Wales, the land of leeks, daffodils and rarebit and, in common with the other nations of the British Isles, a rich sporting culture. It may be rugby union which most captures the imagination of the valley dwellers, but the oval ball game is far from being the only show in town. Football also occupies a place close to Welsh hearts, as do the lesser-spotted native pursuits of Cnapan and Bando. Whilst an interest in those variants of rugby and hockey may not spread too far beyond the Cambrian Mountains and Brecon Beacons, one sport which most definitely does traverse the border is that of horse racing.
In common with the rest of the British Isles, racing in Wales has a fair amount of history behind it, and just as elsewhere, it all began with the aristocracy – the sport didn’t earn the nickname “The Sport of Kings” for nothing after all. Reports of competitive racing amongst the nobles date back to as early as the 1700s, and it wasn’t long before it began to spread to the masses. Soon drawing huge crowds, with popular past-times such as pig racing and prostitution adding to the festivities (those were the days!), by the mid 1800s the nation boasted a thriving racing scene.
Things have been a little up and down since that heyday, and whilst the fact that pig racing and ladies of the night are no longer a standard feature of race-days can be taken as a positive, on the downside the overall racing picture is perhaps not quite so diverse as in years gone by. Here we take a look at the current Welsh racing landscape, including the racetracks and biggest races, in addition to picking out a selection of Welsh racing’s biggest stars – both human and equine.
Racecourses in Wales
In common with the rest of the UK, the history of racing in Wales is littered with tracks which, for one reason or another, have been forced to close. Once boasting large attendances, and in many cases staging contests of international acclaim, the courses at Aberystwyth, Brecon, Caerleon, Conwy, Cowbridge, Haverfordwest and Wrexham are all sadly no more. However, whereas in England whenever a track has closed, others have often sprung up to replace them, that hasn’t really been the case in Wales, to the extent that today, only three racecourses remain.
That said, given the population of Wales is little more than three million, the ratio of courses to people is not all that different from the other nations of the UK. In addition, of course, it is not all about quantity in any case, and quality counts for plenty too. Whilst Wales may be a little short on numbers, the three tracks it does possess each certainly boasts their own unique charm. So where exactly are these Welsh racing destinations? And what can racegoers expect to find at each?
Bangor-on-Dee, or Bangor Is-Coed to those who prefer the native tongue, is the northernmost of the Welsh tracks. Lying only just across the English border, and slightly to the south of its sister track of Chester, the course is jointly owned and operated by the Chester Racing Company. First opening for business way back in 1859, Bangor can also boast the distinction of being the oldest Welsh track still in operation. Staging both flat and jumps racing in the early years, these days Bangor sticks solely to the National Hunt game, a focus which is emphasised by the right-handed Point to Point course which runs around the inside of the main course.
Bangor may have over 150-years of history behind it, but in all that time none of the various owners have seen fit to build a grandstand. However, that lack of an imposing structure does only enhance the rustic charm of this quintessentially countryside venue, and really it wouldn’t be quite the same were they to build one now. Any fears that the lack of a main stand may have a negative effect on the race-day facilities are thankfully unfounded, with a range of bars and eateries keeping racegoers well served as they watch the action unfold against the backdrop of the rolling Welsh countryside.
Turning to the layout of the track itself, Bangor has much in common with its sister track of Chester in that runners can expect to be on the turn for much of each circuit. More triangular than Chester’s Roodee circle, the track nevertheless features sharp bends and short straights and is suited to the nippy front running type of performer.
Meetings & Famous Races
A year-round venue, Bangor-on-Dee stages in the region of 15 fixtures per season, with June being the only blank month on the calendar. In terms of quality, the action tends to be competitive rather than high class, with no events at Listed level or above. That said, many trainers view Bangor as providing an ideal test for their more talented up and coming chasers and, as such, it is not unusual to spot a future star in the novice events around here.
Bangor-on-Dee may be the oldest, but there is no doubt that it is Chepstow which is the most famous of the three Welsh tracks. Not that Chepstow is a spring chicken on the racing scene, with events of some description being held in this area of Monmouthshire since as early as 1892. However, it wasn’t until 1926 that the first meeting first took place at the present location and, barring an interruption due to the Second World War, the track has largely gone from strength to strength ever since.
