Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Great Expectations

Great Expectations

By Stephen Dwyer

At the turn of this century, a snapshot of British racecourses revealed that 59 racecourses were currently open for business. Coincidentally, 59 other courses had closed during the previous 100 years. Manchester, Birmingham, Northampton, Gatwick and Sheffield all had racecourses but all since closed. Following a spate of post-war closures, the rate of decline had slowed over the final quarter of the twentieth century. No racecourses had shut its doors during the 1990’s. Stockton was the sole closure in the 1980’s and only Wye, Lanark and Alexandra Park had folded in the 1970’s.

In addition to these closures, no completely new racecourse had opened in the UK since Taunton in 1927. This was soon to change with the addition of Ffos Las and Great Leighs but both would have different destinies. Whereas one would prosper, the other would close within a year.

Ffos Las racecourse, meaning “Blue Ditch” is the third racecourse in Wales. Situated in a natural rolling bowl about five miles from Llanelli, it had a colourful beginning. Ffos Las was constructed on the site of an open cast coal mine, a natural amphitheatre, after mining operations there had ceased.

The undertaking to build the track was significant. Over 110km of drainage was installed by specialist contractors along with stables for 120 horses and a Grandstand. Viewed from above, the racetrack appears as a 1m 4f oval jewel, hewed out of the cracked stone landscape. A dual-purpose course, it staged its inaugural meeting in June 2009 and has gone from strength to strength. Now hosting about 30 meetings a year it has received significant local support and is described as the lungs of the area and contributes significantly to the economy of west Wales.

By contrast, Great Leighs, the brainchild of entrepreneur John Holmes, did not prosper. Unquestionably the groundings of the project were solid and well intentioned. Situated in Essex; Great Leighs would be an all-weather track located in an area with a catchment population of over 4 million including that of East London and Hertfordshire.

The track and facilities cost in the region of £30 million to construct and this was reflected in the facilities of Great Leighs which were carefully thought out and implemented. Spread out over 430 acres, it had an eight and a half furlong floodlit Polytrack surface and 10,000 user capacity Grandstand which was used in the Ryder Cup.

In 2008, the year of its opening, the facilities at the track were so highly regarded that the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games recommended it as one of the holding bases for equestrianism in the build-up to the 2012 Games. The course was also immediately popular with trainers based just 50 miles away in Newmarket who would have otherwise had to travel over twice as far to get to the next closest all-weather venues at Southwell and Kempton.

Despite this praise, attendances at Great Leighs did not match the targets set out and the track attracted constant criticism from patrons due to the unfinished state of certain visitor facilities. Almost nine months to the day it was opened, amidst a flurry of unpaid bills, the track was placed in Administration and its license revoked.

Essentially the costs of building and running Great Leighs spiralled to a point that the income generated from the business was unsustainable.

Great Leighs is currently owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland and the actual artificial track surface is owned by Martin Collins, the Polytrack specialist who laid the original surface but was never paid for it. Even if Great Leighs is sold it will be at least 18 months before racing could recommence as it has missed the deadline for the 2012 fixture allocation. There were talks earlier this year between Andrew Tinkler, chief executive of Eddie Stobart Ltd, was and RBS about reopening the racecourse but as it, it is very much a case of “watch this space”.

Contrasting the success and failure of these two racecourses is not simplistic. Both were located in areas with traditional horse racing ties and a willing population. The closeness to Newmarket was also a positive for Great Leighs as were the equestrian facilities but the financial and licensing issues appeared to hasten the death knell for the track. Attendance at any racetrack is the lifeblood of the business but it is a fact that all-weather racing never attracts the same numbers as flat or National Hunt.

Even though it is still in Administration, all is not lost for Great Leighs. There is a hotel in Korea that ran out of money for sixteen years. Funding was found last year and it is on course to become one of the tallest buildings in the world. If great expectations were assumed for Great Leighs, the answer to the burning question of will it ever open again? Dickens himself could not have put it better.

Never say Never.

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