Horse racing is one of the oldest sports that is still popular today in the UK (and beyond). The first association football (soccer) clubs have their roots in the mid-19th century and the oldest cricket ground in the world (Lord’s) began life back in 1814. But the oldest racecourse in the UK that is still in use today can trace its legacy to long before that, right back to the 1500s.
In this article, we’ll give details of the oldest racecourses still in use in the UK today which, as you shall see, covers the vast majority of the oldest courses anywhere in the world. We’ll then take a look around the globe to give details of some of the tracks with the longest histories from further afield.
Oldest Racecourses in the UK That Still Host Races
Although the racing of horses (and indeed other animals) has a history that harks back to the Roman era and perhaps even neolithic times, we are focusing here on the sport of horse racing as it is recognised today. Here’s our rundown of the oldest racecourses from around the UK.
Note that some of the dates are disputed and we have generally included the date from which documentary evidence exists for racing having taken place. In some cases, there are suggestions that racing began earlier, but we’ll indicate if this is the case.
- Year Opened – 1539
- Location – Cheshire, England
- Notable Races – Chester Cup, Chester Vase, Cheshire Oaks, Huxley Stakes
Also known as the Roodee, Chester Racecourse has been officially recognised as the “Oldest Racecourse Still In Operation” by Guinness World Records. Even in the absence of Roy Castle or Norris McWhirter, that makes things rather official and makes our job of identifying the oldest racecourse in the world rather straightforward.
Chester Racecourse officially began life way back in 1539 but its roots apparently stretch back further when it was used as a venue for the particularly violent Goteddsday (Shrove Tuesday) football match. It was so violent, in fact, that it was banned in the 1530s and the venue instead began to be used for racing horses instead. Although some historians suggest the first race took place in 1511 or 1512, the more widely held opinion (shared by Guinness World Records) is that 1539 was the year it all began.
Although Chester is a beloved course, as much for its location as its history, it doesn’t compete with some of the other courses mentioned here when it comes to the quality of the racing it puts on. Having said that, their three-day May Festival always draws the crowds – the highlight of which is the Chester Cup, a handicap that has been around since 1824 and which double Champion Hurdle winner Sea Pigeon won twice in the 1970s.
- Year Opened – Mid-1500s (Disputed)
- Location – Wiltshire, England
- Notable Races – Tattersalls Sovereign Stakes, Cathedral Stakes
Of all the racecourses featured in this article, Salisbury Racecourse’s history is perhaps the most disputed. Although there are apparently some sources who suggest racing began at Salisbury sometime in the “mid-1500s”, the official Salisbury Racecourse website states the course has a history of 435 years which (at the time of writing in 2022) would mean racing began there around 1587. The website does not offer any evidence or in fact anything more than the assertion that the course is 435 years old. For the purposes of this article, we’ll take them at their word. Either way, it is definitely a very old racecourse.
Like Chester, Salisbury doesn’t host any truly massive races, with the listed Cathedral Stakes (part of their Family Fun Day in mid-June each year) and Tattersalls Sovereign Stakes being perhaps the biggest races to feature there. Salisbury is definitely a less illustrious track than Chester but even so, those with an interest in the history of the sport should certainly pay this pleasant track a visit.
- Year Opened – 1595 (or earlier)
- Location – South Yorkshire, England
- Notable Races – St Leger Stakes, Doncaster Cup, Lincoln Handicap, Vertem Futurity Trophy
Home to the oldest of the five Classics of flat racing (the St Leger Stakes) as well as the oldest race in the world (the Doncaster Cup), Doncaster brings both heritage and quality to the table. Hosting both flat and National Hunt meetings, Doncaster offers year-round action at one of the largest racing venues in the UK. Although the exact date of the first official race is disputed, there is enough historical information out there to suggest that racing began at Doncaster in 1595 at the latest.
Although there are plenty of prestigious races to feature at the South Yorkshire track, none compares to the St Leger. First run way back 1776, it predates the Oaks by three years, the Derby by four years, and the 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas by more than three decades. It is the final leg of the Triple Crown (along with the 2,000 Guineas and the Derby) and the Fillies’ Triple Crown (with the 1,000 Guineas and the Oaks) and as well as being the oldest of the Classics, it is also the longest at 1m6½f.
Epsom Downs Racecourse
- Year Opened – 1661 (Or Earlier)
- Location – Surrey, England
- Notable Races – The Derby, The Oaks, Coronation Cup, Princess Elizabeth Stakes
From one Classic host to another as we turn our attentions to Epsom Downs, home of one of the most famous races on the planet: the Derby. But there are plenty more top-quality races to be found at Epsom, which hosts flat racing only; for instance the Group 1 Coronation Cup is always a popular watch at the Derby meeting, while other Group races at the meeting include the Princess Elizabeth Stakes and the Diomed Stakes.
