Britain: Home of the most iconic racing in the world
Horse racing is one of the longest running sports in Great Britain and also the second largest in terms of spectators. It dates back to Roman times, when many of the traditions and rules originated. It generates £37 billion for the British economy each year and the Grand National at Aintree is one of the most well-known races in the world. That race alone generates an audience of around 600 million viewers and is the most valuable jump race in Europe with a prize fund of £1 million. Britain is home to some of the most iconic racecourses, such as Newmarket, Ascot and Cheltenham. These are also home to some of the most iconic races, such as the Epsom Derby, the Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Some of the best jockeys have hailed from Britain and it is also a hugely important centre for thoroughbred racehorse breeding. Interestingly, all modern thoroughbred racehorses can trace a line back to three foundation sires which were imported to Britain in the late 17th Century. The general stud book first published by James Weatherby still records details of every horse in the breed. A day at the races is a great day out for people of all ages, from seasoned gambling pros to people who just enjoy a good time with friends. It is a highly enjoyable event. With the Grand National fast approaching, here's a look at some of the racecourses that make Britain one of the best places in the world for Horse Racing.
Kicking things off is the Epsom Downs, a grade one racecourse near Epsom in Surrey. The Downs referred to in the name are part of the North Downs. The venue has a capacity of 120,000 and is best known for the Epsom Derby, which is held in June every year. The Epsom derby is the UK's premier thoroughbred horse race for three-year-old colts and fillies and is over a mile-and-a-half long. This derby was free to watch and because of this used to be the most attended sporting event of the year. It is a stern challenge for inexperienced horses and a true test of stamina for those that might previously have contested the 2,000 Guineas stakes over a mile. Other races held there are the Epsom Oaks for three-year-old fillies and the Coronation Cup for all ages over the same distance. The first race officially recorded was in 1661 but many believe that racing here started much earlier. The Downs has the third largest training facility in the country and is used by well-known trainers, including Simon Dow and Laura Morgan, who is the only female trainer at the grounds. The races here are held mainly over April, May and June, with the Epsom derby being the final race of the season.
Cheltenham is one of the biggest horse racing festivals in England and the prize money is second only to the Grand National. During the four-day event more than 230,000 pints of Guinness are drunk and 8,000 sticky toffee puddings are consumed. That is a good indication as to the vibe of this festival that is famous for its great atmosphere. The sound of the crowd that had the highest attendance of any four-day sporting event in England in 2013 is known as the Cheltenham roar. This refers to the enormous amount of build-up noise before the tape is cut for the first race of the festival. During the festival that hosts one championship race per day, hundreds of millions of pounds are bet on some of the best horses and riders in Great Britain. Unlike other festivals, Cheltenham does not have that many international contenders with most of the racers coming from Great Britain and Ireland. Ruby Walsh has been the top rider nine times since 2004. The championship races at this event are the Champion hurdle, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, The Stayers Hurdle and the main event held on the last day, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, which was established in 1924.
One of the most famous racecourses in Britain is Royal Ascot. It was established in 1711 and has close links with the Royal Family, with it being situated in Berkshire just six miles from Windsor Castle. It was at the heart of the country's celebrations for the Queen's Diamond jubilee, where the Golden Jubilee stakes were changed to the Diamond Jubilee stakes, and won by Australian legend Black Caviar. Royal Ascot hosts nine of the UK's annual group one races, with the main event of the year being Royal Ascot week. Royal Ascot week is Europe's best attended race meeting with more than 300,000 people visiting Berkshire over the course of the week. This year it runs from Tuesday the 16th to Saturday the 20th of June. There are 16 group races on offer with at least one group one event on each of the five days. The main prize is the Gold Cup, which is held on Ladies Day on the Thursday. The Gold Cup is widely considered to be the most prestigious of the long distance or 'stayers' races and is contested over two miles and four furlongs. Stayers are horses that specialise in long distance racing and this is the first leg of the Stayers Triple Crown. The second and third legs are the Goodwood Cup and the Doncaster Cup, respectively. The leading jockey of the Gold Cup is the famous Lester Piggott, who won the cup 11 times with eight different horses. Legendary racehorse Yeats won the Gold cup four times between 2006 and 2009, which is a feat unmatched by any other racehorse.
