A recent trip to a country fair found me next to a donkey sanctuary stand with a token grey donkey. A conversation ensued, (with the owner that is, not the donkey) that all donkeys, mules and horses, have their birthday on 1st January.
How could this be? But neither owner nor donkey knew the answer.
A royal connection perhaps after all Her Majesty has two birthdays each year and her love of the turf is no secret.
So if not by royal decree, who made such a global decision and doesn’t that make January a rather expensive time of year for stable owners? It smacked of commercial enterprise and I wondered if Hallmark Cards had a hand, or should I say hoof, in this dictate. After some nagging, Prime Ministers’ Question Time told me to stop horsing around and they passed the buck to the general help line. They were neigh help.
I discovered that this equine rule is so strict that even if a horse is born on 31st December, on the very next day, they are one year old and not one day. This is why horse breeders try to avoid births late in the year, if a horse is born in the last 3 months of a year, it is unlikely to be raced until the end of the following year, by which time it will be around 15 months old and possibly excluded from some important races.
Where this rule is not observed there are serious repercussions. A horse called Endless Summer, owned by Prince Khalid Abdullah, was registered as being foaled on 2 January 1998 but it was discovered it was born a week earlier. It had won many ‘juvenile’ races, but under the rules he was three years old not two. Consequently he was stripped of his success in several events including the Group Two Richmond Stakes.
My continued quest led me back in time to 1605 when King James 1st discovered the perfect place for his falconry and horse racing, Newmarket. King Charles 2nd followed suit and he loved horse racing so much that he passed an Act in 1665 ensuring that the Town Plate was run every year in October.
Newmarket horse racing grew rapidly until in 1750 the Jockey Club was established to oversee and control English horse racing. A comprehensive set of rules were made and from 1762, Newmarket established some important race fixtures that survive to this day.
Due to the strict racing rules the age of the horse has to be very accurate in order that they run in the correct race, although the system relies heavily on the honesty and integrity of the breeders.
But if left to her own devices, a mare will naturally foal in the Spring/Summer. This explains why, until 1834, the birthday for all thoroughbred horses was 1st May. However in 1834 the Jockey Club decided to change the date to 1st January. This must have caused great confusion, as they were the only organisation to observe this date.
It was not until 1858 that everyone else did the same.
So that was the answer; the birthday of 1st January is so that the thoroughbred horse racing world can make sure the horses running in a race are of a similar age. A book keeping exercise in other words!
Sadly the bad news to all donkeys, mules, non thoroughbreds and every other nag, that plods, trots or gallops; is you do not meet the approved thoroughbred criteria and your birthday is the day you were born. But look at it this way, at least there shouldn’t be a shortage of birthday cards, with well over 1.2 million thoroughbreds in the world, that’s alot of cards flying off the shelf all at once!