Playing the Ponies

(Part I)


The races however were fixed and determined

The company came and the Weather was charming

The Lords and the Ladies were satine’d and ermined

And nobody saw any future alarming—

                                                    (Jane Austen, “When Winchester Races,” her last poem,

                                                     written three days before her death, 1817)


            It will be no surprise that horse racing as a sport has its origins in prehistory and that it has been the preeminent spectator sport for most of recorded history.  What is more surprising is that it remains the most widely attended spectator sport in many countries, including the United States where it is second only to baseball, having a recent attendance of 56 million per annum at racetracks. There are substantial audiences as well in Canada, England, Ireland, western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and South America. 


Although throughout history any two riders could make an ad hoc match if they chose, elite horse racing was primarily the sport of the nobility prior to the 18th century, hence its sobriquet as ‘The Sport of Kings’.  The reasons were economic, for it cost a great deal to purchase and keep a horse, and far more to breed them for specialized tasks.  Wagering on the outcomes of matches probably happened at the same time that racing first began, and was another reason the sport remained in the hands of the nobility, the only moneyed class in the middle ages. The origins of English racing can be traced back to the Stuart Kings, James I and Charles I, who hunted around Newmarket in Suffolk, and who established a palace and stable nearby to facilitate the hunt. Meanwhile, local races had been run on the fields of Newmarket and these gradually attracted the nobles of the hunt. However, it was after the Restoration of the English monarchy with the return of Charles II—the ‘Merry Monarch’—that modern racing developed, and indeed, as we shall see, many racecourses still extent in Britain trace their beginnings to that time.  Charles took an active role in the sport, invigorating horse racing in 1660 when he began to attend the Newmarket races, giving royal approval to the events. The King was also an avid rider and race horse owner himself, and eventually took a personal interest in the track, racing rules and even the occasional dispute.


            While modern horseracing traces itself back to Charles, professional thoroughbred horse racing began during the reign (1702-14) of Queen Anne.  In fact, like the male monarchs, the Queen herself kept a large string of horses and was instrumental in the founding of Royal Ascot (a racecourse in the Berkshire village of Ascot), where until recent times the first race of the racing season was run, called the Queen Anne Stakes. Her reign saw the widening of horseracing as a spectator sport, a phenomenon that went hand-in-hand with new (if complicated) wagering systems that allowed spectators to participate in gambling despite relatively modest means.  To facilitate these developments, racecourses sprang up all over England, and purses—the owners reward—grew as competition sharpened to attract the best horses for each venue. The purses in turn helped to broaden the economic base of the industry, endowing breeders and owners in classes other than the nobility.  By 1750 the industry had expanded so much that a central authority to regulate it was deemed necessary, and the elite of racing met at the great course of Newmarket to establish the Jockey Club, still the arbiter of English racing. The Jockey Club wrote rules and guidelines for racetracks, designated specific standards for the type of races run, and handicapped to equalize the horses’ chances. It also began to regulate the breeding of racehorses in England, adjudicated disputes, and, in 1762, ordered the use of private colors for each owner in the race.


            What does this have to do with fiddling?  Well, timing for one reason. Broadly speaking, the rise of professional horseracing in the English-speaking world parallels the later development of the modern violin and, with it, fiddling as a folk art tradition.  For example, the two most famous exponents of the Italian Cremona violin making art, Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu (1698-1744) and Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) both were productive during the reign of Queen Anne, while Jacob Stainer produced in Charles II’s day. It was in the 18th century, as the Jockey Club rules were instituted, that the delicate Baroque violins gave way to the more powerful and sturdy modern violin, with its heavier bass bar, and altered length and angle of the neck. Perhaps most meaningful for fiddling was the founding of the first violin factory in Mirecourt, France, around 1790, which was soon imitated in other European cities. Mass produced violins were affordable and reliable—if not always good-out-of-the-factory— instruments whose introduction brought violin making out of the cottage-industry mode, thus making the instrument accessible to broad new classes of players. So, just as modern violin making was reaching its artistic pinnacle, and as factories made possible a wider dissemination of the instrument, so did codification of racing rules and procedures occur, and so did the movement of capital broaden horse racing’s base as a popular entertainment, turning it into a spectator sport for a larger audience.


