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Welcome to the Roy Waterhouse Steeplechasing guide to British National Hunt racecourses

Last edited on 13th September 2018

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The TV channels on which you can find regular coverage of all fixtures are correct as of August 2018, but At The Races will re-launch as Sky Sports Racing in January 2019 and Racing UK is likely to re-brand, as it will be taking over coverage of Irish racing from ATR at the same time.

Got any comments? Visit my Twitter page
or email roy@rwsteeplechasing.co.uk


Aintree
For purposes of this piece I wish Aintree was still known as Liverpool, it’s a bit awkward starting an alphabetical list of British jump racecourses with the number two National Hunt venue in Britain, but there we are. A line or two about the expansion of the track’s fixture portfolio later, but firstly let's describe the courses. There is the huge, galloping Grand National circuit, with the most famous steeplechase obstacles in the world (unless you’re the biggest fan of the Velka Pardubicka ever), and the sharp, left-handed hurdles and Mildmay circuits, the latter one of the few remaining tracks that has genuinely tricky ‘park’ fences. It's a quick track when the going is good or faster and even good horses don't always keep their balance round the Mildmay course - normally good jumpers often make mistakes of varying severity, so whilst there was widespread surprise at the fall of Vautour in the 2016 Melling Chase, he was by no means alone. Over hurdles it's normally a straightforward configuration, with three hurdles on each straight, but Aintree first experimented with a cross hurdle - sited next to the fourth last, or cross fence, on the Mildmay course - at the meeting on 7th November 2015 and have done so again since at their October and November meetings. No particular run-style has an advantage over hurdles at Aintree.

The controversial reconstruction of the National fences, prior to the 2013 Grand National meeting, led to criticism of the race and suggestions that the course had become too easy, with all 40 National runners still in the race until the eighth, the Canal Turn. What they had done was to remove the old timber frames and replace them in most fences with plastic birch, manufactured by Easyfix. When you watch hurdle races in Ireland over the new brush-type obstacles used at several of their tracks now, you're seeing what's in the middle of the Grand National fences. The open ditches and The Chair had the timber replaced by real birch. In the 2014 National normal service was resumed, with the first faller at the first fence and more falls/unseats than in 2013, and the National fences are as tough as ever - there are some years when more runners get round, that's how it's always been (people forget 23 completing in 1984, for example).

In other races over the National fences, it’s often an advantage to hold a prominent position from an early stage – the Becher Chase over 3m2f, which now starts with the fence after Valentines, is a steadily-run race most years, while speed is what the other circuits are about with no running style particularly favoured. That said, good to firm ground is unlikely to be experienced at the National meeting for the foreseeable future, the Clerk of the Course Andrew Tulloch having made a great job of ensuring good ground, even in 2007 when the meeting was run on the three hottest days of the year as it turned out. What are referred to as 'run-offs' on the Grand National course, which allow fences to be omitted in the event of an obstruction caused by an incident on the first circuit, were used in the 2011 and 2012 Grand Nationals, resulting in a barrowful of unwelcome negative publicity for the race and for Aintree. They were not needed in the 2013 and 2014 runnings, but the one at the Canal Turn was famously brought into use in 2015 owing to Balthazar King's being brought down by Ballycasey first time round, with the latter's jockey Ruby Walsh doing the honours with the chequered flag - a role performed by Danny Cook at second Becher's in 2018. Following the remeasuring of British jump courses, starting from the 2016 running the official distance of the Grand National is four miles, two furlongs and 74 yards. What is most unsatisfactory about the start of the National nowadays is that those horses who end up on the inner, find themselves on an all-weather strip for the first few yards of the race - that needs looking at.

Fixtures, then; gone are the days when they raced just the three days a year, and with a day in October, the Old Roan Chase-fixture moving to November, the Becher Chase meeting in December and evening fixtures added in May and June, Aintree has never had such a busy programme.

Website: www.aintree.co.uk. TV: Racing UK

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Ascot

More buildings, more enclosures, more boxes, more security, more bars and more escalators than a London Tube station. Ladies and Gentlemen: welcome to Ascot in the 21st Century. The Royal racecourse returned to the jumping fold after the rebuild in 2006, which at one stage didn’t look on the cards at the beginning of the Millennium. The NH programme went the way of the other ‘London’ grade ones and introduced a lot of ordinary ‘makeweight’ races, some at the expense of better-quality events that were attracting few runners. Indeed, before Sir Peter O’Sullevan’s Never won a three-runner race for the Kennel Gate Novices’ Hurdle in December 2002, the former Chief Executive Douglas Erskine-Crum went on the BBC’s programme and made noises in his interview that Ascot might give up jumping altogether. Instead, it brought it back with a bang. Prize money was up and new races created, and with the exception of Cheltenham itself, Ascot now puts on the strongest pre-Cheltenham Festival NH programme, including three Grade 1 races - the Long Walk Hurdle, Clarence House Chase and Ascot Chase. The new circuit is a bit sharper than the old one, but is the same, basically galloping, triangular shape, and the water jump has been replaced by a plain fence on the chase course. The new home straight seems to ride good whatever the going on the rest of the track, as seems to be the case on the Flat, and coming from the back in a big field isn’t easy. Talking of the Flat, don't forget the 2m5f Queen Alexandra Stakes. You'll have heard it referred to as 'the last race of Royal Ascot' many times. I call it 'the original jumpers' bumper'. The exceptionally dry spell in the Summer of 2018 resulted in the jumps track looking like a cricket wicket, judging from photos tweeted at the time, so let's hope that it'll be fit for racing when Ascot is due to start jumping again on November 3rd. If it is, then that will be when Ascot first uses the new one fit padded, rubber hurdles - it was announced in early September that the track will become the first grade one National Hunt course to use the increasingly-popular new obstacles. Starting from the 2014 Royal meeting Racing UK took over coverage of the track, but it will move to Sky Sports Racing - the successor to At The Races - from March 2019.

Website: www.ascot.co.uk. TV: Racing UK

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Ayr

Scotland’s number one track, but with the exception of the Scottish National fixture, ordinary racing in the main. Not that promising horses don’t turn up throughout the main part of the season, as many a promising Northern-trained novice hurdler and chaser comes here at the beginning of their career. And so they should, as it’s a wide-open, straightforward, left-handed circuit, with well-spaced obstacles on both the hurdles and chase tracks, although with the arguable exception of the first two fences in the home straight on the chase course, the fourth last moved further away from the home turn and closer to three from home in the 2017/18 season. Those that race prominently do well. The track doesn’t seem to drain that well when the wet stuff descends on it, and tiring mudfests can be the order of the day, even in two-mile races. Look at the Scottish National meeting though, and most years it’s like a totally different track. The ground is seldom even halfway-testing for the Scottish National – an exception coming when confirmed mudder Moorcroft Boy won the race in 1996. And in 2008, there was Iris De Balme, leading at the last then going on to do an impression of Kingsgate Native. The Scottish Champion Hurdle, on the National-undercard, is now one hell of a supporting race thanks to a prize-money boost - worth 100,000 from 2015 - and that fixture's staying novices' handicap chase got a major reboot in 2018, the 64,980 that connections of Crosshue Boy bagged being a larger first prize than for any of the Cheltenham Festival-handicaps.

Website: www.ayr-racecourse.co.uk. TV: Racing UK

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Bangor

A right and proper jumping track, located at the Bangor that’s near Wrexham in North Wales. Point your car in that direction, and you’ll more than likely find the course first time, if you’ve never been before. Most NH fans know that, when you get there, there’s no point looking for the grandstand, because there isn’t one. The best vantage point from which to watch the races is the mound that bisects the betting ring and the turn out of the home straight, giving you a good view of the track but an almost head-on view of the line, which isn’t the best in the event of a photo-finish. As that area is uncovered, maybe Bangor is a prime candidate to move all of its fixtures to the Summer. As it is at the moment, it operates all year round, with June the only month with no meetings. The course is a sharp left-hander with few significant undulations, fair for all horses. The point-to-point track on the inside of the main course was used for hurdle races - as such referred to as 'the Inner Course' - for the first time in February 2010, but it only seems to be used sparingly for hurdling. Being sharper than the usual hurdles track, and with the ground on it likely to be faster than the main course, you'd expect it to suit those racing prominently, and one mistake might be enough to put a horse out of contention. The quality of Bangor’s programme has increased in recent seasons, with many fixtures including a Class 2 or 3 handicap hurdle or chase with reasonable prize money. Starting from the meeting on 29th July 2016, Bangor replaced their traditional hurdles with the one-fit-padded rubber obstacles, the use of which has become more widespread. Starting from March 2019 the track will be televised by the new Sky Sports Racing channel as part of a ten-year contract - it would be nice to think, from a jumps enthusiast's point of view, that Bangor was the main component of the deal with SSR, but one suspects that it was Chester - who have run Bangor since acquiring it in 2002 - that was very much the main attraction.

Website: www.bangorondeeraces.co.uk. TV: Racing UK

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Carlisle

The Monet’s Gardens, the One Mans and the Double W's - this intro needed a reboot - go to two courses to start their chasing careers. Ayr is one, but arguably the greater proportion of promising Northern-trained, would-be Gold Cup-winners go to Carlisle, which is part of the Jockey Club Racecourses group. The racecourse has recognised this, and beginners, intermediate and graduation chases feature prominently in its National Hunt programme. But why has a hitherto ordinary racecourse become the go-to place in the North to send your good novice chaser to? For the same reason why those trained in the South go to Exeter. It’s nothing to do with the right-handed circuit being a stiff, hilly track – one of the stiffest in the country terrain-wise – but because all the fences are positioned on uphill or level parts of the course, and there’s nothing to catch out the poor jumper thanks to the way they are made, with a soft broom belly and no middle eyeline, only the orange kicking board on the ground. Accordingly, falls and unseats are rare. Carlisle have put a purpose-built hurdles track on the inside of the chase course, and that got its first use in the 2011/12 season, but not for all fixtures - their Flat course is still used for hurdling on their earlier-season jump fixtures. The new hurdles circuit is nothing like as testing - indeed it is considerably sharper, with one less obstacle per circuit on it, giving an advantage to those racing prominently.

Website: carlisle.thejockeyclub.co.uk. TV: Racing UK

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Cartmel

Get your sat-nav working, make sure the petrol tank’s full and set off three hours early, because there’s a bit of pre-racing shopping, eating and drinking to be done in the shops and pubs of Cartmel Village before the first race up in the Lake District on the late-May and August Bank Holidays – and don’t forget to have a stroll round the Priory. They absolutely pack them in, with five-figure crowds the norm, except possibly for their mid-July meeting. If you've never been, then you should put a visit to Cartmel on your bucket list. I promise you, no written words can prepare you for what it’s like once you arrive. In terms of where to watch the racing, wherever you go don’t expect to be able to see the whole track, despite the left-handed circuit only measuring a mile round. At Cartmel, what passes for a grandstand is actually in the middle of the circuit. The reason for this is that the run-in is on separate ground to the main circuit, the runners taking the first on the left then going diagonally across to finish their races. For a further dose of the unusual, check out the chase track. None of the six fences on the circuit are jumped in the last half-mile of the steeplechases. Four of them are taken in the straight going towards the fairground bend, then after the last of those, there’s a run-in that’s longer than the run to the line in the Grand National - and, uniquely, with a full turn. If you come here as a serious player, then good luck, you’ll need it. Whether you’re playing seriously or not, you must visit the Cartmel Village Shop and buy lots of its world-famous, home-made, Sticky Toffee Pudding, the greatest dessert in the world. And get some Kendal Mintcake while you’re at it (several different varieties). If you can’t make it to Cartmel in the near future, then don’t worry – you can find the Village Shop’s delicacy at your nearest Waitrose.

