The world’s smallest Grand National

Ashey National - not quite Aintree

On Sunday, the world's smallest, and probably least well-known Grand National takes place at Ashey on the Isle of Wight. The race is open to amateur jockeys only, and takes place on the site of the former racecourse at Ashey.

Racing on the Isle of Wight was hosted at Bowcombe Down, Gatcombe, Appleford and Rew Down in the mid 19th century before finally settling at Ashey in the 1880s. Ashey was a left-handed steeplechase circuit and by the 1920s was staging two two- day jumps meetings over its circuit of a mile and a half.

In its heyday it had a reputation as the most corrupt racecourse in England, gained as a result of the wood in the middle of the track. The rumour was that when people went round the back of the wood they came out riding a different horse, an activity that led to numerous disputes being referred to Admiral Rous, a member of the Jockey Club. Roger Munting, in his book Hedges and Hurdles, suggests that it was one of these referrals after the 1865 Isle of Wight meeting that led to the formation of the National Hunt Steeplechase Committee and tighter control over jumps racing throughout the country.

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What turned out to be the final meeting was held on 9 June 1930, with the last race, the Ashey Hurdle, won by Copacabana, ridden by Staff Ingham. It wasn't meant to be the last meeting as another had been planned for August bank holiday Monday. But shortly before then the course’s wooden grandstand was destroyed in a mystery blaze and the meeting was cancelled. The course has long since returned to open farmland.

But for one day a year, those old memories are revived, not least because like the crowds of the 1920s, you can arrive there by steam train today on the Isle of Wight Steam Railway. Indeed, in the old days the racecourse had its own station on a short branch line off the Ryde to Newport line.

The Isle of Wight Scurry meeting, which includes the Grand National, started up in 1982, and between them, the four races on the card typically attract an entry of around 40. Usually six or seven horses contest the Grand National, although last year there was a bumper field of ten seeking to pick up the trophy – The Blackgang Chine Cup.

Every racecourse has people on hand in case a horse gets loose, and Ashey’s horse catcher certainly earned his fee last year. Caroline Cooper, Secretary of the Isle of Wight Scurry and Grand National told me, "During the National, a horse running under the name of Carragher, which Venetia Williams had trained in its younger days, unseated its rider and bolted off down the railway track with a number of people hot in pursuit. In true Benny Hill style there was a lot of "the horse went that way" complete with pointing of direction. Jim Loe of the Isle of Wight Steam railway was the person running down the track after the horse having contacted the Station to stop the train so that the horse was not run over"

Let’s hope he has a quieter time on Sunday.

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