Welcome to the Roy Waterhouse Steeplechasing guide to British National Hunt racecourses
Last edited on 11th December 2020
COVID-19 and British Racing
Since the earlier update to this page back in the Summer, with the introduction of the ‘tiered’ system of coronavirus restrictions by the UK Government, a limited number of spectators (capped at 2,000) have been allowed back in to sports events, including race meetings. At the time of writing in December, this only applies to most areas of England, with fixtures at Scottish and Welsh tracks still staged behind closed doors.
The TV channels on which you can find regular coverage of all British horse racing fixtures are correct as of August 2020.
For purposes of this piece I wish Aintree was still known as Liverpool, it’s a bit awkward starting an alphabetical list of British jump racecourses with the number two National Hunt venue in Britain, but there we are. A line or two about the expansion of the track’s fixture portfolio later, but firstly let’s describe the courses. There is the huge, galloping Grand National circuit, with the most famous steeplechase obstacles in the world (unless you’re the biggest fan of the Velka Pardubicka ever), and the sharp, left-handed hurdles and Mildmay circuits, the latter one of the few remaining tracks that has genuinely tricky ‘park’ fences. It’s a quick track when the going is good or faster and even good horses don’t always keep their balance round the Mildmay course – normally good jumpers often make mistakes of varying severity, so whilst there was widespread surprise at the fall of Vautour in the 2016 Melling Chase, he was by no means alone. Over hurdles it’s normally a straightforward configuration, with three hurdles on each straight, but Aintree first experimented with a cross hurdle – sited next to the fourth last, or cross fence, on the Mildmay course – at the meeting on 7th November 2015 and have done so again since at their October and November meetings. No particular run-style has an advantage over hurdles at Aintree.
The controversial reconstruction of the National fences, prior to the 2013 Grand National meeting, led to criticism of the race and suggestions that the course had become too easy, with all 40 National runners still in the race until the eighth, the Canal Turn. What they had done was to remove the old timber frames and replace them in most fences with plastic birch, manufactured by Easyfix. When you watch hurdle races in Ireland over the new brush-type obstacles used at several of their tracks now, you’re seeing what’s in the middle of the Grand National fences. The open ditches and The Chair had the timber replaced by real birch. In the 2014 National normal service was resumed, with the first faller at the first fence and more falls/unseats than in 2013, and the National fences are as tough as ever – there are some years when more runners get round, that’s how it’s always been (people forget 23 completing in 1984, for example).
In other races over the National fences, it’s often an advantage to hold a prominent position from an early stage – the Becher Chase over 3m2f, which now starts with the fence after Valentines, is a steadily-run race most years, while speed is what the other circuits are about with no running style particularly favoured. That said, good to firm ground is unlikely to be experienced at the National meeting for the foreseeable future, the track doing their best to ensure good ground. What are referred to as ‘run-offs’ on the Grand National course, which allow fences to be omitted in the event of an obstruction caused by an incident on the first circuit, were used in the 2011 and 2012 Grand Nationals, resulting in a barrowful of unwelcome negative publicity for the race and for Aintree. They were not needed in the 2013 and 2014 runnings, but the one at the Canal Turn was famously brought into use in 2015 owing to Balthazar King’s being brought down by Ballycasey first time round, with the latter’s jockey Ruby Walsh doing the honours with the chequered flag – a role performed by Danny Cook at second Becher’s in 2018. Following the remeasuring of British jump courses, starting from the 2016 running the official distance of the Grand National is four miles, two furlongs and 74 yards. What is most unsatisfactory about the start of the National nowadays is that those horses who end up on the inner, find themselves on an all-weather strip for the first few yards of the race – that needs looking at.
Fixtures, then; gone are the days when they raced just the three days a year, and with days in October and November, the Becher Chase meeting in December and evening fixtures added in May and June, Aintree has never had such a busy programme.
However, in 2020, that programme was utterly decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the same week as the suspension of British racing was announced, Aintree announced that the 2020 Grand National meeting was cancelled – the first year since 1945 that the Grand National has been abandoned. When this page was updated it wasn’t known for sure whether or not the track’s Autumn-fixtures were going ahead, and if so whether or not racegoers would be allowed.
Website: thejockeyclub.co.uk/aintree/. TV: Racing TV
More buildings, more enclosures, more boxes, more security, more bars and more escalators than a London Tube station. Ladies and Gentlemen: welcome to Ascot in the 21st Century. The Royal racecourse returned to the jumping fold after the rebuild in 2006, which at one stage didn’t look on the cards at the beginning of the Millennium. The NH programme went the way of the other ‘London’ grade ones and introduced a lot of ordinary ‘makeweight’ races, some at the expense of better-quality events that were attracting few runners. Indeed, before Sir Peter O’Sullevan’s Never won a three-runner race for the Kennel Gate Novices’ Hurdle in December 2002, the former Chief Executive Douglas Erskine-Crum went on the BBC’s programme and made noises in his interview that Ascot might give up jumping altogether. Instead, it brought it back with a bang. Prize money was up and new races created, and with the exception of Cheltenham itself, Ascot now puts on one of the strongest pre-Cheltenham Festival NH programmes, including three Grade 1 races – the Long Walk Hurdle, Clarence House Chase and Ascot Chase. The new circuit is a bit sharper than the old one, but is the same, basically galloping, triangular shape, and the water jump has been replaced by a plain fence on the chase course. The new home straight seems to ride good whatever the going on the rest of the track, as seems to be the case on the Flat, and coming from the back in a big field isn’t easy. Talking of the Flat, don’t forget the 2m5f Queen Alexandra Stakes. You’ll have heard it referred to as ‘the last race of Royal Ascot’ many times. I call it ‘the original jumpers’ bumper’. Ascot started using the new rubber, one fit padded hurdles in November 2018, the first grade one track to do so.
Scotland’s number one track, but with the exception of the Scottish National fixture, ordinary racing in the main. Not that promising horses don’t turn up throughout the main part of the season, as many a promising Northern-trained novice hurdler and chaser comes here at the beginning of their career. And so they should, as it’s a wide-open, straightforward, left-handed circuit, with well-spaced obstacles on both the hurdles and chase tracks, although with the arguable exception of the first two fences in the home straight on the chase course, the fourth last moved further away from the home turn and closer to three from home in the 2017/18 season. Those that race prominently do well. The track doesn’t seem to drain that well when the wet stuff descends on it, and tiring mudfests can be the order of the day, even in two-mile races. Look at the Scottish National meeting though, and most years it’s like a totally different track. The ground is seldom even halfway-testing for the Scottish National – an exception coming when confirmed mudder Moorcroft Boy won the race in 1996. And in 2008, there was Iris De Balme, leading at the last then going on to do an impression of Lochsong. The Scottish Champion Hurdle, on the National-undercard, is now one hell of a supporting race thanks to a prize-money boost – worth £100,000 from 2015 – and that fixture’s staying novices’ handicap chase got a major reboot in 2018, the £64,980 that connections of Crosshue Boy bagged being a larger first prize than for any of the Cheltenham Festival-handicaps. Prize money that substantial might not be put up in 2020/21 though, with all racecourses tightening their belts in the midst of the pandemic.
Starting from its opening meeting of the 2019/20 season on October 28th, Ayr now uses one-fit padded hurdles, the second Scottish track to use the new rubber obstacles following Kelso.
Website: www.ayr-racecourse.co.uk. TV: Racing TV
Bangor-On-Dee is a right and proper jumping track, located at the Bangor that’s near Wrexham in North Wales. Point your car in that direction, and you’ll more than likely find the course first time, if you’ve never been before. Most NH fans know that, when you get there, there’s no point looking for the grandstand, because there isn’t one. The best vantage point from which to watch the races is the mound that bisects the betting ring and the turn out of the home straight, giving you a good view of the track but an almost head-on view of the line, which isn’t the best in the event of a photo-finish. As that area is uncovered, maybe Bangor is a prime candidate to move all of its fixtures to the Summer. As it is at the moment, it operates all year round, with June the only month with no meetings. The course is a sharp left-hander with few significant undulations, fair for all horses. The point-to-point track on the inside of the main course was used for hurdle races – as such referred to as ‘the Inner Course’ – for the first time in February 2010, but it only seems to be used sparingly for hurdling. Being sharper than the usual hurdles track, and with the ground on it likely to be faster than the main course, you’d expect it to suit those racing prominently, and one mistake might be enough to put a horse out of contention. The quality of Bangor’s programme has increased in recent seasons, with many fixtures including a Class 2 or 3 handicap hurdle or chase with reasonable prize money. Starting from the meeting on 29th July 2016, Bangor replaced their traditional hurdles with the one-fit-padded rubber obstacles, the use of which has become much more widespread.
Bangor is owned and run by Chester Race Company (CRC), which entered into a ten-year agreement to manage and operate Musselburgh in June 2020, and you could argue that has become the third big racecourse-owning group, after Arena Racing Company and Jockey Club Racecourses. CRC did this at a time when every racetrack is either making no money or haemorrhaging money, due to the pandemic. To survive, businesses have to lose assets. CRC, like many others, has made staff redundant – and they’ve gone and taken on a racecourse. As Bangor-On-Dee has effectively been shuffled down CRC’s pecking order, it’s to be hoped that this lovely track is not in line for the chop.
Website: www.bangorondeeraces.co.uk. TV: Sky Sports Racing
The Monet’s Gardens, the One Mans and the Jonniesofas – another reboot for this intro – go to two courses to start their chasing careers. Ayr is one, but arguably the greater proportion of promising Northern-trained, would-be Gold Cup-winners go to Carlisle, which is part of the Jockey Club Racecourses group. The racecourse has recognised this, and beginners, intermediate and graduation chases feature prominently in its National Hunt programme. But why has a hitherto ordinary racecourse become the go-to place in the North to send your good novice chaser to? For the same reason why those trained in the South go to Exeter. It’s nothing to do with the right-handed circuit being a stiff, hilly track – one of the stiffest in the country terrain-wise – but because all the fences are positioned on uphill or level parts of the course, and there’s nothing to catch out the poor jumper thanks to the way they are made, with a soft broom belly and no middle eyeline, only the orange kicking board on the ground. Accordingly, falls and unseats are rare. Carlisle have put a purpose-built hurdles track on the inside of the chase course, and that got its first use in the 2011/12 season, but not for all fixtures – their Flat course is still used for hurdling on their earlier-season jump fixtures. The new hurdles circuit is nothing like as testing – indeed it is considerably sharper, with one less obstacle per circuit on it, giving an advantage to those racing prominently.
Due to the pandemic, Carlisle gave up the entirety of its Flat-programme in 2020, but the intention is for the track to stage its jump-meetings behind closed doors.
