In 1881 George Young, who had made a fortune in London, owned West Ashey Farm. He had seen his fortune erode and this may have been the reason he agreed to lease the fields for a race meeting. It has also been told that if it had not been for the gallant gentleman, Major Gibson of Ashey Manor, there would have been no Ashey Racecourse, and his name will always be associated with that popular venue for the Island chasers.
The presence of the railway close by would have been an important factor in the establishment of a course at Ashey, offering the benefit of easy transport for both horses and spectators. Mr. Young was a Director of the Isle of Wight Railway Co Ltd and had welcomed the railway line cutting though his land well before racing was ever proposed. He had also laid a line from Ashey Station to the chalk pit on Ashey Down – this line had other advantages as it enabled carriages to be left on the track to act as additional seating for spectators – some of the men even stood on the carriages as can be seen in this photograph (right).
A large number of the jockeys and horses came from the mainland on barges towed from Portsmouth to Horse Boat Slip at Ryde and were stabled in Ryde before being taken by train to Ashey Station. The “knowing” punters would go to the slip to observe whether the water crossing had distressed the horses.
The Hunt, and the County and Castle Club, held their first meetings at Ashey in 1883. These meetings were called “The United IW Race Meetings” and continued until April 1900. The Hunt then took over and held a two day Meeting usually in the Spring.
In December 1919, after the First World War, the local press reported that the hearts of the racing fraternity rejoiced on Thursday morning when the sun made its appearance and the bookies turned up ready for business, not forgetting our old friends it was like old times again, demobbed and otherwise. A friend in a reminiscent mood, recalled the busy scenes that used to be witnessed the day before the races some years ago.
The Ashey Races attracted a great many people from all sections of the community, not only the gentry who would arrive in their carriages, but the Railway Company put on special trains on race days for the general public, the fare in 1884 being 1/4d first class from Ryde Esplanade or 1/1d second class. The Bookmakers would travel from London to attend the meetings, including Alf Mack from Hammersmith, a well-known figure at all events, his advertisement of 1923 read, “Established 30 years, reliable, safe and civil, your investments are safe with Alf Mack.” They were certainly safe! The newspapers would often relate how the bookies had enjoyed such an excellent profitable day.
In May 1920 another press release stated, ” The Steeplechases at Ashey drew crowds each day and the weather was more favourable than it has been on some previous occasions. A Ryde shopkeeper had “a perfect day” as he started with £1 on the first favourite at evens and his luck continued throughout the day. Perhaps the “bookies” had some of it back the next day as they generally do.”
Sources: Photos – Roy Brinton Collection & Beken of Cowes
Research – Tony Gale, IW Observer and RSHG Archive