England’s love of horse racing dates back several centuries. Although it may not be at the very height of its popularity now, millions of people still show up to watch action across the country each year. Some have a strong preference for jumps racing, others flat, but overall, there are fairly comparable levels of interest in the two, something reflected in the courses on offer.
As the map below shows, England has a near-even split of dedicated flat-only and jumps-only courses. On top of this, there is a healthy mix of mixed code venues that are able to host both types of racing, often on different tracks. One additional point to note is that six English courses now operate with an all-weather track, these being more resilient than your standard grass and mud surface. Only two of these courses operate solely as an all-weather racing venue, however, as the other four retained at least one of their turf tracks.
Racecourses in England
|Course||Location||Race Type||Track Surface|
|Catterick||North Yorkshire||Flat, Jumps||Turf|
|Doncaster||South Yorkshire||Flat, Jumps||Turf|
|Fontwell Park||West Sussex||Jumps||Turf|
|Kempton||Middlesex||Flat, Jumps||Turf, Artificial|
|Lingfield||Surrey||Flat, Jumps||Turf, Artificial|
|Newcastle||Tyne and Wear||Flat, Jumps||Turf, Artificial|
|Southwell||Nottinghamshire||Flat, Jumps||Turf, Artificial|
|Wetherby||West Yorkshire||Flat, Jumps||Turf|
Horse Racing in England
One of the great things about horse racing in England is the sheer number of courses available in the country. If you are much more than an hour away from your nearest course (by car or public transport) then you can consider yourself very unlucky as there are just so many dotted around the nation. Some are incredibly active too, hosting as many as 50+ race meetings each calendar year so as far as fixtures go there is an absolute abundance of them.
Number of Meetings in the UK Each Year
Exact numbers change year on year but in 2022 there were 1,311 scheduled meetings in England with 822 featuring flat racing, 488 taking place over jumps, and one sole meeting seeing both codes. Most of these ran as planned too as cancellations are relatively uncommon, especially during the flat season.
On this point, racing in England generally sticks to the traditional seasons of having jump racing between October and April, and flat racing between April and October. The word generally must be emphasised here though as there are some summer jump courses, for example Market Rasen and Stratford-upon-Avon, while all-weather courses are able to hold flat racing all year round. The biggest races for each code always take part in the traditional seasons though, so National Hunt fans do tend to have to battle the elements more often.
A few general points to bear in mind about English racecourses is that dress codes are sometimes enforced, depending on which course, or meeting, you are attending. The meeting itself can make a difference, even at the same course, as for prestigious fixtures like Royal Ascot, the rules are stricter than for just a standard raceday. The biggest differences, however, come within different enclosures at the same course. In the more ‘premier’ grandstands and enclosures, some form of smart or smart casual dress is usually required; for gents, this usually means smart trousers and a collared shirt.
In the most affordable grandstand or enclosure, most English racecourses either enforce no dress code or they only rule out a small number of items. The small list of things not to wear typically includes items such as sportswear, flip-flops, casual shorts and torn denim. Fancy dress is permitted at many venues but in all cases, it must be tasteful in nature and not be likely to cause offence. If you fail to adhere to this then you may be denied entry even if you have a valid ticket.
General Ticket Costs
As for how much a day or evening at the races will cost you, prices vary a fair amount based on a few factors. One is when you actually book the tickets as many racecourses offer an early bird discount for early purchases and this can reduce the price significantly. Another is if it is a ‘feature’ raceday, often one including one or more big or prestigious races, as these typically see an increased price on admission. This is also the case, usually to an even greater extent, if attending a meeting with live music afterwards. As for taking youngsters with you, it is fairly standard policy across the country for kids to receive free admission with a paying adult. This is the case at all 14 Jockey Club-owned courses, with a child defined as anyone aged 17 or under.
Travelling & Parking
As for how to get to a racecourse, almost every course around the country offers free parking inside or just outside the ground, at least for most meetings. There are only a few exceptions to this rule, for example Chester (due to its city centre location), but normally travelling by car will not cost you any more than the price of fuel. For those that do not drive, or would rather not, perhaps to enable you to have a few drinks, you will find that a large number of courses are incredibly well connected by public transport.
Many are within comfortable walking distance of a nearby train station and with regular connections provided, getting the train becomes a very convenient option. For courses set a little further out from the train station/city centre, some will run a complementary or low-cost shuttle bus that will take you to where the racing is.
There are so many good racecourses in England it is hard to select just a few but we will highlight the very best of the lot here.
For courses that solely offer National Hunt racing, there is no place better than Cheltenham. Seen as the spiritual home of jump racing, it hosts so many of England’s top races with a huge number of them falling during the four-day Cheltenham Festival. During this hugely celebrated meeting, crowds can exceed 70,000 per day, but even at lower-profile meetings the place still feels full of life. Because the Cheltenham Festival itself is so big, trainers want to give their horses practice on the same ground prior to it, so the place attracts a great deal of talent throughout the year.
