Although it has not been run over its traditionally advertised distance of 4 miles 4 furlongs since 2012, the longest horse race in Britain is still officially the Grand National at Aintree. In 2013, the National Course underwent a physical change when, in the name of safety, the position of the start of the Grand National was moved forward by approximately one hundred yards. The thinking behind the move was two-fold; in the first place, the revised start position meant that participants were further removed from the grandstands and distracting crowd noise and, in the second, reduced the distance over which horses could build up a ‘head of steam’ on the run to the first fence.
Consequently, the advertised distance of the Grand National was reduced to 4 miles 3½ furlongs and stayed that way until 2016, when it was further reduced to 4 miles 2½ furlongs, or 4 miles 2 furlongs and 74 yards, to be precise. The National Course did not change, but Aintree, along with every other National Hunt racecourse in the country, was re-measured along a line two yards from the inside rail, rather than along the middle of the track, thereby reducing the overall distance of the Grand National.
Of course, the term ‘novice’ is often used in the sense of a beginner, to describe a horse that is unfamiliar or inexperienced in a particular discipline, or racing in general but, under the Rules of Racing, has specific meanings.
In National Hunt racing, a ‘novice’ is defined as a horse that has not won a race in its selected discipline, regardless of how many attempts it has made, before the start of the current season.
Obviously, in Britain, National Hunt racing takes place all year ’round so, for the purposes of determining novice status, the current season starts the day after the end of the previous season in late April. Thus, a horse that has yet to win a race over hurdles before late April remains a ‘novice hurdler’ and, likewise, a horse that has yet to win over fences remains a ‘novice chaser’.
On the Flat, a ‘novice’ is defined in the race categories with ‘novice’ in the title, namely novice, novice auction or median auction novice races. Essentially, to qualify as a novice, a horse must not have won more than two Flat races, of any kind, or more than one ‘Class 2’ race, or a ‘Class 1’ race. For 3-year-olds and upwards, a horse becomes ineligible for novice races as soon as it has run at least three times and won a race, of any kind.
Established in 1539, perhaps surprisingly, on the site of a Roman harbour on the River Dee, Chester Racecourse is the oldest racourse in Britain, according to Guinness World Records. Chester Racecourse is also known as the ‘Roodee’ or ‘Roodeye’, meaning ‘Island of the Cross’, after the silt island which, by the Middle Ages, had accumulated in the middle of the watercourse and once bore a stone cross.
The first recorded race at Chester Racecourse was staged on February 9, 1539 and, in his second term as Mayor of Chester, Henry Gee gave his seal of approval to an annual meeting, which was held on Shrove Tuesday until 1609 and on St. George’s Day thereafter. Gee died in 1545, but is commemorated by the Henry Gee Stakes, run annually in July.
Chester Racecourse prospered and, although the first grandstand wasn’t built until 1817, the Dee Stakes, nowadays a Listed race, was run for the first time in 1813. The Chester Cup was inaugurated, as the Tradesman’s Cup, in 1824 and was followed by the Chester Vase, still a recognised Derby trial, in 1907. Some years earlier, in 1892, the racecourse was enclosed and admission charges made for the first time.
Between 1890 and 1962, Hurst Park was a racecourse on the banks of the River Thames at Molesey Hurst, near West Molesey, in Surrey. Built during the Victorian ‘leisure revolution’, along with nearby Sandown Park, which opened in 1875, and Kempton Park, which opened three years later, Hurst Park was initially a National Hunt venue. However, the layout of the racecourse was soon modified to accommodate Flat racing and staged its first meeting in that sphere just over a year later.
In 1913, Hurst Park survived an arson attack by suffragettes Kitty Marion and Clara Giveen, which gutted the grandstand, and continued to flourish throughout the twentieth century. Indeed, Hurst Park was still a popular venue at the time of its closure but, despite significant opposition, its owners opted for property development, rather than horse racing, on the site.
Perhaps the most famous race run at Hurst Park was the Triumph Hurdle, first staged in 1939. Following World War II, the Triumph Hurdle continued, uninterrupted, between 1950 and 1962, when Hurst Park closed. After a brief hiatus, the race was transferred to Cheltenham in 1965 and became part of the Cheltenham Festival three years later.