UK racecourses

As of May 2020, there are 59 courses operating in the United Kingdom.

17 of those are dual-purpose – Flat and National Hunt.

Racing can be accessible to all, however for some of the flagship meetings, you are looking at fairly entrance fees. For the Cheltenham Festival, for the cheapest enclosure – £35.00-40.00 up to £85.00-100.00 per day. The Epsom Derby is even more expensive.

Like anything the standard of service and facilities vary greatly, like the standard of horses racing.

Generally speaking the peak of the flat season in Great Britain is between May and September. For National Hunt it is November to March.

Horse racing in the UK is governed by the British Horseracing Authority: https://www.britishhorseracing.com/

Newbury, UK

Getting there

Newbury is in the Royal County of Berkshire, about 1 hour’s drive from London Heathrow airport. Very accessible and a short distance to the course once you turn off the M4.

Newbury racecourse is also served by the main line train, from London Paddington, please visit: https://www.thetrainline.com/ for details.

It is of course adjacent to the major training centre of Lambourn.

Accommodation/Eating & drinking

Down the years, Newbury racecourse has enjoyed significant investment and there is now a hotel on the racecourse lands: https://www.thelodgenewbury.co.uk/ However early booking recommended, it only has 36 bedrooms.

Newbury the town is a very appealing one, set on the banks of the River Kennett, it is also on the edge of the Berkshire Downs, classified as an area of natural beauty. There is a mix of 17th & 18th listed buildings which appeal to the eye.

Newbury itself is well-served by hotels. I cannot recommend one in Newbury personally, as the last time I was there, I stayed in the historic Bear at Hungerford: https://www.greenekinginns.co.uk/hotels/bear-hotel-hungerford/ Excellent food including a great breakfast.

There are a couple of great bars for eating and drinking in Eat & West Isley, on the outskirts of Newbury, if you want a leisurely, comfortable haunt after racing.

Newbury town offers a wide choice of dining options too.

Racecourse

Highly accessible (as above). Newbury is a premier track, offering flat and National Hunt. The feature flat races each season include: the Greenham (April), the Lockinge (mid-May) and Geoffrey Freer in August, as well as the Super Sprint in July.

Of course the highlight of their National Hunt Calendar, is the Hennessy Gold Cup at the end of November.

Newbury has always been a fabulous facility, plenty of bars and choice of food/snacks. Please see here for details of hospitality: https://newburyracecourse.co.uk/

The Premier enclosure requires a certain standard of dress, a collar is required for Gentlemen, although a tie is no longer required. For the Grandstand enclosure, there is a lot more flexibility, even fancy dress for those so inclined.

General vibe

In the Premier enclosure, it is fair to say that everyone makes an effort and presents their best self, so as dressy as you like.

For the November Hennessy meeting, it still attracts a contingent of the highly affluent upper-class/titled types. A feature of the Winter social calendar if you like!

Summary

I don’t think you would ever have a bad day at Newbury, such is the high standard it operates at. Great racing guaranteed. There is also a series of evening concerts after racing during the summer months, everything from Boyzone in years past, to the Pussycat Dolls scheduled for August 2020.

Goodwood, UK

Glorious Goodwood, in West Sussex, on the South Coast of England. And truly glorious it is. The majestic drive into the course over the rolling countryside, through the Goodwood Estate is a pleasure in itself.

Some of my earliest great racing memories are from Goodwood and from those meetings outside of the main festival meeting (which is held annually at the end of July) too. Glorious Goodwood attracts the international set, as well as being well supported by the locals. The other meetings are well-supported by the local contingent.

How to get there

If coming from overseas, the best airport is London Gatwick, where you can hire a car and drive to Goodwood in just under an hour. You can also get the train to Chichester (the nearest town to the racecourse) – which also takes just under the hour. From there you would have to get a taxi to the course.

Accommodation

Chichester has a few good hotels, but early booking is essential. There are a lot of outlying villages with good guesthouse/pub/B&B accommodation. Places you could look are Bosham, the Witterings, Fontwell and even Bognor Regis. Brighton is also worthy of consideration, depending on what you’re looking for nightlife wise.

Chichester itself has a super 900 year old Cathedral – St. Richard’s, which is well worth a look, time permitting.

Great range of eating places, which I hope to visit again in the near future and will update this piece accordingly with recommendations.

