Horse racing meetings offer some of the most fashionable events in London’s sporting calendar. Aside from the tennis at Wimbledon, there are few other sporting occasions in London that encourage people to dress to impress and enjoy the atmosphere of a racecourse.
It’s a sport that even the Royal Family enjoy, with both Queen Elizabeth I and II having owned a string of thoroughbred racehorses in their time. Queen Elizabeth II still makes her annual pilgrimage to Royal Ascot, with this week-long race meeting becoming an official ‘Royal Week’ back in 1911.
Whether you are a first-time visitor to the capital or you’ve always fancied a day at the races with family or friends, we’ve put together a beginner’s guide to the leading racecourses in and around London and the M25.
Owned by the iconic Jockey Club, Kempton Park is an impressive racecourse in Surrey, London. Unlike some racecourses, Kempton Park offers both flat racing and steeplechase (National Hunt) races. The Grade 1 King George VI Chase is a popular three-mile race which is normally part of the racecourse’s Christmas festivities. It’s the second most prestigious steeplechase event behind the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The Gold Cup is the showcase race of the Cheltenham Festival and attracts the biggest prize purse and betting interest from legendary tipsters such as Andy Holding, who cover the entire four-day festival.
With race meetings held throughout the year, due to its versatile nature as a flat and steeplechase racecourse, it’s easy to find a race day to go to at Kempton. Better still, the racecourse boasts its very own train station, with direct rail connections possible from London Waterloo on the Shepperton branch line. For those preferring to drive to the racecourse, the venue skirts the A308 and the A316, with the latter a stone’s throw from the M3 motorway. On-site parking is free for all spectators.
Sandown Park is another Jockey Club-owned racecourse on the outer fringes of the capital in Esher, Surrey. It’s within the M25 London Orbital and is very close to Hampton Court Palace in south-west London. Like Kempton Park, Sandown is another hugely versatile racecourse, with flat and jump racing on offer here. In fact, Sandown favours the National Hunt chases over the flat racing season, with five Grade 1 National Hunt events held here and just one Group 1 flat race held in July, known as the Eclipse Stakes.
The Tingle Creek Chase is one of the most iconic jump races in the UK horse racing calendar, meanwhile the Tolworth Hurdle is another fascinating race which usually involves some of the most promising steeplechasers looking to develop ahead of major races at the Cheltenham Festival.
Like Kempton, Sandown Park is also well-connected by overground rail services. Esher train station is only a ten-minute walk to the racecourse, which is 25 minutes from London Waterloo. Be mindful that Esher station is beyond Zone 6, so Oyster Cards are invalid on trips here. It is easily accessible by car too via the A3 and the A309.
Epsom Downs in the heart of Surrey overlooks the magnificent North Downs. It is one of the most popular racecourses in the London area to specialise exclusively in flat racing. Its venue can usually welcome up to 130,000 spectators on the biggest race days, which include the Epsom Derby. This is the number-one race for three-year-old sprinters and also one of the most historic, having been inaugurated way back in 1780. It’s included as one of the five ‘Classics’ in the British horse racing calendar, alongside the 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket, the Epsom Oaks and the St Leger Stakes at Doncaster.
The most prestigious race meetings at Epsom are also regularly visited by the Royal Family. Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge made their first public appearance here after their marriage in 2011. Epsom train station is a little way out from the racecourse, but for the biggest race days the venue operates a shuttle bus to and from the station. If you would prefer to walk from the train station, try and get a service that calls at Tattenham Corner or Epsom Downs, which are considerably closer in walking distance.
You’ll have to head a little further west out of the capital to reach Ascot in neighbouring Berkshire, but trust us, it’s worth the trip. It is one of the most historic British racecourses, having staged horse races here since August 1711. In fact, Ascot Racecourse attracts approximately 600,000 spectators annually, which reportedly equates to a tenth of all annual visits to UK racecourses. Just over a third of the UK’s flat Group 1 races are staged at Ascot.
At the time of writing, Ascot hosts 26 race days throughout the year, culminating in 18 flat race meetings and eight National Hunt meetings in the winter months. June’s Royal Ascot meeting is one of the biggest dates in the British sporting calendar, with Ladies’ Day hosting the iconic Ascot Gold Cup. Although Ascot is outside the M25 London Orbital, it’s just as easy to visit by train. Ascot is on the South Western Railway line from London Waterloo, with connections taking just 52 minutes on average. By car, Ascot is also easily reached from junction 6 of the M4.
Situated on the banks of the picturesque River Thames, the Royal Windsor Racecourse is another iconic place to enjoy a spot of live horse racing. Although it may not have the history of venues such as Ascot, the area does have a royal heritage, with horse racing links dating back to Henry VIII. Although this venue used to stage National Hunt races, it is now a predominantly flat racing racecourse. It also boasts a unique figure-of-eight-shaped racecourse, with Fontwell Park in West Sussex the only other UK racecourse to have a course of this layout.
The Winter Hill Stakes is the most valuable race meeting at Royal Windsor. It is the only Group race staged at the racecourse at present. What it may lack in top-class racing, it more than makes up for in regal atmosphere. A visit to the racecourse should be paired with a trip to Windsor Castle. The Windsor & Eton Riverside station offers direct rail links to London Waterloo, while quintessential river taxis can also be taken to the racecourse from the town’s Barry Avenue Promenade.