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BYGONES: Days when the 'sport of kings' drew huge crowds to these two long-lost race courses

By Herald Express  |  Posted: October 09, 2016

  • GRANDSTAND: Petitor in 1912 showing the golf club on the left and the racecourse grandstand centre stage. The two spires of St Marychurch are in the background

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RACE courses and tracks were once common-place in South Devon. Newton Abbot is still drawing in the crowds and I feature some reminders of its development over the years.

Passing into memory however is horse racing at Petitor in St Marychurch, Torquay on land now occupied by Torquay Golf Club.

It was a venue between 1890 and 1940 and featured races such the Abbey Steeplechase, West of England Handicap Steeplechase, Watcombe Hurdle, Tor Abbey Chase. The final race meeting on Easter Monday, 1940, attracted more than 8,000 spectators.

I understand the grandstand was destroyed by enemy bombing in 1943 and was never re-built.

Driving along the A38 at Buckfastleigh you may spot an isolated grandstand with trees growing out of it. The first race meeting was held there on June 21, 1883, and continued unbroken for over 75 years, until the final race took place on August 27, 1960. Point-to-point meetings are occasionally still staged there.

Aristocratic jockey Lord Mildmay, of Flete House near Holbeton, is pictured here with Princess Margaret.

Other tracks have come and gone. There was once a cycle track behind the Inn on the Green in Paignton and featured here is the long forgotten Watcombe Gulls cycle speedway track where the team competed in the early 1950s.

Its successor, I suppose, is the Watcombe BMX track.

Horse racing is declining as a spectator sport. Television and on-line betting is eroding attendance as it is with so many other sports where it is easier to sit in your armchair at home than experience the shared excitement of a close finish.

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