College Ward Residents Association held its AGM on Wednesday 1st March 2017 at the Downs View Suite, Duchess Stand. The speaker, Jim Boyle BVSc, MRCVS, Trainer at South Hatch Stables in Burgh Heath Road delivered a most interesting talk on the History of Racehorse Training In Epsom.
Epsom first sprang to prominence in 1618 when Henry Wicker, a grazier, discovered the “purgative” qualities, on both humans and animals, of the local saline well water which contained magnesium sulphate – now commonly known as Epsom Salts. People subsequently flocked to Epsom as a spa destination to take the water and its popularity grew.
Numerous attractions were needed to entertain the visitors and, as part of the amusements provided for them, the town consequently developed a close and long lasting link to horse racing. Due to its close proximity to London, and the free draining quality of the rolling Epsom Downs, it was particularly suited to the training and racing of horses.
SLIDE – EPSOM DOWNS
In those days the Downs stretched all the way from Croydon to Farnham and the course was thought to have stretched for 4m between Carshalton Beeches and Epsom. The races in those early days were usually match races between two horses and they would often race before lunch then go back to the start of the course while the dukes and earls that owned them had lunch, after which they would race again.
Racing was banned during the Civil war, but following the Restoration racing resumed, and the first race formally recorded on Epsom Downs was in 1661.
Although this was the first recorded race, a local burial list of 1625 refers to a “William Stanley who in running the race fell from his horse and brake his neck” so it is likely that racing was established much earlier than that. Epsom is referenced in the diary of Samuel Pepys in 1663 and Charles II was a regular racegoer at the twice yearly race meetings that were hosted from the early 1660’s. Indeed, he kept a stable in Church St for Nell Gwynn, but she tired of competing for his attention with Barbara Villiers who resided in Nonsuch, and therefore moved to Palace House in Newmarket. Thus, Epsom temporarily lost its royal patronage, and this is the reason the Nell Gwynn stakes, one of the early season classic trials, is staged at Newmarket rather than Epsom.
The first advertised race was published in the London Gazette of 1693 which stated that “horses are to assemble at Barrow Hedges, Carshalton, for races on Banstead Downs”. By 1761 racing had become more organised, with the first racing calendar, and the first proper recording of results, jockeys, owners and trainers.
Initially racehorses were owned and raced by rich noblemen and titled gentry each using their own private trainer. The early stables were attached to the owners houses, and the trainers were effectively glorified grooms who were an extension of the domestic staff.
These next two slides show a couple of such yards from the late 19th century, followed by 100 or so years later. They have suffered differing fortunes since, with Downs House now bought for redevelopment as a racing yard, whereas Priam Lodge has now been knocked down and is soon to have 4 houses built in its place.
SLIDE – DOWNS HOUSE 1890
SLIDE – DOWNS HOUSE 2000
SLIDE – PRIAM LODGE 1890
SLIDE – PRIAM LODGE 1990
As the economy became steadily more industrialised through the late 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, the wealth was spread through society allowing wider popularity and participation in racehorse ownership. This in turn saw the advent of public racehorse trainers who trained professionally for more than one patron. Again, its proximity to London and the growing suburban spread meant that Epsom was most suitably placed to take advantage of this and it flourished accordingly.
SLIDE – ECLIPSE
Epsom’s bid for prominence as a training centre started well when it produced arguably the most influential foundation stallion, Eclipse, bringing national fame through his historic unbeaten results in 1760’s.
He was bought at Windsor sales from the dispersal sale on the death of the Duke of Cumberland by a Mr Wildman, who trained at Mickleham. He clearly had ability, but was a real hot head, and Wildman had nothing he could work him with, so Colonel O’Kelly provided him with a galloping companion. O’Kelly had worked variously as a sedan chair carrier and billiard scorer, prior to serving a prison sentence for debt, proof if any were needed that just about anyone can become a racehorse trainer!
Eclipse was 5 years old before he made his debut, but quickly racked up a string of victories all over the country, often heavily backed by O’Kelly. He soon became impossible to back as his odds were prohibitively short (O’Kelly is thought to have backed him one time at odds of 1/70), but O’Kelly recognised his future stud value and bought a half share for 650gns.
Eclipse retired unbeaten, having won 2149 guineas in prize money, and on his retirement it was said of him, “Never had a whip flourished over him, or felt the tickle of a spur, or was ever for a moment distressed.”
