Blandford Racecourse was at one time almost as famous as Aintree or Epsom. A race meeting was held annually, normally for two days, on Blandford Downs - where Blandford Camp is today.
Dating back to at least 1603 while Aintree is associated with
Red Rum, Blandford Racecourse was renowned for a horse named Arctic. Run over
two miles, this meeting’s most prestigious race was the Dorsetshire Gold Cup.
Arctic took the Cup in 1838 and in four successive years from 1841. During this
time, Arctic had several different owners including Lord Shaftesbury, Sidney
Herbert MP – an ally of Florence Nightingale – and Mr Galpin who kept horses at
stables in Langton Long. Among Arctic’s successful jockeys was C Percy from a Pimperne
horse training family. According to Victoria History of Dorset (1908):
‘It would be impossible
to find a healthier spot for horses or a more perfect training ground than this
on the old Blandford Racing Course with distances to suit preparation for all
Blandford Races were at their peak in 1827 when the principal
meeting guest was the defeater of Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo,
and twice to serve as Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington. Another future Prime
Minister, Lord Palmerston was an attendee as were most of the county’s gentry
such as the Portmans, the Welds, the Bankes, the Farquarsons and Lord
Shaftesbury. As today on Epsom Downs race days, there were many entertainments
on Blandford Downs and in the town. There were gambling booths, dinners in the
Crown Hotel, Assembly Rooms & Greyhound Inn, theatrical performances and
cock fighting in a West Street inn, later renamed the Crown & Anchor.
Cudgel playing was a popular ‘sport’
which involved two contestants hitting each other with heavy sticks. The contestant who drew blood first was the winner. Injuries
were horrendous and included a Shaftesbury man losing the sight of an eye.
Another cudgel playing confrontation, just outside the Crown Hotel, attracted a
crowd of more than 200. There was also the equally dangerous and unpleasant game of ‘kick shins’ - a sport that is self-explanatory! Scars from both sports were shown off with great pride.
After the 1827 meeting, Blandford Races slowly went downhill
principally due a shortage of entrants and a gentry management that operated
rather like a cartel. In 1843, Arctic won the Dorset Stakes but was the sole
entrant. The event had fallen into the hands of a small group of wealthy individuals who were able to influence the results. Sidney Herbert and Lord George Bentinck became involved in a legal case where a single horse entrant had been awarded
the prize. They argued that the race had not been properly advertised and
therefore should be declared null and void. Last meeting of Blandford Races
took place in August 1844 and appropriately the winner of the last Dorsetshire
Gold Cup was Arctic. There were subsequent attempts to revive the event but none
proved to be successful.
The Western Flying Post of June 29th 1844 wrote:
‘The old County Races
at Blandford are almost obsolete, serving only as a sort of nucleus to keep up
its staff of functionaries.’
Weather on the last day was fine but the people attending ‘met with considerable disappointment the
sport being very indifferent.’ In contrast, the Race Ball was ‘numerously and fashionably attended and
dancing was kept up with much spirit to a late hour.’
If Blandford Race Course had been better managed would
Blandford Downs today be known for horse racing rather than as a military base?
Newspaper Archive & Greyhoundderby.com)
Image: Blandford Racecourse's Arctic & Dorsetshire Gold Cup.