450 years of horse racing on the Roodee
Fortunes won and lost on the great Chester Cup race
(by Mark Bevan)

Away ! “The Corner” is deserted
Away to Chester’s ancient walls !
A thousand screaming trains have started;
‘Tis neck or nothing - Pleasure calls.

In May thousands upon thousands will be flocking to Chester’s Roodee for the annual Chester Races... the oldest sporting event on the British calendar, at the oldest sporting venue. In varying degrees horses have been officially charging round the famous turns of Chester since 1540, literally centuries ahead of the field!

York Races commenced in 1530, but the course moved to the Knavesmire in 1731; Newmarket dates from 1622 and Ascot from 1711. Henry Gee, Mayor of Chester in 1539-40, was responsible for the first Chester Race, a “bell of sylver” to be awarded to “...that horse, which shall runne before all others”, on Shrove Tuesday, or Goteddsday which was a sporting festival for Cestrians. This later moved to St George’s Day (April 23rd).

Apart from an enforced break during the Civil War and as a result of a disagreement amongst the city fathers in the late 17th century, which necessitated switching the races to Farndon, Chester has, incredibly, been a continuous fixture for almost five centuries.

And of all the races that have ever captured the imagination, the annual running of the Chester Cup is unrivalled. Originally known as the Tradesman Cup, first run in 1824, fortunes have literally been won and lost on what, at one time, was considered an infinitely more important betting event than even the Derby.

Undoubtedly the most famous winner was a Yorkshire-trained mare, Alice Hawthorn, in 1842. Bred and owned by John Plummer, a York tanner, she started at 5/1 third favourite in a field of 21. The following day Alice was out again and duly obliged in a two-heat handicap, followed 24 hours later by yet another victory, this time in the Great Cheshire Stakes!

In 1843, Alice was entered to repeat her Chester Cup success, but such were the betting vagaries of the day, there were no odds quoted against her and she finished well down the field to her stablemate, Millipede.

However, there were many on the Roodee that day who thought she could have won and confidence was revived for the 1844 race but this time she was set to give an incredible 78lbs to the bottom weight, Red Deer which was set to carry the miniscule weight of four stones. The pundits still thought Alice capable of winning, despite her immense burden, but it was not a view shared by Lord George Bentinck, the owner of Red Deer, running in the colours of the Duke of Richmond.

Astonishing though it may seem now, Lord George was the official starter at Chester and he placed wagers to win a staggering £100,000 on the race which, it was said, saw all the tricks of betting laid bare. Twenty six started for the race and Kitchenar on the excitable Red Deer went on to win handsomely, although it was claimed that the jockey of Alice Hawthorn had deliberately held his charge back, in return for £12,000 from a leading bookmaker.

Lord George Bentinck, who was the second of the acknowledged great dictators of the English Turf, admitted to receiving "every penny" of his £100,000..." much to my surprise, as on no previous occasion have I escaped from defaulters when I have betted on the same scale."

"We believe," wrote one newspaper correspondent, "that the Chester Cup is engraved on the hearts of the million almost as much as the Derby, and tales of the fortunes that have been won and lost upon it have a charm and romance for the youthful generation."

The last winner of the Trademen's Cup, in 1892, and first winner of the newly-named Chester Cup, in 1893, was Dare Devil, trained at Morpeth and ridden by James Fagan. He won in a canter in 1892 and by the narrowest of distances the following year, from Lord Newton's Red Eagle.

The largest crowd ever to watch the Chester Cup, up to that time, was recorded in 1920 when 96,300 saw the inimitable Steve Donaghue, from Warrington, take the great race. Donaghue himself was second on Elsinore and only ever managed one Chester Cup victory at his local track, on Hare Hill in 1915.

The Second World War victory celebrations in 1946 obliterated all previous Cup Day attendances with victory going to Mr H.S. Lester's Retsel. The gates had to be locked well before the first race and with countless thousands outside, a gate of 103,993 was recorded.

When Chester races sparked controversy and protest
A gathering of the 'vilest and most degraded' characters in England !

Chester's famous Spring horse race meeting is often described as the "Ascot of the North", a great social gathering generating business and prestige for a city which already has more to offer visitors than most of its English counterparts. Chester without its racing is unthinkable, but it has not always been so!

During the 19th century, nonconformists and ecclesiastics of the city literally breathed fire and brimstone to persuade the authorities to abolish racing ... and they almost succeeded. Declaring the sport to be a "damnation" and, apparently, the source of every evil deed in Creation, the objectors constantly lobbied councillors, organised protest meetings, wrote column upon column of letters to the local Press, and distributed pamphlets to unsuspecting citizens, most of whom enjoyed the racing, and could hardly read, in any event!

