THE fact that Hampshire once had more than 60 different racecourses, but today has none provides an intriguing window on social and economic change, writes Barry Shurlock…

If the cards had fallen differently after the death of Cromwell and the return of Charles II to the throne, Winchester might have become a royal city and would now be the country’s Windsor.

It would have had a royal palace on the site of the castle – now Peninsula Barracks – with 150 rooms and a west façade stretching over 328 ft. It would have had an avenue – perhaps a mini-Mall – sweeping down to the cathedral.

All this was being designed by Christopher Wren and in March 1683 the foundation stone was laid. Members of the corporation were, of course, on parade with local worthies, but the king was absent. He was really only interested in visiting the city when the races were on, and accompanied by his mistress Nell Gwynn.

The point of this story is that crucial decisions can sometimes be influenced by events that might be regarded as trivial. After all, horse-racing in some minds is a way that the rich and the powerful spend their money on frivolous activities, and the punters lose theirs. For others, like any other sport, it is a passion, often involving a lifetime of hard work, dedication and occasional disappointment.

A new well-researched publication, Winchester Racecourse, by Robin Greenwood charts the rise and fall of what was once one of the country’s major courses. Races were held on Worthy Down, and for a few days, extending to a week, it attracted crowds of visitors.

For the well-to-do it was an occasion for generally ‘being seen’. And for others there was all the fun of the fair: “bands, organ-grinders, fire-eaters, rope-dancers, acrobats, performing dogs, gypsy fortune tellers”.

Local inns put on ‘public breakfasts’ and ‘ordinaries’, as race-week table d’hôte lunches were called. There were balls and suppers in St John’s House in the Broadway, private parties and, from 1784, special performances in the theatre in Jewry Street, where the aptly named Sheridan House now stands.

Cockfighting and prize fights – and pickpockets – were part of the scene, whilst for others there were ‘declamations’ of prose – no doubt in Greek and Latin – by boys from Winchester College.

As might be expected, such events were hugely welcomed by the Corporation. They often bought refreshments for the gentry and donated trophies and prize money. In fact, although it’s hard to credit, Charles II had first come to Winchester for the races in response to an advertisement placed in the London Gazette by the city, inviting him to “their downs”.

During the resulting visit in August 1682, he decided to build a palace and the next year came down with his brother the Duke of York (later James II) and a huge entourage. It was a costly exercise for the corporation, which must have regarded the expense – £250,000 in today’s money – as a worthwhile investment.

Winchester Racecourse tells the story of horseracing locally from its beginnings –1591 or earlier – through its Golden Age in the eighteenth century and its faltering revivals in the nineteenth. Flat racing ended in 1887 and racing over jumps in 1896.

Its demise followed national trends, such as the advent of the Jockey Club as the governing body, with its focus on increasing professionalism. Although the record is not clear, it seems likely that the very first meeting of what became the Jockey Club may in fact have taken place in Hampshire in 1724 – 30 years before its acknowledged start – at Hackwood Park, near Basingstoke, the seat of Charles Paulet, 3rd Duke of Bolton.

Worthy Down was in competition with Stockbridge and in 1802 it seemed as if it had scored a lead when the prestigious Maddington Club decided to base itself in the Winchester area. However, three years later it was poached by Stockbridge, where in 1831 it was joined by another icon, the Bibury Club. It was a trend that continued: Stockbridge thrived whilst Winchester struggled.

Robin believes that a prime reason why Stockbridge became the major player was that two families of jockeys and trainers – the Days and the Cannons, who dominated the scene there – outperformed their counterparts in Winchester.

On Worthy Down the Dilly family were involved in the races from at least 1766 to the 1850s. They operated from Littleton, with a yard behind the original Running Horse pub (called the Horse and Jockey before 1812). Sadly, in 1833 John Dilly went bankrupt.

He then took a runner, as Robin explains: “Later and short of money, he forged a letter in a fictitious name to his brother Montgomery saying that John Dilly had died and requesting cash to meet his funeral expenses. Montgomery paid up and was surprised on his next visit to Newmarket to bump into him.”

The Dillys were followed for a short while by Henry Peake, a master saddler from Winchester who “played a key role in keeping the meeting alive”. He was followed by the Goater family, with a new wooden grandstand in 1863 and a decade later another “substantial brick structure, with an ornamental front”.

It became a prominent landmark visible for miles around, until Worthy Down was requisitioned for an aerodrome in 1917 and the grandstands were demolished. Materials were re-used in several buildings, including Cloudbank Stables, South Wonston, which will be remembered by many people who hacked about with Frank Ward.

So why did Winchester and the other country racecourses disappear? It was in part “a national trend that saw the slow death of country racecourses essentially run by amateurs”. And, as the “national setter of rules” the Jockey Club raised standards beyond the reach of many courses, especially in the 1870s when prize money was increased.

Also, the railway meant that people were not confined to their locality, and Victorians “looked less kindly” on a sport that involved gambling. There were also some one-off factors, like the cutting through in 1885 of the ‘straight mile’– an essential feature – on Worthy Down by the Didcot, Newbury and Southampton Railway.

Stockbridge seemed in much better shape, but it too suffered a terminal blow in 1898 when Marianne Vaudrey, who inherited part of the course, refused to renew the lease, as she disapproved of gambling.

After the Winchester racecourse had gone, local racing stables continued to make use of the gallops. In 1946, Manor Farm Stables at Headbourne Worthy hit the jackpot when Lovely Cottage won the Grand National at odds of 25:1.

Winchester Racecourse is a must for turfites, and a valuable read for others. It nails the myth that the Cromwellians were against horseracing. In fact, they supported it, though it is true that they banned some meetings, for fear they “might be used as cover for Royalist insurrection”. In 1657, Cromwell’s son, Richard, who lived at Hursley, even paid £30 for a cup to be competed for on Worthy Down.

Winchester Racecourse is published by the Worthys Local History Group and available from: .

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