There are a total of five Classic contests spread over the course of the British flat racing season. Events which are both engrained in the history of the sport and help to shape its future courtesy of the breeding value bestowed upon the winners.
Fittingly the first two of these events take place at the home of the flat racing game, as Newmarket plays host to the 1,000 Guineas and the 2,000 Guineas.
Two such prestigious races surely deserve a festival, and they duly get one, with this three-day meeting which takes place in late April/early May each year.
Here we take a closer look at a fixture which is always one of the most anticipated of the entire flat season.
Guineas Festival – Main Races
Jockey Club Stakes – Group 2 – 1m4f
Whilst the three year olds hog the limelight on Days Two and Three, it is the older runners who take centre stage on the opening Friday of the meeting. Previously run over 1m2f and later 1m6f, this classy contest has been held over the Derby distance of 1m4f since 1963 – the year in which it was first included as part of this meeting.
In being won by the Triple Crown hero Isinglass in the inaugural 1894 edition, the race could scarcely have made a stronger start. Whilst no subsequent winners have quite managed to match the exploits of Isinglass, the roll of honour is nevertheless heavily peppered with quality. In the current century alone, the prize has fallen to St Leger winners Millenary and Sixties Icon, Irish Oaks heroine Seventh Heaven, and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe king, Marienbard.
Newmarket Stakes – Listed – 1m2f
A pair of Listed class events provide the support on the opening day, with this mile-and-a-quarter contest for the three year old colts and geldings coming up first. Appearing at Newmarket in various forms since the late 19th Century, the modern version of the event first took place in 1978 when going under the name of the Heathorn Stakes.
Another race to get off to a flyer, that 1978 edition was won by the brilliant Shirley Heights who went on to a famous Epsom Derby success later in the season. Slip Anchor and Dr Fong were other classy winners from the 20th Century, with Beat Hollow, Mishriff, and Frankel’s little brother, Noble Mission, all coming home in front in more recent times.
King Charles II Stakes – Listed – 7f
One of the newer races at the meeting, this contest for the three year olds initially appeared at the Newmarket May meeting in 1988, before being switched to the Guineas Festival in 2022.
In keeping with its Listed status, this race tends to produce winners who, whilst talented, are a little below the real top-notchers. One major exception to this was Sir Henry Cecil’s Ali-Royal who went on to win the Sussex Stakes at Glorious Goodwood.
2,000 Guineas – Group 1– 1m
The opening Classic of the British racing season lights up the action on the Saturday card, as the best of the three year olds from both sides of the Irish Sea – and occasionally France – do battle over the straight mile. Whilst open to both colts and fillies, but not geldings, it is extremely rare to see a filly go for this prize rather than lining up against her own sex in the 1,000 Guineas.
One of the most historic events of the racing year, the 2,000 Guineas first took place back in 1809. The roll of honour reads like a who’s who of racing greats; Sir Ivor, Nijinsky, Brigadier Gerard, Dancing Brave, Sea The Stars, and Frankel are just a selection of the superstars who displayed their brilliance over Newmarket’s Rowley Mile.
Palace House Stakes – Group 3 – 5f
Named in honour of the Newmarket royal residence of King Charles II, this sprint contest made its debut in 1961 and was immediately granted Group 3 status upon the introduction of the classification system in 1971.
Officially open to all runners aged three years and older, it is unusual to see the three year olds tackle their elders so early in the season. Flying filly, Lochsong, scorched the turf on her way to victory in 1994, whilst the popular Sole Power and Mabs Cross both landed back-to-back successes in the 2010s.
Kilvington Stakes – Listed – 6f
Previously held at Nottingham, this contest for the fillies and mares was transferred to the Newmarket Guineas Festival in 2022. Only established in 2000, the race is yet to produce a truly outstanding winner, but nevertheless provides a valuable early season target for the more talented female sprinters in training.
1,000 Guineas – Group 1– 1m
The closing Sunday of the meeting represents the season’s first red-letter day for the fillies. Taking place over the same course and distance as the 2,000 Guineas, the 1,000 Guineas made its debut in 1814. In common with the original Newmarket classic, the name is derived from the total prize money at the time.
Now worth over £500,000 to the winner, the race has certainly increased in value over the years, and much like the colt’s race boasts a stellar list of previous winners. The likes of Sun Chariot, Musidora, Oh So Sharp, and Minding are all names engrained in racing folklore, whilst 1902 heroine Sceptre remains the only horse to win four British classics – a record which will surely never be equalled.
Dahlia Stakes – Group 2 – 1m1f
The female theme continues on 1,000 Guineas Day, with this event named in honour of one of the all-time great globetrotting fillies. Restricted to fillies and mares aged four and older, the contest made its debut as a Listed event in 1997. However, thanks to the quality of performer on show, the race wasn’t long in being upgraded – gaining Group 3 status in 2004, before being raised to Group 2 level in 2015.