Website: thejockeyclub.co.uk/carlisle/. TV: Racing TV
Get your sat-nav working, make sure the petrol tank’s full and set off three hours early, because there’s a bit of pre-racing shopping, eating and drinking to be done in the shops and pubs of Cartmel Village before the first race up in the Lake District on the late-May and August Bank Holidays – and don’t forget to have a stroll round the Priory. They absolutely pack them in, with five-figure crowds the norm, except possibly for their mid-July meeting. If you’ve never been, then you should put a visit to Cartmel on your bucket list. I promise you, no written words can prepare you for what it’s like once you arrive. In terms of where to watch the racing, wherever you go don’t expect to be able to see the whole track, despite the left-handed circuit only measuring a mile round. At Cartmel, what passes for a grandstand is actually in the middle of the circuit. The reason for this is that the run-in is on separate ground to the main circuit, the runners taking the first on the left then going diagonally across to finish their races. For a further dose of the unusual, check out the chase track. None of the six fences on the circuit are jumped in the last half-mile of the steeplechases. Four of them are taken in the straight going towards the fairground bend, then after the last of those, there’s a run-in that’s longer than the run to the line in the Grand National – and, uniquely, with a full turn. If you come here as a serious player, then good luck, you’ll need it. Whether you’re playing seriously or not, you must visit the Cartmel Village Shop and buy lots of its world-famous, home-made, Sticky Toffee Pudding, the greatest dessert in the world. And get some Kendal Mintcake while you’re at it (several different varieties). If you can’t make it to Cartmel in the near future, then don’t worry – you can find the Village Shop’s delicacy at your nearest Waitrose, or at least you could before the pandemic.
For several years now the track has staged a 3m6f veterans’ handicap chase, a Class 3 contest in terms of status, for nine-year-olds and upwards – now that they’re staged at several courses veterans’ chases have become extremely popular, both with professionals and racegoers, but it was Cartmel who started it all. The track was in a rare position among smaller courses in that it didn’t need to do anything much to attract large crowds, but they’ve taken steps anyway over the last couple of years – they boosted their racing programme in 2015 with a few Class 2 races, and they’ve even had concerts, as many tracks have in the Summer. Starting from the 2018 season Cartmel now use the increasingly familiar one-fit padded hurdles, the ninth track to do so I think, unless my arithmetic is failing me. The narrowness of the track was a contributary factor to the voiding of a hurdle race in May 2018 – with insufficient room for a large field to bypass the hurdle nearest the village, where an injured jockey was being treated after a fall on the first circuit, racecourse staff diverted the field onto the run-in. On the positive side – and I’m nothing but positive about Cartmel – it is one of the best tracks for horse welfare, being the first British racecourse to introduce cooling fans in 2013.
The pandemic wiped out all but three of its meetings in 2020, so let’s hope Cartmel’s back better than ever in 2021.
Website: www.cartmel-racecourse.co.uk. TV: Racing TV
Village Shop’s website: www.cartmelvillageshop.co.uk
‘The Bridge’ is further North than you think it is. You think you’re nearly there when you reach Wetherby? Not a bit of it. And to rub it in, during that last 30 miles or so that you’ve still got to drive, you’ll see every other racecourse in Yorkshire signposted before you see any signs for Catterick Village. When you do get there (parking on the opposite side of the road to the racecourse), it couldn’t be further removed from Ascot. You can walk from one end of the enclosures to the other in the space of, say, 200 yards; and small is the operative word when it comes to the grandstand, as befits a gaff track. I was there on a wet New Year’s Day 2008 – how it deals with a Summer crowd for its Flat meetings, I don’t know. It isn’t the most scenic either, but that’s hardly the racecourse’s fault. It’s ironic all the same that Sandown, a train ride from London, is a scenic natural ampitheatre for the built-up area it’s located in, whereas Catterick has a pretty, quiet-looking village nearby, yet the view from the racecourse is dominated not by trees, but by a colliery and accompanying slag heaps, a stone’s throw – if you’ll pardon the pun – from the back straight. The track itself is a sharp, slightly-undulating, left-hander where the ground is seldom testing. When it does rain significantly the track usually takes it well, as it’s based on gravel. Horses tend to get home here on soft and heavy ground, which they don’t at poor draining tracks. Front-runners often dominate, but in recent seasons the staying contests have been won by someone coming from behind. Catterick mooted the possibility of replacing its Flat turf circuit with a floodlit all-weather track towards the end of 2013, with the idea being that they would stage their first racing on an artificial surface in 2016, but with the opening of the new dirt track at Newcastle, you fancy it won’t be happening at Catterick for the foreseeable.
Website: www.catterickbridge.co.uk. TV: Racing TV
No introduction necessary here, surely, to the number one National Hunt venue in Britain, but Cheltenham’s success – not just with, as it is now, the four-day Cheltenham Festival, but with the rest of its programme from October to April – means that a day’s racing here can be an uncomfortable experience, and if you come by car, expect to spend at least an hour trying to leave after racing. The probable reason why Cheltenham is doing so well is that, of all the grade one tracks, it now puts on the strongest pre-Festival jump racing programme in Britain, but, as with Ascot, there was a time when it was heading for the opposite. The rot set in when Channel 4 took over (terrestrial) television coverage from the BBC. Several two-runner races, moderate contests with ordinary horses and, when Challenger Du Luc won the Murphy’s (now the Paddy Power) Gold Cup in 1996, poor-quality turf which saw a few horses slip up – notably Dublin Flyer in the Murphy’s – arguably lowered Cheltenham’s reputation. To add insult to injury, the then-new cross-country course was only drawing a few runners for what was the only race on it all year, but we were impressed with how good McGregor The Third looked, and worried not about the poor spectacle presented. Serious work had to be done – and they did it. Every race from October to April now carries at least five-figure prize money. Better-quality races are put on throughout all Cheltenham’s pre-Festival cards, rather than one or two on each raceday. Meetings are well-publicised and competitive fields are the norm. There’s a place for valuable novice handicaps too, all with a higher ratings ceiling than you’d normally get in them, and such races – like the novices’ handicap hurdle at the Open meeting – work extremely well. So does – and I think we can all admit this after universal reservations in the beginning – the four-day National Hunt Festival. There’s good stuff also at the Showcase meeting (Friday and Saturday in mid-October), the April meeting and the hunter chase evening in May.
There are, of course, three tracks at Cheltenham. The New Course, a mile-and-a-half circuit used in December, January, the last two days of the Festival, April and May, is a galloping, stiff track, with the fences evenly spaced but not so the hurdles – four coming within six furlongs on the back straight then two in the last mile, and with the uphill home straight long enough to accommodate three hurdles at a push but only having one, it suits a horse played Paul Carberry-late. The Old Course, used in October, November and the first two days of the Festival, is sharper, indeed the sharpness of it – not just relative to the New – is much underestimated, for it is a real test of speed on fast ground. There was a change of configuration on the Old Course’s chase circuit introduced in 2010/11. The controversial second last-fence placed before the home turn, at which there had been a number of unlucky falls, was removed and a new portable fence installed just after the bend in the home straight, meaning a two-fence home straight on the Old Course for the first time and the fence count increasing by one for races using the 2m4f chute. The new second last-fence took its share of falls, but I think I’m right in saying that all of those occurred in the closing stages, and the fence has had no complaints to my knowledge. No change to the hurdles on the Old circuit, the second last-obstacle here remaining, although to me it’s just as bad as the old second last-fence for claiming unfortunate falls, such as Wishfull Thinking’s in the 2010 Coral Cup.
The cross-country course now has three higher-profile, competitive chases run over its twisting, turning 3m7f course, these at the Open Meeting, in December and at the Festival. The cross-country chases attract a pool of regulars who also contest races over the Punchestown equivalent, providing an angle for punters, and after a stuttering start, up until 2011/12 they were very much a success story. Unfortunately, the debacle at the end of the cross-country in December 2011 showed it in a negative light. Track specialist Garde Champetre, who could have probably run the track by himself, picked up the pieces as the seven who were a long way in front on the home turn headed to the Old Course-straight instead of the New, where the one remaining stuffed hurdle had been sited (the other two races finish on the Old and some of the jockeys must have been thrown by that). After the resulting pile-up only three completed the course at the first attempt, one of the others turning back. Garde Champetre and Scotsirish, the one who turned back, sadly ran their last in a controversial renewal of the cross-country handicap at the 2012 Festival, run on officially firm ground and won by Balthazar King (first British-trained winner of the race) – plenty argue that it shouldn’t have been run on account of the prevailing going. The 2013 renewal was also beset by problems, its original scheduled running on the Tuesday abandoned because parts of the track were frozen. I think a cross-country chase is worth its place in the Festival – indeed, with Tiger Roll winning the 2018 and 2019 renewals on his way to dual Grand National glory, you could argue that it’s a legitimate Grand National trial – but plenty beg to differ. So it figures that speculation regarding its future is once again rife at the time of writing, after Cheltenham’s announcement that a mares’ chase will be introduced at the Festival in 2021 at the expense of an existing Festival race. Steeplechasing mares are the smallest group of National Hunt racehorses, and the cynic in me believes that the new race won’t be a success, but we’ll see what happens. That followed the introduction in 2018 of a card at Cheltenham exclusively for fillies and mares – the second day of the track’s established April meeting – and this fixture, the first such meeting devoted to mares, is now a permanent fixture. If Cheltenham say they’ll do something, they’ll do it.
A fourth track, the Park Course which linked up the 2m4f chute with part of the New Course and was used in September and October in the early 90s, hasn’t been used since 1995. Away from the racing surface, major building works commenced at Cheltenham after the conclusion of the 2014 Festival, with a redevelopment costing in the region of £45 million including the construction of a new five and a half storey-grandstand – The Princess Royal Stand – which they were hoping would be ready in time for the 2016 Festival, but was actually opened on the first day of the 2015 Open meeting that November. What they’ve done is impressive, it has to be said, even allowing for the redeveloped Cheltenham including a Costa.
There was a truckload of negative publicity about the staging of the 2020 Cheltenham Festival. Only the following week did the British Horseracing Authority announce the suspension of racing, which ran from March 17th to June 1st, and the UK Government announced that we were going into lockdown. However Cheltenham did all they could, given that the number of coronavirus cases was rising apace – hand sanitisers everywhere, lots of ‘wash your hands’-signage – and (at the risk of you all boycotting this website), while I admit I was in two minds about it going ahead, and I’d have said to people ‘they did the right thing’ if they had called it off, nobody’s come out and said that the Festival going ahead in any way directly contributed to the number of COVID-19 cases and/or deaths in the United Kingdom. As to the future, if this pandemic carries on into 2021, putting on Royal Ascot behind closed doors is one thing, but it’s hard to imagine a Cheltenham Festival without the crowds – and, of course, the Irish.
