Before the Second World War, there were two types of amateur race meeting, the point-to-point, mostly run by Hunts and the “bone fide” military race meeting which were run at Tweseldown, Windmill Hill near Tidworth and Hawthorne Hill near Bracknell. All that existed at Larkhill was a rudimentary practice course laid out in the early 1930’s.
Shortly after the war, the School of Artillery was commanded by Brigadier (later Major General) Bill Heath, who started up the Royal Artillery Saddle Club. Not content with this, he was determined to have a proper racecourse at Knighton Down. His idea was that the course should one day be the main venue for a series of “bone fide” meetings.
The course was laid out during the winter of 1946/7 and although some undulations were partially levelled, it mainly followed the natural lie of the land and is much as you see it today. The turf is old downland, topsoil laid on a bed of chalk and flint, causing good drainage and as it has not been ploughed or grazed for generations, it retains an enviable mat of grass and roots to aid the going in all weathers.
The first meeting was held under the auspices of the RA Saddle Club on 23 April 1947. It rained incessantly, the wind reached gale force and all the tents, with the exception of the dressing and weighing rooms, were blown away!! The meeting was a financial disaster!
Despite this difficult start, General Heath and his right hand man Lieutenant Rollo Baker made plans to lease the course out to local hunts. At this point “bone fide” meetings were abolished by the Jockey Club and so there were no further RA Saddle Club meetings.
The RA Hunt met there in 1948 and 1949 and in 1950 the first United Services meeting was held. This was a direct descendant of the RA Saddle Club meeting and was joined at Larkhill in 1994 by the Army meeting thus fulfilling, in some way the original idea of the founders of the racecourse. In 2011 the United Services and Army meeting were merged as a direct result of the drawdown of the military and consequently the Defence companies who had traditionally sponsored them.
On the 21 February 1953, HM The Queen and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh attended the United Services meeting and presented them with the Coronation Cup to the winner of the Open Race. This cup was presented to the race committee by the Officers of the Royal Artillery.
Over the years Larkhill has gained a reputation for challenging fences and has provided a venue for horses on their way to competing over larger obstacles at Cheltenham and Sandown Park.
In 2002 the ancient wriggly tin buildings, which housed many of the officials were removed and replaced by the wooden Control Building – rather less precarious and housing the Racecourse Control Room, Stewards Room, Commentary Box and racecard kiosk. The Queens’s Building was also built and now houses 2 large hospitality suites on the top floor, with a fully fitted kitchen. On the ground floor are the jockeys changing rooms, with heating, loos and a dedicated medical room.
It has not been without its incidents and one meeting in 1981 attracted a record 184 runners, a figure that remains unsurpassed to this day. There were 11 races or divisions on that day and in the last race, which was run in the dark, six horses fell at the fifth fence during the first circuit. The remainder of the field were met on the final circuit by four ambulances grouped with blue lights flashing and headlights on, on the far side of the final fence. A few lucky finishers picked their way through the mayhem and the result was allowed to stand!
Larkhill continues to evolve. The centre of the course now has a top grade Cross country course within it which is proving hugely popular. In excess of a km of railing has just arrived at the course from Tweseldown and will be erected over the next few months and the work continues to ensure that we have a top quality racecourse that will be enjoyed for many years to come by all the racing fraternity.
Do have a look at this wonderful Pathe News clip of the Queen's visit to Larkhill in 1953. Can you recognise anything on the course??
Thanks to J4F for the clip - priceless!