For several years now the track has staged a 3m6f veterans’ handicap chase, a Class 3 contest in terms of status, for nine-year-olds and upwards - now that they're staged at several courses veterans' chases have become extremely popular, both with professionals and racegoers, but it was Cartmel who started it all. The track was in a rare position among smaller courses in that it didn't need to do anything much to attract large crowds, but they've taken steps anyway over the last couple of years - they boosted their racing programme in 2015 with a few Class 2 races, and had Simply Red playing there after one meeting in 2016. Starting from the 2018 season Cartmel now use the increasingly familiar one-fit padded hurdles, the ninth track to do so I think, unless my arithmetic is failing me. The narrowness of the track was a contributary factor to the voiding of a hurdle race in May 2018 - with insufficient room for a large field to bypass the hurdle nearest the village, where an injured jockey was being treated after a fall on the first circuit, racecourse staff diverted the field onto the run-in. On the positive side - and I'm nothing but positive about Cartmel - it is one of the best tracks for horse welfare, being the first British racecourse to introduce cooling fans in 2013. With 2018's exceptionally hot Summer, they were very much needed.

Website: www.cartmel-racecourse.co.uk. TV: Racing UK

Village Shop’s website: www.cartmelvillageshop.co.uk

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Catterick

‘The Bridge’ is further North than you think it is. You think you’re nearly there when you reach Wetherby? Not a bit of it. And to rub it in, during that last 30 miles or so that you’ve still got to drive, you’ll see every other racecourse in Yorkshire signposted before you see any signs for Catterick Village. When you do get there (parking on the opposite side of the road to the racecourse), it couldn’t be further removed from Ascot. You can walk from one end of the enclosures to the other in the space of, say, 200 yards; and small is the operative word when it comes to the grandstand, as befits a gaff track. I was there on a wet New Year’s Day 2008 – how it deals with a Summer crowd for its Flat meetings, I don’t know. It isn’t the most scenic either, but that’s hardly the racecourse’s fault. It’s ironic all the same that Sandown, a train ride from London, is a scenic natural ampitheatre for the built-up area it’s located in, whereas Catterick has a pretty, quiet-looking village nearby, yet the view from the racecourse is dominated not by trees, but by a colliery and accompanying slag heaps, a stone’s throw – if you’ll pardon the pun – from the back straight. The track itself is a sharp, slightly-undulating, left-hander where the ground is seldom testing. When it does rain significantly the track usually takes it well, as it’s based on gravel. Horses tend to get home here on soft and heavy ground, which they don’t at poor draining tracks. Front-runners often dominate, but in recent seasons the staying contests have been won by someone coming from behind - like General Hardi in the 2011 renewal of the 3m6f North Yorkshire Grand National, the track's best jump race. Catterick announced its intention to replace its Flat turf circuit with a floodlit all-weather track towards the end of 2013, with the idea being that they would stage their first racing on an artificial surface in 2016, but with the opening of the new dirt track at Newcastle, it won't be happening at Catterick for the foreseeable.

Website: www.catterickbridge.co.uk. TV: Racing UK

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Cheltenham

No introduction necessary here, surely, to the number one National Hunt venue in Britain, but Cheltenham’s success – not just with, as it is now, the four-day Cheltenham Festival, but with the rest of its programme from October to April – means that a day’s racing here can be an uncomfortable experience, and if you come by car, expect to spend at least an hour trying to leave after racing. The probable reason why Cheltenham is doing so well is that, of all the grade one tracks, it now puts on the strongest pre-Festival jump racing programme in Britain, but, as with Ascot, there was a time when it was heading for the opposite. The rot set in when Channel 4 took over (terrestrial) television coverage from the BBC. Several two-runner races, moderate contests with ordinary horses and, when Challenger Du Luc won the Murphy’s (now the Paddy Power) Gold Cup in 1996, poor-quality turf which saw a few horses slip up – notably Dublin Flyer in the Murphy’s – arguably lowered Cheltenham’s reputation. To add insult to injury, the then-new cross-country course was only drawing a few runners for what was the only race on it all year, but we were impressed with how good McGregor The Third looked, and worried not about the poor spectacle presented. Serious work had to be done – and they did it. Every race from October to April now carries at least five-figure prize money. Better-quality races are put on throughout all Cheltenham’s pre-Festival cards, rather than one or two on each raceday. Meetings are well-publicised and competitive fields are the norm. There’s a place for valuable novice handicaps too, all with a higher ratings ceiling than you’d normally get in them, and such races – like the novices’ handicap hurdle at the Open meeting – work extremely well. So does – and I think we can all admit this after universal reservations in the beginning – the four-day National Hunt Festival. There’s good stuff also at the Showcase meeting (Friday and Saturday in mid-October), the April meeting and the hunter chase evening in May.

There are, of course, three tracks at Cheltenham. The New Course, a mile-and-a-half circuit used in December, January, the last two days of the Festival, April and May, is a galloping, stiff track, with the fences evenly spaced but not so the hurdles - four coming within six furlongs on the back straight then two in the last mile, and with the uphill home straight long enough to accommodate three hurdles at a push but only having one, it suits a horse played Paul Carberry-late. The Old Course, used in October, November and the first two days of the Festival, is sharper, indeed the sharpness of it – not just relative to the New - is much underestimated, for it is a real test of speed on fast ground. There was a change of configuration on the Old Course's chase circuit introduced in 2010/11. The controversial second last-fence placed before the home turn, at which there had been a number of unlucky falls, was removed and a new portable fence installed just after the bend in the home straight, meaning a two-fence home straight on the Old Course for the first time and the fence count increasing by one for races using the 2m4f chute. The new second last-fence took its share of falls, but I think I'm right in saying that all of those occurred in the closing stages, and the fence has had no complaints to my knowledge. No change to the hurdles on the Old circuit, the second last-obstacle here remaining, although to me it's just as bad as the old second last-fence for claiming unfortunate falls, such as Wishfull Thinking's in the 2010 Coral Cup.

The cross-country course now has three higher-profile, competitive chases run over its twisting, turning 3m7f course, these at the Open Meeting, in December and at the Festival. The cross-country chases attract a pool of regulars who also contest races over the Punchestown equivalent, providing an angle for punters, and after a stuttering start, up until 2011/12 they were very much a success story. Unfortunately, the debacle at the end of the cross-country in December 2011 showed it in a negative light. Track specialist Garde Champetre, who could have probably run the track by himself, picked up the pieces as the seven who were a long way in front on the home turn headed to the Old Course-straight instead of the New, where the one remaining stuffed hurdle had been sited (the other two races finish on the Old and some of the jockeys must have been thrown by that). After the resulting pile-up only three completed the course at the first attempt, one of the others turning back. Garde Champetre and Scotsirish, the one who turned back, sadly ran their last in a controversial renewal of the cross-country handicap at the 2012 Festival, run on officially firm ground and won by Balthazar King (first British-trained winner of the race) - plenty argue that it shouldn't have been run on account of the prevailing going. The 2013 renewal was also beset by problems, its original scheduled running on the Tuesday abandoned because parts of the track were frozen. I think a cross-country chase is worth its place in the Festival - indeed, with Tiger Roll winning the 2018 race at the Festival, you could argue that it's a legitimate Grand National trial - but plenty beg to differ.

A fourth track, the Park Course which linked up the 2m4f chute with part of the New Course and was used in September and October in the early 90s, hasn’t been used since 1995. Away from the racing surface, major building works commenced at Cheltenham after the conclusion of the 2014 Festival, with a redevelopment costing in the region of 45 million including the construction of a new five and a half storey-grandstand - The Princess Royal Stand - which they were hoping would be ready in time for the 2016 Festival, but was actually opened on the first day of the 2015 Open meeting that November. What they've done is impressive, it has to be said, even allowing for the redeveloped Cheltenham including a Costa. In a first for British racing, Cheltenham staged a card exclusively for fillies and mares on the second day of its mid-April fixture in 2018, illustrating further the expansion and popularity of the race programme for mares; however it ended up being an exceptionally hot day for the time of year, and with one fatality and several horses suffering from heat stress after their races, the three-mile two-furlong handicap chase on the card was abandoned. Remaining races over shorter trips went ahead.

Website: cheltenham.thejockeyclub.co.uk. TV: Racing UK

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Chepstow

Yarmouth, one of Arena Racing Company’s (Arc) portfolio of racecourses, came under fire a while ago for pathetic prize money at the majority of its meetings. As ever with racing’s media, jump racing is the poor relation, therefore there had been been no publicity whatsoever about the gradual degradation of the National Hunt programme at another of Arc’s tracks, Chepstow. Having, I guess, experienced the same problems as the grade ones – Chepstow has never been a grade one – in attracting good horses for an above-average number of better races, Chepstow went the other way and reduced the quality of its fixtures. There have been improvements over the last couple of seasons, one of the most noticeable being the expansion of its traditional early-season fixture in October to a two-day bash, featuring the Grade 3 Silver Trophy Handicap Hurdle and what used to be the Mercedes Benz Handicap Chase on the Saturday, and the Grade 2 Persian War Novices' Hurdle on the Sunday. The track is a galloping, undulating, nearly 2m-round left-hander, where deep mudfests are commonplace. When it’s heavy, sometimes horses meet the uphill section on the back straight and just grind to a halt. The aforementioned novice hurdles, as I suggested, do contain a few promising ones, but over 2m and 2m4f they tend to be very steadily run to the home straight and, with half a mile going downhill to run, those held up often never get there, and I would think twice before having a bet in a 2m or 2m4f novice hurdle here. Chepstow had a better time of it in 2010/11, with the Welsh National rescheduled to January after the original December date was snowed off (a fixture swap was done with Sedgefield, which hasn't had the best of deals since it was originally acquired by Northern, which subsequently became part of Arc), but their overall programme still wasn't as good as it was in the early- to mid-90's; however the trend was halfway-bucked in 2011/12 with a few open handicaps dotted about their fixtures. These have continued to be staged over the last two seasons, and include a 3m handicap chase at the track's early-December meeting which has become a legitimate Welsh National trial, having been contested by the 2011 and 2013 winners of Chepstow's Christmas showpiece - so doing the job the old version of the Rehearsal Chase (now run at Newcastle) used to do. On the subject of the Welsh National, it came in for criticism from some folk with regard to prize money - with some justification, as in 2006 Halcon Genelardais won 57,020 for connections, while in 2014 Emperor's Choice bagged 56,950. This decline was reversed for what ended up as the January 2016 running, Mountainous - winning the race for the second time - getting 68,340; Native River and Raz De Maree bagged 85,425 in the last two renewals.

