Celebrating 300 years of Worcester Racecourse
PUBLISHED: 10:57 21 August 2018 | UPDATED: 10:57 21 August 2018
This month Worcester Racecourse celebrates its 300th Anniversary. Stephen Roberts returns to his roots to find out more about the place known as 'Pitchcroft'
You could call it ‘coming home’ I suppose. Having been born in the old Ronkswood Hospital in Worcester, I feel I have a very personal stake in the faithful city (so called because it stayed loyal to the monarchy during the English Civil War).
As I commenced screaming and gurgling in Newtown Road, I had no idea about anything, least of all that there was a famous racecourse just two miles west of where I’d landed. I’m talking, of course, about Worcester Racecourse, or ‘Pitchcroft’ as it’s also known, which celebrates 300 years of galloping this July, which makes it one of the oldest courses in the country.
Pitchcroft is a large open area of close to 100 acres to the north of the city centre, on the Severn’s east bank, north of Worcester Bridge, which is a public space when race meetings are not being held. The racecourse itself is a picturesque, tree-lined oval circuit of around 13 furlongs in length (over 2,600 metres).
So, the year 1718 was early in the reign of George I and was noteworthy for a few reasons. Thomas Chippendale, the furniture maker, was born, and so was John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, who gave his name to our favourite lunchtime snack. ‘Blackbeard’, the English pirate, was killed in action, and last, but certainly not least, the first races were held at Pitchcroft.
The Worcester Grand Annual Steeplechase was first run in 1836 and became one of the most important events in the National Hunt calendar. The importance of the race was illustrated in 1853 when ‘Bourton’ was victorious in the Grand Annual, the horse going on to win the famous Grand National the following year. The race clearly attracted the very best of competitors. Sadly, this once-great steeplechase was discontinued in 1933, however, this 300th anniversary year will see the feature race resurrected after 85 years, with the first re-running taking place on July 4 at the tricentenary race-day.
Worcester Racecourse continued to make its own headlines over the years. Take January 1965, for example, when a record number of runners, 229 of them, contested an eight-race card. HRH Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, made her name as a ‘three-day-eventer’, winning European gold in 1971, but later turned her attention to horseracing, firstly on the flat, then over fences. She won at Worcester on ‘Cnoc Na Cuille’, having driven her own horsebox to the meeting. It was after this that the course became the home of ‘summer jumps racing’ as it is known.
There are 20 National Hunt meetings held at the course each year between May and October. Highlights include a popular Ladies Day (June), two Family Fun Days (June and September), and tapping into the spirit of the Cheltenham Festival, an Irish Night (July). When the course is closed to racing, it remains open for conferences, events, parties and much more besides. Today, Worcester Racecourse is part of Arena Racing Company (ARC), the largest racecourse group in the UK.
Of course, you need to keep yourself fed and watered when you visit the races. It’s as important for the humans as the horses and there are plenty of options. The Severn Restaurant offers stunning views of racecourse and River Severn from the second floor of the grandstand. The very best of locally sourced, seasonal produce is used for scrumptious three-course meals that change with each race day. If you fancy pushing the boat out, there’s always the private box option (12-42 guests), with three-course dining in an intimate setting, and a private balcony for the best view of the action. The Parade Ring Marquee offers something different again: a private lawn at the heart of the action, with dining for up to 200 racegoers.
I spoke to Jenny Cheshire, the executive director of Worcester Racecourse, who is originally from Yorkshire, married someone named ‘Cheshire’ and is now an honorary ‘Worcestershire-ite’, having moved to the county in 1989. She has an eclectic past, which has involved working for a film and television distribution company, self-publishing books and novels, and proof reading (suddenly I feel the need to check my work carefully!)
“I hadn’t worked at a racecourse before when I pitched up here in 2001, however, I’ve a lifelong interest in racing, including breeding National Hunt horses. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement. The horses can show such grit and determination: they are natural competitors and they understand that they are in a race.
“Supporters of National Hunt are very loyal to the grass roots end of the sport and appreciate the importance of a course such as Worcester. Horses compete here then go on to bigger things: one of the attractions is spotting the next big thing. A horse might run its maiden hurdles, then go on to race at the Cheltenham Festival. In that sense we’re an important cog in the wheel, contributing to the development of horses and the sport itself, whilst also providing opportunities to lesser-grade horses. Not every racer can be ‘Desert Orchid’. The adage ‘horses for courses’ is so true, as some will have favoured tracks. Worcester is particularly good for beginners as it’s not a complicated course. ‘Swansea Bay’ won several races here, then moved on to bigger events. The horse is still alive, and we named a race after him!
“We feel immensely fortunate with Worcester. The combination of racecourse and city means our racegoers have plenty to do and many will combine their racing experience with other things. Our big event is Ladies’ Day when we get 10,500 spectators and we’d expect in the region of 45,000 visitors in total across the season. The course is a major contributor to Worcester’s economy, as it’s not just the horse racing, but also other events held here, particularly in the summer. Racegoers will also use the city’s hotels and other businesses (although we only do single-day racing, people will often stop-over and make a break of it).
“We’re really looking forward to the 4th July and the race-day celebration of our 300 years. It’s a major milestone, which we’ve been working towards for the last two years. We have a small, but incredibly loyal team here (several have been with us for many years): it’s a team which works its collective socks off. We’ve had a few tears in the past, and there’s no doubt a few things we would have done differently with hindsight, but we’ve also had so many successes and lots of laughs. Here’s to the next 300 years!”
Why not pay Worcester Racecourse a visit in this, its tricentenary year? I intend to do just that, reflecting all the while that I was born just a short gallop away.
10 facts about Pitchcroft
1. ‘Pitchcroft’, originally arable land and flood plain, derives its name from ‘inner island’.
2. Bare-knuckle boxing was held on the racecourse in 1824.
3. Rugby Union was held at Pitchcroft for several years from 1893.
4. Worcester City FC played matches at ‘Severn Terrace’, Pitchcroft, from 1902 to 1905.
5. Football is still played at Pitchcroft on several pitches in the centre of the course.
6. Flat racing was held at Pitchcroft until 1966 but National Hunt racing thereafter.
7. During the floods of 2007 all race meetings from the end of June had to be cancelled.
8. Worcester Pitchcroft parkrun is a 5 km run that takes place every Saturday morning.
9. Fairs are held at Pitchcroft periodically.
10. With Pitchcroft next to the Severn, there is a water-sports centre for the canoe & rowing club.
Worcester Racecourse, Grand Stand Road, Worcester. WR1 3EJ
Reception & box office opening times: 8:30-17:30 (office hours may vary on race days).
General enquiries, events & venue hire (01905 25364 and firstname.lastname@example.org)
Worcester Racecourse (worcester-racecourse.co.uk)
Sixty Years of Jump Racing: From Arkle to McCoy (R Oakley, 2017)
Visit Worcestershire (visitworcestershire.org)