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Seven things you didn't know about Chester Racecourse

The Virgin Mary, Henry VIII and, er, Iggy Pop all feature in this look at the history of the Roodee

Horse racing at Chester began during the reign of Henry VIII. An ancient stone cross has stood on the course for hundreds of years, and even survived a visit from Iggy Pop in 2011

The history of horse racing in Chester stretches back hundreds of years.

In fact, horses have been churning up the Roodee turf since 1539, when King Henry VIII was busy disbanding Catholic monasteries and still to marry the fourth of his six wives.

In the 16th century, there would be one race meeting per year – whereas now there are a wealth of dates to pick from, making Chester one of the busiest and most popular courses in the UK.

But how well do you know your Roodee history? Some of these facts about Chester Racecourse may surprise you.

It's where we get the term 'gee-gees' from

The popular slang term for horses or horse racing can be traced to Chester.

The first recorded race there was held on February 9, 1539 – during the reign of Henry VIII – with the consent of the Mayor of Chester, Henry Gee. His name led to the term gee-gees, which is still in use to this day. Strange but true.

It has a blood-stained past

Before Mayor Gee gave the green light for horse racing on the Roodee, it was the venue for the famously bloody Gotesdday (or Shrove Tuesday) football match. These games were so violent they made Chester FC v Wrexham derbies look like a picnic in the park. The annual bloodbath was banned in 1533, and replaced by horse racing six years later.

It used to get pretty waterlogged

The site of the racecourse was once underwater, as the banks of River Dee were much closer to the city centre than they are now. It was a harbour during the Dark Ages and Roman trading vessels were once moored along the east side of the racecourse, directly on to the city's ancient walls. But when the course of the river changed and silted up, the water went away and so did the boats.

The Virgin Mary is buried there

OK, not strictly true. But legend has it that a *statue* of the Virgin Mary is buried under the raised mound towards the middle of the course, marked with a stone cross.

The story behind the statue is a long and convoluted one. In short, it was said to have fallen on the Governor of Hawarden's wife while she was praying at church, killing her. As a holy object, the statue could not be hanged or burned so it was buried instead, following a trial.

You couldn't make it up.

Legend has it that a statue of the Virgin Mary is buried here

The course's name is easier to explain

The small mounds in the centre of the course, like the one which marks the burial site of the statue, are known as 'roods'. The popular name for the course is derived from this as 'Roodee' is a corruption of 'Rood Eye', meaning the Island of the Cross.

It's old and small

You knew this already, right? Chester's racecourse is the oldest still in use in the UK, making it one of the oldest in the world. It is also one of the smallest you'll see, with a full circuit being just one mile and one furlong (1.8k). That's pretty tiny for a race track.

It's more than just a racecourse

Down the years, the course has doubled up as a venue for a variety of weird and wonderful events.

It hosted acts as diverse as Iggy and the Stooges and The Saturdays for the ill-fated Chester Rocks music concerts, and welcomed royalty when Prince William saddlied up to play polo there in 2013.

Prince William playing polo at Chester Racecourse - yes, that's the future king!

Going further – much further – back, the racecourse used to host Chester's Midsummer Watch Parade while in 1932 it staged a monster carnival of song and dance, an event which saw 2,000 dancers recapture the spirit of 'merrie England'. British Pathé film cameras recorded the day for posterity.

So the next time you're there – whether you're at the races, jogging the course or walking your dog – take a good look around and soak up the rich history which surrounds our historic Roodee.

Did any of these facts surprise you? Let us know in the comments section below.

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