Oldest race still under starter’s orders after 494 years

An 80-year old East Yorkshire farmer is preparing for the 494th running of Britain’s oldest horse race. Nigel Burnham reports.

Kiplingcotes Derby

GUY Stephenson and his team are limbering up to enthral racegoers once again with the 2013 running of a race that is a five centuries old tradition in East Yorkshire and attracts fans from far and wide.

He is one of the trustees of Kiplingcotes Derby, a unique cross-country horse race inaugurated in 1519, when King Henry VIII had been on the throne for 10 years.

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While Henry went on to execute two of his six wives and demolish many of England’s finest monasteries, the historic four-and-a-mile race along the tracks and lanes of the Yorkshire Wolds somehow managed to escape his attention – and is still going strong.

Stephenson, an 80-year-old local farmer, and his family have a lot to do with the race’s modern survival, having been key figures in its organisation for the best part of a century.

Mr Stephenson has never ridden in the race, although members of his family have won it. The Derby is run over a tough undulating course otherwise accessible only by tractor or 4x4. Starting at an old stone post not far from the old Kiplingcotes railway station near Market Weighton, it finishes at Londesborough Wold Farm, now home to one of Stephenson’s sons.

An amateur race open to horses and rider of all ages, it’s a romantic but very demanding event.

Curiously the rider of the horse that comes second can sometimes win more than the £50 pocketed by the winner. 

“It costs £4.25 to enter the race, of which £4 goes into the kitty for the horse that comes second, so if there are more than twelve runners, the second horse gets more than the winner,” Stephenson explains. “The other 25p  goes towards the clerk’s expenses.”

The Kiplingcotes Derby’s strictest rule is that the race has to be run at all costs. “It says in the rules that once it’s not run, that’s the end of it,” says Stephenson. And indeed the race has taken place every year since 1519, despite the occasional threat from war or a bad winter.

“In 1947 my uncle had to walk a horse around the course because there was too much snow for the race to go ahead. And in 2001 – the year of foot and mouth – we got a local rider who lived nearby to walk the course with his horse to ensure that the race’s record remained intact.”

However the Kiplingcotes Derby’s long-term future has been put in doubt after health and safety regulations created financial problems for the organisers. “Health and safety means it’s becoming increasingly expensive to organise,” says Stephenson.

“We used to run it on a budget of nothing. But now we have to pay £200 for insurance, £370 for ambulances, and so on, and have about £600 to find this year. One of the problems is that the race crosses a main road and until now we’ve always had the police to control the traffic there free-of-charge.

“But the police have pulled out because of cutbacks and requested that the council work with the organisers to improve traffic and crowd management, stewarding and marshalling, and ensure public safety.

“So this year we’re having to use traffic lights and a private security company. They’re doing it (in return) for advertising this year but if we have to pay them in the future it will be £1,300 – so next year’s race could cost £2,000, which definitely puts it at risk.”

Organisers are appealing for sponsors to help secure the race’s future.  

Market Weighton town council has responded to the appeal this year, giving organisers a £200 donation and promising £500 for next year’s race. 

“We want to help because the race isn’t just an important event for Market Weighton – it attracts hundreds of visitors from all over the country, which brings much-needed money into the area,” says town mayor Peter Hemmerman.

“We don’t know until the morning of the race who’s going to run. You just have to turn up before 11am with your horse and you can take part if our vet clears you to race. Everyone has to get weighed to make sure any light riders – like teenage girls – carry weights to take them up to 10 stone.”

Stephenson’s hoping for better weather this Thursday, after thick fog delayed the start last year – and resulted in the race finishing about half a mile from the winning post to avoid causing a pile-up on the road the competitors had to cross. They agreed that whoever reached the road first was the winner. A ‘finish’ was then staged for the crowd once everyone crossed the road.