MAN has raced horses since time immemorial and although the sport’s origins are lost in the mists of time, one definite date stands out through this haze of history: this weekend marks the 150th anniversary of the opening of Redcar Racecourse.

The hazy history goes right back to the Romans, who enjoyed a good horse or chariot race, and it seems no coincidence that the modern racecourses of York and Catterick are situated near their camps, as if the land has a memory of what went on there 2,000 years ago.

One of the first records of organised horseracing in the country is from Gatherley moor, above Richmond, in 1553.

One of the first “proper” racecourses was called Hambleton which opened at the top of Sutton Bank in 1612 – the White Horse of Kilburn is a memorial to its importance.

And then at Woodham moor, near what is now Newton Aycliffe, King James I is said to have watched horseracing in 1617.

After those beginnings, new breeding methods and improved transport systems encouraged many towns in the 18th Century to establish their own racecourses, and when railways came along, almost every self-respecting place, from West Hartlepool to Croft-on-Tees, had its own course.

Redcar evolved out of that railway age – tourists were coming by train to stay in the new North Yorkshire resorts and the conurbations of industrial Middlesbrough were developing, so by the middle of the 19th there was a growing audience for horseracing.

The programme for an 1868 meeting held on the beach at Redcar

The programme for an 1868 meeting held on the beach at Redcar

But Redcar’s real beginnings are also lost in the haze of history. The sands at Coatham were always flat and firm and ideal for racing, and the publicans – like John Hikeley of the Lobster Inn – knew how a meeting boosted business.

“Yesterday,” reported the Newcastle Chronicle on May 30, 1863, from Redcar, “the annual races were held at this beautiful little marine watering place. From early morn an unusual display of excitement broke the monotony of the quiet village, and train after train, and carriage, waggon, and steamboat brought hundreds of strangers to partake of the festivities provided for the day. The races were held on the sands and as the weather was delightful fine, the whole affair went off satisfactorily.”

At Redcar races in 1962

At Redcar races in 1962

The stewards had their positions in a farm wagon and the judge gave his decisions from a bathing machine, but the crowd could stroll along the beach and watch without paying any admission.

This meant there was no gate money to add to the prizes offered by the publicans, so a committee was formed to create a racecourse that could attract top quality runners from the breeding country of Middleham, Richmond and Hambleton.

The committee was helped by the three leading families of the district having a deep interest in horseracing: the Newcomens of Kirkleatham Hall, the Zetlands of Upleatham Hall and the Lowthers of Wilton Castle.

Wilton Castle, the home of James Lowther

Wilton Castle, the home of James Lowther

The Newcomens agreed to lease some of their land to the committee for them to drain and level and turn into a racecourse.

The last meeting on the sands was held in 1870 where the last race was won by John Osborne, from Middleham. He was known as the “Bank of England jockey” because of his reliability: in his 46-year career, he rode in 38 Derbys and 36 St Legers, and he once deliberately walked briskly from his home to Ripon racecourse to shed five pounds for a ride.

The first meeting at the new racecourse was held on August 9, 1872, and the first race, the Zetland Welter Handicap Plate, worth 50 guineas, was won by Wetherby, a horse trained by John Osborne of Middleham – the father of the jockey who won the last race on the beach.

To enter the new course, spectators paid two pennies, or up to six shillings to sit in the new grandstand – a temporary wooden affair that was put up for every meeting and taken down again afterwards.

Tommy Loates, a legendary jockey, wins a race at Redcar in 1896 on Silver Fox

Tommy Loates, a legendary jockey, wins a race at Redcar in 1896 on Silver Fox

In 1875, the committee, which was chaired by Arthur Newcomen of Kirkleatham Hall, paid £2,650 for a permanent grandstand to be built, and land was acquired from the Marquess of Zetland, the vice-chairman, to create a mile-long straight.

In 1877, James Lowther, the MP for York who had become a director of the racecourse, made the fabulous boast: “I have no hesitation in saying we have the second best course in the world.”

He didn’t, though, say which was the first best, but still being the second best was enough to attract the racing correspondent from Baily’s Magazine, one of the leading sports magazines of the day which specialised in matters of the turf, in 1879.

“It is because Redcar has a racecourse which far seeing prophets tell us will become what Stockton once was, that the little meeting is rising in fame,” he wrote. “The ground is nearly perfect...

