From the dawn of time to 1905 Newbury did not exist as a racecourse, and if it wasn’t for the invention of the railways that might still be the situation. Unthinkable, isn’t it, the world of racing without Newbury. It is akin to the world of cheese without Cheddar. And there is a reason why annually there is a race named after John Porter. Some might say, given his importance to the creation of Newbury, the John Porter is deserving of being the most important and valuable race in its calendar. The villages of Greenham and Lockinge are but small dots on the turf map when compared against the wide-spread achievements of the legendary master of Kingsclere.
Once upon a time, it has to be said, racing did take place in the environs of Newbury, though neither Wash Common nor Enborne Heath were a rip-roaring success and both had long disappeared when John Porter boarded the train at Newbury bound for London. As he idly gazed out of the carriage window as the train passed across the flat land at Greenham Common the idea came to him that it would make a splendid venue for a racecourse. It had a lot going for it, being close to the town, though more importantly it was also in close proximity to the large training establishments in the counties of Berkshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire. He had no doubt his idea would be well-received and patronised by his fellow trainers.
Acting on his idea, John Porter sought out the owner of the land and persuaded him to the financial benefits of building a racecourse. Whether Mr.Baxendale ever regretted his decision is unknown, though the Jockey Club’s view is in the public domain: they didn’t like the idea one little bit and refused Porter and Baxendale a licence.
In fact the Jockey Club were quite stubborn on the matter, refusing application after application to have a racecourse at Newbury and if it wasn’t for the intervention of King Edward VII, who once had horses trained by Porter and whom he bumped into by chance in Newmarket High Street as he was leaving a Jockey Club meeting, we might not today have a racecourse at Newbury. Perhaps a thank-you is long overdue to his late Majesty in way of a race named in his honour?
Newbury opened its doors on September 26th, 1905, and the winner of the first race was Copper King, with John Porter training the winner of the last race at the two-day fixture. Atty Persse must have fallen in love with Newbury from the off as he trained five winners during the two-day fixture.
Of course Newbury thrived and Porter retired from training in 1906 to superintend the racecourse, concentrating all his efforts on what was, after all, his invention. He died in 1922 but under his guidance such races as the Newbury Spring Cup was born, as was the Greenham.
If Newbury got off to a flying start, it is a wonder it survives at all given what was done to it during the two wars. In 1916 it was requisitioned as a prisoner-of-war camp, a munitions inspection depot, a hay dispersal depot and finally a site for testing and repairing tanks. We can only be thankful that the Kaiser had not had a horse disqualified by the stewards at Newbury or he might have made it his purpose to show the British how to properly destroy a racecourse. During the 2nd World War Newbury fared even worse at the hands of the British with large portions of the hallowed turf covered in concrete and railway tracks.
There is one man to thank for Newbury’s rise from the destruction of war: Geoffrey Freer, and he, too, perhaps deserves a race of greater prestige run in his honour than the present limp affair. With the assistance of the Marshall Plan which restored requisitioned land and returned it to it owners Freer worked tirelessly to breathe new life back into the knocked about racecourse and in 1949 racing returned.
I am quite sure in my own mind that outside of Cheltenham and Aintree, racecourses that are as much shrines as sporting venues, Newbury is the best racecourse in England. As a dual-purpose course it is undoubtedly the best. Better than Ascot I would suggest. And it never stands still, as the present alterations and housing complex underlines. Whether you approve or disapprove of the changes to the infrastructure no one can accuse the present custodians of the racecourse of living in the past as they seemingly always have one eye on the future.
Though they are not to blame there are two glaring omissions to the racing programme. Newbury deserves a proper top-class chase outside of what was the Hennessey. Quite why the Betfair Chase is staged at Haydock, ostensibly a flat course that does jumping to keep its hands warm during the winter, and is not a proper jumping course like Newbury, is beyond me.
Newbury should also have a Group I for the staying type of horse, perhaps over 1-mile 6 (named in honour of King Edward VII, perhaps) to give it a distinction of its own.
In 1992 James Douglas-Home wrote a history of horse racing in Berkshire and at its conclusion he expressed concern for the future of the large training bases in the county, fearing the power base of Newmarket was taking all the big owner-breeders and leaving Lambourn, Kingsclere and Whatcombe etc with just the scraps to survive on. Twenty-five years later the game has moved on and Newmarket too feeds off the scraps left to them by the all-conquering Ballydoyle. But the county’s three racecourses remain at the top of their game, even if Windsor’s game is three divisions lower than Ascot and two divisions lower than Newbury. Newbury is an undervalued and underappreciated gem and John Porter and Mr. Baxendale should be honoured for their foresight and endeavours.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.