When a racecourse is forced to close the area in which it existed is denied more than a place of sport and entertainment – it loses a green space in an increasingly tarmacked world. If the racecourse is situated in a town or city what is removed from the environment is a habitat for wildlife, greenery and an open space that is a reservoir of fresh air.
If I lived in Derby, for example, and frequented my local racecourse – Derby racecourse closed in 1939 and the site is now the home of Derbyshire Cricket Club – would I have automatically, or attend as frequently, Nottingham or Southwell racecourses? Lose Kempton Park, for instance, and the sport will lose those local people loyal to their local racecourse. It is the trickle effect. I am sure the same happened when the likes of Stockton and Wye closed.
It is possibly an effect of ageing that causes nostalgia for that which is lost forever to manifest so boldly in the heart and imagination; a desire to peer into the ghostly world of the sporting past. As I write I have before me a black and white photograph of Lanark racecourse taken between the wars, with women in thirties fashion mingling with men in suits and hats, the long straight stretching out toward moorland and hills. The place closed in 1978 and I dread to think how much tarmac and brick spoils a natural beauty of the landscape that the racecourse had preserved.
It was a line of no consequence in William Day’s ‘Turf Celebrities I Have Known’ that sparked my interest in Shrewsbury racecourse. You see Day trained in Wiltshire and as there was no such luxury as horseboxes in his time the horses and grooms must have travelled by foot and by railway, suggesting that Shrewsbury racecourse was a destination worth great effort to attend. Even today, by car or train, it would be a far from convenient journey. Stable staff today do not realise how easy they have things.
The horse Day was writing about was called Pitchfork. I suspect in the eighteen-hundreds horses were given names in the same way Native American Indians traditionally were named and when asked for a name the owner, Lord Rivers, looked around him and glanced upon a pitchfork. He might have named the horse Muck-Sack or Snot-Face, or more poetically as the Native American would have gone about the task, One Cloud in Sky or Running Fox. Mind you, Pitchfork is a far better name than the unflattering names present day owners come up with, especially in Ireland. Anyway Pitchfork ran in and won the Shrewsbury Gold Cup, the signature race at Shrewsbury, though there was also His Majesty’s 100 Guineas Plate and a Shrewsbury St.Leger.
Day’s book, by the way, is exceedingly dull, though perhaps rare, with the theme being the people Day trained for. He also makes it known that in his day betting was the main object of the sport. It seems in Day’s time the easiest way to lose an owner was to win a race when the odds were too cramped to get on a sizeable wager.
Because of having a Gold Cup and a St.Leger of sorts one might think Shrewsbury to be a rip-roaring success and wonder why it no longer features in the Racing Calendar. In fact racing in Shrewsbury began in 1718 at a place called Kingsland, moved to Bicton Heath in 1729 only to be sold in 1825 when the owner of the land, and here is a name known to racing followers through the name of a horse, Mad Jack Mytton became bankrupt. In 1832 it rose from the ashes at Monkmoor Road and it must have been this venue that Day wrote about as his book was published in the 1890’s.
Concurrent with the general opinion of horse-racing at this period of history, to remain even now with people ignorant of racing’s glories, Shrewsbury gained a reputation for the races being fixed. There was probably grounds for the rumour as John Frail, the man responsible for returning racing to the area and who was in effect clerk of the course, owned a number of horses; he was also responsible for handicapping and no doubt looked favourably upon his own horses.
The description of the course at Monkmoor Road, though I have seen Bicton Heath described in the same terms, was that it was rather akin to Chester, being a round mile, though with the last furlong being on an incline. In 1928 the local council built an estate of council houses on the land; the sad fate of so many racecourses in this country.
The surprising aspect of my research into this subject is that Chris Pitt failed to include Shrewsbury in his inestimable tome ‘A Long Time Gone’, a book every racing man should own.
Whenever I pick up Chris Pitt’s labour of love I have an overriding pang of regret for the loss of every one of those doomed racecourses, even those that held only one meeting a year and were no better than a point-to-point. It is the same now for Shrewsbury. I wonder how many we can lose before the penny drops that we need more racecourses not less for the powers-that-be to be able to substantiate their pervading outlook that the sport is thriving. Also, and this may be more important, the environment, especially the urban environment, needs more green reservoirs of fresh air and open space that sporting venues like racecourses provide.
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.