We could argue that, in terms of Flat action and the very development of the thoroughbred, England is the home of horse racing.
Flat racing of various forms has existed in the country since the later part of the 12th century. By the early 17th century, handicapping was introduced with more organised race meetings taking place around England and then beyond.
Over time, some of the biggest races at the most famous racecourses have been staged in England. We’re taking a look at England’s current racecourses, some of the tracks that are no longer with us, the biggest courses and the best races.
How Many Courses Are There in England?
As of 2023, there are 51 racecourses in England.
They range geographically from Newcastle in the north, Yarmouth out in the east, Brighton in the south east and Newton Abbot way down in the south west.
Of those 51 racecourses, 18 hold Flat racing only.
Another 20 are National Hunt courses, i.e., they only stage jumps racing, while the remaining 13 tracks are ‘dual purpose’ and host both Flat and jumps racing.
The Top Racecourses in England
Of England’s 51 live tracks, many are important to the sport for multiple reasons. Of particular importance to the sport however are:
The Merseyside track hosts the Grand National every April. This race is still the single most bet on event in Britain yearly. While the race has changed over the years, it retains its popularity with millions tuning in to watch.
The Berkshire track is dual purpose, hosting Grade 1 action over the jumps in the winter. Its historic Royal Ascot meeting however is still the main focus.
Eight Group 1’s take place across five days of racing. It is the most important race meeting of its’ type in the world.
Arguably to the jumps game’s detriment, the Cheltenham Festival in March is by far and away the main focus for National Hunt trainers in Britain.
It brings together the country’s best horses, along with many from Ireland too. Other meetings take place at Cheltenham throughout the autumn and winter, though the Festival will always take priority.
The Roodee is of historical importance in English racing. As well as the Chester Cup, a handicap, it’s May Meeting is important for providing some of the key Derby and Oaks trials.
The importance of Town Moor can’t be underestimated. Doncaster starts the Flat season with the Lincoln and ends it with the November Handicap. Even more important however is the fact that one of the five Classics, the St Leger, is hosted here in September.
Another Classic venue, Epsom is the host of both the Oaks (fillies) and the Derby (colts). The effect of the Derby on the very breed has been huge, keeping it as pound-for-pound the most important horse race to be staged anywhere in the world, despite some not understanding this fact.
There are no Classics at Goodwood, but it is a pivotal summer Flat venue. The Glorious Goodwood meeting, staged across five days much like Royal Ascot, is a majorly important event.
With the Flat turf track now ripped up, Kempton is a busy all-weather venue. Its’ key importance to English racing however comes over the jumps. Every Boxing Day, Kempton hosts the King George Chase. Other than the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, this is the top three-mile chase in Britain.
The home of horse racing. The top breeding sheds are here, many of the top trainers are here, the best jockeys are based here and the place even has not one but two racecourses.
Newmarket hosts the 1000 Guineas (fillies) and the 2000 Guineas (colts) in early May. There are also major meetings throughout the warmer months hosting the July Cup, the Cambridgeshire, the Dewhurst and many more.
Many list the Knavesmire as the best racecourse in England overall. Some even think it’s the best in the world and they may not be far wrong.
York hosts the Dante, the top trial for the Derby, the Ebor Handicap, the Juddmonte International, the Yorkshire Oaks and many more top races throughout the year. It is known for offering huge prize money while the rest of the country struggles in that regard.
England’s Major Races
Though a physically small territory, England’s status as a dual-purpose country means there are dozens of top-class races yearly.
There are 36 Group 1 races on the Flat as well as many major handicaps. Over the jumps, 39 Grade 1 races take place as well as huge handicap chases such as the Grand National.
