The world’s best-designed horse racing stadia


Stephen Hitchins is off to the races to report on the new stadia created for the multi-million-pound global business of horse racing.


A jockey’s job is really quite simple: get your horse from start to finish as quickly as possible and hope that it’s the best one in the race. The difficulty, of course, arises when there are a dozen other jockeys trying to do the same thing, and half a second is equal to two-and-a-half lengths. At ParisLongchamp, the question on everyone’s mind was whether within sight of his 50th birthday, Frankie Dettori could still make all the difference. We need not have worried. Two fillies crossed the line separated by a short neck but that man had done it again. Enable was tiring in the closing stages but she held off Sea of Class to become only the seventh double winner of the great race. It was Dettori’s sixth Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe win: a perfect trip.

Olivier Delloye, chief executive of France Gallop, the governing body of horse racing in France, says of ParisLongchamp that ‘it might be a bit technical for those who are not racing aficionados, but the racing world is particularly attached to the track here. The way the track is laid out, with its descent and rise, makes it very demanding, and the Arc is a real reference point in the world of racing’. It certainly was in 2018.

ParisLongchamp race track, rebranded thus after a €145m revamp last yearParisLongchamp race track, rebranded thus after a €145m revamp last year

There is little that compares to a day at the races. From Longchamp to Louisville, from Saratoga to Sandown, the architectural evolution of the racecourse has amplified the romance and drama of racing history. All the pageantry and the practical operation of horse racing, from the paddocks to the parade rings to the whole race day theatre, the stage on which the drama of the Thoroughbred is played out has been enhanced by the design of its buildings.

In recent years there have been a string of new stands: both Ascot and Royal Randwick in Sydney in 2006, Aintree in 2007, Epsom in 2009, Goodwood in 2010, Meydan in Dubai 2010, Cheltenham in 2016, the home of the Melbourne Cup, Flemington Racecourse and ParisLongchamp in 2018. This year will see completion of a new canopied grandstand designed by Grimshaw and Newenham Mulligan at the Curragh in Kildare, home to Ireland’s five classics. A new pavilion is underway at Saratoga and plans have been drawn up to renovate the longest dirt racetrack in North America at Belmont Park for the New York Racing Association.

The Sha Tin Racecourse, Hong Kong. Image Credit: Isaac Lawrence AFP GettyThe Sha Tin Racecourse, Hong Kong. Image Credit: Isaac Lawrence AFP Getty

And, as in all things, don’t forget China. It may have one of the smallest horse populations in the world but Hong Kong has positioned itself as a global leader in Thoroughbred racing with a completely new track last year at the Conghua training centre near Guangzhou to go with the centre of its operations at Sha Tin in the New Territories.

The Sha Tin Racecourse, Hong Kong. Image Credit: Isaac Lawrence AFP GettyThe Sha Tin Racecourse, Hong Kong. Image Credit: Isaac Lawrence AFP Getty

There the track boasts two grandstands from the Eighties, and the smaller Happy Valley course in Wan Chai that was redeveloped throughout the Nineties and is home to the annual International Jockey Championship.

Founded in 1731, York Racecourse is one of the oldest theatres of British sport, and one of the most esteemed. It is regarded internationally for the calibre of its racing, and has played host to some of the world’s most legendary Thoroughbreds. Yet it is also distinguished by the quality and prestige of its physical environment. In earlier times Charles I attended races at York when they were staged on moors beside the River Ouse, and in 1711, the year Queen Anne founded Ascot Racecourse, she raced her horses there.

The Curraugh, on the Curragh plain in County Kildare, Ireland, features a new canopied grandstand designed by Grimshaw and Newenham MulliganThe Curraugh, on the Curragh plain in County Kildare, Ireland, features a new canopied grandstand designed by Grimshaw and Newenham Mulligan

However, just as it does now, the Ouse was prone to burst its banks, and so a young architect by the name of John Carr began a glittering career designing a grandstand at Knavesmire, a huge expanse of common land on the edge of York where public hangings once took place. Dick Turpin met his maker there on 7 April 1739, a witness reporting how the highwayman ‘went off this stage with as much intrepidity and unconcern as if he had been taking horse to go on a journey’. It is a nice conceit to imagine that after the execution, the rabble crossed the Knavesmire and enjoyed a leisurely day’s racing, thereby taking to extremes the great tradition of race meetings providing ancillary entertainment.

