Local historian Alf Ridyard explores the history of Haydock Racecourse in his weekly column, Tash Tales.
In the present day we have blanket TV coverage in the betting shops plus pay-per-view racing channels and the ability to have a wager in one of the many high street bookmakers or on your phone.
So a day at the races nowadays is something more of a social occasion for hen and stag parties, jollies for the darts and dominos teams, end-of-season trips and, of course, the present trend of high-quality musical entertainment at our local course.
Stars at Haydock have included Sir Tom Jones, Kylie Mynogue, The Corrs, some of the more recent entertainment includes Olly Murs, Culture Club and The Jacksons.
All this caters for a wider audience and not just the dedicated race-goers who study and dissect the form of the jockeys, horses and trainers. Of course this is seen as, quite rightly, moving with the times.
Our time machine rolls back to the turn of the 19th century and we look back at Haydock Park which opened its doors in 1898.
This in itself was a case of moving with the times, as racing of a kind had taken place at Newton racecourse just down the road. The Old Newton Cup dates back to 1752 and was raced for by members of the Newton Hunt over a distance of four miles and the winning prize said to be £50. It is the longest continued race in British horse racing.
Public racing started in 1836 and prize money available attracted horses from outside of the district.
Queen of Trumps being one of the stars, already an Oaks and St Ledger winner came to Newton and won the Borough cup for a prize of £50. It may be coincidental but the present course was built alongside the Manchester to St Helens branch line of the Great Central Railways, which had opened in 1895.
This prompted a station to be built adjoining the racecourse, which was to open in February 1899.
The station was only ever used for race day specials and regular passenger trains just passed through and stopped at Ashton-in-Makerfield station just half a mile further along the line.
With thirty plus race days per year the station was well patronised with race-goers from Liverpool and Manchester. It was known for punters from Wigan and all stops on the GCR from Wigan Central to change at Lowton St Mary’s for onward travel to the course.
Race day specials continued until 1963 and the station later closed. In 1975 there was an attempt to re-start the service but that lasted the one season. The line itself came under the Beeching cuts and is now part of the large car parking area.
Back to the racing and the old Newton Cup now has a winning prize of £60,000 and is run over 1.1/2 miles these days, still small reward in comparison to the Haydock sprint cup with a winning purse of £162,000 and the Bet Fair chase over the jumps with a £200,000 prize.
The course is set in pleasant surroundings and is regularly referred to as the Ascot of the North.
In way of explaining our opening headline, “More than a day at the races”, we take a look at some of the events in Haydock Racecourse’s history.
During World War Two the course was closed for racing but played a major role in the invasion of Europe when the American 76th infantry division were stationed there prior to shipping out and landing at the slaughterhouse of Omaha Beach.
Fortunately they landed six days after the initial landings but still suffered many casualties at Saint-Lô as they moved inland. The USAAF at Burtonwood also stored much of their equipment on the course, 165 personnel and five officers were billeted there.
Prior to the Americans being stationed on the course, Polish and Czech soldiers plus free French sailors and marines were all billeted on the course between 1940-42.
In the years after the war many construction machine companies held sales promotions, also agricultural machinery companies.
Add to this, exhibitions, weddings, conferences, craft fairs and it made Haydock Park an all-year-round pristine facility.
All this was a far cry from the landed gentry and the hunting fraternity standing in a Newton field or sat in their carriages wagering a few guineas on the outcome of races. It was 1899 when the public became interested. We find many illegal bookmakers who all made a killing , not until 1928 did on-course bookmaking become legal as the crowds were now extremely large.
The betting industry, to attain some respectability, was now government controlled. Still there were many unlicensed bookies who would take working men’s threepenny bits, tanners and shillings.
Not until 1961 did off-course bookies become legal, many of these operating from round the backs of the terraced houses in little sheds or front rooms of the houses, where they had operated illegally for years, with the local bobby turning a blind eye.
The bookies’ runners collected the bets from the local pubs. Particular memories of bookies in our own town of Leigh were Jess Grundy and Bert Hulme. Terry’s and Birchall’s also readily spring to mind. The days of the high street bookie were some way off.
Taking us back to the racing side another claim to fame, the course was the scene of household legend Lester Piggott’s first winner in 1948, aged 12, when he rode The Chase. Coincidentally, his last winner in 1994 was also at Haydock.