The Dean of Chester, J.S.Howson, writing in 1870, left little doubt of his opinions when declaring: "Each season seems to indicate an increasing tendency to fraud, obscenity, profanity and debauchery, and an increasing necessity for the vigilance of the police." Good Shepherd that he obviously was, the Dean was concerned with the "moral harm" inflicted on the citizens of Chester by the races:

'There sets in, among the inhabitants, at this time, a state of wild and reckless excitement, which, with too many, obliterates the sense of right and wrong," he added. The races, he insisted, caused some of the "vilest and most degraded" characters of England to descend on the city, "like an army of locusts". At least the Dean's arguments were balanced with an appeal for calm consideration and an acceptance that the city council had, indeed, managed to introduce measures to curb some of the evils which, apparently, manifested themselves in the scores of tents, boxing booths and menageries sited on the Roodee during Race Week.

On the other hand, William Wilson, a nonconformist, was far less charitable when issuing stem words on the "demoralising influence' of racing in general and Chester Races in particular. Quoting at great length from the Bible, and pointing the way towards Hell, Mr Wilson advocated that racegoers should actually visit a Lunatic Asylum to see for themselves the fearful wrecks of humanity..."the racing victims".

Turning to Chester Races, he declared: "...that short week has sown misery in a thousand breasts, has robbed many an inexperienced youth of his better principles, and many an unguarded female of her purity; has left many a parent to mourn over the victims of immorality, and has registered a thousand crimes for the Great Assize. Brawling, drunkenness, gambling, theft, fornication, suicide, and every vice denounced by the divine authority are invariably the results of the present racing system."

Mr Wilson even summoned up a Coroner's inquest, concerning an iron works manager who shot himself at the Hen and Chicken public house, in Birmingham, after "unfortunate speculations'. "Who can say," he asked, "how many of those hundreds of gamblers who throng the vicinity of the Royal Hotel, on Cup days and the preceding evening, go home with disappointed hopes, and terminate their existence in a similar way?"

If Mr Wilson is to be believed, Chester was a veritable Sodom, what with vast numbers of prostitutes plying their trade along the Rows, and corpses littering the roads after a few favourites had gone down on cup day! At least, he saw some salvation... Thank God there are signs of its decay which are unmistakable, and the races are now only because they have been."

How wrong he was! The strongest reasons for retention of the races was considered, at least in the most influential quarters of the Corporation, to be the fiscal benefits, due to a massive increase in the volume of trade during Race Week, and the "unofficial" holiday which the Roodee festival created.

Of course, not everyone shared these convictions and one unnamed city trader went into print to forcibly put the other side of the case, especially against the holiday, whilst proffering an opinion that the 'humbler classes" should be told how to play, as well as work: "It maybe said that Lancashire has its Whitsun-week, and its six days of unproductive labour, but I fail to see that the comparison injuriously affects our position.

The Lancashire operative spends the week in healthful excursions, and pleasure-seeking of a harmless kind, in company generally with his wife or sweetheart. The Chester artisan spends his week in selfish rioting, drunkenness and debauchery, bringing misery and trouble upon his wife and family, and unfitting him for his work.

"What return has our Chester Race-going artisan? Has he informed his mind or given healthful recreation to his body? Does he settle down to his work after his week's dissipation invigorated with rest? Alas, it Is a sadder man that he begins to work again. Would that we could think a wiser one!" Adding weight to the protests (with a literary attack) was Canon Charles Kingsley of Chester, novelist of Water Babies' fame and a self-confessed opponent who described racegoers as 'knaves and black fools", prone to wriggle from their responsibilities with far-fetched excuses.

Aiming his attack at the "young men of Chester" (though he might have been better advised to bend the ears of visiting bookmakers), Canon Kingsley put forward some interesting opinions on the 'evils of betting', a means, he contended, of procuring money out if a neighbour's ignorance. "If you and he bet on anyevent, you think that your horse will win; he thinks his will, or he knows the winner. In plain English, you think that you know more about the matter and try to take advantage of his ignorance,' he argued.

At least the local Press did not share Canon Kingsley's views on betting for, shortly after publication of his pamphlet, we find the Cheshire Observer comnenting: "It may be information worth the Canon's notice,' suggested the Editor of the Observer, "that the real mischief is done by unprincipled owners of horses and their confederates."

Whatever the merits of the Observer's arguments, or indeed those of the turf opponents, Race Week continued to be the highlight of the year for most Cestrians, and hymn-singing protestors made little impression on the great crowds.

One 19th century diarist was probably speaking for the majority when he wrote: "Chester Races, once foremost amongst provincial sporting events, for a while j jeopardised by the cant of a clique of miserable maw-worms, have at length been restored to their former good report. Emerging from the Watergate before you in all Its natural beauty, and with all Its charming accompaniments, spreads the Roodee, placed just where a racecourse should be, under the walls of the town.

'Although there are shows, menageries and Thespian things in lots for the holiday folk, they in no way mingle with, or obstruct the more serious business, the course being exclusively used for the purpose peculiar to it."

The arguments and counter arguments were just the skirmishes for what was later to become a fierce battle as commercialism began to creep into Chester Races !


Extracted from “The Roodee - 450 years of racing in Chester”,
(copies avaliable from CC Publishing)



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