Located in the heart of the Somerset countryside, and taking its name from the nearby town, Wincanton Racecourse is not too far off its centenary year and has been staging National Hunt action since 1927.
Dedicated solely to the winter arm of the sport, the track is smaller and not so frequently used as some others in the land, but certainly punches above its weight when it comes to the quality of the action on offer. Voted the best small racecourse in the South West and Wales category on numerous occasions, this countryside venue never fails to draw fans to what is a most picturesque corner of the West Country.
Scenic and rural it may be, but the track isn’t cut off entirely from civilisation, with Wincanton itself just over a mile away, and Yeovil and Frome only a little further afield. Each of those towns boast their own unique attractions which, in combination with the lure of nearby Bristol, may persuade racegoers to extend their visit with an overnight stay in the area. And for those who do wish to tack an extra day or two onto their excursion, there are plenty of options.
Closest to the Course
It doesn’t get much closer than actually being based at the track itself. And for those seeking to roll out of bed and practically be at the winning post, Wincanton Racecourse’s very own Kingwell Lodge is the place to be. Comfortably laid out, and with easy access to the nine-hole golf course situated in the centre of the track, Kingwell Lodge pretty much sells itself for overnight racegoers. With only four rooms available though, you will need to be both quick, and lucky to get one.
After the Lodge, the next closest options lie within the town of Wincanton itself, including the popular Dolphin Hotel and Pub, which boasts “Probably the best breakfast in Wincanton”, most likely serves “premium” Danish lager, and lies just over a mile away from the course.
A Short Drive Away
Being such a scenic part of the world, Somerset draws in plenty of visitors to view the countryside, resulting in a multitude of accommodation options in and around the area. The Old Red Lion and Acorn Cottage are popular choices within three miles, off to the west of the track, whilst for those who fancy something a little different, both the Traditional YURT @ Longleat and Mollies Hut are less than five miles away to the north. Or to really continue the racing theme to your trip, how about the Final Furlong just outside Milton Clevedon and only a shade over 40 furlongs (that’s five miles by the way!) away.
Based in Bristol
Wincanton itself, and to a greater degree Gillingham and Yeovil, all provide at least some form of after-racing options, but for those racegoers who like to balance the tranquillity of the countryside on race day, with the bright lights of the city at night, Bristol may be their best option. Only 32 miles to the north, the Bristol to Wincanton drive takes around one hour.
And as you would expect of a big city, Bristol offers a broad selection of accommodation choices, covering the full range of budgets and taste preferences. The Clifton Hotel Bristol and the Washington are amongst the more reasonably priced options, with the likes of Bristol Harbour Hotel & Spa and the Number 36 Clifton offering something a little more sumptuous. With most of the major chains also represented in the area, you are spoilt for choice in the land that houses the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge, and which first gave the world Ribena. Drink that, fact fans!
About the Racecourse
Solely a National Hunt venue throughout its history, Wincanton’s season begins in October and draws to a close in late April/early May each year. All told, the track lays on around 17 fixtures over this period, with the majority being fairly run of the mill affairs. There are, however, notable highlights on the three major Saturday afternoon fixtures, including a trio of classy Grade 2 affairs and one of the biggest staying handicaps of the season, in the shape of the Badger Beers Silver Trophy.
Whilst relatively remotely located, at least in terms of its proximity to a major city, travellers to the track will find it well served by both road and rail. Train stations at Bruton and Castle Cary on the Paddington-Bristol line and Gillingham on the Exeter-London line are all within seven miles of the track, and so only a reasonable taxi journey away. The best option for racegoers however may be Templecombe Station. Frequently serviced by trains arriving from both Exeter and London Waterloo, Wincanton Racecourse lays on a free shuttle bus service both to and from this station on all race days. Berry’s Coaches “Superfast” service also travels twice daily between London and Wincanton Town, providing an additional option for those travelling from the capital.
