Bath’s back with a bang

At 11:00 tomorrow the gates open on a new season of racing at Bath, the first of 23 meetings running through until 18 October. The track sits at the top of Lansdown Hill, three miles north of Bath itself and, at 236 metres above sea level, is Britain’s highest course to stage flat racing.

That’s a good 200 metres above the site of the city’s first racecourse, down at Claverton in the Avon valley. Racing began there in 1728, and it would be nice to think that Jane Austen might have spent a day at the races during the time she lived in Bath. If she did, it was purely for her own enjoyment, and certainly not to gather ideas for any of her novels.

The move uphill took place in 1811 on land owned by the Brathwayt family, and in the following 200 years racing has grown from a single two day meeting to 22 fixtures last year, and one more in 2017.  Like every racecourse, there are moments when Bath has earned at least a footnote in racing’s history. Look back through the list of champion jockeys and you find Morny Cannon top of the list six times between 1891 and 1897. His unusual moniker is actually a nickname. On 21 May 1873 his father, Tom Cannon, had ridden the winner of the Somersetshire Stakes on a horse called Mornington. He had also become a father that same day, and named the boy Herbert Mornington Cannon. The racing connection doesn’t end there, as Morny is a great uncle to Lester Piggott.

Perhaps the most notorious tale of Bath (not the Wife’s one) took place in July 1953, and resulted in a Scotland Yard investigation leading to trial in January 1954.

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In his book Horse-Racing’s Strangest Races: Extraordinary but true stories from 150 years of racing, Andrew Ward explains how two almost identical horses were shipped over from France a few days before the running of the Spa Selling Plate. One, Santa Amaro, was an unraced horse, but had shown the potential to win a seller in a trial a couple of months earlier. The other, Francasal, had finished in the first six just once in half a dozen races in France.

Both were entered for the race at Bath, but only one horse took part. It was Santa Amaro, but it ran as Francasal, who could be backed at odds of 10/1. Half an hour before the race was due off, the phone lines at the track went down, cut by a blow torch a mile down the road. It was time for the gang of crooks to put their bets on, which they did to the tune of £6,000, all at SP, spread across bookmakers throughout the country. With no way of relaying this surge of money back to the course, the price did not contract, and the gang were set to pick up the equivalent of £1,000,000 in today’s money.

Francasal was bought in after the race and immediately whisked away. But already there were suspicions that something criminal was going on. A local resident had noted down the registration number of the van used by the man who cut the telephone wires, simply because he was so evasive about what he was doing. A three month prison sentence quickly followed.

It took longer to piece together evidence against the others involved, but information from a farrier, a vet and a trainer who had never seen the horse called Francasal that he was supposedly training led to a trial the following January. In a further twist, the jury could not agree a verdict, and it took another trial to convict four of the gang members of conspiring to defraud Bath Racecourse Company.

Racing continued for another 60 years with little investment at the course, and for a short while the track was restricted to sprint races because of problems with one of the bends. When, in 2013, a meeting had to abandoned after sewage flooded the weighing room (Jockeys take early bath in Bath, 21 Oct 2013), the course was not in a healthy condition.

That, however, has all changed following a major funding investment from Arena Racing Company over the past three years. First to be upgaraded were those notorious jockey facilities, and last year a new stand with a 200 seat restaurant and covered roof terrace opened. The views over the course from the Langridge Stand are outstanding, as is the vista of the city,.

The investment hasn’t stopped there, as the race programme is benefiting from substantially increased prize money. Last year Bath took the unusual step of holding its two most prestigious and valuable races, the Lansdown Fillies Stakes and the Beckford Fillies Stakes, both Listed races with £40k in prize money, on the first and last day cards respectively.

This season, whilst the Beckford holds its place on the final day of racing, the Lansdown has been put back to the second fixture. Yet tomorrow’s card is no let down. Indeed, it will be the richest day’s racing ever staged at Bath. There are Class 2 handicaps worth £60k and £50k  and a further two Class 2 races. With 160 horses entered at the five day declaration stage, there is every indication that all the investment will pay off, with plenty of owners and trainers showing appreciation for the new opportunities offered.

Add to that two series of races for sprinters and stayers over the summer, culminating in a finals weekend in mid-September and everything points to Bath racecourse being thoroughly rejuvenated and well and truly on the up. Let’s hope that all the effort that has gone into the development of facilities and improving the standard of racing is rewarded with quality entertainment and quantity of spectators. I’m definitely planning a visit. It really should be a good Good Friday.

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