09/21/2012 4:05PM

Hovdey: British museum has grand expansion plans


Deep within the bowels of the National Horseracing Museum, on Newmarket’s busy High Street in England’s Suffolk County, Alfie Westwood beckons the visitor to come sit on his racehorse.

Westwood is a docent of a very special nature, and his horse is the mechanical kind, geared to give kids of all ages a rolling go at what it’s like to ride a Thoroughbred at racing speed.

“I hope your dad brought his camera,” Westwood said. The wee one nodded as Alf held out a set of silks.

“Put these on – know who they belong to?”

She did not.

“The Queen,” Westwood said. “Now hop up there.”

Westwood, who owns to 78, rode professionally for 20 years and was still riding out work at 73 until he was injured for the last time, at least on horseback. With a little prompting he shared the story of the plate in his leg, the bone grafts, and other souvenirs of his trade, but he would rather lead the visitor around the replicated weighing room so familiar to a century’s worth of British jockeys.

“I beat Sir Gordon Richards in a race here at Newmarket,” Westwood said. “Kids just weren’t supposed to do that. And I was there the day Lester Piggott was called for hitting another horse with his whip.”

Here Westwood launched into a recreation of Piggott’s testimony, complete with twirling whip and a dead-on impression of Lester’s famous, nasally mumble:

“I was using me whip like that” – whap! – “and when I was hitting my horse the other horse kept putting his head in there.”

It is living exhibits like Westwood – along with his fellow guide, retired jockey John Snaith – that give flesh and blood to the remarkable nooks and crannies of the National Horseracing Museum.

The museum, blessed by Queen Elizabeth II upon its opening in 1983, is replete with galleries richly packed with paintings, sculptures, trophies, and artifacts from 400 years worth of British racing history. Nothing, though, catches the eye quite like the preserved skeleton of Hyperion, the locally bred and trained winner of the 1933 Epsom Derby and St. Leger Stakes and six-time champion sire.

Most visitors stand in appreciative awe of Hyperion’s remains under glass – he died in 1960 – but Dr. Frank Schellenberger, a specialist in equine dentistry, was more interested in his teeth.

“They are in very bad shape,” Schellenberger said. “This horse could still eat grass, but he would have had trouble with hay. And another interesting point – here on the right side, where the tongue bone is tied to the ear. There is calcification, and therefore he had a problem with his right ear. Who knows how much more he can tell us?”

It was fascinating, this version of “CSI: Newmarket,” but also typical of what a museum should be, acting as both a window to the past and a guide to the future – in this case to the future of the Thoroughbred breed.

Newmarket, located about 50 miles north of London, fancies itself to be the center of the British racing universe. It’s hard to argue. The National Stud is there, as is the Tattersalls sales, along with more than 4,000 acres of open land and formal gallops owned and maintained by the English Jockey Club and used by such trainers as Henry Cecil, Michael Stoute, Clive Brittain, John Gosden, Jeremy Noseda, and the Godolphin runners of Saeed bin Suroor and Mahmood al Zarooni.

If Chris Garibaldi and his backers have their way, the National Horseracing Museum will be at the heart of an even more significant landmark. Taking a cue from such American institutions as the Kentucky Horse Park, the Kentucky Derby Museum, Old Friends Equine, and the National Museum of Thoroughbred Racing in Saratoga Springs, the result will be called the Home of Horseracing National Heritage Centre.

Why be subtle? After all, the site for the HoHNHC is located just around the corner from the museum on ground that traces back to the Royal Stables of Charles II (1630-1685), known as the first horse racing monarch. More recently – if 1903 can be called recent – the Rothschilds lavishly renovated the existing stables for their Thoroughbreds, with materials of such lasting quality that horses were still trained there in the 1980s.

“Sitting beneath this site are the footings of the original stables of Charles II,” said Garibaldi, as he stood in the stable courtyard, now blacktopped and pock-marked with weeds. Garibaldi had no background in horse racing before he came to the job as director – he was curator of the royal silver collection, among other things – but he has become a passionate historian.

“The Crown sold off the site in 1855 and the stables were torn down, but the materials were reused to build new stalls,” Garibaldi said. “Macaroni, the horse who won the 1863 Derby, was trained out of here. That reestablished Newmarket as a training center.”

Besides the restoration of the stables, the project – budgeted at $24 million – will include not only the continued refurbishing of Charles II’s Palace House and a much-needed expansion of the Horseracing Museum, but also the creation of a exhibition space on overgrown acreage behind the stables, where paddocks and stands will be fashioned to give visitors a Kentucky Horse Park kind of experience.

“We’ve stolen ideas from everybody,” Garibaldi said with a laugh. “There will be retired racehorses living in the stables, retrained for life after racing. For people to be given chance to see them in this context totally transforms what we’re offering in terms of a museum. It’s truly a complete experience.”

Ground, he hopes, will be broken next year.