Website: www.chepstow-racecourse.co.uk. TV: At The Races

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Doncaster

Always overshadowed by its Flat programme, the standard of jumping at Doncaster seems to have got higher in recent years. In part this was thanks to redevelopment - like Ascot had done, Doncaster knocked down a few old buildings, put up new ones, came back with a bang – in their case starting with the 2007 St Leger meeting – and resumed its jump programme, which ran from December (when the middle Saturday-card now includes the Summit Junior Hurdle and December Novices' Chase, which were run at Lingfield) to early-March - the track now starts its NH season in late November. Although National Hunt cards account for a fraction of Doncaster’s total fixture portfolio the racecourse had always maintained their commitment to jumping before the temporary closure, and they confirmed that with the installation a complete new set of fences on the steeplechase track. They proved kinder to horses than their predecessors, with only six falls/unseats from 139 chase runners in 2007/08. The Great Yorkshire – sorry, Sky Bet – Chase is still around, and so is the Grimthorpe Chase, which is used by many as a trial for either the Grand National or the Scottish equivalent. However an even stronger jump card a week after the Sky Bet meeting, which was run for the first time in 2008, with the centrepiece a £100,000 2m handicap chase, was removed from the 2011 fixture list (which clashed with the longer established-meeting at its neighbour Wetherby) and hasn't returned. There are 11 fences and seven hurdles on the nearly 2m-round, left-handed pear-shape. A prominent position is important in large-field chases, and over seven out to five out – which are on the crown of the long home turn – those travelling off the rail could end up forfeiting ground, the wider you go the more you lose over those three obstacles. Things are fairer over hurdles. Doncaster before it closed would have been in my top half-dozen tracks, and still is, having visited a couple of times since the rebuild. The addition of the ex-Lingfield races was great for Doncaster, but don't get me started on the subject of taking the races away from their traditional home in the first place.

Website: www.doncaster-racecourse.co.uk. TV: At The Races

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Exeter

If the One Mans etc. go to Carlisle, then the Best Mates, Racing Demons and other good chasing debutants trained south of the divide – is it the Trent, is it Newport Pagnell services or is it the M25? – come to this place. It was once described on the front cover of the racecard as ‘Exeter Racecourse/Devon & Exeter Steeplechases/Over The Course At Haldon’. Sat-nav wasn’t around in them days, even after the ‘Devon &’-part of the track’s name was removed officially in 1990. Do you go to Devon first, then try Exeter, or can you find Haldon on the AA roadmap? And where’s this Kennford that’s in its postal address? It’s actually a whole lot easier than that to find, as it’s just off the A38, which you’ll be on if you remember to filter right off the M5. The reason why Exeter is as popular a place to introduce a novice fencer to the rigours of steeplechasing as its northern counterpart is the same – fences that don’t snare a horse’s legs in the event of a mistake (indeed I think Exeter’s fences are among the easiest in Britain), and every one of them jumped on either level or uphill ground whilst going round this undulating, 2m-round right-hander. All the hurdles are positioned on uphill or level ground too. The Haldon Gold Cup in early-November, where the best two-mile chasers often start their campaigns, is the best race at the track (look out for front-runners in it) and – pleasingly for those who like tradition – has yet to move from its Tuesday slot. Plenty of graduation and Class 2/3 novice chases throughout the season back it up. Exeter was bought by Jockey Club Racecourses in late-2006 (when it was still Racecourse Holdings Trust) and, formerly televised by At The Races, joined the other JCR tracks on Racing UK when it switched from May 2012. Exeter started to use the rubber one-fit padded hurdles from the first meeting of the 2016/17 season.

Website: exeter.thejockeyclub.co.uk. TV: Racing UK

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Fakenham

Dynamic, fast-paced, ride-a-finish-a-circuit-too-early rave-on, brought to you by a friendly team of people down there in Norfolk. Apologies to backers of Iconic Sky, as I guess you might be narked by that opening line - console yourselves that jockey Maxime Tissier's error, in a handicap hurdle in April 2018, wasn't the first such incident here, and it probably won't be the last. I remember my first visit to the course, a Sunday meeting in November 2001. It had rained all morning, was still tipping down, and I went to the racecourse office to ask what the going was. The reply came: “Good to soft. Ha ha ha!”. Derek Thompson was commentating, and he introduced the recall man to the crowd before the start of the 3m chase – probably the only race start in Britain where the person required to wave a flag in the event of a false start does his job within talking distance of the spectators. Mr Recall Man, probably extremely embarrassed, duly waved his flag for Tommo. If it’s that easy to say hello to the guy in the white coat with the flag, it’s as simple to say what you like to jockeys who've pulled their mounts up a circuit too soon or, like Tissier, ridden a finish a lap too early. There are only six chase fences on the square-shaped course, accompanied by four hurdles, one on each side. You’d think that such a sharp track – it’s a fraction less than a mile round, with the last hurdle actually jumped three times in 2m races and four over 2m7f110y – would suit those who go out to make all, but it’s not always so. Some front-runners, particularly if taken on by others, take off like there’s no tomorrow, tear into the bends, use themselves up and get collared just as easily as they might round a more conventional track. Wherever you sit in a race you need to travel well, and if for any reason you’re not – say if you miss the break, or a mistake sets you back at any stage – then the only way you'll win is if the leaders have gone too fast and come back, and as implied above, that has been known. Novice chases are the best-quality contests, the racecourse’s efforts in putting up five-figure prize money for some of these having attracted dual Charlie Hall winner Ollie Magern and Grade 1 Aintree/Punchestown winner Twist Magic in recent seasons. Course specialists are often the ones to be with: a few years ago El Cordobes, going even further back Prince Carlton, and much more recently Cool Roxy and Beau Torero, are four who spring to mind. In August 2018 Fakenham reported that total attendances for its meetings between January and June were slightly down on the same period in 2017, but they blame that dip on the abandonment of its Easter Monday-fixture due to waterlogging. My most recent visit to Fakenham was in December 2016 - it was well attended that day, and I strongly recommend that you go if you haven't been - there's a good atmosphere and it's a great viewing track, with the runners passing the post a minimum of three times in every race.

Website: www.fakenhamracecourse.co.uk. TV: At The Races

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Ffos Las

'It's like Newbury.' A.P.McCoy's description of Ffos Las, already the subject of rave reviews, with nothing whatsoever negative written about it, before it opened in a blaze of glory on 18th June 2009, struck me as being too sexy to be true. However it remained the case after the event that nobody had a bad word to say about it, and all the vibes are that it is here to stay, and that it is an asset not just to Wales, but to British racing; however I have a gripe. More about that at the end of the piece. The dual-purpose Ffos Las circuit certainly looks more like a grade one course than a gaff track. Flat and galloping (like Newbury, but closer to Worcester), it is so wide, both on the straights and the sweeping bends, that it could probably accommodate 30 runners or more in a race - of course that won't happen, but it seems physically possible, looking at the TV pictures. With this configuration, there should be no hard-luck stories - horses shouldn't get in each other's way and the only ones that will lose position in a race should be those that are either not good enough or ungenuine. Although one or two jumps winners here so far have been held up, many have been in a prominent position throughout - indeed a front-runner is often worth having on your side here. Ffos Las's relative closeness to the ferry port at Fishguard means that there's often a strong Irish challenge. There are nine fences on the steeplechase circuit - five down the back, four in the home straight - and six hurdles, three in each straight; traditional hurdles are used. I first visited the track in October 2009 and, to be honest, I felt uncomfortable. It drew massive crowds to start with and that day was no exception, and the enclosures and bars were too small to deal with them. There also weren't enough Tote kiosks. I returned in November 2010 and things had seemed to have settled down - no additions to the enclosures/Tote points, but a smaller crowd - but on my latest visit, in October 2011, it was more like the first time I went. What I don't understand is why the grandstand at this most modern of British racecourses is so small compared to certain other venues, such as Navan in Ireland where I went for the first time in February 2012 and, despite clear signs of showing its age, the longer and wider grandstand to be found there could accommodate two or three maximum Ffos Las-crowds. With examples of construction and racecourse building going back 100 years to consider before work started, how come they got the end product - from a racegoing perspective - wrong? Something else at Ffos Las with which it's been easy to find fault has been the state of the going when it's rained a lot, and this came to a head when only Bob Ford completed in swamp-like conditions in the West Wales National over 3m4f in February 2015. Drainage work was carried out on the jumps track in August that year - which meant that their mixed meeting that month became all-Flat - and it's to be hoped that it brings about improvement in the state of the ground in the long term. With Ffos Las swapping a fixture with Musselburgh on the corresponding February day in 2017, its two feature jumps races were found new slots. The Welsh Champion Hurdle, now a two-miler (was 2m4f), is now run in October and the latest renewal saw a victory for one of the most popular horses in recent seasons, The New One. The West Wales National was rebooted as a 0-140 handicap (with a prize money-cut) and transferred to an Easter-date. Ffos Las, originally owned by prominent owner Dai Walters, was managed by Northern Racing and later Arena Racing Company since its opening, and Walters sold the track to Arc in May 2018, arguing that it couldn't get the desired amout of fixtures, whereas Arc can swap meetings between tracks. At the time of writing Ffos Las has 19 scheduled racedays in 2019.

Website: www.ffoslasracecourse.com. TV: At The Races

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Fontwell

A little place that’s a bit popular is this. Perhaps the reason is that Fontwell is two tracks in one, a figure-of-eight chase circuit – one of a kind, unless Windsor has another jump revival – and a sharp, left-handed hurdles course. The minimum distance over hurdles and fences here is two and a quarter miles – some bumpers are run over 1m6f – and the winning post is therefore passed three or four times in a race. The perfect ingredient for someone to ‘do a Fakenham’, as it might now be referred to, but thankfully nobody has since Adrian Maguire gave hurdler Access Sun the works after just a mile and three quarters in 1994. The stiffest part of the track is the run-in, which is slightly uphill on both tracks and not quite straight for the chasers, who have to make a slight turn close home where the chase and hurdle tracks meet a few yards away from the line. A horse that can act right-handed might be one to be with over fences here, as the last bend is clockwise. Before Northern Racing, owners of this southern track, became part of the Arc group, they gave the go-ahead for Fontwell to have a new grandstand built in the Premier Enclosure, at a reported cost of a cool £7.5 million. The 888sport Premier Grandstand opened in August 2010. Sadly but predictably, the new grandstand caters much more for corporate hospitality than it does for ordinary racegoers - the private boxes, presumably, have a cracking view of the track, while all regular punters get are a few rows of steps at the bottom. The track is overused - 24 meetings are scheduled in 2019 - and it's presumably because of this that Fontwell have replaced the common turf bend at the far end of the track, with a cambered all-weather turn. Starting from the beginning of Fontwell's 2017/18 season, both hurdlers and chasers run over 330 metres of Fibresand when they're turning for home.

