Boxing Day is one of the busiest days in the calendar for jump racing in Britain as thousands of enthusiasts leave the celebrations at home and flock to one of the 11 meetings on offer.
There is something for everyone, with the highlight being the King George VI steeplechase at Kempton Park.
Pat Buckley, a former jump jockey and the winner of the 1963 Grand National on Ayala, has seen and experienced the Boxing Day meeting before he was forced to quit the saddle due to injuries in 1975.
Buckley rode in more than 2,000 jump races and rode over 450 winners. He also suffered more than 200 falls, breaking his left collarbone seven times and the right collarbone five times. He broke both his ankles, all his ribs on the left side and the right forearm three times.
Now 76, he still has an amazing amount of energy and enthusiasm as the racing manager at Abu Dhabi Equestrian Club.
Buckley has never stopped following racing in the UK. “As a jockey, we never had a break even with the no-racing days before the Boxing Day meeting,” he recalled of his time as a jump jockey.
“We had to go through the daily routine of riding and exercising the horses like any other day.
“But as jockeys trainers and owners, we all looked forward to the Boxing Day meetings for the fact that every centre put up a feature race in their cards. There was a festive feeling at the meetings with the large holiday crowds.
“Boxing Day is very popular even to this date. It’s the holiday period and most racecourses had a meeting and something to offer for everyone and the entire families to enjoy.
“In my days, the prize money would have been a little over £1,000 but nowadays it’s a lot more. Nevertheless, we always looked forward to that post-Christmas presents that were on offer on the day at every racecourse.”
The grade one £250,000 King George VI, a steeplechase, run over the three-mile distance at Kempton Park, is the highlight of day.
“There were three races that every jump jockey wanted to win and they were the Grand National, Cheltenham Gold Cup and the King George VI,” Buckley said.
“To win the King George was awesome but I never did it, as I never had a horse to do it,” added Buckley, who won the Grand National, Scottish Grand National and the Gold Cup twice.
“I rode only once in the King George as my trainer didn’t send many horses to Kempton Park.”
Buckley fancies the Paul Nicholls-trained Cyrname under Harry Cobden to land the race this year.
“He won on his reappearance after rounding off the season with two victories, and I don’t see why he can’t be successful again,” Buckley said of the seven-year-old Nickname gelding.
In most Boxing Day meetings, Buckley rode at the Wetherby racecourse as his trainer had most of his owners in that area.
“There was a big three-mile steeplechase. That served as a Grand National trial and I won that a good few of times (on Areturus, Hoodwinked and Victory Day).
“I can’t honestly remember the consequences in a Boxing Day meeting but I loved to win the big chase at Wetherby.”
Buckley recalled the many disappointments on the Boxing Day as it was the time of the year when the racecourses were frequently covered in snow.
“A lot of meetings were snowed off and the racing cancelled for one reason or another,” he said.
“If there was an early cancellation at Wetherby we would travel to Kempton Park. It was more than a 14-hour drive in the old A1.
“We spent Christmas night near Kempton Park and then the next morning we see the racecourse covered in snow. We have to pack all our bags and return home. Those were the days.”
He pointed out jockeys did not have any rest during the four-day break ahead of the Boxing Day meetings.
“Boxing Day was a special day but as jockeys we worked virtually every day, riding our horses and exercising them along with the daily routine work. So there isn’t a holiday for us. It doesn’t stop for us,” he said.