The 3rd Thursday in March every year – so this year on Thursday 17th March 2016 – sees the Kiplingcotes Derby takes place at a small hamlet close to Market Weighton in the East Riding of Yorkshire. It has firm records dating back to 1618 with an endowment being given in 1619. However, it reputedly began in 1519 and is widely accepted to be the oldest annual horse race in the English sporting calendar. The race always takes place on the third Thursday in March, often in some pretty exceptionally adverse weather conditions. This year’s race will be its 497th! It’s a flat race run over open country that is unique in many other ways. Starting near the former Kiplingcotes railway station and finishing at Londesborough Wold Farm, the course takes in four miles of challenging farm tracks and fields that are steep in places and often very muddy in others.
It is said that it started off as a straight race between two squires to see whose horse was better. From then on it just ‘got competitive’! Predictably it has some unusual rules.
These include, and not counting the fact that it is not run over a typical racecourse, that:
- Riders must weigh in at ten stones or above, excluding saddle. This means that many of the lady riders have to carry additional weights to meet the minimum requirement.
- Horses of any age can be ridden.
- All those wishing to enter must gather by the winning post by 11 a.m. on the morning of the Derby.
- A clerk is still paid the original sum of 5 shillings (25p) annually for maintaining it the event.
- According to tradition, the race has to be run between 12 noon and 1pm.
- The winner will receive the fixed sum of £50 and the runner up will receive the sum of the race’s entry fees. As a result of this it sometimes proves advantageous to come second!
- The rules also state that if the race is not run one year then it must never be run again.
As a result of this last rule, during the harsh winter of 1947, no one was daring enough to take part so one local farmer took it upon himself to lead a lone horse around the course, ensuring that the historic race would survive. During the 2001 UK Foot & Mouth crisis the race was once again reduced to one horse and rider.
There is no ‘pre-booking’ for the race and no formal licence or qualifications are needed, just a horse. All you have to do is simply turn up on the day, weigh-in before 11am and meet at the winning post. Yes you read that correctly – meet at the Winning Post!
The day begins with speeches and a weigh-in at the finishing post. At 11.30am the clerk reads the rules (or at least some of them – there are a lot) and then all competitors walk their horses the four and a half miles to the start. A bulky stone marks the starting point and now has a large decorative horseshoe above marked ‘Kiplingcotes Derby’ that was made by local blacksmith Nick Moor of Market Weighton.
The only adjudicator is the clerk of the course, who stays at the winning post and checks the weights of the winner and second place to ensure that you’ve not thrown any weights out along the way!
This is a race that actually fits the literal description of what you might have expected of a point to point, as it starts at one point and largely runs in a straight line. Starting near to the old Kiplingcotes railway station the horses run along a wide grass verge , crossing country lanes, a bridge over the disused railway line and, at one place, cross the A163 road before passing the thin white winning post breathless, muddy and in some cases mightily relieved. It’s a tricky and at times treacherous course that was originally intended as a true test of a horse.
The race is ridden under Jockey Club rules and, since 2013, a bookie has been present taking bets. One wonders whether he makes a profit because it’s a ‘one off’ race with the horses – and riders/jockeys – having little or no form for him to go on. It was pointed out, though, that since he set up for business here the organisers have supplied the riders with numbered saddle cloths so that, at least, there is some form of identification for him and those backing the horses.
With the winner only receiving £50 there are times when a good number of entries can produce a larger sum for coming second! “That happened to us one year,” said Guy Stephenson’s daughter Clare. “Our horse came in second and there were 23 entries. We came away with over £80 – but nobody wants to come second.”