Chester Racecourse Guide

The Course with Chester Wal
Chester Wall as seen from Chester Racecourse

Chester Racecourse has the honour of being the oldest racecourse in England that is still in use today. The long-standing venue dates back all the way to 1539, following the consent of Mayor Henry Gee whose name, according to some at least, led to the commonly used nickname for horses, gee-gees.

The course is often referred to as The Roodee, due to the small mounds based in the centre of the course known as roods. From this, the alternative name was formed, as Roodee is a corruption of ‘Rood Eye’ meaning the Island of the Cross. Call is what you will, there is no doubt that Chester is a wonderful course.

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The Course

Not just is Chester the oldest active racecourse in the country but it’s also the smallest, at just over one mile long. The short distance covers a circular track, strictly for flat racing, which is almost one long continuous left-handed bend. This makes it a very sharp course that provides a unique test for any competing horses and a very difficult challenge for gallopers.

The nature of the track makes overtaking tricky and a low draw can be a huge advantage especially over shorter distances or in races with big fields. Being on the inside, towards the front, is where you want to be, so prominent runners should be favoured. For those that tend to hang further back, they have a run-in of just two furlongs to try and make up the gap. In longer races, more than a full circuit, there is also the opportunity to overtake just after the winning post (on the first lap!)

Major Races

Chester gets the season off to a flyer with Chester Cup Day. Originally known as the Tradesmen’s Cup, the Chester Cup has been running since 1824, although it has changed form many times since then. It carries a very substantial purse of around £120,000 and in 2014 was won by Ascot Gold Cup winner Trip to Paris.

Chester holds another respected handicap later in the season by the name of the Chester Stakes. It’s a race that marks the affiliation between the racecourse and the city and all Chester residents are treated to half price tickets as a result. It’s one of several Class 1 fixtures Chester has across the season, along with the likes of the Chester Vase and Dee Stakes which can serve as trial races for the Epsom Derby.

Chester also has the Cheshire Oaks and the Ormonde Stakes that can be used as practice for the Epsom Oaks and the Coronation Cup respectively. The last horse to do the double in both Oaks was Light Shift in 2007 while St Nichols Abbey won both the Ormonde Stakes and Coronation Cup in 2011.

Visiting

Chester Grandstand
Grandstand (David Pimborough / Bigstockphoto.com)

If you want to get a behind the scenes look at the course before the racing starts then raceday tours start at 11:30am and are available for £15.

Useful Info

Dress Code

In the Dee Stand & Open Course, the dress code is relaxed and it’s the only place where fancy dress is allowed. Things are different in the Tattersalls Enclosure where smart casual wear is expected from guests.

Men typically wear a shirt with smart jeans and those coming with either shorts, sportswear or trainers may be denied entry. Formal wear is an absolute must in the County Stand & Winning Post Enclosure. This includes a suit jacket, collar and tie for men and ladies are required to wear smart dress.

Ticket Prices

A ticket in the Open Course is the cheapest way to see the action at Chester and these are priced at either £10 or £12. Slightly more expensive is a spot in the Dee Stand where tickets are either £14 or £15.

Tattersalls Enclosure admission varies between £30 and £40 depending on which meeting it is and County Concourse prices range from £38 to £50.

The most expensive spot is in the perfectly located Winning Post Enclosure, where tickets will set you back either £80 or £90. Prices are often the same in advance as on the day but occasionally promotional offers are included when purchasing tickets online several weeks in advance.

Membership

Membership at Chester is far from the cheapest at £485. For that, you get County Long Room access for Chester’s 15 racedays, Paddock access to all fixtures at Bangor-On-Dee and 21 reciprocal dates across many other courses. Complimentary racecards are included at every meet along with free parking.

On selected dates, members can claim a 10% discount on any on-site restaurant and hand out up to four guests passes which will allow access into the Members Bar.

Getting There

The racecourse is located very centrally within the historic city of Chester so public transport is a popular way of getting there. Chester railway station is just a mile away and if getting there via Merseyside Rail then off-peak tickets with unlimited day travel are £5 for adults or £2.50 for under 18s.

For those travelling from further afield, Chester is well connected with direct trains passing through from the likes of Birmingham, Cardiff and Manchester.

Parking

Car Parking is available in the Open Course at a cost of £11 on Family Fun Days and £8 for all other racedays. It is recommended to book parking in advance when purchasing tickets as spaces may be limited on the day.

History

Aerial View of Chester Racecourse
Aerial View of Chester Racecourse
(Environment Agency / Wikipedia.org.uk)

The first recorded race took place in Chester in 1539 and it’s been able to host racing quite consistently ever since. There have been only a handful of interruptions over the years. These have come as a result of civil war and puritanism in the 1800s and war, strikes and flooding in the 20th century. Throughout its long and eventful history, Chester has remained a flat course, although there are a few exceptions from this.

To begin with, Chester’s annual fixture took place on Shrove Tuesday but in 1609 it welcomed a new race on St George’s Day which awarded two silver bells to the winner. More races were to be added in the decades that followed as meetings at Chester soon became the central event in the social calendar of the locals.

The Making of the Grandstand

Plans were drawn up to build a small private grandstand in the 1760s but it’s unclear if it was ever built. The first one we know for sure opened in 1819 after a public subscription raised £2,500 to support it. It was enlarged in 1829 but still only really catered to the wealthy racegoers. The Dee Stand was built by another company in 1840 and largely housed middle class spectators.

Opposition

Despite these builds, Chester did not enjoy a particularly successful 19th century. The switch to sprint races was not a popular move with trainers who didn’t want to try out their horses on such a tight track where there was a bigger risk of injury. There was also opposition from nonconformists and evangelicals, as well as problems created by those who opposed the racecourse and racing on moral grounds.

Poor management had also played its part in Chester’s struggles but improvements were made when the grandstand leases expired. Rather than private companies collecting the money from spectators, the Chester Racing Co. bought out the stand proprietors and began charging money at the gate for the first time in 1893.

Improvements

Attendances initially fell but soon began to recover and the extra funds raised were put into improving the facilities. This is a process that has continued to this day. Chester has a wonderful mix of a beautiful setting, excellent facilities and amenities and some top class races.

Many experts truly rate it as one of the best courses around. In 2012 Chester, alongside sister site Bangor (a NH circuit), became the first racecourses to manage their own betting operations. Chester Bet has enabled the course to generate yet more income and improve the racecourse even further.