Published: 06:00, 12 August 2020
| Updated: 13:42, 19 August 2020
When Folkestone Racecourse hosted its last meeting in 2012, there was still hope the charming track would reverberate to the sound of thundering hooves again.
Although many of the 2,500 punters attending the final event took a decidedly gloomy view on its future, its owners said racing would resume if they could obtain planning permission to build several hundred homes on part of the site.
But when plans for 820 properties which would have paid for a new course at the Westenhanger spot failed to progress, its 'temporary' closure quickly became permanent.
Ironically, eight years on, the picturesque 203-acre site off the A20 is now at the centre of the huge Otterpool Park 'garden town' proposal, which is set to see 10,000 homes built in the area.
The developers behind the plan say an appropriate memorial to the track will be included in the controversial scheme, but horse racing will never return, confirming the end of the site's long association with the sport.
Despite its name, the course had strong links with Hythe and Ashford due to its location, which is next to Westenhanger Castle and just a stone's throw from the village's railway station, not far from Junction 11 of the M20.
It employed nine permanent staff, hosted more than 20 meetings every year and was popular with fans and riders alike, staging both National Hunt and flat racing.
But the Arena Racing Company (ARC) - which was in charge when the site closed - described the facilities as "antiquated" and, in 2010, said it was no longer viable "without significant investment".
Plans emerged for the 820-home redevelopment, but government inspector Michael Hetherington rejected the scheme, saying it included too many properties and would semi-urbanise the area.
The proposal had been included in Shepway District Council’s core strategy but, following a public examination, Mr Hetherington said he did not believe the council had presented enough evidence and should have looked at alternatives.
That prompted the authority - now known as Folkestone and Hythe District Council - to remove the racecourse project from its core strategy and planning blueprint for the next 15 years.
Campaigners started fighting for the future of the 1898-built track, but it was to no avail.
ARC, which is owned by billionaire brothers David and Simon Reuben, closed the popular facility and transferred the fixtures to its other racecourses.
Then, in 2016, plans for the Otterpool Park project surfaced - a joint venture between Shepway District Council and Cozumel Estates, another part of the Reubens' portfolio.
In February this year, the council bought the site from Cozumel Estates for £25 million in a deal which includes the freehold of the former racecourse and several houses, adding up to about 200 acres in total.
Last year, an outline planning application for the first 8,500 homes was submitted, but a decision on the scheme is yet to be made.
But while the council - which describes itself as the 'master developer' - continues to work on its plans, the track's heart-pounding racing days are long gone.
Now a shell of its former glory, the once-magnificent venue, which held the War and Peace Revival between 2013 and 2016, is unkempt and unloved.
But that wasn't the case during its final meeting on Tuesday, December 18, 2012, when frustrated racing fans dismissed ARC's claim about the need to improve facilities at the site, which had enjoyed a £350,000 facelift in the early 2000s.
Julian Toomey, who had been attending meetings at Folkestone for more than 40 years, described the claim as a "load of rubbish".
"This is the best course in the country," he said.
"We don’t come here for the facilities, we come to meet friends and have fun."
Although most of the punters on the final day were local, Leonard Doherty had flown all the way from Florida to watch the last rites being administered at the track, which was one mile and three furlongs in length.
“I adore horse racing in this country, it’s so much better than it is in America," he said.
“Because this seemed like my last chance of ever watching racing at Folkestone, I decided to fly over specially. And here I am!”
Mr Doherty wasn't the only one enjoying what the oval-shaped course, which featured a reservoir in its centre, had to offer.
During its final few years, Folkestone had about 25 meetings on its calendar and could not stage many more without wrecking its track.
But it also hosted conferences, weddings, and horses could stay overnight en-route to the continent or for other events.
On a race day, at least 100 to 150 people were employed at Folkestone, many on a casual basis, so it was an important feature in the Kentish calendar.
In 2009 alone, 34,800 people visited the track, including more than 2,300 children as parents took advantage of the free entry offer for those aged under 18.
While its average attendance was about 1,600 per fixture - putting it at number 50 of 60 UK racecourses in 2009 according to ARC - the right-handed track enjoyed good television coverage, regularly featuring on Sky's 'At The Races'.
