A horse’s most basic requirement for good health is fresh air and grass, and as such the Peak District is an ideal stomping ground for our nags.
We’ve all seen them idly grazing in farmer’s fields, but what’s less well-known is the Peak District is home to a trio of a racecourses each offering a grand day out with a difference and the chance to have a flutter.
Easter is a great time for horse racing. The Cheltenham Festival every March, the Grand National meeting at Aintree just three weeks later, and Flagg Races every Easter Tuesday.
That’s right, Flagg Races. While it may not receive the same level of exposure as racing’s two premier meetings, Flagg’s annual point-to-point meeting is a historic event and one which remains essential to many racing aficionados.
Point-to-point racing is an amateur version of National Hunt Steeplechasing (or, simply, Jump racing). Many novice chasers begin their careers in point-to-points under the guidance of amateur jockeys, using the races as a nursery before they graduate to the racecourse proper.
Some of racing’s most legendary names have come through the point-to-point ranks before going on to the highest level of the game. Gold Cup winners such as Best Mate, Denman, See More Business and Cool Dawn all began their glorious careers in point-to-point races, meaning you could be casting your eye over a potential superstar.
Conversely, veteran chasers coming to the end of their National Hunt careers often find themselves running in point-to-point events. They provide a great environment for older horses with limited opportunities in the professional game, yet who still thrive on their racing.
The sport provides enthusiasts with the opportunity to watch thoroughbred racing in areas not easily accessible to racecourses, and brings the live racing and betting experience to new audiences.
Point-to-point racing draws together local communities and attracts great support from volunteers, who are the cornerstones to its successful running, acting in a wide variety of roles.
Flagg is no different. The first point-to-point races took place on Flagg Moor in 1892 and, aside from the war years and 2001-2003 (when the meeting succumbed to the foot and mouth crisis), the meeting has been held there every Easter Tuesday ever since – attracting bumper crowds of around 6,000.
Flagg’s unique selling point is the Hunt Members' race, which sees horses begin the race in open hunting country between the villages of Flagg and Pomeroy, before jumping limestone walls on their way to a finish on the racecourse proper. As recently as the mid-1980's there were around ten such old-fashioned races in existence, but Flagg is now the only one in the country.
The meeting is held at Flagg Moor, five miles south of Buxton, in beautiful Peak District surroundings. Like any other race meeting, there are food and drink outlets dotted around the course, a licensed bar and, of course, bookmakers for anyone who fancies a flutter.
While Cheltenham and Aintree are attracting the headlines, don’t overlook Flagg Races - a gem of an event which is not to be missed.
Another branch of horse-racing as we know it is Harness Racing. One of only a handful of sports that allows men and women to compete on an equal footing, harness racing is a bit of an unknown quantity in this country. Outside the UK, Harness Racing is every bit as popular as standard horse-racing – particularly in mainland Europe, North America and Australasia.
Harness Racing uses standard-bred horses, as opposed to thoroughbreds, which are raced along with a driver. The driver – not a jockey - sits in a two-wheeled buggy, or cart, known as a sulky, and is pulled along by the horse. It’s not too far removed from chariot racing.
Pikehall Harness Racing was introduced in 1998 and was initially met with bewilderment and confusion. The sport was all but completely unknown in this country, but its popularity has since soared and quite a crowd gather at Pikehall’s biannual meetings.
The track is roughly equidistant between Ashbourne and Buxton, is just eight miles from Matlock - Derbyshire’s county town - and lies a shade under a thousand feet above sea level.
Like any standard race meeting, there are form guides to follow, betting opportunities for punters as well as other attractions. It’s a great day out for all the family. Under-14s are free, while entry is just £8 for adults.
Back in the world of regular National Hunt racing, and located just outside the Peak District’s borders in Staffordshire, is an altogether more well-known venue. Uttoxeter racecourse is home to the Midlands Grand National - a prestigious race in itself and noted Aintree Grand National trial.
Some classy horses have won the Uttoxeter’s signature event. The Thinker obliged in 1986, and the following year he won the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Scottish National winner Willsford – trained by Jenny Pitman – won it in 1990, and a year later perennial Aintree favourite Bonanza Boy sluiced in by 20 lengths.
But for sheer romanticism the story of 1997 surely can’t be beaten. Lord Gyllene, owned by Uttoxeter racecourse chairman, the late Sir Stanley Clarke, was beaten into 2nd place by Seven Towers. Just three weeks later at Aintree, Lord Gyllene - under an inspired Tony Dobbin ride - made all the running to claim a famous pillar-to-post victory in the postponed and re-run ‘Monday National’.
But it’s not all about the arduous slog that is the Midlands National. Uttoxeter hosts 25 meetings every year and welcomes the very best in National Hunt racing. Many of the meetings are themed, with Ladies Nights, family fun-days and much more ensuring there is something for everyone. And with admission free for kids and from just £8 for adults, you should have some dough left over for a punt if you wish.
If you’ve never experienced the sporting and social thrill of a day at the races, what better way to sample it for the first time than in the unspoiled surrounds of the Peak District.
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