This year marks the 500th running of the Kiplingcotes Derby, the oldest continuously run horse race in England. It is a grueling four and a half mile, cross country race over the Wolds of Yorkshire that has been run annually on the third Thursday of March since 1519. The Library holds a copy of The Kiplingcotes Derby: England’s Oldest Horse Race by Alison Ellerington which can shed some light on the history of this ancient race.
It was founded by 48 hunting gentlemen who all contributed between 5 and 30 pounds. The rules drawn up by this group are dated 1519 so one assumes that the race began that year. However, the earliest recorded mention of the race that Ellerington could locate was found in testimony dated 1556 which refers to the previous year, 1555. The account books of the Earl of Burlington show entrance fees for the race in 1679, and the race appears regularly in the Racing Calendar during the 1700s.
Among the fifteen rules governing the race are some rather specific requirements. Any horse, gelding, or mare of any age is eligible to run but all entrants to the race must appear at the Winning Post and submit their stakes money to the clerk at or before 11am. Anyone that misses this deadline is not eligible to race. The race must be completed before 2pm.
All horses must carry a rider weighing 10 stone, or 140 pounds. Riders lighter than this will have to carry weights upon their person in order to meet the requirement as opposed to carrying additional weight in a saddle cloth as is common in the present day. Ellerington notes at least one winner that ran into trouble with weights and was disqualified as a result. In 1961, Jean Cole-Walton carried 11 pounds of lead weights in her pockets in order to meet the 10 stone requirement. During the race they fell from her pockets. Although she was the first to pass the winning post, she ended up weighing 11 pounds under the minimum and was disqualified as a result.
The winner of the race is awarded prize money and the Kiplingcotes Plate. The original plate later became known as the East Yorkshire Plate and has since been lost to history. Today winners get prize money and a trophy. According to the rules the second rider to pass the winning post wins the stakes money or entry fees. Depending on how many horses are entered this could, and frequently does, result in the second place rider winning more money than the first place rider.
On the day of the race, horses and riders present themselves at the Winning Post to register, pay their fees, and get weighed. After the 11:00 cutoff time for registration, the rules of the race are read to the riders, following which the participants walk the course back to the starting point which is a stone post in the parish of Etton. The race is run from this starting stone back to the Winning Post. Alison Ellerington’s map and description of the course are worth quoting in full:
“The course starts 160 feet above sea level and heads in a north westerly direction. Following the road, the horses galloping along the grass verge climb steadily to 368 feet over Goodmanham Wold. Galloping towards Enthorpe Woods, over the old railway bridge, the going is slightly downhill, dropping 303 feet — a lull before the hard climb towards the finish. At Enthorpe Woods the course is now on a green lane left by the commissioners after the enclosures during the 1800s. From here horse and rider drop a little before the long steady climb up to 438 feet above sea level. This part of the course is usually thick pulling mud, which tires a horse even more should one make the mistake of riding along the middle of the track instead of trying to keep well into the side by the field. The course from here is a steady pull up to the main A163, where it levels out with a straight gallop down the grass verge to the winning post over on Londesborough Wold: a hard testing four and a half miles. Not only do the contours of the Wolds make the race tough, the weather does not usually help; a cold biting wind normally blows and it is not uncommon for snow to be present still, or, failing that, a stinging rain” (p. 15).
Since 1519 there have been at least a few years when the race was only technically run. In 1947 deep snows prevented entrants from reaching the Winning Post. A local farmer, Fred Stephenson, was read the rules by the clerk of the race and proceeded to walk his horse through the course in order to maintain tradition. Stephen Crawford did the same thing in 2001 when an outbreak of foot and mouth disease prevented the running of the race. He kept the tradition alive again last year when the condition of the course was deemed too dangerous for racing. Hopefully this week will see good weather and a successful race to mark the 500th anniversary.
If you’d like to take a look at Alison Ellerington’s book, The Kiplingcotes Derby: England’s Oldest Horse Race, you can find it in the Library’s Main Reading Room.
*Update: The 500th running of the Kiplingcotes Derby was won by Tracey Corrigan on her horse Frog. They triumphed over a field of 36 competitors and it was her fourth time winning the race.
Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail