Those readers who have not had the pleasure of an exciting day at Newbury races the talk by Probus Club member David Wickens shed some light on many interesting facets of our local horse racing course. He was so interested in equine matters that a few years ago he moved from his long-term home in Chineham to one of the new apartments overlooking the Newbury Racecourse.
The formation of The Jockey Club, based in Newmarket in 1750, formalised all aspects of horse racing which had become known as “the sport of Kings.” They were responsible for the regulation of horse racing and the recording of pedigrees, controlling all matters including issuing licences for trainers, jockeys and racecourses. However, in earlier centuries there had always been horse racing when heathlands and country estates of the landed gentry were used.
Basingstoke had its own racecourse with the first recording of such an event in the London Gazette in 1687. It took place on the downs near to what is now known as Kempshott and Buckskin and across present day Stratton Park which straddles land between Pack Lane and Buckskin Lane. By 1729, the course was marked out by posts and racing continued with a gap of twenty-three years until 1850. Thereafter the course at Hackwood Park was used. Basingstoke racecourse was still marked on Ordnance Survey maps of 1960.
Meanwhile, a similar situation of heathland style racing in Newbury had mirrored what had happened, not only in Basingstoke but around the country. During the latter part of the nineteenth century John Porter was a successful trainer who ran his stable at Kingsclere. In the surrounding area there existed about 60 racing stables with around 1,700 horses in training, all of which had to travel to race meeting in other parts of the country. He could see the potential for a formalised racecourse in his local area. But it proved a difficult task to bring to fruition.
John Porter had identified a suitable site on the estate of Lloyd Harry Baxendale, and discussed the purchase of land, some 300 acres for £30,000. The Jockey Club repeatedly turned down his plans and at the last meeting in 1904 he happened to meet King Edward VII, for whom he had trained many winners. He explained to the King his frustration at having his plans continuously rejected. A few weeks later he was given approval by the Jockey Club and granted a licence to build the Newbury Racecourse.
It took only nine months to build and was the finest in the country with many original features for the owners/trainers, horses, jockeys and members of the public. Still today it is in the top ten courses in the country. The cost was £57,240 with the first race meeting held in September 1905, with over 15,000 in attendance. A new railway` station was even built adjacent to the course with a covered walkway for the King.
During both world wars racing was suspended, however the racecourse played an important role for the military with a variety of uses. In WW1 it was used as a prisoner of war camp for captured German soldiers and a troop camp for the cavalry. The PoWs lived in the horse boxes and tents for the first year then about 3,000 were sent to prison ships on the south coast. Thereafter it was used for munitions storage and tank repairs.
In WW2 it was initially a troop camp and in 1942 was handed over to the US Army for storage of ammunition during which they constructed a railway marshalling yard with over 37 miles of railway track and concrete roads built on the racecourse to support the local USAF air base at Greenham Common. The stables were again used to house PoWs. Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower, visited on 5th June 1944 the day prior to D Day landings. US control of the course lasted until 1949.
Redevelopment of the racecourse started in 2010 with new facilities financed by the sale of land for housing and apartments on and around the course together with a children’s nursery, hotel and gym. The venue is also used for outdoor Pop concerts and was selected as a vaccination centre during the Covid pandemic
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