Of the 59 racecourses on the British mainland, a total of three are to be found in the southwest county of Somerset. Of that trio, the newest lies around two miles outside the county town from which it takes its name. Nestled at the foot of the Blackdown Hills, with views of the Quantocks to the north, Taunton’s small rural track boasts a spectacular countryside setting and a friendly, welcoming atmosphere.
One of only a handful of independently owned racecourses in the UK, the National Hunt-only venue has been attracting fans of the jumping game for closing in on a hundred years now and looks set to do so for some time to come.
Given its beautiful setting and proximity to the popular tourist spot of the southwest coast, many racing fans making the trip to Taunton may not need too much encouragement to extend their visit with an overnight stay. Thankfully, for those hoping to do so, accommodation options are in plentiful supply, both close to the track and a little further afield.
Closest to the Course
At under a mile from the course, the very highly rated Octon Cottages are well worth a look should proximity to the track be a priority. However, the largest concentration of accommodation options is to be found within the town of Taunton itself.
Only around two miles to the north of the course, Taunton boasts plenty to keep tourists entertained, including the Museum of Somerset, a steam railway, beautiful gardens, and a popular cider farm. For those in search of a post-race tipple, the town is home to a number of characterful pubs and bars, including the traditional the Ring of Bells, modern Hideout, and thematically named the Racehorse Inn. Holiday Inn, ibis and Best Western are amongst the big-name accommodation options represented in the town, whilst the centrally located Castle Hotel and Castle House may be of interest to the more luxuriously inclined.
Charming as it is, Taunton may be a little on the small side for some racegoers. For those seeking a more bustling experience, Exeter is well worth a look. Only around 30 miles to the south of the course, and only 10 miles off the coast, Exeter is easily reached by road and offers a number of intriguing attractions including “The House That Moved”, Hidden Passages and a historic castle. In addition to all of that, there is a thriving pub scene to be found on the banks of the River Exe, with the likes of the Fat Pig, George’s Meeting House and the Hourglass all well worth a look. When looking at accommodation options, there should be something to suit most tastes and budgets here, from big chains such as Mercure, Jury’s Inn and Hotel du Vin up to the more bespoke offerings of City Gate or Southernay House Hotel.
Escape to the Country
Whichever direction you travel from Taunton, it won’t be too long before you hit a National Park or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). For those in search of a more tranquil location to pair with their racing trip, the most conveniently located park is that of the Blackdown Hills (AONB). Visible from the course itself, the Hills are home to a diverse range of plant and animal life, and a number of excellent walks, providing an ideal setting in which to unwind following a day at the track. Being such a popular spot with tourists, the Blackdown Hills are peppered with accommodation options. By virtue of lying towards the northern end of the park, the likes of Days Inn, the Greyhound Inn and the Farmers Arms are amongst the most viable sites for racegoers.
About the Racecourse
Taunton’s season operates in line with the core of the British National Hunt campaign, with the track’s 14 fixtures all taking place between the months of October and April. With just the one Saturday meeting and one evening fixture, the vast majority of these events are relatively low-key afternoon affairs. That said, the track’s proximity to a number of major training operations does attract many big-name trainers, with Paul Nicholls, Nicky Henderson, Dan Skelton and Nigel Twiston-Davies all being frequent visitors to the course.
Motorists travelling to Taunton will find the track easy to reach from all directions. Those arriving from the north or south should follow the M5 before turning off at Junction 25; the A303 and A358 approach from the east, with the A361 being the best motorway to follow from the west. Lying on the B1370 road from Taunton to Honilton, the track is well signposted, but for satnav users, the postcode to enter is TA3 7BL. Taunton offers free car parking for racegoers, with space for 500 vehicles. However, do be aware that this tends to fill up quickly on busier race days.
For those travelling by train, Taunton Train Station sits in the southern part of the town, around four miles from the course. Whilst there are no public bus routes that run from the town centre to the track, a free shuttle bus service will be in operation – running from the train station to the course and back again on all race days. This service departs around two hours before the first race, with the return service leaving the track 30 minutes after the last. Return tickets are issued for the journey from the station, with priority for the return journey being given to ticket holders. Alternatively, taxis are available both from the town centre and from outside the racecourse.
Taunton’s 1m2f circuit is broadly in the shape of an elongated oval, featuring a pair of long straight sections, and two tight turns, with that which leads away from the stands following the winning post being particularly sharp. Relatively flat for much of its duration, the track does feature a downhill section on the run towards the third last, whilst the final 3f climbs all the way to the line, creating a reasonably demanding finish.
Those tackling the chase course are faced with a total of seven obstacles per circuit, four of which lie in the backstretch before a final three in the home straight, with a run-in of 150 yards after the last. The fences themselves are fairly small and easy, with the track’s high number of fallers and unseats being a result of the lower class of racing rather than any inherent difficulty of the obstacles. That said, this isn’t an entirely straightforward jumping challenge, with the four fences in the backstretch coming up fairly quickly after one another, whilst the first in the home straight is made trickier as a result of the downhill approach.
Events over hurdles feature five flights per lap, three in the backstretch and two in the home straight, with the second last being the most likely to catch runners out courtesy of the downhill approach. Despite operating during the wetter months of the year, Taunton does drain particularly well in comparison to many other National Hunt venues and can generally be relied upon to produce good winter racing ground – extreme heavy going being a real rarity around here.
