At the time of writing, there are 59 racecourses in Britain, a further two in Northern Ireland and 24 in the Republic of Ireland. All of these have their own unique charm, as well as their pros and cons, and true racing aficionados will probably want to visit them all at least once. However, our focus here is on those in the UK and more specifically, the best courses for the average racing fan.
The concept of the best is, of course, highly subjective, but we will do our utmost to cater to all tastes and to provide a flavour of what you can expect at each track. It is also worth being aware that even the same track can provide a very different experience on different days. That can be down to obvious factors such as whether the racing is Flat or National Hunt (at a dual-purpose venue), or whether you visit for a major meeting or a quiet midweek fixture; or it might be down to something less predictable such as the weather on the day or even whether you get lucky with your bets!
In short, therefore, this is just our opinion, a general guide and, moreover, as with everything in life, it is subject to change. Courses often undergo renovations or refurbishment and the character of the track can also change, as can the demographic of the visitors. Anyway, all those caveats aside, let’s get started.
Best Courses For Big Meetings
Whilst we do not want this piece to be about which course has the biggest and best races and meetings, nor is it intended to be aimed at hardcore racing fans looking to complete their bucket list of UK races, there is no denying that lots of fans want to go to the biggest events. If you are making a first trip to the races then starting with a bang is a great way to get the full excitement of the sport. Indeed, many peoples’ first experience of horse racing is at one of the big meetings because for many these have the most appeal.
The following is just a selection of the options if you want to go to one of racing’s flagship events. We haven’t included them all because there are simply too many. In addition, as with some of the other categories, there is a lot of crossover so just because a track features in this section, it does not mean it doesn’t have other appealing characteristics and it could also feature elsewhere in this piece.
If you love National Hunt (NH) racing (horse racing with hurdles or fences) then Cheltenham is a must-visit, ideally on one of the four days of the Cheltenham Festival which typically takes place in mid-March. There is much to recommend about a visit to this Cotswolds venue at any time of the year but for four days in spring, it is the centre of the racing world. In 2022 there were 28 races and many of these, half in fact, are at Grade 1 level, meaning they are the highest standard of jumps racing.
That means that you get both quality and quantity at “the Festival” and you also get a perfect mix of raucous atmosphere and a true love and understanding of racing. If you want excitement and glamour in equal measure, equine brilliance and gallons of Guinness (the Cheltenham Festival usually coincides with St Patrick’s Day and attracts thousands of visitors from Ireland), then Cheltenham really is the course to visit. It is a place where legends are created and it has to be considered one of the best racecourses in the land.
Sticking with the jumps game, we move to what many argue is the most famous and iconic race in the whole world, the Grand National. Run approximately a month after Cheltenham it is seen by many as marking the end of the NH season. Whilst the wider public focus solely on the big race, which takes place on the Saturday, day three of the Grand National Meeting, the overall standard of racing is actually higher on the first two days of the festival.
Even so, it is the Saturday and the National itself that attracts most fans, with the buzz at a packed Aintree hard to match. Around 70,000 fans pack into the Merseyside venue, with over half a billion watching on from home. Cheltenham offers more top-class racing and a more knowledgeable crowd but the unique nature of the National, with its gruelling distance and testing fences, plus the fervour of the fans, make a visit to Aintree for Grand National day something truly special.
If you prefer your racing to be about speed then action on the level is the way to go and of the many huge meetings and great courses available we will select Epsom for Derby weekend. Flat racing offers five Classics, the biggest races in the sport, and two of those are held at Epsom, at the start of June. Typically the first Saturday of the month sees the Derby, with the fillies-only Oaks taking place a day earlier.
A visit to the North Downs, Surrey, on either day, will be a memorable day out but the Derby edges things for glamour and prestige (although the Oaks, first run in 1779, predates it by two years). Legends such as Shergar, Nijinsky, Galileo, Sea The Stars and Golden Horn are just some of the horses to have won the Derby, with jockey Lester Piggott having tasted success in the race a record nine times. Including those watching on from the Epsom Downs themselves (who do not need to pay), the course has a capacity of more than 125,000, creating an electric atmosphere for a Derby-day card that features plenty of other excellent races too.
Kempton might seem a surprise inclusion to some but its King George VI fixture on Boxing Day really is a special occasion. The big race of the Christmas Festival has been won by the best NH horses of all time, including Arkle, Desert Orchid (four times) and Kauto Star (a record five times). Most jumps racing fans consider it to be the second only to the Cheltenham Gold Cup in terms of prestige when it comes to chasing and whilst Kempton also holds Flat racing, it is this festive fixture that really puts it on the map.
