A racing certainty

HISTORIAN Mike Kirkup said the original meaning of “plate” in Northumberland Plate was not a silver dish, but a kitty into which owners with horses running put around £20 each with the winner taking all.

HISTORIAN Mike Kirkup said the original meaning of “plate” in Northumberland Plate was not a silver dish, but a kitty into which owners with horses running put around £20 each with the winner taking all.

It was first run in 1833 and it was only later that Northern Goldsmith produced the more universally recognised Plate for the winning owner of today. While it doesn’t leave the city, the £200,000 prize fund is compensation enough, making it the richest horse race of its kind in Europe.

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No wonder it is a favourite of Royals as well as local celebrities and sports stars who are among the tens of thousands who flock to the event each year.

The inaugural Northumberland Plate was won by Tomboy at its original location of Newcastle Town Moor. It was known as The Pitmen’s Derby as a nod to the region’s mining heritage. Originally run on a Wednesday, workers were given a day off to watch and it became one of the most important dates on the region’s sporting calendar, a standing it holds to this day.

“It’s only second to Newcastle United and Jackie Milburn in importance,” said Mike, perhaps with a slight bias, being like Wor Jackie, an Ashington lad, and a keen race-goer himself, who has written a book about the history of the race.

He started life as a miner at Ashington pit and said: “My horse- racing enthusiasm dated back from when I was young.”

Mike first went to the Plate in 1952 – the year it was switched from a Wednesday to a Saturday. He said: “I had to work a Saturday morning shift which ended at 12 noon. I went home to get a bath and caught a bus from Ashington to Gosforth Park and got there in time for the first race.”

Outside the course, as usual in this post Second World War period, were gathered a group of old soldiers. “Most of them had lost limbs,” recalled Mike, “and they were playing instruments ... not very well, to be honest.”

Still their collection pot was filled by passing spectators. Mike paid 3 shillings and 6 pence to get in at the cheap end of the course.

“I wanted to back the horse Souepi in the Plate. I reckoned it was a certainty as it won the recent Ascot Vase which was also run over two miles. I had £10 in my pocket plus a bit of silver. The Plate was the third race on the card. Souepi was a 4/5 odds on favourite so I thought if I could bump my money up to about £20 I could win more.”

So he put his money on another odds-on favourite in the first race and from his vantage point in the cheap seats, it looked well ahead with two furlongs to go, so he headed off to the bookies to collect his expected winnings. But when he produced his ticket, he was met with a suspicious look. “He thought I was trying it on. My horse hadn’t even finished in the first three,” laughed Mike.

He headed off home, kept a couple of shillings for his bus fare and gave the rest to the soldiers. “That was my good deed for the day and I went away feeling fairly happy.”

Souepi inevitably romped home in first place.

While The Northumberland Plate was first run in 1833, the race meeting it became a part of was originally held on Killingworth Town Moor in 1623, before it was moved to Newcastle Town Moor in 1741. The event took place for 140 years on Newcastle Town Moor, but it was decided to move the Plate to another venue because of, as Mike revealed in his book The Pitmen’s Derby, “double-dealing owners and the emergence of a criminal element among racegoers”.

After the High Gosforth Park Company acquired the Brandling Estate for £60,000 in 1881 and built the racecourse and grandstand which opened a year later, it was decided to hold the race there.

When transferred to Gosforth Park in 1882, the event became known as Race Week, but the introduction of an admission charge of 6d outraged locals who had previously watched it for free.

Perhaps because of this, side attractions became prevalent. Cockfighting was a major feature of Race Week in its early days. Other entertainment included chimney sweeps racing on donkeys.

According to Mike, one of the world’s most famous jockeys, Lester Piggott, had a hard time when he first raced there, falling off one of his first mounts and later being “picked on” by Willie Nevett, the so-called Cock of the North, as he was at the top of a mini-league of North East jockeys at the time.

“I interviewed Willie later and he said the first time that Piggott rode there on a horse called Sunny Way he told the other lads to ‘give him the works’ which means to gang up on him, box him in, make it difficult.”

However, Piggott was to record his first Plate win in 1955 on Little Cloud, one of a number of top jockeys who have won the prize.

One of the most astonishing feats was performed by the horse Cyprian in 1836. Its owner walked it from its stable in Malton, North Yorkshire, to the Epson Downs where it won the Oaks. It was then walked from Epsom to Newcastle, where it won the Northumberland Plate.

Horses arriving for the Northumberland Plate Festival, which begins on Thursday and culminates on John Smith’s Northumberland Plate Day on Saturday, will arrive thanks to the horse power in their swish horse-boxes.

However, the vast crowds will be the same. “The event is going from strength to strength and long may it continue,” said Mike.

Facts and figures

The Northumberland Plate, also known as the Pitmen’s Derby, was first run in 1833, but the original race meeting was held on Killingworth Town Moor in 1623 before it moved to Newcastle in 1741.

The race is the most valuable handicap run over two miles or more in Europe, with a prize fund of £200,000.

The first recorded use of the word “Geordie” was at the races on the Town Moor in 1823 by local comedian Billy Purvis who set up a booth and commented – ‘Thou’s a real Geordie’

The 1833 handicap plate was instigated in 1833 to attract the best horses from the North of England.

Bee’swing was the most famous Northumberland Plate loser after winning 51 of her 64 races but losing out to St Bennet in 1838.

Underhand is the only horse to have won three times in 1857, 1858 and 1859.

Bonnie Doon was the last horse to win on the Town Moor despite torrential rain and thunderstorms which nearly led to the meeting being abandoned.

A horse called Victor Emanuel, a relative outsider at 100-9, won the first Plate held at Gosforth.

There was Northumberland Plate between 1915 and 1918 because of the First World War and between 1940 and 1945 because of the Second World War.

In 1946 the race was run at Liverpool because of the damage caused to the racecourse at Gosforth during the war.

Race Week used to be a holiday for miners but this was stopped in 1949.

In 1952 the day of the Northumberland Plate was moved from a Wednesday to a Saturday to perk up falling numbers.

Matthew Dobson Peacock trained six winners and his grandson Richard Dobson Peacock trained Sweet Story who won in 1966.

In 1996 Willie Carson won the plate for the third time at the age of 53 on Celeriac in front of a crowd of 20,000.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
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