Chester’s May Festival is their first and most important fixture of the flat season. As the meeting’s name suggests, this is held in May over the course of three days. This is a midweek Festival running from a Wednesday to a Friday.
This meeting comes hot on the heels of the Guineas at Newmarket and signals that the flat racing season is well and truly underway. Chester racecourse itself is squeezed in between the River Dee and the city’s Roman walls. Located right in the centre of the city, this is a hugely popular venue for racing fans.
There are 21 races spread equally across the three days. Wednesday’s highlights include the Group 3 Chester Vase, which is a key Epsom Derby trial, and the Listed Cheshire Oaks. Thursday’s feature is the Group 3 Ormonde Stakes and there is also the Listed Dee Stakes. Friday hold the key race of the meeting, the Chester Cup, a valuable handicap over two miles, two and a half furlongs. Friday also has the highest rated race of the three days, the Group 2 Huxley Stakes.
We will show previews and pointers here for each of the 21 races as the May Festival approaches. We also have a look at the most memorable and historic moments from the meeting’s races.
A Complete History of Chester May Festival
Racing at the hugely popular course of Chester does not get any bigger than the May Festival. The three-day event has, for a long time, captured the hearts and minds of those that attend this high class meeting and picturesque course.
The festival is full of a number of fascinating races with surprise results far from a rarity given the challenging nature of the track. Even to experienced horses the Roodee, as Chester is known, offers a truly unique test of ability due to its broadly circular shape but very sharp turns. We will take a look at some of the most memorable renewals of this festival that have occurred over the years, as well as the significant changes the May extravaganza has experienced.
1813 – Dee Stakes begins
Contrary to what you might expect, the Dee Stakes is the longest-standing race to feature at the Chester May Festival. Even older than the Chester Cup, it has been on the go since 1813 and back then was open to both colts and fillies. The name of the race comes, of course, from the River Dee, which runs mere metres away from the Roodee racecourse.
1824 – Chester Cup born
Nine years after the introduction of the Dee Stakes, Chester unveiled another new race. Back then it was not called the Chester Cup however, rather the Tradesman’s Plate which was open to horses aged three and above. The first horse to win this historic handicap went by the name Doge of Venice.
1859 – Leamington first to complete Cup double
Not too long after its introduction, the Chester Cup welcomed its first two-time champion. Leamington’s first win came in 1857 where he rode with a mere 6st 9lbs on his back on account of his poor three-year-old record. Despite his lowly reputation, his optimistic owners were happy to back their horse at 100/3 odds and what a bet it turned out to be. Two years later and Leamington did it again, although not at such long odds, winning easily when up against a strong field.
1884 – Chester Cup name sworn in
When the Tradesmen’s Plate become the Chester Traders’ Cup in 1874, most people (wanting to be as concise as possible) simply referred to the contest as the Chester Cup. A decade later and officials made this title the official name of the race, something which has stuck ever since.
1887 – Dee dead heats
Having crossed the line at the very same moment in the Dee Stakes, both Savile and The Record were forced into having a run-off, as was the practice in those days. The powers that be at Chester were simply not satisfied at the idea of having a tied race so off the pair went once again. Savile triumphed and was consequently named the winner of the Dee Stakes. Skip forward 10 years though and incredibly we had yet another dead heat. This time however, Prime Minister and Silver Fox were simply declared joint winners and spared having to race again.
1907 – Chester Vase established
There are very few races that see a dead heat in their first ever renewal but the Chester Vase is one. Its quite unbelievable debut saw Earlston and Sancy cross the line at the same time, unable to be separated. There has not been a single dead heat in this contest since, which makes it all the more incredible it happened on the very first attempt.
When established, this race was open to horses aged three or four and during its early years it took place over 1m 5f and 75y.
1923 – Vase proves worthy as Derby prep
Even early on, the Chester Vase served as a trial race for the Epson Derby. There was not an especially long wait to have our first double victor either with Papyrus securing success in both contests in 1923. Following this success, he went off to race in New York against the Kentucky Derby winner Zev.
Prior to this it was unheard of for a horse to travel the width of the Atlantic for a single race. Unfortunately, it proved an unworthwhile trip though with Papyrus failing to recapture his Chester prowess in the special challenge contest.
1936 – Present day Ormonde Stakes founded
This year witnessed the birth of the Ormonde Stakes. The race gets its name from Ormonde, a famous Triple Crown winner that was born at the nearby Eaton Hall in Cheshire. Retiring with a record of 16 wins from 16 starts, many at the time labelled him as the horse of the century. It only seems fair then that such a remarkable horse has a race named in his honour.
Although Ormonde himself won races ranging between 6 and 16 furlongs, the initial version of the Ormonde Stakes was a 5f sprint for two-year-olds only. The race in its current form however soon emerged, first appearing in 1936. This contest was open to horses aged three years or above and took place over a distance of 1m 5f and 75y.
1950 – Cheshire Oaks founded
During the halfway point of the 20th century, Chester Racecourse established a new 1m 4f and 53y race, the Cheshire Oaks. A horse by the name of Requete won the inaugural running. Immediately the event was touted as a notable trial race for the Epsom Oaks itself but it took two decades before a filly, Lupe, managed to win both contests. That year, 1970, she also won the Yorkshire Oaks as well.
1958 – Ormonde extended
When initially founded, the Ormonde Stakes came in at a little over one mile and five furlongs. During the mid-1950s it was cut by three furlongs, to 1m 2f, before returning to its former distance in 1958. Since then, this contest has occasionally served as a trial for the Coronation Cup, which is just one furlong shorter in distance. The French-bred horse Crow was the first to win both contests in the same season. We have seen this occur on few occasions since though, for example St Nicholas Abbey (2011) and Daliapour (2000).
Chester did not go without a major 1m 2f contest for their May meeting however as the Dee Stakes filled the gap that the changes to the Ormonde Stakes left. Previously a 1m 4f and 53y test, it was cut to 1m 2f and 10y this year. Things have remained largely the same since although both the Dee and Ormonde stakes did increase a few yards in 1970.
1963 – Sovrango in Ormonde double
For a very brief period (1955 to 1957), only three-year-olds were allowed to compete in the Ormonde Stakes, removing any possibility of a double win. When the rules reverted to allowing horses aged three and above however, it did not take too long before Sovrango took full advantage.
In 1963, he became the first horse to record two Ormonde Stakes victories. This is something later matched by Shambo (1993 and 1994) and St Expedit (2001 and 2002). The former even went for a record breaking hat-trick attempt but finished runner-up in the 1995 edition.
1969 – Waterlogging cancels meet
For a racecourse so close to a large river, there is always going to be an increased waterlogging threat. In 1969, the threat became reality as the course took on a large amount of water, forcing the cancellation of the entire May fixture.
1983 – Waterlogging again forces abandonment of entire card
Generally, this May fixture has not endured too many problems but flooding was again an issue in 1983. With the ground staff unable to get the course in a safe condition in time, the entire meeting was called off.
1988 – Cheshire Oaks cancelled
Waterlogging struck yet again but this time it was not quite as severe as in the previous two cases. Although there was enough surface water to force the postponement of the festival’s first day, ground staff did manage to get the course in a raceable state by the following day. As a result, there was no 1988 edition of the Cheshire Oaks but all other major races of the meet went ahead, largely as normal.
The same year organisers had intended on cutting down the distance of the Cheshire Oaks to around 1m 3f. Due to this delay though, the change only officially occurred in 1989.
1988 – Dee Stakes downgraded
When the current grading system was introduced in 1971, the Dee Stakes was handed Group 3 status. This only lasted until 1988 however when it was downgraded to a Listed level event. It did regain its Group classification in 2003 but only for nine years, when it went back to being Listed quality.
1995 – Chester Cup winner receives negative press
Usually, winning the Chester Cup would see a horse enjoy some positive headlines. Quite the opposite happened in 1995 though as a day after his triumph, Top Cees ended up the focus of a cheating scandal reported by the now defunct Sporting Life newspaper. The paper alleged that trainer Lynda Ramsden, husband Jack and jockey Kieran Fallon had cheated the public by intentionally losing a race at Newmarket a few weeks earlier.
Despite the vigour of their allegations, when the libel case went to court in 1998, the jury sided against the newspaper. This left owners of Sporting Life, the Mirror Group Newspapers, a legal bill in the region of £500,000. While Top Cees still remains a well-known name among racing circles due to this case, it should not be forgotten he also won the Chester Cup again in 1997 by a 10-length margin. In doing so, he became only the third horse to manage multiple race wins here in the 20th century.
1999 – Huxley Stakes joins Festival offering
The final day of the May Festival witnessed a brand new contest this year, the Huxley Stakes. Originally it held Listed status but it quickly enjoyed promotion to Group 3 in 2005. The distance of the contest, 1m 2f and 70y, has remained unchanged since its foundation though. The first ever running of the race was won by Chester House. Despite the name, the Henry Cecil-trained horse was not a locally foaled nor trained animal. Huxley itself is a small rural village located around eight miles east of Chester racecourse.
1999 – Reckless Quinn breaks Vase hopes
A very competitive Chester Vase renewal saw several names in with a real shot as they approached the winning post. Peshtigo led the pack but he had Housemaster and Lightning Arrow hot on his tail. The former found himself sandwiched between Lightning Arrow and the fence. Rather than waiting patiently for a gap though, jockey Richard Quinn barged into his adjacent rival, giving him a clear run to the line.
Housemaster went onto to win the race but following a steward’s enquiry the three-year-old was disqualified and placed fourth instead. With the stewards taking a dim view of the event, Quinn wound up suspended for six days for irresponsible riding of a ‘major nature’. Quinn did accept his fate but added that he only acted instinctively in self-preservation, concerned that Peshtigo in front was going to send him into the rail.
2002 – Dee-lighted Hills does it again
There were few races Barry Hills thrived in more than the Dee Stakes. Having notched his first winner in 1970, he went on to win this race another 10 times as trainer with his final success coming in 2002. Out of all of them, this was the most nail-biting too with Sohaib only beating Sir George Turner by a short head. A total of 11 wins in a single event is not a record you expect to see broken but Aidan O’Brien could well be the man to eventually surpasses him, having landed this one eight times at the time of writing.