It was not quite a parallel process: cheaper violins made accessible to many meant that talent, rather than class or patronage, would eventually be the future arbiter of success in music. Accessibility allowed fiddling to became a broad cultural practice, and the fiddler to become the iconic “village fiddler.” Horse racing too provided a means whereby the middle and working classes, so frequently excluded from experiencing cultural events, could participate. “At a racecourse the top and the bottom of the social hierarchy shared a similar experience, and experienced a certain vicarious pleasure in traveling up and own the social ladder for the day. Race meetings provided a space for social play, where mobility was possible.” (1)  It is likely a good many fiddlers participated in horseracing simply as interested consumers—i.e. they liked horses, the thrill of the race, and the hope of return on a lucky wager, just like any race-attendee. It is also likely that they commemorated their day’s outing by composing a tune about some aspect of the race—a favorite horse (as we shall see next issue), the track, a jockey or local owner—in the same way that fiddlers were wont to write tunes about special trips they had taken (“Trip to the Dargle,” “Trip to Birmingham,” etc.), and this may have contributed to the many tunes honoring racecourses and racing.


            Certainly a juxtaposition of fiddling with racing took place in the vicinity of  racing events and racetracks, which, along with trade fairs, markets and local pageants, provided common venues in the 18th and early 19th centuries for fiddlers and other musicians who sought an audience and employment.  There must have been a variety of venues of all types and classes for musicians at or around the races, but we know for certain that the more prestigious races and hunts were prime social events in the season (and still are, for that matter), and that dances and balls were typically held on or about race-days for the entertainment of the gentry. For example, a Kelso, Scotland, printer published a broadside document entitled “List of the Nobility and Gentry Who appeared at the Balls at Kelso Races, October 1783” (2), which enumerated some 140 of Britain’s premier families in attendance—the list was presumably of interest as a souvenir to ball-attendees, but also to those curious about the celebrities of the day, and, not incidentally, to any musicians looking for potential patrons of dance music. Members of the famous and entrepreneurial Scottish Gow family composed and/or published several tunes commemorating racecourses or hunts, not so much perhaps because they were taken with the sports, but because of the lucrative balls that attended the racing and hunt seasons. What better way to advertise your availability for hire than to pen and print a commemorative melody honouring the event—they simply transposed to venues the same catering to patronage that led so, so many tunes to be named after gentry and nobility. If we look, for example, at the Gow’s six volume Collection of Strathspey Reels (published from 1784 to 1822), we find the following horse-sport titles: “Hamilton Races” (Niel Gow), “Dumfries Races” (Joseph Reinagle), “Hie over Hunt” (Nathaniel Gow), “Dumfermline Races,” “Kempshott Hunt,” “The Caledonian Hunt’s Delight,” “The Perthshire Hunt” (Miss Sterling of Ardoch), “Lamberton Races,” “The Caledonian Hunt” (Sir Alexander Don), “The Fife Hunt” (William Gow), “Ayr Races” (John Gow), and “Kelso Races.”


            Reviewing these titles, along with similar occurrences of similar hunting and racing titles in England, we find that, “the hunt” and “the race” were inextricably mixed in the 18th and early 19th centuries.  Hunts as social events could take days and often featured races and other entertainments. In fact, what is called ‘steeplechase’ racing in America is called National Hunt racing in the United Kingdom and Ireland and developed out of a juxtaposition of hunt and race in 1752.  The story goes that, after a day of hunting near Doneraile, County Cork, Ireland, Mr. Cornelius O’Callaghan and Mr. Edmund Burke, entered into a wager on the outcome of their race four miles cross-country from Buttevant Church to St. Leger Church (hence the name ‘steeplechase’, as the steeples provided easily visible landmarks for the riders). [Perhaps this was remembered by Sligo fiddlers Paddy Killoran (1904-1965) and Paddy Sweeney (1894-1974) in their reel “The Steeplechase,” recorded in New York in the early 1930’s]. While early steeplechases were across open country, by the latter 18th century open spaces, even for the nobility, were diminishing as wealth was transferred from land to production and capital investment, and open spaces were populated and developed.  Thus, the steeplechase was transferred from the country to the prepared racecourse, the first being run in Bedlam, England, in 1810. 