Completed in 1756, not only was Carr’s the first grandstand at York, and the first grandstand of any Thoroughbred racecourse anywhere, it was also the first grandstand of any sports discipline anywhere in the world.

The Curraugh, on the Curragh plain in County Kildare, Ireland, features a new canopied grandstand designed by Grimshaw and Newenham MulliganThe Curraugh, on the Curragh plain in County Kildare, Ireland, features a new canopied grandstand designed by Grimshaw and Newenham Mulligan

The architecture of Thoroughbred racecourses has seldom been featured in the chronicles of sporting architecture or in the plentiful literature about racing, but when it is, this is where it should begin, and it is the appropriate place to start when considering where modern sporting architecture had its genesis. When its own stand was being rebuilt Royal Ascot moved to York in 2005. Then in 2013, York embarked on its own transformative redevelopment of everything from the parade wing to spectator hospitality.

‘How pleasant once more,’ wrote a satisfied customer in 1879, ‘to find ourselves within the Sandown Club Enclosure, under a genial sky and with all the well-known surroundings of pretty women, good luncheon and good sport.’ Most other racecourses evolved from misty, medieval origins, but Sandown Park was the first purpose-built racecourse with enclosures, designed as a leisure destination.

The Curraugh, on the Curragh plain in County Kildare, Ireland, features a new canopied grandstand designed by Grimshaw and Newenham MulliganThe Curraugh, on the Curragh plain in County Kildare, Ireland, features a new canopied grandstand designed by Grimshaw and Newenham Mulligan

In the words of a 19th-century diarist, it was ‘a place where a man could take his ladies without any fear of their hearing coarse language or witnessing uncouth behaviour’. It also had an impact on the railways. Adjacent to one of the earliest commuter lines, the line on which Queen Victoria saw her first steam engine, all that the course needed for success was an exit directly on to the course. Esher for Sandown duly appeared in the train timetable, and the barriers enclosing the course were always known as the railway fences.

Sandown Park was the Queen Mother’s favourite course and provided a suitably impressive backdrop to the feats of Arkle, Mill Reef and Desert Orchid. Yet it has always developed in sympathy with the spirit of the times and is now one of the most modern and accessible racing venues in the country.

Flemington, home of the Melbourne Cup. Bates Smart designed the five-tiered stand of oval-shaped floors wrapped by viewing balconies. Image Credit: Sean FennessyFlemington, home of the Melbourne Cup. Bates Smart designed the five-tiered stand of oval-shaped floors wrapped by viewing balconies. Image Credit: Sean Fennessy

The grandstand was opened in 1973. Fitzroy Robinson was the architecture firm responsible but it was really a structural triumph. The engineer responsible was Mieczyslaw Bienkowski, a Polish refugee who arrived in the UK in 1946. A graduate of Politechnika Warszawska he worked in the famed LCC architects’ department that created some of the icons of post-war construction in Britain, and acted as a catalyst and impetus for change as it took responsibility for rebuilding Blitz-ravaged London, in the course of which produced the socially minded, technologically experimental and design-orientated architecture to which we still longingly aspire.

Before the state’s role in building the nation became diminished, and the delineation of professional boundaries entrenched, the legacy of the department’s design and architectural genealogy was remarkable. It also rightly gained a reputation for its self-contained studio atmosphere that gave staff the freedom to create and think with the luxury of time and support for research.