The ground was undulating with tight bends, and it was easy for fans to reach the spectators' rail after viewing the paddock where the horses were first paraded.
One of its loveliest parts was at the far end of the straight at the seventh furlong mark, rarely seen by anyone but jockeys and horses.
On one bitterly cold, windswept race day in 2006, John Bury was busy taking bets as he had been for the previous 10 years.
"Folkestone is a small track but that's its strength," he said as he counted £20 notes into the hands of one winning punter.
"It's warm and intimate and people get talking more easily with each other.
"We take more money here than we do at other tracks.
"I think Folkestone does a lot of good sponsorship, and this brings in families, and that's what is so special about the place - it's a family affair."
Channel 4 commentator Simon Holt agreed, saying at an event in May 2009 how he "always enjoyed" going to Folkestone.
"It is a nice gentle atmosphere and on a sunny day it has got a lovely paddock and a fantastic location," he said.
"It will never claim to have top-class racing but it has got a lovely, convivial atmosphere."
One sticking point, however, was the road leading in and out of the site, which was barely able to accommodate two passing cars in some places.
All drivers had to use Stone Street off the A20 to get to the course - a narrow country lane leading from Newingreen which is also used for the castle and railway station.
On a busy race day, 2,200 cars and 10 coaches would fill the car parks, together with up to 70 horse-boxes in the stables area - all of which came in via Stone Street.
But despite the difficulties over access, one benefit of the track's location was its proximity to France, combined with the ease of crossing the Channel.
In 2010, both the 2,000 Guineas winner, Makfi, and the 1,000 Guineas winner, Special Duty, were French-owned horses which had travelled through the Channel Tunnel to get to the UK.
And since 2007, the Folkestone track - which had an extension at the beginning of the home straight for sprint races and longer events - was twinned with the Pompadour Racecourse in south-west France.
In the same year, a 110-year-old grandstand at the site was temporarily closed due to concerns over its structural stability - believed to be caused when an earthquake hit the area.
But even with its strong road and rail links, the racecourse was still one of the UK’s more remote racing locations, a long way from the country's main training centres including Lambourn and Yorkshire.
ARC said this was compounded by the developments undertaken by rival tracks such as the introduction of a floodlit all-weather surface at Kempton Park - something deemed not feasible at Folkestone due to part of the site being on a floodplain.
The company - whose non-executive chairman at the time was Lord Howard of Lympne, the former Conservative party leader and MP for Folkestone and Hythe - said building 820 homes on the east of the site would finance a new racecourse at the southern end with new stables, grandstand areas and hospitality boxes.
But when the housing scheme was thrown out, the history-soaked track, which was honoured alongside the likes of Aintree and Cheltenham for its condition in 2006, had reached its final finishing post.
During its 114-year existence, it had attracted some of the sport's most famous faces, including Frankie Dettori, Tony McCoy and Princess Royal, Princess Anne.
She was there in 1986 racing on Glowing Promise in the 3pm Leeds Amateur Riders’ Stakes.
The bookies gave her odds of 8-1, but the Queen’s second child - who was aged 36 at the time - finished third, five lengths behind winner Galesa.
The site was even used as part of the Second World War’s Operation Fortitude (South) - the great deception to fool the Germans into believing the D-Day landings would be in Calais, not Normandy.
In 1940 and 1941, it acted as a decoy airfield with inflatable aircraft, but from 1944 it was used by the RAF’s 660 Squadron for exercises with the army.
By that July it was for real when 12 single-engine Austers flew from the RAF Westenhanger site to France in another effort to help defeat the Nazis.
But now - with its running rails and steeplechase fences removed - the former racecourse is a mere shadow of its former self.
At its farewell event in 2012, having backed the 25-1 winner of the third race, enthusiast Andy Hobbs was still upbeat about its future.
"It’s a lovely little course," he said.
"I think there’s a fair chance it’ll reopen one day."
For racing fans across the county, Mr Hobbs' prediction was sadly way off the mark, but Folkestone's characterful track won't be forgotten.
"It was the only one in Kent and it was the Queen Mother’s favourite," said one dejected protester at the track's last hurrah.
"She'll be turning in her grave and I hope her ghost haunts those responsible."