Although the first official race is documented to have taken place in 1661, there are suggestions that racing had been going on at the course a good deal longer. But it was from the 1730s onwards, and 1780 in particular, when the Derby was first raced, that things started to get really interesting at the track. Owned by the Jockey Club, as many of the best courses in Britain are, the course has enjoyed many visits from members of the Royal family over the years, especially on Derby Day when the Queen has been in attendance on most occasions during her long reign.
- Year Opened – 1667
- Location – Suffolk, England
- Notable Races – 2,000 Guineas, 1,000 Guineas, Falmouth Stakes, July Cup, Fillies’ Mile
Newmarket is the headquarters of flat racing in Britain and is usually regarded as the Home of Horse Racing due to so many training stables and other administrative and historical racing bodies being located in the region. With two courses at the venue – the Rowley Mile and the July Course – Newmarket hosts a wide variety of high-quality flat races, not least the first two Classics of the flat season, the 2,000 Guineas and the 1,000 Guineas. There are seven other Group 1 races over the season, ranging in distance from the July Cup and the Middle Park Stakes (both six furlongs), to the two Classics and the Sun Chariot Stakes raced over the Rowley Mile.
Newmarket also features lots more Group 2 and Group 3 races (including the July Stakes and the Duchess of Cambridge Stakes) as well as a handful of highly regarded handicaps including the Cambridgeshire, the Bunbury Cup and the Cesarewitch. Although racing was first reported to have been founded in 1636, with some suggestion of a race being run even earlier in 1622, other sources suggest it wasn’t officially running races until 1667… which is still a blooming long time ago!
- Year Opened – 1685
- Location – County Down, Northern Ireland
- Notable Races – Ulster National
Although this falls under the remit of Horse Racing Ireland, it is still technically in the UK, and it is most certainly a very old course. It hosted its first official meeting way back in 1685 and these days it features National Hunt races only. None of the races are particularly prestigious and the Ulster National Handicap Chase in late March is as big as it gets. Having said that, their June Festival and Ladies Day meetings both attract plenty of punters.
Down Royal Racecourse
- Year Opened – Early 1700s
- Location – County Antrim/County Down, Northern Ireland
- Notable Races – Ulster Derby, Ladbrokes Champion Chase, Down Royal Mares Novice Hurdle, WKD Hurdle
Another course in Northern Ireland that falls under Horse Racing Ireland, there is sketchy evidence for exactly when the first race took place at Down Royal. Lying on the border between County Antrim and County Down, the course’s history goes back to when King James II formed the Down Royal Corporation of Horse Breeders by Royal Charter in 1685. It is thought that racing initially took place at the abovementioned Downpatrick, however, and that racing “only” began at Down Royal in the early 1700s.
- Year Opened – 1707
- Location – Warwickshire, England
- Notable Races – Leamington Novices’ Hurdle, Kingmaker Novices’ Chase, Classic Chase
For any racecourse to have been around for more than 300 years, it must have been able to weather a few storms over the years. But Warwick has come through more than its fair share of scrapes over the centuries to maintain its position as an impressive if relatively small venue. And although it doesn’t have any really massive races, it still attracts a loyal fanbase for its National Hunt meeting in the winter months.
It used to offer both flat and jumps action until an incident in 2014 on the flat (that led to a horse being euthanised) prompted a switch to jumps only. Although it can’t compete with the likes of Doncaster or Cheltenham, Warwick has enough about it to remain an attractive proposition for the racegoing public, as well as owners and trainers.
- Year Opened – 1709 (or 1731)
- Location – North Yorkshire, England
- Notable Races – Ebor Handicap, Nunthorpe Stakes, Yorkshire Oaks, Yorkshire Cup, International Stakes
The patch of land on which York Racecourse resides has a long history that stretches back to neolithic times, while during the Anglo Saxon period the area was dubbed the Knavesmire. The course is still described by many as the Knavesmire to his day, while it was once a communal pasture (and reportedly the location for the hanging of the famous highwayman Dick Turpin in 1739).
There was certainly horse racing of various kinds taking place in other areas of York before York Racecourse itself opened. And though there is some confusion about when official racing began here, two dates seem to keep cropping up in various sources: 1709 and 1731. Based on the 19th century historians of York named Sheahan and Whellan, we’re inclined to go with the earlier date.
Irrespective of the time of the first regular racing, there is no doubt York has grown into one of the nation’s best-loved courses. Its most important meeting is the Ebor Festival that takes place each August. As well as the eponymous race, the Ebor Handicap, which is one of the most prestigious handicaps anywhere in Europe, the festival also features plenty of other notable races including the Yorkshire Oaks, the Nunthorpe Stakes and the International Stakes. York also hosts a popular spring meeting (featuring the Dante Stakes and the Yorkshire Cup) and their July Meeting also draws the crowds for the John Smith’s Cup and the York Stakes. With such a fine array of flat racing action over the summer months, York gives the southern courses of Newmarket and Ascot a good run for their money.
- Year Opened – 1711
- Location – Berkshire, England
- Notable Races – Prince of Wales’s Stakes, King’s Stand Stakes, St James’s Palace Stakes, Ascot Gold Cup, Coronation Stakes, Diamond Jubilee Stakes
Ascot Racecourse has a more definite starting point than many of the courses featured here. It was founded by Queen Anne in August 1711 when she found an area that she thought was “ideal for horses to gallop at full stretch”… and so it has proved over the subsequent centuries.
