Tuesday 3 May 2011

The History Of Chester Racecourse

Chester Racecourse, the oldest racecourse in Britain, is still revealing more of its history as archaeologists, sponsored by the Race Company, unearths more evidence of times past.

In Roman times, the racecourse lay underneath water as a tidal pool of the River Dee. Part of a sandstone Roman quay wall survives below the medieval city walls and wooden jetties and wharves on the site would have seen trading ships from across the Roman Empire bringing cargoes of wine, spices and pottery to Chester.

Chester was a major maritime port in the medieval period, and in the 13th century, Water Gate served as the main harbour. However, increased silting, combined with a falling sea level, led to the creation of the racecourse on land known as the Roodee - the name derived from 'rood' (the Saxon word for cross) and 'eye' (the Norman word for island). Roodee therefore means 'island of the cross' - part of a sandstone cross stands within the racecourse.

The racecourse has been the venue for many exciting events - in 1441, rival gaolers from the Castle and Northgate gathered here for a mass fist fight and horse racing was introduced to replace the Goteddsday (Shrove Tuesday) football match, which was banned in 1533 for being too violent.

The football matches were often held between neighbouring towns, different guilds, or to settle disputes. Unlimited numbers of players on each side battled to get possession of a leather ball. The racecourse was the perfect site for such large-scale encounters!

The first recorded race at the 'Roodee Fields' was held on February 9th 1539, in the reign of Henry the Eighth, with the consent of Chester's Lord Mayor, Henry Gee (whose surname gave rise to the 'gee-gees' nick name for racehorses). Until 1609, there was an annual race on Shrove Tuesday, thereafter the race was held on St George's Day (23 April). The Chester Goldsmith Company supplied a silver bell and in 1744 a gold cup was awarded annually by the Grosvenor family. In 1766, a May Festival was introduced, and in 1824, the Tradesmen's Cup Race (the predecessor of the Chester Cup) was also introduced.

By 1615 the Roodee was used for cow pasture, walks by the river, shooting, bowling and horse racing. The Midsummer Shows were held here (a pageant with dragons, and devils) but banned in 1599, again during Cromwell's time and finally in 1677, as the behaviour of the citizens at these times was frowned upon by the Church and State.

The earliest known oil painting of Chester dates to 1710 - 1734 and shows horse racing on the Roodee - with only posts marking out the course. The Judge's Chair is a relic of those races - a square column which was one of a pair. The first grandstand was finished in 1817, rebuilt in 1899-1900 and rebuilt again (after a fire) in 1985 - 8.

Aside from the horse racing, the course has hosted a wide variety of other public events - the Royal Agricultural Show of 1858, the 1903 Buffalo Bill and Geronimo Wild West Show, circuses, military reviews, Lord Mayor's Parades, Festivals of Transport, antique sales, November firework displays, and Roman festivals. All of these events have left their mark beneath the ground at the racecourse with many pot-holes, pits and ditches reflecting the temporary structures and fences erected for the events and the large quantity of artefacts showing what people were doing and their tastes in food and drink.

Notable Races:

Cheshire Oaks

Chester Cup

Huxley Stakes

Chester Vase

Dee Stakes

Ormonde Stakes