October 3, 2020 at 08:21 #1504607
Wednesday October 3rd 1990, the opening day of the season at Cheltenham. The going is firm, the fields are small and so is the crowd.
Cheltenham in 1990 was nothing at all like Cheltenham now, a course that had only just started upgrading its facilities, with one new stand amidst a collection of mismatched buildings and ageing blocks of private boxes. The fixture list was also different, with several minor midweek meetings in the autumn, all usually staged on the Old Course.
Firm ground, partly due to a series of long, dry autumns, partly down to inefficient watering equipment, was causing regular problems for the early meetings. In particular, as I learned in conversation with Edward Gillespie (I knew him from his time at Warwick), the part of the course at the top of the hill and the run down to the third last were difficult to water consistently, a combination of low water pressure and the slopes causing the problem.
In an attempt to make the early meetings safer for the horses, and to provide a consistent surface that would be easier to water, Gillespie had come up with something that he called the Park Course. This involved creating a link from the back straight on the Old Course, to the chute used for the start of two and half miles races. That chute became the back straight of a circuit that completely avoided the uphill and downhill sections of the other two courses.
I tried to find a map from one of the sources in my library, with no success. Indeed the Park Course seems to have been erased from the history of Cheltenham, as I could find nothing about it anywhere via the usual search machines. If anybody can supply a map, please add the link below.
But to explain how it worked, for a two mile chase, the start was the same one used now – then jump three fences up the home straight (this was long before the move of the second last), the fence in front of the Best Mate enclosure (then just a bleak silver ring), the first plain fence in the back straight, the water, then left turn onto the chute, jump three fences there and round the long bend back past the start for the final three fences.
Two mile five furlongs started at the beginning of the back straight – three miles one furlong to the left of the stands and the last fence was jumped three times. As a track, I thought it worked really well and suited the class of horse that contested the October meetings – a mix of summer jumping types and the odd classier animal making an early start.
October 3rd 1990 was the first time it was used, although you’d never know that from the results database on the Post website, or from the official Chasefom annual, which still has this meeting taking place on the Old Course. But if you dig into the individual records of the horses that ran at the meeting, you will find the notation ‘Chl park’ on the line for Oct 3rd 1990. It seems unlikely that anybody invented this before the course was ever used, so I’ve taken that as confirmation that my memory isn’t playing tricks.
To the surprise of absolutely nobody, the first Park Course winner was a 3/1 on shot in a novice hurdle, trained by Martin Pipe. The three chases on that card each had four runners, but the hurdle races were better contested, with a total of twenty seven runners. Pipe completed a double with Hopscotch in the concluding juvenile hurdle.
The second day of the meeting, the three chases were down to eleven runners and the total of thirty five for the six race card was only achieved with the help of a twelve runner bumper. An inauspicious start, not helped on the second day by Dunwoody getting lost on an 8/11 Henderson chase favourite and missing out the last fence on the first circuit.
The Park Course continued to be used for the three days racing staged before the main November card, until 1995. That year, they raced on Sept 28th, Oct 6th and Oct 25th. When the fixture list for 1996 was published, the same meetings were booked for Oct 3rd, 11th and 30th. But the first two of those were cancelled some time during the summer and an extra day added on the 29th to make a two day meeting. That was the first time the fixtures took on the pattern we’ve since become used to, although of course the two days have now been moved to become a Fri/Sat event.
Over the five years the Park Course was in use, much changed at Cheltenham. The watering systems had been upgraded, the cross country course was under construction, and extensive building work in 1995 had extended the main stand. Sunday racing had arrived with the addition of the third day to November meeting, and in 1995, an extra day was added to the Festival for the first time, in the guise of supporting the BBC Red Nose Day.
From 1996 onwards, the two day October meeting was run on the Old Course and the Park Course was never revived. Looking at the meetings staged between 1990 and 1995, it saw plenty of useful horses, but the peak was probably a two mile five furlong chase run on Oct 26th, 1994. The first three home in that were Crystal Spirit, Bradbury Star and Rough Quest, with another Festival winner, Elfast, back in fifth. On the same card, Jenny Pitman won the novice chase and David Nicholson won the bumper. All pretty strong indicators that the Park Course met with the approval of the most demanding trainers around at the time.
And a last footnote in the history books – A P McCoy rode his first Cheltenham winner on the Park Course, when Wings Of Freedom got up by a neck in a 2m 5f C/J handicap hurdle on Sept 29th, 1994.October 3, 2020 at 09:45 #1504619robnorthParticipant
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Great stories as ever, Alan.
