Of the 59 racetracks spread over the length and breadth of the British mainland, just one is to be found in the southwest county of Wiltshire. Lying around two miles outside the city of Salisbury from which it takes its name, this flat-only venue is one of the oldest courses, not only in Britain but in the whole of the world racing. Situated on England’s largest area of downland, and with the famous cathedral lighting up a spectacular backdrop, this picturesque track continues to pull in the punters from far and wide.
Residing in such a scenically satisfying corner of the UK, and well within reach of a number of major tourist attractions and urban hubs, many racegoers may not need too much persuading in order to extend their visit with an overnight stay. And, happily, for those hoping to explore a little more of what the area has to offer, several accommodation options are readily available, both close to the track and a little further afield.
Closest to the Course
Whilst there are no hotels in the immediate vicinity of the course, the city of Salisbury lies only a couple of miles to the northeast and boasts a wealth of options. Best Western, Mercure and Holiday Inn are amongst the brands represented, whilst the Huntsman Tavern and the Pembroke Arms Hotel offer a traditional pub-style experience.
Home to a number of historical attractions, including Salisbury Cathedral and an excellent museum, the city is also only around eight miles to the south of the world-famous landmark of Stonehenge. For those seeking a post-race tipple, there are plenty of excellent pubs available, including the 14th-century the Bell & Crown, the cosy Ox Row Inn and the excellent pub garden of the Avon Brewery.
Snooze in Southampton
Appealing as it may be, Salisbury is small by city standards with a population of around 40,000. Around six times that size, and only 20 miles to the south, the coastal city of Southampton offers a more bustling experience. Home to medieval walls, a Tudor House and Garden, vintage vehicles museum and the Titanic Trail, there’s plenty to keep history buffs entertained in this port city. For those seeking something a little livelier, Southampton offers an attractive array of pubs, including the Titanic Public House and the Red Lion.
With a little under 100 accommodation options in and around the city centre, there should be something to suit all tastes and budgets here. Jurys Inns, Best Western and Hilton are amongst the big brands represented, whilst the Southampton Harbour Hotel and Spa is pricier but does offer a spectacular stay.
Escape to the Country
Of course, the hustle and bustle of a big city isn’t for everyone. Some racegoers may instead seek a little peace and tranquillity to combine with their racing trip. Luckily, for those so inclined, the southwest is home to some of Britain’s most beautiful countryside. The rolling chalk grasslands and ancient woodlands of the Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty sits just to the west of the track, with the New Forest National Park and its spectacular array of wildlife and landscapes only a little further afield to the south.
Either park rates as a viable choice for racegoers and, being such popular tourist spots, both offer a range of accommodation options. Burcombe Manor and the Old Dairy on the western edge of Cranborne Chase; and the Show Inn and the New Forest Lodge to the north of the New Forest Park are amongst the most conveniently located.
About the Racecourse
A flat-only racecourse throughout its long lifetime, Salisbury plays host to around 16 fixtures per season, all of which fall between late April and October. Featuring a nice mix of midweek and weekend meetings, the track’s seven evening fixtures are particularly popular with racegoers. Whilst the majority of meetings are dominated by handicapping contests, the track does stage four races at listed level or above and regularly attracts a very high calibre of juvenile performer.
Around a two-hour drive from London, via the M3 and A303, the track is relatively easy to reach by road from all directions; the A345 and A338 approaching from the north, the A338 and A354 from the south, A303 and A360 from the east and A346 and A338 from the west. Motorists will find the track to be well signposted, but for those using satnav, the postcode to enter is SP2 8PN. Upon arrival at the track, racegoers will find ample free parking available. It is however recommended that drivers arrive in plenty of time to avoid a build-up of traffic.
For those travelling by rail, the closest station to the track is that which sits within Salisbury itself. Lying on the London Waterloo to Exeter line, this well-connected station enjoys regular services from a number of major cities including London, Portsmouth, Cardiff and Bristol. From Salisbury station, the track is but a short taxi journey away, or alternatively the course operates a free shuttle bus service on all race days, with a similar service also collecting racegoers from Castle Street in the city centre. For those hoping to take this service back into town, the bus departs around 20 minutes after the last race at most meetings, with a later service also available on the bigger race days.
One of the more unusual tracks in the country, Salisbury consists of a long almost straight section that kinks slightly to the right around five furlongs from home, rising steadily throughout. All events at trips of up to one mile take place entirely on this section of the track.
In addition to the straight track, Salisbury also features a short loop that leaves the track around five furlongs from home, turning right-handed and re-joining the course close to the seven-furlong start. Events over 1m2f start within this loop, whilst all races at 1m4f and above initially run the “wrong way” down the straight before taking in the entirety of the loop and heading back the way they came to the winning post.
Given that extensive uphill section, which sees the winning post sit fully 76ft higher than the one-mile start, Salisbury places great emphasis upon stamina. That climb aside, the straight course is relatively uncomplicated, making it well suited to the long-striding galloping type of performer. With a well-respected layout, the track regularly attracts juveniles of the highest calibre, with the likes of Eclipse, Mill Reef and Brigadier Gerard all strutting their stuff here before going on to greatness.
In terms of a pace bias, front runners tend to go well in all races which take in the loop. Those racing prominently heading into the bend are able to steady the pace, whilst also having the advantage of kicking first out of the turn. That said, a good judgement of pace is crucial given the long straight, which can still reward a well-executed hold-up ride.
