It is likely that the first horse race in the Borough took place in Englefield Green in 1729, listed in the Racing Calendar of that year, as a ‘horse match’. This horse match took place over a number of heats with a limited field of horses. However, by 1734 Englefield Green was no longer used for horse racing, and the Racing Calendar lists a meeting at Egham on Runnymede.
Meetings took place sporadically over the next few years until 1738-39 when a three day meet was held. This event was attended by many members of the aristocracy, which established Egham Races as important social event. However, in 1740 an Act of Parliament seriously restricted horse racing in England in an attempt to stop absenteeism from work, which stopped the Egham Races for 30 years.
In 1770 racing returned to Egham with a lavish three day meet which proved to be just as popular as before the ban. By this time the Jockey Club had been established and Egham’s closeness to Windsor and Ascot made it popular with the Club as there was less distance to walk the horses between meets.
With aristocracy such as the Duke of Cumberland, Sir Charles Bunbury (who co-founded the Epsom Derby) and Sir John Lade entering horses in the late 1770s Egham Races became a meeting for racing connoisseurs. As racing enthusiasts met to witness the Town Plate or the Ladies Plate races, Egham Races became one of the key social events at which to be seen. In 1788 the author Fanny Burney attended Egham races and gives an account of the meeting in her diary. In 1790 the Prince of Wales, Prince Regent, entered a horse in the races for the first time, and in 1791 his horse, named Idolater, won over a four mile course for a 25 guinea purse.
The presence of royalty made the Races even more popular with the aristocracy. In 1810, the 3rd Earl of Bute, a member of the Coutts banking family, made up numbers at Egham races for a card game with the Prince of Wales. Bute deliberately lost so as to not upstage the Prince, and in return was awarded a royal account for the bank, which is still held to this day.
In Georgian England racing, and gambling, was a past time enjoyed by many, and Egham Races were no exception. There was a wide range of entertainment available at the Races: cock fighting and prize fighting entertained the visitors prior to the races, race balls were held at Windsor Town Hall, and the local innkeepers would set up refreshment stalls to supply the crowds. The presence of all these revellers caused problems in the local area. Crowds attracted pickpockets, especially in the 1814 and 1815 seasons, and as a result the Races became less popular. However, attendance improved again from 1820 onwards, and by the mid 1830s Egham Races were more popular and prestigious than ever. King William IV attended meets, and ‘His Majesty’s Plate’ race was started.
Although royal patronage ceased during the reign of Queen Victoria, attendance at the Races increased during the 1840s with the arrival of the railways, and by 1849 special race trains ran from London Waterloo to Staines Station and to Egham station by 1856.
Unfortunately, the return of the crowds signalled the return of the pick pockets and confidence tricksters, and by the late 19th century crime had become a real problem at the meetings. By 1881, it was almost impossible for the race authorities to control the crime. After the 1884 meeting the police refused to attend further meetings and so racing in Runnymede stopped, although the Egham handicap race is still held at Kempton Park.
Lord, Maurice E., Egham Races 1734 – 1884, Egham-by-Runnymede Historical Society,1988