Hexham Races is a racecourse in Northumberland (the only one in that county to survive to the present day), outside Newcastle. Horseracing in Hexham dates from at least the 1720’s when matches were conducted on Tyne Green, although by the 1880’s racing there had ceased due to competition from other locations. It was restarted and reinvigorated in 1890 by a racing enthusiast from the local gentry, and Hexham became the seat of the Heart of All England Steeplechase (the winner is presented with the Heart of All England Cup), so called because of the story that King James I of England, while riding south to claim his crown, passed by near Hexham and, taken with the countryside, supposedly uttered, “verily, this is the heart of all England.”  The Northumbrian “Hexham Races” is a rollicking jig, well-known in Scotland by its alternate titles “Kenmuir’s Up and Awa” and “Kenmore Lads,” and in Ireland as “The Kinnegad Slashers,” “I Will if I Can,” and “The Boys from the West.” The melody appears under the Hexham title in the music manuscript copybook of Tyneside fiddler John W. Moore and was quite popular in Northumberland (it was for example, recorded by Northumbrian mouth-organ master Will Atkinson, b. 1908).  


Sir Alexander Don, Bart, of Newton-Don, Roxburgh (d. 1815), composer of “The Caledonian Hunt,” had an intense interest in both the hunt and horse racing. His horse Cheviot won a famous race at the Kelso race grounds in 1765. As interest in racing and the hunt in the area grew, Don, along with other local gentry, formed in 1777 a society called the Caledonian Hunt, which met twice a year. The Cross Keys Hotel in Kelso, in the Borders region of Scotland, was used as a base, and still continues to this day. A Yorkshire gentleman, Colonel Thornton, visited it in 1786 and gave this account:


            A charming scene of confusion; cooks, ladies' servants, waitresses

all running against each other, being the time of Kelso Races. The

company is composed of gentlemen of the Turf on both sides of the

Tweed with families and friends and also members of the Caledonian

Hunt. Foxhounds and harriers hunt alternately in the mornings. There

is also a concert and races and next night the gentlemen of the Hunt

give a handsome ball. After the ladies retired therefrom, the gentlemen

formed a party to drink their healths and when I got up at 8 they were

still drinking and meant to sit till hounds went out. This meeting, I heard,

is most expensive of any. An English Steward was obliged to pay 10

guineas for his room, though only there 5 nights.


The annual event of the Caledonian Hunt as a social club was the famous Caledonian Hunt Ball, so fashionable as to be attended by many of most influential gentry of Scotland, and not a few from England.  Nathaniel Gow’s band performed music for the occasion for many years, and Sir Alexander Don presented him with a fine Italian violin in appreciation for his efforts.  In 1822, King George IV attended the ball and took pleasure in expressing the satisfaction he derived from Gow’s music.  When Nathaniel presented his bill to the sponsors of the event, he gushed (somewhat disingenuously, perhaps), “…my own trouble at pleasure, or nothing, as his majesty’s approbation more than recompensed me.” However, music and dance fashion eventually changed and Gow and his band were supplanted at the balls by those playing more innovative music. He was not forgotten, however, and, at the end of his life, when he became infirm and financially destitute from the failure of his publishing business, the noblemen and gentlemen of the Hunt voted Nathaniel a welcome 50£ per annum for the remainder of his years in remembrance of his services to them.


