The latest in our series of in-depth pieces from James Baggley covers the rich history of horse racing in Lincoln, charting the city's rise as a regular venue for the sport before post-war decline and eventual course closure...
If you were to leave the city of Lincoln along the Carholme Road you would come to a grandstand overlooking the West Common. If you were to look carefully across the road at the common you would see the remnants of racing rails. But why are they there?
Organised horseracing meetings were held on this site in Lincoln from 1773. Previously, race meetings had been held to the south of the city, on the common between Harmston and Waddington, but once that area of land was enclosed and was then developed, another home for the Lincoln meet had to be found.
The Lincoln Corporation therefore offered the use of the West Common for the purpose of flat race meetings.
The meetings at Lincoln were very popular events, attracting both riders and spectators from miles around. Entry to the racetrack was free, as it was situated on common land and one could pick a spot from which to get the best view of proceedings.
Such a gathering often attracted an undesirable element and pickpockets would frequently go around the crowd, stealing any valuables they might have on them. Some of the bookmakers were unsavoury characters and some of the more respectable spectators would prefer not to rub shoulders with them. As a result a grandstand was erected in the 1820s at the south east corner of the racetrack, on the further side of the Carholme/Saxilby Road.
Entrance to the grandstand cost a guinea and would afford its patrons not only a better view of the racing but also some exclusivity and protection from the undesirable elements in the crowd. It also offered the chance to socialise with friends and make acquaintance with others of the middle and upper classes. Just as with some sporting events today (such as Royal Ascot or Henley Royal Regatta) the sport itself would often be considered by some to be secondary to the social occasion of attending.
By the middle of the 19th century there were several race meetings a year at Lincoln racecourse, the most important races being the Lincolnshire Handicap and the Brocklesby Stakes. The Lincolnshire Handicap was established in 1849 and originally took place in August over a distance of 2 miles.
In the spring of 1853 a new meeting was established and a race, called the Lincoln Spring Handicap, was introduced at this meeting. This race was run over a mile-and-a-half in the first year but was then changed in 1854 to a mile in length. In 1857 the August meeting was stopped and the spring fixture became the main meeting at Lincoln, with the Lincoln Spring Handicap being renamed the Lincolnshire Handicap. The race was open to thoroughbred horses aged 4 and over.
The Brocklesby Stakes was originally a race one-and-a-half miles long for all ages of horse. However, in 1875 it was reorganised as a five furlong race for two-year-olds.
By the end of the 19th century there were three meetings held a year at Lincoln. The largest took place in March and the others in June and November. The old grandstand was no longer considered fit for purpose and so it was rebuilt in 1896, giving us the building we see today.
In 1903 F.H. Bayles published The Race Courses Atlas of Great Britain and Ireland, and had this to say about the course at Lincoln: "...it is advisable for jockeys to avoid taking a line too close to the rails, because the ground runs in hollows, and is much better going three or four feet from the rails. A very sharp active animal is most at home over this course, which is certainly not adapted to very high courage and excitable horses, whose temperaments are often upset by close crowds".
The popularity of the March meeting increased in the early years of the 20th century and ticket sales increased considerably during this period. An area near the finish line had by now been enclosed and members of the public were charged two shillings for admittance to this area. This, together with the money charged for admittance to the new grandstand, helped the race committee and the city council to pay for the maintenance of the course and to police race meetings.
By the late 1950s meetings were being televised on programmes such as the BBCs Grandstand. The programme's producers used to like coming to film the racing here, as the layout of the course, with the Saxilby Road running parallel to the final straight, meant they could drive their outside broadcast cameras with ease along the road on the roof of their vehicles, capturing all the action close up.
Racing was suspended for the duration of the world wars.
However, when racing resumed after the Second World War the fortunes of the racetrack were in serious decline, having never recovered properly from the depression of the 1930s.
The costs involved in maintaining a racecourse which only had three meetings in a year were becoming untenable and in 1964 the city council announced that it was to cease further funding with immediate effect.
The council had been concerned to learn from the Home Secretary that the government, through the Horserace Betting Levy Board, was to terminate its financial assistance to the racecourse in 1966. The decision to stop council funding was also influenced by the Jockey Club's intention not to grant any fixtures at Lincoln after 1965.
While the city council was reluctant to pull the plug on a sporting event which helped put the city on the map, it felt it simply had no choice in the matter. The grandstand, stable block, the runners' board and some railings to show the outline of the course still remain. The grandstand is now used as a community centre.
As for the Lincolnshire Handicap race, this is still run each year, only now it takes place at Doncaster Racecourse, some 40 miles from Lincoln.