A King's Coronation on 2000 Guineas Day at Newmarket

May 6th, 2023

While much of the racing world’s attention on Saturday is focused on the Kentucky Derby (G1), earlier in the day, an heir to a centuries-long legacy will be crowned at a venue rich in tradition. That description fits the coronation of King Charles III at Westminster Abbey, but it also applies to the first British classic of the season, the 2000 Guineas (G1), at Newmarket.

It’s particularly apt that Charles III will be anointed on Guineas Day, considering that Newmarket’s cachet as a racecourse goes back to King Charles II in the 17th century. After the trauma of the English Civil Wars; the regicide of his father, Charles I; and the puritanical dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell, the 1660 Restoration of the monarchy with Charles II ushered in an era of artistic revival – and amusements like horse racing, which had been banned for a time.

Newmarket had already been enhanced as a racing venue by Charles I, building upon the groundwork laid by his own father, James I. But the Heath became the iconic “Headquarters” of British racing thanks to Charles II, who is honored with a stakes race during the Guineas Festival.

Dubbed the “Merry Monarch,” Charles II rode in races himself. His favorite horse was Old Rowley, and the king picked up that nickname too. It’s memorialized to this day in Newmarket’s celebrated straight mile course, the “Rowley Mile.”

Another fancy of Charles II is likewise commemorated at Newmarket. The actress Nell Gwyn, one of the king’s mistresses, lends her name to a classic trial for fillies.  

The classic races weren’t devised for another century, with a newfangled interest in putting young three-year-olds to the test. The first classic to be established in 1776, the St Leger, is also the longest. Initially held over two miles, the St Leger remains a stamina-sapper at a distance beyond 1 3/4 miles at Doncaster. Next came the Derby at Epsom in 1780, then a one-mile affair, but converted to its 1 1/2-mile trip by 1784.

The time came for a one-mile classic in 1809, when the 2000 Guineas was established. Five years later, the fillies received their companion race, the 1000 Guineas.

Both staged over Newmarket’s Rowley Mile, the Guineas were so called after their prize money. The guinea itself, as a unit of British currency, was first issued in the reign of Charles II. The coin was minted from West African gold; hence the name reflects its region of origin. Although the guinea ceased to be manufactured two centuries ago, the classics abide by tradition. And you can still find the guineas denomination in Tattersalls sales results.

All-time greats feature on the 2000 Guineas honor roll. To mention only those of more recent vintage, Dancing Brave (1986), Sea the Stars (2009), and the sublime Frankel (2011) starred in the Newmarket classic.

Some of the greats of bygone days won the 2000 Guineas as the first jewel of an English Triple Crown sweep. Only 15 horses have shown the speed to win over the Rowley Mile, the balance and athleticism to negotiate 1 1/2 miles around a tricky Epsom, and the staying power to see out the St Leger.

Among them were such 19th century legends as Gladiateur (a French colt called the “Avenger of Waterloo”) and undefeated Ormonde.

Diamond Jubilee captured the Triple Crown in 1900 as a homebred for the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII. A foal of 1897, born during the 60th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne, Diamond Jubilee was named to mark the festive occasion. 

Although a handful of Triple Crown winners followed over the next 35 years, up to Bahram (1935), it took the same time span to add just one more. Nijinsky II (1970) remains the last winner.

The English Triple Crown is almost never attempted now. A Guineas/Derby winner is exceedingly rare as it is. And when one does come along, he is unlikely to advance to the St Leger, viewed as too far for the commercially-minded stallion. But the Coolmore “lads” made bold to try with the most recent colt to win the first two jewels, Camelot (2012), who was runner-up at Doncaster.

The favorite for Saturday’s 2000 Guineas, Auguste Rodin, is inspiring dreams that perhaps he could be the next one to take a run at history. Like Camelot, he is trained by Aidan O’Brien, who owns the record of 10 wins in the 2000 Guineas, among his overall record of 41 British classic victories.

Auguste Rodin is from the final crop of the legendary Deep Impact, the hero of Japan’s Triple Crown in 2005 and sire of Contrail (2020), who emulated his sire with an undefeated classic sweep. Auguste Rodin’s dam is the multiple Group 1-winning Galileo mare Rhododendron, a full sister to seven-time Group 1 queen Magical.

Bred in the purple and prepared for his classic destiny, Auguste Rodin hopes for a coronation on the Rowley Mile. Maybe the English Triple Crown need not be consigned to the museum as a quaint anachronism, but can find renewed appeal on the global stage.