Website: www.fontwellpark.co.uk. TV: At The Races

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Haydock

The configuration of the remodelled jumps circuit at Haydock changed again in 2009/10 and they now seem to have settled on it. Using portable steeplechase fences, as normal nowadays, a ninth fence was added to the chase circuit, sited in the back straight, making it five down the back and four in the straight. What this achieved was bringing the number of fences jumped in a three-mile chase up to the normal minimum of 18 (it's supposed to be six per mile). Some of the going reports at Haydock in recent seasons were best taken with a pinch of salt. Six minutes, or up to 6:10, is about what you'd expect for three miles on good to soft ground, but on Betfair Chase day 2011 Dynaste clocked 5:38 - with that official going description - in the fixed brush handicap hurdle, and the 11-going-on-12 Kauto Star ran 5:54 in the Betfair Chase. Then in May 2012, on officially soft going, front-runner American Spin - who's not as good as Dynaste and, holding on grimly, didn't exactly spreadeagle the opposition like Dynaste did - also took 5:38 to win the 3m handicap hurdle. That said it was definitely heavy when Unowatimeen, not capable of cantering at the end, won the Walrus Hunters' Chase on the National Trial-undercard that February, but that doesn't excuse the gross inaccuracies at other times. The three-mile track has been remeasured, along with all jumping tracks in Britain, and the distance announced as 2m7f when the new distances for National Hunt races came into use, but it presumably remained an issue. Hence the increasing of the distance of the Betfair Chase, and certain other chases at the track, to three miles, one furlong and 125 yards from 2017. A significant development - personally, I think a sad one - was the removal of fixed brush hurdle-races from Haydock's jumps programme for the 2017/18 season. Clerk of the Course Kirkland Tellwright went on record as saying that there was no demand for them, so the fixed brush-novices' series was gone and so was the Grade 3 fixed brush handicap hurdle on the Betfair Chase-undercard. Well the latter wasn't gone completely, as a Grade 3 staying handicap - if the official distance of two miles, six furlongs and 177 yards counts as a stamina test - remains on the card, won in 2017 by Sam Spinner, who went on to take the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle, but #bringbackthebrush appeared a few times on Twitter at the time. The Peter Marsh Chase in January and Grand National Trial in February are still around, the latter won in swamp-like conditions - not unusual here, as you'll already have gathered - by Yala Enki, whose only previous visit to Aintree was for the Sefton Novices' Hurdle in 2016. As regards what run style is preferred, while it's not impossible to win after being held up (like Mia's Storm in the staying handicap hurdle on the Swinton Hurdle-card in May 2017), I noticed an increase in the number of winners at Haydock who'd raced at least prominently, chased the leader or, like Sam Spinner and Bristol De Mai in the latest Betfair Chase, made all in the latest jumps season.

#bringbackthebrush

Website: haydock.thejockeyclub.co.uk. TV: Racing UK

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Hereford

After nearly four years off the fixture list, having staged what was intended to be its last ever meeting under Rules on 16th December 2012 - used only for Arab racing and the odd point-to-point since then - Hereford racecourse was warmly welcomed back to the fixture list in 2016. It looks here to stay too, with a total of ten racedays scheduled for 2019. It is a traditional National Hunt course situated in the middle of un-traditional territory, surrounded by the local school, lorry parks and buildings of an industrial estate, and there's also a leisure centre on one side of the track. The track is a square-shaped, 1m3f-round right-hander with tight bends and minor undulations. Despite the track’s sharpness, some horses are able to come from behind. Probably the best horse to race here since the reopening was the ill-fated Finian's Oscar, who made a successful Rules debut at Hereford in December and went on to win the Grade 1 Mersey Novices' Hurdle at Aintree. It's a shame that it's not getting its traditional Grand National day-fixture back - maybe one day it will, but for now it's great to have racing back at Hereford. Whether or not it stays put - well, that decision is in Arc's hands.

Website: www.hereford-racecourse.co.uk. TV: At The Races

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Hexham

Moving to the Heart Of All England now – as suggested by the race title of one of Hexham’s longest-established races - for this North East-located, scenic natural ampitheatre. The feature here is the chase course, for the wings of the fences are natural hedges, which have been in place for around a hundred years. For the horses, getting round here can be a bit tough, especially if heavy going is the order of the day, for it’s a galloping, hilly left-hander. The place where a lot of races are decided is the climb to the home turn - the more tired the horse the tougher the climb, and some just grind to a halt. The race programme at Hexham, which doesn't have the support of one of the big racecourse-owning groups, sadly has gone a bit downhill over the last couple of seasons, after previous seasons staged - or were due to stage - the £25,000-added Northumberland National, which hasn't been in the programme book recently. Lastly, and for those who don’t know, the aforementioned ‘Heart Of All England’ is a maiden hunter chase run each May, and it’s a race that most of the Northern point-to-point fraternity would love to win. They call it 'Britain's most scenic racecourse' - and judged on my visit there in October 2014, they're right. One thing to be aware of - everyone who hasn't driven to the track, has had a bit to drink and is not getting on a coach, will try and cadge a lift to the town centre after racing, so unless you're okay about having strangers in your car, best thing is to tell them that you're not going that way (even though you'll do so without realising, if you don't know the area).

Website: www.hexham-racecourse.co.uk. TV: At The Races

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Huntingdon
One of the best tracks in the country in terms of accessibility from all over Britain, just off the A1 south of Peterborough, here’s one of those tracks that place the emphasis on speed rather than stamina when the ground’s good or faster. Huntingdon’s course bends right-handed, has easy turns and is flat throughout – see two-mile chasers fly the open ditch in front of the grandstand and whizz round here, where it’s a must to be up with the pace. Actually, it’s desirable to be up there regardless of trip, whether it’s fences or hurdles. The chase course's water jump was changed a few seasons ago to a 'false water' - if a horse drops its back legs, instead of landing 'in' it it would land 'on' it, reducing the risk of injury and resulting in the horse losing less ground. Commentators' descriptions of the fence have included 'spread fence', 'false water' and 'waterless jump'. The Huntingdon race that everyone knows is the Peterborough Chase, which has a roll of honour including Sabin Du Loir, One Man, Edredon Bleu, Best Mate and Menorah. A drain on top-jockey resources was the main reason behind the race going from a Saturday slot to a midweek date in December from 2008, and more recently to a Sunday meeting the same month. Besides the Peterborough, there are a couple of last-stop-before-Cheltenham races over hurdles in February; the Sidney Banks over 2m4f has been a trial for the Neptune Novices' Hurdle, and the Chatteris Fen for juveniles attracts Triumph Hurdle (or Fred Winter) candidates.

Website: huntingdon.thejockeyclub.co.uk. TV: Racing UK

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Kelso

The popular Scottish borders-track has been a mover and shaker among British racecourses since the 2012/13 season, when the executive decided to make changes to the configuration to promote optimum use of their ground - they found that 65% of their runners compete in hurdle races and bumpers and 35% in chases, yet the hurdle course was narrower up the home straight owing to the chase course omitting the last two fences. This goes back to when the fence opposite the grandstand was a water jump - it had been a plain fence latterly. That fence was removed, and chase runners now finish their races on the chase track, rather than tacking across to join the hurdles course. The two-furlong run-in is gone, and the fence after the old last obstacle is now the last. Furthermore, what used to be the last fence - now the second last - is an open ditch, and is the only one on the circuit, with the fences that used to be ditches - the one after the stands and the old second last, before the home turn - changed to plain ones. There was a whole new set of steeplechase fences too. The previous permanent fences, which had no guard rail - so they all looked like ditches - and apparently needed three times as much birch to fill them up, have been replaced by portable obstacles built by Watt Fences. Over hurdles, the changes to the chase track in the home straight mean that the last hurdle can be sited closer to the winning post - other than that, the sharper hurdles track is as before, taking the first on the left after passing the stands, and starting from the 2016/17 season one-fit padded hurdles are used. The reconfigured Kelso has proved popular with professionals and racegoers alike. Some quality contests feature throughout the season at Kelso, and the best card here is in late February (early March some years), headed up by the Grade 2 Premier Kelso Novices’ Hurdle, and also containing a Class 2 conditions' chase over 2m6f, which was the last stop before Aintree in 2011 and 2012 for the Grand National winner in 2011 Ballabriggs, and in 2016 for Many Clouds, the 2015 National victor - in this instance rescheduled to the Sunday before the Cheltenham Festival after the abandonment of the original date. The Scottish Borders National used to be on that card too, but has since been moved to a December date, and another noteworthy race is the Morebattle Hurdle in February, won in 2011 by Peddlers Cross before he took the runner-up spot in the Champion Hurdle, and in 2012 by top notch-novice Simonsig. Thanks to these Kelso has a well-deserved higher profile than ever before. It made the move to Racing UK from May 2012 - all five Scottish racecourses are shown on the channel - and its meeting on Saturday 7th April 2018 was the main fixture on that day's ITV-show. In other developments, for the 2018/19 season Kelso are building a new parade ring, and will operate with one enclosure - no longer having separate paddock and members' areas for racegoers. There seems no end to this go-ahead track's progression - I just hope I can get there one day...

Website: www.kelso-races.co.uk. TV: Racing UK

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Kempton

Let’s go back to October 2006. ‘Bit of history now as they cross over the all-weather track for the first time...’ Richard Hoiles’s words as he commentated on the opening novices’ hurdle at Kempton’s first jumps meeting after their Polytrack was installed, were actually describing something that had been done before, just not at Kempton. Some may have forgotten about the few NH cards that took place at Wolverhampton after their all-weather circuit opened for business, which took in a few yards of Fibresand when turning into the back straight. The ‘new’ track at Kempton includes about half a furlong of Polytrack after passing the stands. It’s the same, triangular shape as the old one and is minus one fence on the chase track - the water jump removed without replacement – but it is a more galloping track than before. And here’s another difference. As seems to be the case at Southwell, another track with a turf circuit next to an all-weather, Kempton when there is give in the ground appears to be one point softer than the official going, i.e if they say ‘good to soft’ it’s actually ‘soft’, and if they say ‘heavy’ then it’s ‘very heavy’ (not an official going description, but it arguably should be). Watch Simon’s win in what is now the Betdaq Chase in 2007, because that illustrates what I’m trying to say. The jump programme, running side by side with Winter Flat dross, is longer than it was before the re-configure (it now extends into May) and, of course, includes the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day – more traditional than Turkey at that time of year – backed up by the Feltham Novices’ Chase and Christmas Hurdle, and the aforementioned Betdaq Chase plus a hatful of other Graded races on the last Saturday in February. Public trannie should be convenient, for Kempton has its own train station with direct services from London Waterloo, but it's on South Western Railway, which doesn't exactly enjoy a tall reputation (but then again what train company does?). Unfortunately the quality of the jumps programme at Kempton away from its feature days appears to be on the decline, chiefly illustrated by the traditional October fixture having its handicap chases reduced in grade. During the coldest cold snaps, the Polytrack came to the rescue - sort of - with cards of 'jumpers' bumpers' during spells of abandonments, with race conditions such as 'for horses who are eligible for National Hunt novice hurdles' or 'for horses who have run in at least one chase'. Ambitious ideas - I'm not sure it's right to use the word 'plans' - to close Kempton, relocate its jump fixtures to Sandown and build a new all-weather track at Newmarket, were announced by Jockey Club Racecourses in the early part of 2017, but these seemed to have been forgotten about by the racing community come that Summer. The story might resurface from time to time whenever the Racing Post need a filler, but it's clear from the lack of coverage it's had during 2018 that there's little chance of Kempton closing in the immediate future, unlike a couple of other tracks at the time of writing.

