The History of Stockbridge races Mary Pollock Nov 2001
John Day began training horses in this area in the late 18th. century. Later, in 1809, he took a lease on the Down Farm, Houghton, for the purpose of training horses.Although he was a large man, tipping the scales at 18 stones, he fathered five sons who all became jockeys. One of the these sons, John Day (the 2nd) later took over the stables. Nicknamed “Honest John” because he looked like a serious clergyman, who always carried a black cotton umbrella, his dislike of smoking did not extend to to other vices like gambling! He “professed” himself greatly interested in the welfare of his stable lads and jockeys.
Around 1835, he acquired a powerful patron in Lord George Cavendish Bentinck, who, when he was only twenty-six, was reputed to have lost £26,000 in gambling debts at Doncaster. His father, the 4th. Duke of Portland read his son a strict lecture on gambling, and gave him an estate in Argyll, in the fond hope of diverting his son from temptation. He was not sucessful.
Lord George took his horses to Danebury to be trained, and began investing heavily in improvements to the stables and gallops. Lord George also commissioned the world’s first horse-box, in which he transported a horse named “Elis” to Doncaster. After such a comfortable journey, “Elis” obliged by winning his race, thus providing his owner with substantial financial results.
In order to see the horses during training, Lord George would travel from London, and be at Danebury for 5.00a.m. His greatest winner was “Crucifix” who won the 1,000 guineas, the St. Leger and the Oaks. Following a bitter quarrel with the Days, he removed his string of horses to Goodwood, where, yet again, he invested heavily in the racecourse there. In 1846, he sold all his horses, entered the House, and espoused the promotion of Free Trade. He died at the early age of 46 from a heart attack.
John Day (the 3rd.) then took over the training stables, where in the year 1867 he sent out 146 winners: a record which was not broken until 1987. He employed two remarkable jockeys – George Fordham and Tom Cannon. In an age when racing was riddled with scandal, both men were incorruptible. Tom later married John Day’s daughter, Kate. Lester Piggott is their great-grandson.
The racecourse itself lay south of Danebury Ring, and in the early days, horses were entered and shown at the Swan Inn in Stockbridge (now Lane Antiques) where prize-fighting and cock fighting took place during race week. Race week, usually held in June or July, was a great social event, which attracted celebrities and notables from all over the county, and beyond. Many local families found that by letting out their homes during the races, they could earn sufficient money to pay their rent for the year. It is said that the attractive balcony on the Garage (opposite the Town Hall) was constructed so that the family could watch the notables ride past. In 1780, the then Prince of Wales attended the races. A century later, yet another Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) was also an attender, but there is no truth in the rumour that he liaised with Lillie Langtry at “Lillie’s” in the High Street, which was then a public house! In 1886 the Prince’s horse, “Counterpane” was entered for the Stockbridge Cup, but her performance was disappointing, and as she passed the winning post, she dropped down dead.
In 1830, the Bibury Club, the oldest racing club in the country, moved from Gloucestershire to Danebury. John day built a Grandstand, and, thirty years later a further Grandstand for the Bibury Club was built.
The railway came to Stockbridge in 1865. Race-goers began to stay in places like Romsey or Southampton, and there was an increase in day-trippers.
Tom Cannon took over the running of the stables in the 1860′s. The stables and gallops covered 2,340 acres. There was only one well, and Tom constructed large underground tanks to hold water for the horses. He was a popular trainer of both horses and jockeys: it was said, that in bad weather, he exercised the horses within the shelter of Danebury Ring itself. His was very proud of his flock of sheep which won many prizes. Tom left Danebury in 1892, when his son took over the stables.
The racecourse was forced to close in 1898. The eastern end of the course, which included the straight mile, was inherited by a lady who strongly disapproved of gambling, and she refused to extend the lease. The Jockey Club insisted that all racecourses should include a straight mile, and it was now no longer possible to have a straight mile at Danebury. The racecourse closed, bringing hardship to many families.
In 1902, a Coronation Supper was held in the Grandstand to mark the coronation of King Edward VII. During the Second World War, spitfires were assembled at Danebury, and tested on the gallops.
In 1973, a fire destroyed much of the old Bibury Club Grandstand. The remnants of the Grandstand, which stand on private land, are now swathed in ivy and are in a highly dangerous condition. It is not possible to visit the site.