Sitting in the village of Blackwell in the heart of the beautiful Cumbrian Countryside, Carlisle Racecourse has been staging events at the current site since 1904, with racing in the area as a whole going all the way back to the 16th century.
Only a couple of miles from Carlisle city centre and benefitting from a picturesque Lakeland setting between the Lake District and the Scottish Borders, this small but perfectly formed track remains a popular destination for northern racing fans, as well as those from further afield.
As one of the most highly regarded small tracks in the country and with a wealth of history behind it, Carlisle is well worth a visit purely from a racing perspective. The area does, however, boast numerous other selling points, from the vibrant city of Carlisle itself to the peace and tranquillity of the beautiful Lake District. There are plenty of reasons for racegoers to linger a little longer in the area, and for those looking to extend their trip with an overnight stay, the options are plentiful.
Closest to the Course
Countryside options in and around the track include Dalston Hall Country House to the west and the extremely highly rated Crossroads House and Carleton Mill to the east. All three lie within two miles of the track and are good choices for those seeking a little peace and quiet after racing.
The biggest concentration of nearby hotels, however, comes within the city of Carlisle itself. Only a couple of miles to the north of the course, containing the nearest train station and boasting strong transport links to the track, it is the obvious place to stay. Budget options include the popular Ibis and ever-reliable Premier Inn, whilst The Crown and Mitre and Hallmark are competitively priced, score highly with visitors and benefit from a central location.
Relax in the Lake District
For many racegoers it would seem a shame to travel to this part of the world and not take in the delights of the Lake District. Home to the stunning Ullswater Lake, England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, and a host of other stunning natural features and walks, the area is a must-visit for fans of the countryside.
And being such a popular tourist destination, there’s no shortage of accommodation in the area. Sykes Holiday Cottages boast several unique properties within a short drive of both the racecourse and the Lakes and are well worth a look, whilst the Hidden River Cabins at Longtown provide a real taste of luxury, with each cabin boasting stunning views and its own private hot tub.
Head Doon in the Toon
Of course, the serenity of the Lake District isn’t for everyone. And following a day at the races many like nothing better than to hit the town. Carlisle is certainly an option for revellers, but for those seeking more of a big city experience, it may well be worth heading directly east across the country to Newcastle. Reachable in only just over an hour from Carlisle Train Station, and boasting excellent transport links to the rest of the country, it pairs well with a racing day out in Cumbria. And, of course, accommodation options abound in the land of the Bigg Market, Quay Side and the famous Newcastle Brown Ale.
Just about all of the major chains can be found on Tyneside, from your Travelodge’s and Holiday Inn’s and moving up to the swankier offerings from Hilton, Jurys Inn and Best Western. 93a Grey Street Apartments and Oakstays Loft are amongst a host of more bespoke options, whilst the Royal Station Hotel scores highly for convenience, being located a matter of yards from Newcastle Central Station. Whatever your budget or preferences though, you will likely find something to suit amongst the many options available.
About the Racecourse
As a dual-purpose track, Carlisle stages events right throughout the year with the National Hunt season running from September through to early April, and the flat campaign between late April and August. All told the course plays host to around 26 fixtures per season, with a roughly 50/50 split between flat and National Hunt. The track’s most famous contest of the Carlisle Bell is held on the flat, but it is the jumping sphere that houses the two highest class contests in the shape of the Listed class duo of the Colin Parker Memorial Intermediate Chase and the Houghton Mares’ Chase.
Despite its scenic location, Carlisle is relatively easy to reach by both road and rail. Carlisle Train Station is only a couple of miles from the track and is a major stop on the West Coast mainline, whilst frequent trains also run from Newcastle Central Station. Once at the station, the course itself is only around an eight-minute journey away by a taxi, and is also well served by the local public transport.
Buses run to and from the track from Lowther Street just opposite the train station, with tickets only a few pounds for a return. Reays buses offer a similarly priced service running from Lonsdale Street in the city centre. The above are all also options for racegoers travelling back into Carlisle, whilst the track also offers a free shuttle service to ferry patrons back into town – leaving 20 minutes and 50 minutes after the final race.