               Many of the racing grounds in Scotland, as in England and Ireland, were of great antiquity, and some—like Kelso, ‘the home of Scottish Borders racing’, and Ayr, host of the Scottish Grand National and the Ayr Cup—survive today as major racing venues.  Most racecourses had rather humble beginnings, such as those at Dumfries (commemorated in Reinagle’s strathspey “Dumfries Races”), which began as a rather humble local affair pairing workhorses against each other in May, the beginning of planting season. The town put up a silver bell as a prize, although with the stipulation that  it could not be owned by the winner, save for the unlikely event that he won races in three consecutive years. [Before cups or trophies, silver bells were often offered as prizes. ‘Taking the bell’ was a phrase that in former times meant someone had achieved a remarkable feat] (3). The races at Dumfries were stopped in 1716, at least for a time, as “they had given rise to serious scandal,” and the town treasurer was instructed to sell the bell. There is ample evidence that much of horse racing in Britain was in the form of parish or burgh races, and outside the recorded record.  A horse race was often one of the attractions of a fair or feast day, and the runners were not thoroughbreds, but rather farm horses—“by the nineteenth century this form of races was particularly common in Renfrewshire and Ayrshire.” (4)


               It is possible that the excellently crafted jig “Hey to Cupar” refers to the races at Cupar, Fife, which date to the 17th century. John Lamont’s Diary of Fife of 1661 recorded:


               The laird of Philiphawch his horse won the race at Cupar this year, and Stobs’

               horse, surnamed Scot, was second. Only those two ran…That which was        

              formerly money is now converted to a large silver cup, worth 18 lb. Sterl. or

              thereby, as is reported. The rider that won was John Hoome.


Niel Gow’s “Hamilton Races” refers to the racecourse at Hamilton, Lanarkshire, that is still one of the premier Scottish tracks today. Hamilton was named for the Hamilton family and was the market town for the region, attracting crowds which eventually found entertainment in racing. Niel also composed “Dunfermline Races” in honor of the recurring event at that Fife town. There, in 1702, the town voted a saddle for the day’s races.




English racing is well documented at an even earlier time that is Scottish, and several courses boast associations with Charles II. Chester, the county town of Cheshire, sits on the border with Wales on the River Dee. It is a walled city dating to Roman times (the name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon ceaster, itself derived from the Latin castra, or (military) camp, for Chester was home to the XXth Legion), and also the site of what are generally regarded as the oldest horse races in England:


            …an order relating to them, dated January 10th, 1571, provides for the

            Saddlers’ ball, which was of silk, being changed for a silver bell of the

            value of 3s. 4d. as the prize of the winning horse. In 1610 three cups were                   

            substituted for the bell, and in 1623, “one faire silver cuppe,” valued at

            £8, in place of three smaller cups.   (5)


A nice three-part reel from the north of England, “Chester Races,” commemorates the racecourse. Of note also is the melody “Chester Assembly,” from Johnson’s Choice Collection of 200 Favourite Country Dances of 1750, mentioned because several racecourse-named tunes also have corresponding assembly-named tunes, indicating the cross-over attractions of dancing, racing and hunting as prime entertainments in the late 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. 


“Beverley Races” is a handsomely-paced three-part hornpipe that commemorates the racing in Beverley, east Yorkshire, held since the 17th century at Westwood. These became particularly fashionable in the second half of the 18th century, after they had moved to a new course on Hurn (where a new grandstand was built in 1768), and the dates of the running changed from September to Whitsun. A Gold Cup race was established in 1770, a measure of the course’s prestige. In 1771 a young gentleman merchant from Hull, Yorkshire, one R.C. Broadley, spent five days at Beverley and recorded aspects of upper-class social life in the race’s heyday, for, as might be expected, the social season in the region revolved around the races. Cockfights were held twice a day during race week in the numerous cockpits in the town (they were suppressed by 1829). There were several Assembly rooms for elegant dancing in several sites, especially at Beverley (since 1732) and at Norwood in 1763. In addition, a ball was given by the officers of the East Riding (Yorkshire) militia. All-in-all, twelve regular assemblies for dancing and cards were held on alternate Wednesdays beginning in late September, and there was a full week of social gatherings during the races. Typical is the remark of John Courtney, who wrote in 1764 in his diary: “Beverley races end. I was three days upon the stand in the race ground, and danced every night at the assembly.” However, by the mid-1830’s the climate of the town began to change, as middle class and professionals supplanted the gentry. The lurid entertainments of cock fighting and bull baiting had been suppressed, and the theatres and races had lost popularity, while the assemblies declined. Still, Beverley races survived and remain popular even today.


