The British mainland is home to many wonderful racetracks up and down the land, both large and small. And falling firmly into the small countryside category is the scenic venue of Stratford-on-Avon. Known simply as Stratford to many, this well attended course resides in a bend of the River Avon, around two miles southwest of the medieval town of Stratford itself.
Boasting views of Shakespeare’s resting place at Holy Trinity, this Warwickshire track has been offering a casual yet charming race day experience for centuries now and continues to draw in racing fans from far and wide.
Given its prime countryside location and proximity, both to the tourist hotspot of Stratford-on-Avon, and the major urban hub of Birmingham, many racing fans making the trip to the West Midlands may wish to extend their visit with an overnight stay. And, thankfully, for those looking to linger a little longer, accommodation options are in plentiful supply.
Closest to the Course
If proximity to the course is your number one priority, then the highly rated, the Hideaway, which lies but a short walk from the track is well worth a look. However, the largest concentration of accommodation options in the area is to be found within the town of Stratford itself.
A mecca for fans of Britain’s greatest bard, the town is home to the birthplace of Shakespeare, an array of excellent theatres, and the Countess of Evesham – which is billed as Stratford’s version of the Orient Express. Racegoers seeking a post-race tipple will also find themselves well catered for, with the Dirty Duck, the Pen and Parchment, and the Bear just a selection of the highly-rated establishments on offer. Those tempted by a stay on the banks of the Avon will find a wide selection of hotels available, from major chains such as Mercure, Q Hotels and Hotel du Vin, up to swankier options such as the Ettington Park Hotel and the Three Gables.
Bunk in Birmingham
Those seeking something a little livelier than the cultural offerings of Stratford may wish to look north to England’s second city of Birmingham. Only around 35 miles from the course, and easily reachable by both road and rail, “Brum” has plenty to offer those seeking the big city experience. Boasting a range of cultural and historical attractions, the city is also home to the bustling Broad Street and its collection of pubs, including the Stratford-related Shakespeare Inn, the Distillery and excellent, the Old Contemptibles. And with quite literally hundreds of accommodation options, there should be something to suit all tastes and budgets here, from big brands including the Holiday Inn, Best Western and ibis, to the more bespoke offerings of the Exclusive Jacuzzi Apartments or the Park Regis Birmingham.
Escape to the Country
Of course, the buzz of a big city may not be for everyone; many racegoers may instead wish to make the most of their visit by taking in a little of the beautiful British countryside. And handily for those seeking a more tranquil pairing to their day at the races, the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that is the Cotswolds lies just to the South of the track. A fine example of rural England at its most mellow, the rolling hills and grasslands are the perfect setting for a range of excellent walks and provide the perfect setting to unwind following a day at the track.
Accommodation options are scattered throughout the Cotswolds, but by virtue of lying towards the northern boundary, the likes of the Three Ways House Hotel, Bridge Farm Holiday Cottages and Whitchurch Farm Guesthouse are the most conveniently located for racegoers.
About the Racecourse
One of the key players during the summer jumps season, Stratford’s National Hunt only venue lays on a total of 17 meetings per year, all of which fall been March and late October. A relatively punter-friendly track in terms of its scheduling, eight of these meetings take place at the weekend, in addition to four popular evening fixtures. Offering good prize money for its size, Stratford regularly attracts runners from the larger yards, with Nicky Henderson and Dan Skelton both being frequent visitors here.
Stratford is a relatively easy track to reach by road, with the M42, M40 and A46 approaching from the North, the M40, A46, M5 and A44 from the South, and the A422 from the east and west. Motorists will find the course to be well signposted, but for satnav users, the postcode to enter is CV37 9SE. Upon arrival at the course those driving to the track will have the option of two car parks; one located in the centre of the course at a cost of £3 per vehicle, and a free alternative close to the main entrance.
For those travelling by train, Stratford-upon-Avon Station is located around a 20-minute walk from the course or racegoers may wish to make use of the taxi rank located just outside the station. Stratford-upon-Avon Station is frequently served by Birmingham Moor Street, which in turn enjoys strong links with most areas of the British mainland.
Stratford’s 1m2f left-handed circuit is close to triangular in shape, featuring three straight sections, two bends of close to ninety degrees, and a longer, more sweeping turn that leads back into the home straight. Generally, flat throughout, the only real undulations lie in the back straight where each of the fences sits on a slight bank.
Lying to the inner section of the track, the hurdles course features five flights per circuit, the last of which lies in the home straight, before a short run-in of under a furlong.
Runners tackling the larger obstacles are faced with eight fences per circuit, including a water jump just before the winning post, which is omitted on the final circuit – giving the chase course a longer run-in than its hurdles counterpart. Whilst the fences themselves aren’t unusually stiff, the fact that most races tend to be run at a strong gallop does result in a higher-than-average number of falls and unseats.
