Lying in the outer suburbs of London, and only five miles from Kingston upon Thames, the Esher track of Sandown boasts an enviable location in terms of its access to the UK’s major urban hub. First opened back in 1875, nestled in a natural amphitheatre and within a beautiful parkland setting, racegoers can be forgiven for forgetting they are on London’s doorstep.
A look to the horizon, however, and the sites of Wembley Stadium and other landmarks serve as a reminder that civilisation isn’t quite so far away after all. Providing an easily accessible escape to the country for city dwellers, the top-class action on the track also serves to draw in fans from further afield, at what is one of British racing’s premier dual-purpose venues.
Lying within a stone’s throw of both the sights and sounds of the capital and the tranquillity offered by the area of outstanding natural beauty that is the Surrey Hills, Sandown is tough to beat in terms of location. With so much to offer, racegoers won’t have to look too hard to find a reason to linger in the area just a little longer, and for those wishing to extend their visit with an overnight stay, the options are plentiful.
Stay on Course
If ease of access to the track is your number one requirement, it doesn’t get too much more convenient than staying at the course itself. Sandown comes up trumps in that regard, with the course’s very own Sandown Park Lodge situated a matter of steps from the main entrance. With free parking for guests, a continental breakfast and a number of rooms overlooking the pre-parade ring and stables, this is an understandably popular choice, so be sure to book early. If unable to secure a berth in the Lodge, the Holiday Inn London Shepperton and the Oatlands Park Hotel are both around one mile from the course and within easy walking distance.
Moving a little further out, a whole host of choices can be found within the town of Esher which, whilst definitely falling into the “quaint” category, does boast a cinema, comedy club and a range of highly-rated pubs and bars. Looking at the available accommodation; the luxurious Mitre Hotel, the scenic Woodlands Park Hotel and the competitively priced Alexander Pope are all within five miles of the track, whilst the Ashley Park Hotel benefits from being situated only a few steps from Esher Train Station. Or you might consider the Bear Hotel and its range of bespoke rooms, which has been welcoming guests to the area for around 300 years, and lies within 10 minutes of the train station and is only 2.7 miles from the track.
The Bright Lights of the City
And of course, the most obvious place to stay is within the city of London itself, particularly as many visitors will travel via the capital on route to the track. And, needless to say, whether you are looking to double up your racing excursion with a show, a night on the tiles or perhaps simply a spot of sightseeing, the accommodation options are almost too numerous to mention.
The Park Plaza Westminster Bridge, Park Plaza County Hall, Ruby Lucy Hotel, Stayo Waterloo and the Wellington are all conveniently located close to Waterloo Station, which is the main station serving Esher Train Station. But, with all of the major chains represented, in addition to a range of independent operators, there’s something to suit all tastes and budgets in Britain’s number one tourist destination.
About the Racecourse
Being a dual-purpose venue, Sandown can stage fixtures right throughout the year, taking part in both the main flat and National Hunt seasons. All told the track lays on 24 race days over the course of the season, with nine National Hunt meetings between early November and late April, and 15 flat fixtures between late April and September. In terms of the average quality of those meetings, Sandown undoubtedly belongs in the upper echelons of British tracks, cramming 21 contests rated at Listed level or above into those 24 fixtures. The Group 1 Eclipse Stakes of July takes centre stage on the flat, whilst jumping highlights include the top tier Tingle Creek Chase and Tolworth Hurdle, in addition to one of the seasons major handicaps in the shape of the bet365 Gold Cup.
Being so close to London, Sandown benefits from excellent transport links. Making it to the capital via train is a relatively simple task from just about every corner of mainland Britain, and once in London, you are but a short train ride from Esher Station. Trains travel from London Waterloo around four times an hour, taking close to 25 minutes to reach the closest station to the course. Free shuttle buses are then available from Esher Station to the track on all major race days, with a taxi rank also located immediately outside the station. And for those wishing to stretch their legs, the course is only a pleasant 10-minute walk away, with a second exit from the station being specially opened on race days, leading across the course to the main entrance.
For those travelling by car, the course can be reached in around 40 minutes from Central London. Motorists should leave the M25 at Junction 10, follow the A3 and then exit onto the A307, from where they will find the course very well signposted. Travellers from the north, south and east should take the A224 off the M25 and follow the signs to the track, whilst those arriving from the West should follow the M3, turning onto the M25 at junction 2 before proceeding as above. KT10 9AJ is the postcode for the course, but the track advises that Portsmouth Road should be used as a satnav destination.
