The Craven Meeting is the Newmarket’s first of the new flat season and is held each year in mid-April. The three-day fixture takes place between a Tuesday and a Thursday over the Suffolk racecourse’s Rowley Mile track.
The highlights are the two Group 3 races for three-year-olds which provide a look towards the upcoming classics such as the Guineas also on the Newmarket Rowley Mile course. The Nell Gwyn Stakes is a race for fillies over seven furlongs, with the Craven, for colts and geldings, run over a mile.
There are two further Group 3s in the form of the Abernant Stakes and the Earl Of Sefton Stakes and a total of 21 races, 7 each day. These range in distance from the five furlongs sprints up to races over one mile and a quarter.
We will preview the entire meeting below close to the days of the races, we also have a detailed history of the major Craven Meeting landmarks.
A Complete History of Newmarket’s Craven Meeting
Each year at Newmarket, it is the Craven Meeting which heralds the return of flat racing. For this reason, the three-day meeting is one that is etched into the mind of every racing fan, particularly those who live locally. To see horses back on the Rowley Mile following the winter break is a sight to behold, and one that is sure to get the adrenaline flowing.
Like many meetings that still take at place at Newmarket, the Craven Meeting is one with a rich history. Stretching back more than three centuries, people have long enjoyed the action of this early-season gathering. It has changed its format many times over the years but the race that made it all possible, the Craven Stakes, is still going strong today.
1771 – Craven Stakes founded
Months after adding a new meeting to close the 1770 season, Newmarket introduced a fresh meeting to open the following year’s schedule. This new two-day meeting, planned for April, got its name from its feature race, the Craven Stakes. The race itself was named after William Craven, 6th Baron Craven. The English nobleman was a member of the Jockey Club at the time and was a prominent supporter of racing at Newmarket.
The first ever running of the Craven Stakes charged entrants a fee of five guineas. Apparently cheap enough, 21 horses joined the list of entries although only 14 ended up featuring on the day. A horse by the name of Pantaloon, owned by Mr Vernon, claimed glory in this inaugural running. Although no doubt pleased with the win, we are sure Mr Vernon had had little idea what a historic race this would turn out to be.
1781 – Woodpecker secures Craven hat-trick
As it initially began as a contest for all ages, horses could have numerous attempts at the Craven Stakes. Woodpecker was one horse that truly seized this opportunity, winning this contest on three separate occasions: 1778, 1779 and 1781. In doing so, he remains the only horse to have managed such a feat. Unless the entry requirements of the contest changes, there is no danger of his record being matched either.
1859 – Craven Stakes converts to a selling race
For a variety of reasons, few Newmarket-founded races in the 18th century were able to survive until the 20th century. Particularly during the 1800s, walkovers were far from a rare sight and there was something of a revolving door of contests. Sweepstakes was one race type proving unpopular and this persuaded organisers to turn the Craven Stakes into a selling event in 1859.
1878 – The ‘modern’ Craven Stakes arrives
During its early years, horses of all ages could take part in the Craven Stakes. This all changed in 1878 though as the race became strictly for three-year-olds, a rule that remains in place today. In doing so, the contest became a notable trial race for the 2,000 Guineas, which was also run over a distance of one mile.
1884 – Scot Free secures top-class double
We mentioned above how, under its revised form, the Craven Stakes began to serve as a prominent practice event for the 2,000 Guineas. Well, it did not take very long at all for a horse, Scot Free, to win both contests. After comfortably winning the Craven Stakes by three lengths at a 6/1 odds, the colt attracted the attention of the Duchess of Montrose who was keen to make a purchase. A deal was never made though with the asking price of 10,000 Guineas proving too steep. The high demanded fee did at least seem rather justified a month later when Scot Free triumphed in the 2,000 Guineas as the well-backed 3/1 favourite.
1916 – Craven dead heat
As you may already know, Newmarket was one of the few places that still managed to host racing during the First World War. Had they not, we would have been denied the only ever dead heat in Craven Stakes history. Despite having had around 350 renewals, 1916 is the one time that the two leading horses crossed the line with nothing to separate them. The fascinating tie involving Major McCalmont’s Roi d’Ecosse and Lord Derby’s Sir Dighton who enjoyed a 12 pound allowance on an account of his winless record.
1926 – European Free Handicap begins
Records indicate that the European Free Handicap, held on the opening day of the Craven Meeting, originated in 1929. Back then it was simply known as the Free Handicap however with Sir Cosmo the first horse to win it.