Flemington, home of the Melbourne Cup. Bates Smart designed the five-tiered stand of oval-shaped floors wrapped by viewing balconies. Image Credit: Peter ClarkeFlemington, home of the Melbourne Cup. Bates Smart designed the five-tiered stand of oval-shaped floors wrapped by viewing balconies. Image Credit: Peter Clarke

Out of that quest for new ideas and new ways of doing things, Bienkowski refined the ideas he gained from his experience at the LCC where he met another wartime refugee Jan Bobrowski, and the two went into partnership. Following grandstands at Leopardstown and Doncaster, Bienkowski was the go-to engineer for Sandown. The practice would later be responsible for the multi-award-winning, column-free, reverse hyperbolic paraboloid of the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary’s Stampede Park, designed in 1983 with Graham McCourt Architects, now GEC Architecture; the Millennium Grandstand at Newmarket, and reviving its earlier work at Doncaster. But for many years it was Sandown that stood out.

Flemington, home of the Melbourne Cup. Bates Smart designed the five-tiered stand of oval-shaped floors wrapped by viewing balconies. Image Credit: Sean FennessyFlemington, home of the Melbourne Cup. Bates Smart designed the five-tiered stand of oval-shaped floors wrapped by viewing balconies. Image Credit: Sean Fennessy

The stand was based on pioneering mixeduse American models. The precast concrete grandstand became one of the first in the UK to house a range of functions, including conference, exhibition and dining facilities. Built in less than a year, the then-innovative, column-free cantilevered roof structure still allows spectators to have a clear view over the entire Surrey racecourse.

At the rear of the grandstand is a south-facing parade ring. In 2005 it won the Concrete Society Mature Structures Award. The judges were particularly impressed by how well the structure appeared – ‘almost new’ in places. ‘There are different elements of interest in the grandstand; the long, cable-supported cantilever roof beams, the precast double tees and the elements of precast cladding. The obvious feature of the grandstand is the cantilever beams supporting intermediate glazing panels that provide protection from the weather but leave a completely uninterrupted viewing facility.’

Newmarket’s Rowley Mile Millennium grandstand, 1983, designed by Mieczyslaw Bienkowski. The stand was renovated in 2016, the year of the 350th anniversary of the courseNewmarket’s Rowley Mile Millennium grandstand, 1983, designed by Mieczyslaw Bienkowski. The stand was renovated in 2016, the year of the 350th anniversary of the course

When the British fleet docked in Sydney in 1788 its cargo included one stallion, one colt, three mares, and two fillies. Most of them escaped almost immediately. But within 22 years the first official race meetings took place. As one Ernest Buley later noted: ‘The first care of the pioneers is to mark out the site of the cemetery, the second to plan a racecourse.’

At first they were modest affairs with few amenities for racegoers. But at Flemington Racecourse in 1861 ‘The Race that Stops the Nation’ was first run. Surging attendances led to continuous piecemeal development as crowds exceeded 100,000 from 1880 onwards, and a new grandstand opened – Bagot’s Cowshed as it was known. In 1919 Robertson and Marks was brought in by the Victoria Racing Club to produce a comprehensive masterplan for the site – one that was to haunt later architects and raise the architectural bar – with a three-storey stand of stripped classicism that gave the place its identity from 1924. The crowds continued to grow, but some of the older buildings burned down in a series of fires, some fell down, and piecemeal rebuilding returned. Edward Billson was appointed in 1974 and a new 10-year masterplan was produced.

At Doncaster, the stand Star Trek was designed by Mieczyslaw Bienkowski and Jan Bobrowski and later revamped by the same practiceAt Doncaster, the stand Star Trek was designed by Mieczyslaw Bienkowski and Jan Bobrowski and later revamped by the same practice

A towering new grandstand was erected but a building that would have linked it to the 1924 one was stopped when the money ran out – after just the lowest two floors had been completed. In 2013 Bates Smart was appointed to sort matters out. The practice had previously won the AIA Award for Interior Architecture in 2011 and the award for the World’s Best Health Building at the 2012 World Architecture Festival. The 1924 building has gone, and a five-tiered curvilinear stand of oval floors wrapped by curved viewing balconies has replaced it. The strange anomaly of the course is that it still follows the overall 1924 plan, as building work is determined by the topography of the Maribyrnong River and Flemington’s famous hill. This puts the new building, the Club Stand, furthest from the finishing post, the last in a row of four grandstands that now line the course.