Website: thejockeyclub.co.uk/cheltenham/. TV: Racing TV
Yarmouth, one of Arena Racing Company’s (Arc) portfolio of racecourses, came under fire a while ago for pathetic prize money at the majority of its meetings. As ever with racing’s media, jump racing is the poor relation, therefore there had been been no publicity whatsoever about the gradual degradation of the National Hunt programme at another of Arc’s tracks, Chepstow. Having, I guess, experienced the same problems as the grade ones – Chepstow has never been a grade one – in attracting good horses for an above-average number of better races, Chepstow went the other way and reduced the quality of its fixtures. There have been improvements over the last couple of seasons, one of the most noticeable being the expansion of its traditional early-season fixture in October to a two-day bash, featuring the Grade 3 Silver Trophy Handicap Hurdle and what used to be the Mercedes Benz Handicap Chase on the Saturday, and the Grade 2 Persian War Novices’ Hurdle on the Sunday, although that card moved to the preceding Friday in 2019. The track is a galloping, undulating, nearly 2m-round left-hander, where deep mudfests are commonplace. When it’s heavy, sometimes horses meet the uphill section on the back straight and just grind to a halt. The aforementioned novice hurdles, as I suggested, do contain a few promising ones, but over 2m and 2m4f they tend to be very steadily run to the home straight and, with half a mile going downhill to run, those held up often never get there, and I would think twice before having a bet in a 2m or 2m4f novice hurdle here. We haven’t yet mentioned the centrepiece of Chepstow’s season, which is of course the mudfest that is the Welsh Grand National, traditionally run on December 27th. In order to avoid the bunching and traffic problems that always happened at the first bend, the start – which used to be opposite the grandstand, barely 100 yards before said bend – was moved back for the 2019 running, so the last fence also became the first and was jumped three times; the new official race distance is three miles, six furlongs and 130 yards. Potters Corner won £85,425 for connections in the first running over the new distance but, thanks to the pandemic, it’s likely that the 2020-winner won’t get that much.
Website: www.chepstow-racecourse.co.uk. TV: Sky Sports Racing
Always overshadowed by its Flat programme, the standard of jumping at Doncaster seems to have got higher in recent years. In part this was thanks to redevelopment – like Ascot had done, Doncaster knocked down a few old buildings, put up new ones, came back with a bang – in their case starting with the 2007 St Leger meeting – and resumed its jump programme, which ran from December (when the middle Saturday-card now includes the Summit Junior Hurdle and December Novices’ Chase, which were run at Lingfield) to early-March – the track now starts its NH season in late November. Although National Hunt cards account for a fraction of Doncaster’s total fixture portfolio the racecourse had always maintained their commitment to jumping before the temporary closure, and they confirmed that with the installation a complete new set of fences on the steeplechase track. They proved kinder to horses than their predecessors, with only six falls/unseats from 139 chase runners in 2007/08. The Great Yorkshire – sorry, Sky Bet – Chase is still around, and so is the Grimthorpe Chase, which is used by many as a trial for either the Grand National or the Scottish equivalent. There are 11 fences and seven hurdles on the nearly 2m-round, left-handed pear-shape. A prominent position is important in large-field chases, and over seven out to five out – which are on the crown of the long home turn – those travelling off the rail could end up forfeiting ground, the wider you go the more you lose over those three obstacles. Things are fairer over hurdles. Doncaster before it closed would have been in my top half-dozen tracks, and still is, having visited a couple of times since the rebuild. The addition of the ex-Lingfield races was great for Doncaster, but don’t get me started on the subject of taking the races away from their traditional home in the first place. The opening jumps fixture of the 2018/19 season was abandoned halfway through after some horses had difficulty negotiating the sharp bend after passing the post, the ground rather slippery that day, but after remedial work was hastily carried out the track was good to go the following day and for the remainder of their NH season. In 2020 they got an extra jump fixture in Cheltenham Festival-week.
Website: www.doncaster-racecourse.co.uk. TV: Sky Sports Racing
If the One Mans etc. go to Carlisle, then the Best Mates, Racing Demons and other good chasing debutants trained south of the divide – is it the Trent, is it Newport Pagnell services or is it the M25? – come to this place. It was once described on the front cover of the racecard as ‘Exeter Racecourse/Devon & Exeter Steeplechases/Over The Course At Haldon’. Sat-nav wasn’t around in them days, even after the ‘Devon &’-part of the track’s name was removed officially in 1990. Do you go to Devon first, then try Exeter, or can you find Haldon on the AA roadmap? And where’s this Kennford that’s in its postal address? It’s actually a whole lot easier than that to find, as it’s just off the A38, which you’ll be on if you remember to filter right off the M5. The reason why Exeter is as popular a place to introduce a novice fencer to the rigours of steeplechasing as its northern counterpart is the same – fences that don’t snare a horse’s legs in the event of a mistake (indeed I think Exeter’s fences are among the easiest in Britain), and every one of them jumped on either level or uphill ground whilst going round this undulating, two miles-round right-hander. The hot-bed of chasing talent trained in the West are sure to drop by, this and every season. All the hurdles are positioned on uphill or level ground too. The Haldon Gold Cup in early-November, where the best two-mile chasers often start their campaigns, is the best race at the track (look out for front-runners in it) and – pleasingly for those who like tradition – has yet to move from its Tuesday slot. Plenty of graduation and Class 2/3 novice chases throughout the season back it up. Exeter was bought by Jockey Club Racecourses in late-2006 (when it was still Racecourse Holdings Trust) and, formerly televised by what used to be At The Races, joined the other JCR tracks on Racing UK – now Racing TV of course – when it switched from May 2012. Exeter started to use the rubber one-fit padded hurdles from the first meeting of its 2016/17 season.
Website: thejockeyclub.co.uk/exeter/. TV: Racing TV
Dynamic, fast-paced, ride-a-finish-a-circuit-too-early rave-on, brought to you by a friendly team of people down there in Norfolk. Apologies to backers of Iconic Sky, as I guess you might be narked by that opening line – console yourselves that jockey Maxime Tissier’s error, in a handicap hurdle in April 2018, wasn’t the first such incident here, and it probably won’t be the last. I remember my first visit to the course, a Sunday meeting in November 2001. It had rained all morning, was still tipping down, and I went to the racecourse office to ask what the going was. The reply came: “Good to soft. Ha ha ha!”. Derek Thompson was commentating, and he introduced the recall man to the crowd before the start of the 3m chase – probably the only race start in Britain where the person required to wave a flag in the event of a false start does his job within talking distance of the spectators. Mr Recall Man, probably extremely embarrassed, duly waved his flag for Tommo. If it’s that easy to say hello to the guy in the white coat with the flag, it’s as simple to say what you like to jockeys who’ve pulled their mounts up a circuit too soon or, like Tissier, ridden a finish a lap too early. There are only six chase fences on the square-shaped course, accompanied by four hurdles, one on each side. You’d think that such a sharp track – it’s a fraction less than a mile round, with the last hurdle actually jumped three times in 2m races and four over 2m7f110y – would suit those who go out to make all, but it’s not always so. Some front-runners, particularly if taken on by others, take off like there’s no tomorrow, tear into the bends, use themselves up and get collared just as easily as they might round a more conventional track. Wherever you sit in a race you need to travel well, and if for any reason you’re not – say if you miss the break, or a mistake sets you back at any stage – then the only way you’ll win is if the leaders have gone too fast and come back, and as implied above, that has been known. Novice chases are the best-quality contests, the racecourse’s efforts in putting up five-figure prize money for some of these having attracted such as dual Charlie Hall winner Ollie Magern and Grade 1 Aintree/Punchestown winner Twist Magic over the years. Course specialists are often the ones to be with – El Cordobes, going further back Prince Carlton, and more recently Cool Roxy (who now has a bar at the track named after him) and Beau Torero, are four who spring to mind. I for one strongly recommend that you go if you haven’t been – there’s a good atmosphere and it’s a great viewing track, with the runners passing the post a minimum of three times in every race.
Fakenham might have lost some of its most lucrative fixtures in 2020 because of the pandemic – particularly its Easter Monday-meeting – but the racecourse recently announced that its caravan and camping site was open again ‘after 103 days of lockdown’. Indeed it was fully booked for the August Bank Holiday.
Website: www.fakenhamracecourse.co.uk. TV: Sky Sports Racing
‘It’s like Newbury.’ A.P.McCoy’s description of Ffos Las, already the subject of rave reviews, with nothing whatsoever negative written about it, before it opened in a blaze of glory on 18th June 2009, struck me as being too sexy to be true. However it remained the case after the event that nobody had a bad word to say about it, and all the vibes are that it is here to stay, and that it is an asset not just to Wales, but to British racing; however I have a gripe. More about that at the end of the piece. The dual-purpose Ffos Las circuit certainly looks more like a grade one course than a gaff track. Flat and galloping (like Newbury, but closer to Worcester), it is so wide, both on the straights and the sweeping bends, that it could probably accommodate 30 runners or more in a race – of course that won’t happen, but it seems physically possible, looking at the TV pictures. With this configuration, there should be no hard-luck stories – horses shouldn’t get in each other’s way and the only ones that will lose position in a race should be those that are either not good enough or ungenuine. Although one or two jumps winners here so far have been held up, many have been in a prominent position throughout – indeed a front-runner is often worth having on your side here. Ffos Las’s relative closeness to the ferry port at Fishguard means that there’s often a strong Irish challenge. There are nine fences on the steeplechase circuit – five down the back, four in the home straight – and six hurdles, three in each straight; traditional hurdles are used. I first visited the track in October 2009 and, to be honest, I felt uncomfortable. It drew massive crowds to start with and that day was no exception, and the enclosures and bars were too small to deal with them. There also weren’t enough Tote kiosks. I returned in November 2010 and things had seemed to have settled down – no additions to the enclosures/Tote points, but a smaller crowd – but on my latest visit, in October 2011, it was more like the first time I went. What I don’t understand is why the grandstand at this most modern of British racecourses is so small compared to certain other venues, such as Navan in Ireland where I went for the first time in February 2012 and, despite clear signs of showing its age, the longer and wider grandstand to be found there could accommodate two or three maximum Ffos Las-crowds. With examples of construction and racecourse building going back 100 years to consider before work started, how come they got the end product – from a racegoing perspective – wrong? Something else at Ffos Las with which it’s been easy to find fault has been the state of the going when it’s rained a lot, and this came to a head when only Bob Ford completed in swamp-like conditions in the West Wales National over 3m4f in February 2015. Drainage work was carried out on the jumps track in August that year, but with Ffos Las swapping a fixture with Musselburgh on the corresponding February day starting in 2017, that scenario is unlikely to happen again. Its two feature jumps races were found new slots – the Welsh Champion Hurdle, now a two-miler (was 2m4f), is now run in October, while the West Wales National was rebooted as a 0-140 handicap (with a prize money-cut) and transferred to an Easter-date. Ffos Las, originally owned by prominent racehorse owner Dai Walters, was managed by Northern Racing and later Arena Racing Company since its opening, and Walters sold the track to Arc in May 2018, arguing that it couldn’t get the desired amount of fixtures, whereas Arc can swap meetings between tracks.