In and of itself Kempton may not be everyone’s pick as one of the best racecourses to visit but there is just something special about coming here on Boxing Day. Blowing away the Christmas hangover with a trip to Kempton is the perfect post-Christmas sporting occasion. What’s more, its proximity to London means that it is hugely accessible for a large number of people.
Goodwood overlooks the Sussex Downs and as one of the nation’s most southerly courses it also tends to be a little warmer than many other UK racecourses. Great views, decent weather and the wonderful Glorious Goodwood five-day racing feast in late July/early August make for a special combination and many fans and pundits rate Goodwood as one of the best racecourses in the UK.
The Flat-only venue hosts races throughout the standard Flat season and is home to three top-tier Group 1 contests. All three take place during Glorious Goodwood, officially the Qatar Goodwood Festival for sponsorship reasons. Goodwood in summer is known as part of the British social season but the atmosphere is far more relaxed than at somewhere like Royal Ascot, with Panama hats the uniform rather than top hats and tails. Whether you visit for the main meeting or not, Goodwood is a charming and scenic racing venue and with top-class facilities, it is well worth a visit.
What, No Ascot?
Ascot is one of the most famous racecourses in the UK and its five-day Royal meeting is certainly one of the best in terms of the quality on the track. The course has superb facilities, incredible history, offers racing on the level and over obstacles (though it is the former for which it is most known), and is considered by many to be the centre of British horse racing.
But it just isn’t a fun place to visit. A friend and keen racing enthusiast described it as a place where people know they are supposed to be having fun but don’t know how to. It might be a place to be seen, and if you have thousands of pounds spare to blow on hospitality and champagne, there is no doubt you can do a very good impression of someone having fun, but we think there are far better places to watch racing in the UK; courses where the staff and fans are friendlier and more welcoming, there is far fewer egos on display and the smiles, laughter and excitement are real.
Best Small Courses In The UK
Switching to the other end of the spectrum now, there are many superb racing venues in the UK that fall into the category of “small but perfectly formed”. They may have maximum capacities of closer to 10,000 than 100,000 and typically do not host any races of national significance. Many are unknown to those outside of the sport but if huge crowds, big queues and an impersonal feel are your idea of hell, the following are well worth seeking out.
Beverley is a town outside Hull but don’t let that put you off! A picturesque market town in the East Riding of Yorkshire, it has decent transport links and has regularly been voted among the best places to live in the UK. The course is but a gentle stroll from the town centre, though there is free parking available. Ticket prices are competitive, facilities decent and the views superb, both in terms of watching the action and taking in the surrounding countryside. With friendly staff and locals, and a welcoming approach to families and history going back to the 18th century, Beverley races are highly recommended.
Chester Racecourse, known as the Roodee, is the oldest racecourse in the world (according to some, at least), dating back to the 16th century. It is certainly one of the most popular with racing fans and despite its relatively small size, it offers excellent, modern facilities, and some very decent racing too. Right on the edge of Chester’s delightful town centre, the course is easily reached and wherever you are stationed you are sure to be very close to the action and have an excellent view.
Chester offers Flat racing from May to September and usually hosts around 15 days of action. Its position on the River Dee adds to the aesthetic appeal whilst the city walls really bring home the history of the place. The course is compact and its tight turns can produce some thrilling races and all in all Chester is a real star of UK racing.
If you want a weekend away to see racing’s brightest stars competing in top-class action then Ludlow is not the place for you. However, if you want a super-friendly day out, a laid back vibe and stunning views of the rolling Shropshire hills then it absolutely is. Most of the NH-only track’s meetings are midweek and follow the traditional jumps season from October to April or May, with around 12 to 16 days of action a year.
The countryside of South Shropshire is the real appeal of Ludlow though and whilst there are no major standout races, many of the top jumps trainers do send their horses here. Racing has taken place here since 1729 and is great for a fun, informal, affordable day out.
Cartmel Racecourse is a real Lake District gem and perfect for National Hunt fans who want to enjoy their preferred form of racing into the summer months. The Lake District’s famously wet weather means the ground here stays soft throughout even the hottest months, with the August Holiday Meeting at the end of the month one of the track’s biggest.
Cartmel is truly a charming place to watch racing, with stunning views and a pleasing eccentricity that sees most fans stationed inside the track. Whilst some might bemoan the lack of facilities, for those wanting a cheap day out with a picnic or barbeque it really is perfect. At the other end of the budgetary and culinary scale, the course is perfect to combine with Simon Rogan’s brilliant three Michelin-starred restaurant, L’Enclume.
There are a number of superb racecourses in the UK that offer a little of everything. They are not mega venues like Cheltenham or Aintree but nor are they cosy and quaint. If you want the best of both worlds, then perhaps the following excellent racecourses will be best for you.
