Wales is probably best known for its love of sports, such as rugby union and football, but the country does have a decent appetite for horse racing. Although it is not a nation littered with racecourses, it does have three different options, two in the south and one in the north. All forms of racing are covered here too as both Chepstow and Ffos Las host both flat and jumps racing.
If you are based in Wales and are exploring racecourse options, it is worth mentioning that there are a couple of tracks close to the Welsh border, but on the English side. Chester Racecourse is almost a literal stone’s throw away while the likes of Ludlow, Hereford and Aintree are close to the invisible line too. Let’s not get too side-tracked though as this piece is focused on what the Land of Castles is able to offer when it comes to thoroughbred horse racing.
Racecourses in Wales
|Course||Location||Race Type||Track Surface|
|Ffos Las||Carmarthenshire||Flat, Jumps||Turf|
Horse Racing in Wales
For the foreseeable future it looks as though Wales will stick with three racecourses as there are no immediate plans for another. Although it may not seem like much, it is exactly what you would expect if you look at England and Scotland. Both these nations have around one course per 1.1m people and Wales has a population of just over three million, so having three courses fits the trend. It did take Cymru, as the locals call it, a long time to get its third course though with Ffos Las only having been built in 2009, making it the newest course in the United Kingdom.
It is especially rare to see any new courses built these days, let alone one in Wales. Across the entirety of Great Britain, Ffos Las is just one of two courses currently operating that was established within the last 95 years. Another Welsh course, Chepstow, is actually the fourth-youngest course too, although its date of birth is all the way back in 1926. The remaining course in Wales, Bangor-on-Dee, is considerably older than this, having held its first meeting in 1859 on virtually the same ground still used today.
Number of Annual Fixtures
All three Welsh racecourses are quite active but in particular Chepstow and Ffos Las on an account of hosting both jumps and flat racing (Bangor is jumps only). Numbers can change slightly year on year but in 2022, Wales had 68 racing fixtures – 14 at Bangor, 23 at Ffos Las and 31 at Chepstow. As they are spaced out across the year, the next Welsh race meeting is rarely more than a week or two away. Each fixture typically takes place in the afternoon although there are usually around 13 opportunities to watch racing in the evening, which can often come with a slightly different feel to it.
If you are wondering how many of these race meetings feature one of Britain’s ‘big’ races, not too many is the answer as most of the most prestigious races take place in England. Wales is home to a small selection of major contests though, the Welsh Grand National certainly being one of them. Although it does not carry the same weight as the equivalent marathon handicap at Aintree, it is a race that always attracts a great deal of interest. This is not just from the public either as many top trainers consider this to be a great practice run ahead of the longer test at Aintree.
Chepstow is also home to one Grade 1 race, the highest-ranking possible for a National Hunt contest, in the form of the Finale Juvenile Hurdle. As well as this it is home to one Grade 2 race and a pair of Grade 3 challenges, all of which are noteworthy affairs that attract a high calibre thoroughbred. Ffos Las has no graded races but it is home to the Welsh Champion Hurdle, a once high-ranking race that eventually saw its standard slip, leading to its cancellation in 2003. It has done well since being revived by Ffos Las though and tends to offer a very respectable – if not astronomical – £50,000 in prize money.
The Three Welsh Courses
As mentioned above, Chepstow is the only course in Wales to offer a grade quality races and this is partly why it is seen as the best racecourse in the country.
It seems only fair then that we start with the Monmouthshire venue, which hosts racing right throughout the year. National Hunt racing takes place between October and April, leaving flat racing to take place outside of this time. As for what kind of test Chepstow provides, it is a very up and down course meaning it ends up being an energy-sapping experience for any horses making the trip here.
Jump meetings can be especially draining for horses as Chepstow does end up receiving a lot of rainfall and subsequently often has quite heavy ground. Sometimes there is so much water that waterlogging occurs and this is something that has led to the postponement/cancellation of race meetings. Snow and/or frost is also something of an issue in the winter but it is waterlogging that is the main reason for abandoned race days.
Most meetings are held as originally scheduled though with general admission tickets costing between £15 and £20, except for big meetings, such as the Welsh National Day.
Ffos Las is the other mixed-code course in Wales and, much like Chepstow, they too host racing all year round. The relatively new racecourse was built on land where an open cast coal mine used to be, once mining operations had finished. This location gave planners of the racecourse plenty of room to work with and they settled on a left-handed oval featuring two long-straights with a small chute to allow for straight-line five-furlong and six-furlong races. The lengthy straights combined with its perfectly flat nature and absence of any ridges means this is a popular place to ride.
Its extreme flatness is something that increases the waterlogging risk though and like with Chepstow, you will occasionally see meetings abandoned here. Despite its rather rural location, Ffos Las can be accessed by public transport as organisers run a free-of-charge raceday shuttle bus that runs to/from Llanelli train station. In terms of cost, prices are very similar to Chepstow, which is not a great surprise as both are owned by the Jockey Club. Between £15 and £20 is the standard admission fee although for a limited number of meetings there is an offer giving two tickets for the price of one.