Ffos Las lost its entire 2020 Flat racing-schedule on account of the pandemic, but the intention is for it to resume National Hunt racing in the Autumn.
Website: www.ffoslasracecourse.com. TV: Sky Sports Racing
A little place that’s a bit popular is this. Perhaps the reason is that Fontwell is two tracks in one, a figure-of-eight chase circuit – one of a kind, unless Windsor has another jump revival – and a sharp, left-handed hurdles course. The minimum distance over hurdles and fences here is two and a quarter miles – apart from some bumpers which are run over 1m6f – and the winning post is therefore passed three or four times in a race. The perfect ingredient for someone to ‘do a Fakenham’, as it might now be referred to, but thankfully nobody has since Adrian Maguire gave hurdler Access Sun the works after just a mile and three quarters in 1994. The stiffest part of the track is the run-in, which is slightly uphill on both tracks and not quite straight for the chasers, who have to make a slight turn close home where the chase and hurdle tracks meet a few yards away from the line. A horse that can act right-handed might be one to be with over fences here, as the last bend is clockwise. Before Northern Racing, owners of this southern track, became part of the Arc group, they gave the go-ahead for Fontwell to have a new grandstand built in the Premier Enclosure, at a reported cost of a cool £7.5 million. The 888sport Premier Grandstand opened in August 2010. Sadly but predictably, the new grandstand caters much more for corporate hospitality than it does for ordinary racegoers – the private boxes, presumably, have a cracking view of the track, while all regular punters get are a few rows of steps at the bottom. Prior to to the pandemic the track was arguably overused, and it’s presumably because of this that Fontwell replaced the common turf bend at the far end of the track with a cambered all-weather turn. Starting from the beginning of Fontwell’s 2017/18 season, both hurdlers and chasers now run over 350 yards of Fibresand when they’re turning for home.
Website: www.fontwellpark.co.uk. TV: Sky Sports Racing
The configuration of the remodelled jumps circuit at Haydock changed again in 2009/10 and they now seem to have settled on it. Using portable steeplechase fences, as normal nowadays, a ninth fence was added to the chase circuit, sited in the back straight, making it five down the back and four in the straight. What this achieved was bringing the number of fences jumped in a three-mile chase up to the normal minimum of 18 (it’s supposed to be six per mile). The three-mile track was remeasured in 2015, along with all jumping tracks in Britain, and the distance announced as 2m7f when the new distances for National Hunt races came into use, but it presumably remained an issue. Hence the increasing of the distance of the Betfair Chase, and certain other chases at the track, to three miles, one furlong and 125 yards from 2017. A significant development – personally, I think a sad one – was the removal of fixed brush hurdle-races from Haydock’s jumps programme for the 2017/18 season. Clerk of the Course Kirkland Tellwright went on record as saying that there was no demand for them, so the fixed brush-novices’ series was gone and so was the Grade 3 fixed brush handicap hurdle on the Betfair Chase-undercard. Well the latter wasn’t gone completely, as a Grade 3 staying handicap remains on the card over traditional hurdles, won in 2017 by Sam Spinner, who went on to take the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle, and in 2018 by Paisley Park, the 2019 Stayers’ Hurdle-winner at the Cheltenham Festival. Two long-standing Haydock features, the Peter Marsh Chase in January and Grand National Trial in February, are still around. As regards what run style is preferred, while it’s not impossible to win after being held up (like Mia’s Storm in the staying handicap hurdle on the Swinton Hurdle-card in May 2017), many winners race prominently.
Website: thejockeyclub.co.uk/haydock/. TV: Racing TV
After nearly four years off the fixture list, having staged what was intended to be its last ever meeting under Rules on 16th December 2012 – used only for Arab racing and the odd point-to-point since then – Hereford racecourse was warmly welcomed back to the fixture list in 2016, and looks here to stay too. It is a traditional National Hunt course situated in the middle of un-traditional territory, surrounded by the local school, lorry parks and buildings of an industrial estate, and there’s also a leisure centre on one side of the track. The track is a square-shaped, 1m3f-round right-hander with tight bends and minor undulations. Despite the track’s sharpness, some horses are able to come from behind. Probably the best horse to race here since the reopening was the ill-fated Finian’s Oscar, who made a successful Rules debut at Hereford in December and went on to win the Grade 1 Mersey Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree. It’s a shame that it’s not getting its traditional Grand National day-fixture back – maybe one day it will, but for now it’s great to have racing back at Hereford. Whether or not it stays put – well, that decision is in Arc’s hands. They put on a couple of decent races on its Saturday-fixtures last season – a Class 2 handicap hurdle on its mid-December card staged the same day as the International Hurdle at Cheltenham, and a mares’ handicap chase in March upsides Sandown’s Imperial Cup-meeting – so hopefully they’ll put them on again.
Website: www.hereford-racecourse.co.uk. TV: Sky Sports Racing
Moving to the Heart Of All England now – as suggested by the race title of one of Hexham’s longest-established races – for this North East-located, scenic natural ampitheatre. The feature here is the chase course, for the wings of the fences are natural hedges, which have been in place for around a hundred years. For the horses, getting round here can be a bit tough, especially if heavy going is the order of the day, for it’s a galloping, hilly left-hander. The place where a lot of races are decided is the climb to the home turn – the more tired the horse the tougher the climb, and some just grind to a halt. The race programme at Hexham, which doesn’t have the support of one of the big racecourse-owning groups, sadly has gone a bit downhill over the last couple of seasons, after previous seasons staged – or were due to stage – the £25,000-added Northumberland National, which hasn’t been in the programme book recently. Lastly, and for those who don’t know, the aforementioned ‘Heart Of All England’ is a maiden hunter chase run each May, and it’s a race that most of the Northern point-to-point fraternity would love to win. They call it ‘Britain’s most scenic racecourse’ – and judged on my visit there in October 2014, they’re right. One thing to be aware of – everyone who hasn’t driven to the track, has had a bit to drink and is not getting on a coach, will try and cadge a lift to the town centre after racing, so unless you’re okay about having strangers in your car, best thing is to tell them that you’re not going that way (even though you’ll do so without realising, if you don’t know the area).
Having been out of action since lockdown, Hexham is back with a fixture behind closed doors on September 2nd.
Website: www.hexham-racecourse.co.uk. TV: Sky Sports Racing
One of the best tracks in the country in terms of accessibility via road from all over Britain, just off the A1 south of Peterborough, here’s one of those tracks that place the emphasis on speed rather than stamina when the ground’s good or faster. Huntingdon’s course bends right-handed, has easy turns and is flat throughout – see two-mile chasers fly the open ditch in front of the grandstand and whizz round here, where it’s a must to be up with the pace. Actually, it’s desirable to be up there regardless of trip, whether it’s fences or hurdles. The chase course’s water jump was changed a few seasons ago to a ‘false water’ – if a horse drops its back legs, instead of landing ‘in’ it it would land ‘on’ it, reducing the risk of injury and resulting in the horse losing less ground. Commentators’ descriptions of the fence have included ‘spread fence’, ‘false water’ and ‘waterless jump’. The Huntingdon race that everyone knows is the Peterborough Chase, which has a roll of honour including Sabin Du Loir, One Man, Edredon Bleu, Best Mate and Menorah. A drain on top-jockey resources was the main reason behind the race going from a Saturday slot to a midweek date in December from 2008, and more recently to a Sunday meeting the same month. Besides the Peterborough, there are a couple of last-stop-before-Cheltenham races over hurdles in February; the Sidney Banks over 2m4f has been a trial for the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle – although the 2020 winner Shishkin ended up going for the two-mile Supreme Novices’ instead, which proved successful – and the Chatteris Fen for juveniles attracts Triumph Hurdle (or Fred Winter) candidates.
Website: thejockeyclub.co.uk/huntingdon/. TV: Racing TV
The popular Scottish borders-track has been a mover and shaker among British racecourses since the 2012/13 season, when the executive decided to make changes to the configuration to promote optimum use of their ground – they found that 65% of their runners compete in hurdle races and bumpers and 35% in chases, yet the hurdle course was narrower up the home straight owing to the chase course omitting the last two fences. This goes back to when the fence opposite the grandstand was a water jump – it had been a plain fence latterly. That fence was removed, and chase runners now finish their races on the chase track, rather than tacking across to join the hurdles course. The two-furlong run-in is gone, and the fence after the old last obstacle is now the last. Furthermore, what used to be the last fence – now the second last – is an open ditch, and is the only one on the circuit, with the fences that used to be ditches – the one after the stands and the old second last, before the home turn – changed to plain ones. There was a whole new set of steeplechase fences too. The previous permanent fences, which had no guard rail – so they all looked like ditches – and apparently needed three times as much birch to fill them up, have been replaced by portable obstacles built by Watt Fences. Over hurdles, the changes to the chase track in the home straight mean that the last hurdle can be sited closer to the winning post – other than that, the sharper hurdles track is as before, taking the first on the left after passing the stands, and starting from the 2016/17 season one-fit padded hurdles are used. The reconfigured Kelso has proved popular with professionals and racegoers alike. Some quality contests feature throughout the season at Kelso, and the best card here is in late February (early March some years), headed up by the Grade 2 Premier Kelso Novices’ Hurdle, and also containing a Class 2 conditions’ chase over 2m6f, which was the last stop before Aintree in 2011 and 2012 for the Grand National winner in 2011 Ballabriggs, and in 2016 for Many Clouds, the 2015 National victor – in this instance rescheduled to the Sunday before the Cheltenham Festival after the abandonment of the original date. The Scottish Borders National used to be on that card too, but has since been moved to a December date, and another noteworthy race is the Morebattle Hurdle in February, won in 2011 by Peddlers Cross before he took the runner-up spot in the Champion Hurdle, and in 2012 by top notch-novice Simonsig. Thanks to these Kelso has a well-deserved higher profile than ever before. Its April Saturday meeting, with three Class 2 handicaps, was the main fixture on that day’s ITV-show in 2018 and 2019. In other developments, for the 2018/19 season Kelso built a new parade ring in time for the 2018/19 season, and now operates with one enclosure – no longer having separate paddock and members’ areas for racegoers. There seems no end to this go-ahead track’s progression – I just hope I can get there one day…
At the time of writing Kelso are in consultation with Public Health Scotland over the admittance of racegoers, and hopes that spectators will be allowed to attend its opening fixture of the 2020/21 season on September 16th.