England’s first grandstand was at York, built in 1756, shown in this painting by Thomas Rowlandson (1813)England’s first grandstand was at York, built in 1756, shown in this painting by Thomas Rowlandson (1813)

The world’s richest day of racing takes place in March at the Meydan Racecourse, Dubai. Thoroughbred racing started in the UAE at Nad Al Sheba in 1981. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, organised three Thoroughbred races that year. A camel track was used for a sprint, a mile contest, and a 1.5 mile race. The Dubai World Cup began in 1996, offering a record $4m purse to the winner and featuring America’s horse of the year, Cigar. When that famous horse held off Soul of the Matter by half a length to win, it established the World Cup as a legitimate concept.

The second year saw torrential rain and racing abandoned until Sheikh Mohammed had the UAE Air Force helicopters hover over the track to dry it out, which they duly did, and the race was run five days late. Meydan replaced Nad Al Sheba in 2010, when the winning purse was raised to $10m. Last year, one day’s nine group races totalled $30m in prize money. Winners of the Kentucky Derby have won three times and Sheikh Mohammed’s powerhouse global racing operation, Godolphin, has won eight.

Views of ParisLongchamp, after its major revamp in 2018, undertaken by architect Dominique PerraultViews of ParisLongchamp, after its major revamp in 2018, undertaken by architect Dominique Perrault

The grandstand at the Meydan Racecourse is over a mile in length and sits beneath a crescent-shaped roof encased with solar panels. Completed in 2010 it can accommodate more than 80,000 spectators, covered parking for 8,500 cars, and when it is not being used for horse racing, it has been used as a film set for Star Trek and serves as a business and conference centre. It includes a racing museum, 72 corporate suites, restaurants, a theatre, a hotel with 285 rooms, and a nine-hole golf course. The course itself has two tracks, and after the races, a massive fireworks display takes place followed by a rock concert.

Views of ParisLongchamp, after its major revamp in 2018, undertaken by architect Dominique PerraultViews of ParisLongchamp, after its major revamp in 2018, undertaken by architect Dominique Perrault

First run in 1920, Europe’s most valuable horse race, the almost mythical Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, returned to ParisLongchamp in 2018, after two years 35 miles away at the oldest race course in France, Chantilly, the home of both the Priz du Jockey Club (the French Derby) and the Prix de Diane (the French Oaks). A town built around racehorses, the rich equestrian culture of Chantilly makes it a magical place. Every person I have met after a first visit there is simply in awe of the place. It supports the biggest training centre in the country with up to 2,000 horses stabled there exercising on paths and tracks that extend through 7.7 sq miles of forest. The backdrop to the course of the Château de Chantilly and the Grandes Écuries, the Great Stables, is a unique setting in sports.

Views of ParisLongchamp, after its major revamp in 2018, undertaken by architect Dominique PerraultViews of ParisLongchamp, after its major revamp in 2018, undertaken by architect Dominique Perrault

For the French, the Arc is the Breeders’ Cup weekend and Royal Ascot rolled into one. Some 50 countries televise it and more than one billion people tune in to watch. Rebranded ParisLongchamp after a €145m revamp in 2018, some 60,000 people were there, the highest attendance for any race day in France.

Archictect Dominique Perrault was responsible for the work. Among his other projects are the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in 1989, the last of Mitterrand’s Grands Travaux.

Views of ParisLongchamp, after its major revamp in 2018, undertaken by architect Dominique Perrault. Image Credit: Vincent FillonViews of ParisLongchamp, after its major revamp in 2018, undertaken by architect Dominique Perrault. Image Credit: Vincent Fillon

Admitting that such an ambitious signature project might tend towards being emblematic, Perrault also admits that he had to bear in mind the adaption of the building to future needs; the 19th-century heritage of the city’s second-largest park, the Bois de Boulogne, laid out by Adolphe Alphand, and the historical legacy of the racecourse. Another challenge was the scale of the Arc meeting in comparison with the attendance of regular race days. Thus instead of having a large building that was at capacity only one day a year, the concept was to have a smaller one that could adjust upward in October for the Arc, while being more manageable year-round.

