Which English racecourse was built in preference to a lunatic asylum?

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.’

Where, and what, are the Railway Fences?

Sandown Park Racecourse, in Esher, Surrey, is renowned as a difficult test of jumping ability, even for seasoned steeplechasers, and owes its reputation, at least in part, to a line of three fences, collectively known as the ‘Railway Fences’. As the name suggests, the Railway Fences are situated towards the end of the back straight, also known as the ‘Railway Straight’, which runs alongside the South Western Main Line between Surbiton and Hersham.

The back straight at Sandown Park consists of seven fences in total, including an open ditch and the water jump, but it is the proximity of the remaining three that makes the Railway Fences a key stage of any steeplechase run at the course. Jockeys must maintain balance, rhythm and impulsion as they approach each fence, so riding an experienced, agile steeplechaser, capable of shortening its stride quickly, when required, is a huge advantage when riding over the Railway Fences. By contrast, inexperienced horses or those with moderate jumping ability, who cannot physically ‘put themselves’ right at a fence, are much more likely to lose their rhythm – and, consequently, any winning chance – over the Railway Fences.