1961 – Nell Gwyn Stakes established
The Nell Gwyn Stakes, now held on day two of the Craven Meeting, first appeared in 1961. For its inaugural running only, it went by the name Spring Fillies’ Stakes but this was changed shortly after to commemorate the long-time mistress of King Charles II. Since its inception, it has served as a trial race for various early-season Classics. In 1975, Rose Bowl became the first to win this race, followed by a Classic (1,000 Guineas).
1969 – Abernant Stakes founded
By the other end of the decade, Newmarket added yet another race which forms part of the Craven Meeting. This particular event honours Abernant, a hugely successfully British sprinter, regarded as one of the best the nation witnessed during the 20th century. Naturally, the race named after him was indeed a sprint contest with the opening running won by the Joe Mercer-ridden Song.
1971 – Earl of Sefton Stakes begins
The race we know today as the Earl of Sefton Stakes first emerged in 1971 although back then it was known as the Rubbing House Stakes. In ran under this guise for a mere two years though as the powers in charge wished to honour the memory of Hugh Molyneux, the seventh Earl of Sefton, who died in 1972.
1978 – Feilden Stakes established
The Feilden Stakes, then known as the Heath Stakes, joined the Craven Meeting schedule. The name change occurred in 1982, in memory Sir Randle Feilden, a former Jockey Club senior steward who died the previous year. The first running of the contest was won by Hawaiian Sound, a horse that later went on to win the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup (International Stakes).
1978 – Boldboy sets formidable Abernant record
Fan favourite Boldboy won his first Abernant Stakes in 1974. Although unable to win in 1975, during a disappointing five year old season, this contest had not seen the last of him. Starting in 1976, Dick Hern’s horse began a run of three successive victories, putting his overall Abernant Stakes win record up to a still unmatched four. His final triumph, in 1978, proved to be his final ever victory. He did return to Newmarket in 1979, looking for what would have been an unbelievable fifth win but had to settle for second behind Vaigly Great.
1981 – The “European” Free Handicap
The race formerly known as the Free Handicap became the European Free Handicap this year and it seems Moorstyle had something to do with it. In 1980, as well as winning the Free Handicap, the Robert Armstrong trained horse won the Prix de l’Abbaye and the Prix de la Foret. By the end of the year, he was crowned horse of the year across the continent.
1999 – July Course switch
Due to redevelopment work on the Rowley Mile, the July Course hosted the action for this year’s Craven Meeting. In some instances, it meant that races took place over a slightly altered distance, the Feilden Stakes for instance ended up half a furlong shorter. The change in track did not produce much in the way of shock results although Craven Stakes 2/5 favourite Mujahid endured a torrid time. Defeated by nearly 10 lengths, trainer John Dunlop could offer no explanation as to why the colt performed so poorly.
2013 – Abernant Stakes upgraded
Previously a Listed race, the six-furlong Abernant Stakes enjoyed an upgrade to Group 3 status in 2013. The first running at this improved level was won by Sir Henry Cecil’s Tickled Pink. In doing so, the knighted trainer ended a 27-year drought without a winner in this contest.
2014 – Mull Of Killough in old-age double
There was nothing too unusual about Mull Of Killough winning the 2013 Earl of Sefton Stakes. Only two horses aged seven years old had previously won the 1971-founded contest but then again, few tended to compete. The following year though, Mull Of Killough become the oldest horse ever to win the event, and only the second horse to win on more than one occasion. With this win, the eight year old added to a very impressive Newmarket record that read five wins from just seven starts.
2017 – Dettori at it again in the Nell Gwyn Stakes
Frankie Dettori’s father, Gianfranco, rode the winner in the 1977 edition of the Nell Gwyn Stakes but this is yet another achievement eclipsed his own blood. Having already picked up a trio of wins in 1991, 1999 and 2009, Frankie suddenly hit a golden patch in this contest. Between 2014 and 2017 he rode the winning horse on every single occasion. In the final instance, he did so on 12/1 outsider Daban who set off sixth in the betting.
2020 – Racing cancelled
March’s Cheltenham Festival was the last major race meeting prior to the national suspension of sport. Initially the government stopped British Racing until the 30th April, which meant the abandonment of the entire Craven Meeting. There was however, some hope that some major races of the meeting could be spared, in a behind-closed-doors setting the following month. The Craven Stakes was one of these contests, optimistically pencilled in for 23rd or 24th May but, alas, racing was not able to return this soon.
When racing did resume on 1st June, one Craven Meeting race that did find itself rescheduled was the Group 3 Abernant Stakes. Organisers at Newmarket found room to squeeze it in a packed meeting, featuring 10 races, later that week. The delayed running attracted seven runners with joint second favourite Oxted winning by a length.