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A Day at the Races: The Long and Storied History of Cartmel Racecourse

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On a balmy day in 1856, against the verdant backdrop of the English Lake District, something special happened in a small and sleepy village known as Cartmel. Nestling between the shores of Morecambe Bay and the panoramic views of Lake Windermere, this was a place where little of moment ever occurred, yet on this spring afternoon, there was the stir of excitement in the air.

Crowds gathered, nudging each other and jostling for position. On a long stretch of grass before them, horses and riders assembled, the animals snorting and blowing at the sight of so many people. Every pair of eyes fixed on the Thoroughbreds who pranced and danced on the turf, eager to expend their nervous energy in a burst of dazzling speed.   

Among the eager crowd, one man scribbled studiously, his pen flying across the page, his eyes flitting back and forth between animal and paper. For the first time in its history, his words would immortalise a venue that had provided excitement and entertainment to thousands of racegoers over the years: the inimitable Cartmel Racecourse.

An ancient entertainment

While this account provides the first written evidence of racing at Cartmel, historians believe its history dates back much further. According to tales passed down through the generations, the sport has taken place here since at least the 1450s, when monks from the local priory would race mules and gamble on the outcomes of these events.   

Over the centuries, the sport progressed, until it was blood horses who took to the turf. Largely racing on the flat, they would later be expected to navigate a series of jumps, with the venue switching its focus to steeplechasing. Much more in keeping with the interests of the local populace, who hailed not only from Cartmel but also nearby Morecambe and the towns and villages around Windermere, this proved a major attraction among the area’s hunt set.

By 1947, race days at Cartmel had become so popular and begun to attract such large crowds that additional events were added to the calendar. Where once racing took place only on Whit Monday, a Saturday meet was arranged too, followed by an August event in the sixties.

As the years passed, even more races were created, so that nine different events now run at Cartmel over the course of a calendar year.

A glorious rebirth

While Cartmel Racecourse remains a popular venue for locals and out-of-town visitors even today, it almost didn’t survive. With racing necessarily suspended during the war years, there was a time when it seemed unlikely to reopen, and was saved only due to the interventions of local landowners and racing enthusiasts.

Thanks to their efforts, the course was able to open its doors once more, swiftly going from the preserve of the sporting amateur to a much more serious concern. Now a mainstay among the National Hunt racing scene, its biggest events draw crowds to rival even Cheltenham and Aintree.

Not only do these attract up to 20,000 attendees at a time, but they ensure a flurry of interest from racing enthusiasts, with the horse racing betting world opening its books to any and all who wish to have a flutter. Indeed, many a winner has been celebrated after, with local pub-goers raising enthusiastic toasts to their names.   

Now run by the same management team as Aintree, the course has been improved substantially over the years, with a funfair and trade stalls today running alongside the main event. Offering a potentially adrenaline-fuelled few hours, these have become much-anticipated fixtures in the local calendar.

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