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Looking back: Fontwell has flourished, often against the odds
Fontwell Racecourse has been defying the odds ever since its first horse went past the post nearly 100 years ago.
It was founded by legendary trainer Alfred Day, who first came to the area in 1887 when the settlement was so secluded it did not even have a name.
While researching the history of the area, Alfred 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 the Chichester to Arundel road, which the Romans had originally called Fons. Passing monks are said to have added the “well” part – and Day decided to bring the name back into use.
There Day trained a series of top horses and made a reputation for himself.
While not training any Derby winners, he often managed to get cheap horses to win good races.
Once he bought a horse for just over £20 which went on to win a race worth £300.
Afterwards he turned down an offer of £700 for his newstar, but a week later the horse unexpectedly died.
By far his best horse was Master Willie, who held the world record for six furlongs for more than 25 years.
But as the years rolled by, he became restless.
Racing in 1984
When his cousin Meyrick Good came to stay, they had the idea of building a new racecourse in the area. There was enough room and Fontwell Park opened in 1924.
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 May 21 that year.
Members strolled through the gardens Alfred had laid out, which included a maze in the style of Versailles, and relics from other stately homes.
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.
Kerman Grandstand opening in 1991
Over many years, Alfred researched the history of the area and put it all down in writing. He had a wide circle of notable friends, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Wallace. He was also an art dealer and a collector of memorabilia.
Alfred died in 1935 and his wife Elizabeth passed away eight years later. Their children Ben and Daisy inherited the land and buildings.
But Ben died young and Daisy followed him two years later in 1949. Neither had any children and the estate was left to Daisy’s cousin, Binda Bilsborough, who had come to live with her.
The Kerman Grandstand in 1991
That same year a horse called Monaveen won a race at Fontwell – the first racehorse ever owned by the Queen and the Queen Mother, and the only horse they owned jointly.
Daisy’s choice of the curiously named Binda proved inspired. There was not much money left but she proved to be a good manager.
When Fontwell Park was floundering, she sold her stake in the racecourse to a millionaire businessman who had plenty of money so that it would flourish – and it did.
Binda fought hard against the A27 road-widening scheme in the 1970s and 1980s, securing the peace of the village, which was her main concern.
Unlike most of the Days, she was long-lived and survived until 2001, when she was 95. She was buried along with them in the churchyard at nearby Slindon.
Jockey checks out the last fence at the racecourse in 1991
ON THIS DAY
30 BC: Cleopatra VII Philopator, the last ruler of the Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty, commits suicide, allegedly by means of an asp bite.
1851: Isaac Singer is granted a patent for his sewing machine.
1964: South Africa is banned from the Olympic Games due to the country's racist policies.
1981: The IBM Personal Computer is released.
The Argus’ popular “Looking Back” feature has been compiled into an A4, soft back book which catalogues the events that have made their mark on the people of Sussex. The fascinating archive of “Looking Back” images dates back to the 1930s when The Argus first started to print photographs. The book costs £6.99 including postage and packing. To order please visit theargus.co.uk/store
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