Of the 59 racetracks located on the British mainland, just the six hold racing on an all-weather surface as opposed to the turf. Of that sextet, the most recently updated track lies in the county of Nottinghamshire around two miles outside the town from which it takes its name.
Set in 145 acres of beautiful East Midlands countryside, Southwell Racecourse is comfortably one of the busiest tracks in the land, thanks to an ability to stage both flat action on its excellent all-weather course, and National Hunt events on an inner jumps turf track.
Given its setting in such a scenic spot in the UK and its proximity to several popular urban hubs, many racing fans making the trip to Southwell may wish to extend their visit with an overnight stay – particularly as the track stages so many evening fixtures. Thankfully for those wishing to do so, accommodation options are in plentiful supply, both close to the track and a little further afield.
Closest to the Course
Given its distinctly rural setting, there aren’t too many accommodation options in the immediate vicinity of the track, with the only facility within a mile of the course being Lodge Barns. The town of Southwell itself does however lie only around two miles to the north, and is home to several solid choices including the Bramley Apple Inn and the Reindeer Accommodation.
Whilst falling into the small-town category, Southwell does still boast a number of points of interest, including Southwell Minster, and the house of Lord Byron. And, happily, for those who enjoy a little liquid refreshment following their day at the races, the number of pubs and bars significantly outnumbers the accommodation options, with the Hearty Goodfellow, Admiral Rodney and Old Coach House amongst a clutch of popular and highly rated options.
Nap in Nottingham
Despite scoring top marks for proximity, Southwell may be a little on the small side for some. For racegoers seeking more of a big city experience to combine with their racing trip, the most obvious option is the city of Nottingham, which lies only around 15 miles to the southwest of the track.
Home to an excellent castle, a selection of museums and the intriguing “City of Caves”, there’s plenty on offer for history buffs, whilst highlights of a bustling pub scene include the 15th century and heavy rock combination of Ye Olde Salutation Inn, the Gothic-themed Pit and Pendulum, and the craft beers of the Barrel Drop. In terms of accommodation options, there should be something to suit all tastes and budgets here. Mercure, Best Western and Holiday Inn are all represented, whilst Park Plaza and De Vere Orchard Hall feature amongst the more luxurious options available.
Snooze in Sherwood
Only a half-hour drive to the north of the course lies one of the UK’s most famous forests. Set in 375 hectares of a beautiful nature reserve, Sherwood Forest is home to a wide array of plant and animal life, and of course the famous legend of Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men.
A hugely popular tourist destination, the forest is well worth a visit, and well served by accommodation options, including Loxleys Lodge and an excellent Center Parks. Lying to the southern edge of the park, the highly rated Wranglers Den is amongst the most conveniently located choices for those travelling from Southwell racecourse.
About the Racecourse
Southwell takes full advantage of its dual-purpose nature, with a total of 58 meetings per year making it one of the busiest tracks in the UK or Ireland. The bulk of the action is held on the All-Weather, with around 40 meetings taking place between the months of August and April, including 25 evening fixtures. The turf courses 18 National Hunt fixtures then all fall between March and December.
Despite its countryside setting, Southwell is relatively easy to reach by road from all directions, with the A1, A617, M1, A52 and A46 approaching from the North, the M1, A52 and A46 from the south, the A17 from the east and the A617 from the west. The course is well signposted from the major roadways, but racegoers attending Sunday or evening meetings should be sure to follow the temporary signage, as local travel restrictions are in place during these times. For those wishing to use a satnav, the postcode to enter is NG25 0QB. Upon arrival at the course, motorists will find ample free parking available, with spaces for around 1,000 cars.
For those travelling by train, Rolleston Station is within walking distance of the track and lies on the Nottingham to Lincoln line, with extra services laid on for all race days other than Sunday fixtures. Nottingham Station itself sits on a number of major lines linking to all parts of the country. In addition to the Nottingham to Rolleston train, the number 26 bus service also travels from Nottingham City Centre to Southwell Town. Once in Southwell, the course is around an hour’s walk or a 10-minute taxi journey away.
Up until the year 2021, Southwell had been the only UK all-weather track to utilise a Fibresand surface. Much slower than other synthetic surfaces, Fibresand was also notorious for producing high levels of kickback. As such it didn’t come as the biggest surprise when the course management opted to switch to Tapeta, which is also in use at both Wolverhampton and Newcastle.
Turning to the track layout, Southwell’s 1m2f left-handed circuit features two straight sections of around three furlongs in length, and a pair of two-furlong sweeping bends – giving the track a similar configuration to the type of layout seen so often in US racing. In addition to the main oval, the flat course also features a two-furlong chute that runs into the home straight, creating a straight five-furlong track. Widely respected as one of the fairest layouts in the country, runners are able to win from all positions here, be that from the front or held up behind. Evidence regarding the draw must be met with a degree of caution due to the limited evidence on the new surface, but the early data does show a definite trend against those drawn high over all distances from five furlongs to a mile.
Lying to the inside of the all-weather track, the National Hunt course is that bit tighter than its flat counterpart, with a circuit of around a mile in length. Those tackling the chase track are faced with seven fairly stiff fences per lap, four of which lie in the backstretch, with the final three in the home straight prior to an easy flat run-in of close to a furlong. The above-average difficulty of the obstacles, in combination with the generally lower class of performer does see a higher-than-average number of fallers and unseats in chase contests at the track. If there is to be an error made, it is most likely to come at the final fence in the backstretch which comes up quickly after the previous obstacle.
With Southwell employing portable obstacles, hurdles contests take place on exactly the same course as chase events, with hurdles and fences being moved on and off the track as required. Events over the smaller obstacles feature five hurdles per circuit, three in the back section, with two in the straight, again prior to a run-in of around a furlong. Note that Southwell uses the type of brush style hurdle commonly seen in French racing. Resembling mini-fences, this style of barrier demands greater accuracy than the more flimsy form of hurdles used at the majority of British tracks.