Lying just across the Severn Bridge in the South of Wales, Chepstow can boast excellent transport links, both to England and the rest of Wales, a fact which no doubt contributes to the high average attendance at its meetings. And those making the trip are in for a real treat, with the Wye Valley location of this dual-purpose venue providing a stunning setting for the action on the track.
Both the flat and National Hunt events take place on the same left-handed oval course, which in essence features two straight sections of close to 5f in length and two tight turns. Whilst the initial appearance of the layout would suggest that this is a track well suited to the long striding galloping type, the pronounced undulations throughout do offset this, bringing the balance of the contenders firmly into play. In addition to the round section of the track, the flat course also features a spur which runs directly into the home straight, enabling events at up to 1m to take place on a straight track.
Meetings & Famous Races
The busiest of Wales’s racing venues, Chepstow stages around 30 fixtures per year, with its flat season running from May through to September, before the jumps campaign takes over from October to April. Whilst the flat fixtures are always popular and well-attended, it is the National Hunt events for which the track is best known. A Grade 1 jumps racing venue, Chepstow also plays host to what is easily Wales’s biggest race – the Welsh Grand National.
And last but by no means least we have the new kid on the Welsh racing block, the South Eastern venue of Ffos Las (pronounced as it looks if there was just a single “f”). Meaning “Blue Ditch” in English, this dual purpose Carmarthenshire course lies just to the North of Llanelli. A welcome addition to what had become a depleted Welsh racing scene, this Arena Racing-owned venue became not only Wales’s newest track when opening in 2009, but the first new National Hunt course to appear anywhere in the UK in over 80 years.
An ability to stage both flat and National Hunt action is not the only thing Ffos Las has in common with its fellow southern track of Chepstow. Much like its better-known cousin, this youthful venue is also based in one of Wales’ famed valleys; in this case the Gwendraeth valley which provides a natural amphitheatre around the track.
Wales’ newest track is also widely viewed as being the fairest. No tight turns or undulating sections to be found here, with the course designers favouring an almost completely flat, left-handed oval circuit of around 1m4f in circumference. Featuring wide, sweeping bends and long straights, hard luck stories are few and far between at this track. In addition to the main round section of the course, a 2f spur provides a straight sprint course for the staging of events over 5f and 6f.
Meetings & Famous Races
Ffos Las stages a total of around 20 meetings per year, split between a short summer flat season which runs from July through to late September, after which point the jumps campaign takes over from October to May. In common with racing in Wales in general, it is the National Hunt events which enjoy the higher profile here, headlined by the track’s signature contests of the West Wales National and the Welsh Champion Hurdle.
Biggest Welsh Races
Just the three stages on which horseracing takes place in Wales then, with the trio of tracks providing a total of 60 to 70 fixtures over the course of the season. Of course, not all of these meetings are created equally and, just as in the rest of Britain, in Wales we see a steady stream of mid- and lower-level action acting to keep things ticking over and contribute to the overall flat and National Hunt structures. But interspersed amongst the more day to day fare, there are a few gems to be found. Let’s now take a look at the biggest events on the Welsh racing calendar?
Welsh Grand National
There can be only one place to start here, and that is with the highlight of the season, not only at the Chepstow track at which it takes place, but of the entire Welsh racing year. Just as no single race comes close to matching the level of popularity enjoyed by the Aintree original in England, so it is with the Welsh equivalent, which puts all other events firmly in the shade. Something about these big-field, jumping and staying marathons really seems to capture the imagination of the public, and however you choose to measure it – be it by racecourse attendance, newspaper column inches or betting turnover – this is the biggest race in Wales, and by some distance.
A big deal not only Wales, this Grade 3, 3m6½f staying handicap is also a firm fixture of the festive racing scene with fans all around the British Isles. Previously held in February, the race has gone from strength to strength since being switched to its December 27th spot back in 1979, annually helping to keep racing in the spotlight the day after Kempton’s big Boxing Day King George fixture.
