Situated around six miles outside the city from which it takes its name, Exeter racecourse looks down upon its surroundings from a position atop Haldon Hill. At fully 260 metres above sea level, this track – which has been providing racing action since the mid-17th Century – actually enjoys the loftiest location of any track in the UK.
Benefitting from a most picturesque location on the fringes of Dartmoor National Park and staging high-quality National Hunt fare throughout the winter months, this welcoming venue is well worth a visit for those seeking a cracking countryside day out and excellent jumping action.
Located between the Dartmoor National Park and the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and only a relative stone’s throw from the coast, Exeter enjoys a most advantageous position in terms of the surrounding landscape. And with the city itself dating all the back to Roman times, there’s plenty on offer for history buffs too, with numerous points of interest in the area.
All in all then, there’s plenty on offer in addition to the equine entertainment, and more than enough reason for racegoers to loiter in the area just a little longer. For those seeking to tack an overnight stay onto their racing trip, there is no shortage of accommodation options available.
Closest to the Course
Also high up on Haldon Hill and a mere 300 metres from the track, the beautiful Haldon Forest Lodge is the closest accommodation site to the course. Set in the midst of 3,500 acres of woodland, this tranquil site is understandably popular with racegoers.
Slightly further out to the east in Doddiscombsleigh, the Nobody Inn offers traditional food and rooms and attracts significantly more guests than its name may suggest. And with Lower Thornton Farm, the Exeter Hotel and the Willows also lying within three miles of the course, there are numerous choices within short driving distance.
Exeter: An Excellent Option
Featuring a historic castle, Gothic Cathedral, mysterious Hidden Passages and “The House That Moved”, on top of a whole host of pubs and bars, the City of Exeter certainly isn’t short of attractions for those who like to do a little exploring. Only around six miles to the north of the course and easily reachable by public transport, the county city of Devon is an obvious choice for those looking to stay in the area.
Lying on the banks of the River Exe, Exeter boasts all the accommodation options you would expect of a populous city, with chains such as Holiday Inn, Jury’s Inn and Hilton all represented. Whatever your tastes and budget though, you should find something to suit your needs, with options ranging from the budget Mercure Exeter Rougemont all the way up to the luxurious Southernhay House Hotel.
Head Down in Dartmoor
Nature lovers are spoilt for choice in this part of the world, but for those looking to mix the best of the British countryside with their racing trip, Dartmoor National Park is tough to beat. A birdwatcher’s paradise, and home to historical features, such as standing stones and hut circles, the area offers wonderful walks and safe open-air swimming for the brave. And, if none of that floats your boat, perhaps you may catch a glimpse of the pixies, spectral hounds or the terrifying “hairy hands” that (myth has it) patrols the park.
As one of the UK’s more popular tourist destinations, it will be no surprise to learn that the area is particularly well served by accommodation options. The Warmhill Farmhouse, the Old Thatch and Swifts Return (complete with hot tub) all offer something a little different and are both on the brink of Dartmoor and only around five miles from the racecourse.
About the Racecourse
Whilst Exeter has staged flat racing in the distant past, these days, the track focuses solely on National Hunt action. Operating in line with the main British jumps campaign, the Haldon Hill venue lays on around 17 meetings per year, kicking off in October and ending in late April/early May. The course does stage just the one Graded class event – in the shape of the Haldon Gold Cup – but the average standard of the runners is nevertheless relatively high. Much admired in terms of its layout, many top trainers opt to send their more talented novices to Exeter, with Best Mate, Denman and Desert Orchid all scoring for the first time over fences here.
Despite lying so close to the South West Coast, Exeter is relatively easy to reach by both road and rail, with the track sitting only just off the A38 and five miles from the M5 southbound. The M5 itself is the best approach road for those arriving from the North and East, whilst those heading to the track from a westerly direction should take the A30 before moving onto the A38. The track is well signposted from all directions, but for those using satnav, the postcode to use is EX6 7XS.