One of the most prestigious and famous courses in Britain, this Berkshire track hosts the most valuable meeting of the flat racing season, Royal Ascot. The five-day affair has a real air of class (and privilege) about it, with various members of the Royal family showing up to enjoy the glamour of the occasion. And of course there are many very high-quality races on show at the meeting, including the Prince of Wales’s Stakes, the King’s Stand Stakes, the St James’s Palace Stakes and the Ascot Gold Cup, among a host of others.
The course also hosts some other notable meetings including British Champions Day, which is the culmination of the flat racing season in the eyes of most people. It includes races over distances of six furlongs, a mile, 1m2f, 1m4f and two miles in a bid to find the best of the best in each category. In the winter months, the course also features National Hunt meetings, with the Long Walk Hurdle and the Clarence House Chase being two of the highlights over obstacles.
- Year Opened – 1718 (Or Earlier)
- Location – Worcestershire, England
- Notable Races – N/a
Worcester Racecourse doesn’t possess the glamour of Ascot or even the quality of racing of the likes of Newmarket or York, but it is a popular small course that has carved out a niche as a National Hunt-only venue that, unlike most jumps courses, has meetings during the summer months. They tend to make their meetings about more than just the racing (which is just as well as most of the races are not amazing in terms of quality) and they have family fun days, various live music offerings and other events to attract the crowds.
Other Notable Old Racecourses in the UK
Here are the other UK racecourses that first opened before 1800 and which are still in operation today.
- Ludlow – 1725 or earlier (Shropshire, England)
- Bath – 1728 or earlier (Somerset, England)
- Sedgefield – 1732 or earlier (County Durham, England)
- Hexham – 1740 Approx. (Northumberland, England)
- Stratford – 1755 (Warwickshire, England)
- Beverley – 1767 or earlier (East Yorkshire, England)
- Hereford – 1771 (Herefordshire, England)
- Hamilton Park – 1782 (Lanarkshire, Scotland)
- Brighton – 1783 (East Sussex, England)
- Catterick – 1783 (North Yorkshire, England)
Not far behind that lot, we have the following (among others) that also opened in the first half of the 19th century: Goodwood (1802), Kelso (1822), Aintree (1829), and Cheltenham (1831). The oldest racecourse still in operation in Wales is Bangor, which began life in 1859.
Oldest Racecourses from Around the World That Are Still In Use
Horse racing is not popular in as many countries as some other sports (such as football), but its reach is wider than most people realise. It is very popular in Australia, for instance, which has more than 350 racecourses that host a total of more than 3,000 races each year. But courses can also be found in countries or regions as diverse as Brazil, Canada, Belgium, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Kenya, Malaysia and various nations across the Middle East, with the UAE in particular a major hub and Saudia Arabia now home to the world’s richest race.
Here is a selection of significant (or just very old) racecourses from around the globe that are still in use today. Racing fans from the UK and Ireland will no doubt be very familiar with some of them, such as the Curragh. But others might have flown under the radar of the average British racing punter.
|Course Name||Location||Year Established||Notable Races|
|Curragh Racecourse||County Kildare, Ireland||1727||Irish 2,000 Guineas, Irish 1,000 Guineas, Irish Derby, Irish Oaks, Irish St Leger Tattersalls Gold Cup|
|Laloubere Racecourse||Tarbes, France||1809||Various galloping contests|
|Champ de Mars Racecourse||Port Louis, Mauritius||1812||Maiden Cup, Duke of York Cup, Duchess of York Cup, Barbe Cup|
|Pune Race Course||Pune, India||1830||Pune Derby, Independence Cup, Southern Command Cup|
|Freehold Raceway||New Jersey, United States||1830s||Cane Pace (Harness)|
|Fair Grounds Race Course||Mew Orleans, United States||1838||Louisiana Derby, Fair Grounds Oaks, New Orleans Handicap|
|Randwick Racecourse||Sydney, Australia||1833||The Everest, Australian Derby, Doncaster Handicap, Queen Elizabeth Stakes|
|Flemington Racecourse||Melbourne, Australia||1840||Melbourne Cup, Victoria Derby, Emirates Stakes, Australia Cup|
|Happy Valley Racecourse||Hong Kong Island, Hong Kong||1845||International Jockey Championship|
Conclusion: The Oldest Racecourses
When it comes to the oldest racecourses in the world, other countries can’t compete with England, although Ireland has some very old courses too. Although Salisbury (or at least some people related to Salisbury!) claim it to be the oldest course in the world, few serious historians agree.
As such, the title for the oldest racecourse in the world that is still being used today (for horse racing) goes to Chester Racecourse. But just a scan through the many rather ancient courses mentioned above just goes to show how the appeal for watching horses race has endured over the centuries. We hope and expect it to continue to do so for the foreseeable future too.