For the same reason, you will also find many top horses at Aintree, the home of the Grand National. Now, the Grand National fences are used in very few other races but even a run around the standard steeplechase course can be of benefit to any Grand National hopeful. Although the Merseyside venue is famous for the marathon handicap, it is home to a wide selection of other top races including 11 at Grade 1 level.
Sandown & Haydock Park
Many other of the best National Hunt races take place at mixed-code grounds, that is places offering both flat and jumps racing. Sandown, on the outskirts of Greater London, is one example and Haydock Park, situated close to Aintree, is another. Both of these Jockey Club-owned courses come highly regarded, home to both a number of leading flat and jump races. Ascot is another of these top mixed-code racecourses but the place is better known for its flat racing offering, which is among the best in the country.
Home to the world-famous Royal Ascot, the Berkshire course needs to be fit for a queen (or king) and indeed it is. Boasting some of the top facilities money can buy, Ascot provides arguably the most premium raceday experience in the country, especially if you splash out for one of the more exclusive packages. Steeped in tradition, often full of wonderful attire, a trip to Ascot is not something to be missed for anyone who wants to see horse racing in the finest way possible.
The last three courses we want to talk about all focus solely on flat racing, so you will not find any hurdles or fences here. First and foremost there is Newmarket with its two distinctive L shaped tracks. This historic venue is not only incredibly popular among owners and trainers too but also spectators, who flock to this centuries-old destination in great numbers, especially during the summer. It is during the warmer months that racing at Newmarket transfers over to the ‘July Course’, away from the colossus five-tier grandstand that sits beside the Rowley Mile. In terms of facilities, the July Course has less to offer but it regularly comes with a wonderfully charming garden party atmosphere.
The final two courses to mention are Goodwood and York. You may have heard of the name Glorious Goodwood before and while this may refer to the world-famous five-day festival, it could just as easily apply to the racecourse itself. It is both the quality of action here combined with the course itself that makes Goodwood racing so special. Not only is it a notoriously tricky course for jockeys to navigate thanks to its turns and undulations but it has a picturesque backdrop overlooking the South Downs.
Finally there is York, a place that has on four occasions been named the ‘Best Racecourse in Britain’, making it a huge tourist attraction. Although it attracts its fair share of more casual racegoers, racing enthusiasts also love coming here as it is home to 19 races of Group quality.
There are a lot of huge race meetings in England, most of which tend to sell out so buying your tickets well in advance is strongly encouraged should you want to attend any of them.
March: Cheltenham Festival
The first popular occasion on the yearly calendar is the Cheltenham Festival, held in mid-March. Featuring four days of consistently world-class racing action, there is no bad day to visit this wonderful festival but generally Gold Cup day (Friday) is seen as the pick of the bunch.
April: Grand National
Two or three weeks after this you have the Grand National Festival at Aintree. This three-day affair features a popular Ladies Day on the Friday but the big occasion is of course Grand National Day (Saturday) as it features the world-renowned race. With punters standing to win big money in the race, the atmosphere is hard to match.
Good Friday: Newcastle All Weather Championship Finals
Around the same time of year, held every Good Friday, there is something a little different on offer at Newcastle. Here you will find the All-Weather Championship Finals making it the biggest day of racing to take place on an artificial surface. With all-weather racing going from strength to strength, this is an increasingly prestigious event and one that offers at least £1m in prize money. This marks the first ‘big’ flat meeting of the season and there are many more throughout the summer.
May: Chester May Festival & Newbury Lockinge Stakes Day
Chester’s May Festival, held in May as the name suggests, is a terrific occasion and not just because of the incredibly tight and compact course on which the horses must compete. During this same month you also have one of Newbury’s highlights, Lockinge Stakes Day. Expect all three large grandstands at the Berkshire course to be packed for this day as racegoers flock to see the supreme one-mile race for themselves.
June: Epsom Derby Festival & the Royal Ascot
Moving into June and there are two major highlights, the first being the Derby Festival at Epsom and the next being Royal Ascot. The former is a two-day meeting which begins with one English Classic race, the Oaks, a race reserved for fillies. Fittingly, it is also Ladies Day so it can prove the perfect chance to dress up to impress as there will be generous style awards handed out during the day.
Both Oaks Day and Derby Day come jam-packed with live music performances, creating a real festival feel. This is especially true for Derby Day which can see well over 100,000 in attendance thanks to the free of charge hill area in the centre of the racecourse. Given that opportunities to watch free racing are extremely rare, this is quite an incredible treat, hence its unrivalled popularity.
Soon after this there is Royal Ascot, an event so big it hardly needs an introduction. Each day begins with the famous royal procession before the high-quality races commence but each day is a little different. For socialising, Tuesday is the best option, for the best fashion, you will want to attend on Thursday, while for a party atmosphere Saturday is likely to have the most vibrant atmosphere. Prices are very expensive across the entire week, as you might expect, so steer clear if you are not looking to spend too much cash.