Website: kempton.thejockeyclub.co.uk. TV: Racing UK

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Leicester

Remittance Man, Royal Athlete, Raymylette, Indefence, Arctic Kinsman, Erhaab. Many good horses come to Leicester at the beginning of their careers, even the odd Derby winner, but that’s enough about horses who do hardly anything and, for some strange reason, earn more prize money than jumpers do. I’ve a bit of time for Leicester, and so do many professionals, and if there is fair ground – bearing in mind that the chase track isn’t watered – then expect to see some good ones turn up in the beginners’ and novice chases. The course is a rectangular-shaped, stiff right-hander. The first two of the six fences in the back straight are taken downhill, the next on level ground then the remainder uphill. In a change to the configuration in 2009/10, the open ditch on the crown of the home turn was removed and relocated to the home straight, where it is the second of what is now a four-fence home straight, placing more emphasis on jumping in the closing stages of chases at Leicester than previously, when a horse could get away with mistakes on the back straight or three out, even two out, and turn up late to get the win. The resited ditch has proved tricky for one or two, and jockey Robert Thornton was off games for a bit after Cracboumwiz fell at it in a novices' chase in January 2010. Hurdle races are over the Flat course, which is well watered during the Summer and usually softer than the chase. The run to the line over hurdles is tougher as more of it is uphill, and the leader turning in usually won’t be first at the post. The first ever Class 1 jumps race at the track was inaugurated in 2017, in the shape of the Listed Charnwood Forest Mares' Chase run in January, but there was a disappointing three-runner line-up in the 2018 running won by Got Away. Still, it's early days for the race. Leicester is accessible by train, but if you’re using East Midlands Trains (formerly Midland Mainline), the only way to avoid paying a ludicrous amount of money for the privilege is to book well in advance and hope your chosen meeting doesn’t get abandoned; you'll then need a bus or taxi for the last leg of the journey. Leicester channel-hopped from At The Races to Racing UK from the Summer of 2017.

Website: www.leicester-racecourse.co.uk. TV: Racing UK

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Lingfield

The future of National Hunt racing at Lingfield seems secure, only in that messages to the effect that the track intends to go Flat-only – commonplace in the late 90s – haven’t appeared for some time. Things were indeed bleak back in 1999/2000 when the number of jump meetings here was reduced to one and a half – the December meeting and a mixed card in March, with the Winter Derby, on what was then the Equitrack, the feature. Things are better now, although one must admit that the number of Lingfield jump cards in recent years has been boosted by meetings transferred from elsewhere. Arena Leisure (now Arena Racing Company or 'Arc'), the track’s owners, stepped in when Ascot closed for the rebuild and put on their October and February meetings at Lingfield, and the Surrey track has also stepped in for Doncaster and, in late 2007, flooded Worcester. Having said that jumping seems to have a future at Lingfield after all, the quality of the sport has very much nose-dived. This is thanks to Arc moving the Summit Junior Hurdle and December Novices Chase, once the feature jumps races at the track, to Doncaster. In their place a new veterans' handicap chase took place for the first time in 2014 - it drew a small field. I can't believe that the decision to move those races from their traditional home is in any way popular. Lingfield is a triangular-shaped, 1m4f-round left-handed track, with a stiff uphill climb starting before five out in chases and four out over hurdles, followed by an equally-steep descent before the home turn. No pitfalls jumping-wise for the chasers. The ground is often soft or heavy. All its National Hunt Flat races are run on the all-weather Polytrack. Many folk can’t see the point of that, but they themselves are missing the point, for bumpers exist to teach horses to race – after all it’s not as if they’re being asked to run on hot coals. Trains are from London Victoria, but as it's on Southern, given their problems at the time of writing I suppose we have to say 'if they turn up'.

Website: www.lingfield-racecourse.co.uk. TV: At The Races

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Ludlow

Energetic, proper jumping-stuff in the heart of Shropshire. Enter Ludlow, where the the layout of the enclosures - from a racegoers' perspective - is highly unusual, something that's not made enough of in the media. More of that later. There are two flat, right-handed tracks here. The hurdles course has an unconventional layout, with one hurdle on the side going away from the stands, the runners going straight on past the chase bend to go to the back straight, only two there, then a sweeping turn followed by three quick hurdles in the home straight, which can decide a race if a few are in contention turning in. Starting from the meeting on 11th October 2017 and with no publicity that I could find, Ludlow became the eighth racecourse to use the rubber, one-fit padded hurdles. The chase track also has a slightly unusual configuration, with five fences in the home straight – the water jump next to the winning post not taken on the last circuit – and four down the back, chase runners taking the first turn on the right. The fences here seem to be the softest in Britain – many chasers only get half the height of these fences, brush them and don’t bat an eyelid. Even the ‘Tricky Trevor’ fence, the first in the straight, presents no horrors nowadays. The going is usually quick, and the ground on the home turn is usually well churned up come February. There are a lot of paths on the course here and these are covered with what is called 'coconut matting'. After Pret A Thou slipped up on the matting on the home turn when clear in a handicap chase on December 17th 2009, its use became the subject of extended discussion during Racing UK's coverage of the meeting; however to be fair, it usually isn't a problem, and the Pret A Thou incident seems a one-off. As alluded to above, this is a less-than-conventional track. I visited Ludlow for the first time in May 2014 and, let me tell you, it's a good idea to have a reasonable standard of physical fitness to get through a day here. For a start if, like me, you want to give the horses the once-over before the race, the paddock is in the middle of the track - so you have to cross the racecourse roughly where the winning post is, and hope you don't get stuck there when they're going down. And here's a curio - for some reason, unlike everywhere else, they walk the horses round the parade ring from left to right. After the paddock it's about a hundred yards to the betting ring, then - if you want excellent views of the action - a climb up the grandstand stairs, onto the roof of the stands. Here, even on the busiest of days, you can pick your spot and be able to see the whole track. Just be aware that, like on the mound at Bangor, there's no protection from the elements - but in my book, you can't call yourself a fan of National Hunt racing if you can't take being rained on for a few hours. Finally, with Shropshire being a county huge on food, it was no surprise that the roast I had in the Clive Pavilion before racing was one of the best I've ever eaten. Just one more reason why I recommend you go to Ludlow if you get the chance.

Website: https://www.ludlowracecourse.co.uk/. TV: Racing UK

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Market Rasen

Summer jumping in Britain, introduced for the first time in 1995, has been a success, and a large chunk of that is down to Market Rasen’s efforts in putting on the best National Hunt cards at that time of year. The popular Lincolnshire venue was known for being where the jump season officially finished - you might remember 1994, when the Dunwoody-Maguire scrap for the Jockeys’ Championship went right down to that final evening card on the first Saturday in June. There’s not a lot of tradition left in National Hunt, but the 'Raspberry' was still where the season ended in 2011/12 and 2012/13; however that's gone now, with the decision to make what is now an all-jumps card at Sandown the only British jumps meeting on the last day of the season, starting in 2014. Market Rasen is a sharp, slightly-undulating right-hander. Try and get on a front-runner, or one who usually races prominently, in large-field chases, because over fences here it’s well-nigh impossible to come from behind in a big field. Brave Spartacus leading from start to finish when winning the 2015 Summer Plate is the best recent example. That race, a Listed contest, takes place in July along with the Summer Hurdle, and there’s another valuable handicap chase - the Prelude - in September. That late-Summer, or early-Autumn, card is now where the 'good stuff' starts - even though the Chepstow October card still exists it isn't as good. Over hurdles one can come from the rear, as Katies Tuitor proved in the 2008 renewal of the Summer Hurdle, the other big July contest. Stamina only comes into play here when there’s give in the ground. This track has gone up in my estimation in recent years and it's now one of my favourites - even on the busiest days, there's sufficient room here to get around and feel comfortable. The paddock being in front of the grandstand is also a big plus. Lastly, prize money - and yes, this is the same line as last year's write-up on Market Rasen. Although it could be argued that the 28,475 that More Buck's bagged for connections in the 2018 renewal of the Summer Plate is a good prize for the time of year, that's what the winner of that race has got every year since 2011 - the 2010 winner Grand Slam Hero got 34,206. With Jockey Club Racecourses, owners of Market Rasen, putting more money into its many bigger pots - such as the Grand National - I suppose the dosh had to come from somewhere.

Website: marketrasen.thejockeyclub.co.uk. TV: Racing UK

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Musselburgh

It's sad that, at the time of writing this year's main round of updates to the Take On The Tracks page, in August 2018, the future of two British racecourses - both of which stage National Hunt racing - is under threat. At Musselburgh, a bus ride away from Edinburgh city centre, uncertainty has clouded the track and its employees for the thick end of two years. East Lothian Council (ELC), who took over the racecourse from the Lothians Racing Syndicate (LRS) in 1991 and formed the Musselburgh Joint Racing Committee (MJRC) to run the track in 1994 - the MJRC pays rent to the Council, who own the racecourse land and buildings - attempted to form a new committee to run the track, composed of four councillors and two LRS members, and make racecourse staff employees of ELC. The British Horseracing Authority rejected ELC's plans and took Musselburgh's licence to race away, but in April 2018 the BHA granted the track a temporary licence after ELC approved the formation of a working group, comprising members of ELC, LRS and racecourse employees. In May this was extended by the BHA to run until the end of Musselburgh's Flat season, the last meeting of which is scheduled for 15th October 2018. It could be, therefore, that Musselburgh will not stage any further jump racing during 2018, and possibly beyond. Whether or not their National Hunt fixtures take place clearly depends on the outcome of future discussions between all parties being favourable. Other reports have suggested that both Jockey Club Racecourses and Arena Racing Company have expressed an interest in taking on Musselburgh, which has a full fixture list of 28 meetings, 12 of them over jumps, programmed for 2019.

They started National Hunt racing at Edinburgh, as this track used to be called, in 1987 (the name change came in January 1996), to plug that little gap between November and March and give a major Scottish city horse racing all year round. Previously Scotland effectively had only two jump tracks during the core period of the season, with Perth’s fixtures restricted to warmer months, and Scottish trainers would have liked more venues closer to home to race their horses at. The overall quality of horses at small Scottish yards, though (also such stables in the far north of England), is moderate, and this mediocre-ness found its way into Musselburgh’s jump programme. That said, major efforts have been made to boost the quality of National Hunt sport here and the best NH meeting is a Sunday card in February - in 2012 rescheduled to the following Saturday thanks to the weather - which features the Scottish Triumph Hurdle Trial and the Scottish County Hurdle. Hmm, is there a theme there? The course is a sharp-to-galloping right-hander, though perhaps less sharp than the media would have you believe. After all, the back and home straights have four fences and three hurdles in them, so any sharpness is restricted to the turns, especially the home turn, where many horses on the inner end up coming off the rail. The steeplechase track here takes a bit of jumping, 14% of chase runners at Musselburgh falling or unseating in the 2015/16 season. The ground is normally good or better, so there’s another reason why horses run here – some just aren't up for slogging round Ayr and Kelso in the mud, and that’s where the Musselburghs and the Cattericks come into their own. An all-weather Fibresand-bend after the winning post, which cost the racecourse 100,000 and is used mostly for jump races, was constructed in 2012 in order to maintain a consistent racing surface. Following a fixture swap with Ffos Las, the Festival Trials card is now a two-day affair over the first Saturday and Sunday in February, and it included a new 'National' - the Edinburgh National, worth 40,000 and run over four miles, so three laps of the track - with Dancing Shadow taking the inaugural running in 2017. Let's hope that there's a 2019 running.
Update: In September it was announced that Musselburgh's licence to race will continue until the end of 2018, so their jump fixtures in November and December will take place.