He retired to O’Kelly’s stud at Clay Hill in Epsom, and over the next fourteen years O’Kelly took £25,000 in stud fees for him. O’Kelly himself bought a number of top mares to mate him with, and they dominated the early running of the Oaks and Derby with his progeny. To this day, the vast majority of thoroughbred blood lines can be traced back to the stallion Eclipse.
He retired from stud duties in 1788 and was taken to The Cannons in a van drawn by two horses, the first instance of a mobile Horsebox. He died of Colic in 1789, and after his death was subject to detailed scrutiny by the London Veterinary College to discover the reasons for his exceptional speed. Eclipse’s skeleton is currently located at the Horse Racing Museum in Newmarket.
SLIDE – EPSOM GRANDSTAND
In the summer of 1779 Edward Smith-Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby organised a race for himself and his friends to race their three-year-old fillies. He named it the Oaks after his estate. The race became so successful that in the following year 1780 a new race was added for three-year old colts and fillies – the Derby.
SLIDE – EPSOM DERBY
In 1784 the course was extended to its current distance of a mile and a half and Tattenham Corner was introduced. Epsom has gained worldwide renown as the Home of The Derby ever since, and interestingly the Derby is now the longest consecutively running sporting event in the world, having been run every year since, even if during the war years it’s running was transferred to the relatively safer environment of Newmarket.
SLIDE – EMILY DAVISON
In 1913, the Derby became infamous when the suffragette Emily Davison threw herself in front of King George V’s horse Anmer), bringing him down. Davison was badly injured and died four days later, and this event is commemorated by a plaque placed on the rails of the racecourse at the point where she jumped onto the track.
The arrival of a family from Australia in the early 1900’s had a massive impact on the Epsom training fraternity. Richard Wootton had trained winners in Australia, South Africa and America before arriving in Britain in 1908, and he was champion trainer in 1913. One of his sons, Frank Wootton was champion jockey for 4 consecutive seasons whilst still in his teens, a quite remarkable feat, and this was the reason a lot of boys wanting to be apprentices flocked to Epsom to learn the so-called “Australian secret”!
His second son Stanley acted as assistant trainer to his father pre-war, and then served with distinction during the First World War, earning a military cross in the process. Following the end of the war, he took over the licence from his father, and become known as a very good trainer, not only of horses but also of jockeys. In 1928 he bought Langley Bottom and Walton Downs from the Epsom Gallops Association.
A key moment in the history of racing in Epsom was in 1969 when Stanley secured for the Levy Board a 999 year lease on the whole 250 acres of Walton Downs for the benefit of the towns racing industry, effectively securing the land for racehorse training, and protecting it from the spectre of development whilst there is still a viable training industry in the borough.
There are many fascinating anecdotes from that era which I couldn’t begin to do justice in the time available, but Bill Eacott, a local racing historian has kindly donated a few copies of his book about the Wootton family, if any of you would like to take one. The 1913 quote on the front cover is rather revealing about the fame of the Wootton family at that time – “No racing establishment is known better throughout the world than that of Dick Wootton”
SLIDE – TOP GRASS
Another family that had a major impact on Epsom as a training centre were the Nightingall’s. John Nightingall trained at South Hatch Stables from 1860, though it had been in the family since the 18th century, and it was John who played a key role in the provision of communal gallops on Epsom Downs.
By the time John handed over the reins to sons William and Arthur in 1890, the gallops on Epsom Downs had become professionally organised and maintained. Arthur noted “The Gallop’s are kept in excellent order and condition all year round, even in summer Six Mile Hill affords good going, and as I scarcely need add, many winners are trained there every season.”
SLIDE – VALLEY GALLOP
He went on to add “Our winter Gallop’s at Epsom are also excellent. The circular two mile tour represents a delightful journey, starting at the back of Sherwoods and finishing at Tattenham Corner. We soon find out, having slipped along merrily, whether a horse gets the distance.”
SLIDE – SCHOOLING HURDLE/FENCE
You can see from these slides that there are also now facilities on the Downs for the training of horses over hurdles and fences, as well as the flat.
SLIDE – SOUTH HATCH MONTAGE 1899
Many big race winners were trained by the Nightingall family out of South Hatch, and when Walter took over from his father William in 1927, it heralded another golden era, with big race winners trained for such as the infamous Dorothy Paget and Sir Winston Churchill. There are many more fascinating stories from that time, but again there just isn’t time to do them justice here. This montage from 1899 shows South Hatch as it was back then.
