The thing I struggle to wrap my brain around here in the UK is just how old everything is. Like, hundreds if not thousands of years old. The Chester Racecourse is no exception.

A few weeks ago, whilst visiting Beaumaris Castle in Anglesey, Wales I had stopped for some necessities, tea and cake at an outdoor café. It had been threatening to rain all day but waited until I was holding a cup of tea in one hand and a slice of cake in the other before it started.

Desperate for shelter, I asked a nice-looking couple that were sitting at one of the only covered tables if I could join them. They didn’t have a lot of choice mind you, given that I was pretty well seated before they had a chance to size me up and say no.

The husband mentioned that he’d heard the Chester Racecourse was one of the oldest racecourses in Britain, possibly the world, or something along those lines. So just like that over tea and cake with two perfect strangers, my next article was in the making, and as fortune always goes, I already had a place to stay in Chester.

The Chester Racecourse, a.k.a. The Roodee, was established nearly 500 years ago in 1539 and indeed it is the oldest operational racecourse in the world. Set on the bank of the river Dee, in the shadow of the beautifully arched Grosvenor Bridge, and peered down upon by Chester Castle the historic 65-acre racetrack is understated and quietly confident. The turf course is a flat, one-mile and one-furlong, near circular, left-handed track and is thought to be one of the smallest racecourses of importance in England.

Unlike the racetracks in North America, horses are not stabled on-site, and when there are no races happening, or polo games taking place in the infield, the racecourse is open to the public. The only request is to keep off the turf course. The rest of the property, however, you can wander about. The most popular things to do are letting your dog off the leash for a bit of a run, strolling down the pathway alongside the track or eating at one of the two restaurants. People just mill about in the enormous green space picking up after their “fouling” dogs, as the signs like to say.

This lush turf that everyone was frolicking on was once part of the river, but that was way back when the Romans had occupied Britain (43-410 AD). This enormous field was once a harbour that brought supplies to the Roman garrison of Deva, which is now the city of Chester. Centuries on, silt built up and formed a small island to which someone or more likely someones built a stone cross.

The name “Roodee” is a combination of Norse and Saxton languages that means, “The Island of the Cross”. At some point during the Middle Ages, a weir was built, which is a low damn that changes the course and characteristics of flowing water. This weir system caused even more silt to build up around the small island and eventually, it was converted into a meadow, and it’s here, a silty island meadow that the racecourse now sits.

In 1539 the mayor of Chester, Henry Gee, introduced a reform for annual race meets on the Roodee. Due to Henry Gee’s involvement and love of horse racing, his name became synonymous with the sport, and even today you might hear someone refer to racehorses as “gee gees.” Though perhaps in more of a Godfather-type setting.

Today, some 500 years later, Chester has 15 non-consecutive days of racing. The main meet is a
three-day festival in early May and draws horses in from all over Britain, Ireland and even France.

Famously, Shergar, who was stolen in 1983 by masked gunmen and never seen again, won the Chester Vase in 1981. Enable, one of the Queens of racing has run at Chester and Queen Elizabeth II has had many a horse race at Roodee and on occasion, she too has attended.

It is a unique city center racecourse where, as a race-goer, instead of sitting in the stands you might decide to watch the races from the Grosvenor Bridge which overlooks the entire course and spans the river Dee. Or, you can lean against a Roman wall that edges the sidewalk and watch from there. It’s nothing but horses and history, which you can’t escape, but why would you want to?

View from the infield of the Chester Racecourse with Grosvenor Bridge and Guildhall Spire in the background. Chester, UK PC: Rebecca Berry

A few more interesting bits of information:

  • Chester Racecourse is 200 years older than Epsom Downs Racecourse
  • Buffalo Bill and his travelling roadshow performed there in 1903
  • The 2012 Olympic torch was carried through the streets of Chester by Jockey Jason
    Maguire while riding the 2012 Chester Cup winner Overturn

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