Website: www.musselburgh-racecourse.co.uk. TV: Racing UK

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Newbury

So there I am, writing this web page, and I reach Newbury, and I’m really struggling for an opening line. But that’s the thing – the location is so plain, un-scenic and lacking any sort of character that if it wasn’t for the racecourse, someone would have built a modern housing estate on the site, which today would be inhabited by young Brits of the 21st century misbehaving and dysfunctional families. Okay, let’s get away from that and talk about British racing’s rough diamond, because it’s a grade one track with lots of history and, with Newbury Racecourse station right outside, one of the most accessible if you travel by rail. All you need is the trains to be working properly (which usually they don’t – certainly allow extra time if you’re coming from London Paddington). The best thing about Newbury is that it’s a big wide-open, galloping track, turning to the left, with lots of room, easy bends and a water jump opposite the stands. What I really wish Newbury would do is restore the Cross Flight on the hurdles course. How come they didn’t take away the Cross Fence at the same time, if it was a safety issue? The layout over hurdles became three on the back and four in the home straight in late-1999, then mix-and-match between three/four and four/three, before settling down to a four/three configuration for the last few seasons. Over fences it’s five down the back, the Cross Fence down the side, and four in the straight, the water missed out on the last lap. You’ll be familiar with the major jump fixtures, but one familiar race title synonymous with Newbury - the Hennessy Gold Cup - is no more, the Ladbrokes Trophy now taking its place as of 2017, Total Recall winning the inaugural running under the new sponsorship. The Challow Hurdle for novices is over the Christmas period, the Betfair Hurdle - the old Schweppes, now Europe's richest handicap hurdle - is in February and a valuable 2m4f handicap chase inaugurated in 2004, which has had several sponsors already, is in early March. Not forgetting the valuable mares' novices' handicap hurdle later that month. Not calling the Hennessy 'the Hennessy' still takes some getting used to, the race having been in the calendar from 1957 to 2016, but potential sports-sponsors have some way to go to top Ford's support of the Geelong Football Club. When the Aussie Rules team's present deal with the motor company concludes in 2020, they will have been Geelong's sponsors for 95 years.

Website: www.newbury-racecourse.co.uk. TV: Racing UK

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Newcastle

It's part of the Arc-fold now, but back in ITV Seven days, Newcastle was awesome. Novice chases here were great Saturday-afternoon television. You need to bear in mind that I was a small child back then, and derived tremendous entertainment from races where six started and only one got round. The most famous fallfest here, though, happened well after Channel 4 had taken over Saturday afternoon coverage. Cast your mind back to November 1990, and the Steel Plate & Sections Young Chasers Qualifier. Five started, and all of them came a cropper. The Tim Reed-ridden Tropenna, left alone when Mr Boston exited five from home, was the last to go to ground, claimed by the ditch in the home straight three out (now four out). Reed remounted the 16/1 chance, negotiated the last two and finished alone. Of course, things have changed over the last ten years. Northern Racing, since acquired by Arc of course, removed the water jump after they took over the track (quite possibly saving it from closure), increased the number of fences in the straight from three to four, and the hurdles taken after turning in from two to three. Over time some of those truly huge fences were replaced by portable ones, and Newcastle is now a fraction of the jumping test that it used to be. It’s still a testing, galloping left-handed track though, and however easy they find the obstacles, they still have to see out the race thoroughly. Sometimes those staying on at the end can turn a four-length deficit into a two-length victory. There’s been the odd change to the NH programme, and one of the most notable of the races at Newcastle named after ducks, the Dipper Novices’ Chase run in January, has moved to Cheltenham. The Fighting Fifth Hurdle in November, now a Grade 1, is the top hurdle race here by far, and the main support contest on that card is the Rehearsal Chase, formerly run at Chepstow. The Eider Chase, the 4m1f-mudfest in February, also remains an integral part of Newcastle's jump programme. Awesome though it may have been, in my book that's one thing this track definitely isn't now that Arc have replaced Newcastle's turf Flat course with a floodlit Tapeta all-weather circuit (only the straight mile is actually floodlit). Jumping was retained and, indeed, it was intended to have extra National Hunt meetings here. If they add more at some point, there are no prizes for guessing which neighbouring track Arc would get those from.

Website: www.newcastle-racecourse.co.uk. TV: At The Races

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Newton Abbot

Market Rasen took the Summer Jumping baton at the beginning and ran with it. Certain other tracks moved their fixture lists in part or in full to the (theoretically) drier months later, and that’s now where Newton Abbot comes in, having moved its entire programme to start in late March and finish in early September. It’s now one of several tracks that describe themselves as ‘the leading Summer jumping racecourse in the UK’, or similar. Getting here is basically the same route as that to Exeter, but the two tracks couldn’t be more different, for the Abbot is a sharp, left-handed track with only seven fences and four hurdles to a circuit. The hurdles course is the thing here, for the last hurdle is normally positioned less than a hundred yards from the line - way too close - and a good jump, a mistake or a jockey steadying the leader into it can decide a race if there are a few in contention. When Newton Abbot went ahead in Summer 2012 - which was about the wettest ever - very long grass, almost coming up to the horse's knees, was in evidence. The track has had a better time of it since. In 2013 it took part in a trial of a new type of hurdle - the 'one fit padded' hurdle, which consists of a standard timber hurdle frame fitted with a consistent, one-piece 'closed cell' foam pad, rather than using the traditional birch. The foam is textured and shaped with a convex frontage to replicate the usual birch-filled finish. There appear to be fewer falls and unseats over these hurdles and little, if any, damage to the obstacles themselves. These hurdles are a permanent feature at Newton Abbot now, as indeed they also are at several other tracks.

Website: www.newtonabbotracing.com. TV: At The Races

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Perth
We’re at Britain’s most northerly racecourse now, and another venue that has made a success of Summer jumping. They are packing them in at this picturesque track, set in the grounds of Scone Palace Park. Perth has two major Scottish areas which are relatively close to draw racegoers from – the city of Aberdeen and the town of Montrose – but never races during the core period of the season, as the ground here is usually saturated in Winter. Now they can race every month from April to September, and stage a quality race during June, the Perth Gold Cup, a 3m handicap chase. Perth is an easy right-handed track with plenty of room, suitable for all horses and not favouring one run style over another. The popularity of the track extends to the trainers who send horses here - with two-day fixtures the rule, southern yards and many small Irish stables send runners to Perth, and the racing is competitive. The best meeting here is the Perth Festival towards the end of April, three days peppered with a few above-average contests. With plenty of prize money to run for, Messrs Pipe and Nicholls took their scrap for the 2004/05 Trainers’ Championship here. However the trainers who often take the honours are Nigel Twiston-Davies and, over the last few seasons, Gordon Elliott, whose runners always go to Perth on business (those from the Elliott yard are often overbet and too short). The track were hoping to use Easyfix hurdles starting from the 2009 Perth Festival, now part of the furniture in Ireland at some tracks, but that didn't happen and traditional hurdles are still used. Perth, which has been televised by Racing UK since 2012, staged two Listed races at its 2018 Festival meeting - in addition to the three-mile novice hurdle which was promoted in 2017, a new Listed three-mile mares' chase was run for the first time, Rons Dream beating Jennys Surprise in the inaugural running.

Website: https://www.perth-races.co.uk. TV: Racing UK

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Plumpton

Plumpton's desire to race no matter what the weather throws at them, saw things at the track sink to a new low on February 9th 2009. There had been abandonments, and A.P.McCoy had therefore been denied a chance to get his 3,000th winner. Plumpton announced in the morning that racing was to go ahead after an inspection, then it rained, rained and rained some more. Okay, they wanted Plumpton to be the place where A.P. rode his 3,000th, I get that - and he did, on Restless D'Artaix in a beginners' chase - but for heaven's sake, the horses were galloping through large lakes! You call that safe for horses? They weren't raceable at any stage that day. It’s unfortunate that, when I think of Plumpton, that’s the first thing that springs to mind, because it really shouldn’t be. The course don’t have the backing of one of the big racecourse-owning groups and have done everything they can to put historical perceptions of the track to rest, not least introduce a £25,000 bonus for a novice chaser who wins a race here then win at the Cheltenham Festival (pocketed by Voy Por Ustedes’s connections in 2005/06). The tight, rectangular, left-handed course has several undulations and, arguably, the least popular-fence in Britain for jump jockeys on novice chasers. When they turn to go down the back straight they go downhill and, on that descent, there’s a fence. I’m surprised the course haven’t considered moving it to where the water jump used to be, on the crown of the home bend. For hurdlers, the uphill/downhill parts and tricky turns mean that, in a big field, it’s a struggle for horses trapped in mid-pack. Plumpton is one of the best for going by train, with the railway station right next to that turn for home. The Sussex Champion Hurdle, an open handicap first run in 2013 at their Easter fixture, is the top race here - its inaugural running was won by Court Minstrel, who went on to take that year's Scottish Champion Hurdle. In 2017 it became the richest race ever staged at Plumpton and it became more valuable still in 2018, Vado Forte bagging a 31,396-first prize.

Website: www.plumptonracecourse.co.uk. TV: At The Races

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Sandown
No introduction necessary. Channel 4 Racing-viewers got used to the endless schmaltz emanating from various members of their team, extolling the virtues of Sandown, for near-enough the whole of the show's 30-odd year run. Graham Goode turned into a different person when calling the finishes here. Okay, some of it is justified; it’s a lovely natural ampitheatre, there’s exciting racing and top-class horses run here. Something Channel 4 never told you is that if you go by car, it’s a hellish nightmare trying to get out. Plenty of staff are available to help you park when you arrive late morning, but where are they after the last? Everyone jams up the exit as they all go for the same place, the main road is already busy because of traffic coming from/going to Esher High Street and the Scilly Isles roundabout, after which the Grade 1 novice chase here is named, is horrible. In the first place the car park here is one of the muddiest at any of Britain’s racecourses (to be fair Cheltenham is a serious rival nowadays), so all in all you’re better off getting the train to Esher. You’ll be familiar with the right-handed, galloping, slightly-undulating course with an uphill finish, which is made out to be stiffer than it actually is – it’s not the Cheltenham hill, which itself isn’t a patch on the Towcester hill. You know the Railway Fences, the Pond Fence and the Rhododendron Walk (the latter isn't part of the course, but there’s a name for most things here). Hurdle races use the Flat course and the configuration is uneven, with four hurdles on the back straight and two in the home run. The race programme, then: the Tingle Creek in early December is the number two two-mile chase in the calendar; the Tolworth Hurdle for novices in January has given two Betfair Hurdle-winners in recent years in Agrapart and Kalashnikov, who was beaten by subsequent Supreme Novices' winner Summerville Boy in the latest renewal; the Sandown Handicap Hurdle and the aforementioned Scilly Isles are in February; the Imperial Cup in March is usually won by a horse going on to the Fred Winter or County Hurdles a few days afterwards (the lure of a big money-bonus for winning the Imperial Cup and at the Cheltenham Festival), and of course there’s the Finale meeting - an all-jumps card for the first time in 2014 - on the last Saturday in April featuring the used-to-be-the-Whitbread Gold Cup and the two-mile Celebration Chase, now a Grade 1 (as was the inaugural running in the foot-and-mouth year of 2001 - it was supposed to be a one-off race replacing the Queen Mother Champion Chase and saw a famous victory for Edredon Bleu). Not forgetting two of the few remaining traditions of National Hunt racing, the Royal Artillery in February and the Grand Military in March, where the human participants are past and present members of the Armed Forces (see racecards for the full conditions). If Jockey Club Racecourses turn the idea of closing Kempton into a concrete plan - long odds against though that now seems - it is Sandown that will be in line to stage the King George.

