Situated within a stones-throw of the A525 and sheltered against the winds from all directions, sits the tiny Welsh village of Bangor-on-Dee. It’s a beautiful place set in a natural hollow and surrounded by stunning countryside alongside the glorious River Dee. It’s steeped in history. The Romans called it Bovinium and the Saxons Bancornaburg. Before the Cambrian Railway opened a branch line from Wrexham to Ellesmere in 1895, the village was known as Bangor-Is-y-Coed or “Bangor below the wood”. The railway company called the station Bangor-on-Dee, probably to anglicise the Welsh village’s name. The railway closed in 1962, as part of the Beeching cuts, and today Bangor-on-Dee is a sleepy little place left largely undisturbed by tourists except on race days.
For such a tiny place, the total population is around 1200 people, it may seem a surprising location for a racecourse. But the racecourse is as much a part of village life as are the two pubs. In 1858 a race across country was staged between the Hon. Lloyd Kenyon and Richard Myddelton Biddulph, of Chirk Castle. The two men were members of Sir Watkin Williams Wynn’s Hunt, arch rivals as well as friends, and wanted to prove which the better horseman was. It attracted a huge crowd of spectators. Kenyon rode a horse named Skip Jack, who made a few too many stops along the way, and Myddelton’s horse Grayling flew around the meadows, easily winning the £50 prize money.
The impromptu event was such a success that the two men decided that in future ‘a day should be made of it’ and races were arranged each year for hunt members and local farmers. On the 25th February, 1859 the very first Steeplechase meeting was held at Bangor Is-y-Coed using pretty much the same course as the one that modern-day races are held today. The main event of the first race day was the Grand Wynnstay Steeplechase, run over a distance of about three miles. It attracted 12 runners, mainly farmers, and the winning horse was a six-year-old named Charley who was ridden on behalf of the owner (a Mr. Jones unsurprisingly) by a jockey named Gaff.
It was at Bangor-on-Dee, in 1868, that a ten year old boy named Fred Archer won the annual two mile event for ponies under 14 hands on Maid of Trent. Fred went on to become the greatest jockey of all time in many people’s eyes, riding a total of 8,084 races and winning 2,748 of them.
Bangor on Dee was the first real racecourse at which Dick Francis rode. The former National Hunt Jockey (turned thriller writer) was unplaced, but loved the experience and went on to not-quite-win the Grand National on Devon Loch. Francis rode Wrenbury Tiger, the first of over 350 winners, at Bangor-on Dee on May 3rd 1947, winning by more than 200 yards. He also had his first ever treble win at the course, riding a hat-trick of winners on a single day.
Today, the course attracts some top-flight trainers and jockeys, and many trainers send their novice horses to race at Bangor-on-Dee as part of their education; which guarantees some exciting racing. Paul Nicholls, Alan King, Phillip Hobbs, Donald McCain, Nicky Henderson, and Jonjo O’Neill all have regular runners at the course.
Bangor-on-Dee has a unique character and is the only racecourse in Britain that does not have a Grandstand. Spectators watch from the banks which gives them a fantastic head-on view of the action. It’s a left-handed triangular course of around 1 mile 4 furlongs with 7 jumps, 2 open ditches and a 1 furlong run-in. Since 2006 Bangor has also hosted amateur Point-to-Point races run by local hunts. The course for the Point-to-Point is on the inside of the main track and races are run right-handed.
Over the year, there are around 15 fixtures spread across four seasons including Ladies Day, an August Bank Holiday meet, and a couple of events in December. Dress code is relaxed; smart or smart casual preferred. For many racegoers dressing up is all part of the experience, and although hats are not compulsory for ladies more and more are wearing them. Depending on the type of admission, you will have a ticket or a metal badge which should be prominently displayed so that it can be easily seen by officials. Admission to the Paddock, containing the Parade Rings and Weighing Room, is £18 and to the Course £8. There’s a great choice of food and drink; from a full meal in the Restaurant to a snack, or simply an ice cream.
Bangor-on-Dee lies just 25 minutes from Chester and is well-signed from the main A483 southbound. From the South and Midlands, the Racecourse is best approached using the M6 and M54 (Junction 3) then take the A41 to Whitchurch and finally the A525 towards Wrexham. The postcode is LL13 0DA. If coming by train, Wrexham General Station is the closest to the Racecourse and a free bus service operates from the Racecourse on racedays.
Whatever the time of year, Bangor-on-Dee Races is a great day out. The excellent conditions and year round fixtures always pull in the crowds, newcomers and old-hands alike. The relaxed atmosphere at Bangor makes it an ideal family venue and entrance for children under sixteen is free, as is the car parking.