Each racecourse in Britain is officially graded 1, 2, 3 or 4, depending on the General Prize Find (GPF) grant it receives from the Horserace Betting Levy Board (HBLB). The HBLB is a statutory body, established by the Betting Levy Act 1961, which annually collects a percentage of bookmakers’ gross profit from horse racing as the so-called Horserace Betting Levy.
General Prize Fund (GPF) grants, which must be paid out as prize money, are calculated annually based on the Executive Contribution (EC), or ‘merit’ – that is, the amount of prize money contributed by the racecourse authority – and the amount of off-course betting turnover generated by fixtures in the last three years for which figures are available.
Essentially, the higher the GPF grant, the higher the grade of the racecourse. Newmarket, for example, which stages nine Group One races during the season, received just over £2 million in 2018 and is classified as Grade 1. By contrast, Carlisle, which stages just one Class 1 race – the Listed Eternal Stakes, worth just shy of £40,000 in total prize money – received just over £165,000 in 2018 and is classified as Grade 4. Note that the grade of a racecourse does not, necessarily, reflect the standard of the facilities available for owners, trainers, jockeys or the racing public, but it is not unreasonable to expect a gulf between the best and the worst, consummate with the grade.
Horse racing on synthetic surfaces, popularly known as ‘all-weather’ racing, was first mooted in Britain after the very cold, snowy winter of 1984/85, which resulted in a raft of National Hunt fixtures being abandoned. In early 1987, the Jockey Club, which preceded the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), received several proposals for all-weather tracks, but the first to be given an official stamp of approval was Lingfield Park, in late 1988. The first all-weather meeting at Lingfield Park was staged on Equitrack – that is, sand coated with oil-based polymers – on October 30, 1989. Shortly afterwards, Southwell, which had only received permission to install an all-weather track the previous June, staged its first meeting on November 8, 1989. Southwell chose Fibresand – that is, a mixture of sand particles and fine polypropylene fibres – as its racing surface, making it the first racecourse in the world to do so.
Four years later, on December 27, 1993, Wolverhampton had the distinction of staging the first floodlit fixture in Britain, also on Fibresand. On March 26, 2006, Kempton Park staged its first meeting on Polytrack – that is, a wax-coated mixture of sand and recycled synthetic fibres, rubber and PVC – and a year later was joined, albeit briefly, on the all-weather roster by the ill-fated Great Leighs (later renamed Chelmsford City). On August 11, 2015, Wolverhampton had the further distinction of becoming the first racecourse in Britain to install Tapeta – that is, an enhanced vesrion of Polytrack, designed to mimic the root structure of natural turf – and was joined a year later by Newcastle, which staged its first meeting on Tapeta on May 17, 2016.
Owned and operated by Chester Race Company Limited – which, unsurprisingly, also owns Chester Racecourse – Bangor-on-Dee Racecourse is a picturesque, rural National Hunt venue situated in Wrexham County Borough in North East Wales. The racecourse enjoys a prestigious location, less than twenty miles south of Chester and less than six miles southeast of Wrexham, but is, nonetheless, set in spectacular countryside on the banks of the River Dee and overlooked by the Berwyn range, a long moorland ridge, to the west.
Bangor-on-Dee Racecourse offers an altogether unique experience, typified by the fact that it has the distinction of being the only racecourse in Britain without a grandstand. However, the racecourse is set in a natural amphitheatre surrounded by an extensive, sloping grass bank, which affords an excellent view of the course from any location, sitting or standing. Spectators can also follow the racing action on a well-positioned large screen television and other smaller screens situated throughout the betting areas.
Obviously, the absence of a grandstand means that limited shelter is available during inclement weather, but all the facilities, including a cafe, restaurant and bar, are in close proximity. Bangor-on-Dee shared the accolade of Small Racecourse of the Year with Musselburgh in 2017 and received the same award, outright, from the Racehorse Owners’ Association (ROA) in 2018.
When it held its first meeting on April 22, 1875, Sandown Park Racecourse, in Esher, Surrey, had the distinction of being the first purpose-built, enclosed racecourse in the country. However, in 1870, when the land on which the racecourse now stands came up for sale, local inhabitants faced a dilemma.
The three proposals tabled for the development of the land were the construction of a model town, a lunatic asylum and, most controversially of all, remarkably, a racecourse. Of course, in the late nineteenth century, racecourses had an unenviable reputation as gathering places for ne’er-do-wells from all walks of life. Furthermore, the proximity of Esher to London – approximately 14 miles from London Waterloo – was thought likely to increase its attraction to members of London Society, which made the establishment of a racecourse even less desirable in the eyes of detractors.
Nevertheless, despite considerable opposition, the Williams brothers, Owen and Hwfa – who, if they were any doubt about the venture, enjoyed the patronage of the Prince of Wales – went ahead in their attempt to raise the image of horse racing. By enclosing the course in a boundary fence and charging admission, they achieved their ambition of making Sandown Park a safe place for women, ‘without the slightest fear that they would run the risk of social shipwreck or be exposed to a rough and tumble.’