WE had to go to Daventry and Milton Keynes recently and coming back, on the A5, we found ourselves driving through Towcester. It’s not somewhere either of us had ever been. In fact, we only knew the name because of the racecourse (and the infamous Radio 4 Today programme racing tips). But what a delight this town is! We wished we had time to stop and explore – but here’s a bit of what we learned, even in the 15 minutes slow progress along the main street: Towcester was not only a Roman fort, but has traces of Iron Age and earlier Mesolithic habitation, and may be the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the country; the historic Saracen’s Head inn features in Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers; and it has a beautiful racecourse, where jockey Tony McCoy rode his 4,000th winner in 2013. Sadly a few years later, after changing hands and financial problems, Towcester Racecourse closed.
But it set us thinking … So many famous racecourses are in really interesting places. Here are nine of the best and most historic (yes, we had to include Wincanton – we do live there!) Of course, we couldn’t include all the important famous courses but these do all have something special.
Ascot racecourse was founded in 1711 by Queen Anne – out riding from Windsor’Castle, she came upon an area of open heath that looked, in her words, “’ideal for horses to gallop at full stretch”. Her plans for a new race meeting were subsequently announced in the London Gazette of 12th July 1711 and the first race took place on 11th August. In 1813, an Act of Enclosure ensured that Ascot Heath, although the property of the Crown, would be kept and used as a racecourse for the public. According to Ascot’s website, “extra entertainments laid on for 18th century racegoers included cockfighting, prize-fighting, gaming tents, jugglers, ballad singers, ladies on stilts and freak shows.” It’s just competitive hats and Manolo heels these days – quite tame in comparison!
Cheltenham, with the backdrop of the Cotswolds, could claim to rival Goodwood as the most beautiful course – what it can undeniably claim is to be the home of jump racing and the world-famous Cheltenham Festival, where owners, trainers, jockeys, stable staff and breeders dream of having winners. The jewel in jump racing’s crown, it is four days of thrilling racing, attracting the best horses, jockeys and trainers and an audience of 265,000 racegoers. But it wasn’t all plain sailing – or jumping! The first organised flat race meeting in Cheltenham took place in 1815 on Nottingham Hill, with the first races on Cleeve Hill in August 1818. Popularity soared with crowds of 30,000 visiting the racecourse for its annual two-day July meeting featuring the Gold Cup, but in 1829 Cheltenham’s parish priest, the Rev Francis Close, preached the evils of horseracing and aroused such strong feeling among his congregation that the 1830 race meeting was disrupted and later the grandstand was burnt to the ground! The racecourse was moved to Prestbury Park, its current venue, in 1831. Steeplechasing moved from Andoversford to the present course in 1898.
Chester is not only a beautiful course, it can also claim to be the oldest in the country – and the world! Known as The Roodee (a word drawing on Norse and Saxon languages, meaning The Island of the Cross), the site of the course was an important harbour on the river Dee during the Roman occupation of Britain. It supplied the Roman garrison of Deva, (now the centre of modern day Chester) – some of the anchor stones used at the Roman port can be seen at the current racecourse. Later the site became an island; by the early middle ages silt deposits from a weir system on the river raised the land levels and the original Roodee became a riverside meadow. The first recorded prize given to the winner of a horse race, a hand-painted wooden bowl, was presented to the winner of a race at a Chester fair in 1512 and the first race meeting at the Roodee was organised in 1539 by Henry Gee, mayor of Chester (it is said that Gee’s love of racing made his name synonymous with horses, and hence “gee-gees’!)
