History of the world’s oldest racecourse | Chester

Features | 5th May 2021

Chester is officially recognised as the world's oldest active racecourse by the Guinness World Records, find out about its unique and rich history.

History seeps out of every corner and every crevice of Chester Racecourse. The city walls that run alongside the finishing straight, offering the casual spectator a perfect viewpoint, is a constant reminder of its past way before the first recorded horse races were held, thought to be as far back as 1511.

During the Roman occupation of Britain the present site was underwater and served as an important harbour. Over several centuries the River Dee, that still winds around the far side of the course, silted up forming an island where the course now stands.

After a stone cross was erected, the area was called The Roodee using a mixture of Norse and Saxon languages. The name, meaning The Island Of The Cross, is still used today as an alternative for Chester Racecourse. 

Credit: Chester Live

The site was used for another sporting spectacle in in early 16th century when it hosted the Goteddsday football match. A far cry from the ‘beautiful game’ we know now, this was an extremely bloody and violent encounter. So much so, it was banned to be replaced in 1539 by the first organised annual race meeting.

The race fixture was arranged by Chester’s mayor Henry Gee, with the owners of the winning horses being presented with silver bells. Gee still has an impact on racing all these years later as it was his name that is used as slang for horseracing when people say ‘gee gees’.

The May Meeting was introduced in 1766 and racing at the Roodee became so popular that the first racecourse grandstand was built around 50 years later.

The Tradesman’s Cup – now the Chester Cup – was introduced a short while afterwards as the meeting gradually evolved into something resembling the present sport enjoyed today.

2019 Chester Cup winner Making Miracles
2019 Chester Cup winners Making Miracles and Franny Norton

Chester is now the oldest active racecourse in the world and it is also Britain’s smallest track at just one mile and one furlong in circumference. The unique venue creates an atmosphere like no other and has played host to some great champions.

Sea Pigeon – better known as a dual Champion Hurdler – twice won the Chester Cup in the 1970s. Top Cees (1995 & 1997), Rainbow High (1999 & 2001) and Anak Pekan (2004 & 2005) are other dual winners of the prestigious staying handicap run over two miles and two furlongs, or two laps of Chester’s ever‐turning course.

Dual Champion Hurdle winner Sea Pigeon
Dual Champion Hurdle winner Sea Pigeon

The May Meeting has also been a stepping stone for plenty of Classic winners. Shergar took the Chester Vase by 12 lengths in 1981 en route to his wide‐margin Derby victory.

More recently, Ruler Of The World also won Chester’s main Classic trial before following up in the Derby and Wings Of Eagle caused a surprise at Epsom having finished runner‐up in the Vase.

Their trainer, Aidan O’Brien, has dominated the Chester Vase in recent years and his nine wins in the race – first run in 1907 – is a record.

The Irish Champion Trainer has also won the Dee Stakes eight times but that’s still some way short of Barry Hills’ record of 11 victories in the race.

Hills, who handed over the reins of his stables to son Charlie ten years ago, dominated the May Meeting. When Daraahem gave him his record fourth Chester Cup in 2009, it was his 150th Festival winner.

Richard Hills (left) with Barry Hills (center) and Charles Hills (right) after Daraahem winning The 2019 Chester Cup

The Cheshire Oaks, the fillies’ Classic trial has also seen its fair share of special horses.

Light shift – the last of Sir Henry Cecil’s eight Oaks winners ‐ landed the race on her way to Epsom and, perhaps, the greatest filly of them all followed the same path.

Enable first showed her brilliance when winning the 2017 Cheshire Oaks before going on to land virtually every top middle‐distance prize including the Oaks, Irish Oaks, two Arc de Triomphes, a record three King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, the Breeders’ Cup Turf and the Eclipse.

Enable and Frankie Dettori winning the 2017 Cheshire Oaks from Alluringly
Enable and Frankie Dettori winning the 2017 Cheshire Oaks from Alluringly

Chester is the world’s oldest racecourse and the stars drawn to its unique test make sure history is still being created at this most special of tracks.