A history of racing in Malton and Norton traces a local love-affair with the horse which dates back to the Iron Age. STEPHEN LEWIS reports

NEWMARKET, Epsom, Goodwood, Ascot - Malton could once rival them all as a racing centre. In fact, it was once dubbed the 'Newmarket of the North', and was reckoned in the 19th century to have more stables than beds...

So says The Story Of Racing In Malton and Norton, an informative little booklet published by Malton Museum to tie in with this year's Malton Horse Power exhibition.

The two towns have been known as a centre for racing for centuries - and even though there's no longer a Malton racecourse, the area is still famed for its stables.

This booklet traces the development of racing in the area, going right back to the first race meeting at Langton Wold in 1692 - and even further.

Right back to the Iron Age, in fact. The Parisii, a Celtic race who settled in East Yorkshire long before the Romans came, used to race into battle using lightweight two-horse chariots. Not exactly a sport, that's true - but it demonstrates the importance of horses in the lives of the people of this part of the world more than 2,000 years ago

For the Parisii, the importance of chariots continued into death, the booklet notes. "A person of high status was buried within a dismantled chariot, accompanied by weapons and decorative objects. A recent discovery near Pocklington uncovered a grave where two horses and a chariot were buried upright, poised to speed the dead man into the afterlife."

The Romans, meanwhile, revelled in chariot racing. Septimius Severus, the Emperor who died at York in 211 AD, is credited with introducing Arab stallions to Britain and is thought to have kept a stud at Netherby, near Harogate. "In York, a sculpture of running horses dated around 275 AD and excavated in 18th century Micklegate, might indicate a racecourse near Micklegate Bar," the book notes.

Latterday horse-racing in its form as the 'Sport of Kings' only truly developed after the restoration of King Charles II in 1660, however. Under the king's patronage, Newmarket became a major racing centre, and London high society flocked there.

But Malton wasn't far behind. In October 1664, the well-travelled merchant and alderman of York, Marmaduke Rawdon, passed through Malton, and noted that 'there is kept the greatest horse fair in England'.

Sir William Strickland, who became MP for Malton in 1689, built a hunting lodge just west of York House, his impressive mansion in Yorkersgate. He used it to entertain his racing and sporting friends - and in 1692 a race meeting was held on Langton Wold, a few miles from Malton.

Langton Wold developed first as a training gallops, and then as a racecourse open to all comers.

In 1713, Sir William was one of the signatories of a series of Articles set out for the management of the regular race meetings held there.

"Every horse shall be ready to start between the hours of two and three in the afternoon on the day appointed to run, and shall have half an hour allowed for rubbing after every heat," went one of these. In 1747 the course hosted the 'Hambleton Hundred Guineas', also known as 'His Majesty's Guineas': a sure sign of just how important it was becoming.

In 1801, Earl Fitzwilliam and William Garforth of Wiganthorpe Hall put up money to build a stand at Langton Wold, ushering in a 'golden age' of racing in Malton.

All the major local landowning families - from Castle Howard, Sledmere, Scampston, Settrington, Birdsall and Welham Hall - raced or ran horses there. And in 1814 a Major L Bower of Welham became one of the first owners to register racing colours: a harlequin and white cap.

During the course of the 19th century, racing became more of a business, with professional trainers whose standing in society steadily rose. William I'Anson, one of the most successful trainers, breeders and owners in the north, arrived in Malton in 1849. He bought Highfield House in Norton in 1863, and remained there for much of his career.

The end was in sight for the Langton Wold course, however. In 1861 its owner, a Major-General Norcliffe of Langton, died. His estate, including the racecourse, was inherited by his niece, Rosamund. Her son, the Rev. Charles Best, was opposed to racing. He 'preached against the evils that invariably accompanied a visit to the races: drinking and gambling', the book notes.

So strongly did he feel about it that he persuaded his mother to enclose the course and plough up the turf. "Newspaper reports described the last meeting in 1862 as melancholy, the wrecking of a fine course and its 'beautifully manicured velvet turf'", notes the Story of Racing.

A new racing venture, the Malton Races, opened in 1882 at Highfield House, owned by the I'Anson family. It had both flat and steeplechase tracks, but no shelter for racegoers, so could only operate in good weather. It proved short-lived. In 1903, plagued by years of dreadful weather, the course closed. William I'Anson Jr extended his training gallops, and the track is still used for training today. "But Malton has no racecourse," notes The Story of Racing, rather sadly.

No racecourse, perhaps. But Malton still has its racing yards, which ensure that the love-affair this part of Yorkshire feels for thoroughbred horses continues to this day...

The Story of Racing In Malton and Norton is published by Malton Museum, priced £4.99. It is available from Malton Museum, The Subscription Rooms, Yorkersgate, Malton YO17 7AB between 10am-4pm Thursday to Saturday, or by post priced £7.25.