As Warwick Racecourse raises the flag on Tuesday 22 September 2015 for a new season of horse racing, it is worth taking a look back in time at the origins of this most noble of pursuits in Shakespeare’s England.
The sport of Kings and the common man is one of the earliest known to mankind, progressing from ancient arenas via farm fields and country lanes to modern racetracks.
The earliest known reference to horse racing in Warwick, however, originates from Warwick’s foremost family at the time. As horse racing had always been the preserve of the landed gentry, it is no surprise to discover that Warwick Castle’s accounts reveal that in 1707 , the incumbent Lord Brooke donated £15 ‘towards making a horse race’.
By the mid-18th century Warwick’s annual race meeting had been extended to two days and it was customary for entries for the races to be made at local hostelries. From about 1790, the Warwick Arms on the High Street established itself as the traditional billet of the racing officials, remaining so into the present century.
By 1792 Warwick races had become a permanent fixture on the first Tuesday of September and by the next year a ‘King’s Plate’ was run. The first grandstand worthy of the name was opened at the 1809 September meeting and by 1815, a local guide book felt justified in proclaiming: “The Race Course is esteemed one of the best in the kingdom.”
If no invitation had been received to make up a party at one of the country houses in the locale, the gentlemen of the turf would converge on Warwick and take rooms in one of the town’s taverns. A typical day would begin with a splendid ‘public’ breakfast at the Court House in Jury Street.
In October 1825, The Sporting Magazine recorded: “At Warwick Races there was a larger concourse of spectators than was ever witnessed at any former meeting. On the second day it was calculated there could not have been less than 50,000 persons present.”
It was the birth of jump racing or steeple chasing that brought the most enthusiastic crowds to both Warwick and Leamington Spa, the latter of which had firmly established itself as a sporting resort. During this period the steeple chasing craze was spreading, and races were being organised up and down the country during the hunting season.
It was at the spring meeting of 1831 that Warwick can lay claim to being the first British racecourse to include a race over obstacles at an established meeting. This came in the form of a hurdle race over two miles and six flights, making it the earliest jump race result to be found on the racing calendar.
The middle decades of the nineteenth century clearly represented the zenith of racing popularity here in Warwickshire. Crowds well in excess of 30,000 were regularly achieved at Warwick’s September meeting and the course was patronised by the elite of the racing world. Since then, racing in Leamington has ceased but continued improvements to the track and facilities at Warwick have ensured that 300 years of racing were celebrated in 2007.
This September’s racing at Warwick Racecourse commences with six races and gates open at 12.10pm. Advance tickets are available from just £13.50 with special main enclosure tickets prices for group bookings in advance. For more information call 01926 405 560 or go to www.warwickracecourse.co.uk