Racecourse

For the Glorious festival, there are 3 enclosures: the Richmond – access only for annual members during the Qatar Festival. For all other meetings outside of this meeting, this would be the premier enclosure. The other 2 enclosures are the Gordon and the Lennox. For those that like to graze, there is a picnic area – Trundle Hill where you can view the action for free:

Trundle Hill looming in background

Entrance during the Qatar festival is around £47 for the Gordon enclosure. For the Lennox it’s about £25.

See https://www.goodwood.com/ for more information on ticketing and hospitality.

There are plenty of food snacking options and bars for all.

Solow before winning the Sussex Stakes in 2015 for French trainer Freddy Head

General vibe

Goodwood is full of gentleman wearing the eponymous Panama hat. Never will you see so many of them in a confined space!

Due to the wide cross-section of society that attend, you have everything from haute-couture, to jeans and t-shirts.

If attending the Gordon enclosure (and it goes without saying the Richmond too) – there is a minimum dress code.

Crowd around parade ring

Summary

Goodwood is a great experience. The festival which runs from Tuesday through to Saturday, is packed with top class international racing. Any day would be a treat.

The locals are very friendly and do try to stay a night at least, in Chichester to soak up the festival atmosphere.

The town itself is definitely worth a look, good selection of shops and pleasant architecture. There is also the Festival Theatre where many a world-leading actor and actress has graced the boards down the years.

The whole trip is a pleasure, from driving across the Sussex Downs to get there, to the apres-racing in Chichester, the racing and the fond memories you will take with you!

Ascot, UK

Having been a patron of the previous incarnation of Ascot, I paid my first ever visit to the new Ascot in 2019, for the Royal meeting.

How to get there

By air: London Heathrow. Ascot racecourse is served by train. For the Royal meeting, taxis should ideally be booked in advance. If you take your chances after racing and are fortunate to get one from the rank, you will probably be price gouged, even if going a very short distance.

Accommodation

It goes without saying, that hotels and other lodgings are booked up year on year. Expect to pay a premium. Some people will stay as far away as Slough & Reading, but then you have to grapple with the transport options, or lack of. Royal Ascot charge about £35 for car-parking and it generally should be booked in advance.

Racecourse

The sheer scale of the stand is initially, somewhat overwhelming for the 1st time visitor. Once inside, you are struck by the genius design of it. It feels spacious, even when thronged with punters. It’s almost like a boulevard with a variety of eating and drinking options off the main thoroughfare.

What really impressed me, that unlike some other major racing festival racecourses, the prices for food and drink were more than reasonable for a premium event such as Royal Ascot. I think this is important to note, as it leaves punters like me going away with the sense of satisfaction that they haven’t been ripped off.

As we all probably know there are 3 enclosures – the Royal one, for which access is gained by invitation or application only, the Queen Anne and the Village enclosure. I recall that Queen Anne access was around £73-75 per day in 2019.

There are numerous hospitality packages available.

I am not going to discuss the racing, as that does not warrant discussion here.

If you’re into people spotting, you can actually be only a few feet away from the Royal Family and other high profile individuals, if you turn up at the parade ring before races. Or you can of course wait on the rails for the daily Royal carriage procession, if that is your want.

With regard to the parade ring, the side nearest the stand is highly congested, I would advise wandering around to the opposite side, where you can usually get a much better vantage point for the horses.

Shop

There is a really good Royal Ascot shop selling a variety of souvenir type items and more expensive items of clothing and artefacts. Again, I found the range of merchandise extremely good value for the quality on offer.

General vibe

There are not enough superlatives to adequately describe the general excitement and high-octane racing that takes place. For purist flat racing fans like myself it’s heaven. For others of course, it’s all about the style and the people-watching and that is the beauty of Royal Ascot, it can be everything to everyone.

A lot of people look forward to the end of day bandstand sing-song, where the band plays a variety of patriotic tunes. If you’re not too fussed about this, I would take this as the cue to get away from the course and beat some of the crowds.

Ascot – the town

Ascot itself has a limited amount of restaurants that would need to be booked well in advance. There are a few bars, which again are busy but good-natured and enjoyable. Ascot also enjoys some good coffee shops, where you can while an hour away before gates open, over breakfast, or a cake and coffee.

For those who need last minute outfits or accessories, there are sufficient outlets for this purpose. Most of the boutiques go to town on their windows and they in themselves are worth a look.

