Lovers of racing are well served in Sussex with four courses catering for all tastes. Judy Sharp had a canter round them for us
The stalls crash open or the tape heads skywards and they’re off! So starts the frisson of excitement that builds to a full adrenalin rush when the racehorses stream past the winning post amid a cacophony of cheers. For first-timers and seasoned regulars alike, the atmosphere of horseracing is something special. Watching the elegant animals in the parade ring; placing your bets before taking your place in the stands – or observing from the comfort of your hospitality box – it’s all part of the day’s enjoyment.
Sussex has four courses – Brighton, Fontwell Park, Goodwood and Plumpton – with characters as colourful as the county itself. Sheepskins and wellies or frilly frocks and fascinators; cold beer or chilled Champagne; fish and chips or caviar and canap�s – the choice is yours!
Diverse beginnings create different courses. Brighton’s original Whitehawk course was started in 1783 by local wealthy aristocrats, for instance, and relocated to its current site in 1822. Fontwell, by contrast, was created by a true horseracing man, Alfred Day, a trainer who worked in the area from the late 1880s. Not only did he revive the area’s name from the Roman Fons (fountain) and the local monks’ name, Well, from the water source on his land, Day also bought the land with local support, obtained the necessary licences and even designed the courses – conventional oval for hurdles and unique figure-of-eight for the steeplechase course. Racing started there with enthusiastic crowds in 1924.
Goodwood’s course was established by the third Duke of Richmond in 1801 for the annual races of the Sussex Militia of which he was colonel and has always been at the elegant end of the horseracing scale. And at Plumpton, Thomas Henry Case’s first venture wasn’t horseracing at all but hare coursing! It was only eight years later, in 1884, that he experimented with horseracing and realised how much more popular – and profitable – it could be.
Our courses have featured in books and films, have frequently hosted Royal visitors, and even launched famous careers. The notorious razor-wielding gangs that terrorised racegoers at Brighton between the wars were immortalised in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, and Fontwell was the location for filming the Dick Francis thriller Dead Cert.
The Prince Regent, later George IV, was a regular at Brighton and the first Stand was built for the Royal entourage back in 1788. HM The Queen and Prince Philip hosted a lunch for local dignitaries in the Silks restaurant at Brighton in 2007 – no doubt enjoying the stunning sea views from the new location.
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In 1980 Prince Charles rode in the Mad Hatters Private Sweepstake at Plumpton. Riding Long Wharf, he came a creditable second to TV presenter Derek Thompson on Classified. Racing favourite Bob Champion rode his first career winner at Plumpton in 1968 and Tony McCoy celebrated his 3,000th winner there in 2009.
Horseracing legend Josh Gifford, who sadly died in February of this year, had his training stables at Findon. A great fan and supporter of nearby Fontwell, he was very involved in the opening of the new stand there in 2010.
Goodwood, family seat of the Dukes of Richmond, has long had Royal associations and hosts the King George Stakes. The March Stand was opened by HM The Queen in 1980 and Sir Peter O’Sullevan OBE opened the Sussex Stand a decade later.
I asked each of the Sussex courses how they see themselves in terms of style, food and fashion. Pimms is clearly the drink of choice, with a cold beer alternative at Brighton and G&T or fizz at Goodwood. Fontwell is definitely fish and chips – locally-caught and with home-made tartare sauce of course! – while Brighton goes for a varied menu (as it would!) and Goodwood offers elegant appetisers across the platter. Brighton and Fontwell are the boys next door: Brighton a survivor who has come good, Fontwell friendly and good-looking – and both easy to talk to. Goodwood is linen suits and panama hats: cool and all that is English. And Plumpton? Plumpton is far too coy to let on!
Nowadays, racing is big businesses and racecourses have to earn their keep – it is not profitable to keep the places empty on non-race days. With easy access, ample parking, big open spaces and great hospitality facilities, owners and managers now host a wide array of events.
Brighton has a regular programme of car boot sales, exhibitions and trade fairs, and on 9 June hosts the massive Judy’s Vintage Fair. They also operate a Park and Ride scheme for Brighton & Hove Albion home games. Fontwell holds regular comedy nights, and from 9 to 13 May you can see the Moscow State Circus there. Plumpton starts its weekly summer evening car boot sales on 1 June. Goodwood has established itself as a top-class sporting venue, with motor racing, golf, flying, shooting, cricket and iconic festivals. It has one of its regular Breakfast Club meetings on Sunday 6 May – “the ultimate high-performance machines, cars and bikes” – free to watch, on the motor racing track.
But as we round the final bend, let’s get back to horseracing. May is a busy month for racing, traditionally the cross-over from winter jump racing to the summer flat season, and all four courses have great meetings.
Plumpton has its Ladies’ Day – “full of fun, fizz and fashion” – on Sunday 13 May, with live stage music, a ladies’ shopping village, a children’s funfair, a Glitz & Glamour marquee and prizes for Best Dressed Lady, Man and Child. The South East Point-to-Point Race Final complements a full seven-race programme – a great day for all the family.
Fontwell combines racing and music for the Funk & Soul Race Night on Friday 4 May. The six races will be followed by live music from The Reel Deal Band, a ten-piece funk and soul ensemble – what better way to start the long weekend? Their Diamond Jubilee Race Day is on Sunday 3 June and their Ladies’ Evening is on Thursday 16 August.
Brighton hosts its May Madness evening meeting on Thursday 3 May with Madness tribute band Los Palmas 6. There’s an afternoon fixture on Tuesday 22 May and a two-day meeting to mark the Jubilee long weekend, Thursday 31 May and Friday 1 June. Brighton’s three-day Festival is 8 – 10 August, including their glamorous Frosts Ladies’ Day – with a �2,000 cash prize for the best-dressed lady!
Goodwood’s season starts on Saturday 5 May followed by a mid-week meeting on Thursday 10 May. The May Festival is from Thursday 24 to Saturday 26 and includes four major races – the Height of Fashion Stakes, the Cocked Hat Stakes, the Festival Stakes and the Tapster Stakes. Total prize money for the three days is more than �300,000. The highlight of the season is Glorious Goodwood, from Tuesday 31 July to Saturday 4 August, a key fixture in both social and horseracing calendars. Some 100,000 people enjoy this quintessential English experience, horseracing and socialising par excellence.
Horseracing is part of the fabric of our colourful county life and these four fabulous courses offer great entertainment for everyone. If you’ve never tried, do go – and I bet you’ll be hooked from the very first “and they’re off!”
BrightonSatnav: BN2 9XZTel: 01273 603 580http://www.brighton-racecourse.co.uk
Fontwell ParkSatnav: BN18 0SXTel: 01243 543 335www.fontwellpark.co.uk
GoodwoodSatnav: PO18 0PXTel: 01243 755 055www.goodwood.co.uk
PlumptonSatnav: BN7 3ATel: 01273 890 383http://www.plumptonracecourse.co.uk