Website: sandown.thejockeyclub.co.uk. TV: Racing UK

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Sedgefield

This spot in County Durham was made famous for being Tony Blair’s constituency, but I strongly suspect that people with no interest in horse racing don’t know that Sedgefield has a racecourse. Past descriptions of it stated that it had a 525-yard run-in – this goes back to the days when it was unique in having the open ditch as the last fence, at the top of the home straight, then a run-in omitting the water jump. Obviously this has changed since then, the water replaced by a plain fence which is now the last and the run-in now a more normal 200-odd yards. The rectangular, left-handed, undulating circuit is on the sharp side, rising sharply after the last fence/hurdle on the back straight before a steep descent coming off the home turn. It’s desirable for a horse to be leading at this point if it’s going for the win – it’s harder to gain ground on the leader when going downhill. Stamina is important in the longer races, for there’s no three-mile start at Sedgefield and most staying contests are over at least 3m2f59y (chases) and 3m3f (hurdles). Sedgefield is an Arena Racing Company-track - after Northern Racing, as it was, took over the track from the Scotto family in 2001, they were accused of buying Sedgefield so that it could transfer fixtures to Newcastle - however a total of 20 meetings are programmed for Sedgefield in 2019, suggesting that such a thing hasn't happened.

Website: www.sedgefield-racecourse.co.uk. TV: At The Races

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Southwell

In professional punter Sidney Harris’s book, the title of which I can’t remember, he stated that he had no strategy at all about the jump track at Southwell. Well, if Sidney’s reading this, I can help him out. I think that the going here at this Nottinghamshire track is usually one point softer than it actually is, i.e. if they say ‘good’, it’s actually ‘good to soft’, and if they say ‘heavy’, it’s ‘very heavy’ (which I think should be introduced as an official going description), that observation probably related in some way to the construction of the all-weather circuit, for the same thing happens at Kempton now. And in chases, get a good jumper on your side, for the fences here, though portable, are pretty tough for a gaff. But the course itself is pretty-well normal - it’s an American-shaped, completely flat left-hander, situated inside the Fibresand. The turns are easy and both straights give a horse and jockey time to get organised at the obstacles. Some horses can make all, others have no problem coming from behind – no run style has an advantage over another in well-run races. At Southwell, they’ve been running chases and hurdles on the same strip of ground for getting on for two decades. Chases first, whip the portable fences off, hurdles on. The now-familiar fixed brush hurdles are used here: originally made for the all-weather hurdling experiment, Southwell used them on grass for the first time in March 1993 and has done so ever since. The ‘mini-fences’ are kinder to horses, who brush through the plastic ‘birch’ rather than whack a solid wood frame. And, of course, you can’t knock ‘em flat. There’s no scenery at Southwell – Harris used the word ‘featureless’ – but I like it. During cold snaps, Southwell has often stepped in to stage jumpers' bumpers-cards, earning an unwanted statistic for one such meeting scheduled at short notice in early 2018, which reportedly drew a paying attendance of 13 racegoers. Away from jumps, the track reportedly intend to install floodlights for its Fibresand-circuit.

Website: www.southwell-racecourse.co.uk. TV: At The Races

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Stratford

The course next to the River Avon is another to have re-invented itself as a Summer jumps course, but the comfort of those that visit Stratford does not appear to be one of the racecourse’s prime concerns. They rebuilt their grandstand relatively recently, back in 1997, but they got it wrong in my opinion. The new structure is too small and unable to cope with a crowd. People insist on taking their pints onto it - the bars here were selling double-pints when I visited in June 2018 - and, all in all, I think I’d prefer a walk in the park than a day at Stratford when it’s sunny and warm. The track is a tight left-hander with no significant undulations. In a change to the configuration on the hurdles course, one of the two obstacles taken before the winning post was moved to a site between the line and the turn away from the stands from its 2012 season. Prior to that they changed around the chase course, which for over a decade after removing the water jump in front of the stands, had two fences in the home straight, which worked fine until there were suddenly a lot of fallers over these two fences in 2006. Maybe the second last had been moved a few yards one way or the other before the falls, but I’m very much guessing there. Their first solution was to remove that second last but have a new fence closer to the line – so the last became the second last, and the new final fence was sited about a hundred yards before the winning post. This still didn’t solve the problem as the number of falls at these two remained above the average, so from 2008 Stratford restored the water jump in front of the stands (now a 'false water', like at Huntingdon). This seems to have done the trick and there are now fewer fallers in the home straight, as well as a great spectacle for racegoers. All we need now is the old Courage Brewery Chase back from ITV Seven days, with the shire horses at the start... One moan, though; they moved the Horse & Hound Cup to the Friday of their late-May or early-June two-day meeting from 2011 - another contribution to the trashing of tradition in jumping - and it's been on the Friday ever since, that card becoming an all hunter chase-fixture from 2017. There are some racegoers out there that still like hunter chases (especially good ones, the Horse & Hound largely regarded as third in the pecking order to the Cheltenham and Aintree Foxhunters'), and not everyone can make it on Friday night. In my opinion Stratford need to put things back the way they were, but when was the last time you had an all hunter-card on a Saturday? Starting from March 2017 Stratford replaced its traditional hurdles with new one fit padded-obstacles, and television coverage of the track shifted from At The Races to Racing UK in July that year.

Website: www.stratfordracecourse.net. TV: Racing UK

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Taunton

We’re off west here, deep in Zummerset cider-drinking country. They say that, first and foremost, Taunton is a hurdle-race track, and at one point they had special Jockey Club dispensation which let them stage just two chases per meeting instead of the minimum three in the height of Winter - I'm not sure whether or not they still do. Novice hurdles here often carry prize money that’s above the minimum levels. Okay, that’s great, but there’s a problem here that the racecourse executive probably don’t think they have. I don’t know if any work has ever been done on the turn out of the back straight on the hurdles course, but that is the worst bend on a British racetrack. It comes not long after the last hurdle down the back, and normally takes the form of about five yards of rail, shaped into a curve. The place to be at that point is in front, no two ways. The layout of that turn is such that those in the chasing group can do nothing but get in each other’s way, and most are beaten right there. The fact that most novice hurdles at the track go up through the gears at this point after being steadily-run affairs only makes matters worse. To be fair, that bend is sometimes dolled out to its furthest extremity and it seems less problematical when that is the case, watching on TV anyway. Aside from that, a jumping error at any point on the last circuit of hurdle races often means that a horse holding a strong winning chance before the mistake, instantly goes to having no chance at all. Don’t be surprised if a fancied horse in a Taunton hurdle that’s well beaten, returns to form next time at a track with a fairer layout. Overall Taunton is a sharp, right-handed, rectangular course, better for chasers than hurdlers I think (as you’ll have gathered), as long as you hold a prominent position from the outset on either circuit. It’s a popular place, and even on a crisp and cold Thursday in February, you have to wedge yourself in to the grandstand. Taunton staged a meeting on a Saturday for the first time ever in January 2014 and it's in the 2019 Fixture List also. In 2014/15 Taunton replaced their hurdles with the rubber, one fit padded obstacles, now used at several other tracks - at least when the hurdles were actually jumped, for some most bizarre low-sun obstacle omissions happened at Taunton on 30th December 2015. All three hurdles on the back straight were taken out for one race, then the following race was a chase and, even though the sun was out, all the back-straight fences were in. The next race was a Listed mares' novices' hurdle and, even though they'd jumped all the fences half an hour before, they still took out the back-straight hurdles. What made the situation completely impossible to comprehend was that the sun had actually gone in before the race, and it wasn't hard to understand why Paul Nicholls, whose Tara Point won the race, was angry about it when interviewed on TV afterwards. Racing UK took over coverage of Taunton from At The Races in November 2017.

Website: www.tauntonracecourse.co.uk. TV: Racing UK

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Towcester

It came as a shock to the racing fraternity when it was announced in August 2018 that Towcester racecourse, which has staged greyhound racing since December 2014 when a dog track costing 1.5 million was opened, was entering into administration. The horse racing-product has been in decline here since 2014, when it sold seven fixtures - including a lucrative Boxing Day meeting - to Arena Racing Company. The greyhound-side of the business had looked to be doing well on the outside - it took over the Greyhound Derby in 2017 - but even casual observers could have worked out that there was next to nothing left of the once-thriving greyhound racing-industry by 2014. (Even I've been to three dog stadiums that are now closed - Slough, Walthamstow and Wimbledon.) Whatever the causes, the track's reported 'trading difficulties' led them to announce the immediate cancellation of all future greyhound racing from August 17th, with staff being told not to come in to work. It was not clear at the time of writing what was to become of the three remaining scheduled horse racing-fixtures in 2018. There was some hope that a buyer could be found for the track, with Arc and Betfred reportedly expressing an interest in taking it on within days of the initial administration-announcement. All British racetracks have something to offer, and Musselburgh - also under threat of closure, as described earlier - and Towcester are assets to the sport which we can ill afford to lose. Jump racing enthusiasts can only hold on to hope. A mere 11 National Hunt fixtures are scheduled at Towcester in 2019.