            Not all did survive. As with other social venues, such as theaters, spas, resorts, gardens and the like, racecourses went in and out of fashion, as did Beverley, and were subject to the same Darwinian social and economic forces. “Oidham Races,” the name of a melody printed in a few 18th century publications, commemorates a village in north Hampshire, about 45 miles west of London, near which was located a race course that existed from 1760-1875. “Knutsford Races” celebrates the events that took place on Knutsford Heath, Cheshire, a horse-racing ground for some 200 or more years dating from the 17th century. They were still going strong in 1819, when the Macclesfield Courier reported:


            The races were very numerously and fashionable attended; among the

            company observed  were the Earl of Stamford, the Earl ofWilton, Lord

            Grey, Sir John Leicester, Sir Thomas Stanley, Sir Harry Mainwaring

            (most of these gentlemen had horses in the races)…from the  respectable

            manner in which the meeting is supported it is expected to become the

            most fashionable in the kingdom.


Yet same paper noted in 1832 that the races had attracted less desirable elements: “The number of gamblers, swindlers and pickpockets at the late Knutsford Races amounted, it is said, to about 1,000.” The races are remembered by a four-part schottische or reel “Knutsford Races” (from Preston’s 24 Country Dances for the Year 1798) and the triple-time, ‘old’ hornpipe “Knutsford Heath.”


 Crime, attracted by the easy pickings of the race crowds, was not the only threat to a racecourse.  They came under civic pressure from church and reform groups, especially in the Victorian era, as they contributed to gambling and vice, and also from the shifting population and economic base of the communities in which they were located. Manchester Races were once run on Kersall Moor, a common three miles northwest of Manchester, in Whitsun week from 1681 to 1847. Prior to that races had been held at Barlow Moor, on the southern border of Manchester, common so far back as 1647 (Richard Procter, Memorials of Manchester Streets, 1874). The racing was not continuous, for an anti-racing lobby succeeded in stopping the sport in Manchester for a period in the mid-18th century, but it resumed at Kersal Moor in 1760. The Manchester Cup was first run there in 1816, and a few years later there were permanent stands and rings. The races were held most years and were well attended by the 19th century, drawing many thousands of spectators. However, the racecourse was moved in 1847 to new grounds at nearby Castle Irwell, in a bend in the river, and were forced to move again (in 1867 to Salford) when the Irwell site was inherited by someone opposed to gambling. By that time, however, they were in questionable fashion for, as one writer sniffed, “The Manchester races are entirely given up to the mill-hands” (6). Yet by the end of the 19th century the prestigious Lancashire Chase, a steeplechase, was an established event on Easter Mondays. Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show visited the Manchester course on two different occasions, proving so popular that it stayed on longer than intended. After the 1903 visit, a Blackfoot Indian by the name of Charging Thunder decamped from the show and settled in Salford, where his descendents are today. Racing finally closed down in Manchester in 1963, due to financial difficulties. An honouring  melody, “Manchester Races,” appears in Cahusac’s Twenty Four Country Dances for the Year 1792 (London), along with dance figures.


Newmarket races have always been the epicenter of English racing and racing activity there can be dated as far back as 1174. Newmarket is, as the name explains, a market town in Suffolk, southeastern England, situated on chalk downland. Charles II, that ardent racing fan, made Newmarket what it was and is, for he moved his entire court to the racecourse for the spring and fall races. The king built a two-story brick pavilion at the racecourse, designed by architect William Samwell, work completing in 1671. In 1753 a description of the racing on Newmarket Heath appeared in The World (vol. 1, No. 17), a popular weekly journal containing just one essay, in this instance penned by Lord Bath:


When the horses are in sight, and come near Choak Jade*, immediately the company all disperse, as if the Devil rose out of his Ditch and drove them,

to get to the turning of the lands, or some other station for seeing the push

made. Now the contention becomes animating: 'tis delightful to see two,

or sometimes more, of the most beautiful animals of the creation,

struggling for superiority, stretching every muscle and sinew to obtain

the prize and reach the goal! To observe the skill and address of the riders,

who are all distinguished by different colours of white, blue, green, red

or yellow, sometimes spurring or whipping, sometimes checking or pulling,

to give fresh breath and courage! And it is often observed that the race is

won as much by the dexterity of the rider, as by the vigour and fleetness

of the animal.