The key characteristics required on the National Hunt track at Southwell very much depends upon the weather. On good to soft or quicker going, speed is the order of the day, but when the rains arrive, the emphasis is placed firmly upon stamina. Should the word heavy enter the going description it really can become a slog, with races over longer distances often seeing very few finishers. Overall, National Hunt contests show a slight bias towards those who like to race prominently.
Being such a busy venue, with many competitive but average quality meetings, Southwell is keen to cater to the masses and employs a fairly relaxed dress code. Racegoers in the Grandstand enclosure are largely free to dress as they please whilst of course remaining on the right side of decency and avoiding anything likely to prove offensive in nature.
Smart casual is recommended in the hospitality areas, with t-shirts, shorts and trainers prohibited. Do bear in mind that many racegoers opt to arrive suited and booted, or in their finest frocks, for the bigger days of the year, most notably on Ladies Day.
General admission at Southwell is priced at between £18 and £22 at the majority of meetings, rising to £32 for the larger race days including Ladies Day. General admission affords access to the main Grandstand, Parade Ring, trackside views of the winning post and a range of bars and eateries including the Minstrel Bar, the Sherwood Bar, the track’s Fish and Chip Shop and a selection of mobile outlets.
In addition to the standard options, a selection of hospitality packages is also available, ranging from the £45 light bight deal to the £85 Minster Lawn bundle which includes two entry tickets, a bottle of prosecco, a picnic box and trackside seating. The £172 Seasons Restaurant deal meanwhile includes entry, private balcony viewing, a welcome drink and snacks, a three-course meal, cakes and tea/coffee, a race card, a tipster talk and reserved seating.
Despite the wealth of fixtures on offer, Southwell is not renowned for a particularly high standard of racing, with no events at Listed level or above either on the flat or over jumps. Nevertheless, the action is invariably competitive, and there are still those fixtures that come out ahead of the rest in terms of popularity and attendance, with the following three topping the pile.
In common with many tracks up and down the land, one of the biggest race days of the year at Southwell is that which is dedicated to the fairer sex. Benefitting from a mid-August date, and traditionally held on a punter friendly Sunday afternoon, the racing action may be low key, but this is nevertheless one of the first dates in the diary for local racing fans. With live music after racing and excellent prizes on offer in the “Ladies Style Awards”, an excellent atmosphere is all but guaranteed at this summertime sizzler.
Whilst Ladies Days are almost ubiquitous at UK and Irish racecourses, not all venues lay on a day specifically devoted to the gents. Taking place on a Friday evening towards the start of December, this six-race flat fixture offers festive period discounts on entry, with further concessions available for parties of six or more. Throw in live music, both during and after racing, and it’s no surprise that many racing fans opt to get the lads together for the track’s biggest wintertime meeting.
And for something a little different, why not head to the track’s Racing League fixture. Again, held on the all-weather circuit, this initiative sees Southwell take part in a six week series of fixtures held between August and September, in which teams of trainers and jockeys compete for excellent prize money and the title of Racing League Champions. With a whole host of additional entertainment for all the family on offer, this is another summertime fixture well worth a look.
Racing in the Southwell locale dates all the way back to the 1840s, with tales of pony races taking place both in Southwell itself and the nearby town of Newark. Over time the popularity of pony racing decreased in favour of thoroughbred events and, following the closure of Newark during the 1880s, Southwell began to flourish as a thoroughbred racing venue.
Initially taking place on a patch of land close to Southwell Minster, the action then transferred to nearby Kirklington. With the first grandstand opening in 1883 – three years prior to the formation of the Southwell Racing Company in 1883 – all initially appeared to be well at the new venue. However, the death of a horse and jockey due to an unsafe patch of land saw the track have its licence revoked in 1897.
The absence of racing in the area was to prove short-lived, with a new facility at Rolleston – complete with a 1,200-capacity grandstand – opening in 1898, just seven months after the demise of the old course.
Other than being forced into closure during the war years, racing has continued at the Rolleston site to this day, benefiting from several improvements and upgrades over the years; 1965 seeing the building of a new grandstand, with the new hurdles course, complete with innovative watering system, coming in 1968.
All Weather Track Debut
It was, however, in 1989 that the most significant change in the modern history of the course took place, as the Fibresand all-weather track made its debut. In addition to the flat contests, in 1989 Southwell also became the first – and most likely only – all-weather course to stage jumps races. Unsurprisingly, coming up short from a safety perspective, these all-weather jumps meetings ended very soon after they began.
Moving ahead to the current century and Southwell’s “all-weather” categorisation has twice been tested to breaking point by severe flooding. Firstly, when closed for five months in 2007, and secondly, when a similar deluge saw the loss of all meetings at the track between December 2012 and February 2012 – although Lingfield and Wolverhampton did step in to stage a number of relocated fixtures.
Heavy Rains & Drones
Whilst unexpectedly heavy downpours have been a problem since time began, 2019 saw Southwell hitting the headlines for a far more modern problem in the sky – that of drones. Loaded with a camera, these remotely controlled contraptions were being flown over the course and beaming back pictures of the unfolding action; and with drone pictures being up to two seconds quicker than those available via the racing broadcasters, in-play punters with access to the images were (and as of 2022 still are) being handed a significant advantage.
Of course, drones are of relatively little significance to the everyday racegoer, and those attending any of Southwell’s vast number of fixtures will find competitive racing action and an excellent race day experience. And given the overwhelmingly positive response to the new Tapeta surface, the track seems set to play an increasingly prominent role in the all-weather season in the years to come.