When you talk or think about horse racing in the UK, most people would conjure up images of a truly majestic and royal scene with top hats and fascinators stretching as far as the eye can see. Many would also expect a number of world-class horses skipping across the pristine turf towards the finishing line whilst betting slips are tossed into the air in jubilation. Whilst this generalisation may not be far away from the truth at many of the top festivals such as Royal Ascot and various meetings at Epsom and Goodwood, this couldn’t be further from the reality at a large number of racecourses which are located in various outposts around the country.
There are plenty of must-visit locations which are ideal for sports fans and passionate racegoers with Cheltenham, Kempton and Sandown all featuring high on that list. A trip to April’s Aintree Festival is also an absolute must, as thousands of fans descend upon the Merseyside venue to watch top-class National Hunt stars compete over iconic fences such as Beecher’s Brook and the Chair. The Randox Grand National remains the highlight of the card and the 2018 staging of the race looks set to be yet another pulsating contest with Blaklion, Native River and the increasingly dependable Minella Rocco all prominent in the betting according to latest odds for the race according to Oddschecker.
Whilst the Grand National gives Aintree racecourse plenty of coverage, there are a number of hugely underrated tracks which get very little exposure but still provide a thoroughly enjoyable day out – and today, we take a look at a few of our favourites.
The racecourse website for Musselburgh suggests that it is firmly established as one of the “UK’s most stylish racecourses” and it really is hard to argue with that claim. Located close to the River Esk in East Lothian, the track is ideal for summertime racegoers who want to enjoy the sights and sounds of these picturesque surroundings. The second biggest racecourse in Scotland does attract some decent races throughout the year and the fact that it offers all visitors free parking simply adds to the appeal. The action at Musselburgh never stops, with meetings staged all year round and the right-handed track is popular with both local trainers and bigger names such as Donald McCain and Kevin Ryan. The complex itself is quite intimate but it seldom feels crowded and popular race-days such as New Years Day will attract a varied crowd, all of whom are enjoying the fun and casual atmosphere. Staff are friendly and helpful and it is the ideal destination for large groups or collectives who will have the option to pre-book numerous packages which offer drinks and food at a discount rate. Musselburgh rarely grabs the headlines but it is a charming little track which has the versatility to stage racing all year round and is ideal for racegoers of all ages.
Described on its website as ‘traditional but relaxed’, Sedgefield is one of a number of racecourses situated in the North East of England. This County Durham track stages many midweek meetings and although the bleak mid-winter conditions can become a little taxing, it never spoils the experience for hardy racegoers who regularly turn out in their numbers. There is no need to dress up for a visit to Sedgefield, although it is always advised to wrap up against the elements. It’s a very friendly racecourse with the locals and regulars always happy to make conversation with newcomers but alternatively, it is also an ideal location for those seeking peace, tranquillity and solitude. The stand and surroundings are extremely tidy and the track always looks in near-perfect condition for racing. There is plenty of competition nearby with Hexham, Thirsk and Newcastle not a million miles away, but Sedgefield certainly pulls out all the stops to keep visitors returning time and time again.
Visitors to Killarney racecourse have previously described the surroundings as breathtaking, with the Torc mountains overlooking the course, it’s a wonderfully enclosed and atmospheric experience which racegoers are likely to never forget. Situated in County Derry, this track showcases rural Ireland at its best yet it is still handily positioned for public transport links. It is a hotspot for tourists but rarely gets overcrowded and offers a laid-back vibe throughout. It’s shrouded in greenery and there is mesmeric scenery as far as the eye can see. The restaurant offers panoramic views of Ireland’s most picturesque racecourse and the grounds are always in immaculate condition. There is very little to rival a summer’s evening relaxing at the track. Watching the action unfold on the turf whilst enjoying the range of cold beverages on sale at reasonable prices is the ideal way to pass the time. When the sun shines, there is no better place to be than Killarney racecourse!
Staying in Ireland, Gowran Park is another of the countries most picturesque racecourses. The track stages racing throughout the year although, with just 16 meetings on the calendar, it’s important to book early. Whilst it may not be able to boast the undulations of Killarney, Gowran Park is situated within wooded parkland and has a very stately yet remote feel to it. Acres of countryside surround the track and there is an adjoining golf course which is extremely popular with both locals and holidaymakers. Those who are planning on placing a bet will be able to wander down to the parade ring and take a closer look at the horses and it is almost always possible to grab a decent vantage point to see every single runner. The restaurant is extremely popular but conversation may be at a premium as diners are often captivated by the panoramic vista which is visible from all tables. The course is clean and tidy and well-maintained and racegoers can opt to watch the action from the dedicated viewing area or get a little closer by moving trackside. Described as “hidden oasis” by many visitors, this is a truly wonderful place to visit.
