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Courses for horses

Racing at Great Leighs

By Chris Summers
BBC News

This summer a new racecourse, the first for 80 years, has been added to the sporting calendar and another is due to open next year. But is racing really enjoying a renaissance?

Royal Ascot, Glorious Goodwood, Epsom, Aintree, Cheltenham, Great Leighs, Ffos Las.

Come again?

The rollcall of British racecourses has been supplemented in recent months with the addition of Great Leighs, a floodlit, all-weather track near Chelmsford, Essex.

Racecourse map
Northolt Park closed in 1940s, converted into housing estate
Stockton shut in 81, now a retail park
Great Leighs opened May 2008
Ffos Las due to open July 2009

Next year it will be joined by Ffos Las, a turf course being built on the site of a former opencast mine in Wales.

Great Leighs and Ffos Las represent the bucking of a seemingly inexorable trend in British leisure - the closure of racecourses.

Between 1900 and 1981, 97 tracks shut, the sound of galloping hooves carried away on the wind.

The last to close was Stockton, near Middlesbrough, in the midst of a crippling recession which had badly affected attendances.

A local history journal reported: "On Tuesday 16th June 1981, as Royal Ascot opened amid the traditional blaze of pomp and glory and glory, lowly Stockton staged its final day's racing."

The course is now buried under a retail and leisure park. Where once hearts entered mouths in the final straight, now there is a Toys R Us and a TK Maxx.

Evening betting

The two new tracks will bring to 61 the number of racecourses in mainland Britain, excluding two in Northern Ireland.

The winner of the last ever race at Hurst Park racecourse in Surrey

What are the prospects of success for the newcomers? One factor on their side is the chance to benefit from liberalised rules on gambling.

"Prior to the Gambling Act, betting shops could only open in the evenings during the summer," says Pippa Cuckson, a spokeswoman for Great Leighs. "Since September 2007 they have been able to open in winter evenings too and this has led to an increasing demand for races to bet on.

"We are an overtly commercial track, which will host 70 to 80 meetings a year, while Ffos Las is more of a labour of love with a totally different business plan."

Martyn Williams, of Ffos Las, agrees but adds that his Carmarthenshire track is in a very horsey area. "The number of horses per head of population is higher in west Wales than anywhere else in the UK."

He says Ffos Las - which means Blue Ditch in Welsh - is the brainchild of the millionaire boss of a civil engineering firm, Dai Walters, who has invested his own money in the 20m scheme.

Recession proof

Chris Pitt, an expert on old racecourses and author of A Long Time Gone, is surprised that there have been no other closures since 1981.

The crowds at this year's Epsom Derby
Attendances are higher now than at any time since World War II
Greg Wood

He says that World War II, and the austere years which followed, claimed many tracks. "Many courses were taken over during the war, either to become military camps or to grow crops for the war effort, and 18 of those never re-opened."

Those in urban or suburban areas were swallowed up by the rampant demand for housing, such as Birmingham racecourse in Erdington, sold for 1,250,000 to be replaced by the Bromford estates.

"I was 12 when it closed in 1965 but I spent many happy childhood days there and I still miss it," Mr Pitt says. "It had a straight mile and was a good galloping track.

"Birmingham Corporation needed to find a site for its slum clearance programme and the 180-acre racecourse site was perfect for the 1,900 homes they needed to build."

Echos remain of the site's former life. "There are road names such as Tulyar Close, named after the winner of the 1952 Derby, and Reynoldstown Road, which won two Grand Nationals in the 1930s."

Former jockey Lester Piggott says he still misses the two meetings which once acted as bookends for the flat season, Lincoln in March and Manchester in November. Both courses have now closed.

Lincoln's grandstand is now a community centre - called The Grandstand, while Manchester's is the University of Salford's reception building.

Pony demise

Another casualty of WWII was pony racing, which never regained its pre-war popularity and died out in the 50s, although it remains a draw in Ireland.

The Racecourse estate in Northolt
A housing estate stands on the former Northolt Park racecourse

Northolt Park, in north-west London, staged pony racing between 1929 and 1951, and was the first course to pioneer the photo finish and starting gates.

In 1929 Pola Negri, a movie star of the time, attended the opening and nine years later the BBC, in one of its first outside broadcasts for television, showed the Pony Derby, for which the prize was 1,050, a considerable sum in 1938.

Today the only reminders are the name of the housing estate - Racecourse - which replaced it, and streets such as Haydock and Ascot avenues.

Greg Wood, racing correspondent for the Guardian, says that running a race course is a business like any other.

"Any course which has survived this long is doing something right. They have different revenue streams - the betting shop levy, gate money, sponsorship and money from using the course on non-race days.

Ffos Las from the air
Ffos Las is the dream of Welsh businessman Dai Walters
"Now we have got two opening and it shows how successful racing has become. Attendances are higher now than at any time since the war.

"Racing attracts six million spectators a year, which is second only to football, and British racing employs directly or indirectly 50,000 people."

Stephen Atkin, chief executive of the Racecourse Association, says racing, and betting in particular, are quite resistant to recession. He's confident all remaining tracks can survive.

"Racecourses are run much better now than they were in the early 1980s."


Send us your comments using the form below.

I'm so pleased that a good honest day at the races is becoming more popular again. I've been going racing since I was far too young to gamble, and it's something that's had a massive impact upon my life, leading me to a career in the betting industry. We're in times when online gambling is portrayed in the media as one of the great evils of society (which is ludicrous as problem gamblers are absolutely in the minority - alcoholism is much more prevalent than gambling addiction), bingo halls and casinos are suffering because of the smoking ban, and so it's nice to see something positive happening to the industry, and I wish both courses great success.
Louise, Woking, Surrey

Re Buckfastleigh Racecourse. It states that point to point racing stopped at the farm in the the 1970s. Racing continues at the same sight to this day throughout the point to point season and the course plays host to both the Dart Vale & Haldon Harriers and the South Pool Harriers meetings. In fact the remains of the old grandstand are still standing.
Gemma Mably, Wadebridge, Cornwall

Good if it brings jobs for the local area, and does well for the area all the good for it.
J Saunders, Hawarden, N Wales

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