When looking at the draw, low numbers predictably hold the edge in races at 1m2f and above, with the bias being particularly strong on soft ground. Conversely, those drawn high have a better record on the straight track, most notably in events over the minimum five-furlong trip.
There is no official dress code in either the Grandstand and Paddock or Sarum enclosures, with racegoers merely being advised to avoid anything likely to prove offensive in nature. Of course, don’t forget to factor the weather forecast into your choice of attire, as much of the track is uncovered.
Things are a little stricter in the Bibury Enclosure where smart casual is the order of the day – no ripped/faded denim or sportswear. Collared shirts and trousers are recommended for gentlemen, although smart jeans, smart trainers and tailored shorts are also acceptable. Ladies are advised to dress as if for a smart occasion.
There are three standard ticketing options available at Salisbury: the Sarum Enclosure, the Grandstand and Paddock Enclosure, and the Bibury Enclosure. Priced at £10 for most meetings, the Sarum Enclosure – situated in the centre of the course – is the cheapest option and affords access to the Sarum Bar, picnic tables and a selection of mobile catering outlets.
At around £16, the Grandstand and Paddock Enclosure comes next up the pricing ladder. Containing the Lester Piggott Bar, Paddock Bar, mobile catering units and parade ring, this is the most popular area of the course. At £23 per ticket, the Bibury Enclosure offers a slightly swankier experience, featuring the Wessex Bar, Persian Punch Bar and Bibury Bar and Food Servery, in addition to the excellent views afforded by the Bibury Lawn overlooking the track. Student discounts are available in all enclosures, whilst under 18’s go free when accompanied by a paying adult.
In addition to the standard ticketing options, three-course meal and afternoon tea packages can be booked in the Conservatory and Moonraker Restaurants, with prices beginning at around £50-£55 per head. Larger parties seeking a group package are advised to contact the track in order to discuss the private box and marquee options available.
Operating during the warmer months of the year and with a number of fixtures taking place at the weekend or in the evening, the Salisbury season is well structured to draw in the crowds. Despite benefiting from excellent attendance throughout the fixture list though, there are still those meetings that come out ahead of the rest, with the following three topping the pile.
Cathedral Stakes Family Fun Day
One of a number of excellent family-focussed fixtures takes place on a Sunday afternoon in mid-June each year. Laying on a whole host of additional entertainment for the kids – all of whom gain free entry – this summertime sizzler never fails to draw in the crowds. The action on the track isn’t too bad either, with the Listed class Cathedral Stakes being the highlight of a cracking seven-race card.
Tattersalls Sovereign Stakes Day
Another family-friendly occasion comes at this Thursday meeting scheduled to take place at the beginning of the summer holiday period. With the track regularly bathed in sunshine at this August fixture, an excellent atmosphere in the stands is assured, whilst the track’s first Group class contest of the season lights up the racing action, as the colts and geldings tackle the one-mile trip of the Tattersalls Sovereign Stakes.
Dick Pool Fillies’ Stakes Day
Sighting a future star is one of the main selling points of this track given the quality of the juvenile action on offer. And nowhere is this better advertised than at this Thursday fixture in late August/early September. Of the six races on offer, three are restricted to two year olds, with the feature event of the Dick Poole Fillies’ Stakes having been won by future Group 1 stars in years gone by including Crimplene and Serious Attitude.
Britain is home to a number of truly historic racing venues and having first staged events way back in the 16th century, Salisbury is very much included amongst that number. A look at a couple of the early attendees at the course provides a fine example of just how old this track is. Stopping by to take in a 1589 fixture, one of the main purposes of Queen Elizabeth I’s visit was to bid Sir Francis Drake a safe journey as he set off to tackle the Spanish Armada.
1654: City Bowl
Fast forward to 1654, and a race known as the City Bowl made its debut. Still running at the track to this day, this near 370 year old race is one of the oldest still staged anywhere in the world. Having been formed back in 1681, the Bibury Racing Club began a formal association with the course in 1899, long after the opening of the round course in 1722. Establishing the Bibury Cup which continues to be held in the 21st century, the Bibury name also lives on through the title of the track’s premier enclosure.
1723: The King’s Plate
Receiving further Royal patronage and backing with the establishment of the King’s Plate in 1723 for a time Salisbury enjoyed a position at the heart of British racing – with all-time greats Gimcrack and Eclipse amongst the early superstars to scorch the turf. Continuing to attract big-name trainers and owners during the first half of the twentieth century, it was here in 1949 that Winston Churchill first raced Colonist II. The horse won on debut before going on to success in the Ribblesdale Stakes at Ascot.
Just one year before that success for our wartime Prime Minister, one of the greatest riders of all time made his appearance at the track. Aged just 12 years old – and having to carry around a stone in lead just to make the weight – Lester Piggott didn’t manage to win on debut, but he certainly more than made for it in the decades to come. Continuing his association with the track, Lester – by now an OBE – returned to open the new grandstand in 2004.
Sovereign Stakes Promoted to Group 3
Whilst no longer the centre of the British racing scene, the track continues to offer higher than the average fare, receiving a boost in 2004 when the Sovereign Stakes was promoted to Group 3 status for the first time. Boasting competitive action and excellent facilities, Salisbury’s summertime track remains well worth a visit.