Website: www.kelso-races.co.uk. TV: Racing TV
Let’s go back to October 2006. ‘Bit of history now as they cross over the all-weather track for the first time…’ Richard Hoiles’s words as he commentated on the opening novices’ hurdle at Kempton’s first jumps meeting after their Polytrack was installed, were actually describing something that had been done before, just not at Kempton. Some may have forgotten about the few NH cards that took place at Wolverhampton after their all-weather circuit opened for business, which took in a few yards of Fibresand when turning into the back straight. The ‘new’ track at Kempton includes about half a furlong of Polytrack after passing the stands. It’s the same, triangular shape as the old one and is minus one fence on the chase track – the water jump removed without replacement – but it is a more galloping track than before. And here’s another difference. As seems to be the case at Southwell, another track with a turf circuit next to an all-weather, Kempton when there is give in the ground appears to be one point softer than the official going, i.e if they say ‘good to soft’ it’s actually ‘soft’, and if they say ‘heavy’ then it’s ‘very heavy’ (not an official going description, but it arguably should be). Watch Simon’s win in what used to be the Racing Post Chase in 2007, because that illustrates what I’m trying to say. The jump programme, running side by side with Winter Flat dross, is longer than it was before the re-configure (it now extends into May) and, of course, includes the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day – more traditional than Turkey at that time of year – backed up by the Feltham Novices’ Chase and Christmas Hurdle, and the aforementioned Grade 3 handicap chase (it seems to have a different name every year now) plus a hatful of other Graded races on the last Saturday in February. Public transport should be convenient, for Kempton has its own train station with direct services from London Waterloo, but it’s on South Western Railway, which doesn’t exactly enjoy a tall reputation (but then again what train company does?). During the coldest cold snaps, the Polytrack came to the rescue – sort of – with cards of ‘jumpers’ bumpers’ during spells of abandonments, with race conditions such as ‘for horses who are eligible for National Hunt novice hurdles’ or ‘for horses who have run in at least one chase’. Ambitious ideas – I’m not sure it’s right to use the word ‘plans’ – to close Kempton, relocate its jump fixtures to Sandown and build a new all-weather track at Newmarket, were announced by Jockey Club Racecourses in the early part of 2017, but these seem to have been forgotten about of late. The story might resurface from time to time whenever the Racing Post need a filler, but it’s clear to all that there’s little chance of Kempton closing in the immediate future.
Website: thejockeyclub.co.uk/kempton/. TV: Racing TV
Remittance Man, Royal Athlete, Raymylette, Indefence, Arctic Kinsman, Erhaab. Many good horses come to Leicester at the beginning of their careers, even the odd Derby winner besides the odd Grand National hero. I’ve a bit of time for Leicester, and so do many professionals, and if there is fair ground – bearing in mind that the chase track isn’t watered – then expect to see some good ones turn up in the beginners’ and novice chases. The course is a rectangular-shaped, stiff right-hander. The first two of the six fences in the back straight are taken downhill, the next on level ground then the remainder uphill. In a change to the configuration in 2009/10, the open ditch on the crown of the home turn was removed and relocated to the home straight, where it is the second of what is now a four-fence home straight, placing more emphasis on jumping in the closing stages of chases at Leicester than previously, when a horse could get away with mistakes on the back straight or three out, even two out, and turn up late to get the win. Hurdle races are over the Flat course, which is well watered during the Summer and usually softer than the chase track. The run to the line over hurdles is tougher as more of it is uphill, and the leader turning in usually won’t be first at the post. The first ever Class 1 jumps race at the track was inaugurated in 2017, in the shape of the Listed Charnwood Forest Mares’ Chase run in January. Leicester is accessible by train, but if you’re using East Midlands Trains (formerly Midland Mainline), the only way to avoid paying a ludicrous amount of money for the privilege is to book well in advance and hope your chosen meeting doesn’t get abandoned; you’ll then need a bus or taxi for the last leg of the journey.
Website: www.leicester-racecourse.co.uk. TV: Racing TV
The future of National Hunt racing at Lingfield seems secure, only in that messages to the effect that the track intends to go Flat-only – commonplace in the late 90s – haven’t appeared for some time. Things were indeed bleak back in 1999/2000 when the number of jump meetings here was reduced to one and a half – the December meeting and a mixed card in March, with the Winter Derby, on what was then the Equitrack, the feature. Things are better now, although one must admit that the number of Lingfield jump cards in recent years has been boosted by meetings transferred from elsewhere. Arena Leisure (now Arena Racing Company or ‘Arc’), the track’s owners, stepped in when Ascot closed for the rebuild and put on their October and February meetings at Lingfield, and the Surrey track has also stepped in for Doncaster and, in late 2007, flooded Worcester. Having said that jumping seems to have a future at Lingfield after all, the quality of the sport has very much nose-dived. This is thanks to Arc moving the Summit Junior Hurdle and December Novices Chase, once the feature jumps races at the track, to Doncaster. In their place a new veterans’ handicap chase took place for the first time in 2014 – it drew a small field. I can’t believe that the decision to move those races from their traditional home is in any way popular. Lingfield is a triangular-shaped, 1m4f-round left-handed track, with a stiff uphill climb starting before five out in chases and four out over hurdles, followed by an equally-steep descent before the home turn. No pitfalls jumping-wise for the chasers. The ground is often soft or heavy. All its National Hunt Flat races are run on the all-weather Polytrack. Many folk can’t see the point of that, but they themselves are missing the point, for bumpers exist to teach horses to race – after all it’s not as if they’re being asked to run on hot coals. Trains are from London Victoria.
Website: www.lingfield-racecourse.co.uk. TV: Sky Sports Racing
Energetic, proper jumping-stuff in the heart of Shropshire. Enter Ludlow, where the the layout of the enclosures – from a racegoers’ perspective – is highly unusual, something that’s not made enough of in the media. More of that later. There are two flat, right-handed tracks here. The hurdles course has an unconventional layout, with one hurdle on the side going away from the stands, the runners going straight on past the chase bend to go to the back straight, only two there, then a sweeping turn followed by three quick hurdles in the home straight, which can decide a race if a few are in contention turning in. Starting from the meeting on 11th October 2017 and with no publicity that I could find, Ludlow became the eighth racecourse to use the rubber, one-fit padded hurdles. The chase track also has a slightly unusual configuration, with five fences in the home straight – the water jump next to the winning post not taken on the last circuit – and four down the back, chase runners taking the first turn on the right. The fences here seem to be the softest in Britain – many chasers only get half the height of these fences, brush them and don’t bat an eyelid. Even the ‘Tricky Trevor’ fence, the first in the straight, presents no horrors nowadays. The going is usually quick, and the ground on the home turn is usually well churned up come February. There are a lot of paths on the course here and these are covered with what is called ‘coconut matting’. After Pret A Thou slipped up on the matting on the home turn when clear in a handicap chase on December 17th 2009, its use became the subject of extended discussion during Racing TV’s coverage of the meeting; however to be fair, it usually isn’t a problem, and the Pret A Thou incident seems a one-off. As alluded to above, this is a less-than-conventional track. I visited Ludlow for the first time in May 2014 and, let me tell you, it’s a good idea to have a reasonable standard of physical fitness to get through a day here. For a start if, like me, you want to give the horses the once-over before the race, the paddock is in the middle of the track – so you have to cross the racecourse roughly where the winning post is, and hope you don’t get stuck there when they’re going down. And here’s a curio – for some reason, unlike everywhere else, they walk the horses round the parade ring from left to right. After the paddock it’s about a hundred yards to the betting ring, then – if you want excellent views of the action – a climb up the grandstand stairs, onto the roof of the stands. Here, even on the busiest of days, you can pick your spot and be able to see the whole track. Just be aware that, like on the mound at Bangor, there’s no protection from the elements – but in my book, you can’t call yourself a fan of National Hunt racing if you can’t take being rained on for a few hours. Finally, with Shropshire being a county huge on food, it was no surprise that the roast I had in the Clive Pavilion before racing was one of the best I’ve ever eaten. Just one more reason why I recommend you go to Ludlow if you get the chance.
Website: https://www.ludlowracecourse.co.uk/. TV: Racing TV
Summer jumping in Britain, introduced for the first time in 1995, has been a success, and a large chunk of that is down to Market Rasen’s efforts in putting on the best National Hunt cards at that time of year. The popular Lincolnshire venue was known for being where the jump season officially finished – you might remember 1994, when the Dunwoody-Maguire scrap for the Jockeys’ Championship went right down to that final evening card on the first Saturday in June. There’s not a lot of tradition left in National Hunt, but the ‘Raspberry’ was still where the season ended in 2011/12 and 2012/13; however that’s gone now, with the decision to make what is now an all-jumps card at Sandown the only British jumps meeting on the last day of the season, starting in 2014. Market Rasen is a sharp, slightly-undulating right-hander. Try and get on a front-runner, or one who usually races prominently, in large-field chases, because over fences here it’s well-nigh impossible to come from behind in a big field. Brave Spartacus leading from start to finish when winning the 2015 Summer Plate is a good example. That race, a Listed contest, takes place in July along with the Summer Hurdle, and similar races to both – the ‘Prelude’ Class 2 handicaps – are run in early-Autumn. They were on the same September card, but starting in 2018 they were split up, the Prelude Hurdle staying on the late-September fixture and the Prelude Chase moving to an October-slot. Stamina only comes into play here when there’s give in the ground, which doesn’t happen often. This track has gone up in my estimation in recent years and it’s now one of my favourites – even on the busiest days, there’s sufficient room here to get around and feel comfortable. The paddock being in front of the grandstand is also a big plus. Lastly, prize money. Although it could be argued that the £28,475 that Casablanca Mix bagged for connections in the 2019 renewal of the Summer Plate is a good prize for the time of year, that’s what the winner of that race got every year since 2011 – the 2010 winner Grand Slam Hero got £34,206 – however with prize money cut everywhere since the pandemic, connections of the 2020-hero Really Super only got £15,946.