The new main entrance leads to a grand staircase serenely presided over by a statue of the legendary champion Gladiateur. One of the featured attractions of the redesigned facility is a suspended viewing platform that offers a bird’s-eye view of the extra wide track.

Jockey Frankie Dettori wins at ParisLongChampJockey Frankie Dettori wins at ParisLongChamp

Perrault has said he was inspired by the silhouette of a galloping horse when designing the building. He wanted to ensure that the grandstand did not appear static. ‘I imagined a floating building, with layers and a big terrace.

 I tried to organise and design a building with dynamic movement. The most exciting part is to have a good, very direct view of the races, and also of Paris. It is another valuable life for the site.’ So that his building ‘fade[s] into the park’ he developed ‘a special colour, especially autumnal. We are in the woods, when the colours of the leaves are changing.

It is very poetic to have this kind of building with its main event happening during a special season. It’s not spring, it’s not winter, it’s the fall. I would like the building to more or less disappear in the forest; its presence should not be too strong’. The terraces, walkways and open staircases provide views of the entire course and privileged views of the parade ring. The result is a series of transparent shelves; the design is pared down, simple and elegant.

Originally built in 1857 during the reign of Napoleon III, it followed the template of the course at Chantilly. There were five stands able to accommodate 5,000 spectators. The Loge d’Empereur was the tallest and grandest, and either side of that stood Tribunes Reservées for members, politicians, military chiefs of staff, and assorted VIPs. Two timber structures for the public completed the set-up.

Jockey Frankie Dettori wins at ParisLongChampJockey Frankie Dettori wins at ParisLongChamp

Not long after it first opened, both Manet and Degas painted horse racing scenes at Longchamp. Some 50 years later this original collection of buildings was replaced by a line of new buildings with stair towers, balconies and two grandstands. And then a further half century on, when this picturesque ensemble was again inadequate to the needs of ever increasing crowds, three new stands were built. Sadly they sacrificed the elegance and intimacy for functional accommodation that was both lifeless and commonplace – one commentator even called the presidential stand ‘a sort of air traffic control tower’.

We should not be surprised. The Sixties were generally unkind to racecourses. Their architecture lacked ambition and was unrefined. Many of the schemes that were built in that era have since been replaced. Sandown from a few years later was the one building to stand out and to last.

Horse racing in Kentucky dates back to 1789. Churchill Downs officially opened in 1875. Today it spans 147 acres with its most significant structure being the Twin Spires, an architectural feature that sits on top of the grandstand and has become the universally recognised symbol for the course and the Kentucky Derby. When Dancing Brave went into the stalls there before the Breeders’ Cup Turf in 1986, he was, in the minds of European racing fans at least, the biggest certainty in years. His breathtaking success in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, against one of the best fields ever assembled, was fresh in the memory. Alex Bird, a high-profile professional punter at the time, stopped off in Las Vegas on his way to the race, took what he saw as outrageously generous odds on offer with the casino sportsbooks and spent the days leading up to the race telling everyone how much he was looking forward to picking up his winnings on the way back. Of course, Bird and the oddson favourite Dancing Brave lost.

But this year when Enable went to the start, the odds and even the colours would be the same. Would she finally become the first Arc winner to follow up at the Breeders’ Cup in the same year? The grandstand would be knee-deep in discarded betting tickets if she could not. The track, the trip and even the rain-softened ground surely held no fears for a horse on an eight-race winning streak.

We need not have worried. Frankie Dettori was poised in fifth as they went down the back straight, and then challenged four wide around the turn. Enable and Magical went clear but Enable started to get on top as they ran into the final furlong. She stayed on all the way to the line. Another famous flying dismount was imminent, and why not?





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