According to official records, Chester is the oldest racecourse still in use in England dating, as it does, from the early 15th century. Knutsford’s racecourse was established more than a century later at the time of the accession of Charles II, who promoted the sport.
Knutsford benefited economically from the racecourse as it brought to the town significant wealth and prestige. This most popular of sports attracted aristocrats and gentry who vied with each other to own the best horses and, in its hey day, the course rivalled that of Chester. In 1791, it was noted that ‘the annual race meeting in Knutsford is remarkable for being honoured with a more brilliant assemblage of nobility and gentry, than any other in the country; not excepting even Chester’. And the Macclesfield Courier for 1819 reported that ‘the races were very numerously and fashionable attended … from the respectable manner in which the meeting is supported it is expected to become the most fashionable in the kingdom’.
The prize money on offer gives further indication as to the importance of the meeting and its success: In 1729, a Plate of 20 guineas was awarded. A race card from 1818 found behind an old fireplace at Heath House on Gaskell Avenue details four races, one of which, the Knutsford Gold Cup, was run over 3 miles with a first prize of 100 guineas. The names of the owners include Lords Grey, Derby, Stanford and Grosvenor, Sir T Stanley and Sir JG Egerton.
It was the Egertons of Tatton who permitted horse racing on the heath and names like Ladies Mile and Racecourse Road, which survive today, show the extent of the 19th century track which was longer than the original. The area today, of course, is a remnant of what was once extensive heathland. Until 1836, the Races were controlled and financed by County families and race days were lively affairs by all accounts as many as 24 coaches and four and the town ‘inundated with shows and showmen…’. In 1832, a local paper reported ‘the number of gamblers, swindlers and pickpockets … amounted, it is said, to 1000’. In later years, townspeople became involved in the management and funding of the course and, later still, the whole enterprise was taken over by a Race Company. Matters deteriorated with the coming of the railway in the 1860s; the races were advertised and special trains brought people from further afield like Stockport and Manchester but the influx of newcomers was not easily absorbed. Whereas in the first half of the 19th century the races retained ‘something of their old prestige and dashing equipages … the beau ideal of aristocratic magnificence …’, in later years the gentry lost interest. Lord Egerton withdrew his permission to use the Heath and the last race was run in 1873. The grandstand was taken down and the whole area enclosed in 1887.