French star Esoterique features amongst the previous winners here, together with subsequent Breeders Cup winner, Wuheida, and Nassau Stakes heroine Lady Bowthorpe. Amongst the trainers, Sir Michael Stoute has been the man to follow – racking up six wins between 2007 and 2015.
Pretty Polly Stakes – Listed – 1m2f
In common with the feature event of the day, this contest is also restricted to three year old fillies. Named after the 1904 1,000 Guineas winner who went on to land the Fillies’ Triple Crown, this mile-and-a-quarter event may “only” be rated at Listed level, but occasionally attracts fillies who go on to strut their stuff at the very highest level. Taghrooda (2014) subsequently won both the Oaks and the King George & Queen Elizabeth Stakes, whilst the exceptional Ouija Board (2004) claimed both the English and Irish Oaks, the Prince of Wales’s Stakes, the Nassau Stakes, and the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf on two occasions.
Guineas Festival – Betting Pointers
Racing at Newmarket takes place on one of two partially overlapping L-shaped tracks, known as the Rowley Mile course and the July Course. Both layouts feature wide expansive straights, with just one bend to negotiate in races beyond 1m2f.
Newmarket is widely regarded as one of the fairest tracks in the land from a draw perspective, with the only slight bias coming over five furlongs where those drawn high hold the edge.
One occasion when the draw may come into play is in big field events on the straight course. The runners invariably split into two distinct groups in such contests, with results suggesting that those drawn in the centre of the track are at a disadvantage. Look for a horse-drawn towards either rail, preferably on the side of the track where most of the pace is likely to come from.
The lack of bends and undulations – barring a notable dip around a furlong from home – makes this an ideal track for the long-striding galloping type of performer. Do note however that the straight does climb steadily to the line, making the track a stern test over all distances. A confirmed ability to see out the trip should be one of your number one requirements when running the rule over the contenders.
Other trends and factors worth considering when picking out those bets include:
- Be very wary of backing frontrunners when there is a strong headwind. That steep hill takes some getting up at the best of times, without the additional inconvenience of the wind blowing into your face. Those racing in behind and able to get some cover hold a big advantage in such conditions.
- With seven 1,000 Guineas wins between 2005 and 2021, Aidan O’Brien has comfortably the best record amongst trainers in the modern era.
- O’Brien’s record in the 2,000 Guineas is even better. His ten wins between 1998 and 2019 making him the most successful trainer in the history of the race.
- Between 2000 and 2022, only one winner of the Jockey Club Stakes was older than five years of age.
- Four year olds boast much the best record in the Dahlia Stakes, with only one of the first 26 editions falling to a runner older than five.
Guineas Festival – A Brief History
Sir Charles Bunbury has certainly left his mark on the racing world. Involved in the creation of the Derby at Epsom, Sir Charles was also the man behind the introduction of the 2,000 Guineas.
Taking place for the first time on 18th April 1809, the race took its name from the 2,000 Guineas Prize Pool – a Guinea being the equivalent of £1.05 in today’s money. Adjusted for inflation, that places the value of the race at around £188,000 – some way below the £500,000 awarded to connections in 2022.
With the 2,000 Guineas proving an immediate success, the Jockey Club, under the guidance of Sir Charles, sought to create an equivalent event restricted to female performers. Enter the 1,000 Guineas, which made its debut at the track on 28th April 1814. Only worth half as much as the 2,000 Guineas for the majority of its lifetime, that disparity was erased in 2016 when the prize money was increased to match that of the colt’s event.
By the 1860s both the 1,000 Guineas and the 2,000 Guineas had become firmly established as cornerstones of the British flat season. Soon after, the term “Classics” began to be used in reference to the two Guineas races, the Derby and Oaks at Epsom, and Doncaster’s St Leger. And so, the course of racing history was set. Over 160 years later, these contests remain the most coveted of the racing season and have inspired similar events in almost every racing jurisdiction around the world.
Outstanding as the signature events are, a mere two races do not make a racing festival. In common with many similar events throughout the year, Newmarket’s Guineas Festival did not arrive as a fully formed package but rather developed and evolved over time.
The oldest event at the meeting is actually the Newmarket Stakes which took place for the first time in 1804. However, it wasn’t until much later, in 1978, that the race aligned with the Classic contests.
Established in 1894, the Jockey Club Stakes is another race with a rich heritage, originally staged in the autumn before moving to join the Guineas meeting in 1963 – two years after the inaugural running of the Palace House Stakes in 1961.
The next two events to the party were those named in honour of the flying fillies of yesteryear. Having initially been staged in late May, the Pretty Polly Stakes was moved to the Guineas meeting in 1973, with the Dahlia Stakes then making its debut in 1997.
Fast forward to the 2020s and the meeting continues to evolve. 2022 saw the additions of the King Charles II Stakes which, like the Pretty Polly, had been part of the late May fixture, and the Kilvington Stakes which was transferred to the track from Nottingham.
Whether further alterations will come in future years remains to be seen, but regardless of any new races being added to the mix, this springtime sizzler seems sure to retain its position at the heart of the early flat campaign.