Summary

Again, it’s one of those must-do events, at least once in a lifetime. A great value product, excellent organisational efficiency in all areas, plenty of sherpas to guide you around and a real delight.

Footnote

Do however, if not in a hospitality area, be prepared to spend long periods on your feet! I ended up buying a pair of Royal Ascot ballet pumps to walk back to my digs in Sunninghill, having managed to stay on the heels since 9am that morning!

Cheltenham, UK

As you could probably write a whole book about this venue, I am going to just outline the very practical aspects of a visit to Cheltenham, both for a meeting like the November event and the festival.

Getting there

Birmingham is the most convenient airport, or Bristol if you really had no other option. You can reach Cheltenham Spa station, direct from Birmingham airport usually with just one change of train. Cheltenham Spa station is a little distance from the town itself, and is definitely a cab ride if you are going straight to the course. However on the big days, the station is served by special race day buses.

Accommodation

If you are planning to go to the festival in any given year, you would need to be thinking about the next year’s accommodation no sooner than the current festival has finished, or even before that. Such is the demand, perennial racegoers just book year on year, hence the accommodation that is left is hyper price inflated, especially for Cheltenham town itself.

Other location options can include: Gloucester, Tewkesbury, the Cotswolds – covers a broad area of villages and small towns, Cirencester. And then the really outlying areas would be places like Bristol, Stratford-Upon-Avon, Oxford, which people/companies still tout as suitable places to be based from. They’re really not, unless you’re part of a tour group which has a bus of you going to the track each day.

For the November meeting, accommodation is still at a premium, but more readily available and in the preferred locations of Cheltenham itself, Gloucester etc.

Enclosures

There are 3 enclosures at Cheltenham: Club, Tattersalls and the Best Mate enclosure (locally known as the cabbage patch…).

Club and Tattersalls give you access to the parade ring, the Best Mate enclosure is opposite the stands. In 2020, Club badges were about £85 for the festival each day, bought in advance or £100 on the day and slightly more for Gold Cup day. For the November meeting they are in and around £30-35 per day for Club.

View of the parade ring with Cleeve Hill in the background

Facilities

Ample facilities across all enclosures. Centaur is the flagship bar in Tattersalls. The Guinness Village is available to Club badge holders, but not for the faint-hearted and only really appeals, if you want to listen to Irish music, drink all day and not see a horse in the flesh.

Guinness village

Do be prepared to queue at all times – to place a bet, buy food and drink, unless it’s early in the day.

Do be prepared to stand for most of the day, unless you get there early and command a table for the day, (if you’re with a group) – or of course you are fortunate to enjoy hospitality.

Weighing room in the background (Magners sponsored building)

Do be prepared to pay top dollar for any sort of drink, hot or cold. The quality of food offered has improved over the years, but it is still artificially expensive.

Availability of toilets has vastly improved down the years and in 2020, I did not have to wait on any occasion.

Politilogue, arriving back after winning the Champion Chase – 2020, the relatively new Princess Royal stand in background
Rear of the Princess Royal stand, the bridge to the left is a good spot to watch race if you don’t like the crowds of the stand

Shopping

Both at the festival and at the November meeting there is a very good shopping village, but it’s not selling your arts and crafts type goods, it’s high-end clothing, jewellery. art and other luxury items, although do pick up a pack or two of Injured Jockey Christmas cards at the November meeting!

What, will no doubt become a permanent feature for all racecourses and venues from now on

At the end of the day

During the festival there are buses running on the loop back into Cheltenham town centre and onwards to the train station. There is a taxi rank, but of course it is over subscribed.

You can easily walk back into Cheltenham town centre in about 15-20 minutes and it’s all downhill on the way back!

Apres racing

I’m a bit long in the tooth now for the general night scene that Cheltenham has to offer, but am reliably informed that the legendary ’21’ Club (Regent Street), is still highly popular with racegoers and jockeys alike.

Cheltenham has plenty of bars and restaurants. Important to note that the town is divided into 2 halves – the main town centre, where the aforementioned ’21’Club is and then an area which is called Montpellier, which starts just North of the equally legendary Queens Hotel. The Queens Hotel used to very much THE meeting point, but I believe it has lost some of it’s gloss down the years.

Montpellier’s most consistently popular haunt is the Montpellier Wine Bar. There are a good few bars and restaurants up here and it is slightly less raucous than the main town.

