Read all about the racecourses from history that have disappeared from modern use and lie hidden in the annals of time, from Rugby to Cheltenham Park.

Lost racecourses 10: Buckfastleigh

The ideal holiday for a National Hunt enthusiast in the late 1930s had to be a fortnight on the English Riviera, writes Ian Sutherland. It was long before the birth of summer jump racing, and August marked the start of the new season. South Devon had no fewer than five racecourses within 20 miles of each other, with Newton Abbot, Exeter and Buckfastleigh all early starters. Totnes, at the southern end of what is now the South Devon heritage railway, raced the following month, whilst Torquay held its annual fixture at Easter.

Buckfastleigh was the perfect place to watch racing. The track was a little over a mile around. The stands were at the highest point on the circuit, giving a panoramic view over the whole course. Most races were over a distance of either 2m 154 yards or 3m 418 yards, meaning they started just before the stands. This was followed by a downhill plunge to one of the sharpest bends anywhere – more a corner than a bend – which could catch out even the most experienced jockey.

Chris Pitt, in his account of lost racecourses, A Long Time Gone, had the problem described to him by regular Buckfastleigh jockey, Bernard Wells. "It had one of the sharpest bends on any track. After passing the winning post, you'd go down a sharp hill which felt like riding down a coalmine and then there was an acute right angled bend at the bottom. You had to go wide and swing into the bend. If you tried to follow the rails around you'd finish up outside the course on the A38, as happened to me once on French Knot. The first time I rode her was at Buckfastleigh when she jumped a wire fence and landed on the main Exeter to Plymouth road."

That was bad enough back in his day, but imagine it now, when vehicles are thrashing down the dual carriageway at 70 mph! Actually, if you can slow down a bit towards Plymouth once you pass the turn off for Buckfastleigh, you can see the remains of the stand up on the hillside. And if you want a closer look, pop into Dean Court Farm Shop to ask. There's a track that runs from what was the entrance to the course alongside the finishing straight to the stand.

The remaining stand at Buckfastleigh racecourse
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The remaining stand at Buckfastleigh racecourse

This stand proved to be a bit of a white elephant, as it was built in 1950, only ten years before the racecourse closed, after 77 years of operation. In its very early days Buckfastleigh held just that one meeting in August, but in 1886, after just three years, a Whitsun meeting was added. This proved popular, and as the advertising poster of the time (kindly shown to me by Richard Cooper, whose family owns the racecourse site) shows, by 1901 special excursion trains were running to the local station from Exeter, Newton Abbot, Torquay, Plymouth and Kingsbridge.

It's no great surprise that a permanent stand was soon put up for spectators, though in fact, it proved to be anything but permanent. The wooden structure was dismantled in 1927 and sold to Torquay United FC, where it was ready for supporters’ days before their first ever fixture in Division Three South of the Football League. There it remained in regular operation until just five years ago. Why the racecourse sold it is a mystery. There's no indication that they needed the £150 Torquay paid; indeed, the regular good attendances argue that there was a continuing need for it. Instead, for twenty-odd years, temporary wooden stands were brought in for each meeting and then taken away and stored until the next one.

Racing at Buckfastleigh in 1955

Racing at Buckfastleigh in 1955

There was no shortage of runners either. This photo, taken in 1955, shows a field of 13 passing the stands, and racecards of the time indicate there were regularly 12-18 horses competing. The stables on the course itself have been demolished, but a similar block still stands at Dean Court Farm at the bottom of the course. Between them they could house close on 100 horses, though they held little attraction for local trainer/jockey of the 1920s, Bert Gordon. He always walked his runners the four miles over the hills from South Brent.

The final day's racing, on 27 August 1960, drew in more than 4,000 spectators. Bernard Wells and French Knot successfully negotiated the sharp bend and, although they could only finish third in the handicap hurdle, the jockey did ride a winner on the day. The Whitsun meeting a few months earlier had seen a first training success for 21-year-old David Gandolfo, when Sunwood took the South Devon Selling Handicap Hurdle. How many of the 1500 winners "Gandy" had during his fifty year training career would have come at Buckfastleigh had it survived? And who would think that one of the ways the course would maintain a link into the future would be by the naming of a home on the housing development that now occupies the site of the trainer's old yard after his first winner?

By this time, Lord Churston, the landowner who had leased Dean Court Farm for three hundred years, had decided to sell off that part of his estate. Only after the land had been auctioned off, for what was felt to be an inflated figure of £150,000, did it become clear that the sale marked the end of racing at Buckfastleigh. Richard Cooper explained, "The investment company that bought the land also purchased the buildings, hurdles and other equipment. They clearly wanted to continue racing there. What they hadn't understood was that this did not include the licence to run fixtures under the rules of racing, and as the authorities were seeking to reduce the number of meetings, there was no chance of the licence being transferred separately”.

At the time, meetings were already in the calendar for 1961. These were moved to Exeter and Newton Abbot. Soon, the grandstand seats and turnstiles had also gone to Exeter, whilst the number board made its way to Newton Abbot.

Yet Buckfastleigh refuses to give up entirely. The Coopers, having bought Dean Court Farm in 1963, acquired the racecourse land some years later. The remains of the stand would likely fall down without the support of the trees, and it's taken a clever switch from running right to left handed for the two point to point meetings which take place each Spring. But the spirit of Buckfastleigh remains, and long may that continue.