For those driving to the course, the track lies on the B3081 between Bruton and Wincanton. The M5, A358, A372 and A303 all lead to the area from the north, whilst those arriving from southern parts of the country should take the A352, A359 or B3145. Upon reaching the town of Wincanton, the aforementioned B3081 should then be followed for around one mile in a northerly direction. Once in the general vicinity though drivers will find the track well sign-posted, whilst for those using satnav the postcode is BA9 8BJ.
Once at the track an extensive, well signposted and free car parking area is available on all race-days. Further options within Wincanton Town Centre include the 24-hour Memorial Car Park, whilst a 24-hour facility is also available at the Castle Cary Train Station.
Wincanton’s right-handed track measures a relatively short 1m3f in circumference and lies somewhere between an oval and a rectangle in terms of its configuration, with the hurdles course using the inner portion of the track and the chase the outer. The hurdles themselves are broadly in line with what you might expect to find elsewhere, but the fences are notably stiff in comparison with many other chase courses, placing a real premium on jumping ability.
Racegoers at the track are afforded a close view of one of the most spectacular jumping finishes in the sport, with the final three fences lying in the home straight, and all coming up pretty quickly after one another, prior to a final 200-yard dash for the line.
Featuring only the mildest of undulations throughout, Wincanton is considered to be a good galloping track, and one at which front runners frequently go well, particularly when the ground is good or quicker. Do be aware though that when the heavens open, it can rapidly become a real slog around here, bringing the stamina of the contenders firmly into play.
Certain racecourses in the land employ fairly detailed dress codes, with what you can and can’t wear being related to a multitude of different enclosures and the nature of the meeting. Not so at Wincanton, which in comparison to some, keeps things very simple indeed.
There is in fact no official dress code at the track, with the only recommendation being to dress sensibly with respect to the weather – bearing in mind that the majority of fixtures take place during the colder, wetter months of the year. The track does state a preference against denim or sports shorts and offensive t-shirts, whilst fancy-dress is permitted in all areas other than the Premier Enclosure, Restaurant, or hospitality areas – so long as it is not offensive in nature.
The track advises that they be contacted in advance by any racegoer unsure as to the suitability of their proposed costume, so as to avoid disappointment on the day. Whilst smart casual tends to be the go-to attire at the majority of race days, many visitors do push the boat out at the season’s major fixtures, with ladies in hats and gents in suits being a common sight on Badger Chase Day, Boxing Day and at the Kingwell Hurdle meeting.
At all bar the hugely popular Boxing Day fixture, there are just the two enclosures in operation at Wincanton, namely the Grandstand Enclosure and the Premier Enclosure. Tickets for the Grandstand Enclosure are priced at between £16 and £19 for the vast majority of meetings. This area provides an excellent view of the final furlong, including those famous three fences, in addition to access to the parade ring, the buzz of the main betting ring and a whole host of catering and bar options – including the Badger Café and Bar.
Premier Enclosure tickets are slightly more expensive at around £23-£25 for most fixtures, and in addition to providing access to all public areas of the course, offer two further public bars, two restaurants (which do need to be pre-booked), covered seating within the Premier Stand and the opportunity to watch the racing from the inside of the track. Note that at certain meetings an area of the Premier Enclosure is further segregated into a Premier Viewing Area, offering the very best views of the track at around £30-£35 per ticket.
In addition to the above standard options, at the Boxing Day meeting the course also opens the Course Enclosure alongside the third last fence. A relaxed, family friendly area of the track, racegoers are permitted to bring their own picnic along, although the enclosure does also boast its own bar and food outlet. Also the only area that permits entry to dogs (must be on a lead), tickets tend to be the cheapest available at a bargain price somewhere around £10.
All children go free with a paying adult at the track, whilst discounts are available for students between the ages of 18 and 24, and for groups of six or more. A range of hospitality and private box options are also available, with prices starting at around £72 per person, making it an affordable luxury for racing fans looking to celebrate.
