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Page last updated at 06:24 GMT, Thursday, 18 June 2009 07:24 UK

Ffos Las starts at a gallop

Ffos Las Racecourse
The new Ffos Las Racecourse has been built on the site of an open cast mine

By Bruce Pope

When Ffos Las Racecourse opens its doors on Thursday night it will complete the opening chapter in an exciting new story for racing in Britain.

The Carmarthenshire venue, in Trimsaran near Llanelli, will start in the best possible way with a full house of around 8,500 spectators and 120 horses packed in for a seven-race jump meet.

Sales are already healthy for Ffos Las' first flat meeting on 21 July, then comes the racecourse's official opening date on 28 August when the fences will be back up.

There had been no new racecourses since 1927 - the date that Taunton opened its doors - when, six years ago, plans were submitted for a site at Great Leighs and then one in west Wales.

But the all-weather flat course in Essex went into administration last January after just eight months in operation.

With one racecourse endeavour already failed and the world money markets in turmoil, it was up to the team at 'Blue Ditch' - the English translation of Ffos Las - to prove that they were not another white elephant.

Businessman Dai Walters
Dai Walters is a very determined character, his company is construction-based anyway and his love and passion for horses is second-to-none

Welsh trainer Tim Vaughan

Ffos Las director Mark Kershaw admits the pressure was on to deliver a successful new racecourse.

"People do lose confidence so very quickly and we were very, very aware with the demise of Great Leighs really from day one," he said.

"We attracted probably more scrutiny from the British Horseracing Authority than there would have been previous to Great Leighs.

"However, that's worked in our favour... we've had tremendous support from the BHA in terms of their inspectors coming to check the course, check the progress every month for the past 18 months."

The 650-acre venue has cost, according to Kershaw, "well in excess of £20m" to develop from the open cast mine that started operation in 1983 on the site of Ffos Las farm.

"It is a fantastic site, it fits here and looks as if it should have been here forever - it's just fantastic regeneration of this old coal mine," Kershaw said.

Building a racecourse in the area had been the brainchild of the late racehorse owner Mel Davies.

More than 10 years ago he and his business partner, Jack Bennett, considered another possible site three miles away at Pembrey.

That never materialised but businessman Dai Walters took the idea and ran with it on the nearby Trimsaran site.

Trainer Tim Vaughan, who runs the Pant Wilkin Stables near Cowbridge, says it is amazing what Walters has accomplished.

"At the time everyone would have thought, possibly, that it wouldn't have been feasible and it wouldn't have worked in Wales," said Vaughan, whose star gelding Little Shilling has six wins already this season.

"Dai is a very determined character, his company is construction-based anyway and his love and passion for horses is second-to-none.


"He's got numerous horses with numerous trainers who he supports - including myself - and I think probably he is the core to why it's become so successful.

"Over the last five years the strength of the training establishments in Wales has improved dramatically with the likes of myself, Evan Williams, Alison Thorpe and Peter Bowen.

"It's almost fashionable to be in Wales and have a horse owned there and I think the track [Ffos Las] has just strengthened that even more.

"It almost replicates the west country scenario which took off 10 or 15 years ago, when you had the Martin Pipes, the Paul Nicholls, the Philip Hobbs who are all very strong and it developed a core there.

"I'm hoping it will be the same for Wales and this can only strengthen it really."

Wales has two other racecourses but both Bangor-on-Dee and Chepstow border England so Ffos Las is the only track in the grassroots of the country following the closure of Tenby and Cardiff in the 1930s.

Northern Racing, the company that already manages Chepstow and eight other racecourses, will also run Ffos Las.

The BHA has awarded the new kid on the block eight races this year, with that programme expanding to 28 races in 2010.

Thursday night sold out at around 8,500 paying customers - which includes 750 members' tickets for the season - but capacity should rise to somewhere near the 15,000 mark.

Ffos Las Racecourse
Ffos Las will host jump and flat racing

Prize money for this season is at a good level for summer racing - with each of Thursday's races offering no lower than £6,000.

The 21 July flat meeting includes a £15,000 handicap, then the winnings rise steeply on 28 August with a £50,000 three-mile jump race and a £30,000 handicap hurdle.

But prize money alone does not guarantee a top quality field and it is down to the track itself and the surrounding facilities to attract the best.

