Of the 59 racecourses to be found in mainland Britain, just the one resides in the West Midlands county of Worcestershire. Nestled on the east bank of the River Severn and less than a mile from Worcester city centre, the track – referred to as “Pitchcroft” by many locals – is one of the oldest in the land, having now moved passed its 300th anniversary. Staging both flat and National Hunt racing in years gone by, these days the venue sticks solely to the jumping game and is a key player in keeping the action going during the summer months.
Being based in such a picturesque city, and within a stone’s throw of both the busy urban hub of Birmingham and the beautiful British countryside, many racegoers may well be keen to extend their visit with an overnight stay in the area. And, happily, for those seeking to do so, accommodation options are in plentiful supply, both close to the course and a little further afield.
Closest to the Course
With the track sitting so close to the town centre, the most obvious place to stay is within the historic city of Worcester itself. Home to a beautiful cathedral and an excellent selection of museums, there’s plenty to keep history buffs entertained. For those desiring a little liquid refreshment following a day at the races, the city also boasts a thriving pub scene, with the Paul Pry, the Old Greyhound, and the Horn & Trumpet all well worth a look.
They are plenty of centrally located accommodation options – all of which are within easy reach of the track – including major chains like Holiday Inn, ibis and Hilton, budget choices such as the Severn View Hotel, and the luxurious No. 12 Apartments. Whatever your taste and budget, you should find something to fit the bill.
Racegoers seeking a busier, more modern big city experience would be well advised to head north to Birmingham. Boasting a host of museums and art galleries, and kid-friendly attractions such as Cadbury World and the National Sea Life Centre, there’s something to suit all tastes in Brum.
Pubs and bars can also be found in abundance, with highlights including the speciality real ale pub of the Wellington, the theatre and pub combo of the Old Joint Stock Pub, and the sleek and modern Gin Palace. Hotel choices meanwhile run into the thousands; Best Western, Novotel and Marriott are amongst the big brands represented, with UR City Pad and KCS Luxury Apartment worth a look for those seeking a more sumptuous stay.
Escape to the Country
For every nightlife-loving racegoer, there is another who would like nothing more than a little peace and tranquillity following a day at the races. What better way to unwind than taking a stroll through the breathtaking scenery provided by the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB)? Only a little over 40 miles to the south of the course, the charming medieval villages, rolling countryside and wonderful walks of the Cotswolds can be reached in under an hour. Hotel and B&B operators are rife in this hugely popular tourist destination but – by virtue of lying towards the northern edge of the park – the likes of Upper Court, Bells Cottage and Dumbleton Hall Hotel are amongst the most conveniently located for Worcester racegoers.
About the Racecourse
A National Hunt only venue, Worcester lays on a total of 21 fixtures over a season, which runs from April through to October, including a pair of Saturday meetings and seven evening fixtures. This decision to operate solely as a summer jumping venue was taken in 1995 as a result of repeated flooding problems due to the track’s proximity to the River Severn – a decision which certainly appeared to be vindicated in December 2012 when a canoeist was photographed paddling his way past the winning post!
Lying on the A449, just off Junction 6 of the M5, Worcester is relatively easy to reach by road from all directions; the M5 and A449 are the main approach roads from the North and South and the A443 and A44 heading to the track from the west. Upon approaching the city motorists will find the track to be well signposted, but for those using satnav, the postcode to enter is WR1 3EJ. Having arrived at the course racegoers will find ample free parking available in the area close to the stable yard and also in the centre of the course.
For those arriving by rail, the city’s main train station is Worcester Foregate which, regularly receiving trains from London Paddington, enjoys strong links with the national rail network. The track is then only around a 10-minute walk away, or alternatively a taxi rank is located just outside the station. The city’s second station of Worcester Shrub Hill lies a little further out – at around a 20-minute walk or a five-minute taxi ride – but might well be the more convenient option for those travelling from, or through, Birmingham.
Worcester’s left-handed circuit resembles an elongated oval in configuration, with a circuit length of close to 1m5f. Featuring long four-furlong straight sections, relatively easy turns and being completely flat throughout, this straightforward course is highly regarded by trainers and jockeys alike. Regularly attracting runners from the biggest yards in the West Country, the track’s relative simplicity makes it an ideal testing ground for novice performers.
Runners tackling the chase course are faced with a total of eight fences per circuit; four in the backstretch and four in the home straight with a 200-yard run-in after the last. Using portable fences and hurdles which are able to be wheeled on and off the track as required, the chase course is considered one of the easiest in the country from a jumping perspective, with the open ditch three from home being the only notably tricky obstacle.
The hurdling challenge is, however, a little more difficult, as Worcester uses brush-style hurdles, of which there are six per circuit – three in each straight, with the same 200-yard run-in as the chase course. Popular in France, these brush-style obstacles resemble mini-fences and take a bit more jumping than the light-framed hurdles in evidence at the majority of UK tracks.
A good galloping track, Worcester isn’t particularly demanding from a stamina perspective, and shows no real bias towards front runners or hold up performers. That said, those who like to lead do fair slightly better on quicker going, as that long straight in soft conditions can leave them vulnerable to those coming from behind. Overall though, this is one of the fairest tracks around, with hard-luck stories being few and far between.
Worcester operates a relaxed dress code policy, although there are certain stipulations to note depending upon which enclosure you are attending. There are no rules in place in the family-friendly Centre Course Enclosure, with racegoers free to dress as they please whilst of course avoiding anything likely to offend.
