It’s been a successful week at Royal Ascot for jockey William Buick. On Tuesday he won the King’s Stand aboard Blue Point, and on Friday he brought Old Persian to victory in the King Edward VII Stakes. Earlier this month Buick gave trainer Charlie Appleby his first Epsom Derby win on Masar.
Born in Oslo to a very horsey family. His mother, Maria, was a dressage and showjump rider and his father, Walter, a Scandinavian champion jockey eight times. From the age of twelve Buick rode out each morning before school and spent summer holidays at the yards of Marcus Tregoning, Reg Hollinshed and Andrew Balding. As soon as he could leave secondary education he moved to the UK and joined Balding’s yard full-time. He rode his first race at eighteen and was awarded the Lester Award for Best Apprentice Jockey the same year.
Surely it was inevitable that a boy with such passion for the sport was destined to leave Scandinavia as soon as possible, being far too big a fish in too small a pond. Norway has only one flat racecourse, Britain forty. Prize money for its biggest race, the Norsk Derby (held at Øvreroll, just west of Oslo) is 500,000 NOK (£46,566), for the Epsom Derby it’s £1,500,500. Spectator figures at Øvreroll lie around 8,000, while on Derby Day at Epsom they’re 150,000 (plus another 1,800,000 watching on television). Though it may be home to ten trotting courses, it’s fair to say that racing in Norway is a pretty small world.
William Buick enters the Epsom winner’s enclosure on Masar
But, on a domestic scale, Scandinavian racing manages just about to hold its own. Denmark, Norway and Sweden all have their own jockey clubs, and all three their own derby: Denmark’s is held at Klampenborg, just north of Copenhagen, Norway’s at Øvrevoll and Sweden’s, as Nick Elsass, the chairman of Dansk Galop disapprovingly tells me, is the only one held on all-weather, at Jägersro in Malmö.
Elsass regularly welcomes Queen Margrethe to Klampenborg in her role as patron of the Danish Jockey Club, normally for the Scandinavian Open Championship (Denmark’s only group race), the St Leger or the Oaks. Like the races she attends, the queen’s visits are also a bit of a British racing spin-off, though the four carriage procession of Royal Ascot is ditched for a single carriage carrying her and a lady-in-waiting.
Unlike her British counterpart, Queen Margrethe is no great racing enthusiast, but that’s not to say Danish racing is not the sport of royalty. Scandinavian racing started in Denmark when an English princess, Caroline Mathilde, married off at fifteen to Christian VII (her first cousin), arranged the first organised races in Copenhagen. Soon after they began in 1770 they were cancelled due to what Elsass calls “a minor Danish revolution.” To bear children (not easy with your first cousin) Caroline Mathilde continued an affair with the king’s physician, Johann Friedrich Struensee. As Struensee slowly overtook the mentally ill King Christian as de facto ruler, it was decided best to execute him and exile Caroline to Hanover. Successive monarchs were uninterested in carrying on Caroline’s passion so there was a gap in Danish racing for over fifty years. Finally, in the late 1820s, regular meetings were held again at Nørre Fælled in central Copenhagen. In 1870 they moved out of town to Jægersobrg Dyrehave, where the present-day Klampenborg course was inaugurated in 1910.
Elsass describes Derby Day at Klampenborg as “very casual”, with no formal dress code, though people dress up a bit for Lady’s Day in September. In total Klampenborg hosts about twenty five meetings a year (the same number as Jägersro across the sound) and shares the Danish flat racing cards with a further four trotting courses: one in nearby Charlottenlund, one in Aarhus, one in Odense and one in Aalborg. Horses come from all over Scandinavia – the Dansk Derby is restricted to horses born in Norway, Sweden or Denmark – but few are trained elsewhere in Europe.
Derby Day at Klampenborg
Swedish racecourses, with their all-weather surfaces (the dirt track at Jägersro was one of Europe’s first) and left-handed turns generally resemble those of America, though Sweden is also home to some to some good turf tracks. One of the oddities of the Swedish racing calendar is the Lördagskomben, a handicap run each Saturday at either Jägersro or (formerly) Täby, just north of Stockholm. It’s usually the only event of the day, and only a very small crowd turns up. Täby racecourse was, until it was closed to make way for new apartment blocks in 2016, the premier racecourse in Scandinavia, with a full programme every week (except in March and April), often held at night when the days were longer. It was also home to Sweden’s two Group Three races: the Stockholm Cup and the Täby Sprint Championship and, until 2002, when a course was opened in Gothenburg, alongside Jägersro it was the only other Swedish racecourse, not counting trotting, a couple of Arabian racehorse days at Blommeröd (near Lund) and the one-day-a-year Svenskt Grand National at Strömsholm (near Västerås). Its meetings have now been moved to Bro Park, a new venue forty kilometres northeast of Stockholm. With a 10,000 inaugural crowd, Stockholmers are optimistic that it will take up Täby’s baton seamlessly, though they are naturally sad to leave its state of the art course behind.
The Svenskt Grand National at Strömsholm
One Danish official summed up the state of Scandinavian racing when he said that “the Norwegians have the money, the Swedes the races and the Danes the jockeys.” Sweden’s races are indeed increasingly well-respected, and Norway has both good sponsors and some ambitious owners willing to pay big prices. Denmark, by contrast, could benefit from more investment but has produced some top riders. Nicholas Cordrey for example rode seven winners and a second at Jagersrö in 2000. Wido Neuroth is perennially Norway’s champion trainer, and the only trainer to send a single horse (Valley Chapel) out in 1999 to win Scandinavia’s triple derby crown in thirty seven years, the varying surfaces making it an almost impossible feat. Some of the glory was taken away in 2005 when his yard was embroiled in a doping scandal: his horses drew five positive drug samples in Norway and two in Sweden. Neuroth blamed his vet, the vet blamed Neuroth. Both were allowed to keep their licenses after paying small fines.
In 2000 Neuroth was the first Scandinavian trainer to make international attention when his horse Pretty Girl came second in the Tattersalls Houghton Stakes at Newmarket. That was six years before Scandinavia’s second racing ambassador had his first win at Brighton. William Buick is now a multi-millionaire, and has firmly based himself at racing’s beating heart in the UK. He’s a favourite jockey of Charlie Appleby, Aiden O’Brien, Sir Michael Stoute and John Gosden, and he frequently rides in the Godolphin colours of HH Sheikh Mohammed. But, had it not been for his father’s foothold in Norwegian racing, it’s hard to see that he would have got to where he is today. While Buick may not be propping up the Scandinavian racing industry, he certainly owes it a great deal of thanks.