Epsom is famous for two things – the salty water and the Derby. In 1618, Henry Wicker, a herdsman, discovered a water-hole north west of the turnpike between Epsom and Ashstead. The water was thought to be undrinkable, but 12 years later its purgative qualities were discovered. It became known as Epsom Salts, which by 1640 sold at five shillings an ounce. Samuel Pepys describes taking the water in his diary of 1667 and later visiting the King’s Head, the nearest inn to the downs, “where … Nelly (Nell Gwynne, the King’s mistress), is lodged at the next house, and keeps a merry house.” During the Civil War, in mid-May 1648, the Earl of Clarendon describes in his History of the Rebellion, “a meeting of the royalists was held on Banstead Downs, under the pretence of a horse race, and 600 horses were collected and marched to Reigate.” This suggests that racing at Epsom must have been a regular and well-attended occasion. Under the Commonwealth (1649-60), horseracing was banned. After the Restoration, the first recorded race meeting in the country took place at Epsom on 7th March 1661, in the presence of Charles II. The Derby was first run in 1780 and is said to have been named after the Earl of Derby after a coin toss with Sir Charles Bunbury.
Ffos Las racecourse in Carmarthenshire was built, at a cost of £20 million, at the site of an open cast coal mine after mining operations ceased. It was Wales’ third racecourse and the UK’s first new National Hunt racecourse in 80 years. The first race meeting was held in June 2009. The racecourse development site is about 600 acres and is located in a natural amphitheatre setting. The racetrack itself is a 12 furlong oval.
Goodwood is known as the most beautiful racecourse in the world – and it’s hard to argue with that. The setting, with the South Downs behind it, in the lovely grounds of Goodwood House, is truly spectacular, and the programme of racing and other events (including the super-stylish Goodwood Revival nostalgia festival) matches the setting. The Goodwood Festival of five days of top quality racing is known as Glorious Goodwood and is one of the highlights of the English summer season. The racecourse is as historic as it is beautiful – the first public race meeting took place here in 1802, the year after the third Duke of Richmond first held a private race meeting for the officers of the Sussex Militia and members of the Goodwood Hunt. The family’s links to horseracing go back to the 17th century – Charles II, father of the first Duke of Richmond, rode in races himself, even setting out rules and adjudicating over disputes.
Ripon takes the beauty title in Yorkshire, a county with more than its fair share of great racecourses (Beverley, Catterick, Doncaster, Pontefract, Thirsk, Wetherby, York). With a spectacular backdrop of North Yorkshire, Ripon has hosted racing for more than 300 years. The first recorded horse races in the Ripon area took place in 1664 on Bondgate Green. Over the next 236 years, several other venues were used to stage race meetings. During one meeting in 1723, Ripon race-goers witnessed horse racing history, with the first ever race exclusively for lady riders. Racing at Ripon moved to its current site at Boroughbridge Road in 1900 and has been an important fixture on the racing scene ever since. The very first meeting at the modern course, known as Yorkshire’s Garden Racecourse, was held on 6th August 1900. Exclusively used for flat racing, Ripon Racecourse is the sporting flagship of this little medieval market town, with its historic cathedral.
racecourse rivals Chester’s claim as being the oldest in the world. Located three miles from the city, the racecourse first hosted racing in the middle of the 16th century, but the exact date is unknown. (That’s why Chester is considered to be the country’s oldest, because its opening date is known). The racecourse position is stunning, with lovely Cranborne Chase downland just to the south and views to the north across the water meadows to Salisbury Cathedral with its soaring spire.
Wincanton racecourse, high above the town, has splendid views across the Somerset Levels to Glastonbury Tor and beyond. It has been a jump racing course at this site since 1927, although racing at Wincanton has a much longer history (dating back to the mid-19th century at Hatherleigh Farm) on the southern side of the town. Wincanton has hosted many of the greatest steeplechasers, notably Desert Orchid who was adored by local racegoers, and 11 times national champion trainer Paul Nicholls, who has his yard at Ditcheat a few miles from the course, has saddled countless winners at Wincanton.
Pictured: An early print of horse racing. Racing on Ascot Heath in a painting dated 1818. The beautiful Cotswolds setting of Cheltenham. The historic racecourse at Chester. Derby Day at Epsom Downs in mid-Victorian times. The UK’s newest racecourse at Ffos Las. The South Downs is the backdrop for Goodwood. Spectacular North Yorkshire scenery provides the backdrop to Ripon Racecourse. Salisbury Cathedral can be seen in the background of the historic racecourse. Desert Orchid at the 150th anniversary meeting at Wincanton in 2017.