Website: thejockeyclub.co.uk/marketrasen/. TV: Racing TV
At a time when doom and gloom is the only outlook anyone’s predicting for horse racing in the era of coronavirus, it certainly was a boost when it was announced on 26th June 2020 that Chester Race Company (CRC), who besides Chester also own Bangor, had taken on a long-term contract for the operation and management of Musselburgh. CRC were selected by East Lothian Council (ELC) as preferred operator for an initial ten-year period, and it brought to an end years of uncertainty over the racecourse’s future, during which ELC attempted to form a committee made up mostly of councillors, not racecourse-staff, to run the track – a move that prompted the British Horseracing Authority to withdraw Musselburgh’s licence to race. It didn’t come to that, and it now looks as though things will be fine for the next decade. ‘Fine’ is a relative term, though – some of the track’s staff have been made redundant as a result of the pandemic.
They started National Hunt racing at Edinburgh, as this track used to be called, in 1987 (the name change came in January 1996), to plug that little gap between November and March and give a major Scottish city horse racing all year round. Previously Scotland effectively had only two jump tracks during the core period of the season, with Perth’s fixtures restricted to warmer months, and Scottish trainers would have liked more venues closer to home to race their horses at. the best NH meeting is the two-day Festival Trials-meeting mentioned above. The course is a sharp-to-galloping right-hander, though perhaps less sharp than the media would have you believe. After all, the back and home straights have four fences and three hurdles in them, so any sharpness is restricted to the turns, especially the home turn, where many horses on the inner end up coming off the rail. The ground is normally good or better, so there’s another reason why horses run here – some just aren’t up for slogging round Ayr and Kelso in the mud, and that’s where the Musselburghs and the Cattericks come into their own. An all-weather Fibresand-bend after the winning post, which cost the racecourse £100,000 and is used only in jump races, was constructed in 2012 in order to maintain a consistent racing surface. Following a fixture swap with Ffos Las, the Festival Trials card is now a two-day affair over the first Saturday and Sunday in February – major efforts have been made to boost the quality of National Hunt racing at Musselburgh in recent years and, amongst other races on the programme, they introduced a new ‘National’ in 2017; the Edinburgh National over four miles (to be precise, 4m176y), so three laps of the track – with Bob Mahler winning in 2020 prior to being placed at the Cheltenham Festival.
Website: www.musselburgh-racecourse.co.uk. TV: Racing TV
So there I am, writing this web page, and I reach Newbury, and I’m really struggling for an opening line. But that’s the thing – the location is so plain, un-scenic and lacking any sort of character that if it wasn’t for the racecourse, someone would have built a modern housing estate on the site, which today would be inhabited by young Brits of the 21st century misbehaving and dysfunctional families. Okay, let’s get away from that and talk about British racing’s rough diamond, because it’s a grade one track with lots of history and, with Newbury Racecourse station right outside, one of the most accessible if you travel by rail. All you need is the trains to be working properly (which usually they don’t – certainly allow extra time if you’re coming from London Paddington). The best thing about Newbury is that it’s a big wide-open, galloping track, turning to the left, with lots of room, easy bends and a water jump opposite the stands. What I really wish Newbury would do is restore the Cross Flight on the hurdles course. How come they didn’t take away the Cross Fence at the same time, if it was a safety issue? The layout over hurdles became three on the back and four in the home straight in late-1999, then mix-and-match between three/four and four/three, before settling down to a four/three configuration for the last few seasons – and the hurdles used here are now of the one-fit padded variety, Newbury introducing the new hurdles on 22nd March 2019. Over fences it’s five down the back, the Cross Fence down the side, and four in the straight, the water missed out on the last lap. You’ll be familiar with the major jump fixtures, but one familiar race title synonymous with Newbury – the Hennessy Gold Cup – is no more, the Ladbrokes Trophy now taking its place as of 2017, Total Recall winning the inaugural running under the new sponsorship. The Challow Hurdle for novices is over the Christmas period, the Betfair Hurdle – the old Schweppes, now Europe’s richest handicap hurdle – is in February and a valuable 2m4f handicap chase inaugurated in 2004, which has had several sponsors already, is in early March. Not forgetting the valuable mares’ novices’ handicap hurdle later that month. Not calling the Hennessy ‘the Hennessy’ still takes some getting used to, the race having been in the calendar from 1957 to 2016, but potential sports-sponsors have some way to go to top Ford’s support of the Geelong Football Club. When the Aussie Rules team’s present deal with the motor company concludes at the end of 2020, they will have been Geelong’s sponsors for 95 years.
Whilst not exactly bucking the post-coronavirus trend re: prize money, it was good news when Newbury announced during August that the 2020 Ladbrokes Trophy will be worth £200,000 – just shy of 80% of the £245,925 that was distributed amongst the first six home in 2019.
Website: www.newbury-racecourse.co.uk. TV: Racing TV
It’s part of the Arc-fold now, but back in ITV Seven days, Newcastle was awesome. Novice chases here were great Saturday-afternoon television. You need to bear in mind that I was a small child back then, and derived tremendous entertainment from races where six started and only one got round. The most famous fallfest here, though, happened well after Channel 4 had taken over Saturday afternoon coverage. Cast your mind back to November 1990, and the Steel Plate & Sections Young Chasers Qualifier. Five started, and all of them came a cropper. The Tim Reed-ridden Tropenna, left alone when Mr Boston exited five from home, was the last to go to ground, claimed by the ditch in the home straight three out (now four out). Reed remounted the 16/1 chance, negotiated the last two and finished alone. Of course, things have changed a lot. Northern Racing, since acquired by Arc of course, took over the track (quite possibly saving it from closure), removed the water jump, increased the number of fences in the straight from three to four, and the hurdles taken after turning in from two to three. Over time some of those truly huge fences were replaced by portable ones, and Newcastle is now not the jumping test that it used to be. It’s still a testing, galloping left-handed track though, and however easy they find the obstacles, they still have to see out the race thoroughly. Sometimes those staying on at the end can turn a four-length deficit into a two-length victory. There’s been the odd change to the NH programme, and one of the most notable of the races at Newcastle named after ducks, the Dipper Novices’ Chase run in January, has moved to Cheltenham. The Fighting Fifth Hurdle in November, now a Grade 1, is the top hurdle race here by far, and the main support contest on that card is the Rehearsal Chase, formerly run at Chepstow. The Eider Chase, the 4m1f-mudfest in February, also remains an integral part of Newcastle’s jump programme. Awesome though it may have been, in my book that’s one thing this track definitely isn’t now that Arc have replaced Newcastle’s turf Flat course with a floodlit Tapeta all-weather circuit (although only the straight mile is actually floodlit). Jumping was retained and, indeed, it was intended to have extra National Hunt meetings here. If they add more at some point, there are no prizes for guessing which neighbouring track Arc would get those from.
Newcastle had the distinction of being the first track to stage racing in the UK when the suspension came to an end, with an all-weather fixture behind closed doors on 1st June 2020.
on Website: www.newcastle-racecourse.co.uk. TV: Sky Sports Racing
Market Rasen took the Summer Jumping baton at the beginning and ran with it. Certain other tracks moved their fixture lists in part or in full to the (theoretically) drier months later, and that’s now where Newton Abbot comes in, having moved its entire programme to start in late March and finish in early September. It’s now one of several tracks that describe themselves as ‘the leading Summer jumping racecourse in the UK’, or similar. Getting here is basically the same route as that to Exeter, but the two tracks couldn’t be more different, for the Abbot is a sharp, left-handed track with only seven fences and four hurdles to a circuit. The hurdles course is the thing here, for the last hurdle is normally positioned less than a hundred yards from the line – way too close – and a good jump, a mistake or a jockey steadying the leader into it can decide a race if there are a few in contention. Starting in 2013 Newton Abbot took part in the first trials of the now-familiar one-fit padded hurdle, which consists of a standard timber hurdle frame fitted with a consistent, one-piece ‘closed cell’ foam pad, rather than using the traditional birch. The foam is textured and shaped with a convex frontage to replicate the usual birch-filled finish. There appear to be fewer falls and unseats over these hurdles and little, if any, damage to the obstacles themselves. These hurdles are a permanent feature at Newton Abbot now, as is also the case at several other venues, and it’s likely they’ll be at every British jumps track eventually.
Newton Abbot, a loss-making track anyway in recent years, is in particularly dire financial straits as a result of the pandemic, reportedly looking at a £300,000 operating loss in 2020 (it was approximately a third of that in 2018).
Website: www.newtonabbotracing.com. TV: Sky Sports Racing
We’re at Britain’s most northerly racecourse now, and another venue that has made a success of Summer jumping. They are packing them in at this picturesque track, set in the grounds of Scone Palace Park. Perth has two major Scottish areas which are relatively close to draw racegoers from – the city of Aberdeen and the town of Montrose – but never races during the core period of the season, as the ground here is usually saturated in Winter. Now they can race every month from April to September, and stage a quality race during June, the Perth Gold Cup, a three-mile handicap chase. Perth is an easy right-handed track with plenty of room, suitable for all horses and not favouring one run style over another. The popularity of the track extends to the trainers who send horses here – with two-day fixtures the rule, southern yards and many small Irish stables send runners to Perth, and the racing is competitive. The best meeting here is the Perth Festival towards the end of April, three days peppered with a few above-average contests. With plenty of prize money to run for, Messrs Pipe and Nicholls took their scrap for the 2004/05 Trainers’ Championship here. However the trainers who often take the honours are Nigel Twiston-Davies and, arguably to a greater extent nowadays, Gordon Elliott, whose runners always go to Perth on business (those from the Elliott yard are often overbet and too short). As of April 2018 Perth now stages two Listed races at its Festival meeting – in addition to the three-mile novice hurdle which was promoted in 2017, a three-mile chase for mares had its first running in 2018. Encouragingly for the Cheltenham Festival’s proposed mares’ chase, the 2019 renewal of the Fair Maid Of Perth Mares’ Chase – won by My Old Gold – had eight runners. Perhaps a good mares’ chase does have a place in the scheme of things, and that place appears to be Perth.
Website: https://www.perth-races.co.uk. TV: Racing TV
Plumpton’s desire to race no matter what the weather throws at them, saw things at the track sink to a new low on 9th February 2009. There had been abandonments, and A.P.McCoy had therefore been denied a chance to get his 3,000th winner. Plumpton announced in the morning that racing was to go ahead after an inspection, then it rained, rained and rained some more. Okay, they wanted Plumpton to be the place where A.P. rode his 3,000th, I get that – and he did, on Restless D’Artaix in a beginners’ chase – but for heaven’s sake, the horses were galloping through large lakes! You call that safe for horses? They weren’t raceable at any stage that day. It’s unfortunate that, when I think of Plumpton, that’s the first thing that springs to mind. The course don’t have the backing of one of the big racecourse-owning groups and have done everything they can to put historical perceptions of the track to rest, not least introduce a £25,000 bonus for a novice chaser who wins a race here then win at the Cheltenham Festival (pocketed by Voy Por Ustedes’s connections in 2005/06). The tight, rectangular, left-handed course has several undulations and, arguably, the least popular-fence in Britain for jump jockeys on novice chasers. When they turn to go down the back straight they go downhill and, on that descent, there’s a fence. I’m surprised the course haven’t considered moving it to where the water jump used to be, on the crown of the home bend. For hurdlers, the uphill/downhill parts and tricky turns mean that, in a big field, it’s a struggle for horses trapped in mid-pack. Plumpton is one of the best for going by train, with the railway station right next to that turn for home. The Sussex Champion Hurdle, an open handicap first run in 2013 at their Easter fixture, is the top race here – its inaugural running was won by Court Minstrel, who went on to take that year’s Scottish Champion Hurdle. In 2017 it became the richest race ever staged at Plumpton and it became more valuable still in 2018, Vado Forte bagging a £31,396-first prize.