Moving the race further away from the major meetings of Cheltenham in March, and Aintree in April, has also served to increase the quality of the field, with the top trainers now increasingly likely to make the trip to Chepstow with their better animals. Since switching to December, the race has been won by future Aintree Grand National heroes Corbiere, Earth Summit, Bindaree and Silver Birch, whilst Burrough Hill Lad, Cool Ground, Master Oats, Synchronised and Native River all went on to Grade 1 glory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. An excellent race in its own right, as well as regularly throwing up runners who go on to even bigger and better things, the Welsh National is a race not to be missed.
That said, in some years, missing it has been inevitable. The December schedule has many positives but the weather is certainly not one of them. That said, in truth the Welsh National has always suffered with a mix of frost, snow and heavy rain. The contest was abandoned due to the weather four times between 1969 and 1978. 1995 and 1996 were also ruined by frozen ground, with the fixture also moved (in terms of date) due to waterlogging or snow in 2010, 2012, 2015, 2017 and 2020. Climate change? What climate change?!
Welsh Champion Hurdle
First run in 1969 at Chepstow, this event was initially an almost direct equivalent to the Cheltenham Festival Champion Hurdle, and as such regularly attracted many of the same runners. Three-time Champion Hurdler, Persian War, won the very first edition of this race, with Night Nurse, Comedy Of Errors, Bula, Monksfield and Sea Pigeon also doing the Chepstow/Cheltenham double over the course of their careers.
As time went by however the standard of this 2m event began to decline, with small fields, and/or a lower calibre of entry having become the norm by the mid 1990s. Reduced to a handicap event in 1993 and then again in the year 2000, the race lost its place on the programme entirely in 2003.
However, the opening of the new course at Ffos Las in 2009 was also to herald a new dawn for the event, which had once been one of the real jewels in the Welsh racing crown. Reinstated in 2010, the race now acts as the flagship contest of the National Hunt season at the “Blue Ditch” track. Run as a Limited Handicap these days, rather than the Listed class affair it was in years gone by, the event has nevertheless once again begun to attract a quality field. Dual Grade 1 winner The New One took the prize in 2017, whilst 2018 champ Silver Streak subsequently went on to top flight success in the Christmas Hurdle.
Finale Juvenile Hurdle
Also taking part at Chepstow in December – serving as the chief support on the Welsh National undercard – is this 2m event for the three year old Novice hurdlers. The Finale may not be quite so well known as the previous races on this list, but where it does come up trumps is in terms of Grade. Whereas the Welsh National is a Grade 3, and the Ffos Las feature a mere Class 2 handicap, the Finale sits atop the ratings tree in being a Grade 1 affair. It is in fact the only top-level contest in the whole of Welsh racing, be that on the flat or over jumps, and one of only three Grade 1 events for the juvenile hurdlers in all of British Racing.
Understandably given the class of the race, there are a number of quality performers on the roll of honour here. Two of the picks from the current century are the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained grey, Bristol De Mai, who went on to land a hat-trick of Betfair Chases, and the JP McManus runner, Defi Du Seuil. That French bay carried the green and gold silks to Grade 1 glory on a further six occasions, including twice at the Cheltenham Festival. Anyone seeking an early sighting of a potential future star, would do well to tune in to this event.
Persian War Novices Hurdle
Despite the welcome emergence of Ffos Las, Chepstow remains the track widely considered to be the home of Welsh racing. No surprise then that it is yet another contest from the Monmouthshire venue which rounds off our list.
Named in honour of possibly the greatest Welsh-trained racehorse of all time, this October event acts as an early highlight of the National Hunt season. A Grade 2 affair over a trip of 2m3½, the race tends to attract a high-quality field, and whilst no winner has quite gone on to match the exploits of Persian War himself, there are a few notable names on the roll of honour. Undoubtedly the best of the lot is the Paul Nicholls-trained 2010 winner, Silviniaco Conti, who went on to score seven times in Grade 1 company, including back to back King Georges in 2013 and 2014.
