The track is quite unusual, as it is one of the few British courses not to have a complete circuit. Instead, it has an undulating, left-handed, horseshoe-shaped course of one mile four furlongs in length. The mile four start is the lowest point of the course, with the Winning Post being the highest, and there is an uphill climb from two furlongs out.
There are references to races taking place before 1713, but the first official race meeting at Brighton was held in 1783. The Prince of Wales (later George IV) attended the next year, liked it, and returned with his entourage of high-living, big-betting aristocratic friends. They raced their own horses at Brighton and this helped the racecourse and the town to thrive. Legend has it that when larking around on the downs on horseback they jumped some hurdles that were used for keeping sheep in pens and thereby invented the concept of hurdle races.
Racing has been held on virtually the same ground on Whitehawk Hill ever since. The current course is a mile and a half long, but it used to extend a further half mile across the golf course towards Roedean. In the early days, four-mile races could be run by starting at the winning post and "going the wrong way" before taking a loop at the start and coming back in the conventional direction.
Like its geography, the fortunes of the course have gone up and down all through its history. When the Prince of Wales stopped coming to Brighton as much the course went into a decline. But around 1850 it entered one of its most prosperous phases, aided by the coming of the railway, which made it easier for Londoners to come racing, and new managers who restored the course’s finances built a new stand and inaugurated the Brighton Cup. This was to become a prestigious race graced by high calibre horses, such as winners of the Derby and the Ascot Gold Cup.
Brighton was an established part of the racing circuit, which included "Sussex Fortnight" at the height of the summer. Glorious Goodwood was followed by Brighton's big meeting of the year, lasting three days in August, with more racing at Lewes to follow.
Graham Greene's novel Brighton Rock has left the general public with an indelible association between Brighton races and race gangs, even though little of the book's action is set on the racecourse. In reality, gang warfare in the 1920s flared up in many other towns and cities, and the troubles were not confined to racecourses.
After World War 2 there was another boom period where crowds of over 20,000 watched the races. Grandstands lined both sides of the home straight. The course staged a Derby Trial for six years in the 1960s, and although none of the runners enjoyed Derby success two of the winners went on to victory in the St Leger. Being municipally owned, the profits that the racecourse generated were used to keep ratepayers' bills down. But when the demise of the traditional seaside holiday led to smaller crowds, the course was barely able to pay its way. Facilities became increasingly run down and only when Northern Racing took over in 1998 and spent £4m on refurbishments did the course revive.