In some regards, York Racecourse can be viewed as a larger version of Chester, albeit more polished. So polished, in fact, it has won the accolade as Best Racecourse in Britain four times, so it isn’t just us who rate it. Like Chester, its racing roots go back to the 16th century and, again like the course on the other side of the Pennines, it is often known by a different name, in York’s case, the Knavesmire.
Further proving its standing as a top-class British racecourse is the fact that it stood in for Ascot to host the Royal Meeting in 2005 when the Berkshire venue was undergoing redevelopment and it has also hosted Doncaster’s Classic race, the St Leger. It has huge races of its own though, with the Ebor Handicap one of Europe’s finest and the Juddmonte, won by Frankel in 2012, a truly high-class Group 1 run over one mile and two furlongs. If you want to see top-class racing but without the slightly fussier atmosphere you might get at certain other venues, York is certainly very hard to beat.
As towns and cities go, the public images of York and Doncaster could hardly be more different but in racing terms, both courses have many similarities. Doncaster is a dual-purpose venue with fixtures year-round (whereas York is Flat-only) but in terms of size, stature, atmosphere and the quality of racing the two are very similar. “Donny” is the only course in South Yorkshire but is highly accessible from most parts of the country and often hosts various fun days and themed events, as well as music, to complement the action on the track.
As home to the oldest Classic in racing, the St Leger Stakes, first run in 1776, plus the Vertem Futurity Trophy, it serves up some top-notch Flat racing. In addition, with the Lincoln Handicap in late March or early the next month, Doncaster is seen by many as hosting the start of the Flat season proper. The National Hunt racing can’t quite match that but it is more than decent and no matter how you like your horse racing, Doncaster is undoubtedly one of the best racecourses to visit.
Haydock, located in Merseyside, is a fine all-rounder in all senses and whether you like your horses jumping or running flat out on the level, you can see racing of the highest standard at Haydock. Twice the racecourse of the year, it holds the Betfair Chase in November, the first leg of the Triple Crown of Chasing, as well as the Group 1 Sprint Cup in September, not to mention a number of Grade 2 chase and hurdle events.
Set in a vast expanse of parkland, but easy to reach from just about anywhere in the North West, it mixes ease of access, brilliant action on the track and a pleasant setting. It is known as a friendly course and various trials, including one for the Grand National, plus a Summer Family Day and hugely popular Ladies Day, there is a fine mix of events.
Almost all of the tracks in the UK will have their fans who believe they deserve a mention in any list of the nation’s best racecourses. As we began by saying, this has to be a very subjective notion and much depends on what you are looking for. We could have added further categories for the most beautiful tracks, the best value ones, the most family-friendly options, the best for stag and hen dos, the best for serious punters… and on and on.
But then we would have got to the stage where almost all of the UK tracks were being listed which rather defeats the purpose of a “best racecourses” list! So, rather than have a huge number of sub-categories we have stuck with three but that is not to say that we have covered all of the excellent tracks these isles have to offer. Far from it. For that reason we will now highlight a few extra tracks that certainly have a lot to offer and, depending on what you want and where you are in the country, are well worth checking out.
Wolverhampton is, in our humble opinion, a hugely underrated venue. As an all-weather track, it offers a massive number of meetings throughout the year, with Flat racing offered right through winter, including in the evenings. It has a hotel on site, some excellent value hospitality options and lots of music nights if you want to carry on having fun after the last race.
Carlisle is a place that, perhaps like Wolverhampton, does not have the most glamorous of images. However, it is a very pleasant racecourse that is a good option for racing fans in Scotland. It is one of the friendliest tracks going and with racing 11 months of the year this dual-purpose course is one that you should be able to squeeze into your calendar.
Wetherby Racecourse is a course that insiders tend to love, in large part because it offers excellent views of the track from virtually all parts of the venue. It has one or two notable races but the standard of action is pretty good even away from those and the facilities, in general, are far better than they really need to be for a course of this size. Those driving will find getting there really easy too as the course is just off the A1 and it is a great course to start potential stars of the future.
Wales is not overwhelmed with horse racing options, although per capita it doesn’t fare too badly with three in total. Our pick of the trio is Ffos Las, situated in Carmarthenshire and a real newcomer in UK terms, having only held its first race in 2009. It currently holds around 12,000 spectators but such has been the success of the course there are plans to expand that to 20,000. The course hosts both Flat and National Hunt racing and fans of the latter should visit for the showpiece Welsh Champion Hurdle in October. With fine views, a reputation for attracting some strong performers and relatively new facilities it continues to go from strength to strength.