Carlisle Racecourse lies just off the M6 to the south of Carlisle City Centre. Those driving from the North and South should take the M6 and turn off at Junction 42, before following the signs to Dalston and on to the track which is well signposted in the area. From an easterly direction, the A69 or A66 should be followed before proceeding as above, whilst those arriving from the West should follow the A595 to Carlisle before following the signs to Dalston and on to the track. Sat Nav of course makes things that bit easier, with the Postcode to use being CA2 4TS.
The track provides ample free parking on all race days, with the car park being located just opposite the main grandstand. Leaving the car in Carlisle City Centre is also an option, with 24-hour facilities available at Castle Car Park on Devonshire Walk and Mary Street Car Park.
Both flat and National Hunt contests take place on what is essentially the same patch of land at Carlisle, with the flat events utilising the outer portion of the track and the chase and two hurdles course lying to the inner. In terms of layout, the 1m4f circuit is variously described as triangular or pear-shaped, featuring three straight sections and three relatively easy right-handed turns. In addition to the main round course, the flat track also features two additional chutes containing the starts for sprint contests and those over a trip just shy of a mile.
Generally considered a fair and galloping track, the trickiest feature of Carlisle are the pretty severe undulations which feature throughout. The three and a half furlong home straight in particular is notably tough as it rises continuously and pretty steeply almost to the line – only really levelling off in the final fifty yards or so. Tough at the best of times, this final section of the race can become a real slog in soft or heavy ground – a far from unusual occurrence in what is traditionally one of the wetter parts of the UK, particularly as the track’s clay subsoil is notoriously slow to drain.
Whilst the layout of the track is fairly challenging, the fences of the National Hunt course are amongst the easiest in the country, with only the downhill approaches to the first obstacle in both the back and home straights providing much of a challenge.
When picking out those bets on the flat, the stats suggest that a low draw against the inside rail should be favoured in sprint contests on good to soft or better going, but the bias switches towards the high numbers on soft or worse ground. Over jumps, side with those runners with no stamina doubts, particularly if they have previous form either at Carlisle or another right-handed undulating track.
Like many of the more rural National Hunt tracks up and down the country, Carlisle operates towards the more relaxed end of the dress code spectrum. Other than a stated preference against sports or denim shorts, racegoers are free to dress as they please. Whilst casual attire dominates most fixtures, there are occasions when racegoers do tend to make an extra effort, particularly at the track’s Ladies Day which is renowned for its display of spectacular headwear and best-dressed competition. Fancy Dress is permitted in all areas, with the exception of Swifts Restaurant and other hospitality areas – so long as it is not offensive. The final thing to remember is to dress for the weather, particularly during the winter months as it can become very wet, very quickly.
At all bar the busiest meetings, the track operates as one enclosure, with an adult’s General Admission ticket being priced at £15 when purchased in advance or £18 on the day. Concessions are available for both students and pensioners whilst all children aged 16 or younger go free with a paying adult. General admission grants access to all public areas of the track, including the parade ring and range of bars and catering outlets – including the Red Rum Bar, named in honour of the most famous horse to ever win at the track.
For the season’s major meetings the Premier Enclosure is also in operation, offering a range of further bars and eateries and the best views of the track. Premier enclosure tickets can be purchased at £20 in advance, rising to £23 on the day. Note that for the very biggest meetings of the year, or those featuring live music after racing, prices can rise to £25 to £30.
In addition to the standard ticketing options, a range of hospitality, restaurant and private box packages are available, with prices ranging from £45 to £135 per person. A bundle ticket can also be purchased at many meetings, with punters receiving entry, race card, pie and an alcoholic drink for a very reasonable £27.
Undoubtedly falling into the smaller course category, Carlisle does not boast any Group of Graded class contests over the course of the season. That does very little to detract from the entertainment on offer though, with the course laying on a range of themed days, from “Family Fun” to “Christmas Jumper”, whilst a number of meetings feature live music from a big name act following the conclusion of the action on the track. As with all courses though, Carlisle does have its signature meetings, with the following three, in particular, standing out from the crowd.
