The fact that Wales has an impressively large horse racing following should come as no surprise to anyone. After all, it boasts its own Grand National and even hosts a horse vs man marathon every year. Despite a small population, horse racing grew very quickly throughout the early 19th century and by 1833 the country boasted internationally recognised flat races.
Like in other countries, organised horse racing started as a sport for the gentry and upper classes before gradually filtering down to the working classes who were keen to get involved with the thrills and spills whilst also having a punt. Waistcoats and small slips of paper may well have been replaced by mobiles and experienced bettors taking advantage of the latest tips, but the passion for fences and that sprint in the final furlong remains the same.
Harness Racing in Wales
Wales is also home to a type of racing not seen in many other parts of the world; harness racing or as it is more commonly known “trotting”. Here, horses don’t quite reach galloping pace because they have a man or woman attached to the back of them on a small cart. In general, it is a very traditionally Welsh affair with the races being shown live on Welsh language television channel S4C.
Whilst it is difficult to confirm the exact origins of the sport, Llangadog, the oldest event, has been held every Easter Monday since 1884 and the contest boasts a very loyal crowd. Away from the country’s 27 racecourses, Harness Racing also has a digital future. The use of helmet cameras has allowed fans to get a real understanding of what it is like to be a harness racing jockey and these videos are far more popular than any previously posted online.
Chepstow and the Welsh Grand National
This three-mile and six-furlong race has kept spectators on their feet for over 120 years. Complete with 23 fences, the event is one of the most unpredictable horse races in existence as in the 21st century only one horse has won the event on more than one occasion, Mountainous.
This kind of backdrop fits in perfectly with the Welsh mentality of backing the outsider and hoping to win big. The race also has a feeling of never being over until it’s over as in 1976 Gylippus looked certain to win only to fall at the final fence thus allowing Rag Trade to cruise home to victory and in turn become the first horse in 80 years to win both the Welsh and English Grand Nationals in the same year. Equally, in 2009 Chepstow was the scene of what seemed like a Hollywood fairy tale. Dream Alliance, a horse born on a disused allotment, was owned by a syndicate of 23 different individuals who each cobbled together £10 a week just to keep the dream going. Then, a severed tendon looked to have dashed their hopes but the spirit of Dream Alliance endured and he was able to defeat Silver By Nature in a classic sprint to the finish.
Many observers might think that a racecourse without a grandstand is a little odd but Bangor-on-Dee boasts a history of steeplechase racing that stretches further back than any other in the country, having hosted its first race in 1859. The left-handed National Hunt racecourse hosts 14 races a year and has been the scene of some of the greatest moments in Welsh horse racing history. For instance, in 1893 crowds witnessed Cloister win the big event despite carrying the top weight of 12st 7 lbs. In 1947, Dick Francis, the royal jockey famous for claiming his horse The Queen Mother was spooked by the noise of the crowd, had no such issues delighting crowds with a superb aggressive charge on Wrenbury Tiger.
Recent history has also shown Welsh horse racing in a very positive light as in 2009 Ffos Las became the first new national hunt racecourse to be built in the UK for 80 years. Built on the former site of Europe’s largest open cast coal mine, a sell-out crowd of 10,000 watched as second favourite Plunkett rode home to take all the plaudits. The racecourse has instantly been a hit with jockeys too as it is located close to two ports offering ferry services to Ireland and thus naturally attracts the very best from across the water.