Chester Racecourse lies on the banks of the River Dee, overlooked by the famous city walls. The racecourse is sign-posted on all major routes into Chester during race days. There are four park and ride venues in the town with free parking and a minimal charge for the bus service. There are regular train services into Chester from Manchester and Liverpool with a frequent bus service to and from the course.
Chester is a unique left-handed circuit of just over a mile, famous for its tight turns and short home straight. The horses are always on the turn, swinging into a run-in of just under 240 yards. A low draw is particularly significant over five furlongs where a fast start is crucial. Due to the nature of the track, there is very little opportunity to make up lost ground. Low numbers are also favoured over six and seven furlongs, although the advantage is not quite so pronounced.
Chester Horse Racing History
Racing at Chester dates back to the early sixteenth century, making it the oldest surviving racecourse in England. The course is also referred to as “The Roodee”, a name derived from the original site once known as the Island of the Cross or “Rood Eye”.
The ancient Roman city walls along the east side of the course were once used to moor trading vessels. They now provide a splendid (and free!) vantage point from where to watch the runners hurtle around the racecourse. The first recorded race at Chester was in 1539 while the May Festival was introduced in 1766. It was a further 51 years before a Grandstand was built but the existing building only dates back to 1985 after a fire destroyed the previous structure. There have been several improvements in recent years including an impressive paddock underpass, a restaurant and The White Horse pub in the centre of the course.
Chester May Festival
The Chester May Festival is the highlight of the season, featuring the Chester Cup, three Group races and three notable Classic trials. The Festival topped £1million in prize money for the first time in 2018 with nearly 58,000 racegoers passing through the gates.
Chester currently stages 15 days racing each year. The Summer Festival takes place at the end of June with a two-day meeting in mid-July. There is also a two-day meeting in September with the season finale at the end of the month.
Although not the most valuable race of the week, the Chester Cup is undoubtedly the feature event of the May Festival. The race was established in 1824 and is one of the top staying handicaps of the season over two and a quarter miles. The race was originally known as the Tradesmen’s Cup but assumed its current title in 1874. The Chester Cup always attracts a good quality field and usually proves to be a good form guide for the big summer handicaps.
The Huxley Stakes is the only Grade 2 race at Chester and was introduced in 1999. It is for four-year-olds and upwards over ten furlongs and is named after a nearby village. The one mile-five furlong Group 3 Ormonde Stakes dates back to 1936 and is a good starting point for Cup horses.
The most intriguing races of the Chester May meeting are the three Classic trials; The Chester Vase, Dee Stakes and Cheshire Oaks. Many leading trainers like to run their horses at Chester to give them experience ahead of a possible run in the Epsom Derby or Oaks.
Famous Races and Racehorses at Chester
Nine horses have won the Chester Cup on two occasions including Sea Pigeon (1977 and 1978), Top Cees (1995 and 1997), Rainbow High (1999 and 2001) and Anak Pekan (2004 and 2005). Sea Pigeon’s second victory was notable for defying 9st 7lbs at the age of eight. That weight carrying performance was surpassed by Rainbow High who defied 9st 13lbs to claim his second Cup. National Hunt trainers have enjoyed success in this race with victories for David Pipe, Donald McCain (twice) and Nicky Henderson in recent seasons.
The Chester Vase enjoyed a golden age in the 1980’s and early 90’s, producing several top class winners. Henbit (1980) and Shergar (1981) both went on to win the Derby after success here. Law Society (1985), Unfuwain (1988) and Old Vic (1989) all proved to be top class performers.
Belmez defeated subsequent Epsom Derby winner Quest For Fame in the 1990 Chester Vase while Toulon (1991) went on to win the St Leger. It was nine years before Millenary emulated that achievement. Vase winners did not taste Classic glory again until Ruler of the World went on to win at Epsom in 2013. Wings of Eagles was beaten in the Vase before springing a 40-1 shock in the Derby in 2017.
The Dee Stakes produced Epsom Derby winners Oath (1999) and Kris Kin (2003) along with Irish Derby winner Sir Harry Lewis (1987). Pentire (1995) and Irish 2000 Guineas winner Magician (2013) were other high class winners. The Cheshire Oaks only carries Listed status but Light Shift (2007) and Enable (2017) both went on to win at Epsom.
Notable winners of the Ormonde Stakes include Teenoso (1984), Harbinger (2010) and St Nicholas Abbey (2011). Sir Michael Stoute has won the Ormonde six times, most recently with Her Majesty The Queen’s Dartmouth in 2016.
Chester Top Jockeys and Trainers
Barry Hills enjoyed unprecedented success at the Chester May meeting, sending a large raiding party from his Lambourn stable each spring. He trained seven Cheshire Oaks winners, four Chester Cup winners and an incredible eleven Dee Stakes winners.
In recent years, Aidan O’Brien has dominated Chester’s trial races. Rostropovich (2018) gave him his fifth Dee Stakes victory in seven years and his seventh in total. He is already the leading trainer in the history of the Vase with eight victories, all coming in the past twelve years. Ryan Moore rode the last six of them and was also successful in 2008 on Doctor Fremantle for Sir Michael Stoute.
Moore has a strike-rate of nearly 40% at Chester in recent seasons while Franny Norton and Richard Kingscote have enjoyed plenty of success here. Trainers Richard Fahey, Mark Johnston and Tom Dascombe lead the way numerically.