Towcester is mountaineering for racehorses, located in Northamptonshire within easy reach of the M1 and M40 and not a million miles away from Silverstone, but don’t expect to see anything like Formula One-speed here, particularly when the going's heavy. Simply, Towcester is the world’s toughest racecourse. The galloping, right-handed track includes the stiffest uphill finish anywhere. Publications always use phraseology to the effect of ‘many a race is turned on its head’, and that’s how it is. The last half-mile of the circuit is all uphill, and they start climbing well before the last fence/hurdle prior to the home turn. The closer you get to the line, the harder the climb. Sometimes the four-length leader three out ends up pulled up before the last. There was a flirtation with a valuable novice chase for a couple of years before the course closed for rebuilding in 2001, but since its 2003 reopening, some may have looked at racecards for Towcester and probably thought ‘I’m not paying money to see that...’. Well you don’t have to, because admission is free here for most fixtures - as it's turned out, this could be part of the business-related problem the course is experiencing. There is the odd Class 3 handicap, but such races are very much the exception and not the rule. On 17th March 2011 Towcester had the distinction of staging the first race to be declared void since remounting was banned, all four runners in the novices' chase falling or unseating. An equally noteworthy moment - and sure to be better remembered - happened at Towcester in November 2013, when Sir A.P.McCoy rode his 4,000th career winner at this track, Mountain Tunes responding to driving from the 20-times champion jumps jockey for arguably the greatest event in the history of this racecourse. The highest high and the lowest low, in the space of five years. Towcester is a gaff track, we can't (and shouldn't) pretend otherwise, but it serves a purpose for a certain type of horse - one like How's My Friend (four course wins, and none elsewhere), or Riddlestown, who's raced at Towcester 16 times, winning five. There's a lot to lose.
Update: In September it was announced that Towcester's meeting on October 10th had been transferred to Southwell.

Website: www.towcester-racecourse.co.uk. TV: At The Races

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Uttoxeter

This is where it all began for the late Sir Stanley Clarke’s Northern Racing group. The Staffordshire countryside course at Uttoxeter was down on its uppers, then Sir Stanley bought it, financed a whole host of improvements to buildings and stuff, moved the Midlands National to a March slot and got Channel 4 to televise it for the first time in 1991. Forward wind to the present and, with Sir Stanley sadly no longer around, Uttoxeter had been resting on its laurels, but there has been a recent improvement in its racing programme aside from the Midlands National-fixture. What started out as the Summer National has now evolved into the Summer Cup, a Listed handicap chase over 3m2f, run on the last Sunday in June and it drew a proper Winter-field in 2016, the 45,016-first prize going to Badger Ales Chase-winner Drop Out Joe; slightly less money, 42,203, went to Virgilio in the latest running, but it's still more than anywhere else in Britain over jumps in the Summer. There was also the first running of the Sir Stanley And Lady Clarke Chase in late-May, remembering Uttoxeter's saviour, and the Staffordshire Plate over three miles now takes place earlier that month. The track operates all year round and the running surface for the horses can sometimes be described as ‘variable’. There is an omitted fence and/or hurdle somewhere at many meetings, and unsightly bits of sticking-out running rail are used to doll off the areas not in use. The course itself is a sharp left-hander with a dog-leg right-turn on the back straight. The ground here in the height of Winter can get so muddy that it stretches the definition of ‘raceable’. The biggest race in Uttoxeter's calendar - resulting in a crowd that the track can barely cope with - remains the Midlands National, four miles one furlong and 92 yards (officially) and three laps of the track, run on the Saturday of Cheltenham Festival-week; recent renewals have been more valuable than any of the handicaps at Cheltenham over the previous four days, Regal Flow netting a cool 70,338 in 2018. As of the meeting on 7th September 2016, Uttoxeter started using the new one-fit padded, rubber hurdles.

Website: www.uttoxeter-racecourse.co.uk. TV: At The Races

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Warwick
‘Historic Warwick’ they sometimes call it, and what a beautiful olde English town centre it is, dominated by Warwick Castle. The racecourse ain’t bad either. Theres's some above-average racing, with its top race being the Grade 3 Classic Chase over 3m5f, the modern-day equivalent of what used to be the ‘Brooke Bond Oxo National’, but still framed to attract potential Grand National winners. The 2017 Classic Chase-winner, a certain One For Arthur, has raised the bar for future runnings. The Grade 2 Leamington Novices’ Hurdle tops the undercard - that race's stock also increased dramatically in 2017, with Willoughby Court following up success in the Leamington with another in the Neptune at the Cheltenham Festival. The February meeting – when the weather allows it to go ahead (the Winters of our discontent...) – is also a good quality card, featuring the Grade 2 Kingmaker Novices’ Chase. The Warwick circuit is a galloping-in-the-main, left-handed, mainly flat circuit. Some of the turns are a little tight, but really the only horses Warwick wouldn’t suit would be any who can’t act left-handed. The best-known feature at Warwick is the chase track, which includes five quick fences close together going down the side towards the home turn, placing the emphasis on good, straight jumping. Formerly a dual-purpose venue, Warwick went jumps only from 2015 and now starts its season in September and finishes in May. Warwick station is about 15 minutes’ walk away.

Website: www.warwickracecourse.co.uk. TV: Racing UK

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Wetherby

Formerly the only racecourse in Yorkshire to stage solely National Hunt racing, some people regard present-day Wetherby as a ‘new’ circuit since they introduced a revised configuration in 2007/08 - realigning the home straight as a result of roadworks on the A1, which took some of the track's ground - but not all of it is new. There’s about 200 yards left of the previous track in the home straight; watch closely and you can see the join in the grass, like squares of turf on your lawn - and most of the back straight is still the same as previously, including the remaining big, original Wetherby fences on the circuit, then the course bears left at a point before the previous home turn started, giving a sweeping bend into the new straight, which – unlike the old home run – is completely straight, avoiding the elbow about a furlong from home. What’s different about Wetherby post re-configuration is that it’s now much easier for horses to come from behind than it used to be, and the ground in the home straight is always better than down the back, as is the case with the new home straight at Ascot. This course's number one race, the Charlie Hall Chase run in late October or early November, is backed up by such as the bet365 Hurdle, the Wensleydale for juveniles and a Listed mares’ hurdle, which made its debut in 2007. The Rowland Meyrick Handicap Chase is the pick of the track’s two-day Christmas meeting, if only the weather would allow it to go ahead. Prize money is an issue in racing that never goes away, and it became a more serious problem than elsewhere at Wetherby in 2010/11. Novice hurdlers typically raced for a first prize of less than £2,000. Complaints were widespread, and some trainers boycotted meetings here. Wetherby's argument was that if they didn't have the Charlie Hall (worth £90,000), they could put more in the pot. Whatever the reasons, the argument will never stack up with owners and trainers, who have never tolerated any excuses on the subject. There has been improvement since. Wetherby added Flat racing to its fixture-portfolio in 2015 - trials with a Flat-configuration, held in June 2014, were deemed successful and so were the four Flat meetings that it put on in the Spring and Summer of 2015. When Wetherby's Flat-plans were initially announced, one of the reasons behind it was words to the effect of 'we don't know where jumps racing will be in 25 years' time'. Only three Flat cards are in Wetherby's 2019-programme, though, and I'm not sure that's what the executive had in mind. The old stand and viewing gallery - my favourite vantage point to watch racing here - are now gone, replaced by the new Millennium West grandstand, which took less than a year to build and was opened in October 2017.

Website: www.wetherbyracing.co.uk. TV: Racing UK

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Wincanton
Here is one of those ‘almost-a-grade-one’ tracks, down the A303 in Somerset. Only just, though – a mile the other way and Wincanton would be in Wiltshire. Once you pass Stonehenge, you’re nearly there. Situated in the middle of nowhere, with the aroma of manure from the surrounding farms (if you’re driving with your window down) but without single-track roads, we have the number one track in the West Country, also Paul Nicholls’s local track. Formerly shown once a year every Boxing Day on BBC between Kempton races (when Auntie had the near-monopoly), it went about a decade without TV coverage (so all Desert Orchid’s appearances at the course were missed) until Channel 4 started regular visits when it showed the 1995 Jim Ford Chase and Kingwell Hurdle. Since then several Thursday cards have moved to Saturdays. Wonder why? Wincanton is a tight, rectangular right-hander. The familiar stiff fences that were to be found at the track have all been replaced by portables, and as a result Wincanton isn't the tough test of jumping ability that it used to be. The giant Bacofoil sheet – the water jump down the side going away from the stands – still remains in place. Watch Wincanton in November when the sun’s out and you’ll see what I mean. It’s desirable to be up with the pace throughout and, over fences, the first to reach the third last fence normally wins. Hurdle races were run for the first time over 2m4f in 2007/08. Wincanton’s biggest days are in November, when the Badger Ales Chase, Elite Hurdle, Rising Stars Novices’ Chase and a valuable mares' handicap hurdle are run, and February, when the Kingwell Hurdle takes place. It lost the Country Gentlemen's Association Chase, the latter day-moniker for the Jim Ford, from 2011, the replacement a 3m limited handicap chase at Ascot.

Website: www.wincantonracecourse.co.uk. TV: Racing UK

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Worcester

This lovely track was the first to move its entire season to the warmest months of the year, but in 2007 they lost half their meetings to the floods, and the weather continued to give the staff here more headaches in Summer 2008 than it ever did in Winters past. Historically Worcester have always had problems with the River Severn, which is next to the home straight, bursting its banks and engulfing part or all of the track every now and again, but it’s safe to assume that the rains and floods of 2007 and 2008 were like nothing else ever seen. Mother Nature has given Worcester a break since. Worcester is a flat, galloping left-hander with a nice round turn at each end, and it’s for that reason that moving fixtures away from the jump season-proper wasn’t popular with everyone. Simply, there is no track fairer to inexperienced horses, whether they’re being introduced to racing in bumpers, starting over hurdles or making a chasing debut. The obstacles on both courses are well spaced out, and because the bends are more like proper semi-circles, rather than a sudden right-angle or anything like that, horses won’t lose ground turning for home. Once in line, if they’re habitually jumping right, then they can get away with that. There was a change in configuration that came in for the start of its 2012 campaign. As happens at Southwell, chases, hurdles and bumpers are now all run on the same strip of ground. Typically it's chases first, fences off, bumper, then the fixed brush hurdles used here are put in position. I'm guessing that the new portable fences were late arriving, for the first 2012 meeting was hurdles only, then on May 23rd chasing returned, but with only six fences per circuit (so only 12, not 18, jumped in 2m7f chases). The next meeting had eight fences per chase circuit, then the full compliment of nine each full lap was in place from June 20th of that year. Since the remeasuring of jump race-distances, the longest distance raced over at Worcester is two miles seven furlongs, and as that is short of three miles, this has enabled the track to remove a fence from the chase circuit - so now four fences on each straight. While 12 fences are jumped in the shortest chases - with all four fences in the home straight jumped on the first circuit - a total of 16 are jumped in the longest chases (in three mile-chases it's supposed to be six fences per mile, 18 in all). All hurdle races at Worcester are over Fixed Brush obstacles, with 12 obstacles in a 2m7f hurdle race.

In the year that Worcester racecourse celebrated its 300th anniversary, it hasn't had much positive media coverage. Things reached a low point in June 2018 when certain racing professionals complained about the treatment of owners at the track. What used to be owners' and trainers' bars had been set aside as hospitality areas, and owners and trainers were moved to a small shed overlooking the river. According to trainer Alan King in a piece in the Racing Post, some of his owners were wanting him not to enter their horses in races at Worcester any more. Several others subsequently expressed their dissatisfaction, but for the most part, field sizes have been standing up during Summer 2018. Even if Arc were to get involved in Musselburgh and/or Towcester, it will still have the money to spend on improving owners' facilities at Worcester; there is clearly a very powerful case.

Website: www.worcester-racecourse.co.uk. TV: At The Races

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Roy Waterhouse
2018

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