Doncaster gets ready for St Leger Week Festival
- Credit: Alamy
One of the country’s oldest racing festivals gets ready to welcome many thousands of visitors. David Marsh discovers what’s in store
Staff at Doncaster Racecourse are busy this month gearing up for one of the highlights on the town’s sporting and social calendar – the world-famous St Leger. The oldest of English racing’s five Classics, the race was first run in 1776 and is the showpiece of a four-day meeting that attracts thousands of visitors to the South Yorkshire town, although if the authorities in Doncaster had have had their way 400 years ago, the event might never have happened. There was a move to ban horseracing from the town on the grounds it attracted too many ruffians.
Fortunately for the local economy, it was never introduced and over the centuries Doncaster has grown into a major centre for horseracing. The course, which staged the country’s first Sunday race meeting in 1992 attracting 23,000 people, is one of the most modern in Europe following a £34m face-lift completed eight years ago.
This year’s St Leger takes place on September 12th, the culmination of four days of top quality racing. The fun starts on September 9th when retired jockeys get back on the saddle for the Leger Legends charity race, which raises money for worthy causes. The following day is Ladies Day, one of South Yorkshire’s biggest social occasions. The latest fashions will be out in force and whoever lifts the best Dressed Lady crown will go on to represent Doncaster Racecourse at the final of Yorkshire’s Best Dressed Lady 2015, which will be held at the course’s Racing Post Trophy meeting in October. September 11th sees the running of the prestigious and historic Doncaster Cup. On September 12th all eyes will be on the St Leger and its total prize purse of £650,000.
Kieran Gallagher, executive director at Doncaster Racecourse, said: ‘The Ladbroke’s St Leger Festival continues to attract guests from right across the country. The atmosphere across the four days is absolutely electric. The town comes alive in the days leading up to the festival and the impact on the local economy can’t be underestimated.’
The importance of the St Leger to Doncaster is reflected in the fact that the four-day meeting now forms the centrepiece of a wider council-organised St Leger Week Festival, which this year runs from September 5th to September 14th – they have an elastic interpretation of a week in Doncaster. It is a celebration of racing, music, food, arts and culture and boasts a varied programme.
In a nod to the town’s Roman past, centurions will set up camp at the town’s splendid minster and take part in marches and displays. Doncaster Live is a free open air rock concert in Market Place, there’s opera in Regent Square, live music from jazz to folk to rock in various venues, beer festivals, organ recitals, funfair at the racecourse and special shows at The Cast, Doncaster Little Theatre and The Dome.
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As important as horseracing is to Doncaster, the town can point to a host of other attractions as it seeks to increase the number of visitors to the area. They include Yorkshire Wildlife Park, on the wonderfully-named Warning Tongue Lane, just outside the town. Among its popular inhabitants are Victor and Pixel, two Polar bears brought to the park as part of Project Polar, a conservation, welfare and research initiative. Weighing in at 500kg, 15-year-old Victor is one of the largest Polar bears in Europe, one of the most productive too. During his stint in the European breeding programme, he sired 10 cubs. He’s earned his retirement, and enjoys his roomy surroundings in the park where he can take a dip in a lake covering 6,500 sq metres .
Lions rescued from Romania, endangered Amur tigers, leopards, zebra, antelope, giraffes, meerkats, lemurs, baboons and many other animals can be seen in the park, which opened six years ago and has seen annual visitor numbers soar from 66,000 to 556,000.
Cheryl Williams, director at the park, said: ‘What we have created here is much more of a walk-through safari park rather than a traditional zoo. I would say that one of the reasons for our success is that we have managed to create a great experience both for the animals and our many visitors.’
If markets rather than meerkats are your preference, then a visit to Doncaster is a must. With around 400 colourful shops and stalls in listed buildings, the town’s award-winning markets have a real buzz and are renowned for their vast array of foods from throughout the world. Add in the Frenchgate Shopping Centre, Cast entertainments and arts venue, The Dome leisure centre, impressive minster, a wide variety of pubs, restaurants and cafes and it’s clear Doncaster has something to suit all tastes. w
For more information about St Leger Festival Week go to www.visitdoncaster.co.uk