Old Bangor is a thoroughbred
PUBLISHED: 21:01 01 December 2009 | UPDATED: 15:39 20 February 2013
Bangor-on-Dee celebrates 150 years of steeplechasing next month. Andrew Hobbs traces the history of a unique course
'And they come past the stands. Except, of course, there aren't any stands.' That was BBC racing commentator Julian Wilson, catching himself out at Bangor-on-Dee, Britain's only racecourse without a grandstand.
Instead, spectators make the most of the natural amphitheatre above the track, near the winding River Dee a few miles from Wrexham, while all the other facilities that modern racegoers expect are there, from restaurants to hospitality suites and more.
It all looked a bit different 150 years ago, when regular racing first began at ine if Britain's best loved courses, now one of only two Welsh racing venues to remain. In 1858 a match took place across country on the meadows at Bangor Isycoed, to give it its Welsh name, between two members of Sir Watkin Wyyn's Hunt, the Hon Lloyd Kenyon and Richard Myddleton Biddulph, of Chirk Castle, attracting a large crowd.
The event was such a success that the hunt decided to make a day of it, so on February 25th, 1859, the first steeplechase meeting was held, over much the same course as today. The main event on that very first card was the Grand Wynnstay Steeplechase, run over a distance of about three miles. It attracted 12 runners and was won by a six-year-old named Charley, owned by a Mr Jones, and ridden by a jockey named Gaff.
The course's hunt connections guaranteed that the annual race meeting was always highly aristocratic and fashionable, according to 19th century newspaper reports. Course stewards included the Duke of Westminster and a report from the Liverpool Mercury of 1888 gives a flavour.
'A large and brilliant company assembled on the charmingliy situated course on the banks of the Dee at Bangor Isycoed to assist at the celebrated Wynnstay Hunt Meeting. Sir Watkin and Lady Wynn, with a large party from Wynnstay were present, as also were the Marquis and Marchioness Cholmondeley, Viscount Combermere, Earl of Enniskillen, and many more of the principal families of Cheshire, Salopia and North Wales; whilst the plebian element was also well represented. All went merry as a marriage bell.'
Then, the course hosted only one event a year, every April, but this year there will be 15 meetings throughout the year. The thousands of spectators who flocked to the early races were boosted when the Wrexham to Ellesmere railway opened a station at Bangor-on-Dee in 1895. Race-goers from Wrexham and other districts often had to walk, before bus services were established.
As with any racecourse, Bangor-on-Dee attracted plenty of tricksters. One of their favourtie stunts was known as 'Crown and Anchor'. The conmen would put a canvas sheet on the ground and begin to take bets, putting the money on the sheet. Then an accomplice would shout 'police' and the trickster would disappear with the canvas - and the cash.
Bangor-on-Dee's pubs have always done well out of race days. The Royal Oak would serve beer from barrels on a trestle table outside the pub, and in the days when there was only one meeting a year, reckoned to pay their rent and rates out of a race day. Former National Hunt jockey turned thriller writer Dick Francis says it is his favourtite course because of its flatness and lack of sharp bends.
It holds good memories for him, being the first proper racecourse on which he rode. He was unplaced, but loved every minute of the experience and afterwards wrote to every racehorse trainer he or his father had ever met to beg for a job as an amateur jockey.
He rode the first of the 345 winnders at Bangor-on-Dee, Wrenbury Tiger, in 1946, winning by more than 200 yards, and also had his first treble there, when eh rode three winners on the same day. The million-selling suthor has always insisted the racing world is not as corrupt as his novels might suggest, but he was once offered 50 (worth more than 800 in today's money) to lose a race at Bangor. He told the briber to go to hell.
Jeannie Chantler, general manager of Bangor-on-Dee races, said: 'Bangor-on-Dee Racecourse is a major part of the local community, both as a social event and as a prt of the economic structure with this area. The racecourse has progressed markedly in the last 20 years from being all wooden buildings to modern buildings now offering much improved facilities which are also available for functions such as private celebrations, weddings, conference and banqueting and much more.
'150 years of racing at Bangor-on-Dee is a landmark in our history and we hope to be able to share our celebrations with racegoers throughout 2009. There will be opportunities for racegoers to view memorabilia and take part in competitions and possibly to purchase special merchandise commemorating 150 years of racing at Bangor-on-Dee.'