Lying in the heart of the Essex countryside, between Braintree and Chelmsford, sits the UK’s newest racecourse. Initially opened as Great Leighs in 2008, that first run lasted for under a year, but since returning as Chelmsford City in 2015 the course has gone from strength to strength.
Being the only track either in Essex itself, or the neighbouring county of Hertfordshire, and only 50 miles from the giant training centre of Newmarket, the track could hardly be better positioned to attract both horses and punters. And it does so with regularity, having quickly grown to become one of the UK’s busiest tracks.
Set in a most picturesque corner of Essex, between the welcoming towns of Braintree and Chelmsford, and only 50 miles from the capital city of London, Chelmsford City Racecourse is far from being the only attraction in this part of the country. With so much on offer, it’s no surprise that many racegoers wish to extend their visit with an overnight stay – particularly as many of the fixtures are late finishing evening meetings. And thankfully, for those in search of accommodation, numerous options are available.
Closest to the Course
Whilst there are no hotels in the immediate vicinity of the course, there are several within easy driving distance – the closest of all being the ever-reliable Holiday Inn at Braintree, which can be reached by car in a mere three minutes. Other options within Braintree include the White Hart Hotel which lies within half a mile of the train station and the highly-rated Ross House.
Despite lending its name to the course, Chelmsford is actually slightly further afield than Braintree, whilst still lying within a 20-minute drive of the course. Chelmsford boasts a higher concentration of hotels than its near neighbour, with the major chains of Best Western, Holiday Inn and Hilton all represented. Whatever your taste or budget preferences though, you should find something to fit the bill.
Lay Down in London
Charming as both Braintree and Chelmsford are, they may be on the quiet side for some tastes. Luckily for those seeking something just a little livelier, the lights of London lie only around 50 miles to the southwest of the track, and with Chelmsford Train Station reachable in only around 30 to 40 minutes from the capital, London is an obvious choice for those looking to extend their racing trip. Boasting more pubs, clubs, and bars than you could ever hope to visit, and the accommodation choices are also almost endless.
White’s Row Resident, Point A London Liverpool St and City Rooms would be our pick due to being reasonably priced and lying within a short walk of Liverpool Street Station, from where a train can be taken to both Chelmsford and Braintree. As you might expect of Britain’s largest city though, that trio are but a snapshot of the vast array of options on offer.
Crash in Colchester
Is Chelmsford too quiet but London too busy? Then how about Colchester? Only 16 miles to the East of Braintree, and reachable in around half an hour by car, or 45 minutes via train, this interesting town boasts numerous attractions to enhance your trip. Colchester Zoo, a stunning Castle complete with a boating lake and gardens, and a wide array of eating and drinking establishments all make this vibrant town well worth considering.
Accommodation options include the Aspire 860, which lies directly beside the train station, the solid and reasonably priced St Nicholas Hotel and Brooke Red Lion House, and at the top end of the scale, the pricy, but extremely highly rated, Greyfriars.
About the Racecourse
One of the benefits of being an all-weather track is of course the ability to stage racing in (almost) all climates. Chelmsford certainly takes full advantage of that facility, with over 50 fixtures taking place each year, including at least three in every calendar month. Whilst only operating at a mid-range level in terms of the class of performers on show, the track does boast two Listed events in the shape of the Chelmer Fillies’ Stakes in May and June’s Queen Charlotte Fillies’ Stakes. The excellent prize money on offer meanwhile helps to ensure higher than average field sizes across the board.
Whilst the track itself is set within 150 acres of beautiful parkland, it is relatively simple to reach by both road and rail despite its rural appearance. For those travelling by car, the course lies on the A131 and is easily accessible from both the A120 and M11. The satnav system also seems to work particularly efficiently at this track, with the postcode of CM3 1QP directing motorists directly to the entrance of the main car park, which is free for all racegoers. For those planning to park away from the track, 24-hour facilities can be found on Bond Street and Waterloo Lane in Chelmsford and at Total Car Parks in Braintree.