[*Choak Jade was probably a jockey’s nickname for a steep grade on the

course, descriptive of the way it winded the horses].


The same year Lord Bath published his account Newmarket racecourse became the property of the Jockey Club. Races were immediately increased from twice to seven times a year, although the course was shortened a by a third. Betting posts were situated at various places on the grounds, for the half-hour period between matches on race day, and winnings were paid the following morning in the town. Today the town of Newmarket remains entirely given over to racing and boasts two racecourses on Newmarket Heath, the Rowley Mile and the July Course, and four major races a year.  


            Two tunes commemorate Newmarket, both jigs.  The first is from Northumbrian smallpiper John Peacock (c. 1754-1817), who printed it in his Favorite Collection (1805) along with several variation sets, as is typical of smallpipe repertoire.  The tune sits a bit awkwardly in places on the fiddle, with its occasional leaps of a seventh (as in the 4th and 8th measures), however it plays well on the pipes. “Newmarket Races” predates his collection though, as it appears in the music manuscript collection of James Biggins, of Leeds, England, dated 1779. Alternate titles gives clues as to the sentiment behind the composition, for it is also called “Galloping Ower the Cow Hill” (in piper Robert Bewick’s manuscript), which may be taken as sarcasm directed toward the sport. Two other titles for the tune are “Fenwick o’ Bywell,” and “Horse and Away to Newmarket,” which both have their origins in a ballad once sung to the tune, celebrating a match at Newmarket between a mare called Duchess (b. 1748), belonging to William Fenwick of Bywell, and a celebrated Newmarket racehorse. Fenwick also owned an influential stallion named Matchem (1748-1781), and he probably knew his horses well, for he descended from a line of breeders, including Sir John Fenwick who served as Master of the Royal Stud and surveyor of the royal race for king Charles I. Tradition states that the north country horse won the race (which was run in heats), but with nothing to spare. Only the first two lines of the ballad survive—


            Fenwick o' Bywell's off to Newmarket,

            He'll be there or we get started.


Duchess was known as an exceptionally good racehorse and won purses at Hambleton and York, and King’s Plates at Hambleton, Newmarket, Nottingham, York and various other races and batches, beating some of the best colts of her day.


            The second Newmarket jig will be discussed in a future article.



Andrew Kuntz

8 Veatch St.

Wappingers Falls, NY 12590


(1)    Mike Huggins, Flat Racing and British Society, 1790-1914.  London, 2000.


      (3)  Rosamond Bayne-Powell, Travelers in Eighteenth-Century England. London,   


       (4) William Andrews, Historic Byways and Highways of Old England, London,


       (5) Ibid.

(6)   Thomas Hay Sweet Escott, England: Her People Polity, and Pursuits, New York, 1880, pg. 92),




















However, as the 18th century wore well into the 19th, it must be assumed that it was as interested consumers that horseracing made the biggest impact on fiddlers. Given that popular culture always intrudes upon and influences traditional art, it wasn’t long before melodies and titles began to commemorate aspects of the sport apart from patronage or venue seeking, out of personal interest or investment in the sport. These tunes were composed and disseminated in the same anonymous process of most traditional fiddle tunes, rather than printed for publication. In fact, many of the tunes seem to have been linked to fascination with particular horses.  



A foreigner to England, a man named De la Rochefoucauld, gave an account of an 18th century race he attended in which he confesses that he did not understand the English system of betting. It was highly complicated, he complained, and that becoming conversant with its intricacies was very difficult: “…those Englishmen who have mastered the various points regard it as quite extraordinary that Mr. Fox should have been able, in five weeks of intensive study, to grasp its intricacies. In fact, they consider it to be evidence of the mastery of his genius.” (1) 


            De la Rochefoucauld, again, observes that English race horse owners “have from time immemorial taken the greatest pride in breeding of their horses; they treasure their pedigrees more jealously than their own, and they never cross their breeds. In fact their horses have always been recognized as the finest in the world.”