Matthew Hancock, the current Paymaster General and one of the rising stars of the Conservative Party, heads a diverse field of amateur riders taking part in a special renewal of the world’s oldest horse race, the Newmarket Town Plate, which comes under starters orders at 1pm at the Adnams July Course in Newmarket on Thursday (7th July).
Exactly a week on from being interrogated live by Evan Davis on the BBC TV programme, Newsnight, in an interview in which he announced his support for Theresa May in the Conservative leadership race, Hancock will have a very different race on his mind this Thursday – the Newmarket Town Plate.
Newmarket is celebrating 350 years as the headquarters of Britain’s horseracing industry. As part of these celebrations, the Town Plate, traditionally run in late summer, has been moved forward to mark the start of the three-day Moët & Chandon July Festival which culminates in the running of the £500,000 Darley July Cup on Saturday, July 9th.
Instigated in 1665, the Town Plate is run over a stamina-sapping three-and-three-quarter mile course, much of which is only used for this single race each year but ending on the same home straight (and in front of the same packed grandstands) where the July Cup is staged.
It is by far the longest flat race staged on a British racecourse – a full mile further than the second longest, the Queen Alexandra Stakes at Royal Ascot.
A race for true amateurs which in recent years has been won by both an accountant and a neurosurgeon, the winning jockey usually gets nothing more than a Perpetual Challenge Plate, a silver photo frame, a voucher from the Newmarket High Street clothes shop, Goldings, and a box of Powters Celebrated Newmarket Sausages.
But this year’s winner will also take possession of a replica of a whip owned by King Charles II, the monarch pivotal in the establishment and evolution of Newmarket as the Home of Horseracing.
37-year-old Hancock has competed in one previous similar event – he won a charity race (and raised £10,000 for Racing Welfare) on the Adnams July Course in 2012. (He is hoping to match that fundraising figure again, this time for St Nicholas Hospice, and anyone wishing to donate should click on www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Matthew-Hancock6).
But that race was over a distance of just a mile and his mount was Dick Doughtywylie, a highly talented horse who won £120,000 during his subsequent racing career and was last seen finishing fifth in the Group 1 Juddmonte International at York last August.
Hancock’s participation is not the only link between this year’s Town Plate and Parliament. As part of the 350 celebrations, the race will be followed by the unveiling of a statue of King Charles II which has been copied from an original in the House of Lords.
Matthew Hancock, MP for West Suffolk and Paymaster General, said:
“Training for riding in the Newmarket Town Plate has been hard work – House of Commons dinners don’t fit well into a serious training schedule!”
“I have been riding out once a week for the last few months, for trainers Nicky Henderson [who has provided him with his mount, the steeplechaser, Medieval Chapel], John Gosden, Sir Michael Stoute and James Fanshawe and at the British Racing School, and have lost just over a stone in weight.”
“I did ride a bit when I was young but I had never been on a racehorse before the 2012 charity race and had to learn from scratch.”
“After that event I was promoted into government and my wife, who had just had another baby, said that she was happy for me to carry on getting up at 4.30am provided it was to change a nappy rather than to go and ride out!”
“So I only started riding again three months ago. My sister, Emily Gilruth, is a three-day event rider who competed at Badminton this year and she has always been the talented rider in the family.”
“Frankie Dettori has been incredibly helpful on the basics of how to race ride and he has also been very good on the dieting side of things.”
“The Town Plate is a very long race and I am just hoping to get back safely. Even riding in a race like this is a great honour and to win it would be extraordinary.”
“I have done nothing of this length before and have had to get myself ready for an eight to ten minute high intensity workout.”
“I have been involved in supporting some of the other brilliant initiatives surrounding the 350th anniversary celebrations and I am particularly looking forward to the opening of the new National Horseracing Museum.”
“While it is very important to concentrate on the day job, constituents keep you grounded and by riding out with all the stable staff you find out what the real people are thinking.”
“Racing is an incredibly important employer not just in Newmarket but around West Suffolk and a huge amount of jobs depend on it.”
The 15 riders engaged for the 2016 running of the Newmarket Town Plate:
Sheikh Fahad Al Thani, Jason Carver, Patrick Chesters, Justina Ewer, Rachel Flynn, Michael Gates, Ian Gault, Matt Hancock, Steve Hilyer, Derek Jackson, Alan Phillips, Frances Stanley, Roger Weatherby, Ed Wrigley, Venetia Wrigley (15) (FSL 15)