“Tis a far cry perhaps, for southerners, but it is very nice when you get there; and if the Coatham (Hotel) is full, why Saltburn is only five or six miles away and there the Zetland (Hotel) will open its arms to you and one of the most beautiful sea views the Yorkshire coast can show will spread itself before your eyes. It is the one spot left in the seaside life of England whither German bands come not, nor blackface minstrelsy; where there are no bazaars, or wheels of fortune; no open-work stockings. Tis peace and quiet all!”

The finishing line in the late 1940s

The finishing line in the late 1940s

The correspondent was clearly a bit of a snob. He liked the genteel nature of the Yorkshire resorts rather than the garish “kiss me quick” attractions of other seaside locations, and he also didn’t like mixing too much with the hoi polloi, for he continued: “Redcar has a pretty stand, convenient business offices, a straight mile, and good going, and for the succeeding meeting at Stockton, Lord Zetland had a special train from Saltburn so that we were able to get away from Mandale Bottoms without being mixed up with the roughs at the Stockton or Middlesbrough stations.”

The railway was crucial to Redcar’s early success. For its big Whitsuntide meeting in the 1920s, 200 trains – many of them specials from Leeds or Newcastle – would bring in the punters; in 1936, the Darlington & Stockton Times estimated there were 30,000 on the racecourse.

Since then, Redcar has been graced by racing royalty – Lester Piggott won the William Hill Gold Cup there three times, and Willie Carson won five races in a day in 1976 – and real royalty: the Queen had her first winner in the Zetland Gold Cup in 1968, and Princess Anne rode a winner in 1986. Talking of royalty, the queen of the television screen, Claire Balding, rode a winner in 1992.

All the well known local trainers – Denys Smith of Bishop Auckland, Mary Reveley of Lingdale, and the Easterby brothers, Peter and Mick – have sent out countless runners, and all the well known local celebrities have put in appearances: in 1976, Jack Charlton had the Middlesbrough football team training on the home straight in front of a packed grandstand; in the 1990s, Paul Daniels sponsored many races and once turned up accompanied by Bruce Forsyth, Ruth Madoc from Hi-de-Hi, and Gordon Kaye from ‘Allo, ‘Allo.

On Saturday, Redcar is commemorating its 150th anniversary with a Carnival Caribbean Family Day, with the first race starting at 1.42pm.

A programme from 1927, courtesy of Stephen Dixon of Redcar, who has supplied many of our old pictures

A programme from 1927, courtesy of Stephen Dixon of Redcar, who has supplied many of our old pictures

The oldest racecourses

Hambleton 1612

Bishop Auckland 1662

Ripon 1664

Malton 1692

York 1709

Stockton 1724

Sedgefield 1732

Durham 1733

Middleham 1739

Newcastle 1753

Stokesley 1752

Richmond 1765

Northallerton 1765

Catterick 1783

James Lowther, MP for York, who proclaimed that Redcar had the second best racecourse in the country in 1877. He lived at Wilton Castle

James Lowther, MP for York, who proclaimed that Redcar had the second best racecourse in the country in 1877. He lived at Wilton Castle

TWO of the three big halls once occupied by the main promoters of the racecourse in its early days are now gone.

The survivor is Wilton Castle, the home of director James Lowther. It was built for the Lowther family in 1810 by Sir Robert Smirke, who must have had a smile on his face when he added all those castellations. The family sold it to Imperial Chemical Industries in 1955.

Chairman AHT Newcomen’s 80-room Kirkleatham Hall was built around 1625 and was demolished in 1945, although its gates still stand near Kirkleatham museum.

Vice-chairman Lord Zetland’s stupendously large Upleatham Hall was built in the 17th Century but abandoned in 1893 when it was deliberately undermined in the search for ironstone to feed Teesside’s voracious furnaces. It was demolished in 1897, and Lord Zetland was paid £45,000 compensation over ten years for his upheaval – that’s worth £4m today, according to the Bank of England Inflation Calculator, and might be regarded as a nice bonus if you had somewhere like Aske Hall, near Richmond, to go and live in.

WE are this week celebrating the brilliant success of the Lionesses in the European Championships with pundits and leader writers proclaiming the dawn of a new age of equality in sport. Perhaps it is worth noting that the world’s first race for female jockeys was held at Ripon racecourse in 1723. The race was sponsored by Lady Judith Aislabie of Studley Royal.

A report says: “Mrs Aislabie gave a plate to be run for by women, and nine of that sex mounted their steeds, rid astride, were dressed in drawers, waistcoats, and jockey caps, their shapes transparent, and a vast concourse of people to see them.” Lady Judith, who was 47, not only took part in the race but she won her own plate.