Redcar Racecourse marks its 150th anniversary next week. PETER BARRON, a regular at Redcar for more than 50 years, talks to a key figure whose family has been involved since the start

AS he looks back on a century and a half of racing at Redcar, Lord Zetland can take pride in the fact that his family has been in it for the long run.

From the time when races were held on the beach, with masses of spectators steaming in by train, and the winners receiving a handful of sovereigns for their primitive efforts, the name Zetland has been synonymous with Redcar Races.

Lawrence Mark Dundas – the fourth Marquess of Zetland – took over from his father ‘Lawrie’ as Chairman and Managing Director of the seaside racecourse in 1981.

“I had no real interest in racing back then, but I wanted to do my best to maintain the family tradition, and I learned quickly,” he smiles, as he reminisces from his office in the magnificent grounds of Aske Hall, in the heart of North Yorkshire.

“Over time, I developed a love of horse racing and I’m immensely proud of the part successive members of my family have played in the development of Redcar over such a long time.”

Next Tuesday – August 9, 2022 – marks the 150th anniversary since the first Redcar meeting was held on a proper racecourse, and a lot of water has flowed into the North Sea since the Sport of Kings first came under starter’s orders in the town.

In the days when races were run on the sands, the run-in was roped off, the judge was positioned in a bathing van, and the stewards in an old farm wagon. It is not known exactly when the first races took place, although the Redcar Race Committee was formed in 1850.

A report, headed REDCAR RACES, from the Newcastle Daily Chronicle of May 30, 1863, says: “Yesterday, the annual races were held at the beautiful little marine watering place. From early morn, an unusual display of excitement broke the monotony of the quiet village, and train after train, and carriage wagon, and steamboat, brought hundreds of strangers to partake of the festivities provided for the day. The races were held on the sands, and as the weather was delightfully fine, the whole affair went off satisfactorily.”

However, it wasn’t always entirely satisfactory. Another newspaper extract – this time the Bell’s Life and Sporting Chronicle of May 12, 1866 – reports: “This meeting took place on the sands and, notwithstanding the unfavourable weather, was well attended. The sport, announced to commence at one o’clock, did not begin until after three, the delay causing considerable annoyance to the spectators.”

And the races on the beach didn’t always involve just horses. Once, a race was held to settle an argument over whether racehorses or foxhounds were faster. Unfortunately, the trail left for the hounds blew into the sea and the contest ended in a fiasco.

When the Jockey Club decreed that all races had to have a prize of at least £50, racing on the beach became unviable because spectators could not be charged. Therefore, attention turned to giving Redcar Races a home more in keeping with the changing times. A group of local sportsmen, led by their chairman, John Hikeley – owner of the Lobster Inn – and supported by the 1st Marquess of Zetland, set about acquiring a suitable piece of land.

They approached Mr AHT Newcomen, of Kirkleatham Hall, and secured a 21-year lease on the site of the present course. The final meeting on the sands took place in 1870, with the big race – The Cleveland Hunt Cup – attracting a first prize of £30.

The first meeting at the new course was held “on ground adjoining the gasworks” on August 9, 1872. Admission to the Grandstand enclosure was six shillings, admission to the Course enclosure was two pennies, and the first ever race was the Zetland Welter Handicap Plate for gentlemen riders, won by John Osborne on his grand horse, Wetherby.

A newspaper report from that first day gives an account of another race, the Kirkleatham Plate, noting that St Paul’s and Little Duchess fought out a close finish, “the others having run out at the turn, did not pass the post”.

Since those far off days, Redcar Racecourse has continued to thrive, with developments taking place throughout its history. As recently as 2018, Redcar was rewarded for its friendly reputation when it was named the Best Small Racecourse in Scotland and the North by the Racegoers Club.

The greatest jockeys of all eras – from John Osborne at that first historic meeting to all-time greats like Lester Piggott, Willie Carson and Frankie Dettori – have all graced the Redcar turf.

Renowned as one of the fairest tracks in the country, with a straight mile, a string of great horses have also shone at Redcar. Perhaps best known of all was the great dual champion hurdler Sea Pigeon, trained at Malton by Peter Easterby, who won the Vaux Gold Tankard at Redcar in 1977, 1978 and 1980.

The Northern Echo:

The current Lord Zetland, now 84 and a gentleman in every sense, stepped down as chairman at the end of the 2018 season to hand over to John Sanderson. Like his forefathers before him, Lord Zetland made his mark, notably introducing Redcar’s richest race, the innovative Two-Year-Old Trophy in 1989, and overseeing a major redevelopment programme, funded by selling off a piece of land at the north end of the racecourse to Safeway in 1988.

Other highlights of his tenure included Princess Anne winning her first race on a horse called Gulfland in 1986; attracting the legendary American jockey, Julie Krone, in 1992; and persuading “everyone’s favourite auntie” – Coronation Street star Pat Phoenix – to become a regular Redcar visitor.

It is fitting indeed that The Zetland Gold Cup – first run in 1950 – continues to be one of Redcar’s most prestigious races.

“I just love the place, because it has been such a big part of my life, and because of the part my family played in the story all the way back to the beginning,” says Lord Zetland. “The good thing is that it’s in very good hands.”

A century and a half has raced by – and it’s good to see that Redcar Racecourse is still going strongly.