Welsh Racing’s Biggest Stars
Whilst the racecourses and races provide the stage and setting for the Welsh racing drama, we do still need the stars of the show in the form of the equine and human protagonists – not much of a sport without horse and jockeys after all. We conclude our journey through racing in the land of Llanfair¬pwllgwyngyll¬gogery¬chwyrn¬drobwll¬llan¬tysilio¬gogo¬goch, with a look at a selection of those stars who have shone brightest of all.
This fine horse offers us one of the greatest tales of a horse from a smaller yard battling it out to beat the big guns – and doing so on the biggest stage of all. Owned and trained by a Welsh Dairy farmer going by the name of Sirell Griffiths, Norton’s Coin had a grand total of two horses for company in what must have been one of the smallest training operations in the whole of the UK in 1990.
That low key background didn’t stop him though, and nor did a relatively unattractive pedigree, as he stormed up the Cheltenham Hill to claim Gold Cup glory, beating off Toby Tobias and the great Desert Orchid. At odds of 100/1, he was, and still is (as of 2021), the biggest priced winner in the history of Britain’s classiest chase.
Born in Lawrenny, Pembrokeshire in 1920, Richard Stanley Francis fell in love with the racing game from an early age, advancing from riding ponies in his youth to become a hugely successful National Hunt Jockey in the 1950s. Riding over 350 winners and being crowned champion jockey for the 1953-54 season, it is nevertheless a defeat for which his career will be best remembered.
That loss of course coming aboard a horse by the name of Devon Loch. Riding in the colours of the Queen Mother, and well clear as they rounded the elbow in the 1956 Grand National, Francis looked nailed on for a famous royal success. Devon Loch however had other ideas, opting to perform a belly flop on the track and come to a complete standstill rather cross the line in the traditional manner, leaving E.S.B. to streak home by ten lengths. Dick Francis went on to an illustrious and prolific career as a crime fiction writer, but of his many tales, none were quite so strange, or dramatic, as that day at Aintree.
Thanks to a rather temperamental owner in the shape of Henry Alper, Persian War spent time at a variety of yards dotted around the UK, having six separate trainers in all prior to his retirement in 1974. It was however his time at the Chepstow operation of Colin Davies which proved to be the most productive.
Already a Triumph Hurdle winner when joining his new yard, the strapping bay went on to set a weight-carrying record in the Schweppes Gold Trophy, win a trio of Champion Hurdles in 1968, 1969 and 1970, and land the 1969 Welsh Champion Hurdle. Well deserving of a race named in his honour, which of course he now has, Persian War is truly a great of Welsh racing.
Born in Breconshire in 1935, Lewis moved to London as a child where he was brought up together with his 12 siblings. From the English capital, Geoff’s passion for riding took him to the Epsom yard of Ron Smyth and the rest as they say is history.
Going on to win five English Classics, Lewis will be forever remembered for his partnership with the brilliant Mill Reef, whom he steered to glory in the Epsom Derby, Eclipse Stakes, King George V & Queen Elizabeth Stakes and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in what was a sensational 1971 campaign. Together with Jack Anthony, who won the Grand National three times between 1911 and 1920, Lewis is one of only two jockeys included in the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame.
And finally, another rags to riches tale, and one which perhaps surpasses even that of Sirrel Griffiths and Norton’s Coin. Bred by a Welsh barmaid by the name of Janet Vokes, Dream Alliance was born in March of 2001 and spent his early years being reared on a local allotment. Owned by a syndicate of 30 owners each contributing £10 per week, by 2004 enough cash had been raised to send the horse to the yard of Philip Hobbs. Something of a slow burner at the track, the horse delighted his devoted owners when manging to win his first race in 2006.
Fast forward to Aintree in 2007, and it all looked set to end in tears, as a badly sliced tendon threatened not only his ability to race again but his life. Of course, this wouldn’t be a rags to riches tale without a happy ending, and following pioneering stem cell treatment and 15 months of rehabilitation, Dream Alliance returned to the track in 2009. Finishing an encouraging second at Chepstow on his comeback, the seven year old went on to bring the house down with a stirring success in the Welsh National itself. A racing tale fit for the big screen if ever there was one, the story duly made it into cinemas with the release of Dream Horse in 2020.