Days Out: A safari worth a whinny

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The Independent Online
In Newmarket, headquarters of British racing, `the horse is king', say the locals. Indeed, their four-legged friends are so important that the town's roads feature special horse traffic lights. Josie Barnard went behind the scenes.

Newmarket safaris take visitors into classic-winning stables and tour the town's two racecourses. The day can also include - depending on weather, season and individual choice - an equine swimming-pool, the National Racing Museum and a race meeting.

The visitors

Josie Bernard, novelist and broadcaster, went with her friend Lucinda Thomas and goddaughter Matilda Thomas, aged seven.

Lucinda: Newmarket is an attractive market town, with grand, red-brick houses, huge stables, and, of course, miles and miles of immaculately kept gallops. It's good that the tour operators can be flexible about the itinerary; Matilda would probably have found the museums a bit dull. She's here because she loves horses.

I didn't realise Newmarket's equine history went as far back as the 17th century, when King Charles trained his hack Old Rowley here. For horse- lovers, going behind the scenes at Newmarket is the equivalent of being shown round Buckingham Palace.

The talk by the horse-trainer, David Morris, was good. It was inspiring to hear how he loves his work, and interesting to learn how he keeps his animals in peak condition. He says he treats them like people. He is especially careful with their feed. which he hand mixes, using a double handful of nuts, alfalfa and bran and, of course, pink Restore to replace their salts.

The commentary was entertaining, but overall we spent too much time in the coach. It wasn't exactly a Land-Rover-on-a-dirt-track kind of safari in terms of excitement, but the drive round town did give a sense of scale. There are 2,500 horses in Newmarket and around 70 trainers. We had to drive slowly so that the guide, Phil Green, could point out the famous yards; each yard is practically a village in itself.

We were given some racing tips. But we'd been told earlier that everyone in Newmarket is always giving tips, and you can't trust any of them. There are more bookmakers per square inch here than anywhere else in Britain. I wasn't at all worried on Matilda's part. All the racing terminology went over her head. She felt privileged to be so close to such fantastic horses. By the end of the day I was itching to be in the saddle, out on the gallops.

Matilda: I was the only child on the tour. I thought I might feel lonely. The first horse I saw had a white diamond on its forehead. He rolled his eyes and whinnied at me. I felt I'd made a friend.

I have my own pony at Granny's, so I liked comparing. I feed mine hay but I'll try alfalfa next time, although I don't expect she'd like bran. I thought I'd learn more about practical things, like how to make my pony go faster.

I find grooming difficult, because I have to stand on boxes and things. So I liked meeting a jockey and seeing he was so small. My favourite bit was when he had to stand on tiptoes to smack the horse's bum.

Josie: We came with the Daily Mirror Punters Club. Many had binoculars. At the morning gallops, they rushed to the white boundary fence and leaned over, comparing notes on which famous jockeys they could see on this bucking piebald or that kicking filly. They'd formed a syndicate to buy a horse, A Breeze, so they wanted to see he was in good form - "not too blowy". Their enthusiasm was infectious. When A Breeze pranced past we all cheered, then got back on the coach to go to the stables.

And I've never seen such plush stables, pink, with a dovecote in the middle. The horses are treated like royalty. Some of them cost pounds 500,000 plus. They have passports, with blood group and distinguishing features. It is thrilling to touch the nose of so much living, breathing cash.

David Morris's stable is small, containing just a dozen "boxes". It's very much a family affair. His old dog lies around and his daughter's 22-year-old pony is out to grass. David Morris speaks to his charges with an indulgent, parental tone, asking visitors to turn away when the colt Mr Rough is "having a moment at the private end of him".

The staff on the ground - the trainers and stable hands - were charming, but the tour operators rush you on rather fast. The bus nearly left me behind at one point. The up side of this is that neither children or adults have a chance to get bored.

The deal

Getting there: Rayes Lane, Newmarket, Suffolk (01638 561331). The tour operators will collect from anywhere in Newmarket, including the mainline station.

Cost: from pounds 20 per head for half-day tour.

Tour duration: 9am to noon, with pub lunch and afternoon racing if required.

Access: give advanced warning for buggies and wheelchairs.

Food: optional pub lunch, or lots of sandwich places in Newmarket itself.

Toilets: Phil Green says, "Stable yards are private property and have no public facilities, but we would not let anyone suffer".

Crowds: the tours are tailored for individual families, but you may be allowed to join up with a group of about 40. Either way, the day will never feel overcrowded.