Races and Courses in Britain

The first horse races on established English race courses were match races between two horses run over a course of four or five miles until a horse had won twice. When the new Thoroughbred races became established, multi-day meets, breeders and bookmakers added other sporting activities to take advantage of the crowds. Cockfighting was one of many sporting events often taking place at race meets. As the atmosphere became more hectic those connected with horse racing found themselves in the position of competing for the attention of fans with the now numerous peripheral activities. A race with a large number of horses and shorter races allowing for more races per day kept the racing fan excited and offered a better investment return for breeders. Races became dashes of a mile-and-a-half, measured in eighths of a mile called furlongs, for a number of horses. Five races came to make up the English Classic Flat racing season: the Derby and Oaks, (both at Epsom Downs); the 2000 guineas, and the 1000 guineas (both at Newmarket), and the St. Leger.

Races were mainly regional competitions because race horse's had to be walked between venues with care so that they did not arrive exhausted. The journey between Newmarket and Epsom was typically five to seven days and up to three weeks between Goodwood and Doncaster. It wasn't until 1836 that John Doe came up with the idea of having coach horses pull the race horse Elis to a distant meet in a van.

Epsom Downs; The Oaks and The Derby

The Race, Epsom from The Chace, The Turf, and The Road. by Nimrod

There were annual races at Epsom Downs by 1730. The course at Epsom is a dog-leg that is "all up and down with sharp corners."

Sir Charles Bunbury (1740-1821), 6th Baronet of Barton, and Edward Smith Stanley (1752-1834), the Twelfth Earl of Derby, had the idea of a single race over a mile and a half for three-year-old fillies. Derby won the first running of the Oaks with Bridget on a Friday in May of 1779. The all-fillies race took it's name from Derby's home near Epsom, a former ale house, known as the Oaks.

At a party after the running of the Oaks, a race open to colts was conceived. Lord Derby and Sir Charles Bunbury allowed the legendary coin toss to decided who should have the hon our of naming it. Lord Derby called the toss. On Thursday May 4, 1780 nine colts lined up to compete in the first running of the Derby. Bunbury won the first race with Diomed. The first four races were run over a course of a dog-leg mile and carried a first prize of 1,075 Guineas. Later the Derby course was lengthened to the same mile-and-a-half or twelve furlongs as The Oaks.

Newmarket Races

Stipple print after painting by J. N. Sartorius, owned by British Museum

The first recorded race at Newmarket took place in 1622. It was a match race between a horse belonging to Lord Salisbury and a horse of the Marquis of Buckingham. Buckingham's horse won the prize of the then enormous sum of 100.

It was the ardent racing fan King Charles II who made Newmarket truly fashionable and horse racing "The Sport of Kings". Charles II employed gentleman-architect William Samwell to build a two-story brick pavilion for him at Newmarket. Work began late in 1668 and were completed in 1671. He moved his entire court there from London for the spring and fall races.

Prior to 1753 there were 2 races per year, of 6-8 miles in Spring and in October. From 1753 there were 7 meetings a year run over the 4 mile Beacon Course.

Lord Bath wrote a description of racing on Newmarket Heath that appeared in The World Vol. 1, No. 17, in 1753: "When the horses are in sight, and come near Choak Jade, immediately the company all disperse, as if the Devil rose out of his Ditch and drove them, to get to the turning of the lands, or some other station for seeing the push made. Now the contention becomes animating: 'tis delightful to see two, or sometimes more, of the most beautiful animals of the creation, struggling for superiority, stretching every muscle and sinew to obtain the prize and reach the goal! to observe the skill and address of the riders, who are all distinguished by different colours of white, blue, green, red or yellow, sometimes spurring or whipping, sometimes checking or pulling, to give fresh breath and courage! And it is often observed that the race is won as much by the dexterity of the rider, as by the vigour and fleetness of the animal."

The Duke of Portland and Lord Lowther greatly improved Newmarket during the Regency period by eliminating old road tracks, using grazing sheep and burning to improve the smoothness of the turf, and manuring to produce a lush cover.

  • The Craven, after Earl Craven, Easter Monday since 1771
  • The First Spring, Monday, a fortnight following.
  • Second Spring, fortnight following est. 1753
  • 2000 Guineas, May since 1809
  • 1000 Guineas in May Run the day after the 2000 Guineas (always later in the month than the Oaks), est. 1814
  • First October, first Monday in Oct.
  • Second October, Monday fortnight following, est 1762
  • Third Oct. or Houghton, fortnight following, inst 1770, lasts one week and ending the season.