In the early 20th century, horses travelling from outside Epsom for the races would often be shipped in via train, and walked up to the course from Epsom station, as can be seen in the following slide:
SLIDE – HORSES EPSOM HIGH STREET
Thankfully these days horses are travelled in comfortable horse boxes, as I wouldn’t fancy leading a fit racehorse through Epsom High St as it is now!
Epsom’s stock improved steadily over the centuries and was really at its commercial heyday in the 25-year period after the Second World War. 1952 saw six Epsom trainers finish in the country’s leading twenty trainers in the Trainers Championship and two of the three largest strings of racehorses in the country at that time were housed in the town, one at Mospey trained by Vic Smyth (site now developed for housing) and the other at South Hatch trained by Walter Nightingall.
South Hatch was the largest and had more horses than any other stable in the country that year. During the 1960’s 5 Classic winners were trained at Epsom and the number of horses in training peaked in 1966 with 642 horses being trained on the Epsom Downs from 23 different active trainers.
All the town’s racehorses are trained on the Walton Downs training areas. In 1970 a Training Grounds Management Board (TGMB) was formed that still operates. All activity on the Downs is controlled by the Epsom & Walton Downs Regulation Act 1984 and is overseen by the Epsom & Walton Downs Conservators, who were set up to give a voice to the users of the Downs. This act gave members of the public the right of air and exercise on the Downs, with racehorses having priority up until midday. So what a lot of local people still don’t realise is that Epsom Downs is actually privately owned land, which they are allowed to enjoy under these conditions as set out in the 1984 act.
Up until around a year ago, the Downs were becoming almost unusable for the training of racehorses due to the number of members of the public walking their dogs off the lead, causing serious incidents on a sometimes daily basis. There is no doubt in my mind that if new legislation hadn’t been introduced ensuring that all dogs were to be kept on a lead until midday, Epsom’s position as a fantastic area to train racehorses would soon have come to an end.
The fundamental reasons for the long standing historical success enjoyed with training horses at Epsom still prevail today. Namely:
The location is perfect, close on the metropolitan fringe with a large and affluent populous on the “doorstep”
It is within easy reach of both central London and the main airports with good road links, and with excellent access to many of the countries southern racetracks.
Naturally suitable Downland grass which has been heavily augmented with the highest quality modern artificial gallops offering perfect galloping and training facilities in the most picturesque of surroundings within a protective green belt.
And of course, the longstanding racing history and heritage that goes with the town, the racecourse and the Downs.
The fifty years since the mid 1960’s has been less kind to the racing industry in Epsom. The loss of 28 racing yards to residential and urban development has squeezed the trainers and the stable infrastructure. These yards are shown plotted on this map.
SLIDE – EPSOM TRAINING YARDS LOCATION
The pressure of the urban environment and the higher costs of staff employment and housing on the urban fringe have all combined to reduce the industry to the perilous state it now finds itself in. Many of the yards that were based nearer the centre of town soon found themselves situated in areas that were too busy to be conducive to the training of racehorses, whilst at the same time seeing their potential values for development rocket.
The town’s racehorse numbers have now shrunk below those posted after the First World War. This graphs show the actual decline in the annual number of horse trained at Epsom.
SLIDE – EPSOM HORSES IN TRAINING LAST 60 YEARS
The local planning emphasis for the last 40 years has been on the preservation of the historic and heritage aspects of the racing and racehorse training industry in and around Epsom. Whilst well intentioned, this policy has unwittingly stifled progress and prevented the more positive outlook required to conserve and actively promote the town’s racehorse training industry for the future.
This situation has been exacerbated by individual property owners spotting an obvious potential opportunity to profit from the development of old, disused racing yards. Planning disputes have raged awkwardly over several of the towns yards, and this has understandably led to an even more entrenched and defensive local planning and development policy towards “protecting” the remaining yards and the Green Belt they often occupy.
Set against this backdrop it is no wonder inward capital investment into the remaining or potential new racing yards in Epsom has been effectively absent for decades. This is the primary reason why the remaining stable yard infrastructure in Epsom has atrophied and is now in many cases at or beyond economic repair. Added to this, yards that were state of the art 100+ years ago are now often extremely labour intensive, frequently situated next to what are now busy roads, and the stables themselves are not conducive to maintaining health and fitness in horses.
In Newmarket and Lambourn there are dedicated and specific planning policies relating to actively protecting, promoting and developing the racehorse industry within their identified locations. These policies incorporate positive planning positions backed by binding “use” ties to new and redeveloped yards and facilities. This regulates both future use and capital values.