One other thing to note is that the final turn onto the course can be easily missed, due to coming up very quickly following the brow of Haldon Hill. Motorists travelling from all directions are also advised to leave ample time for their journey as the roads can become congested on race days. Upon arrival at the track motorists will find ample free parking available, with stewards in attendance to guide them.
For those opting to travel by rail, the closest station to the course is that of Exeter St Davids which lies within Exeter City Centre. The station enjoys strong links to London, with regular services from London Paddington via Reading, and London Waterloo via Salisbury. Upon arrival at Exeter St Davids, racegoers may wish to take advantage of the free bus service which runs to the track on all race days, departing from both the train station and Exeter City Bus Station. Alternatively, the Number 39 bus service also leaves from the main city centre bus station and stops close to the course, whilst a taxi should have you trackside in under 15 minutes.
The layout of the track describes an elongated, slightly triangular oval, featuring just the three turns, and a trio of long straight sections. With a circumference of close to two miles, the right-handed circuit at Exeter is amongst the most extensive in the country and at first glance, it would appear well-suited to the long-striding galloping type of performer. Whilst that is true to an extent, the track does also feature considerable undulations almost throughout, bringing the balance and adaptability of the contenders firmly into play. The back straight for example initially descends fairly sharply before then rising again from the midway point, whilst the entirety of the four-furlong home straight climbs steadily to the line, providing a truly gruelling finish.
The chase course utilises the outer portion of the circuit, with the hurdle track to the inner. Runners tackling the larger obstacles are faced with eleven fences per circuit, including two open ditches and a water jump, which overall are considered to provide a stiff but fair jumping challenge. If there is to be an error, it is most likely to come in the home straight, where the final four obstacles come up fairly quickly after one another. Hurdle events feature seven flights per circuit, with the final three lying in the home straight.
One thing to note with Exeter is that it can be prone to extremes of going. Whilst a generally well-draining track, things can nevertheless become very testing during the wetter months, bringing the stamina of contenders firmly into play. In springtime, however, the track is often left craving a little rain, as the absence of a watering system can lead to quicker than ideal conditions. Overall though these ground concerns are but a minor quibble at what is one of the most highly regarded layouts in the country, by trainers and jockeys alike.
Whilst smart casual attire is recommended, there is no official dress code in operation at what is a relatively relaxed venue, with the only stipulations being against anything likely to be deemed offensive. That said, many racegoers do still opt to push the boat out at the season’s bigger race days, with the Haldon Gold Cup Day, in particular, seeing many gents smartly dressed in a suit, with the ladies sporting a hat or fascinator.
Inoffensive fancy dress is permitted in the Grandstand and Paddock Enclosures, but not in the Premier Enclosure or hospitality areas. And, finally, do remember to dress for the weather, as Exeter is essentially a winter track located on top of a hill. So, be sure to wrap up warm!
There are two main ticketing options at Exeter: Grandstand and Paddock, as well as Premier. For many fixtures throughout the year, Grandstand and Paddock tickets are priced at just £10 when purchased in advance, increasing to £15 for the bigger race days. A ticket to this enclosure grants racegoers access to the main grandstand, the parade ring, the Martin Pipe Bar and AP’s Bar, in addition to providing excellent viewing of both the final fence and winning post.
In addition to all of the above, a Premier Enclosure ticket enables holders to sample the Best Mate Bar, the Denman Bar and the classy seated area of the Iddesleigh Gallery, with tickets starting at £20 for an average meeting. Note that children go free with a paying adult in both enclosures, whilst a 50% student discount is available on the day for those in possession of a valid NUS card.
Exeter also offers a range of hospitality packages and deals. The ever-popular Haldon Premier Package grants entry, race card, drink, and a £5 meal voucher for just £25, whilst for those seeking a more substantial dining experience, packages in the Desert Orchid Restaurant start at £105 per head. A range of four Private Box deals are also available, with prospective customers advised to enquire online.
