Memories of Fontwell Park’s first race – 100 years ago this month

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A long time ago – 100 years ago this month to be precise – midway between the historic town of Arundel and the Roman city of Chichester, a brand new racecourse was born.

It was given the name Fontwell Park, presumably in recognition of the tiny village community less than a quarter of a mile away.

The dates of the inaugural meeting were May 21 and 22, 1924, and an enthusiastic crowd, reckoned to be ‘north’ of 7,000 hardy jumping enthusiasts, flocked from London, Brighton, Ferring and Fulking, Findon and Fittleworth, to witness the launch of landowner Alfred Day’s inspirational new venture.

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It was a figure-of eight track to rival other jumps circuits at Bournemouth, Plumpton, Folkestone and Gatwick….yes, Gatwick, better known now for its airport.

Fred Rees | Archive pictureFred Rees | Archive picture
Fred Rees | Archive picture

Nowadays nicknamed the ‘Jewel of West Sussex sport, the track kicked off on that sunny Wednesday afternoon with the 2.00 Walberton Steeplechase over three miles, boasting a total purse (half of it to the winner) of £100.

That opening event received 13 entries but was reduced to a field of four – Gem, Pride of Manister, Test Match and Lancaster Rose, partnered respectively by Fred Rees, Len Lefebve, Alfred Stubbs and Thomas Costello.

The result was a narrow, but comfortable triumph for G em, whose diamond-like qualities ensured the aged gelding came home a length and a half ahead of Pride. Test Match was bowled over by the other two but filled third place, with the Rose failing to bloom that afternoon as he came to grief at an early fence.

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Welshman Fred (more often called Dick) Rees, son of a Tenby vet, in years before and after that Fontwell first, was British champion jump jockey five times, and by the time he hung up his boots and saddles in his 30s, he had amassed a career total of almost 750 winners, headed by three Cheltenham Gold Cups, and a success apiece in the Champion Hurdle and Grand National (on the Lewes-trained Shaun Spadah in 1921.

Alfred Day | Archive pictureAlfred Day | Archive picture
Alfred Day | Archive picture

Fred competed 11 times in the great Aintree spectacle between 1920 and 1931, completing the course on two other occasions on the George Poole-trained gelding.

So why is this century-old race so significant for me, a 78-year-old resident of Ferring, a retired horse racing reporter with nearly 50 years full-time service to Raceform, the Press Association and the Tote?

Simple answer: the jockey on that inaugural event’s runner-up was my father, then a 25-year-old, Tottenham-born and Lewes-based apprentice jump jockey, seeking his fortune in what had become labelled the Sport of Kings.

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He was attached to the stables of Len Hammond/Cundell high above the Dripping Pan, home of Lewes FC, and shared travelling and accommodation with a certain John Montague Gosden (forever known as Towser) six years his junior, and father of several times champion Newmarket training genius John Harry Martin Gosden.

Len Lefebve, in his post-riding days working for Raceform | Archive pictureLen Lefebve, in his post-riding days working for Raceform | Archive picture
Len Lefebve, in his post-riding days working for Raceform | Archive picture

Fontwell Park was the brainchild of local landowner Alfred Day, and the launch was so eagerly awaited that a fully subscribed membership scheme was offered to the local ‘turfites’ even though only four days’ racing was scheduled for 1924.They were just two Wednesday/Thursday fixtures, each of two days, in May and October.

I am proud to reveal that my father ended up top Fontwell rider that year - albeit with just three winners (and five placings) from a total of 12 mounts.

When I was commissioned to pen around 1,000 words for this nostalgic look back over 100 years, I quickly calculated that represented 10 words a year.

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So instead of highlighting events of note for each year, I went for a quick trawl through the record books to recall unusual, bizarre and momentous events to have occurred at Fontwell Park.

Since that well-chronicled Gem victory, another horse with the same name had been in training at Coombelands with Frenchman David Menuisier until fairly recently, when it was reluctantly decided that this now four-year-old filly did not really possess the qualities or stature to make the racecourse - so she has been returned to the French stud where she was born in 2020, to become a broodmare.

The most significant royal landmark occasion at this venue beside the A27 was the victory of Monaveen in the Chichester Handicap Chase on Monday, October 10, 1949 – the horse was jointly owned by the then Princess Elizabeth, who became our Queen three years later, and her mother, the reigning monarch at the time.

Mother and daughter had travelled from London to watch the race, and I believe that not only was it the future Queen’s first racecourse success, it was the only time they ever shared a winner.

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Monaveen was trained, like Devon Loch (remember his calamitous sprawl on the run-in with the 1956 Grand National in the bag), by the legendary Peter Cazalet and was partnered at Fontwell that day by the late Tony Grantham, and the partnership went on to finish fifth in the following year’s Grand National.

Grantham’s son and daughter, former jockey Tom and Parham point-to-point secretary Carolyn, are expected to attend next week’s Centenary meeting, along with at least a dozen retired star jockeys who were once household names at Fontwell Park, most notably David Mould, Bill Smith, Ron Atkins, Graham Thorner, Bob Champion, Richard Linley and Aly Branford. Most of them wore the Queen Mother’s colours.

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