Horse Racing in Malta
The Mnarja Races
The most colourful and boisterous festa in Malta is the Mnarja a typical Maltese folklore festival with plenty of music, folk dancing, feasting and colourful horses and donkey races. The “Imnarja” (a corruption of the Italian “luminara” – illumination) is centuries old tradition and is referred to as a harvest festival which is celebrated on June 29th, the feast of St Peter and St Paul. It is characterised by a nightlong picnic at Buskett Garden, Rabat, on the eve of the feast during which the native dish ‘fenkata’, stewed rabbit, is consumed in large quantities accompanied by equally large volumes of locally produced wine. Exhibits of local produce, marching bands, decorated carts and folklore singing competitions enliven the night-long proceedings. The traditional singing ‘l-ghana’ is a simple and spontaneous songs of the Maltese peasantry sung by the village bards. The singers, called ‘ghannejja’, are accompanied by the trilling of guitars. The festivities last until the early hours of the morning.
The following day in the afternoon, the festivities reach a climax when bare-back donkey and horse races, an event which traces its origin from the time of the Knights. Racecourse Street on the road to Siggiewi, which stands at the bottom of Saqqajja Hill, is the venue for these historical races. The prizes for the winners of these races are “palji” (special brocaded banners) which the winners traditionally donate to their village church to be used as an altar cloth.
The horse races are still a very important part of the Imnarja festivities and they were closely followed by the Grand Master.
For the Grand Master’s comfort a loġġa was built in 1696 during the reign of Adrien de Wignacourt according to the design of Lorenzo Gafà and constructed by capomastru Salvu Borg from Siġġiewi.
This current structure replaced an earlier timber structure since it was often damaged by strong winds and thus the Grand Master ordered that a permanent structure be built following a successful petition to Wignacourt by Giovanni Gourgion who occupied the post of Capitano della Verga. It is from here that the winner of the races was presented with a palju.
The loġġa consists of an arched grandstand flanked by two rooms.
The grandstand consists of a number of high semi-circular arches with moulded edges. The floor is covered in masonry flag stones and an inscription within one of the walls commemorates its inauguration.
The Loġġa tal-Palju at Saqqajja, was included in the Antiquities Protection List of 1932 and was scheduled by Mepa as a Grade 1 national monument Government Notice number 1082/09 in the Government Gazette dated December 22, 2009.
Malta Racing Club Formation
Horse riding and driving had always been a popular sport in Malta in spite of the lack of facilities, but it was not until 1868 that a small number of keen enthusiasts, made up mostly of Military and Naval officers and local gentry, decide to found a racecourse.
The first Malta Race Committee was set up by these pioneers, and the Marsa area was selected as the official site for the construction of the racetrack, the longest one in Europe at one and three quarters’ miles long. Funds were limited, and the initial costs were quite exorbitant. The first financial prospectus circulated by the Committee met with failure. However, the gentlemen concerned refused to be deterred. They unanimously resolved to undertake the project on their own responsibility. Somehow their dream was realized, and the first race meeting was held on the 12th and 13th April 1869. The card consisted of seven events, including “The Malta Grand National Steeplechase”, a two-mile race open to English Horses, Arabs, Barbs and Spanish.
Meagre records of these early years make it difficult to follow the initial progress. Most documentation had unfortunately been destroyed by enemy action during the last war. It seems, however that between 1872 and 1914, all the jockeys were amateurs and meeting took place on a “gratis et amoris” basis.
Prospects began to look brighter in 1929, following a period of post war recuperation, mainly due to the large influx of British servicemen and a build-up of strings of expertly trained racehorses imported from North Africa. Trotting Horses were first introduced in the late 1920s, with the first Malta Racing Club Challenge Cup, known as “It-Tazza l-Kbira” held in 1934. However, the outbreak of the Second World War brought a mass slaughter of most of the racehorses, and curtailed any further headway yet again.
After the Second World War
The ensuing revival was long and arduous, but on the 29th December 1945, small race meetings recommenced. Later on, the availability of Trotting Horses and the steady inflow of European thoroughbreds for Flat Races enabled the officials to provide more varied programmes.
Flat Races dominated the horseracing scene until the eventual depletion of the British Forces on the island, which advent substantially decreased availability of both horses and jockeys. These races were eventually substituted by a newer type of race of Ponies in Sulkies, first introduced in 1940, which proved to be popular with both the public and horse owners. This event, reminiscent of the Chariot Racing of Roman days but bound by slightly stricter rules designed for safety, was eventually adopted after the war in February 1946 as a feature of regular meetings and was called the “Go As You Please” Race.
Click this link to view racing in 1949 as the then Princess Elizabeth, now Queen Elizabeth II watches horse racing at the Malta Racing Club.
In 1973 the new committee of Stewards, which was by now taken over by the Maltese, decided to shorten the heavily obstructed race course to make it easier for the spectators to enjoy the complete race, and to facilitate specifications of similar dimensions as those of racetracks in most Italian cities. For this project the committee engaged an expert in this field, an Italian architect called Mouro, to submit the new plan. A lack of financial resources constrained the committee to appeal to the Government and horse owners for monetary aid. This enabled the progression of the much awaited-for project. Work on the reconstruction of the new racetrack started in July 1980. In March 1981 the official inauguration took place, under the guidance of The Marsa Race Course Management Council, which consisted of nine members. Three of these members represented the Government, another three the Stewards, and three members were elected by the horse owners themselves. The grand stand could seat 2000 persons and a special area was provided for the horse owners. Bars Shops and other proper facilities were also provided for.
On the 15th November 1982 the Autostart was introduced in Malta for the first time, and upgraded to international standards of operation in 1994 with the purchase of a new Autostart from Belgium. Starting gates for Flat Races were introduced in 1985, while a Photo Finish system together with an electronic timer were set up in 1983. The latest upgrade to the Marsa Racetrack was in February 2003 when a new lighting system was put in place so as to enable all year round racing even in the summer months when previously no races were held.
During the last years, the Malta Racing Club continued to upgrade its facilities and embarked on a professional management for the organization of horse racing. Some sponsors have contributed much to the realization of this new professional image. Their financial support of all year round championships have enabled the Club to augment the prize monies to the winning horse owners while adding prestige and incentive to the already existent enthusiasm of this sport’s followers.
1993 was a significant year in the history of the Malta Racing Club, when the organization of the European Championship for Apprentice Drivers was commissioned to the Club following a decision taken during the General Assembly of the U.E.T.
In 1995 the U.E.T. again gave its confidence to The Malta Racing Club to organize for the second time the same Championships for Apprentice Drivers, while in 1998 the Union Europeenne Du Trot convinced of the ability of the Malta Racing Club to organize such venues honoured the Club with the organization of the European Championship for Professional Drivers.
Such international events contributed greatly to the Club’s endeavors to promote more enthusiasm for the sport, to draw new supporters and to create more challenge