Whilst Exeter offers an excellent experience whenever you choose to visit – with even the smaller midweek cards often providing considerable interest – there are nevertheless those fixtures which do stand out from the crowd. When it comes to crowds, at no time do the punters gather on Haldon Hill in greater numbers than at the following three meetings.
Haldon Gold Cup Day
Taking place in late October/early November, the Grade 2 Haldon Gold Cup is the race that really puts Exeter on the map. Held over a trip of 2m1½, this classy affair regularly features some of the most talented chasers in the game, with Best Mate, Azertyuiop and Cue Card just three of the names featuring on what is an illustrious roll of honour. With over £100,000 in prize money on offer across the card, this is in fact Devon’s richest race day and, taking place on a punter-friendly Saturday afternoon, it is invariably extremely popular with racing fans from near and far.
Everyone loves a National, and whilst not on anything like the same kind of scale as its Aintree cousin, this marathon event of late February does make a pretty big splash on the local racing scene. Featuring 21 fences, and taking place over a gruelling 3m6f trip, this contest provides a thrilling spectacle and is regularly targeted by the major southern yards.
The track certainly does its bit to celebrate one of its standout events with Devon National Day regularly doubling as Family Fun Day, with a whole host of free entertainments on offer, including arts and crafts activities, a bouncy castle and a climbing wall.
New Year’s Day Meeting
Last but not least comes the track’s hugely popular New Year’s Day meeting, as the locals shake off those hangovers with an afternoon of jumping action. They do so in their droves, at a meeting which goes under the subtitle of “Devon’s Big Day Out”. With live music at the track, seven cracking racing contests and a party atmosphere spilling over from the night before, this is one of the biggest dates in the Exeter social calendar.
One of the oldest tracks in the country, Exeter Racecourse sprang into life in the middle of the 17th century at the behest of the racing-mad monarch, Charles II. Whilst no doubt popular with royalty, the details of these initial fixtures seem to have been lost in the annals of time. It wasn’t until over 100 years later that the first formally recognised meetings took place with the flat action being first on the Haldon Hill scene in 1769.
1833: The Hennis & Jeffcott Duel
Steady but unspectacular in these early years, one of the most notable events to take place at the track occurred in 1833, with the last known duel in Devon. In a dispute regarding the spreading of gossip, Doctor Peter Hennis and Judge John Jeffcott opted to take up arms – an altercation that resulted in the doctor being unable to save himself and dying the next day, and Judge Jefcott escaping justice by allegedly fleeing to Sierra Leone.
1898: First Jumps Event
These days Exeter is of course known solely as a National Hunt venue, but it wasn’t until 1898 that the first jumps event took place. A roaring success, the jumps soon displaced the flat events entirely, with the resultant increase in popularity sparking the building of the first Grandstand in 1911 at a cost of a princely £1,000. In fairness, £1,000 was a decent sum of money at the time, and the stand certainly did its job, keeping racegoers protected from the elements until being replaced in 1992.
1969: Haldon Gold Cup Debut
Closed between 1939 and 1945 due to the onset of the Second World War, the track wasn’t long in resuming its progress upon reopening, with the 1969 debut of the Haldon Gold Cup providing a further boost.
2004: Haldon Grandstand Opens
Continuing to thrive in the following decades, the turn of the millennium signalled a marked increase in the quality of the action at the track which, in combination with the opening of the new Haldon Grandstand in 2004, leaves Exeter well placed to maintain its position as the biggest track in the county of Devon.
2011: Punter Pockets £1.45m
And, if in need of any further endorsement, just ask Steve Whiteley, who most likely doesn’t have a bad word to say about the track. Travelling to Exeter on something of a whim back in 2011 and selecting six horses at random, Steve promptly pocketed £1.45m – the biggest win in tote jackpot history – all for just a £2 stake, having used his bus pass to get there and gained entry courtesy of a free promotion!