Alfred Day came to The Hermitage, on the north side of the Chichester to Arundel road, in 1887 to train racehorses. While researching the history of the area, he found a reference on a 1630 map to “Fontwell”. This was the name of the spring in front of his house, the only watering-hole on this major south coast route, and which the Romans had originally called “Fons”. Passing monks are said to have added the “well” part of the name. Day brought the name Fontwell back into use.
Generations of his family had been involved in racing as trainers and jockeys throughout the 19th century. While not training any Derby winners, Alfred Day often managed to get inexpensive horses to win good races. He bought one horse for just over £20 and won a race worth £300 with it. He turned down an offer of £700 for it, but a week later the horse died! His best horse was Master Willie, who held the world record for 6 furlongs for over 25 years.
As time went by Day was able to buy more land in the area so that by 1924, with the support of the local gentry, he had obtained a license from the Jockey Club to create a racecourse at Fontwell. The hurdles track was a conventional oval shape, but the steeplechase course was designed as a figure of eight to make best use of the limited space available. There was a huge crowd at the first meeting on 21 May that year. Those who became Club members could enjoy the gardens Day had laid out over many years, which included a maze in the style of the one at Versailles, and relics from other stately homes. What had been the farmhouse became Fontwell House, the members’ restaurant. In keeping with the garden-like setting, the grandstand and the weighing room were built with thatched roofs. The inaugural race was won by the 5/4 favourite Gem, ridden by champion jockey Fred Rees. It was a warm, humid day, the first of a two day meeting, and some of the stable lads refreshed themselves so much they had to be put to bed still wearing their boots.
There were four days racing in the first year and this slowly increased with a mixture of one and two day meetings, generally in spring and autumn. In 1949 Monaveen won a race at Fontwell. This was the first racehorse owned by the Queen and the Queen Mother, and the only horse they owned jointly. He went on to win good races and to run in the Grand National. A topiary statue in the main enclosure commemorates Monaveen’s triumph and the special bond his owners had with racing.
The dual winning Champion Hurdler, National Spirit, won 32 of his 85 starts and five of those were at Fontwell, most notably in the Rank Challenge Cup, which he won 3 years in succession in 1948-50. Since 1965 a prestigious hurdle race has been run in his honour, attracting many equine stars over the years. Its first running saw Salmon Spray winning, who went on to land the Champion Hurdle in 1966. Other top class horses to have won it include the dual Champion Hurdler Comedy of Errors and the top stayer Baracouda, who won the race in 2001.
Between 1959 and 1966 Certain Justice won 14 races at Fontwell, and 25 in all. More recently, in 1992-93 St Athans Lad won eleven races at Fontwell in the space of 14 months. They were good examples of the racing adage “horses for courses”. The unusual shape of the steeplechase track with its twists and turns does not suit all horses, but others thrive on it as there is always something new coming into view up ahead. It is the only figure of eight jumps track left in the country. The course has long been valued by racing fans, many of whom go into the middle to watch the races by one fence and then walk over to the nearest fence on the next stretch of the figure of eight, in good time to see the horses reach it. As the horses go round three times in a three mile chase, spectators get quite a bit of exercise too!
Around 1970 it was rumoured that Goodwood might buy the course, but instead it was snapped up by Isidore Kerman, a top London divorce solicitor who already owned Plumpton racecourse. He died in 1998 and his son Andy became the chairman until deciding to sell in 2002 to Northern Racing, who currently own or manage nine courses. Since then there has been a huge investment in the facilities. A new 90 box stable yard has been constructed and in 2007 the parade ring, winners' enclosure and saddling boxes were refurbished. A 40 bedroom hotel and pub/restaurant have also opened on the site. Maximum use has to be made of racecourses nowadays, so there are now over 20 race meetings a year and the course facilities are in use for numerous other events such as weddings, markets and concerts.
DID YOU KNOW?
- Trainer Alfred Day targeted the Glorious Goodwood meeting and scored some high profile wins there, including the Goodwood Cup, the Stewards Cup and the Goodwood Plate.
- One of the most attractive racecourses in the country, Fontwell Park was voted the Best Small Racecourse in the South East for 19 years in a row!
- Roger Mant, former head groundsman for more than four decades at Fontwell Park and his team won the Neil Wyatt Groundstaff Award for the Best Kept National Hunt course in 2002.
- Fontwell was used for the filming of the Dick Francis story Dead Cert, starring Judi Dench and her husband Michael Williams. The script called for a particular horse to fall, but despite hiring one that was a poor jumper, it persisted in jumping perfectly well whenever it was on camera!
- Fontwell Park has its own history book available for purchase, and was written by historian and racing enthusiast Jim Beavis.