Free parking is available in the centre of the course on all race days. Be aware though that access to the car park will be closed for a 10-minute period both before and after each race for safety reasons. Alternative parking can be found on the nearby Portsmouth Road at a cost of around £6 for the afternoon.
Both flat and hurdles contests take place on the same course at Sandown. Right-handed, and in the shape of an elongated, asymmetrical oval, each circuit measures close to 1m5f and features relatively mild undulations. The most significant uphill section comes in the four-furlong home straight which rises steadily before levelling out in the final 100 yards or so. A five-furlong sprint course bisects the main oval track, running dead straight and uphill to its own separate winning post, whilst two short spurs in the back straight contain the starts for races over a mile and 1m2f.
The bends and back straight sections of the chase course are the same as those used in flat and hurdles contests, but the chase track utilises its own home straight. Initially veering to the outside of the straight used in flat and hurdles events, the chase “straight” then turns back to join the main course for the final 300 yards.
It is perhaps this chase course for which Sandown is most famous, with events over the larger obstacles renowned for providing one of the most searching tests in the sport. Whilst being stiff, the fences themselves are nothing out of the ordinary, but their placement on the track is pretty unique. Of the 11 fences per circuit, no fewer than seven lie in the back straight section, the final three of which – known as the “Railway Fences” – come up in rapid succession after one another.
In terms of betting pointers, front runners tend to go well on both the five-furlong sprint track and in chase contests, particularly on good or quicker ground. The hurdles track is more amenable to those looking to come with a long late run thanks to the straighter, more galloping finish. A low draw against the far rail is a distinct advantage in sprint contests, unless the ground is riding soft, in which case high numbers go well. As one of the better draining tracks in the country though soft ground is something of a rarity particularly during the flat season.
As with many courses up and down the land, the dress code at Sandown varies across different enclosures. Smart casual is the way to go in the Grandstand, with smart jeans, smart shorts and trainers all permitted – the only prohibited items being sportswear, ripped jeans, vests and bare chests. The Grandstand enclosure is also the only area of the track where fancy dress is permitted, so long as it is not offensive in nature.
Racegoers in the Premier Enclosure, 1875 Lounge and private boxes are encouraged to dress for a special occasion. For men, collared shirts, polo shirts or polo necked jumpers are the way to go, paired with smart trousers, chinos or smart jeans. Shorts, sportswear, sports trainers and flip flops are forbidden. Women in these areas tend to opt for smart skirts, dresses or jumpsuits with hats and fascinators also being a regular sight.
The first thing to note about the stands at Sandown is that, thanks to the natural amphitheatre layout and the graded “steppings” leading down from the stands towards the track, racegoers are afforded an excellent view of the action no matter which enclosure they are in. With that said, there are three main ticketing options on most race days: Grandstand Enclosure, Premier Enclosure and the 1875 Lounge.
Advance tickets for the Grandstand Enclosure begin at £14, rising to £30 for the season’s major events. Racegoers in this section of the track will be granted access to the parade ring, catering options within the Food Court, and a selection of bars, including the Diamond Edge Bar, Grandstand View Bar and Bendigo Bar.
Premier Enclosure ticket prices range from £22 to £50 when purchased in advance and provide patrons with access to all Grandstand Enclosure areas, in addition to the Laurent Perrier Champagne and Seafood Bar, Cavalry Bistro and Bar, Horsewalk Bar, Sandown View Bar, and the Tingle Creek Restaurant and Bar. Being dead level with the winning post, this section of the track also provides the very best views of the finish.
One of the newest areas of the track comes in the shape of the chic and stylish 1875 Lounge, the spacious lounge boasts its own private bar, seating areas and betting facilities, in addition to a resident racing tipster. Prices begin at £45, but with only a limited number of tickets available be sure to get in early.
At meetings featuring live music after racing, the course operates as a single enclosure with prices rising to £45+ for adults and around £25 for those under 18. At all other meetings, a generous deal of two free under 18 tickets for every one paying adult is employed. Special discounts are also available for students, over 60’s and large group bookings.
Regular racegoers at Sandown are certainly spoilt for choice when it comes to high-quality fixtures, with a range of headline-grabbing feature events spread over the course of the season. Boasting a quantity of Graded/Group class contests which would be the envy of many other tracks, there are nevertheless certain events that do still stand out from the crowd.
Tingle Creek Festival
A real pre-Christmas treat for racing fans, this excellent two-day meeting takes place over a Friday and Saturday in early December. Six excellent contests, headlined by the Grade 2 Winter Novices’ Hurdle kick things off on the Friday card, before things then really begin to move up a gear on the Saturday.
