When Birmingham stopped racing

Fifty years since Birmingham’s final racecourse closed, Chris Pitt and Steve Beauchampé recall the Bromford Bridge track.

They're Off- 29.08.1961

They’re Off- 29.08.1961

The racing community was always well disposed towards Bromford Bridge (which had opened in 1895). Positioned on the flat river meadows bordered by the River Tame to the north and west, the course nestled between the village of Castle Bromwich and Birmingham itself, roughly a mile away, in an area unspoiled by urban development. Writing in The English Turf, Charles Richardson called the placing of the stands: “The perfect model of what a racecourse ought to be. The racing, and in particular the finishes, can be better seen at Birmingham than at many places, and it may be added that the course is a good one.”

Equally effusive were the riders themselves; jump jockey Bernard Wells remembers: “Birmingham was the class National Hunt meeting in the Midlands, Cheltenham excepted. The facilities were excellent, the racecourse stables were the best in England.” It was a good galloping circuit of 1 mile 3 furlongs for Flat, 10 furlongs for National Hunt, with an additional straight mile course about which Ruff’s Guide to the Turf remarked: “After Newmarket, it is undoubtedly the best straight course in the United Kingdom.”

The Easter Monday meeting, first held in 1896 and continued until the course’s demise, was a firm favourite, attracting large crowds who thronged Saltley and Castle Bromwich railway stations, conveniently sited near the course. Although meetings lacked the influential social patronage of courses such as Ascot, Kempton and York, during the inter-war years The Birmingham Racecourse Company, who leased the course from the Earl of Bradford’s estate, oversaw a financially successful operation. Prize money was good, fields competitive (with Reynoldstown and Golden Miller among the star attractions) and riders from the top drawer (Gordon Richards, Steve Donoghue, Harry Wragg).

In common with many other sports facilities, Bromford Bridge was commandeered during the Second World War, firstly as a barrage balloon and AA gun site, later for billeting soldiers and as an army stores depot. Though bombs caused considerable damage to the infrastructure and track, by August 1946 the course was open for business again when Gordon Richards bagged seven winners in a two-day meeting – some things certainly hadn’t changed!

In 1949 The Birmingham Racecourse Company purchased the course for £81,855 and though the track lost one of its most important events, the Gold Cup Trial Chase, its racing portfolio remained strong, with the Champion Trial Hurdle, Birmingham Handicap Chase and the Withington Handicap Chase attracting top class jumpers. By the mid-1950s, the policy of staging high quality Flat racing was also paying dividends, with regular visits from the leading horses and jockeys of the day. However, Bromford’s reputation for firm ground and the presence of top grade horses often resulted in small, uncompetitive fields, with owners of lesser quality horses sometimes deterred by the standard of opposition.

All enclosures received a facelift during the 1950s, but the winter of 1958/59 saw the biggest single development, construction of the 334 foot long refreshment bar in the centre of the course, the world’s longest continuous running bar. Forward thinking as ever, the owners had tried several other initiatives to boost attendances; evening meetings commenced in 1954, mixed Flat and National Hunt meetings in 1956. Yet by 1960 the warning bells were tolling with crowds dwindling as racegoers opted for more rural meetings at Warwick or Stratford, made accessible by the increase in private car ownership. In comparison, Bromford offered the backdrop of Fort Dunlop’s Base Stores building and Bromford Wire Mills.

With the weather forcing a run of cancelled National Hunt meetings and the continued problem of small fields, Bromford was becoming an increasingly troubled track. Further ideas were tried including Saturday evening fixtures, free admission for ladies and performances by leading pop groups such as the Swinging Blue Jeans and the Magill Five.

But with attendances for a regular meeting down to around 5,000 the signs were ominous. Neighbouring Castle Bromwich Golf Course had already been engulfed by housing and with Birmingham Corporation keen to acquire Bromford’s 180 acres for similar purposes as part of its slum clearance programme, in 1964 shareholders accepted the council’s £1.25 million offer for the site, helped no doubt, by the prospect of a dividend in excess of £20 per share.

A plan to sell Wolverhampton’s Dunstall Park circuit and pool resources with Birmingham to build a new ‘supercourse’ near Tamworth never materialised and on Monday, June 21st 1965, Bromford Bridge staged its final fixture. A crowd of 9,400 witnessed Lester Piggott ride a double, with the very last race, the Farewell Maiden Plate, won by Greville Starkey on Welshman. In September, the racecourse’s effects were auctioned with the largest item, the Grandstand, going to Hednesford Raceway, where it remained until destroyed by fire in 1990.

Clues that Bromford Bridge was once home to Birmingham’s premier racecourse can be found quite readily on the housing estate that replaced the course. A glance at a street map reveals that most of the roads are named after racecourses (eg Newmarket Way, Haydock Close, Cheltenham Drive) or race horses (Reynoldstown Road, Tulyar Close, Larkspur Croft). With one exception – Arkle Croft – the horses so honoured are all Derby or Gold Cup winners who raced at the Birmingham track.

For many years the racecourse winning post was displayed near the shops on Bromford Drive, within yards of it’s original location (a house stands on the exact spot). Moved to storage in the Firs and Bromford Community Centre for safe keeping, it was finally resurrected in 2005, fronting a children’s playground called The Starting Point 100 yards due west along Bromford Drive. Meanwhile, at Stratford Walk public open space, the distinctive oval shape of original paddock/parade ring is still identifiable, the repainted posts bordering the ring probably dating from the 1950s.

When Birmingham Went Racing by Chris Pitt and Chas Hammond (CC Publishing, 2005) is the definitive history of horse racing in the greater Birmingham area, and is available from Amazon.