Smart casual attire is encouraged, without being rigidly enforced, in the County Enclosure. Trainers and smart shorts will be permitted in this area, but not general sportswear. The smartest standards of dress are recommended for those attending the Severn Restaurant or private boxes, with gentlemen encouraged to wear a buttoned shirt, and ladies advised to dress as though for a smart occasion. No sportswear is permitted in these areas, but smart denim is fine.
There are two main enclosures available at Worcester: The County Enclosure, and The Centre Course Enclosure. Priced at £17-£19 for most standard fixtures, and £35 for premium live music events and Ladies Day, The County Enclosure afford access to a tiered covered grandstand overlooking the final furlong and winning post, access to the parade ring and winner’s enclosure, and a range of food and drink options including the popular Grandstand Bar and the Butcher’s Block.
Available at most weekend fixtures and on themed race days, tickets for the Centre Course enclosure start at as little as £10, rising to £19 for the bigger events. Ideal for families, this section of the course features a children’s play area and its own array of bar and catering options. Under 18s go free with a paying adult at all fixtures other than premium live music events, whilst OAPs will receive a £5 discount on tickets purchased on the day.
In addition to the standard ticketing options, the track also offers a range of dining experiences in the Severn Restaurant. Offering spectacular panoramic views of the track, prices begin at £90 per person for a deal including entry, a race card, a reserved table for the day, tea and coffee, and a three-course fine-dining menu. Larger parties may be interested in the tracks range of private boxes and marquees which offer food and drink packages for groups of 10 to 500, with prices beginning at £105 plus VAT per head.
Only a mid-level track in terms of the quality of the action on offer, there are no events rated at Listed level or above held at Worcester. The racing is almost always competitive and entertaining, with the course’s proximity to the West Country training operations helping to attract higher than average field sizes. Despite no real headline grabbers amongst the individual races, as with all courses there are those meetings which stand above the rest in the popularity stakes, with the following three topping the pile.
Leading the way when it comes to attendance and atmosphere in the stands is the track’s flagship Ladies Day. Taking place on a punter-friendly Saturday afternoon in early June each year, the track is regularly bathed in sunshine for this fixture, which is all the encouragement the local ladies need to don their finery and hit the fizz. With excellent prizes on offer in the style awards, live music from a big-name act after racing, and a cracking seven-race card on the track, it is no surprise that this fixture tends to sell out very quickly.
Family Fun Day
For racegoers hoping to bring the kids along, mid-June is the ideal time to pop into the Pitchcroft track, as Worcester lays on its annual Family Fun Day. The activities on offer for the kids vary from year to year but usually feature inflatables, face painting and mascot races. Meanwhile, all the usual food and drink options, and a competitive card of novice and handicapping action, help to ensure the adults are also thoroughly entertained.
Late October sees the track host its final fixture of the season before pulling up stumps for the winter months. Always keen to bid the course a fond farewell for another year, local racegoers invariably turn out in force for the bumper eight-race card of this Wednesday afternoon meeting. The Fixed Brush Hurdle Series Final is the feature contest of the day, with the Richard Davis Memorial Chase – run in honour of the young jump jockey who sadly lost his life at Southwell in 1996 – featuring prominently on the undercard. For racegoers seeking the traditional jumps racing experience, this may be the fixture to plump for.
History of Worcester Racecourse
Racing has taken place in this corner of the West Country since way back in 1718 – and according to some reports possibly even earlier than that. Initially a flat-only course, by 1755 Worcester was playing host to a regular four-day summer meeting, with an autumn jumps fixture coming not too long after that. Early highlights included the Worcester Stakes and Worcester Gold Cup, both of which drew large crowds to the venue.
1800s: Former Sports at the Course
It was, however, a sport other than horse racing which saw the largest attendance at the track during the 1800s, as in 1824 no fewer than 40,000 turned up to witness the bare-knuckle boxing bout between Tom Spring and Jack Langan. Featuring bursts of multi-sport activity throughout its early history, Worcester Rugby Club played on ground enclosed by the course between 1893 and 1905, with Worcester City FC enjoying a short stay in 1902.
1836: Worcester Grand Annual Steeple Chase Introduced
The next major contest to be introduced at the track came with the launch of the Worcester Grand Annual Steeple Chase in 1836. Making its debut in the same year as the Aintree Grand National, the contest was one of the most important of the day, regularly attracting many of the same runners as the Aintree showpiece – the 1846 edition of the race featuring no fewer than four horses who would go on to achieve Grand National success.
1880: Figure-of-Eight Layout
Tinkering with the track on a number of occasions over the years, the most radical alteration came in 1880 when the track briefly employed a figure-of-eight layout. Having quickly reverted to a more conventional oval, the course continued to grow in popularity throughout the 1900s, with the 229 runners who showed up for an eight-race card in 1965 setting a British record.
1966: Flat Racing Comes to an End
Just one year later in 1966, the track made the decision to end flat racing at the course. Unsuccessful when reapplying for flat fixtures in 1984, Worcester has remained a National Hunt-only venue ever since. 1987 then saw a famous visitor to the track, with Princess Anne not only attending but riding her own horse, Croc Na Cuille, to victory in a three-mile chase contest.
2007: Major Flooding
Now part of the Arena Racing Company, which took over operations in the year 2000, the track continues to be a key player in the summer jumps campaign – the only minor blip coming in 2007 when major floods saw the abandonment of all fixtures from 30th June onwards.
2018: 300th Anniversary
Providing racegoers with a real treat in 2018, when marking its 300th anniversary with a “one year only” revival of the Grand Annual Steeple Chase, Worcester’s combination of rich history, beautiful scenery and competitive action seems sure to draw in the crowds for many years to come.