Website: www.plumptonracecourse.co.uk. TV: Sky Sports Racing
No introduction necessary. Channel 4 Racing-viewers got used to the endless schmaltz emanating from various members of their team, extolling the virtues of Sandown, for near-enough the whole of the show’s 30-odd year run. Graham Goode turned into a different person when calling the finishes here. Okay, some of it is justified; it’s a lovely natural ampitheatre, there’s exciting racing and top-class horses run here. Something Channel 4 never told you is that if you go by car, it’s a hellish nightmare trying to get out. Plenty of staff are available to help you park when you arrive late morning, but where are they after the last race? Everyone jams up the exit as they all go for the same place, the main road is already busy because of traffic coming from/going to Esher High Street and the Scilly Isles roundabout, after which the Grade 1 novice chase here is named, is horrible. In the first place the car park here is one of the muddiest at any of Britain’s racecourses (to be fair Cheltenham is a serious rival nowadays), so all in all you’re better off getting the train to Esher. You’ll be familiar with the right-handed, galloping, slightly-undulating course with an uphill finish, which is made out to be stiffer than it actually is – it’s not the Cheltenham hill, which itself isn’t a patch on the Towcester hill. You know the Railway Fences, the Pond Fence and the Rhododendron Walk (the latter isn’t part of the course, but there’s a name for most things here). Hurdle races use the Flat course and the configuration is uneven, with four hurdles on the back straight and two in the home run. The race programme, then: the Tingle Creek in early December is the number two two-mile chase in the calendar; the Tolworth Hurdle for novices in January has given two Betfair Hurdle-winners in recent years in Agrapart and Kalashnikov, who was beaten by subsequent Supreme Novices’ winner Summerville Boy in 2018; the Sandown Handicap Hurdle and the aforementioned Scilly Isles are in February; the Imperial Cup in March is usually won by a horse going on to the Fred Winter or County Hurdles a few days afterwards (the lure of a big money-bonus for winning the Imperial Cup and at the Cheltenham Festival), and of course there’s the Finale meeting – an all-jumps card for the first time in 2014 – on the last Saturday in April featuring the used-to-be-the-Whitbread Gold Cup and the two-mile Celebration Chase, now a Grade 1 as was the inaugural running in the foot-and-mouth year of 2001 – it was supposed to be a one-off race replacing the Queen Mother Champion Chase and saw a famous victory for Edredon Bleu. These days it has Altior’s name on it. Not forgetting two of the few remaining traditions of National Hunt racing, the Royal Artillery in February and the Grand Military in March, where the human participants are past and present members of the Armed Forces (see racecards for the full conditions).
Website: thejockeyclub.co.uk/sandown/. TV: Racing TV
This spot in County Durham was made famous for being former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s constituency, but I strongly suspect that people with no interest in horse racing don’t know that Sedgefield has a racecourse. Past descriptions of it stated that it had a 525-yard run-in – this goes back to the days when it was unique in having the open ditch as the last fence, at the top of the home straight, then a run-in omitting the water jump. Obviously this has changed since then, the water replaced by a plain fence which is now the last and the run-in now a more normal 200-odd yards. The rectangular, left-handed, undulating circuit is on the sharp side, rising sharply after the last fence/hurdle on the back straight before a steep descent coming off the home turn. It’s desirable for a horse to be leading at this point if it’s going for the win – it’s harder to gain ground on the leader when going downhill. Stamina is important in the longer races, for there’s no three-mile start at Sedgefield and most staying contests are over at least 3m2f59y (chases) and 3m3f (hurdles). Sedgefield is an Arena Racing Company-track – after Northern Racing, as it was, took over the track from the Scotto family in 2001, they were accused of buying Sedgefield so that it could transfer fixtures to Newcastle – however a total of 19 meetings were programmed for Sedgefield in 2020 (albeit down one on 2019), suggesting that such a thing isn’t happening.
Website: www.sedgefield-racecourse.co.uk. TV: Sky Sports Racing
In professional punter Sidney Harris’s book, the title of which I can’t remember, he stated that he had no strategy at all about the jump track at Southwell. Well, if Sidney’s reading this, I can help him out. I think that the going here at this Nottinghamshire track is usually one point softer than it actually is, i.e. if they say ‘good’, it’s actually ‘good to soft’, and if they say ‘heavy’, it’s ‘very heavy’ (which I think should be introduced as an official going description), that observation probably related in some way to the construction of the all-weather circuit, for the same thing happens at Kempton now. And in chases, get a good jumper on your side, for the fences here, though portable, are pretty tough for a gaff. But the course itself is pretty-well normal – it’s an American-shaped, completely flat left-hander, situated inside the Fibresand. The turns are easy and both straights give horses and jockeys time to get organised at the obstacles. Some horses can make all, others have no problem coming from behind – no run style has an advantage over another in well-run races. At Southwell, they’ve been running chases and hurdles on the same strip of ground for getting on for two decades. Chases first, whip the portable fences off, hurdles on. The going-out-of-fashion fixed brush hurdles are used here: originally made for the all-weather hurdling experiment, Southwell used them on grass for the first time in March 1993 and has done so ever since. The ‘mini-fences’ are kinder to horses, who brush through the plastic ‘birch’ rather than whack a solid wood frame. And, of course, you can’t knock ‘em flat. There’s no scenery at Southwell – Harris used the word ‘featureless’ – but I like it. During cold snaps Southwell has often stepped in to stage jumpers’ bumpers-cards, earning an unwanted statistic for one such meeting scheduled at short notice in early 2018, which reportedly drew a paying attendance of 13 racegoers. The track has installed floodlights for its Fibresand-circuit, but for those of you waiting for floodlit jumps (if there are any), the wait goes on.
Southwell staged the first jumps meeting in the UK since the resumption of racing on 1st July 2020, with a previous Grade 3 handicap hurdle-winner in Hunters Call taking the feature race, but since then the track’s been in the news for very much the wrong reasons. After six fatalities at the track between 30th July and 24th August, the British Horseracing Authority has launched an investigation.
Website: www.southwell-racecourse.co.uk. TV: At The Races
The course next to the River Avon is another to have re-invented itself as a Summer jumps course, but the comfort of those that visit Stratford does not appear to be one of the racecourse’s prime concerns. They rebuilt their grandstand relatively recently, back in 1997, but they got it wrong in my opinion. The new structure is too small and unable to cope with a crowd. People insist on taking their pints onto it – the bars here were selling double-pints when I visited in June 2018 – and, all in all, I think I’d prefer a walk in the park than a day at Stratford when it’s sunny and warm. The track is a tight left-hander with no significant undulations. In a change to the configuration on the hurdles course, one of the two obstacles taken before the winning post was moved to a site between the line and the turn away from the stands from its 2012 season. Prior to that they changed around the chase course, which for over a decade after removing the water jump in front of the stands, had two fences in the home straight, which worked fine until there were suddenly a lot of fallers over these two fences in 2006. Maybe the second last had been moved a few yards one way or the other before the falls, but I’m very much guessing there. Their first solution was to remove that second last but have a new fence closer to the line – so the last became the second last, and the new final fence was sited about a hundred yards before the winning post. This still didn’t solve the problem as the number of falls at these two remained above the average, so from 2008 Stratford restored the water jump in front of the stands (now a ‘false water’, like at Huntingdon), and went back to just the one fence jumped in the closing stages. This seems to have done the trick and there are now fewer fallers in the home straight, as well as a great spectacle for racegoers. All we need now is the old Courage Brewery Chase back from ITV Seven days, with the shire horses at the start… One moan, though; they moved the Horse & Hound Cup to the Friday of their late-May or early-June two-day meeting from 2011 – another contribution to the trashing of tradition in jumping – and it’s been on the Friday ever since, that card becoming an all hunter chase-fixture from 2017. There are some racegoers out there that still like hunter chases (especially good ones, the Horse & Hound largely regarded as third in the pecking order to the Cheltenham and Aintree Foxhunters’), and not everyone can make it on Friday night. In my opinion Stratford need to put things back the way they were, but when was the last time you had an all hunter-card on a Saturday? Starting from March 2017 Stratford replaced its traditional hurdles with one fit padded-obstacles.
Website: www.stratfordracecourse.net. TV: Racing TV
We’re off west here, deep in Zummerset cider-drinking country. They say that, first and foremost, Taunton is a hurdle-race track, and at one point they had special dispensation which let them stage just two chases per meeting instead of the minimum three in the height of Winter. Novice hurdles here often carry prize money that’s above the minimum levels. Okay, that’s great, but there’s a problem here that the racecourse executive probably don’t think they have. I don’t know if any work has ever been done on the turn out of the back straight on the hurdles course, but that is the worst bend on a British racetrack. It comes not long after the last hurdle down the back, and normally takes the form of about five yards of rail, shaped into a curve. The place to be at that point is in front, no two ways. The layout of that turn is such that those in the chasing group can do nothing but get in each other’s way, and most are beaten right there. The fact that most novice hurdles at the track go up through the gears at this point after being steadily-run affairs only makes matters worse. To be fair, that bend is sometimes dolled out to its furthest extremity and it seems less problematical when that is the case, watching on TV anyway. Aside from that, a jumping error at any point on the last circuit of hurdle races often means that a horse holding a strong winning chance before the mistake, instantly goes to having no chance at all. Don’t be surprised if a fancied horse in a Taunton hurdle that’s well beaten, returns to form next time at a track with a fairer layout. Overall Taunton is a sharp, right-handed, rectangular course, better for chasers than hurdlers I think (as you’ll have gathered), as long as you hold a prominent position from the outset on either circuit. It’s a popular place, and even on a crisp and cold Thursday in February, you have to wedge yourself in to the grandstand. Taunton staged a meeting on a Saturday for the first time ever in January 2014 and it’s remained in the Fixture List ever since. In 2014/15 Taunton replaced their hurdles with the rubber, one fit padded obstacles, now used at several other tracks – at least when the hurdles were actually jumped, for some most bizarre low-sun obstacle omissions happened at Taunton in December 2015. All three hurdles on the back straight were taken out for one race, then the following race was a chase and, even though the sun was out, all the back-straight fences were left in. The next race was a Listed mares’ novices’ hurdle and, even though they’d jumped all the fences half an hour before, they still took out the back-straight hurdles. What made the situation completely impossible to comprehend was that the sun had actually gone in before the race, and it wasn’t hard to understand why Paul Nicholls, whose Tara Point won the race, was angry about it when interviewed on TV afterwards. Hopefully, the sun won’t shine on Taunton in the new season (as long as the track itself is raceable).
