How Alfred Day, The Queen and John Francome helped shape Fontwell Park’s rich history

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Fontwell Park is 100 years old this month – and is holding a major celebration. To mark the milestone, we asked racing author Jim Beavis to give us a potted history of the popular racecourse.

The first race meeting at Fontwell Park was a two-day fixture beginning on May, 21 1924. The meeting closest to that date this year, on the evening of Thursday, May 16, will be devoted to celebrating the 100th anniversary.

The track was laid out on land belonging to trainer Alfred Day, a member of a well-known 19th century racing family. He had moved to this quiet Sussex backwater in 1887 when he bought a house on the other side of what is now the A27.

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It had stables and gallops on the south side of the road. There were a few houses scattered nearby, and there was no such place as Fontwell.

Horses and jockeys tackle the first hurdle at Fontwell in 1924 | Archive pictureHorses and jockeys tackle the first hurdle at Fontwell in 1924 | Archive picture
Horses and jockeys tackle the first hurdle at Fontwell in 1924 | Archive picture

Day created some wonderful landscaped gardens and you can still see evidence of his handiwork today, including topiary, stone ornaments and the domed summerhouse. He also planted the trees lining the road beside the course, Fontwell Avenue.

Day discovered a spring in his grounds that was used by Roman legions marching between settlements at Chichester and Pevensey; it was the only drinking water for miles around.

The Romans called the place “Fons” – as in font. Centuries later the Saxons added “well” to the name. Day found a 1630 map marking its position as “Fontwell”. He started calling it Fontwell – even though font and well mean the same thing. It caught on and by 1910 the name was on Ordnance Survey maps.

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Day had a wide circle of acquaintances, including socialite and royal mistress Lily Langtry. He sometimes acted as an art dealer, while collecting military memorabilia such as one of Nelson’s swords, relics from the Civil War, and remnants of oak from Henry VIII’s warship Mary Rose.

The original main stand with its thatched roof | Archive pictureThe original main stand with its thatched roof | Archive picture
The original main stand with its thatched roof | Archive picture

One evening after the First World War, he was walking round his garden with Sporting Life journalist Meyrick Good. Day intimated that he might give up training. He was over 60 and some of his best owners had died. It struck Good that Day’s training grounds could be turned into a racecourse.

Space was limited, so a figure-of-eight chase track was designed, a format often used in France. The main stand was topped by a thatched roof.

Thousands thronged the course for the first day’s racing. The first race was a three-mile chase with four runners won by Gem, ridden by champion jockey Dick Rees.

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There were just four days’ racing a year to begin with, two in May and two in October. That gradually increased.

Fontwell was thriving by 1939, and soon after WWII broke out the Chief Constable of West Sussex wrote to the Home Office asking for advice about forthcoming meetings there, where he felt large crowds should not be allowed because it was only two miles from RAF Tangmere.

Despite that, jump racing continued at Fontwell until April 1940.

The course hit the headlines in 1949 when it was the scene of the first runner owned by the then Princess Elizabeth and her mother, then the Queen, who we remember as the Queen Mother.

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They’d been persuaded to buy a jumper called Monaveen by amateur rider Lord Mildmay. The subject of much media interest, Monaveen won a three-horse race – so Fontwell was the place that ignited the Queen and the Queen Mother’s interest in racing.

The horse National Spirit was a frequent visitor to Fontwell. In the late 1940s he won two Champion Hurdles and a host of other races after the war and he was the best-known horse in the country.

He won five times at Fontwell, and 32 races in all. It’s fitting that nowadays the National Spirit Hurdle is Fontwell’s premier race.

The number of fixtures increased over the years and this, combined with the unusual layout of the steeplechase track, led to the emergence of course specialists who loved its twists and turns.

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Foremost among these were Certain Justice, who won14 races in the mid-60s, and St Athans Lad, who won 11 in 1992 and 1993.

Six Grand National winners, four Gold Cup winners and four Champion Hurdlers have won there.

In the 1970s the National Spirit Hurdle regularly drew top-class horses, including the dual champion Comedy Of Errors, who twice won the Fontwell feature.

In the current century it’s been won by top French stayer Baracouda and Cheltenham Festival winners such as My Way De Solzen and Celestial Halo.

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One of the most popular horses in recent times, Cue Card, won his first race at Fontwell and seven-times champion jockey John Francome beat Stan Mellor’s record of National Hunt wins he rode his 1,036th in 1984 on Don’t Touch.

There has been great loyalty and continuity among the workforce. Derek Hubbard was clerk of the course for 36 years. Some of the groundstaff that started in the 1920s were still there 40 years later. Current head groundsman Paul Mant took over from his father Roger, who started work there in 1959.

The new members’ Stand opened in 2010 and is now an established part of the landscape.

One of Fontwell’s main attractions is that people can go into the middle of the course and get close to the action. In a long-distance chase, you can stand next to the fences and see horses jumping close up seven times. No other British course can boast anything like that. Here's to the next hundred years!


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Fontwell Park’s rich 100-year history is in the spotlight this month as the course’s centenary is celebrated.

The look back over Fontwell’s 100 years of racing on this page was written by Jim Beavis, who is the author of several books about the history of racecourses, including Brighton and Salisbury.

When approached to write the history of Fontwell in 2008 he was sceptical that it would have an interesting enough story.

He was wrong, so much so that after completing The History of Fontwell Park he wrote a follow-up, The Days of Fontwell, about the Day family that created the course.

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The last member of it was a well-known local character who lived across the road from it until a few years before her death in 2001.

Jim and West Sussex resident and horse racing enthusiast Will Lefebve have helped put together a collection of photos and documents that will be on show in a marquee during the centenrary race day on May 16.

And you can read about some of Will’s links to Fontwell Park – including his connection to the very first race run there – in next week’s Observer.

The Fontwell Park Centenary Raceday will be a nostalgic evening of jump racing, food, music and entertainment with a nod to the last 100 years of the West Sussex racecourse, from the 1920s up to the present day.

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The Premier Lounge Restaurant, which boasts panoramic views of the race track, will be hosting a three-course Centenary Raceday Gala Dinner featuring guest speakers and an auction in aid of Racing Welfare and Dementia Support. More at

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