A slightly less well-known area, is the Bath Road/Suffolk Parade area. Not a lot of people would head there, but there are a few bars, quite a few Indian/Asian restaurants, as well as high-class establishments such Le Champignon Sauvage. Morans on the Bath Road is good reliable, affordable option and we just walked in without a booking after racing. Another good spot in this area is the Daffodil – a restaurant in a former Art Deco style cinema.

Live music

You won’t have to go out of your way to find it!!!

Summary

If going to the festival, you need to be in the fullest of health as it’s a gruelling time, but I cannot adequately articulate how truly wonderful the whole experience is. The old cliche ‘there’s nothing like it’ often attributed when people talk about the festival is absolutely true. The anticipation and excitement are on a totally different richter scale.

The November meeting – the Saturday can be a very messy day, the Friday and Sunday are good days to go, to get a better appreciation of what Cheltenham racecourse and indeed Cheltenham has to offer.

ENJOY AND ENJOY!!!

York, UK

As well as being a fabulous City to visit, York racecourse really delivers.

Logistics

Coming from Ireland, we flew into Leeds Bradford with Ryanair. It’s a compact airport and the Tiger bus from the airport, connects you to Leeds, from which point you take a train to York itself. The walk to York centre takes about 15 minutes at a steady strolling pace and is quite scenic over the river.

Accommodation

We stayed at a fairly priced old hostelry – Guy Fawkes, which is opposite the York Minster (Cathedral). Well-appointed rooms, with a good breakfast.

More upmarket choices are The Grand (nearer to the railway station) and Grays Court nearer to the centre and York Minster.

Dining

Everything – from chains like Cote Brasserie, to creative English fayre in Gastro Pubs, as well as a great selection of independent restaurants. We ate at Bennetts, opposite the Minster, which comes highly recommended. There are a lot of good independent restaurants around this area – Petergate, which is slightly away from the true centre of York, with the Shambles and cobbled streets. If you’re fan of ethnic cuisine, there is a great Nepalese restaurant in Gillygate – Taas. Gillygate also has a good selection of bars and restaurants.

Racing – how to get there

There are buses running direct to the racecourse almost opposite the train station. Frequent and plentiful, from about 10.00.

Enclosures

3 main levels: County Stand (the premium option), Grandstand and the budget Clocktower (opposite the stands). See: https://www.yorkracecourse.co.uk for further information.

We experienced the County Stand and it was very spacious, with an intelligent queuing system for drinks, rather than having to fight for attention in a scrum at the bar. It is a bit of a walk to the parade ring and on the big days the parade ring can be 6 deep, so if paddock watching is for you, you would need to position yourself there nearly for the whole day, if you want the pre & post race action.

Excellent selection of food, from local specialities to all the usual fayre.

General vibe

Everyone generally does dress up, regardless of which enclosure they’re in. It has a very feelgood party atmosphere. I didn’t sense any particular rough, or threatening element – the usual drunks, but generally good natured. They do have the drug amnesty bins at the entrance.

Overall punter experience

9/10, can hardly find any flaws with the racecourse operation.

Other observations

If you are expecting a post racing nightlife akin to Cheltenham, it isn’t really like that. A huge amount of the racegoers go home on the train after racing. I’m sure there are a few lively bars that weren’t on our radar, but having got feedback from others, they would concur with this viewpoint.

Chester, UK

Getting there

Coming from Ireland, you can either fly into Liverpool or Manchester. The train to Chester goes directly from Manchester airport with no stops – about an hour or just over depending on the schedule. The train station is a taxi ride away from the true city centre.

Accommodation

We stayed in the Holiday Inn at the racecourse. It’s basic, but an all you can eat hot (& cold) breakfast and a lot of travelling stable staff stay there, so can be good for people watching in the evenings. What is good, is that the bar is only open to residents, so there isn’t a scrum of people in there before or after racing.

The most prestigious joint in town is the Grosvenor Chester, where you will find all the international set and domestic high-net worth types! – We had afternoon tea there and it was a very pleasant, unstuffy atmosphere.

Dining/drinking

A first observation in Chester is that if you go into a bar looking for food during raceweek, you invariably will be told that they don’t serve it that week! Instead, you’re more likely to find a live DJ set at 3pm in the afternoon. If you want to eat, you would be better off at a tearooms, such as Katies Tea Rooms on Watergate.