Website: www.tauntonracecourse.co.uk. TV: Racing TV
Towcester (now closed)
It was announced on 1st October 2019 that Towcester, at least as a horse racing venue, has closed, and its remaining horse racing fixtures sold to Arena Racing Company. It has reopened as a greyhound racing-venue.
This is where it all began for the late Sir Stanley Clarke’s Northern Racing group. The Staffordshire countryside course at Uttoxeter was down on its uppers, then Sir Stanley bought it, financed a whole host of improvements to buildings and stuff, moved the Midlands National to a March slot and got Channel 4 to televise it for the first time in 1991. Forward wind to the present and, with Sir Stanley sadly no longer around, Uttoxeter had been resting on its laurels, but there has been a recent improvement in its racing programme aside from the Midlands National-fixture. What started out as the Summer National has now evolved into the Summer Cup, a Listed handicap chase over 3m2f, run on the last Sunday in June and it drew a proper Winter-field in 2016, the £45,016-first prize going to Badger Ales Chase-winner Drop Out Joe; with the pandemic considerably less money, £14,238, went to Minellacelebration’s connections in the 2020-running, which took place on a Monday of all days. The track operates all year round and the running surface for the horses can sometimes be described as ‘variable’, and there’s an omitted fence and/or hurdle somewhere at many meetings. The course itself is a sharp left-hander with a dog-leg right-turn on the back straight. The ground here in the height of Winter can get so muddy that it stretches the definition of ‘raceable’. The biggest race in Uttoxeter’s calendar – resulting in a crowd that the track can barely cope with (forget social distancing) – remains the Midlands Grand National, run on the Saturday of Cheltenham Festival-week. The race distance was increased slightly to four miles, two furlongs and eight yards in 2018 to accommodate a larger safety limit, and also to avoid horses fighting for position on the first bend (the same issue as used to occur at Chepstow at the start of the Welsh Grand National), so that the last fence also became the first (thus jumped four times); recent renewals have been more valuable than any of the handicaps at Cheltenham over the previous four days, Truckers Lodge landing an outrageous £84,478 in 2020. As of the meeting on 7th September 2016, Uttoxeter started using the new one-fit padded, rubber hurdles.
Website: www.uttoxeter-racecourse.co.uk. TV: Sky Sports Racing
‘Historic Warwick’ they sometimes call it, and what a beautiful olde English town centre it is, dominated by Warwick Castle. The racecourse ain’t bad either. Theres’s some above-average racing, with its top race being the Grade 3 Classic Chase over 3m5f, the modern-day equivalent of what used to be the ‘Brooke Bond Oxo National’, but still framed to attract potential Grand National winners. The 2017 Classic Chase-winner, a certain One For Arthur, has raised the bar for future runnings. The Grade 2 Leamington Novices’ Hurdle tops the undercard – that race’s stock also increased dramatically in 2017, with the ill-fated Willoughby Court following up success in the Leamington with another in the Neptune at the Cheltenham Festival. The February meeting – when the weather allows it to go ahead (the Winters of our discontent…) – is also a good quality card, featuring the Grade 2 Kingmaker Novices’ Chase. The Warwick circuit is galloping in the main, a left handed, mainly flat circuit. Some of the turns are a little tight, but really the only horses Warwick wouldn’t suit would be any who can’t act left-handed. The main feature at Warwick is the five quick fences on the chase course, positioned close together going down the side towards the home turn, placing the emphasis on good, straight jumping. Formerly a dual-purpose venue, Warwick went jumps only from 2015 – hurdle races have sometimes been run on what was the Flat course since then – and the track now starts its season in September and finishes in May. Warwick train station is about 15 minutes’ walk away.
It was announced in August that Warwick’s meeting on Monday September 21st has been selected as a ‘test event’, or ‘pilot event’, with a view to the return of crowds to sports fixtures, and a limited number of racegoers will be able to attend. It will be the first National Hunt meeting since lockdown that will be open to the public.
Website: thejockeyclub.co.uk/warwick/. TV: Racing TV
Formerly the only racecourse in Yorkshire to stage solely National Hunt racing, some people regard present-day Wetherby as a ‘new’ circuit since they introduced a revised configuration in 2007/08 – realigning the home straight as a result of roadworks on the A1, which took some of the track’s ground – but not all of it is new. There’s about 200 yards left of the previous track in the home straight, and most of the back straight is still the same as previously, including the remaining big, original Wetherby fences on the circuit, then the course bears left at a point before the previous home turn started, giving a sweeping bend into the new straight, which – unlike the old home run – is completely straight, avoiding the elbow about a furlong from home. What’s different about Wetherby post re-configuration is that it’s now much easier for horses to come from behind than it used to be, and the ground in the home straight is always better than down the back, as is the case with the new home straight at Ascot. This course’s number one race, the Charlie Hall Chase run in late October or early November, is backed up by such as the bet365 Hurdle, the Wensleydale for juveniles and a Listed mares’ hurdle, which made its debut in 2007. The Rowland Meyrick Handicap Chase is the pick of the track’s two-day Christmas meeting, if only the weather would allow it to go ahead, and the Grade 2 Towton Novices’ Chase is run in February. Wetherby added Flat racing to its fixture-portfolio in 2015 – trials with a Flat-configuration, held in June 2014, were deemed successful and so were the four Flat meetings that it put on in the Spring and Summer of 2015. When Wetherby’s Flat-plans were initially announced, one of the reasons behind it was words to the effect of ‘we don’t know where jumps racing will be in 25 years’ time’. Wetherby’s 2020 Flat-programme was wiped out by the pandemic, though. The old stand and viewing gallery – which was my favourite vantage point to watch racing here – are now gone, replaced by the new Millennium West grandstand, which took less than a year to build and was opened in October 2017.
At the time of writing Wetherby’s next fixture is set for 14th October 2020.
Website: www.wetherbyracing.co.uk. TV: Racing TV
Here’s an almost-a-grade-one track, located down the A303 in Somerset. Only just, though – a mile the other way and Wincanton would be in Wiltshire. Once you pass Stonehenge, you’re nearly there. Situated in the middle of nowhere, with the aroma of manure from the surrounding farms (if you’re driving with your window down), we have the number one track in the West Country, also Paul Nicholls’s local track. Formerly shown once a year every Boxing Day on BBC between Kempton races (when Auntie had the near-monopoly), it went about a decade without TV coverage (so all Desert Orchid’s appearances at the course were missed) until Channel 4 started regular visits when it showed the 1995 Jim Ford Chase and Kingwell Hurdle. Since then several Thursday cards have moved to Saturdays. Wonder why? Wincanton is a tight, rectangular right-hander. The familiar stiff fences that were to be found at the track have all been replaced by portables, and as a result Wincanton isn’t the tough test of jumping ability that it used to be. The giant Bacofoil sheet – the water jump down the side going away from the stands – still remains in place. Watch Wincanton in November when the sun’s out and you’ll see what I mean. It’s desirable to be up with the pace throughout and, over fences, the first to reach the third last fence normally wins. Wincanton’s biggest days are in November, when the Badger Ales Chase, Elite Hurdle, Rising Stars Novices’ Chase and a valuable mares’ handicap hurdle are run, and February, when the Kingwell Hurdle takes place. It lost the Country Gentlemen’s Association Chase, the latter day-moniker for the Jim Ford, from 2011, the replacement a 3m limited handicap chase at Ascot. Starting from their opening meeting of last season on 19th October 2018, Wincanton now use one-fit-padded hurdles.
Website: thejockeyclub.co.uk/wincanton/. TV: Racing TV
This lovely track, under the ownership and management of Arena Racing Company, was the first to move its entire season to the warmest months of the year, but in 2007 they lost half their meetings to the floods, and the weather continued to give the staff here more headaches in Summer 2008 than it ever did in Winters past. Historically Worcester have always had problems with the River Severn, which is next to the home straight, bursting its banks and engulfing part or all of the track every now and again, but it’s safe to assume that the rains and floods of 2007 and 2008 were like nothing else ever seen. Mother Nature has largely given Worcester a break since, but a mega-deluge happened again in early 2020. Worcester is a flat, galloping left-hander with a nice round turn at each end, and it’s for that reason that moving fixtures away from the jump season-proper wasn’t popular with everyone. Simply, there is no track fairer to inexperienced horses, whether they’re being introduced to racing in bumpers, starting over hurdles or making a chasing debut. The obstacles on both courses are well spaced out, and because the bends are more like proper semi-circles, rather than a sudden right-angle or anything like that, horses won’t lose ground turning for home. Once in line, if they’re habitually jumping right, then they can get away with that. There was a change in configuration that came in for the start of its 2012 campaign. As happens at Southwell, chases, hurdles and bumpers are now all run on the same strip of ground. Typically it’s chases first, fences off, bumper, then the fixed brush hurdles used here are put in position. Since the remeasuring of jump race-distances, the longest distance raced over at Worcester is two miles seven furlongs, and as that is short of three miles, this has enabled the track to remove a fence from the chase circuit – so now four fences on each straight. While 12 fences are jumped in the shortest chases – with all four fences in the home straight jumped on the first circuit – a total of 16 are jumped in the longest chases (in three mile-chases it’s supposed to be six fences per mile, 18 in all). All hurdle races at Worcester are over Fixed Brush obstacles, with 12 obstacles in a 2m7f hurdle race.
It was confirmed on 30th July 2020 that, sadly, Worcester’s entire 2020 season has been wiped out. As mentioned above, the course was flooded earlier in the year, which would have seen the abandonment of its fixtures in May anyway, but then COVID-19 happened. In the press release Mark Spincer, Managing Director of Arc’s Racing Division, was quoted as follows: “The significant costs associated with making a racecourse safe to race behind closed doors, with the all of the appropriate bio security and social distancing measures mean that we can not open either site [the other track referred to is Brighton] for the limited number of fixtures due before they would then close again for the winter.”
Website: www.worcester-racecourse.co.uk. TV: Sky Sports Racing