July: Newmarket July Festival & York Ebor Festival
To see some more fine fashion, the July Festival at Newmarket is an absolute must as it is one of the social highlights of the entire racing season. With the sun regularly shining, drinks flowing and crowds roaring, this is a meeting every bit as exciting as it is exclusive. For something similarly as extravagant in the summer months, the Ebor Festival further up north at York is an excellent option. This is a huge fan favourite as seen by the massive crowds that attend the four-day affair. Partly this is because there are daily prizes handed out to the best dressed and for the best hat, plus its range of superb locally-sourced grub.
Autumn: Doncaster St Leger Festival & Newmarket Cambridgeshire Meeting
As we move past the peak of summer, there are still many top flat meetings to enjoy. The four-day St leger Festival at Doncaster, which by all accounts is an excellent course, has a climactic finish with the St Leger itself featuring on the final day. Visitors always have a great day on the Friday though as this is ‘Donny Day’, a chance to celebrate all things Doncaster.
Newmarket’s Cambridgeshire Meeting is another of the big autumn events as racing returns to the Rowley Mile course. There is always plenty of energy for this meeting but particularly on the Saturday as this is the day of the Cambridgeshire Handicap, both a historic and an immensely competitive handicap race.
Winter: Newbury Winter Carnival & Kempton Park Christmas Festival
Back to the jumps racing now and there are a couple of great occasions to finish the calendar year. Newbury’s Winter Carnival is one of these highlights, a two-day meeting that opens with a rather rare Gentleman’s Day. Here it is the gents, rather than the ladies for a change, that are incentivised to don their finest gear as generous prizes are on offer for the suavest suits.
We are also big fans of the Christmas Festival held at Kempton Park on Boxing Day and 27th December. There is always a wonderful festive feel to this event with the crowd in such high spirits having enjoyed the previous day (or two) off. It’s the biggest event of the season at Kempton and they sure know how to make the most of it.
History of English Racecourses
Some evidence suggests that horse racing took place as early as 200AD in Yorkshire although there is some dispute about whether or not the Romans were responsible for the sport’s introduction themselves. Records of actual races are very hard to come across during this time but there is enough to suggest that the Romans tested their own horses against the Arabian breeds brought over by Emperor Septimius Severus.
As for the earliest written mention of ‘running-horses’ for this you have to jump forward to the 9th/10th century as some were gifted to King Athelstan of England. Horses could only come into the country during his reign, not out, as the monarch placed a ban on exporting English horses, believing them to be vastly superior to foreign counterparts.
Arabian Horses Introduced by English Knights
Races during this time would have happened in an entirely informal capacity, with very few watching them, but by the 1100s there were actual race meetings in England. These took place in London during the St Bartholomew’s horse fair which ran once a year. The quality of horses improved during this period due to the Crusades, with more attention paid to breeding. Additionally, English knights returned to the country with a range of Arabian horses, which helped paved the way to turn it into a professional sport. These Arabian horses were bred with English horses and today’s thoroughbreds still retain their Middle Eastern routes.
Henry VIII’s Love of Horse Racing
By the time of Henry VIII, clear evidence of horse racing taking place becomes easier to get hold of. The monarch was responsible for a number of laws that related to horse breeding and he himself had a training establishment and stud yard. Many of the horses he kept between the two came from all over the continent, such was his fondness of the sport. Around this time, the 16th century, there are records of formal meetings taking place too. This includes one event in Chester in which the winning connections of one race were handed a small trophy, believed to be the first of its kind.
1539: Chester, England’s Oldest Racecourse, Founded
The racecourse at Chester was officially founded in 1539, making it the oldest course still in existence. Later in the century Queen Elizabeth I would regularly be spotted at race meetings and she even rode sometimes herself on Salisbury Plain. Doncaster Racecourse was also established in 1595, making this another of England’s historic courses.
In the decades and years that followed more and more courses popped up around the country, including Newmarket, which was founded in 1636, rather by chance. James I discovered the village itself while out riding and he began to basically base himself there, allegedly spending so much time it ate into his working commitments.
Royal Figures Play Pivotal Role
Royal figures played a pivotal role in the spread of horse racing during these earlier centuries. Queen Anne, for example, had real involvement in the creation of Royal Ascot, which today features a prestigious race called the Queen Anne Stakes. William III also gave plates as prizes for many races across the country, seen as top prizes, as well as establishing a riding academy himself.
With racing firmly established, the sport enjoyed many fine decades in the 18th and 19th centuries, arguably something of a high point. It attracted both the noble elites and the common folk, a rare moment for the two to attend the same grounds on a leisure occasion.
Most English Courses Started in 1700s or 1800s
Not every course thrived of course but it is interesting to note how the vast majority of English racecourses were established a long time ago. From those still running today, Chelmsford is the only one to open since Taunton in 1927. Most other courses you see today began their journey in the 1700s or 1800s, having provided entertainment for generation after generation of lovers of racing.
Today the sport falls under the regulatory authority of the British Horseracing Authority, formed in 2007 after the British Horseracing Board and Horseracing Regulatory Authority merged. As well as covering all thoroughbred action in English, this body also covers racing taking place in Scotland and Wales.