Finally, we move on to Bangor-On-Dee, which is (perhaps strangely) nowhere near Bangor, rather it is located westwards, within the small village of Bangor-on-Dee very close to the English border. What is particularly peculiar about this racing venue is that it does not feature a single grandstand. This does mean you need to put extra thought into your clothing choices for meetings here as there are limited places to hide from the rain. The place is not without any physical buildings though as you do have an on-site restaurant, food court, weighing room and so on, so it is not just bare bones.
It is not a racecourse that will suit everyone but for those after a relaxed atmosphere, there are few better. Bangor-on-Dee lacks a strict dress code and visitors are welcome to bring a picnic with them if staying in the Open Course (the space in the middle of the track). Open course tickets typically cost a mere £7 while a paddock enclosure ticket will set you back £17 in advance or £20 on the day
Best Welsh Meetings
Chepstow: The Welsh Grand National
The biggest race meeting in the country has to be the Welsh Grand National, which is scheduled to take place each year on 27th December (if postponed it usually takes place in January). It is such a big race that fans flock to Chepstow to watch it and there is a lovely festive atmosphere at this time of year. You could well end up seeing a future big star of racing there too as Welsh National winners have been known to later win races, such as the Aintree Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Chepstow: ‘Jumps Season Opener’
A couple of months prior to this, Chepstow holds a two-day ‘Jumps Season Opener’, which always proves very popular too. This is partly because the Friday/Saturday affair includes two graded races, most notably the Persian War Novices’ Hurdle. As it is one of Chepstow’s top meetings, you may well find they put on a live music performance after the final race at no extra cost. If you are into live music though, be mindful that Chepstow usually brings in at least one big act to the course each year. In 2022, for a Ladies Evening meeting, Paloma Faith was scheduled to perform following the racing action. The demand for these race days is so high that tickets can sell out so pre-booking is strongly advised.
Ffos Las: Ladies Day
Ffos Las is also no stranger to a big musical act or two, with such meetings proving very popular as you effectively get two major forms of entertainment on the same day. Aside from this, their Ladies Day in August is the star of the flat racing season as it gives racegoers the perfect excuse to put on something a little more extravagant. Whoever rocks the outfit that impresses the judges the most can take home a £500 prize.
Ffos Las: Welsh Champion Hurdle
The big jumps race meeting, on the other hand, is the Welsh Champion Hurdle which runs every October. This contest attracts several top jumpers although there are many more jumpers, of another kind, on Christmas Jumpers day in December, which is Ffos Las’s jolly farewell to the year.
Bangor-on-Dee: Smaller Meetings with Off-Course Entertainment
Bangor-on-Dee does not really feature anything that would consider a major meeting, at least from a racing perspective. Their highest quality contest is a Listed race for novice mares, scheduled for November and even this is quite low-key. The bigger meetings at Bangor, therefore, tend to revolve around off-course entertainment, with Ladies Day in the peak of summer being a particular highlight. Despite this being their main show-stopper, full of glitz and glamour, ticket prices remain at standard rates for this sought-after evening.
History of Welsh Racing
It was the landed gentry and aristocrats that were the first to enjoy horse racing in Wales, usually in the form of point-to-point meetings. There was a spread of flat racing in the early 1800s though with recognised events taking place in the likes of Aberystwyth, Brecon, Conwy, Cowbridge, Haverfordwest and Wrexham.
1700s: Social Classes Mixed at Horse Race Meetings
Cowbridge was a particularly popular destination and it regularly attracted horses across the border, doing so from the late 1700s. In addition to horse racing, these meetings had a lot of extra ‘entertainment’ such as dancing balls, pig racing and prostitution. This saw a mixing of social classes despite horse racing itself being firmly under the gentry’s control.
The upper classes in Welsh society used horse racing as a means of mingling with the English gentry, often to great effect. Despite its classy reputation though, some courses struggle with drunkenness and ‘immoral behaviour’. This disapproval from religious quarters put a halt on proceedings at Wrexham Racecourse between 1862 and 1890. The country did not end up a course down mind you as Bangor-on-Dee began hosting steeplechase racing in 1859.
1926: Chepstow Racecourse Created
In the 20th century, horse racing in Wales became more popular with the working classes in part due to increased press coverage and partly the spread of off-course betting. This contributed to the creation of Chepstow Racecourse in 1926 but it was hardly guaranteed to be a long-term success.
Course Closures After the War
In the years that followed, rising costs involved in raising and breeding horses, plus a rise in other leisure activities hurt both flat and jumps racing. As a result, many Welsh racecourses were struggling by the time of WWII and this brought about the closure of courses like Ely in 1939 (badly damaged by a fire in 1937), Llanymynech in 1940 and Newport in 1948.