Ripon is a wonderfully quaint and popular market town situated in North Yorkshire so it comes as no surprise that it has a racecourse to match. It’s known as ‘Yorkshire’s Garden Racecourse’ and stages 17 different meetings throughout the summer months. Many racegoers come from further afield as they spend a few days exploring the area including the nearby popular spa town of Harrogate. The course itself may be one of the smallest in the North of England but it is always tidy and the turf is thoroughly well-maintained. The setting couldn’t be nicer and as the majority of events take place between April and September, the weather is usually reliable. The raised viewing area in the paddock is a great idea and helps younger visitors get a glimpse of the horses in the parade ring. It always feels like there is plenty of space in and around Ripon racecourse and the track welcomes both individuals and large parties to the venue. Added floral displays simply add to the majesty of the course and there is plenty of free parking available which is a huge plus for visitors travelling by road. Sitting on the picnic benches, watching a five-furlong sprint and enjoying an ice cream sounds like an ideal way to spend a summer afternoon at Ripon races.
Ayr Racecourse received five stars from Visit Scotland last year which recognised its outstanding service offered to attendees. Over 100,000 visitors flocked to Scotland’s only Grade One track during the 2017 season and it remains a popular destination for sports fans north of the border. Despite being home to Scotland’s biggest racing festivals, Ayr remains largely under the radar and one of the most underrated tracks in the UK. A first-class day out is guaranteed at Ayr with the historic grandstand housing the majority of punters who are either studying hard ahead of the next contest or cheering on their chosen charge. It’s always a terrific atmosphere and the track has recently expanded it’s food and drink options to cater to a wider audience. The day doesn’t end once the final race has been run, as they often have music acts performing into late into the evening which often leads to an enjoyably raucous and lively ambience.
Fakenham is one of those tracks which regularly gets forgotten about due to its remote location but the diligent staff ensure that they always put on an excellent show for visitors to the Norfolk venue. The Prince of Wales stand allows attendees to enjoy spectacular views across the track and beyond whilst it’s also the perfect location for a relaxing drink or two. Meetings are staged regularly throughout the National Hunt season and whilst conditions can often be chilly, it is a great day out for all of the family. Parking is effortless and it’s quick and easy to get through the gates and begin exploring. It rarely gets congested at Fakenham meaning that viewing in the parade ring is straightforward and it doesn’t take long to get served at the bar. They offer a varied selection of food including a hog roast and locally sourced burgers which cater for every kind of visitor. Small fields can occasionally be a hindrance but the majority of the time there is a decent enough standard of racing and on-course programmes are extremely comprehensive. It is a lovely part of the world for a day out and this track doesn’t disappoint.
Another National Hunt favourite is Plumpton which regularly stages competitive meetings on a Monday afternoon and is the kind of track which offers a glimpse into quintessential English life. Located close to Brighton’s flat track, this East Sussex venue is surrounded by lush greenery and is one of the smaller and more undulating jumps tracks on the circuit. The staff clearly enjoy working here and are always welcoming and friendly throughout the duration, with service second to none. It is easily accessible by train from London and attracts plenty of day-trippers. Despite the old-timey feel of this venue, the facilities are modern and with many having been recently renovated and it’s always easy to navigate around the course. Plumpton is one of the more family-friendly courses in Britain with regular activities held for younger ones whilst racing fanatics can also enjoy a clear view of the home straight and the finishing line. It is one of the most picturesque tracks in the country and is ideally located. Many holidaymakers visiting the South Coast often spend a day at Plumpton and they find themselves returning on a regular basis.
We return to Ireland for our final underrated racecourse with Ballinrobe amongst the country’s best. Situated next to Lough Carra, Ballinrobe is yet another Irish track which combines top class action on the turf with eye-catching views and continues to attract visitors from all around the world. There is a hugely relaxing feel to this venue with friendly locals more than happy to mingle with first-time attendees. The iconic Partry Mountains are clearly visible from the grandstand and the stunning views right across the racecourse are extremely photo-friendly. It is advised to book early and make plans for the year ahead as there are just eight meetings on the calendar and demand can be relatively high. This County Mayo venue is the ideal place to relax and forget about the stresses and strains of modern life. Despite provoking a feeling of tranquillity, it is located just 2km from the nearest town and many holidaymakers opt to treat themselves to a day at the races. Prices are reasonable and catering options are extremely varied. The restaurant is highly recommended and service is quick and efficient at all times. The rolling plains of Ballinrobe racecourse are hugely enjoyable and the track is another example of the joy of rural Ireland.
Whilst the majority of these tracks are not necessarily under the spotlight, they all come highly recommended and are a viable alternative to the higher profile options such as Cheltenham and Newmarket. There is plenty to enjoy at these less exposed venues all of which perfectly encapsulate the diversity and variety served up by the UK and Ireland.
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