Rail travellers have the option of alighting at either Braintree Station or Chelmsford Station, both of which enjoy regular services from London Liverpool Street. Chelmsford is slightly further away at around a twenty-minute taxi ride, compared to 10 minutes from Braintree. Rather than take a taxi, the 70, 38A and 352 bus services run between Chelmsford and Braintree and stop close to the track. Do note, however, that a very busy dual carriageway lies between the drop off point and the course, and it is advised that racegoers take a taxi for this short final part of the journey.
At around eight and a half furlongs in circumference and oval in configuration, Chelmsford’s left-handed Polytrack course bears a close resemblance to the type of track seen so frequently in US racing. Well regarded in terms of its layout, it is one of the more uniform tracks in the country, with both the wide sweeping bends and two straight sections measuring very close to two furlongs. In addition to the main oval, the track also features two spurs – one running into the back straight and containing the seven-furlong start, and another, featuring the starting points for events over a mile, which joins the bend heading out of the home stretch.
Given the gentle bends and galloping straight sections, in addition to the fact that it is completely flat throughout, Chelmsford should be suited to all types of runners. That wasn’t the case in the early days of the track, however, with the extremely high levels of kickback greatly impeding the hold-up runners and granting a significant advantage to those ridden prominently. Thanks to an increase in the fibre content of the surface between 2015 and 2016 though, this bias isn’t anything like so strong these days. That said, front runners do tend to fair well in events over the minimum trip, as being first to the bend – which comes up very quickly after the start – is a definite advantage.
In terms of the draw, a low berth appears to be an advantage over all distances at up to a mile but becomes less of an edge over further. High drawn runners can struggle over the minimum trip in particular unless they can really break quickly from the stalls. Heading into 2022 and Chelmsford is in line for a major addition to the facilities, with the announcement that a long-touted turf track will soon be opened on the inside of the current all-weather course. A welcome and likely popular addition, plans suggest that the layout will closely resemble that of the outer synthetic track.
In common with many tracks up and down the land, how racegoers are required to dress at Chelmsford very much depends upon which area of the course they are attending. Whilst the course notes that style is appreciated in all sections of the track, racegoers within the general admission and Sports Bar areas need only follow an informal dress code should they wish – with the only items listed as prohibited being flip flops, sports team shirts, vests and swimwear?!. Those opting to arrive minus a top of any description will also be in violation of the dress code. Fancy dress is permitted in these areas, so long as it is not likely to cause offence.
All of the above regulations also apply in the Fairwood restaurant, with the added stipulation that no shorts or trainers may be worn in this area. And at the top end of the sartorial scale comes the Club Restaurant and Lounge. Smart attire is a must in what is the tracks swankiest area, with a jacket, a collared shirt and a tie required for the gents, and the ladies being advised to dress as if for a smart occasion. No trainers or shorts are permitted, but smart, unripped, jeans are allowed.
The above criteria apply to the vast majority of fixtures, but there is an added element to the dress code on Ladies Day, with the females being asked to wear a hat or fascinator in all areas, other than the Grandstand and Sports Bar.
Unusually at Chelmsford, all spectator facilities are located within the centre of the course, with the most popular ticketing option being that of a general admission ticket. Granting access to the Grandstand, Sports Bar and Grill Kitchen, Parade Ring and excellent vantage point provided by the home straight terrace, tickets are priced at £15.50 for the majority of meetings, rising to £22.50 for the bigger race days. Students are granted entry for a discounted £10, whilst all aged under 16 go free with a paying adult.
Next up the pricing ladder comes the Sports Bar Package. Priced at £32.50 for a standard meeting and restricted to groups containing a minimum of four individuals, this option provides a reserved table throughout and a voucher for food and drink at the Grill Kitchen.
In addition to the above options, hospitality packages are available in both the Fairwood Restaurant, priced at between £41 and £86, and the luxurious Club Restaurant and Lounge which offers panoramic views of the track and fine dining for between £62 and £112.