Of particular importance in England are:
|Champion Hurdle||Jumps||Cheltenham||March||The top two-mile hurdle, run at the Cheltenham Festival.|
|Queen Mother Champion Chase||Jumps||Cheltenham||March||The top two-mile chase, run at the Cheltenham Festival.|
|Stayers’ Hurdle||Jumps||Cheltenham||March||The top three-mile hurdle race, run at the Cheltenham Festival|
|Cheltenham Gold Cup||Jumps||Cheltenham||March||The most important chase race of all, run at the Cheltenham Festival.|
|Grand National||Jumps||Aintree||April||The biggest betting event in Britain, a 4¼-mile chase.|
|bet365 Gold Cup||Jumps||Sandown||April||A top season-closing chase race, a Premier Handicap.|
|2000 Guineas||Flat||Newmarket||May||The first Classic of the season, one mile for 3yo colts.|
|1000 Guineas||Flat||Newmarket||May||The fillies’ equivalent of the 2000 Guineas.|
|The Oaks||Flat||Epsom Downs||June||Another fillies’ Classic, for 3yo’s over 1½ miles.|
|The Derby||Flat||Epsom Downs||June||The biggest Classic of all, 1½ miles for the 3yo colts.|
|Ascot Gold Cup||Flat||Ascot||June||The top staying race, run over 2½ miles during Royal Ascot.|
|King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes||Flat||Ascot||July||A major Group 1 over 1½ miles in which the 3yo’s and older horses meet.|
|International Stakes||Flat||York||August||The top 1¼-mile race on the Flat.|
|Ebor Handicap||Flat||York||August||The top handicap race, run over 1¾ miles.|
|St Leger||Flat||Doncaster||September||The last 3yo Classic of the year, run over 1¾ miles.|
|Dewhurst Stakes||Flat||Newmarket||October||For 2yo’s over 7 furlongs, essentially crowning the champion juvenile.|
|Cambridgeshire Handicap||Flat||Newmarket||September||A majorly competitive 9-furlong handicap.|
|Cesarewitch Handicap||Flat||Newmarket||October||A huge 2¼-mile handicap, forming the ‘Autumn Double’ with the Cambridgeshire.|
|Queen Elizabeth II Stakes||Flat||Ascot||October||Run on Champions Day, the top one-mile all-aged race.|
|Champion Stakes||Flat||Ascot||October||A major 1¼-mile Group 1 race.|
|Fighting Fifth Hurdle||Jumps||Newcastle||November||Grade 1 two-mile hurdle race.|
|Tingle Creek Chase||Jumps||Sandown||December||A two-mile chase, second in importance only to the Champion Chase in March.|
|December Gold Cup||Jumps||Cheltenham||December||A major Premier Handicap race.|
|King George VI Chase||Jumps||Kempton Park||December||The top three-mile chase, run on Boxing Day.|
Group and Grade 1 Hosting Tracks
While we couldn’t mention every top-level race hosted in England, what we can do is show you where to go to watch Group or Grade 1 action.
There is a better geographical spread of tracks over the jumps hosting important Grade 1 races, while the majority of Group 1’s on the Flat are hosted in the south.
Here are all the tracks hosting top-level events:
|North West||Aintree||11 Grade One jumps races, all during the Grand National meeting.|
|North West||Haydock||The Betfair Chase over jumps and the Sprint Cup on the Flat.|
|North East||Newcastle||The Fighting Fifth Hurdle.|
|Yorkshire||Doncaster||The St Leger and the Vertem Futurity.|
|Yorkshire||York||Three Group 1’s during the Ebor Meeting; the Juddmonte International, the Nunthorpe and the Yorkshire Oaks.|
|East Anglia||Newmarket (Rowley Mile)||Seven Group 1’s including the Guineas, the Fillies’ Mile and the Dewhurst.|
|East Anglia||Newmarket (July Course)||The Falmouth and the July Cup.|
|South East||Ascot||3 Grade One chases and a hurdle. On the Flat, Ascot has thirteen Group 1’s including the King George, eight at Royal Ascot and four on Champions Day.|
|South East||Epsom Downs||Three Group 1’s over Derby weekend; the Coronation Cup, the Oaks and the Derby.|
|South East||Kempton||3 Grade Ones; a top novice chase, the King George and the Christmas Hurdle.|
|South East||Newbury||The Lockinge, a top mile race in May.|
|South East||Sandown||4 Grade Ones over jumps including the Tingle Creek. The Eclipse is Sandown’s Group 1 Flat race.|
|South West||Cheltenham||14 Grade One races over jumps during the Cheltenham Festival.|
|South Coast||Goodwood||Three Group 1’s during the Glorious meeting; the Sussex, the Nassau and the Goodwood Cup.|
This spread is not bad, but on the Flat there should be more made of York.
