Almost 50 years on from its closure on 14 September 1964, the East Sussex town still grieves for the part of its heritage that was lost on that autumn day
The Battle of Lewes honoured its 750 year anniversary with a bang in April, but a perhaps, lesser known milestone will be celebrated in September on the South Downs.
Set on a high point of the hills, with its elevated and exposed track, Lewes Racecourse was made to be a summer attraction.
The Racecourse was unique in its layout, the only course to have two winning posts, one for five-furlong races, and the other for six-furlong races. Both would start at the same point but would finish at their corresponding finishing posts, to avoid six-furlong races starting on a bend; which would be extremely unfair on wider drawn horses.
The track had a considerable descent turning into the home straight, before a harsh climb to the finishing post in front of the stands. Despite the irregularities in the course, Lewes was once described as “one of the finest four-mile courses in the kingdom”. The course was situated 500ft above sea level.
The history of the racecourse can be split into two sections, separated by the introduction of the railway line in Lewes.
With records of racing taking place dating back to 1727 – it is thought that racing may have existed at Lewes during Queen Anne’s reign in 1702 but there is no evidence to prove this – the racecourse was the fourth oldest in Britain. Through much of its early years, it was dominated by two-horse races, and its audience was that of princes and noblemen, with their elegant ladies by their side.
The course was visited by many high profile figures, including future Kings, as Barry Foulkes, Lewes Racecourse historian, explains: “George IV, who was Prince Regent before he was King used to come over to Lewes, and once he used to race his horses, everybody wanted to go to see him.”
However, with no trains or cars, people would travel by carriages pulled by horses. It would take eight hours to reach Lewes from London, and with all their servants in tow, it was a spectacle for the residents of the town. The Georgians would treat a trip to Lewes as a Festival, after racing the town hall would be used for a ball in the evening.
Before Prince Regent’s visits to the town, the racecourse had already been honored with the presence of, arguably, the greatest horse in history; Eclipse. Unbeaten in eighteen races, Eclipse went on to be hugely successful in stud. In July 1769, Eclipse was walked from his stables in Surrey down to Lewes to contest the King’s Plate. On the 27th July, Eclipse beat his only other rival in the race, he would go on to win an impressive total of 11 King’s Plate’s.
Later on in its history, the racecourse would also be visited by one of the greatest jockeys of all time; Lester Piggot. He won his first race at Lewes in 1950.
The Racecourse was also honored by numerous Derby winners, some enjoying more fortune than others. Waxy, fresh from his classic win, triumphed at Lewes in August 1793 winning a one and a half mile sweepstake. However, Cardinal Beaufort, the 1805 Derby hero suffered two defeats at Lewes following his success at Epsom, the undulations of the track taking its toll.
George IV’s success to the throne was greeted with rapturous applause around the country, but not for Lewes Racecourse. With no royalty visiting the course, people lost interest, and around 1840, the town very nearly lost its racecourse. It was saved, thankfully by the introduction of the railway.
Not only did this enable horses and trainers from around the country to compete at Lewes, it opened up the racecourse to the working class. Foulkes explains how important this was for Lewes: “The railways came in in 1846, and it completely changed racing. They gave cheap tickets from London to Brighton then to Lewes for the racing. People by the thousands came down from London.”
Having seen race meetings drop dramatically, some years with only one race being contested, the fortune of Lewes Racecourse was transformed after 1846. Three three-day meetings were introduced throughout the year in the spring, summer and autumn, bringing droves of people along for picnics.
It is this later phase of the racecourse’s history that epitomizes the town as a whole. A working class track, it was popular with families and children that would carry on visiting the racecourse throughout their life. A community course, Foulkes described it as: “Our racecourse”.
Foulkes went on to recall his memories of his time at Lewes: “I was born on a race day, the midwife was at the racing, so my dad had to go and find her! There was a stable’s right opposite me, and I spent most of my time there. I remember the town was full of coaches and cars, and when we got up there, there were these huge grandstands with thousands and thousands of people, and its still stuck in my head.”
The business it attracted to Lewes was phenomenal; the town would come to a standstill on race day due to the huge numbers of cars, filling the windy streets of the town. Lewes itself was not built for traffic, and it created a huge stir among the residents.
At times, Lewes Racecourse would have six to seven thousand spectators per meeting, more than that of Brighton and Plumpton nowadays. So how did this thriving course come to such a sudden end?
Foulkes said: “No-one believed it was going to shut, we all said it was going to close but everyone seemed to think it would open up again.” The problems for Lewes racecourse began in the 1950’s when it began to be only allocated mainly Monday meetings. This of course was highly inconvenient for the working class audience it attracted, but despite this setback, racing continued to carry on and succeed.
However, in April 1963 the last nail was hammered in the coffin with the Levy Board naming Lewes as one of twelve racecourses, which would no longer receive financial support. Unable to finance itself, the town prepared itself for its last day of racing in September 1964.