Whilst the majority of meetings fall into the mid to lower-level handicapping category, Chelmsford nevertheless consistently throws up some of the most competitive cards in the country, both from a betting perspective and in terms of the prize money on offer. Add in a range of themed race days, live music after racing, and even its very own dance music event in the shape of the hugely popular Clockwork Festival, and it’s no wonder the track has made such giant strides in the popularity stakes. Whilst there’s never a bad time to visit this sleek and modern track, the following three fixtures do stand out from the crowd.
Inaugurated in 2019, this 1m Class 2 contest acts as the seventh and final leg of the European Road to the Kentucky Derby – a series of events in which European runners compete to earn points in order to qualify for Louisville’s most famous race. As yet no winner of this has gone on to make their presence felt in the big one, but that doesn’t deter the track from laying on an all bells and whistles US-themed race day, including American Themed bars, food and entertainment. Held under the lights in late March/early April each year, this is always one of the tracks most well-attended fixtures.
Chelmsford City Cup
Moving on to late summer, and this Saturday meeting towards the tail end of August is Chelmsford’s richest race day of the entire season, with £100,000 on offer across the seven-race card. The seven-furlong handicappers take to the stage in the feature event, with the prize money on offer regularly attracting some of the biggest trainers and jockeys in the game. Another evening fixture, the tracks “champagne flute” floodlights serve to add a real sense of occasion to one of the tracks signature events.
Also, in August comes the big Ladies Day at the course. Every track has one, but Chelmsford really does go the extra mile, with big-name acts including Billy Ocean, Boyzone and Blue having provided a live concert following the racing in the past. Throw in a best-dressed competition with excellent prizes on offer, and it’s no surprise that this multi award-nominated fixture tends to sell out very quickly.
The brainchild of entrepreneur, John Holmes, the course came into being under the name of Great Leighs in 2008 – almost two years after it was initially scheduled to open its doors. Not the smoothest of starts, and unfortunately that was a sign of things to come for what was the first new track to be opened in Britain since Taunton back in 1927.
Whilst drawing praise for the layout of the track, Great Leighs was found to be sadly lacking elsewhere. The most notable area of fault was the visitor facilities, which were rather politely described as “unfinished”. You do wonder how the course was allowed to open in the first place with these incomplete facilities, but It didn’t stay open for long, and by January 2009 the track saw its licence revoked and subsequently entered administration.
2011: New Management
A number of false starts came and went with the aim of securing a buyer for the course, and by 2010 discussions aimed at finding an alternative use for the site had begun. Finally purchased by MC Racetracks in 2011, the new management attempted to turn the track around were thwarted by the BHA, with the regulatory body denying fixture applications in both 2013 and 2014.
Enter Fred Done of Betfred fame, with a syndicate spearheaded by the Manchester businessman stepping in to purchase the track in late 2013, and quickly securing fixtures for the 2015 season. Initially granted only 12 meetings, this had grown considerably to 58 by the time the season kicked into gear. Finally reopening under the new name of Chelmsford City on 11th January 2015, the track’s second incarnation has proved to be far more successful than the first.
That first season in 2015 was lit up by two of the track’s most talented performers. Tryster, who won the very first race at the venue went on to land the Group 1 Jebel Hata at Meydan just two starts later, whilst Covert Love scored at the track on route to success in both the Irish Oaks and Prix de l’Opera. Remaining a regular port of call for classy performers to this day, it is by no means unusual for a big-name trainer to send a talented sort to Chelmsford ahead of a tilt at Glorious Goodwood or Royal Ascot.
2022: First Floodlit Turf Track
Making the headlines when staging Britain’s richest ever evening meeting in 2018 – a year in which the course was also handed three awards of excellence from the Racecourse Association – it’s safe to say that the track has left the stuttering start of those Great Leighs days well behind. And, with the opening of the UK’s first floodlit turf track scheduled for 2022, the future certainly looks bright for Essex’s only racecourse.