I’m glad someone else remembers the Park Course. I remember standing down on the rail for Wings Of Freedom’s race.
When we were living in Bicester in the early 90s we had the Cheltenham October meeting in the diary every year. Always an enjoyable meeting as it was less hustle and bustle than the main meetings.October 3, 2020 at 10:44 #1504635
Thanks for the memories ap. It was my first ever meeting I attended at Cheltenham without realizing that AP was riding on that card.
By the way, how can I upload a picture of the racecard?October 3, 2020 at 10:51 #1504639Cork All StarParticipant
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Very interesting. I do remember the Park Course but could not recall when it was discontinued.
In 1995, the Friday of Cheltenham was 17th March. I think it was just as much Cheltenham cashing in on the Irish crowd as much as anything to do with Red Nose Day!
As I recall, the day was treated a bit like the old Ascot Heath meeting on the Saturday after the Royal Meeting. It was not considered part of the Festival and any winners do not count to a jockey or trainer’s Festival total.October 3, 2020 at 12:36 #1504676
I was there on that Friday and it was an odd day altogether. The official crowd figure was reported as 17,500, but if that was correct, half of them must have spent the afternoon playing hide and seek. I bumped into a few others like myself, annual members with nothing better to do, but they all looked as exhausted as I felt after being there the previous three days.
There was some recognition of Red Nose Day, which I think was either the first one ever, or at least a very early one. They had an amateur starter for one race I think, and an amateur commentator for one race, both jobs auctioned for the charity.
Actually, the main reason for staging that day was to compensate annual members for the loss of the two day April meeting, as they started building work the next day. The hunter chase evening card was moved to Warwick.October 3, 2020 at 13:16 #1504688
Good read, AP, thanks for sharing.
Btw, Mr Google tells me that the first Red Nose day was Feb ’88.October 3, 2020 at 21:24 #1504788robnorthParticipant
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I searched my racecard collection and found a map of the Park course at Cheltenham. See link below:
RobOctober 3, 2020 at 23:25 #1504816October 3, 2020 at 23:53 #1504825
Nice one, you’ve kept that in good nickOctober 4, 2020 at 00:08 #1504829
I didn’t realize that Robert Waley-Cohen was a steward at that time…. Not sure how much he is involved now. He doesn’t have any horses in his ownership at the moment.October 4, 2020 at 00:36 #1504834
Some distinguished names there, look at those letters after their names. Including Andrew Parker Bowles OBE. Don’t think he rose anything above that, but his ex missus did all right for herself.October 4, 2020 at 05:24 #1504849Cork All StarParticipant
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Res Ipsa Loquitur. Now that is a horse I can remember backing a few times!October 4, 2020 at 09:06 #1504855
That map link doesn’t work for me I’m afraid.
But I have seen a map which was posted on BF forum where I also put up this piece. That shows that my memory wasn’t entirely correct. Theye didn’t jump the water before turning left to the 2m 4f chute, just the one fence on the far side.
And the number of fences per circuit was kept at nine by inserting a portable open ditch in the home straight jumped as the third fence up that line, and thus the second last in all chases. It looks as if that positioned more or less where the New Course joins the home straight.
Some other names on that racecard that catch the eye – Patron J Henderson, is Johnny, father of Nicky Henderson, and the owner of the racecourse before the Jockey Club purchased it. In the list of stewards, D (David) Stoddart, who was a Swindon MP and later Lord Stoddart, and an owner of jumpers that included Party Politics, whom he sold before it won the Grand National.
Thanks for posting that Rob.October 4, 2020 at 10:18 #1504860adminKeymaster
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I never knew the Henderson family owned Cheltenham racecourse prior to Jockey Club. No wonder Henderson enjoys a winner there.
Dr. Disney, one of the medical officers on duty in the list there, is the father of Guy Disney I think.
DavidOctober 4, 2020 at 10:31 #1504863
Another noteworthy horse on the card was Jack Joseph’s Greenback who finished 2nd to Martin Pipe’s Khatir in the 3yo hurdle on that card.
Greenback ran a total of 14!!!! hurdle races in that season, winning seven of them. Among his wins was a 30 length trashing of Silver Wedge in the Adonis.
Those were the days when Peter Hobbs used to ride for Philip Hobbs…..
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