This creates a far more positive and settled base from which the industry can work and therefore attracts investment and progressive businesses. That is what Epsom’s training industry is competing against and it is clearly missing out.
This can be seen by the graph of relative horse numbers in Epsom compared with the other training centres:
SLIDE – EPSOM RELATIVE HORSES IN TRAINING
The upkeep of the Downs and the gallops are paid for by owners of horses in training paying over £100/month to use them. At present, there are not enough horses in training to cover costs, so they are being subsidised by the Jockey Club, but it is clear that this is not a scenario that can continue for long – it is imperative that we see horse numbers rise again to ensure the sustainability of Epsom as a training centre.
In 2015 a mere 138 horses used the gallops on average spread between 9 active trainers. This represents an 80% decrease in average horse numbers from their peak fifty years ago. Less than 1% of UK racehorses are currently trained in Epsom compared to nearly 4% as recently as the mid-90’s.
But it is not all doom and gloom – last year saw the first classic winner trained in Epsom for over 50 years when the Laura Mongan trained Harbour Law won the St Leger, last week Simon Dow won a Group 2 in Qatar and there has been a small increase in numbers of horses in training over the last 12 months.
Epsom remains highly important to UK racing. The Derby is a national sporting fixture and this history and heritage is vital PR and exposure which the wider industry desperately needs. The Jockey Club’s huge investment and commitment to the racecourse and gallops now requires reciprocal investment in the towns remaining stable yards to ensure that the industry endures in the longer term.
There is a huge wish across the industry to see Epsom flourish again as a training centre. To this end, the main industry bodies have met and discussed the position and are now actively seeking to promote a jointly agreed strategic plan to tip the balance in Epsom’s favour, create major new investment and bolster horse numbers in training. As a formal statement of intent a joint “Vision for Epsom” statement has just been launched which it is hoped will meet with universal support, and I have some leaflets that we have produced pertaining to this which you may like to take with you to have a read.
SLIDE – SOUTH HATCH PROPOSED NEW YARD LAYOUT
This slide shows a preliminary proposed layout for our plans at South Hatch Stables, where we are attempting to rejuvenate the yard by means of building a modern, purpose built yard that will be funded through enabling development. The yard has reached a stage where it is no longer fit for the training of racehorses, and indeed 20 of the 60 available boxes are now unlicensed by the BHA on health and welfare grounds.
If we don’t manage to achieve redevelopment there is little doubt that neither I, nor anyone else will still be training from South Hatch in the very near future. This would result in another empty yard which there is every likelihood, particularly in light of the councils recent call for land, be developed purely for housing within a few short years. Our plan, whilst requiring the new yard to be built within green belt paddocks, would ensure the longevity of the racing yard, and help to protect the rest of the paddocks from encroaching development. Following on from this talk, which you’ll be pleased to hear is drawing to a conclusion, I’d be happy to take any questions on our plans
SLIDE – EPSOM DOWNS SUNRISE
The message I would like to leave everyone with is that it must always be remembered that it is the very presence of racehorses in Epsom that ensures the maintenance of the Downs. Careful management allows the proliferation of a variety of plant life, that itself helps attract various species of butterflies and birds, many of which are on the endangered list. The Downs themselves will remain a haven for local residents to enjoy, and remain protected from development whilst there remains a viable training industry, thanks to the far-sightedness of Sir Stanley Wootton in the last century, in securing a long lease on the land, for the benefit of the training industry.
The industry itself provides employment for many, and brings in in excess of £13m annually to the local economy. Many of the remaining yards provide a buffer zone between the urban sprawl and the Downs, and it is essential that none of the yards that remain are lost to racing. In some instances, as at South Hatch, this will only be possible with the equity release that enabling development will bring. Racing is a very low profit margin business, except at the very top end of the sport, so there is not the available inward investment to allow spending on infrastructure, and nor is there any available lending from conventional borrowing sources on such a high risk, low margin business.
There are a number of projects being looked at at the moment, of which South Hatch is one, which if they come to fruition could see a major upturn in the fortunes of Epsom as a Training Centre, which I hope is what the majority of the people living in Epsom would recognise as being a huge boost to the overall attractiveness of Epsom as a place to live. I, myself, would hate to imagine an Epsom that had lost its racing industry, as the town would have lost a major part of its soul.
Many thanks for listening, and I’d be happy to take any questions now if anyone has any, or I’ll stick around for a little while afterwards if anyone would like to come and speak to me personally. Alternatively, I’m always happy to welcome people to the yard to show them round to see the problems with which I’m faced, and how we’re hoping to solve them.