At Newmarket the Judges box is on wheels to be moved from finish to finish post (only at Newmarket).They proclaim winners by color.

The course has been the property of the Jockey club since 1753. Betting posts were at various places on the grounds, for the 1/2 hour period between races. Winnings were paid the following morning in the town.

The St. Leger

Doncaster Racing painting by James Pollard, from Mellon collection

The St Leger is the world's oldest Thoroughbred race. It is the fifth and final Classic of the British Flat racing season. The St Leger held at Doncaster in September is a four-day meeting. Run over two miles, a longer distance than the Derby and the Oaks, the St Leger is more a test of stamina than speed. Racing at Doncaster in York predates the St. Leger. The Doncaster Cup has been run since 1766. Men knew the open Heath at Newmarket was a great place for driving and riding horses before the Roman's arrived. A group of sportsmen arranged a new sweepstakes race for 3 year olds over a 2 mile course at Cantley Common near Doncaster on September 24, 1776. Early in 1778 at a dinner held at the Red Lion in Doncaster for the race subscribers, Lord Rockingham suggested the race be named for the popular Colonel Anthony St. Leger of Park Hill, near Doncaster. It was run for the first time with the name St Leger in 1778. That year it was moved to the Town Moor. In 1803 the King's Plate from the defunct Burford Meeting was transfered to the St. Leger. Architect John Carr (1723-1807) built a new grandstand in 1806. For the the first 30 years of the 19th Century the St. Leger was the most successful of the race meetings. In 1813 the racing distance was reduced to 1 mile 6 furlongs 193 yards. From 1814 it was run on the St. Leger Course. The St. Leger course was a broad straight 'galloping' track.

The race has had problems and controversy. The 1819 race was run twice. There was a chase to distant betting towns when the favorite was pulled up in training. Antonio won, but the local stewards ordered a second running in which Antonio did not compete. The Jockey Club overruled the stewards and returned the title. In 1829 there was such an invasion of roughnecks and cheats that they had to be chased out of town.


Grandstand at Ascot painting by James Pollard

While Queen Anne was riding on the edge of Windsor Great Park in 1711, she noticed a natural clearing near the village of East Cote. Queen Anne ordered her Master of the Buckhounds, The Duke of Somerset, to lay out a course 'for horses to gallop at full stretch'. The Royal Racecourse was Ascot.

The original course was designed by the Duke and constructed at a cost of some 606 pounds, 17 shillings and 1 pence. The first day's racing was held on Saturday 11th August 1711 and the second on Monday 13th August when horses competed for The Queen's Plate worth 100.

In 1714 racing was cancelled following the death of Queen Anne. Subsequently there was only one more day's racing before the course was closed. The Duke of Cumberland took up residence in one of the Lodges in Windsor Great Park and began breeding race horses at Cranbourne Lodge. He revived Ascot. The first four-day meeting was held in late June 1768, and has continued to the present day. George IV began the Royal Procession in 1825.


Goodwood Grand Stand - Preparing to Start painting by James Pollard

The Goodwood racecourse, called the "most beautiful racecourse in the world", is northeast of Chichester in West Sussex on the Goodwood estate, ancestral home of the Dukes of Richmond. The Goodwood Cup Races are held starting on the last Tuesday of July, and lasting four days. The principal race is Thursday, called the "Cup Day." The course was created by Charles Lennox (1735-1806) the 3rd Duke of Richmond on a part of the estate called Charlton Downs. The first race, in 1801, was organized for the officers of the Sussex militia, of which the 3rd Duke was a Colonel, and for members of the Goodwood Hunt. It was such a success that the race was expanded and made open to the public for the second race held on April 28, 1802. The Goodwood course was further improved by Charles Gordon-Lennox (1791-1860) 5th Duke of Richmond. The Goodwood was patronized by the Prince of Wales after he left Newmarket in a huff over the Escape affair in 1791. Fleur-de-lis a mare owned by the Prince of Wales placed first at Goodwood, followed by two more of his horses at 2nd and 3rd, in a single race.

