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Sunday, 17th Jan 2021

Wolverhampton – what might have been for Staffordshire’s other racecourse

As one of just six All Weather racecourses in the United Kingdom, there is plenty to make Wolverhampton unique in the horse racing scene. However, on a site that celebrates the best of National Hunt racing in the West Midlands, a focus on the pioneer of All-Weather racing might appear a tad contrary.

Yet Wolverhampton, as one of just two racecourses in Staffordshire, has a long history of Jump racing, which only drew to a close in 2002. The last winner was a Staffordshire-trained horse, Light Programme, in a modest Novices Handicap Hurdle on July 15, and truth be told, the passing of Jumping at Wolverhampton did not elicit a great gnashing of teeth amid the Jumps community.

Yet it wasn’t always so.

Thoroughbred horse racing has been present in Wolverhampton since the early 19th century. The first purpose-built racecourse was established in Broad Meadows in 1825, on land owned by the Duke of Cleveland, where a splendid grandstand  provided viewing for the county’s gentry, whilst others could amuse themselves with stands and fairground games, as well as cock-fighting. 

The lease of the site was ended in 1878 when the site was sold,  becoming what is now known as West Park. Acting as the perimeter of West Park is the Park Road, which actually marks the circumference of the original racetrack.

Any visitor to Wolverhampton Racecourse will know that the railway viaduct dominates a largely urban landscape surrounding the course; this is no rural idyll. Yet ironically, the racecourse would very likely not exist were it not for the growth of the railways in Victorian Britain. 

Dunstall Park, as the racecourse prefers to call itself, was a substantial estate on the edge of the city owned by Sir Alexander Staveley Hill. The opening of the Shrewsbury & Birmingham Railway in 1849 impinged on the estate, and the organic growth of light industry brought about by the railway accelerated his disgust.  When his father died, leaving him an alternative estate to live in, he sold Dunstall Park to a public company set up for the purpose, run by Accrington MP Robert Hodge and a Mr John Lees. Sir Alexander was invited to join the Board and became the first Chairman.

The first race meeting was a two day Jumps affair in 1886, some 12 years before Lord Ellenborough bequeathed Cheltenham to a purpose-built racing company. How the two venues have pioneered different directions in racing!

The first feature event sported a modest prize of just £70, equating to £9,158 in today’s money. Compare that to Wolverhampton’s last event, the Ladbrokes Place Bet Here Novices Handicap Hurdle, where the total prize fund amassed a miserly £4,210, less than half the amount of its first race 116 years earlier. Small wonder Jumping died out. 

In 1895, Wolverhampton became the county’s only course to stage flat racing when Lichfield closed. The racecourse company invested with the railway in a racecourse station.

But controversy was never far behind. In 1910, the first fixture was cancelled as a mark of respect for the death of the monarch, Edward VII. Then the company secretary was found to have embezzled funds over a period of 23 years. The same year, Wolverhampton hosted the Midlands Aero Club’s first Air Show, just 4 years after the first ever flight. 

Racing continued from 1912 to the outset of war in 1914, and resumed in the summer of 1918, although no Jumping took place until the following January. More racing history was made – sadly for all the wrong reasons – in 1924 when jockey Capt. Tiuppy Bennet took a fall in the Oteley Handicap Chase and was kicked in the head. Subsequently, in all races under Rules, riders were obliged to wear a crash helmet.

How it looked before AWT transformed Wolverhampton

To give you an idea of the quality of racing at Wolverhampton in its heyday, Champion Hurdle winner Saucy Kit (1967) prepped for the race with a successful outing in the National Hunt Hurdle Cup at Wolverhampton in October of that Champion season. 

However, in the main, time was running out for Wolverhampton’s Jumps calendar. With a change in ownership, Ron Muddle, pioneer of All-Weather racing in the UK, and owner of Lingfield Park, its first exponent, made the bold decision to create the UK’s first floodlit All-Weather course, spending over £15m to open in 1993, when 10,000 attended.

Jumping persisted as the poor relation till an unremarked demise in 2002, a year when Forest of Dean trainer and another West Midlands area Pointing graduate David Wintle was leading trainer. But since that transformative innovation, the venue has become renowned as one of the premier locations for evening races. In 2014 the all-weather track was replaced and upgraded with a Tapeta surface, more akin to the leading evening racetracks found in the USA.

All-Weather Championships

Boasting seven categories of competition, the All Weather Championships (AWC) contributes to roughly one-fifth of the British racing fixture list since its creation around twenty years ago. Along with the all-weather track at Wolverhampton, other key venues include Chelmsford City, Kempton Park, Lingfield Park, Newcastle and Southwell. Also featured in the fixture list are the Cagnes-sur-Mer, Chantilly and Deauville tracks in France, plus Dundalk in Ireland to encourage continental interest.

The AWC season typically lasts between October and April, with hundreds of races held across the key all-weather venues during that period. These fixtures are also regarded as a great way for owners and trainers to train their horses throughout the winter months. As one of the most popular venues, all-weather horse racing betting at Wolverhampton is keenly followed by bookmakers and punters alike, with odds available for every race.

While many of the most prominent races in the AWC calendar are held at Wolverhampton Racecourse, the season-ending main event is currently held at Lingfield Park on Good Friday each year. This is also known as Finals Day, which also boasts one of the biggest purses in British horse racing.

And whilst it’s often been argued that All-Weather racing has eroded the ownership base for Jumping, harvesting juveniles which would otherwise go jumping, even the most cynical must acknowledge that the genre adds to the rich flavour of British racing, and success such as enjoyed by British trainers at Santa Anita on Saturday night wouldn’t have existed without it. 

Where to now for Wolverhampton?

Fans and followers of horse racing can stay informed about all the latest news at Wolverhampton Racecourse. The site includes updates for all the races being held, plus information regarding any festivals and other events being held at the venue. Details are also available for other facilities such as restaurants and hospitality or hotel accommodation.

Speaking of the latter, the venue outlined plans to establish the first-ever UK ‘racino’ racecourse and casino venture in 2007, similar to the famous and iconic Aqueduct Racetrack in New York City. However, those plans were ultimately shelved in 2014 amidst lengthy and complicated applications with local authorities, and the government of the day rowing back on the concept.

Nevertheless, all-weather events and other activities keep the venue firmly on the horse racing map, with plenty to ensure visitors are entertained. After all, racing is the beating heart of this West Midlands venue, guaranteeing that Wolverhampton Racecourse will remain a thriving venue for years to come.

Sadly though, the days of Jumping at Wolverhampton are gone for ever. And perhaps, given its reputation at the turn of the millennium, that may be just as well. 

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