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.
Cow Meadow, barely half a mile East of the cottage where Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress, hardly sounds the place for horses to run against each other, but it was here that a flat, oval course of about a mile round was first recorded in 1730. After ten years of few entries for few races, things looked bleak, and racing came to an end for a period of 13 years.
The Duke of Bedford sparked the revival in August 1753, with a dinner at County Hall after three days of racing. His drinks bill came to £42, 19 shillings and eight pence, and included 33 gallons of punch made from rum and brandy.
Eleven years later, the Whim Plate was run at the August meeting. There were only two horses entered, and the race was scheduled to take place over three heats. Rose won the first heat, but it was a rather more famous horse that took the second – Gimcrack. A walkover in the final heat meant that Gimcrack was the winner of the Plate.
He clearly had a group of Northern supporters, as in 1767, a club for racing enthusiasts, at first called “The Ancient Fraternitie of Gimcracks” was set up in York. In time it became the Gimcrack Club, and led to the race now run at the Ebor meeting every year. The irony of this is that on the only two occasions Gimcrack ran at York he was beaten.
Bedford had to wait until 1810 for its place in racing history. Then, the first steeplechase over a purpose built course was run. The race attracted 11 entries, but the prospect of jumping eight 4ft 6ins high fences and racing over three miles must have disheartened some people, as the reported 40,000 crowd saw only two horses take up the challenge.
Bedford racecourse always struggles to attract many horses, although things looked up sufficiently that as well as the August meeting, a Spring Meeting took place in 1827. It was a short-lived venture, lasting only until 1844.
In 1873 all racing came to an end at Cow Meadow. It’s now overlooked by the Midland Main Line railway, bisected by the Bedford bypass, and remembered only in the name of the road that goes round the retail park, Race Meadows Way.
However, that wasn’t quite the end of the story for racing in Bedford, as by then a new National Hunt course had been laid out at Clapham Park, just north of the town. This was where the Oakley Hunt met, and it was one of the venues to host the Grand National Hunt Steeplechase before that settled into its permanent home at Cheltenham. Unusually, the first fence was a wide ditch in front of a hedge, something that isn’t allowed now.
It wasn’t enough to maintain Bedford as a major track, and on 27 March 1901 the Initial Steeplechase brought the curtain down.