Lost racecourses 9: Moreton-in-Marsh

Raceday 1909 (courtesy Moreton-in-Marsh local history group)

Raceday 1909

I wonder whether the Romans ever staged chariot racing during their occupation of Britain? If they did, one likely place would have been Moreton-in-Marsh, a significant mid point staging post on the Fosse Way linking Exeter and Lincoln. There was a Roman fort a mile or so outside the town, so it would have been possible. We'll never know of course, and we have to fast forward over fourteen hundred years before we come across any definite evidence of horse racing in this part of the Cotswolds.

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What we do know is that by the 1840s an annual meeting was established on a circuit just south of the town, which continued for 70 odd years. As the tapes went up last Thursday at the start of the Aintree Festival, exactly 100 years previously the last meeting at Moreton was taking place. Though there's nothing of the course to see nowadays, it's easy to work out where it ran from the description in Stanley Harris's 1987 book Racing Memories of the North Cotswolds. The course “was on the left hand side (of Fosse Way, now the A429) between Dunstall Farm and Frogmore. But it is interesting to note that for the steeplechases which were over three miles, the runners had to cross the Fosse Way twice, on both sides of the bridge known as Stow Brook Bridge.” The photo above, courtesy of Moreton-in-Marsh local history group, looks south round the final bend.

It's a good thing that there weren't too many three mile chases. As I found out a couple of days ago when walking the route of the course, as soon as the horses crossed the road, they they left the racecourse and literally went out into the country, and out of sight for spectators, even once temporary stands were erected in the early 1900s. At the last meeting, exactly 100 years (and a week) ago, there was just one such race, the other five taking place over a distance of two miles, on a proper racecourse that lay entirely east of the road, and where people were able to see the whole race.

The Evenlode still takes some jumping

The Evenlode still takes some jumping

You might think that on land that has been farmed for a century there would be no trace of a racecourse, and in tangible things such as buildings and jumps that's absolutely so. But Moreton-in-Marsh used natural features extensively, and there are many field boundaries you can follow that marked out the edge of the track. In some places, gaps in the hedges have not been filled in, which suggests that they too were on the racetrack.

The owners of Frogmore Farm told me that they often find people coming along with metal detectors, hoping that the plough has turned up some Victorian or Edwardian coins, especially in the field next to the brook, which is still known locally as Racecourse Meadow. The farm played another, vital function at the meeting: it provided the only ladies' toilet facilities.

Racing at Moreton-in-Marsh seems to have been a genuinely local activity. There are no indications in the scarce records that survive of famous jockeys or high profile trainers turning up, despite easy access from the railway, and at least three sizeable coaching inns offering stabling. Even the most notable horse to run there, Hedgehog, who went on to win one of the first Welsh Grand Nationals in 1898, was trained only a few miles away.

The motor car really spelled the end of racing at Moreton. True, the traffic is stopped to this day at both Brighton and Ludlow while the horses race across the roads there, but the long straight run of Fosse Way proved a different matter from B class roads. Perhaps things would have turned out differently if the tourist signs in Japanese that now adorn the railway station had been put up 100 years ago. After all, racing's a popular sport in Japan.

Lost racecourses 8: Clifton Park, Blackpool

Clifton Park racecourse

Clifton Park racecourse

102 years ago today there was great excitement on the North West coast of England. Horse racing was about to begin in Blackpool. Read more

Lost Racecourses 7: Rugby

atherstone huntThe old Rugby racecourse lies next to the A5, just a couple of miles east of the town itself, at Clifton on Dunsmore. Racing took place there between 1862 and 1936, with every meeting bar one taking place over the jumps. Read more

Lost racecourses 6 – Lincoln and the Lincolnshire Handicap

Lincoln in its heyday

Lincoln in its heyday

For the best part of 200 years racing people knew that the first meeting of the year at Lincoln racecourse meant that the flat season was under way. Since Lincoln closed in 1964, that accolade has belonged to Doncaster, except for a couple of years recently when Catterick bagged the honour. Thankfully, in my view, we have resumed old habits this season. Read more

Lost racecourses 5 – Cheltenham Park

Grandstand at Cheltenham Park

Grandstand at Cheltenham Park

Until 2009 Gloucestershire was not the only place to host racing at Cheltenham. As early as 1895 the suburb of Cheltenham, about five miles north west of central Adelaide had a track known as Cheltenham Park. Read more

Lost racecourses 4 – Bedford

John Bunyan, the most famous resident of the small village of Elstow, would not have approved of racing. He had shuffled off this mortal coil in 1688, though had he been around 40 years later, there may never have been any racing at Bedford. Read more

Lost Racecourses 3: Colwall Park – 75th anniversary of royal winner

Catch the train from Birmingham and alight at Colwall a few hundred yards after you emerge from the tunnel through the Malvern Hills. You are following in the footsteps of many of the spectators at what was one of England’s prettiest racecourses. A day trip from South Wales made the track as popular with people from there. Cross the footbridge and pass the nature reserve, and as you emerge into the fields you are at the top bend in the course, with a short run alongside the railway before a left turn into the home straight. Read more

Lost racecourses 2: The Elephant Man

Bogside racecourse stands - long gone

At around quarter to four tomorrow a craftsman will inscribe in gold leaf the name of the latest winner of the Scottish Grand National on a large oak board at Ayr racecourse. But the board and the race are both interlopers, as until 1965, they were both to be found 14 miles up the coast at Bogside racecourse, just outside Irvine. Read more