to ensure the survival of the race.
Horses and riders of any age or ability can enter, subject to payment of an entry fee and a minimum weight requirement of 10st 0lb, without tack; they simply need to assemble at the winning post by 11.00am on the morning of the race, for the formal reading of the rules. Paradoxically, also riders weigh in at the winning post before making their way to the start and racing back in the opposite direction. According to the rules, the winner receives fixed prize money of £50, but the runner-up receives 80% of the remainder of the entry fees on the day; at £5 per person, at the last count, it is not difficult to see how the winner often comes off second-best in terms of prize money.
According to Weatherbys, the company that administers British racing under contract to the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), the main body colours found in thoroughbred racehorses are bay, black, brown, chestnut and grey.
Bay can cover many variations of the colour brown, although typically means reddish-brown, or tan. A bay horse has a black mane and tail and a distinguishable colour line between the upper and lower sections of the legs. By contrast, a brown horse has a brown man and tail and no such colour line, although tan may be seen in the fold of the flank and/or muzzle. Purely black horses are a rarity and must be entirely black, in coat, stifle fold and muzzle, to be classified as such. Chestnut horses have a reddish or yellowish brown body colour, with a mane and tail which, while similar in shade, may be slightly lighter or darker.
Grey, too, covers a range of shades from bright white to battleship, or gunmetal, grey. Grey horses are not usually born grey, but grow lighter in colour with age, such that their body coat is a mixture of black and white hairs. Truly white horses, like truly black horses, are a rarity.
In addition to the basic body colours, certain other colours are recognised by thoroughbred and non-thoroughbred authorities. A thoroughbred described as ‘roan’, for example, is characterised by white hairs evenly intermingled with hairs of another colour, such as brown or chestnut. That said, most thoroughbreds that appear roan are in the process of going grey.
Notwithstanding the so-called Fillies’ Triple Crown, which consists of the 1,000 Guineas, Oaks and St. Leger, the term English Triple Crown is usually applied to the Two Thousand Guineas, Derby and St. Leger, all of which are open to three-year-old colts and fillies. The oldest of the three ‘Classic’ races that constitute the English Triple Crown, the St. Leger, was established in 1776, followed by the Derby in 1780 and, last but not least, the Two Thousand Guineas in 1809. However, it was not until 1853, when the aptly-named Melbourne colt, West Australian, trained by John Scott and ridden by Frank Butler, won all three races that the phrase ‘Triple Crown’ was coined. As testament to his versatility, the following season West Australian also won the Gold Cup at Ascot over two-and-a-half miles.