The up-and-coming stars of the game can be seen in action in the Grade 1 Henry VIII Novices Chase, whilst the feature of the titular Tingle Creek Chase regularly falls to a genuine superstar – Desert Orchid, Kauto Star, Master Minded, Sprinter Sacre and Altior all featuring on what is an illustrious roll of honour. Superstars on the track, and a buzzing atmosphere in the stands, help to make this Sandown’s biggest jumps fixture, bar none.
Bet365 Gold Cup
The culmination of a two-day mixed flat and jumps meeting at the end of April each year, this Saturday afternoon card traditionally signals the end of the National Hunt season and has a real celebratory feel to it. The big Grade 1 on the card sticks to this theme in being named the Celebration Chase, with a pair of Grade 2 crackers also featuring amongst the support. It is however a handicap contest that takes centre stage in the shape of the huge betting heat that is the bet365 Gold Cup. Representing one last chance to see many of the stars of the jumps season, before the flat takes over, the stands are invariably packed to the rafters for this one.
The Coral Summer Festival
Regularly being bathed in sunshine at this time of year, racegoers likely need little excuse to don their glad rags and head to Sandown for this early June, two-day affair. And anyone opting to make the trip will be richly rewarded with two of the very best days of flat racing that the track has to offer.
Everyone loves a “Ladies Day” and it is the fairer sex to whom the opening Friday of this fixture is dedicated, with best-dressed prizes and a classy atmosphere adding to the seven exciting contests on the track. The feature event of the Coral-Eclipse then comes on the excellent Saturday afternoon card.
Significant in being the track’s only Group 1 flat event, this 1m2f contest also represents the first major clash of the season between the current classic generation and the best of the older performers. Won by the likes of Sea The Stars, Enable and Golden Horn in recent times, it is a race not to be missed, and a real opportunity to see a superstar in the flesh
The wheels for the development of Sandown Racecourse first began to be set in motion back in 1870, when the plot of land upon which the track now resides was first put up for sale. It does, however, say something for the reputation of horse racing at the time that given the choice between a brand spanking new racecourse and the building of a lunatic asylum, the local residents opted resoundingly for the latter.
Horse racing’s association with drunks, criminals and cheats were the stated reasons for this preference, but a proposal that the track be both completely enclosed and charge all who entered ultimately saw the racetrack win the day – leaving the grumbling locals to seek their hit of insanity elsewhere.
1875: Sandown Opens Its Doors
And so work began, and five years later in 1875 the track first opened its doors to the public, charging an entry fee of at least half a crown to all racegoers. Not only one of the first tracks anywhere to charge an entry fee to all, but Sandown was also the first course in England to operate a separate members enclosure. A classy operation from the off, the track was renowned for its high standards of etiquette and rapidly became hugely popular with female racegoers, becoming known as the “Ladies Track”.
1886: Eclipse Stakes
1886 then marked the first edition of one of the track’s most famous events as the Eclipse Stakes entered the fray. Named in honour of the unbeaten 18th-century superstar Eclipse, the race has compiled a roll of honour to more than live up to that association, with titans of the turf, such as Brigadier Gerard, Mill Reef and Dancing Brave, all landing the prize in years gone by. Known to all as the Coral-Eclipse, the contest has been sponsored by one of Britain’s biggest bookmaking brands since 1976.
1957: Whitbread Gold Cup
Further major contests were later added to bolster the fixture list, with the Whitbread Gold Cup appearing in 1957, and remaining under the sponsorship of the brewing company until 2001 – the year in which one of the longest-running partnerships in sport finally came to an end. Various companies have lent their support to the event since, with bet365 taking over in 2008 – although your gran most likely still refers to it as the Whitbread.
1979: Tingle Creek Chase
Two more significant developments came during the 1970s. 1972 marked the unveiling of a new 7,600-capacity Grandstand, with 1979 seeing the inaugural edition of the Tingle Creek Chase. Named in honour of a star of the 1970’, who boasted a particularly fine record at the track, this 2m affair has become one of the track’s signature events.
2002: £23m Redevelopment
Currently controlled and operated by the Jockey Club, the course benefitted from a £23m redevelopment in 2002, including a substantial overhaul of the existing Grandstand and the building of the Eclipse Pavilion. Widely viewed as one of the most modern and innovative tracks in the country, racegoers will no doubt continue to flock to Esher – drawn in both by the top-class action on the track and the outstanding facilities off it.