Wincanton racecourse doesn’t boast any “festivals” or multi-day meetings over the course of the season, with all 17 of its fixtures being single-day, standalone affairs. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a number of cracking meetings on offer though, including the always well-attended Boxing Day event, and a couple of Saturday afternoon cards which grab the attention of the wider racing world.
Badger Beers Chase Day
Taking place towards the start of November each year, for many racing fans this excellent seven-race card is one of the surest signs that the latest jumps season is in full swing. Celebrating a partnership between the track and Badger Beers, which has now reached its 60th anniversary, this is always one of the best-attended meetings of the year, and a fixture which really puts Wincanton on the map. Well, as much as Wincanton is on the map, anyway!
The main event of the Listed class Badger Beers Silver Trophy Handicap is invariably one of the biggest early season betting heats, and a race in which the locally based trainer Paul Nicholls is to be greatly respected. With the Grade 2 Elite Hurdle amongst the support, for local racegoers, and those from further afield, this is a meeting not to be missed.
Boxing Day Meeting
Badger Beers Chase Day scores top marks when it comes to the combination of quality racing and thronging stands. However, if attendance is to be the main measure, even that early season fixture comes in second to Wincanton’s hugely popular Boxing Day meeting.
Handicapping action is very much the order of the day on a card featuring a Pertemps qualifier for the Cheltenham Festival and a chase run in honour of the track’s founder, Lord Stalbridge, but the relatively low-profile fare doesn’t deter the crowds from descending in their masses to shake of any festive fug. A real family and friends-focussed festive celebration, the track lays on an array of catering and entertainment options including live music between races to add to the party atmosphere.
The highlights keep on coming throughout the season, with February seeing the track play host to what is its classiest contest. The Kingwell Hurdle isn’t the only Grade 2 event at Wincanton – the Elite Hurdle and Rising Stars Novices’ Chase also fall into that category – but a look through the list of previous winners of this 2m affair does make it stand out from the crowd.
The likes of Bula, Hors La Loi III and Katchit all went on to Champion Hurdle glory after landing this prize, whilst in 1984 the race was claimed by everyone’s favourite grey, Desert Orchid. Remaining a key Champion Hurdle trial to this day and backed by a strong seven-race undercard, this is another meeting which sees the spotlight shine on this lovely corner of Somerset.
It was in 1867 at Hatherleigh Farm on Wincanton’s Lawrence Hill that racing first began in the area. This is a date of some significance, with many records suggesting the fixture represented the first steeplechase meeting to be held anywhere in England. Not long after this initial event, the Wincanton Racing Committee was established, taking charge of track organisation and the fixture list – until running into financial difficulties due to the closure of the track during the first world war.
With the future of the track looking a little bleak, salvation – in the form of much needed financial backing – came with the establishment of a new committee in 1920 led by racing enthusiast Lord Stalbridge. The lease on Hatherleigh Farm was, however, nearing its end, necessitating a move to the current site close to Kingwell Farm which first opened for business in 1927.
Local Fans Save the Track
Temporarily forced into closure when used as a military base during World War II, this period also saw the decline of Lord Stalbridge’s health, with the founding father of the modern course passing away in 1945. It was at this point that a 10-man consortium of local racing fans pooled their resources to purchase the track – although Lord Stalbridge is remembered to this day in the shape of the Lord Stalbridge Memorial Cup Handicap Chase which takes place at the big Boxing Day fixture each year.
New Races Boost Track’s Profile
The local consortium continued to run proceedings until selling the track to the Racing Holdings Trust during the 1960s, and the company, now known as the Jockey Club, have remained in charge ever since. The advent of the Badger Beers Silver Trophy in 1962 and Kingwell Hurdle in 1971 increased the profile of the track, with the addition of the Rising Stars Novices Chase (1990) and Elite Hurdle (1992) later providing a further boost.
This increased quality of the racing fare, in combination with significant investment in the facilities – £1.6m between 2001 and 2017, and a further £1.4m proposed – leaves Wincanton well positioned to continue to draw the crowds, and possibly add further to its best small racecourse in the South West awards tally.