When runners ended up in river

ALTHOUGH I always peruse newspaper sports pages, those devoted to horse-racing are usually ignored because the so-called Sport of Kings does nothing for me.

ALTHOUGH I always peruse newspaper sports pages, those devoted to horse-racing are usually ignored because the so-called Sport of Kings does nothing for me. In my day, Great Yarmouth reporters attended only the occasional meeting at the North Denes racecourse, and that was to write about the occasion and the atmosphere; coverage of the actual racing was the prerogative of specialists serving the agencies that circulated detailed results and informed reports to the media.

Had I done more than glance at the daily paper racing pages, I would not have raised the figurative eyebrow recently when I spotted the runners and riders for a meeting at Ffos Las. Where? Curious, I Googled Ffos Las, discovering that it is Britain's newest racecourse, opened last year near the Welsh town of Llanelli and able to stage flat and jump meetings throughout the year.

By comparison, our Yarmouth Races are historic. Nearly three centuries ago, in 1715, innkeepers led by John Holdrich successfully leased from the corporation South Denes land for a racecourse, permission coming only after a protracted wrangle because “powerful influences” were convinced that any development outside the town walls would harm market place traders. This limitation on growth was not rescinded until 120 years later, in 1835, allowing permanent buildings to be put up.

There were race meetings, inconsequential and largely unrecorded, but in 1810 came a significant advance: Berkshire Militia officers quartered in Yarmouth raced their horses against one another for pleasure and “this, in turn, led to the establishment of an annual race meeting held on two consecutive days”.

There were four races in that first meeting, one over two miles and the others over a mile, with purses of 25 to 50 guineas (a guinea was �1.05p in today's currency).

“Additional diversions which must have added to the fun of the occasion included a donkey race in which anyone could compete upon making application to the stewards at the course. Entries were not lacking, either, for the chase after a pig with a soaped tail. He who caught the pig, lifted it fairly off the ground and swung it around his head by the tail was to have it!”

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I am indebted for this information to a 1973 booklet entitled Racing at Yarmouth for 257 Years, penned for our racecourse committee by the late Alfred Hedges, then the borough chief librarian. The 257 years harked back to 1715, referred to above, when publicans opened talks to lease part of the denes.

This was followed by another two-day meeting in mid-September and was the first to be recorded in the racing calendar, precisely two centuries ago this month. One day a pony race was included, the winner receiving five guineas and the runner-up a saddle.

The author noted that “these early meetings had something of the atmosphere of a country fete.” Farm waggons containing seats for spectators were lined up near the winning post; horse-drawn vehicles were gaily decorated.

Noblemen and gentlemen attending the races dined at the Bear Inn, where the mayor and corporation provided venison and champagne. Cock-fighting was staged at various inns including the King's Head, Horse Packet and the Feathers; the Theatre Royal staged a different play each night; and ordinary townsfolk flocked to the Apollo and Vauxhall Gardens to see outdoor concerts culminating in firework displays.

Within 10 years the course's status had soared so much that a gold cup worth 100 guineas was competed for. The venture attracted influential and wealthy backers, and even Yarmouth tradesmen provided a stake, realising the value of the meetings to their businesses.

But not all was plain sailing. Admission to the course had been free, but then a bar was placed across South Denes Road and a hefty fee of one shilling (5p) was charged for it to be raised. One magistrate persistently refused to pay up, arguments persisted about rights-of-way and public rights, and eventually the barrier was removed.In the mid-19th century, the local justices ruled that there was to be no betting either on course or in any of the borough's umpteen pubs. Mr Hedges wrote: “It is extremely unlikely that the decree was ever totally observed, but it certainly put a damper on the proceedings and threatened the whole future of the meeting. Many business and tradespeople were also threatened with crippling financial losses, but, fortunately, common sense prevailed and the embargo was lifted the following year.”

Fire gutted the grandstand in 1906, its �600 replacement a year later seating 1,800 spectators. But the course was small, and some races were run over a figure-of-eight shape. Many times “a fancied runner had been known to jump the rails when in a commanding lead and finish up in the river near the Harbour's Mouth, thus presenting his would-be rescuers with something of a problem.

“On the other hand, it is doubtful whether there has ever been a more picturesque course than that old one at Yarmouth. Many racegoers arrived in landaus, horse brakes and other private carriages but many more arrived by river steamer.

“There was a landing stage almost on the course itself, and every boat was pressed into service to cope with the crowds awaiting transportation from South Quay. The Gorleston longshoremen also shared in this lucrative enterprise, for they operated their own unofficial ferry service from Brush Quay across to the Spending Beach,” wrote Mr Hedges.

The need for the fishing industry to develop on South Denes resulted in the borough council deciding to transfer racing in the 1920s to the present location in Newtown, where the new course was designed by experts and cost �27,000.

After the second world war, improvements continued; then 30 years ago the course survived a Town Hall vote to close it and sell the land for housing

Today, the racing is bolstered by a touring caravan park, conference centre and various non-racing enterprises aimed at attracting income from a wide spectrum of the public.