Chester is blessed with great dining options. We ate at Joseph Benjamin: https://www.josephbenjamin.co.uk/ – in Northgate, Chez Jules: https://chezjules.com/ also in Northgate & the brilliant Chefs Table: https://www.chefstablechester.co.uk/ in Music Hall Passage. All are great options if you like well-cooked, seasonal food. There are of course plenty of faster food type options.

Chester is certainly a party town, too many bars to mention, but a good sports bar is the Music Hall Tap. If you want something more rough and ready – the City Tavern in Frodsham Street is a good bet. If you want something a little less hectic – the Marlborough Arms bar which has good ales and sport too.

Racing

Before we get into the main feature – just a note for travelling ladies who don’t want to bring a hat with them, there are some really good quality 2nd hand shops in Frodsham Street, selling hats that have probably only had one or two wears!

Ok, so the racecourse, we’ll start with the positives, it’s very central, a real city track surrounded by the ancient city walls. Very pretty to look at from a vantage point. Known as the Roodee, racing dates back to 1539, which is also is believed to be the year racing began.

Chester disbanded the regular Tote betting facility and instead has their own pool betting offering – Chester Bet. I cannot comment on the value versus the ring, as I did not hand around long enough to use it.

There are multiple enclosures, see here for more details: https://www.chester-races.com/racing/enclosures We were in the County Long Stand, which cost (in 2019) about £55.

In mitigation, the main day that we went it rained heavily all day, which rendered all punters inside. However, having visited racecourses in France, Ireland and the UK extensively, Chester holds the unique characteristic of being the only racecourse with about 16 chairs – yes I did count them! There is also nowhere to place your drink, racecard etc. so it makes for a rather uncomfortable experience, unless you have the means to spend £300+ on a lounge set-up arrangement they offer. I am sure if the weather had been better, the whole experience would have been slightly more positive, as you could have probably got a seat in the outside champagne type bars, if you arrived early enough. As it was, it made for a sadly very disappointing experience and in Chester racecourse’s defence, they did refund tickets bought for the following day, of which we didn’t wish to endure.

Overall experience

I probably wouldn’t go again, unless I was in hospitality or O&Ts.

Other observations

If you want to just have a good drinking racing break, Chester is the place to be. Has it all – all the ladies from Liverpool and Manchester and the fellas too. Non-stop partying from 10am until whenever you want.

Newmarket, UK

Getting there

London Stansted airport is convenient for those coming in from overseas. You can hire a car and be in the area in around an hour.

The general area

I was terribly excited about visiting the town of Newmarket, anticipating that it would be crammed with stylish boutiques and hat shops…it isn’t!  Having travelled from Dublin, and not wanting to crush one of my hats en-route, I ended up getting one in TK Maxx in Newmarket High Street!

Newmarket town is full of betting shops and bars, which is no bad thing and to be expected.  Look out for the dedication to the late Walter Swinburn on the pavement, in front of Barclays Bank.

The National Horse Racing museum is definitely worth a visit and the café there is very good.  The menu is interesting and there is a lovely area to sit outside in the courtyard, under the watchful gaze of Frankel.

Limited accommodation in Newmarket and you would have to book well in advance and pay top dollar for the privilege.

We stayed in Cambridge – the Holiday Inn, which is off the main A14. Perfectly acceptable, with inclusive hot buffet breakfast, gym, ample parking but sterile.  Eating out in the evening, it’s best to drive (or get a taxi) to The Boot at Histon: https://boothiston.com/.  Or you could eat in Cambridge itself which is about a 15-20 minute drive.  Cambridge is one of those difficult cities to navigate and park in, until you know where you’re heading to.  Lovely shopping centre there – the Grand Arcade, that does have a multi-storey.

The racecourse itself – wow.  The drive from Cambridge, through the tree lined A roads, past all the stud farms, is a pleasure in itself and then you get to the course.

Newmarket races on 2 different courses – the Rowley Mile and the July course, depending on the programme.

It’s run with military precision and there are ample Sherpa guides on hand to direct the newcomers.

There is a true sense of theatre here that you would expect from flat HQ, and it really needs to be experienced first-hand. 

The dress code in the club enclosure seems to be somewhat relaxed, you can expect some punters in Bermuda shorts, as opposed to collar and tie, which I personally found disappointing.  It was also odd that they didn’t sell sparkling water!

Plenty of outside food & drink stations, as well as hat and accessory type stalls, as well as the usual paintings, jewellery etc.

In summary, a must visit for any racing fan.