Fantastic Fontwell: More Than Just a Racecourse
If you think Fontwell Park is just a place for horse racing fans, think again! Steeped in history and with a plethora of events taking place throughout the year, Fontwell has plenty to offer and excite everyone, as Absolute’s Shelley Welti uncovers…
Alfred Day came to The Hermitage, on the north side of the Chichester to Arundel road, in 1887 to train racehorses. While researching the history of the area, he found a reference on a 1630 map to “Fontwell”. This was the name of the spring in front of his house, the only watering-hole on this major south coast route, and which the Romans had originally called “Fons”. Passing monks are said to have added the “well” part of the name. Day brought the name Fontwell back into use.
Generations of his family had been involved in racing as trainers and jockeys throughout the 19th century. While not training any Derby winners, Alfred Day often managed to get inexpensive horses to win good races. He bought one horse for just over £20 and won a race worth £300 with it. He turned down an offer of £700 for it, but a week later the horse died! His best horse was Master Willie, who held the world record for 6 furlongs for over 25 years.
As time went by Day was able to buy more land in the area so that by 1924, with the support of the local gentry, he had obtained a license from the Jockey Club to create a racecourse at Fontwell. The hurdles track was a conventional oval shape, but the steeplechase course was designed as a figure of eight to make best use of the limited space available. There was a huge crowd at the first meeting on 21 May that year. Those who became Club members could enjoy the gardens Day had laid out over many years, which included a maze in the style of the one at Versailles, and relics from other stately homes. What had been the farmhouse became Fontwell House, the members’ restaurant. In keeping with the garden-like setting, the grandstand and the weighing room were built with thatched roofs. The inaugural race was won by the 5/4 favourite Gem, ridden by champion jockey Fred Rees. It was a warm, humid day, the first of a two day meeting, and some of the stable lads refreshed themselves so much they had to be put to bed still wearing their boots.
There were four days racing in the first year and this slowly increased with a mixture of one and two day meetings, generally in spring and autumn. In 1949 Monaveen won a race at Fontwell. This was the first racehorse owned by the Queen and the Queen Mother, and the only horse they owned jointly. He went on to win good races and to run in the Grand National. A topiary statue in the main enclosure commemorates Monaveen’s triumph and the special bond his owners had with racing.
The dual winning Champion Hurdler, National Spirit, won 32 of his 85 starts and five of those were at Fontwell, most notably in the Rank Challenge Cup, which he won 3 years in succession in 1948-50. Since 1965 a prestigious hurdle race has been run in his honour, attracting many equine stars over the years. Its first running saw Salmon Spray winning, who went on to land the Champion Hurdle in 1966. Other top class horses to have won it include the dual Champion Hurdler Comedy of Errors and the top stayer Baracouda, who won the race in 2001.
Between 1959 and 1966 Certain Justice won 14 races at Fontwell, and 25 in all. More recently, in 1992-93 St Athans Lad won eleven races at Fontwell in the space of 14 months. They were good examples of the racing adage “horses for courses”. The unusual shape of the steeplechase track with its twists and turns does not suit all horses, but others thrive on it as there is always something new coming into view up ahead. It is the only figure of eight jumps track left in the country. The course has long been valued by racing fans, many of whom go into the middle to watch the races by one fence and then walk over to the nearest fence on the next stretch of the figure of eight, in good time to see the horses reach it. As the horses go round three times in a three mile chase, spectators get quite a bit of exercise too!
Around 1970 it was rumoured that Goodwood might buy the course, but instead it was snapped up by Isidore Kerman, a top London divorce solicitor who already owned Plumpton racecourse. He died in 1998 and his son Andy became the chairman until deciding to sell in 2002 to Northern Racing, who currently own or manage nine courses. Since then there has been a huge investment in the facilities. A new 90 box stable yard has been constructed and in 2007 the parade ring, winners’ enclosure and saddling boxes were refurbished. A 40 bedroom hotel and pub/restaurant have also opened on the site. Maximum use has to be made of racecourses nowadays, so there are now over 20 race meetings a year and the course facilities are in use for numerous other events such as weddings, markets and concerts.
Speaking of the Queen, actress Judi Dench (who is no stranger to portraying a royal) filmed the Dick Francis story, Dead Cert at Fontwell. The script called for a horse to fall, but despite hiring one that was a poor jumper, it persisted in jumping beautifully whenever it was on camera! Perhaps it was the magical Fontwell Park effect.
Voted Best Small Racecourse for 19 years running, Fontwell continues to delight racegoers, even some 93 years after hosting its first meet. It’s the park’s figure of eight jumps track that delights – as it’s now the only course of its kind in the UK.
“Where Fontwell is unique is the configuration of the track,” Max Roberts, Head of Marketing for the racecourse explains. “As it’s the only figure of 8 jumps track in the UK, customers are able to see the horses run past up to three times before a race is finished. This is stark contrast to some other tracks where horses whizz by just the once!”
But it’s not just the track that keeps visitors coming back for more, there’s so much more to Fontwell Park than that. It’s the electric atmosphere, the varied events and themed fun that makes people want to return, time and time again.
“Fontwell has a fun, relaxed and friendly atmosphere. It’s a cliché, but there’s something for everyone; whether you want to bring your family along for a family fun day, have a day out with some mates at Oktoberfest or get glammed up for Ladies Evening, there’s a huge range of events and themes to suit everybody,” Max adds. “The course itself is relatively small and therefore everything is easily located. The Parade Ring and Winning Circle are just a short walk from the Main Grandstand.”
As autumn gets fully underway, so too does a busy season of events – including the popular Oktoberfest, fireworks night and the Totepool Southern National.
“Autumn is a busy time for Fontwell! We have our big two day race meeting on the 6th and 7th of October (themed as an Oktoberfest). Oktoberfest is now in its third year and continues to grow in popularity. It seems Bavarian beers, food and racing are a popular combination!” Fontwell Park’s Head of Marketing tells us.
“We also have our fireworks night on Saturday 4th November, a hugely popular night and this year the fireworks will be set to music from Disney!”
“Finally, on Sunday 19th November, we have the Totepool Southern National– a real ‘racing’ day that’s always popular with National Hunt fans!”
The latter event is one of Fontwell Park’s most spectacular and anticipated days, featuring highly in many a horse racing fan’s calendar. National Hunt racing at its best, this fixture really is the ultimate ride for jockey and horse and is ran over 3 miles of November ground – as Fontwell Park say “the race for the Grand National starts here!”.
Of course, we can’t forget to mention the racecourse’s biggest raceday of the year – Boxing Day! The annual event, which has now become a family tradition for many families in Sussex (and beyond!) combines top class racing and hospitality with all the festive fun of Fontwell Park’s winter wonderland.
Aside from racing, Fontwell Park is the perfect destination for a huge range of special events; from weddings to banqueting, exhibitions to Christmas parties and a meeting space for between 2 – 400 guests. From the traditional and elegant Fontwell House, to their Premier Grandstand and Paddock Marquee, they have three great venues to suit your needs. And, as the racecourse offers dedicated event planners, you can rest assured knowing that your event will be planned to perfection.
Whether you’re a horse racing fan, bride-to-be, the office’s Christmas party planner or a family looking for something fun to do, one thing’s for sure; Fontwell Park can cater for your individual needs – and offer so much more!
Find Fontwell Park Racecourse in Fontwell, Arundel, BN18 0SY.