On that fateful day, over five thousand spectators turned up to watch the last day of racing on race hill. Foulkes remembers the day clearly: “I was still at school, a lot of the kids at school bunked to go up there because it was the last day. My brother-in-law was also riding up there, so I wanted to support him.”
Perhaps the most fitting end to the racecourse’s history was achieved in the last race. The Eridge Maiden Plate, which was run for two-year-olds over five furlongs, it was only right that a Lewes trainer would provide the winner.
The last message to be heard upon Race Hill, epitiomised the sadness of the racecourse’s closure: “The Racecourse is being closed against the wishes of the management and of many people, who believe that the decision will be regretted in the future.” They were right; when the gates were closed for the last time, a legacy was lost. Foulkes said: “When they closed the course, the town died.”
Now, the old Grandstand and the Tote buildings have been developed, but importantly, racehorse trainers still train on Race Hill, keeping the memory alive. The course is now being used as gallops, with jumps installed for training purposes. Gerry Enright and Suzy Smith continue to train there, which Foulkes says is vital in keeping the memories alive: “Luckily, it’s still a racecourse, it’s a blessing they didn’t build on it. I get a bit sentimental and emotional about it, it’s part of my life, my mum’s life and it’ so important that we can go up there anytime and visit the course, thanks to the public footpath.”
This September, the Lewes Racecourse Committee is holding numerous events to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of its closure. On Saturday 13th, an exhibition of racing memorabilia will take place at the White Hart Hotel, with a film of the last day’s racing at Lewes being shown. There is hope that a Georgian ball may take place in the evening.
On the day of its closure, the 14th, a Grand Parade of vintage cars will be making it’s way up the town to the racecourse, joined by the Hunt and members of Lewes bonfire societies. Local racing commentator Simon Holt has kindly commentated the races from the last day, and this will be played on race hill at the exact times the races took place fifty years ago. Just as the racecourse was a community course, the event will be raising money for Lewes Hospital.
It is hoped that the town will be able to relive the race day as it once was, and the spirit of Lewes Racecourse will be lit up again. There may not be meetings as there once was throughout the past two centuries, but the legacy of the racecourse is still there, and so long as people continue to train there, and avoid any redevelopment of the course, the town still has a memory to hang on to.
6 Courses to suffer the same fate as Lewes since 1964:
- Alexandra Park Racecourse – 1868 – 1970
Situated in North London, the course was known as the ‘frying pan’ due to its shape, and was often cursed by jockeys due to its twists and turns. Willie Carson once said it “wanted bombing”. Spectators would also have a restricted view of the course as trees obscured the five-furlong start. However, John McCririck is more complementary of the course and has asked for his ashes to be scattered at the furlong post.
- Bogside Racecourse – 1808 – 1965
The Scottish track was famed for holding two high profile jumps racing; the Scottish Grand National (now held at Ayr) and the National Hunt Chase Challenge Cup (part of the Cheltenham Festival schedule). Bogside was closed due to the Levy Board withdrawing its funding in 1963, Lewes was also on this list. Point-to-Point meetings took place until 1994 on the track, however the course has seen no action since then.
- Bromford Bridge Racecourse – 1895 – 1965
In 1914 the Grandstand was a victim of the suffragette movement when protesters burned it down. After this, the course was used as an anti-aircraft station and as a depot in the Second World War before being developed back into a racecourse in 1958. Unlike Lewes, the Birmingham course is not in its original state. Having been bought by the Birmingham Corporation it underwent a £1.25 million development. A rather ironic touch, the roads built on the course were given names related to racing, including references to Newmarket, Haydock and Thirsk.
- Lanark Racecourse – Unknown – 1977
This small horse-racing venue in Scotland is believed to be founded by King William the Lion of Scotland in the 13th century – although no official records remain. Just 25 miles from Glasgow, the course was home to the oldest horse race in history, the Lanark Silver Bell. Sadly the original silver bell given, as a present to William The Lion no longer exists, however, the bell they race for today dates back to the 17th Century.
- Stockton Racecourse – 1855 – 1981
Commonly known as ‘Teeside Park’ racing near Stockton-on-Tees took place at three different sites in the area. This racecourse is the third to be used. Interestingly, although it is named “Stockton Racecousrse” there has never been a racecourse in the town of Stockton-on-Tees with the courses located across the River Tees. Local factories closed down especially for race week, due to the popularity of the course, however, after World War Two, its attendances declined and it finally succumbed to its failing finances in 1981.
- Wye Racecourse – 1849 – 1974
Situated in East Kent, the course was home to National Hunt racing. Once again financial issues were the cause of its closure. In 1974 the Jockey Club demanded changes be made to the course, but its owners were unable to finance these and took the decision to close it. Unfortunately there is not much evidence left of the course as it is now used for farming.