Malcolm Rigby investigates the history of Wincanton's award-winning racecourse

PUBLISHED: 13:09 26 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:36 20 February 2013

Boxing Day is, without doubt, the busiest day in Wincanton's racing calendar

Boxing Day is, without doubt, the busiest day in Wincanton's racing calendar

Malcolm Rigby investigates the history of Wincanton's award-winning racecourse and discovers why the Christmas meeting is so popular.

Malcolm Rigby investigates the history of Wincanton's award-winning racecourse and discovers why the Christmas meeting is so popular.

Contrary to what some people might think, the origins of Boxing Day have got nothing to do with the sport of prize-fighting, nor what you'd like to do with your relatives after spending a few hours in their company! In fact, it's a term that goes back to at least the 17th century, when the day after Christmas the well-to-do would give out 'boxes' of seasonal goodies to their employees or the poor. These days perhaps for most people it means the first day of the sales, but for several thousand folk in Somerset, Boxing Day does have a sporting meaning - horse racing at Wincanton.

It is without doubt the busiest day in the calendar for the small racecourse. Wincanton has 16 other racedays in the year but attendances are quadrupled for the Christmas event, which can generate some problems for the organisers.

As Steven Clarke, Managing Director of Wincanton Racecourse, says, "There seems to be a tradition here - if it's Boxing Day, it's Wincanton Races. A lot of people do come back throughout the rest of the season, but there's no atmosphere like it compared to Boxing Day - it's unbelievable. Obviously we have the car parking and queuing issues, but it's just wonderful to see so many people here. Hospitality is always full, which amazes me because you'd think they'd had enough after Christmas Day. The youngsters come out as well, so you've got a good cross-section of people. The course enclosure gets very busy; it's an opportunity to get out in the fresh air, have a few bets, have a picnic and watch a bit of racing."

Local huntsmen staged some of the first steeplechases in the Wincanton area and by the beginning of the 19th-century, Easter Monday racing at Wincanton had become a recognised annual fixture. In those days steeplechasing was not a big public attraction; there was no governing body and no recognised rules. But in 1861 the National Hunt Committee was formed to regulate steeplechasing and Wincanton Hunt Steeplechases were instituted under National Hunt rules.

The course, then situated at Hatherleigh Farm, south-west of the town, was closed during the First World War and reopened in 1920. However, the following year it fell into financial difficulties and was only saved from liquidation by the intervention of Lord Stalbridge, from Motcombe House in Shaftesbury. A new board of directors was formed with himself as Chair. A few years later the lease on Hatherleigh Farm expired and the company purchased its current location at Kingwell Farm. A new course was built with financial help from Lord Stalbridge and the first meeting at the new venue took place on Easter Monday 1927.

Again there was no racing during the Second World War as the army requisitioned the land. Lord Stalbridge fell into ill-health at this point and the racecourse was put up for sale. Fortunately though, ten local sportsmen - enthusiasts of National Hunt racing - came forward and bought it, then carried out vital restoration work on the stands, buildings and course so that it was ready for a post-war meeting in October 1945. Lord Stalbridge died in 1949 and the 'Lord Stalbridge Memorial Handicap Chase' is now run at the Boxing Day meeting in remembrance of him.

In the 1960s, Wincanton Racecourse was taken over by Racecourse Holdings Trust, which owns 14 other racecourses across the country including Cheltenham, Aintree and Sandown.

Wincanton has won the Racegoers' Club Best Small Racecourse in the South West award 17 times out of the last 18 years. Steven says he's not sure what happened in the missing year but that the award is the best one to win because it's based on a punter's whole experience of the day at the races.

"Racedays I love," he says. "I was brought up with racing so I've got it in my blood. So, combining racing with my job is absolutely fantastic, and putting on a good raceday that people enjoy gives you a wonderful sense of achievement."

The racing season runs from October to May but that doesn't necessarily mean a long summer break for the staff as the site hosts a number of other events including conferences, circuses and riding clubs, not to mention the golf course and the B&B in the middle of the course - all elements to keep the business ticking along.

Angela Billington, Wincanton member and horse owner, says of the racecourse, "It's fantastic. You can see everything. It's always friendly and there are always places to stand. For us Ascot is very impersonal, Goodwood has a wonderful feel but Wincanton is lovely; it's for people who love horses. There are so many good trainers around Somerset - there are always great horses and good competition. The Boxing Day meeting is busy, but it's always a great day out."

The Boxing Day Meeting on 26 December begins with the first race at 12.30pm. There is also racing on 4 December, first race 1.20pm. For more information visit or call 01963 32344.

Latest from the Somerset Life