This is the last in a series of four articles on the history of British racecourses and their struggle for economic prosperity. It focuses on Towcester – an independent, and a prime example of the diversity of British racecourses which add greatly to the charm and popularity of British racing.
Jump racing at Towcester Racecourse is as different a sport to its blue blooded Flat equivalent on the wide open spaces of Newmarket Heath or its less aristocratic all-weather competition around the tight oval of the Lingfield track as it is as possible to conceive. But then National Hunt racing is often considered a sport whereas the Flat with its bloodstock potential is seen as a business.
Visual comparisons with all-weather racing might be made with Formula 1 at the flat Nurburgring circuit after the switch in 1984 from its much longer “North loop” track which featured 1,000 feet of elevation change from its lowest to highest points and was nicknamed “The Green Hell”. The Green Hell it may have been but for sheer excitement it was difficult to replicate. Some might say that watching a race around Towcester offers the same visual entertainment. Its tricky downhill fences, relatively tight turns and gruelling uphill four furlongs finish rising over 600 feet often provide the possibility of a myriad of different results. It is a spectacle for the few thousand racegoers, who regularly attend its events perched in the grandstand at the course’s highest point, which is difficult to match. Unless of course you prefer a different background of the wooded intricacies of Cartmel, the spectacular Sussex downlands of Goodwood or the stunning sheep-grazing scenery of Hexham some 9000 feet above sea level. All of these are examples of independent racecourses. The popularity of British racing – it is the UK’s second largest spectator sport – owes much to the rich topographical diversity of its courses and the differing racing conditions they provide. It is a unique feature of the sport in the UK which racing needs to cherish.
Towcester Racecourse is a part of the Easton Neston estate situated alongside the Roman built Watling Street in southern Northamptonshire. In some ways it is a relic of the past as it was created by a peer of the realm, Lord Hesketh, within his own grounds so he could watch and pursue a sport which – along with his interest in Formula 1 – was transformed from a personal hobby into a commercial venture.
National Hunt racing first took place at the 1 3/4 mile right handed track in 1928 and it is probably fair to say commercial success has been a constant struggle ever since. The main reason behind its ongoing battle is the 18 fixtures planned for the forthcoming season compared with the 39 at Newmarket’s two courses and the 83 at Lingfield’s dual tracks. Additionally, as a small independent, the course cannot draw upon centrally negotiated contracts, benefit from group economies of scale or have the capacity to hold lucrative late night pop concerts. Management have therefore been forced to seek different means of seeking additional profitability: