Victor Dartnall, who in the early 1990s reinstigated Barbury Racecourse in Wiltshire, has said the decision to halt racing at the venue is ‘sad’
His comment came after a statement was issued earlier this week on behalf of Barbury Castle Estate which said: “. . . a difficult decision has been taken to cease point-to-point racing at the estate this season and into the foreseeable future.”
Now a successful licensed trainer, Dartnall worked as farm manager at the estate where the course is situated when it was owned by Count Konrad Goess-Saurau. A point-to-point had been held there between 1953 and 1962.
Dartnall said: “I remember going there in the early 1960s when my brother Gerald was placed in a race. One Friday afternoon Konrad and I were walking around the farm and I told him about the point-to-point which had been held there.
“I suggested it would be good to get it going again, and the following Monday morning we met in his office and he said ‘If you can raise the sponsorship you can reopen the course’.
“We set about raising money in all sorts of ways, including holding a midnight steeplechase, then we bought fences, stone picked the course and established the turf.”
Point-to-pointing resumed in 1992 and Dartnall acted as clerk of the course for the first ten meetings before moving to Devon where he created a hugely successful yard of point-to-pointers. They included Phar Too Touchy and Butler John, successive winners of the leading horse award in 1996 and 1997, each winning ten races.
Barbury Racecourse, (pictured above with the rings in the background) set amid rolling downland near Marlborough, thrived too, attracting some top-class pointers and hunter chasers and big fields as the sport surfed a wave of popularity heading towards the millennium. It was as close to a licensed racecourse point-to-pointing could get without a grandstand, while a sponsorship deal with Fuller’s, the brewery and pub chain, helped in its maintenance.
Goess-Saurau had sold part of the estate in 2003 to Nigel and Penny Bunter, equine enthusiasts who kept the course going and established a successful horse trials. In 2016 they sold up to Chris Woodhouse, although Nigel Bunter remained on the committee which ran the Barbury International meeting. Until Covid disrupted the sport that fixture attracted runners from Ireland.
Dartnall said: “It’s sad that it’s come to this. People in the area will miss it. We had a lot of support and help to get it going again.”
The statement issued by Barbury Castle Estate added: “The decision to cease point-to-point racing at Barbury is a result of the current highly challenging economic environment. The course has been operating at a loss for a number of years which has been compounded by the cancellation of meetings during the Covid pandemic and a significant reduction in sponsorship.” That partly relates to the ending of the Fuller’s deal after that company sold the brewing side of its business to Asahi in early 2019.
The statement concluded: “No firm decision has been taken on the long-term future of the point-to-point course,” which has given some hope to the two hunts – the Vine & Craven and Tedworth – that raced at the venue last season.
Richard Fuller, who is chairman of the Vine & Craven meeting, said: “A few things have been misquoted and Barbury hasn’t said it won’t continue.”
However, he said: “We are looking at all options and want to find another venue – whether we can do that in time for next season is another matter. We have reserves, but want to keep our powder dry in case we come up with a completely new venue.”
“Horse numbers are down, but not just in point-to-pointing, and the attendance by crowds is very good. It’s a tricky time [to be thinking of opening a new course], but I’m not depressed about the state of the sport. We are in talks with the Tedworth and the organisers of the Barbury International.”
Richard Fuller (right) at a trophy presentation when his family brewery sponsored Barbury Racecourse **photo Carl Evans
Molly King, secretary of the Tedworth meeting, said: “It’s a sad development and we enjoyed our time at Barbury. It’s a lovely track. Last season we had a successful meeting in good weather, but costs are rising and Covid affected the situation. Hopefully we will find another venue.”
The closure of a popular venue is nothing new in point-to-pointing. Most tracks are on private land and retirement by a farmer or change of ownership can often lead to a rethink about its use, but the sport has resiliently opened its share of new courses, too. Tracks at Chilfrome in Dorset and South Hill in Somerset opened for the first time last season, while Shelfield Park in Warwickshire staged its first meeting in 2021.
Runners in the ITM 4 and 5 yo Flat Race (Div 2) stride out with purpose at this season's final Barbury International meeting **photo Neale Blackburn
Runners contest their places in the Alan King Mixed Open at this season's Barbury International at Barbury Racecourse **photo Neale Blackburn