Before long, England needs to address also the lack of a Group 1 race over seven furlongs which is not for juveniles, while a Group 1 on the all-weather will surely come in due course too.
Any upgrading of facilities at Newcastle, which is much needed, could see the all-weather, seven-furlong and northern England needs for a Group 1 met in one fell swoop.
How Has Racing Changed Over the Years in England?
We know Newmarket as the home of racing, stretching back to 1605 when James I entered the village while riding. He was the key figure in encouraging the sport of horse racing in England.
Chester, still an important place on the English racing circuit, was hosting races around the “Roody” as far back as 1609, and the track is still nicknamed the “Roodee” today.
When you look back in racing history, you’ll see that many racecourses had a ‘King’s Plate’ race. This is because William III, or William of Orange, was another supporter of racing who gave out plates to be raced for around the land.
During her reign between 1702 and 1714, Queen Anne discovered land at Ascot she thought would be ideal for racing and essentially founded Royal Ascot, still a major meeting every June.
As the 17th century became the 18th, three ‘foundation sires’ were brought to England. The Darley Arabian, the Godolphin Barb and the Byerley Turk founded breeding lines to which every single modern thoroughbred can trace their roots back.
In 1750, the Jockey Club was formed in order to oversee the Rules of Racing, something done these days by the BHA, the British Horseracing Authority.
Over time the Classics were formed; the 1000 and 2000 Guineas at Newmarket, the Derby and the Oaks at Epsom and the oldest of them all, the St Leger at Doncaster. These races have had their names mimicked around the world.
Racing kept evolving in England. Just as stallions were brought from the East to encourage the breed, Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed was also instrumental in the modern era. As well as owning his own horses, he founded Godolphin and Darley, arguably the world’s most powerful ownership and breeding operations.
What many don’t know or remember is that he also founded the Racing Post in 1986, giving the sport a proper trade paper. After it was sold, it moved into the digital era when its website was launched in 1997.
We’ve seen the advent of all-weather racing, floodlit racing and links between England and the world via the Champions Series, the World Pool and more.
Famous Courses in England that Have Closed Down
For those growing up watching horse racing from the 1980’s through the turn of the millennium up to 2008, England’s racecourse roster seemed absolute. It felt like it would never change.
It did, however, and has done many times over the course of racing history.
Two of England’s old racecourses still exist, but don’t host horse racing anymore. Folkestone Racecourse in Kent was closed in December, 2012 after holding its last meeting. It is earmarked for housing development.
Another is Towcester Racecourse in Northamptonshire. Horse racing ceased at the venue in October 2019, though it continued to host greyhound racing in the same place.
We should mention Great Leighs here. In 2008, Great Leighs in Essex was England’s first new racecourse for decades. It was forced to close and it looked as though the experiment had been an expensive mistake. It reopened however and we now know it as the successful Chelmsford City Racecourse.
While some of England’s great old courses such as Newmarket, Goodwood, Ascot, Haydock, Doncaster and Epsom keep going, others to have hosted important local races are long gone.
|Stockton Racecourse||1981||Formerly known as Teesside Park, Stockton closed in June 1981. The closest current racecourses are Redcar and Sedgefield.|
|Wye Racecourse||1975||The Kent track hosted racing from 1849 to 1974.|
|Alexandra Park||1970||Situated in North London, Alexandra Park hosted popular Monday evening meetings, similar to modern day Windsor Racecourse.|
|Lincoln Racecourse||1964||As you’d expect, this was the original location for the Lincoln Handicap, now staged at Doncaster.|
|Manchester Racecourse||1963||This track, never actually located within Manchester but nearby, hosted the November Handicap (now Doncaster), and both the Lancashire Plate (defunct) and the Lancashire Oaks (now Haydock).|
|Hurst Park||1962||Located on the banks of the Thames, Hurst Park formerly hosted the Victoria Cup (now Ascot) and the Triumph Hurdle, now an important part of the Cheltenham Festival.|
Aldershot, Bournemouth, Chelmsford (old), Derby, Durham, Eglington, Gatwick, Ipswich, Lewes, Rothbury and many others were racecourses in England also to close down.