The Jockey Club

Engraving by Thomas Rowlandson,  Jockey Club
Rowlandson lampoons the members of the Jockey Club in circa 1790. The print portrays: Prince of Wales (at Center), Duke of York, Duke of Bedford, Duke of Bolton, Duke of Devonshire, Duke of Grafton, Duke of Norfolk, Duke of Queensbury, and Duke of St. Albans; Lord Barrymore, Lord Clermont, Lord Egremont, Lord Foley, Lord Grosvenor, and Lord Ossory; Sir Charles Bunbury, Sir John Lade, Mr. Fox, Mr. Panton, Mr. Vernon, and Mr. Wastell.

In 1750 a group of powerful men interested in horse racing met at the Star and Garter Tavern in Pall Mall where they formed the Jockey Club. In 1752 the Club acquired land at Newmarket for a Coffee Room. In 1757 a dispute at Curragh was referred to the Jockey Club in Newmarket. In 1758 the club drew up rules published by Heber. In 1762 the 19 member Jockey Club wrote complete rules of racing and sanctioned racecourses to conduct meetings under those rules. Standards were set defining the quality of races. A registry of colors for each racehorse owner in order to distinguish runners among a field of horses was established following a resolution of the Stewards of the Jockey Club dated October 4th 1762. Eighteen owners shared seventeen sets of colors in the first list published in the Racing Calendar.

Since 1814, five races for three-year-old horses have been designated as "classics." Three of these races, open to colts and fillies, make up the English Triple Crown: the 2,000 Guineas, the Epsom Derby, and the St. Leger Stakes. The other two races, open to fillies only, are the 1,000 Guineas and the Epsom Oaks.

As Senior Steward of the Jockey Club, it was Sir Charles Bunbury who banned the jockey Sam Chifney for life after the suspect performances of a horse called Escape, owned by the Prince of Wales, in a race with Gray Diomed in 1791. On 20th October 1791 the Prince of Wales' horse Escape ridden by Sam Chifney was badly beaten at Newmarket, only to run again the next day and win easily at 5-1 against. There was an enquiry. The Prince of Wales gave Chifney 200 after he was banned. Bunbury was so disillusioned that he sold almost all of his horses and did not attend a race meeting for 14 years.

The Jockey Club assigned James Weatherby, the club accountant, to trace the pedigree, of every horse then racing in England. Consolidation of a number of privately-kept pedigree records added to his own research resulted in a document published in 1791 as the "Introduction to the General Stud Book". The book listed the pedigrees of 387 mares, each of which could be traced back to Eclipse, a direct descendent of the Darley Arabian; Matchem, a grandson of the Godolphin Arabian; and Herod, whose great-great grandsire was the Byerly Turk. From 1793 to the present, members of the Weatherby family have meticulously recorded the pedigree of every foal born to those racehorses in subsequent volumes of the "General Stud Book".

"Dictators of the Turf"

1st "Dictator of the Turf"--Charles II laid down Racing Rules and made himself Adjudicator and Court of Appeal.
2nd "Dictator of the Turf"--Tregonwell Frampton appointed Racing Manager by Charles II

Influential Stewards

Sir Charles Bunbury (1740-1821)--3rd "Racing Dictator of the Turf,"
Lord George Bentinck (1802-1848)--4th "Racing Dictator of the Turf,"
Admiral Henry John Rous (1795-1877)--steward from 1838, public handicapper from 1855, wrote The Laws and Practice of Horse Racing


The Jockey club laid down the rules for horse racing and created offices to carry out the rules. Much of the race day pomp was added by the Prince of Wales during his tenure in the Jockey Club. Buglers and outriders appareled in uniforms and the bugle call all add to the pageantry.

The Clerk of Scales
weighs out jockeys prior to every race and checks that correct weight, colors and number are carried. After the race he again weighs in jockeys to ensure correct weight was carried.
The Bugler
The bugler sounds the familiar "first call" based on the calvary "boots and saddle" bugle call as the horses step onto the track before each race.
The Judges
signal the result of the race by colors.
The Outriders
Outriders escort the horses to the post, then wait to catch any riderless horses.
The Starter
After the horses are lined up, the starter waits until all are standing quietly before flipping the flag for the start. In the event of a false start he will aide with the recalling of the runners.
The Stewards
enforce rules and assess penalties for any infractions.

© This site last updated March 2003 by webmaster