2002 – Rainbow High denied historic Cup treble
No horse has ever won the Chester Cup on three occasions. While several have tried, most former two-time champions have failed to impress when trying to go one better. The notable exception to the rule however is Rainbow High who really stood every chance of etching his name into Cup folklore. Setting off in 2002 at the very same mark as when winning a year earlier, he naturally attracted a short price of 6/1.
As they approached the home stretch Richard Hughes had the horse with a clear, uninterrupted run within a length of the leader. The joint favourite gave it everything but in the end wound up just short, forced to settle for second place. This proved to be his last Cup attempt as the then seven-year-old was retired to stud shortly after.
2005 – Oaks receives new trophy
Starting in 2005, the winner of the Cheshire Oaks was presented with the Robert Sangster Memorial Cup. The trophy was designed to honour Sangster who was an avid thoroughbred owner and breeder. He was local to the racecourse too, having born in Liverpool.
2006 – The Whistling Teal smashes Ormonde age trend
For the 25 renewals prior to his appearance in 2006, no horse older than 7 had won the Ormonde Stakes. Even then, there was only one victorious horse of this age compared to 23 horses aged four or five. This makes it all the more shocking that The Whistling Teal won this race at the grand old age of 10. Despite his age he was reasonably well fancied for a lowly attended Ormonde Stake renewal, setting off at 7/2 odds. Facing a stiff challenge from Orcadian, who was half his age, Teal held on for a first win in two years.
2007 – Maraahel bags Huxley hat-trick
Time will tell us quite how impressive this feat was but it will likely be a while before a horse tops Maraahel’s accomplishment in the Huxley Stakes. After winning the contest in 2005 and 2006, the still extremely capable horse tried his luck once again in 2007. Strongly fancied as the odds-on favourite, he dug deep to claim an extremely slender win. Clearly a horse who relished Chester’s unique test, he went for a fourth attempt the following year but lost out by a neck to Championship Point.
2011 – Owen makes his mark again
Former England striker Michael Owen had plenty to celebrate during an illustrious footballing career. Racing has long been another passion of his though with Chester, the town of his birth, being a course he often frequented in his younger days.
In 2011, over 13 years after making his Three Lions debut, Owen bagged a coveted May Festival victory courtesy of Black Panther. It was a race that no doubt got his heart pounding too as the Tom Dascombe-ridden horse only edged out strong favourite Fadhaa by a neck.
2011 – Moore/O’Brien Vase domination begins
Aidan O’Brien and Ryan Moore have enjoyed vast amounts of success over the years but rarely have they dominated one particular race like this. Starting in 2011, the pair went on to win six of the next seven Chester Vase renewals, including a five-year winning streak (2013-2017). As impressive as this is though, none of their wins ever came as a surprise. During this period the longest-priced winner Moore rode was Treasure Beach at 7/2.
2017 – Enable sets off on formidable winning streak
Although she suffered defeat on her three-year-old debut, Enable began as the well-tipped 2/1 favourite for the 2017 Cheshire Oaks. Thanks to a superb ride from Frankie Dettori, the pair combined to secure a near two length victory. Little did anyone know at the time but this would mark the start of a stunning winning run for the truly brilliant filly. With Dettori in the saddle, Enable went on to win her next 12 races, 10 of which boasted Group 1 status. Given her amazing success, few would argue she is the best horse ever to have won the Cheshire Oaks.
2018 – Prize money tops £1m for first time
Early in 2018, it was announced that the May Festival would now be worth in excess of £1m. This represented a highly significant increase, up 30% on the previous year’s total of £781,000. A sizeable chunk of the increase came as a result of the Huxley Stakes being upgraded to a Group 2 contest. The increased prestige meant adding £50,000 to the previous purse of £75,000.
2018 – Schedule shake up & new race
As well as the boost in funding, this edition of the May Festival also saw a re-shuffle of the three-day card. The Chester Cup and Huxley stakes both moved to the final day (Friday) and they were joined by a new race, the Chester Plate. This race stemmed from the sheer amount of interest in the Chester Cup.
With so many horses missing out, the Chester Plate acted as a consolation race, run over the dame distance, for those that failed to make the cut. With a £51,000 prize fund, it acted as a considerable consolation too and made for a hugely exciting way to close the curtain on the entire festival.
To make room for these new additions to the final day, both the Ormonde Stakes and Dee Stakes were brought forward to Thursday. This subsequently saw the Chester Vase move to the opening day, where it would accompany the Cheshire Oaks. An additional, non-scheduling change, saw the Huxley Stakes promoted a second time, on this occasion from Group 3 to Group 2.
2020 – Temporary closure
Due to the major health crisis that swept the globe, Chester was not in a position to host the Festival in 2020, even behind closed doors. This was the first time the meeting had been fully cancelled since 1983. Organisers made the call more than a month in advance saying with great sadness that it would be ‘impossible’ for them to continue with their plans under the circumstances. At the time of writing the 2021 meeting seems to have a fair chance of going ahead but with no fans in attendance.