Steeped in tradition and dating back to the rule of King Henry VIII, the Kiplingcotes Derby is Britain’s oldest horse race. That’s not all that makes it special, with the third Thursday of March unlike any other day in the racing calendar.
The masses may tune into The Grand National, and the derbies of Kentucky and Epsom may be more renowned, but none of these races date as far back, or remain as bound by tradition, as the Kiplingcotes Derby in Yorkshire.
Run annually on the third Thursday of March, horses have charged down a four-mile Kiplingcotes course for over 500 years. The rules – which were found in a bank vault and place the first derby to 1519 – stipulate that if the race goes a year without being run, it must never be run again. This key distinction means that come rain, shine, snow, war or Covid-19, the Kiplingcotes Derby has found a way, even if some years it has meant just one or two horses being walked along the route.
This was the case in 2018, when the course was waterlogged and deemed too dangerous to race. In 2020, due to the pandemic, two horses made the socially-distanced journey along the course to preserve the derby.
The route consists of farm lanes, tracks and public roads near Market Weighton, in East Yorkshire. It’s a flat-race, though the course climbs steeply in places. Now a well-known event attracting spectators from all over, the crowds line the narrow course route.
Rules for entry are relaxed: any jockey can enter so long as they weigh at least 140lbs (they can carry weights if not), and pay the £5 entrance fee. The oldest rider known to have taken part was Ken Homes, at 74 years old. Homes also has the most Kiplingcotes Derby victories, with 10.
All horses are eligible to compete, meaning those running range from retired thoroughbred racehorses to stockier breeds, typically used for farm work.
The winner is awarded £50, but finishing in second place usually earns the more lucrative prize, as they receive the entry fee for all the other competitors. In 2019, the 500-year anniversary of the derby, 36 horses took part.
Twenty horses took part in the 2023 edition of the race, and first prize went to jockey Jason Carver and his 20-year-old veteran steed, Start Me Up. It was Carver’s fourth time riding the race, having previously finished both second and third, as well as falling and breaking his collar bone.
“It was a very good feeling to come across the finish line in first place,” Carver said. “We’ve had a second, a third and a broken collarbone in the past. This is the first time I’ve won the Kiplingcotes Derby, but this horse has also won the Newmarket Town Plate with me twice, in 2013 and 2015.”
The Newmarket Town Plate is the oldest race run on a racecourse, dating back to the mid-17th century. This year’s Kiplingcotes victory means Start Me Up has now won Britain’s oldest horse races, both on and off official courses.
“Conditions were pretty tough and I think a horse went down behind us. I’ve ridden in worse and I’ve ridden in better and this was what I was expecting,” Carver continued. “I was going to retire him, because he’s 20, but I’ll be back again next year for another go.”
Despite the popularity of the event, with hundreds lining the narrow course each year, there remains only one bookmaker. Odds for the race are determined simply by sight as the horses arrive. The bookie role has been fulfilled by Chirs Johnson in recent years.
Chris Pitt, a racing historian from Birmingham, described the Kiplingcotes Derby as “the essence of what racing started out as”. Pitt has been attending the event for over 25 years, and speaking to the Yorkshire Post in 2017, said: “You couldn’t wish to meet a nicer bunch of people, it is a super sporting occasion and part of British heritage that we must look to preserve.”
The 2024 Kiplingcotes Derby is set to be run on March 21.