Closed UK Racecourses – 2
London and the south-east has had its fair share of racecourses closing, including Hurst Park 56 years ago and Alexandra Park nearly 50 years ago.
Whilst Streatham in south London is now known for a slow-moving route out of the capital towards Surrey and the south coast, back in the 1870’s it was the location of a popular racecourse.
Racing first took place in 1868 and carried on for around 10 years, coming to an end largely because of rowdy behaviour by many of the thousands of racegoers who attended the track. Top race was the Norbury Plate and the course put on a mixture of flat races and steeplechases, with around half a dozen two-day meetings a year,
A little further south, and Croydon, or to be more precise Lower Addiscombe, can lay claims to a racecourse instigated by King James I, which dates it to around 1605. It survived until the 1890s when, once again, closure was brought about because of the trainloads of ruffians arriving at the course. This prompted civic dignitaries to mount a successful campaign to have the place shut down.
Whilst Croydon hit the buffers in 1890, a course that survived into the 20th century was being laid out at West Molesly, Surrey. On the banks of the Thames, Hurst Park was taking shape.
The site had already seen horseracing on what was common land, which meant spectators didn’t have to pay to get into roped-off enclosures, and the track’s viability was unsustainable. And there was still the problem of many undesirables in attendance.
The solution was to take a leaf out of the books of nearby Kempton Park and Sandown Park, and construct an enclosed racecourse. In March 1890 the new course held its first meeting over the jumps. A year later flat racing was added, but Hurst Park’s most notable race was not run until 1939 – enter The Triumph Hurdle.
Racing continued for another 13 years until 1962 when the land was sold for housing. The final race took place in October when the Byfleet Stakes went to Anaasa, the 11/8 favourite, ridden by Des Cullen for trainer Towser Gosden, father of John Gosden, who was based at Lewes, in Sussex, where another racecourse is no more, having closed in 1964.
Parts of Hurst Park, however, lived on. One of the grandstands was auctioned off to Mansfield Town football club where it became the West Stand at their Field Mill ground. And the turf was used for the newly laid out jumps course at Ascot.
Whilst racing was coming and going in the southern Home Counties, the situation was being mirrored north of the Thames.
In the 1830’s Harpenden, in Hertfordshire, was a venue for occasional meetings on the Common where a race was won in 1839 by Captain Becher. But it was not until 1848 that things moved on to a firmer footing.
A committee was formed of local farmers to organise racing, and their efforts paid off in June when a crowd of around 10,000 attended the first fixture, made up of four races. Such was its success, that a permanent committee took charge of future fixtures.
Predictably, the same problems beset the Hertfordshire venue as those which caused the demise of Croydon and Streatham – undesirables disgorging from race-special trains. Yet, despite outbreaks of violence fuelled by alcohol, racing survived until 1914.
Because of the First World War and excepting Newmarket, British racecourses were shut down partly so that trains were free to transport troops and munitions. But as Harpenden, like Hurst Park in its early days, was on common land which facilitated free viewing, its financial attractiveness was limited and it failed to re-open in 1918.
Talking of Newmarket, even HQ has been victim to track closure. Where the golf club is now situated used to be the site of Newmarket’s jumps track which closed in 1905.
Across the county border to Essex and Chelmsford racecourse fared better. Located on Galleywood Common, there are records of racing in 1759, making it one of the country’s earliest tracks, with royal patronage in the guise of King Charles II, and then King George III, who put up the Queen’s Plate and 100 guineas in prize money.
And, yes there was both crowd trouble, which in the case of Chelmsford included an arson attack on the stands in 1779, albeit that they were speedily rebuilt, and financial difficulties because the course was on common land.
Yet despite this, racing survived until 1935, via closure during the First World War, and a crisis in 1922 when the course was put up for auction. Racing, however, restarted a year later with facilities which were among the best in the country, and Golden Miller was a two-time winner there before his first Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1932.
Unfortunately, the financial difficulties never went away, and three years later the April meeting was to be the last. If you visit Galleywood Common, you can still see some of the racecourse posts.
Not far away, and you can see another racecourse which closed and was then resurrected when the gates shut on Great Leighs and reopened as Chelmsford City.
Make the journey into to north London, and there are signs of another racecourse of the past – Alexandra Park.
Nicknamed the Frying Pan, because of the layout of the track, it is still possible to make-out the straight with the loop at the end when looked down upon from the hill where Alexandra Palace stands.
Since 1955, Ally Pally was synonymous with Monday evening racing in the way that Windsor is today, and because BBC television was located in the Palace, meetings were often televised
Although the course was situated in a park in Muswell Hill, it doesn’t actually hold the record for being the closest track to central London, That honour belonged to Bayswater Hippodrome, albeit that racing stopped there in 1841 after being in existence for only four years.
Alexandra Park began in 1868 and races could only be staged over three distances: five furlongs, starting on a shoot before joining a right-hand bend of the loop and continuing into the three-furlong straight; one mile, where horses started in front of the stands, raced back down the straight, before looping the loop, and coming back up the straight; and one mile five furlongs, using the same start as the mile, but taking in the loop twice before returning back towards the stands, quite possibly finding it difficult to keep to a straight line.
Apart from its idiosyncratic layout, the course was noted for its Victorian grandstand and cast-iron railings.
The final years of Alexander Park were a struggle – the track was losing money and, with falling attendances, the plug was finally pulled in 1970.
Whereas crowds of over 10,000 attended the Monday evening cards in the fifties, the final fixture played out to less than 3,000 racegoers.