With the sharp turns being offset by the extensive straight sections, Taunton is generally considered to be a pretty fair track, with galloping and nippier sorts both able to go well. There does however seem to be a general trend towards front runners, with those who like to lead and have sufficient stamina on their side often proving very difficult to reel in.
There is no official dress code in place at what is a distinctly relaxed rural venue, with the best advice being to dress for the weather and opt for sensible footwear, as much of the course is not particularly high heel friendly. The track does encourage racegoers in the restaurant and hospitality areas to dress smartly but this is not rigidly enforced.
There is just one main enclosure in operation at Taunton, priced at £16 in advance and £20 on the day for the majority of meetings. Groups of 15 or more are eligible for a discounted rate of £12 per ticket when booking in advance, whilst all under 18’s go free with a paying adult. 18 to 24 year olds meanwhile are eligible for a discount through the RacePass 18 to 24 programme, which operates across a number of tracks.
General admission affords access to all areas of the course – other than the members stand and private hospitality boxes – including both grandstands, the centre course area, parade ring/winners enclosure, Orchard and Saddle Room restaurants and a range of bars.
Admission tickets may be upgraded with the purchase of a race day package which, for £10, includes a food and drink voucher and a race card. Raceday packages must be booked at least five days in advance of the meeting.
Taunton also offers a range of hospitality packages. Priced at £65 per head at a standard meeting and £70 per head at a premium fixture, the Orchard Restaurant deal provides admission, a table overlooking the track, a race card, a three-course lunch, afternoon tea and unlimited coffee. A range of hospitality suites, able to cater for parties of 12 to 200, are also available, with the best advice being to contact the track in advance in order to discuss your requirements.
Operating firmly in the mid to lower class category, Taunton stages just the one contest at Listed level or above. That doesn’t detract much from the popularity of the course though, with the track big on themed days, and dedicating races to patrons past and present. And as with all courses, there are those meetings that stand out from the crowd, with the following three topping the pile.
Byerley Stud Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle
Festive fixtures always tend to be popular, with many racegoers keen to keep the Christmas party atmosphere going at the racetrack. And things are no different at Taunton, with this late December meeting always amongst the best attended of the season. Traditionally taking place on a Thursday afternoon, a seven-race card is lit up by the track’s only Listed class event of the Byerley Stud Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle which invariably attracts a field of promising sorts from the top yards.
Another of the first dates in the diary of local racing fans is this springtime meeting held in late March/early April each year. Also taking place on a Thursday afternoon, a seven-race card consisting of novice and handicapping action provides the entertainment on the track, whilst in the stands, the ladies compete for the excellent prizes on offer in the Best Dressed Ladies competition. One of the late-season highlights at the course, this meeting does tend to sell out – so be sure to book early!
Family Fun Day
And for racegoers planning to bring the kids along, this April meeting should be the first port of call. A competitive seven-race card and all the usual catering and bar facilities should keep the adults entertained, whilst for the kids, there’s a whole host of additional entertainment on offer, including ferret racing, a dog and duck display, fairground activities and face painting. All in all, a cracking day out for the whole family at this hugely popular Wednesday afternoon fixture.
Racing has been reported as taking place in this corner of Somerset since way back in the mid-18th Century. Broomhay in West Monkton provided the stage for that early action, before a combination of declining interest and the onset of the Napoleonic War saw racing coming to an end in 1812.
The nearby site at Bridgewater was then left to carry the load until events recommenced in Taunton in 1825 on a patch of land which now houses Kings College. Highly praised in Sporting Magazine as being, “…more brilliant than ever before, with superb equipage and fashionable company” all appeared to be going smoothly at the new site.
Change of Location
Heavy rainfall in 1838, however, exposed a previously unexpected vulnerability to the elements, resulting in the track being completely washed out and un-raceable. Time for a move once more, and in 1840 a new course was opened at Trull Moor. This new venture proved to be a short-lived affair, with the course closing in 1855, leaving Bridgewater as the only venue in the area once again.
That is how things stayed until 1927 when, sparked by a meeting of seven men in London’s Paddington Hotel, the Taunton Racecourse Company was founded, with plans put in place to open a new course on land granted by the Viscount Portman. Previously home to Orchard Portman House, which had been destroyed in 1840, the area of land was quickly transformed, with the first meeting taking place on 21st September 1927.
Queen Mother Visits in 1962
At long last racing in Taunton seems to have found a permanent home, as close to 100 years later, the racing action continues to take place at this site, although the facilities have of course benefited from a number of upgrades over the years. And with the initial “stand” consisting of a wooden hut surrounded by large puddles of mud, it’s safe to say improvements were needed.
A wooden hut certainly wouldn’t have been befitting of a visit from the famous racing fan the Queen Mother, which led to the building of the Royal Box ahead of her proposed attendance in 1959 – although due to illness the Queen Mother only finally arrived three years later in 1962.
More Recent Renovations
1969 then saw the building of a new grandstand, which has since been supplemented by the additions of the Orchard Stand, the Paddock Stand and the AP McCoy Stand, bringing the track facilities firmly into the modern era. The course itself has also undergone significant changes since that 1927 debut, with the 1960s seeing both the back straight and bends extended using earth removed during the building of the nearby M5 motorway.
More recent innovations include the installation of a reservoir in the centre of the track, leading to improvements in irrigation and no doubt contributing to the track’s staff winning top prize in the 2012 Racecourse Groundstaff of the Year Awards. A track that can be relied upon to produce excellent racing conditions, and high-class facilities, Taunton’s small but charming track is well worth a look.