Carlisle Bell Day
First staged way back in 1599, the Carlisle Bell is not only Carlisle’s oldest horse race, but one of the oldest races staged anywhere in the world. A one-mile handicap contest, the runners still compete for a pair of centuries-old Bells – the first of which was donated to the track by the Lady Dacre, with the second bearing an inscription relating to the Mayor of the city all those years go. These days winning connections actually take home replicas, but the original bells are brought to the track from the nearby Guildhall Museum for ceremonial purposes.
With the Cumberland Plate – itself established in 1874 – providing the chief support, this is a race day steeped in history and tradition, and is comfortably the biggest fixture of the year at the course. Taking place in June, there’s also always a fair chance that the weather gods will be smiling on the track, helping to push the crowds close to the 16,000 capacity.
Colin Parker Memorial Day
The pick of the National Hunt fixtures comes in November each year with both the day and feature race of the Listed Class Colin Parker Memorial Chase being named in honour of the Cumbrian-born jockey-turned-trainer. Achieving his biggest success with Sparky Gayle at the 1997 Cheltenham Festival, Parker sadly lost his battle to cancer three years later at the age of just 55, but will forever be remembered at his local track.
A classy event that has attracted the likes of Tidal Bay, Cyrname, Waiting Patiently and future Grand National champ Many Clouds in recent years, the meeting is a real draw for jumps aficionados. There’s plenty on offer for the more casual racing fan too though, with entertainments including a Halloween fancy dress competition adding further to what is an excellent day out all round.
Ultimate Ladies Night
Possibly the track’s most unique fixture comes in late July/Early August each year in the shape of the course’s signature Ladies Night. The Cumbrian course certainly isn’t unique in dedicating a day’s racing to the fairer sex – indeed it’s hard to find a track without a Ladies Day or Night of some description. Where things differ at Carlisle though is in the fact that not only do the ladies take centre stage in the stands, they do so on the course too, with all of the races being restricted to female jockeys – the only event of its type held anywhere in the UK.
For the first 300 years, racing in the Carlisle locale was based at an area known as the Swifts in the centre of the town – the current Swifts restaurant at the course is a nod to these origins. It wasn’t until 1904 that a change of scenery was necessitated due to landowner the Duke of Devonshire refusing to renew the lease on The Swifts.
The Carlisle Bell
Swiftly relocated to its current site near Blackwell, within two years the first Grandstand had been built – a stand which, whilst upgraded over the years, still stands to this day. The track’s most famous event of the Carlisle Bell, which began during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, was, of course, well underway by this stage and simply moved together with the track – largely running like clockwork ever since.
A statement which wasn’t always true at the previous location, with the bells actually going missing for a period during the 1800s – eventually turning up in the Town Clerk’s office. A difficult thing to lose you would imagine, but the bells themselves are more akin to the size of a Christmas bauble, rather than anything of Big Ben proportions.
Charles Henderson & George Todd
The move to the current site, whilst necessary, wasn’t an immediate success, with the track being put up for sale in 1906. Thankfully though, a company headed by Sir Loftus Bates, Charles Henderson and George Todd saw the potential and came to the rescue. And thanks to innovative initiatives, such as special deals with the railway companies, the fortunes of the track were soon once again headed along more promising lines.
1929: Totalisator Board Pool
Following the shift to Blackwell, the next significant date came on the 2nd July, 1929 when, together with Newmarket, the track became the joint launch site for the new Totalisator Board pool betting operation. Still going strong over 90 years later, it’s safe to say the launch of “The Tote” was a success. Strictly speaking, Newmarket beat Carlisle to the punch by 15 minutes due to its earlier start time on the day, but they don’t talk about that in Cumbria.
2002: Jubilee Grandstand
Forced to close during the Second World War, it has been mostly plain sailing for Carlisle since reopening, with a slow but steady period of growth culminating in the opening of the new Jubilee Grandstand in 2002 – backed up by a further £2.5m worth of improvements in the following years. And, in 2013, the new Monet’s Bar was opened in honour of popular course winner Monet’s Garden – with the horse himself popping along for the grand opening. A most picturesque course, located in a most picturesque part of the world, Carlisle may be a small venue, but it has loads to offer and looks set to draw the crowds for many years to come.