Lost racecourse 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.

Racing began at Carholme, on the western edge of the city, in 1773, although by then racing had taken place in the city for nearly 200 years. The City Registers recorded on 12 February 1597 that “The mayor’s charges for a scaffold at the horse race to be allowed.”

The scaffold, a temporary stand put up specifically for the even, remained a feature for many years. It clearly aided viewing for the privileged few who stood there, including King James 1 in 1617, as well as keeping them clear of the riff-raff. The registers tell us that “there was a great horse race on the heath for a cup, where his Majesty was present and stood upon a scaffold the city had caused to be set up, and withal caused the racecourse a quarter of a mile long to be railed and corded with ropes and stoops, whereby the people were kept out and the horses which ran were seen far.”

George 1 also went to Lincoln races, putting up £100 guineas in prize money himself on his visit in 1716.

By the end of the century the races took place on a four mile round course at Waddington Heath. Anyone who has attended the Waddington Air Show will have crossed the track, which very likely formed the outline for the perimeter road when RAF Waddington was set up as a training station in November 1916. The last meeting there took place in 1770, and was notable for Eclipse winning the Cup.

For a brief period between 1770 and 1773 at Welton Heath, during which time the circuit at The Carholme was laid out, and in September 1773 a three day meeting – but with only one race a day – inaugurated more 200 years of sport at the site.

The course introduced jump racing in 1843, though it never really established itself as a regular attraction. Indeed, the future of racing at Lincoln had fallen into doubt when the bookies took a hand and helped to secure its name in racing history through the Lincoln Handicap.

For a brief period, the course held two Lincoln Handicaps each season. One, the Lincoln Spring Handicap, was introduced at the spring meeting in 1853, and the other, the Lincoln Handicap bowed out in August 1857. Both were run over a mile and a half, but neither race attracted many runners. When the August meeting was dropped in 1857, the two races merged the following year.

The next effort to increase the number of runners was to reduce the distance to a mile, which was done in 1865, but it remained poorly supported. Then some bookmakers with an eye to profit stepped in, and chipped in £1,000 between them to add to the prize money. With no form to go on the race has always favoured them rather than punters, and when 35 runners went to post in 1874, and a little known 17 year old, Fred Archer, brought Tomahawk as the 14/1 winner, they felt their investment repaid itself. It has continued to do so ever since, and that link has continued down the years. The last Lincoln to be run at Lincoln, in 1964, was sponsored by Ladbrokes, and now the race has the backing of William Hill.

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The race has another place in posterity. In my youth I spent a lot of time with the winners of the Lincolnshire Handicap between 1926 and 1937, though I didn’t know it at the time. They are:

· 1926: King of Clubs
· 1927: Priory Park
· 1928: Dark Warrior
· 1929: Elton
· 1930: Leonidas
· 1931: Knight Error
· 1932: Jerome Fandor
· 1933: Dorigen
· 1934: Play On
· 1935: Flamenco
· 1936: Over Coat
· 1937: Marmaduke Jinks

I have to own up to a teenage Totopoly addiction. Why did they choose the names of Lincolnshire Handicap winners? Who knows? Waddingtons, the manufacturers were based in Leeds, so there was no direct link to Lincoln. Why those particular 12 winners? Well, the game came out in 1938, so they simply chose the most recent winners at the time.

World War 2 marked the beginning of the end for Lincoln, as the track became a military camp. The Lincolnshire moved to Pontefract between 1942 and 1945, and although the first post war race run at its home attracted over 38,000 spectators, racing never fully re-established itself. In 1963 the Levy Board included Lincoln on its list of 12 courses from which it intended to remove its subsidy. The local council would not step in, and the following year Henry Brooke, the Home Secretary and final arbiter of the Levy Board proposals accepted them and signed the death knell for racing in Lincoln.

Those last 18 years provided further opportunities for the course, and the race, to find other places in the record books. Does anyone remember the 1948 running? Jockey Ron Sheather had good cause to do so. He was a 7lb claimer at the time on a horse called Loucose. He finished last in the race, in 58th spot, the largest field ever recorded for a flat race.

The grandstand at Lincoln

The grandstand at Lincoln

And jockey Edward Hide had an unusual encounter one year when he and the other runners found a youth on a bicycle heading straight towards them. Most of the course was marked out with poles, which didn’t even have ropes joining them, so it wasn’t always obvious what was racetrack and what was common land. In his autobiography Nothing to Hide he recorded, “It is hard to believe that there wasn’t a horrific pile up, but the quick wittedness of the jockeys averted disaster. I will never forget the look of disbelief on the lad’s face as I flashed past, sandwiching him between me and the rails.”

After racing at Lincoln finished, it seemed as is the course wanted to prove that closure was a mistake. In 1965, Monday 22 March should have seen the opening of the flat season at Doncaster, except that two inches of snow caused racing there to be abandoned. Yet 40 miles southeast, in Lincoln, the going was perfect. A thaw, and flat season opened a day late, with the Lincolnshire Handicap shorn of its "shire".

Rules racing was over, but Lincoln would not give up without a fight. The Tote buildings and number board went off to Fakenham, but the grandstand remained, and still does, on the other side of the Lincoln to Worksop road, now no longer having to be closed for race day. The Carholme became home for three hunts, which staged their point-to-point meetings there until 1991. The Labour Council was happy to renew the lease for the hunts, provided that the meetings had nothing to do with hunting.

Lincoln grandtand

Lincoln grandtand

That signalled final closure. At least, that’s what everyone thought at the time. But in 2010 a group called the Lincoln Racecourse Regeneration Company (LRRC) met in the old grandstand to announce plans which, it said meant “that professional Flat racing could return to Lincoln within five years.”

The idea met with strong opposition from local residents, and, once again, found an unsympathetic local council, this time Conservative led. LRRC reckoned it had of investment lined up to build new stands and stables and that the proposals would generate £12m for the local economy. But one councillor described it as “a bad idea that won’t happen.” He went on to say that, “The City of Lincoln Council has no political will toward the racecourse plans, despite it having a Conservative majority.”

It seems Lincoln racecourse is to remain derelict, despite having a track you can still clearly see, and buildings that are in a decent state or repair and regularly used by community groups.

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