The previews have been flattering, with Ffos Las compared to established big hitters such as Newbury - no accident says Kershaw - and Ireland's Punchestown.

"I was involved with Newbury Racecourse for about 10 years [as managing director]... it's one of the great tracks in the UK, it is very wide, it has a separate flat course, hurdle and steeplechase course," said Kershaw.

"I always thought: 'that's a pretty good model, why don't we try and replicate it here?'.

"And I think in a way we've got a better rounded course than Newbury because the bends are very even... but we haven't quite got the straight miles and the straight seven furlongs that Newbury has."

Dean Coleman was the Welsh Novice Champion Rider in 2008 and had hoped to ride the Vaughan-trained and Walters-owned Wild Tonto at Ffos Las.

The youngster has had to yield to the seniority of Richard Johnson on Thursday night, but Coleman says the enthusiasm for the new course runs deep in the tack rooms.

"It looks an amazing track, it's a big galloping track... it'll suit a real, big horse," Coleman said.

It almost replicates the west country scenario which took off 10 or 15 years ago, when you had the Martin Pipes, the Paul Nicholls, the Philip Hobbs who are all very strong and it developed a core there

Welsh trainer Tim Vaughan

"I'd say the fences will be stiff because they're new fences... but there's plenty of room, there's room for everything - you've got plenty of time between the fences so there's no real worries there.

"Ffos Las will make a good flat track as well as a jump track, a lot of tracks can't have both so definitely it's a good design.

"It's a big lift for Wales racing... there's a lot of big trainers in Wales as well so I think everything's on an upward curve."

Even the champion jockeys have been singing the praises of Ffos Las' 60 metre wide track, according to BBC Sport Wales' resident tipster Peter 'The Major' Harris.

"The place has got such great reviews already that I think the place will be packed out on an awful lot of occasions," Harris said.

"The great and the good of racing that have already been there have said that this is going to be an absolutely fantastic success.

"Even a top jockey like Tony McCoy has already tested the track and is full of compliments.

"Given that there are so many successful trainers in Wales now... there is a need for a track in the area.

"Welsh trainer Tim Vaughan is leading the summer jumping list, and you have people like Evan Williams, Alison Thorpe, Debbie Hamer and, of course, long-standing Peter Bowen down in west Wales.

"There's also going to be plenty of horses travelling the short distance over the Irish Sea, it's only an hour after all from Fishguard."

Welsh trainer Alison Thorpe
Ffos Las is ideally situated... so we're hoping that it will bring a lot of the Irish over and I'm sure it will do

Welsh trainer Alison Thorpe

The proximity to Ireland and its racing-mad population was another important consideration in the Ffos Las business plan.

Fishguard port just down the road in Pembrokeshire links directly to Waterford and Wexford through Rosslare, while in March 2010 the Swansea-Cork ferry will be reintroduced.

"I think it'll draw people from all around the British Isles and Ireland; already there's a number of Irish horses entered so they, no doubt, will come with their crowds of supporters," Vaughan said.

"Some Irish owners I've yet to even meet... they've decided they want to come out to see Ffos Las, not the race horse they've had in training with me for the last 12 months but because of the excitement of the track!"

Vaughan's fellow trainer Alison Thorpe, whose Felinfach stables sit just north of Carmarthen in Bronwydd Arms, agrees that Ffos Las is exciting to both sides of the Irish Sea.

"It's really an untouched area and wherever we have to go, even Chepstow would be two hours for us," said Thorpe, who will run the likes of Dishdasha and Flexi Time at Ffos Las' opening.

"So it gives you an insight into how long it would take us to get to the nearest track.

"It's ideally situated... so we're hoping that it will bring a lot of the Irish over and I'm sure it will do.

"A lot of the tracks are supported by the Irish and this is an ideal one for them to support.

"It may not even be big enough!"

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see also
Historic racecourse's first meet
18 Jun 09 |  South west
Welsh duo create Ffos Las history
18 Jun 09 |  Horse Racing
Racecourse under starter's orders
27 Dec 08 |  South west
Courses for horses
21 Jul 08 |  Magazine
Racecourse picks management team
10 Jul 08 |  South west
Great Leighs set for long closure
29 May 09 |  Horse Racing
BBC racing coverage
09 Apr 11 |  Horse Racing

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