February 12 2013
Shortly before Christmas, an illustrious collection of horse racing’s great and good assembled at York racecourse for the 242nd Gimcrack Dinner. The classy black-tie event, one of the smartest occasions in the Turf calendar, is named after the legendary racehorse who was born in 1760 and won 27 of his 36 races in a career that spanned 11 years. A small but muscular grey, renowned for his courage, Gimcrack never actually won a race on the Knavesmire. But York’s patron, the second Marquess of Rockingham – who found time to be prime minister as well as a racing fanatic – was so inspired by the horse that he founded both a club and a race in his honour. The historic Gimcrack Stakes is a £150,000 contest for two-year-olds over six furlongs and takes place at York’s Ebor Festival in August. The owner of the winning horse is traditionally invited to make a speech at the Gimcrack Dinner, an opportunity many use to assess the health of British racing.
Gimcrack was also immortalised in his lifetime by George Stubbs, acknowledged as Britain’s greatest sporting artist, who executed five studies of the horse. The most famous, entitled Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath with a Trainer, a Stable-Lad and a Jockey, was auctioned at Christie’s in 2011 for a cool £22.4m. But the custodians of the Turf have retained many other Stubbs paintings and several of them hang in the Jockey Club Rooms in Newmarket. By comparison, much of what now passes for equine art on sale at big race meetings such as Cheltenham and Ascot, is mediocre at best – which is why it’s so exciting to discover the work of the Gloucestershire-based artist Emma Kennaway, whose reputation has hitherto revolved around her human portraits, including those of famous thespians Timothy West and Dame Judi Dench. A few years ago, inspired by a trip to Kentucky, Kennaway started painting racehorses, both in action and at rest, and the results are stunning. She learnt her craft at Oxford’s Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art and shares with Stubbs an understanding of anatomy, capturing brilliantly the beauty and latent power of the thoroughbred.
In April 2011, Kennaway took a sketchpad down to the track before the Qipco 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket. As every form student knows, that’s the race that Frankel won by six lengths, from which Kennaway fashioned a superb portrait of the runners bursting out of the stalls, Frankel’s pink and green silks already well to the fore. An exhibition of her work was held at the Cavalry and Guards Club last year, and she’s currently working on a new range of equine portraits. Her work can be viewed at www.masterart-brokers.com.
There will, of course, be no Frankel to grace the stage at Newmarket or York this coming flat-racing season now that the maestro is playing the role of an equine Lothario, covering mares at £120,000 a time at Banstead Manor Stud. I doubt we shall see his like, or a horse comparable to Gimcrack for that matter, again in my lifetime. But the champion jockey Richard Hughes assures me that Toronado is his best chance yet of winning the Derby, and the Richard Hannon-trained colt could be each-way value for Epsom in June at 16-1 with Ladbrokes.