One of the oldest racecourses in Britain is Newmarket in Suffolk. It is a town with a rich royal history and is known as the home of racing, where the thoroughbred racehorse is king. It is around three-and-a-half centuries old and has exported the sport around the world. The first race here was in 1622 where the Marquis of Buckingham's horse beat the horse of Lord Salisbury for a prize of £100, which was a massive amount of money at the time. This famous venue is the headquarters of British horse racing, with the largest amount of training yards in the country. It hosts two of the five classic races, which are the 1,000 guineas and the 2,000 guineas, which take place in spring and is the highlight of the season. It also hosts numerous group races, a total of nine out of the 32 group one races that are held each year. Everyone with even just a passing interest in 'the sport of kings' should visit at least once in their lifetime. The town that just lives and breathes horse racing has to be seen to be believed. There are more racehorses, trainers, stable staff, stud farms and racing organisations based in and around Newmarket than anywhere else on Earth. The venue has two racecourses which are the Rowley Mile and the July course. In the year 2000, the Queen opened the Millennium Grandstand at the Rowley mile, which boasts state-of-the-art facilities for race goers on race days as well as superb facilities for corporate events. In 2011, there was a big music event where Bryan Adams, Westlife and Girls Aloud played on the July Course stage.
Chester racecourse, also known as 'The Roodee' is the oldest racecourse in Britain and also thought to be the smallest one of any significance. It is only one mile and one furlong long and has a very short straight so long-strided horses that perform better on straights are at a distinct disadvantage. The race course lies on the banks of the River Dee and the name 'Roodee' is a corruption of Rood Eye, which means Island of the Cross. This is because there is a small cross in the centre known as the 'Rood'. Legend has it that the cross marks the burial ground of a statue of the Virgin Mary, which was sentenced to death after causing the death of Lady Trawst, the wife of the Governor of Hawarden. The site was home to the famous bloody Goteddsday football match which was so violent that it was banned by the city and replaced by horse racing in 1539. The position of the racecourse in relation to the city makes it popular because it is only a short walk from all the hotels, restaurants and bars. This makes it ideal for days out where race goers want to carry on the party after the racing has finished.
The most famous horse race in the world is the Grand National Steeplechase, held at Aintree racecourse just outside of Liverpool. The steeplechase there is regarded as the toughest of all courses to complete successfully with 16 steeplechase fences. The renowned obstacles are so famous they strike fear into even the most competent of jockeys, and each have names like 'The Chair' and 'Becher's Brook'. Unlike every other course in Britain, all the fences at Aintree are covered with spruce, which is a large coniferous evergreen. Other than the Grand National, there are four more races held there each year, which are the Topham Chase, the FoxHunters Chase, the Grand Sefton Handicap Chase and the Becher Chase. Along with the large national course, there is also a smaller Midway course that contains hurdles and fences. Every year in April, people flock from miles around to attend the famous Grand National, where the electric atmosphere is second to none.
The Grand National is the most famous national hunt horse race in the world and also the longest at more than four miles and three-and-a-half furlongs. It has 30 fences over two circuits and is the most valuable jump race in Europe with a prize fund of over £1 million. There has been a lot of debate amongst historians about when the race started, but nowadays the general consensus is that the first race was run in 1836 and won by The Duke. Historians, such as John Pinfold, support this argument. It was founded by William Lynn, a syndicate head and proprietor of the Waterloo Hotel. He set up the course, built a grandstand and Lord Sefton laid the foundation stone on the 7th of February 1829. The Grand National race has been dubbed as the ultimate test for horse and rider and has been broadcast on television since 1960. It was initially on BBC but, since 2012, Channel 4 have owned the rights. It is estimated that 500 to 600 million people watch it in more than 140 different countries and is popular amongst people who are not normally interested in the sport. Sponsors John Smith's Bitter did a poll in 2009 to find some of the legends of the race. Amongst these were Ginger McCain and three-time-winning horse Red Rum. Sir Peter O'Sullevan, the commentator who called home the winners of 50 Grand National winners on radio and television from 1947 to 1997, was also up there. The greatest number of horses to complete the course was 23 in 1984 and the smallest number was only two finishers in 1928. This is one of the reasons why the race is seen as somewhat of a lottery amongst bookies and pundits, where even the rank outsiders can stand a chance of winning. In the history of the event five horses with odds of 100/1 have won the race. Interestingly, in the 68 years of the post-war era, favourites or joint favourites have only won the race nine times and have failed to finish in 36 races.
There are many reasons why a day at the races is so fantastic. The atmosphere at all these venues is incredible but each of them also have such rich individual histories. So, if you have not experienced the magic of horse racing yet, get involved and get down to your local race course for the next meeting.