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Rich history of Britain's oldest track

Andrew Dietz with some lesser-known facts about Chester racecourse

An aerial photograph of Chester racecourse
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1 According to official records Chester is the oldest functioning racecourse in Britain, with racing dating back to 1539. York can lay claim to having established horseracing slightly earlier in the 16th century but the races were staged in the Forest of Galtres and only began on the Knavesmire in 1731.

2 The racecourse site had previously been home to violent medieval football matches, staged on Shrove Tuesday but outlawed in the city and replaced by horseracing with the consent of Mayor Henry Gee, whose name is thought to have led to the use of the term 'gee-gee' for a horse. Race week was moved to the first full week in May after the calendar reform in 1752, allegedly because the mayor, a draper, hoped to sell more summer dresses in warmer weather.

3 Towards the centre of the infield is a raised mound decorated by a plain stone cross known as a 'rood', from which the track derives its name 'Roodee'. When the site was a harbour during the Roman settlement of the city, the bank, or eye, of land was left exposed when the River Dee flooded with the tides and the strictly correct name is actually 'Roodeye', meaning the Island of the Cross. The anchor stones used at the Roman port can still be observed at the racecourse site.

4 Disaster struck in the early hours of September 28, 1985 when the County Stand, which had been in place since 1900, was the victim of an arson attack. Damage was estimated at £2 million and three years later it was replaced by a new stand. The offender was never found.

Runners in last year's Chester Cup stream past the stands on the second circuit
5 The Chester Cup, the track's flagship race of the season, was originally called the Tradesmen's Cup, having been introduced in 1824. The race was something of a novelty as it was a handicap, which was framed by clerk of the course EW Topham for many years, and it proved popular among gamblers with wagering on the 1836 edition said to have been £1 million.

6 Some of the sport's biggest names have starred in the Chester Cup, with Sea Pigeon becoming the first horse since the war to land back-to-back victories in 1977 and 1978. Lester Piggott, a master at the course with 81 winners over 28 years, won the race a record four times.

7 Pint-sized mare Blithe Spirit is a modern-day standing dish at the course, having won five times for owners Liam and Tony Ferguson and trainer Eric Alston. It must be something to do with her genes as her mother Damalis registered five course victories for the same connections.

8 They don't call Marwan Koukash 'Mr Chester' for no reason. The three-time Chester Cup-winning owner loves nothing more than a victory at the track and has had a staggering 306 runners since the start of 2012. With the course introducing an appearance-money scheme of £400 per runner at the start of last season, Koukash, who had 69 runners in 2016, banked £27,600 from the initiative alone. The ground-breaking scheme will continue this season with the amount increased to £500.

9 The Chester Vase, Dee Stakes and Cheshire Oaks are important Classic trials, principally for Epsom given the similarities of the tracks. Aidan O'Brien regularly tests his three-year-old bluebloods at the May meeting and has won the Chester Vase seven times and the Dee Stakes and Cheshire Oaks five times each.

10 In 2012 the Chester Race Company, which owns Chester and Bangor, made the racecourses the first in Britain to provide their own betting services, resulting in the Tote's withdrawal. It was the first time in more than 80 years of British racing history that Tote pool betting facilities were not available at a racecourse.

The Chester Cup, the track's flagship race of the season, was originally called the Tradesmen's Cup, having been introduced in 1824

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