As a predominantly summertime venue. Stratford can generally be relied upon to produce good racing ground. Do be aware however that courtesy of a slow draining clay subsoil, it can get very soft, very quickly, when the rains do arrive.
A strongly speed-favouring track, Stratford is well suited to agile frontrunners as it is notoriously difficult for those in behind to make up ground around that long turn for home. Given that emphasis on speed over stamina, this can be a good track for runners making the switch from the flat, provided they can jump accurately and at speed.
One of the more relaxed tracks in the land in terms of race day experience, there is no official dress code in place at Stratford, other than a stipulation against ripped jeans. Many racegoers do opt for smart casual attire, particularly in the hospitality areas, whilst it is also important to consult the weather forecast, as much of the track is exposed to the elements.
Originally consisting of three enclosures, the Club Enclosure and Tattersalls have now been combined at Stratford to form what is known as the Main Enclosure. Affording access to all public areas of the course, the parade ring, the winners’ enclosure, the Champagne Bar, the Garrick Bar and the Gallery Restaurant, access to this enclosure is priced at £20 for the vast majority of meetings.
The second main ticketing option is that of the Centre Course Enclosure. Priced at £12.50, this is a popular picnicking area with families but does also contain its own selection of bar and catering facilities.
In addition to the standard options, a selection of hospitality packages is also available. A three-course meal deal in the Paddock Pavilion or Gallery Restaurant is priced at £90 per person, whilst Private Box experiences, including either a three-course meal or picnic box, and a Drinks Package begins at around £140 per head.
Stratford plays a key role in keeping the jumps action ticking over during the warmer months of the year, with a steady stream of competitive fixtures. And whilst there may be no events at listed level or above, there are still those meetings that stand out from the crowd, with the following three topping the pile.
Foxhunters Champion Chase
Despite that lack of high-class races, Stratford does play host to one of the biggest events of the entire season for the amateur riders. Taking place in late May/early June each year, the Stratford Foxhunters Champion Chase, also known as The Horse and Hound Cup, lies behind only the Foxhunter events at the Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals in terms of prestige. Held as part of a punter friendly Friday evening fixture, a capacity crowd and a cracking atmosphere are all but guaranteed at this meeting.
Stratford Summer Salver
Next on the list comes this always well-attended Sunday afternoon meeting in early July. Previously headlined by the now-defunct Stratford Summer Cup, it is left to the 2m½f hurdle of the Stratford Summer Salver to provide the headline act at this seven-race summertime fixture. Regularly bathed in sunshine at this time of year, and with additional entertainment on offer for the kids in the Centre Enclosure, this is a fun day out for all the family.
And last but by no means least is Stratford’s signature Ladies Day fixture. A resolutely relaxed venue in terms of dress code for the bulk of the season, that all changes at this mid-July meeting, which sees the local ladies don their finery for what is one of the highlights of the Stratford social calendar. With prizes on offer for the Best Dressed Lady, Best Dressed Couple and Best Hat, and additional entertainment in the stands, this popular Sunday afternoon meeting regularly attracts racegoers from far and wide.
With the earliest races having taken place at nearby Shottery Meadow way back in 1718, this corner of the West Midlands has been staging racing fixtures of some description for over 300 years. It was, however, not until later, in 1755, that the first official events took place at the current site.
Celebrities & Famous Horses
And, by 1758, the venue was proving popular enough to stage a well-attended three-day fixture supported by local actor and playwright David Garrick, who lent his name to the trophy awarded in the meetings feature contest. Whilst the local celebrities may have been keen to endorse the racing action, the farmers in the area had a rather different view – their complaints became significant enough to force the track into closure in 1776.
It was a fairly significant hiatus too, with racing not resuming at the track until 60 years later in 1836. Just three years after re-opening the track played host to one of its most famous horses, in the shape of a chaser by the name of Lottery. Successful here in 1839, Lottery then went on to land the first-ever Grand National at Aintree later in the same year.
Continuing to gain in popularity over the years, the track received a boost in spectators in the early 1900s due to the closure of the course at nearby Leamington Spa. The formation of the Stratford Race Company in 1922 saw the track enter a more organised era, leading to significant upgrades to the venue. The most significant early alteration came through the purchase of much of the surrounding land, which enabled the course to be expanded and created space for improved facilities.
1955 saw the building of a new Grandstand, with the track’s biggest race of the Stratford Foxhunters Champion Chase then making its debut in 1958. With the track’s on-site restaurants added to the fray in 1965, Stratford was well placed to establish itself in the modernising racing landscape of the time.
And, in truth, not too much has changed since the 1960s, barring the odd upgrade here and there, with the most notable addition being the introduction of the water jump in front of the stands in 2008. That lack of extreme modernisation is really all part of the charm though at a beautifully scenic countryside track that continues to draw in the crowds.