Newcastle Seeks New (All Weather) Course

After a rather long and arduous period of deliberation and consultation, the BHA have today given the green light to proposals put forward by Arena Racing Company (ARC) to allow Newcastle racecourse to apply for all-weather fixtures in the 2016 fixture bidding process.  An £11 million project, ARC intends to lay a brand new artificial surface over the current turf course whilst also introducing a floodlit mile. As well as this, ARC intends to create a brand new tiered restaurant alongside refurbished saddling boxes and pre-parade ring. Whilst this may read as entirely good news, an incredibly divisive debate has arisen as a result of the approval of this application by the BHA and the fallout is now being discussed and dissected amongst all concerned within racing.

As quickly as news broke of the decision that Newcastle would be allowed to apply for all-weather racing, trainers reacted even faster with distinctly different tones. Ralph Beckett, one of Britain’s most respected racing trainers took to twitter in dismay stating “Difficult to think of a more depressing announcement for the sport of horseracing than the one today from @areanaracingco re @NewcastleRaces.”  Ed Vaughan furthered the assault “Newcastle destroying (one) of the best turf courses in the country can only be described as an ACT OF VANDALISM.” As fast as they were in their criticism, twitter responded in an equally defining manner. The fast statisticians quickly highlighted the extremely low numbers of horses each respective trainer had sent to Newcastle during their respective flat seasons. Hypocrisy perhaps? That a trainer based in Newmarket with infinitely more resources at their disposal could deny the north of an all-weather track?

Those Newmarket trainers were not alone though in their criticism of the decision by the BHA though. Michael Dodds, based in Darlington made very clear he was against all-weather racing at Newcastle. “The problem I have is that Newcastle is one of the finest turf tracks in the country.” He went on, “don’t get me wrong, we need an all-weather track in the north but it’s just a shame they’ve chosen to do it at Newcastle as it is such a good turf track.” Dodds has rather come to the rescue of Vaughan and Beckett by fleshing out their arguments in what looked like a reactionary position. Ed Dunlop wrote on his website “There is no doubt that northern trainers will be major beneficiaries of such a move, and the north badly needed an all-weather track, but it is a real shame to lose one of the best turf courses in the country, and it’s hard to imagine that the Northumberland Plate will be the same sort of spectacle in the future.”

The general mood amongst trainers and many within racing is not one of resistance to the decision but one of disappointment that it had to come at the cost of Newcastle Racecourse. The Northumberland Plate, a really unique event every summer which draws in Newcastle’s biggest crowd will now transfer to sand. Irrespective of where you stand on the turf v sand racing, this will undoubtedly reduce the spectacle of the race and perhaps even diminish the quality of horses contesting Newcastle’s most valued prize.

What is perhaps more baffling is the position British racing now finds itself in with Catterick’s undiminished desire to transfer its fixtures away from the turf and onto sand. If there is an agreement that Britain requires a northern all-weather course, there is certainly no consensus that it requires two. Of course it must be remembered that racing has more wealth and resources in the midlands and south. This is not a case of where you’re from or a north/south divide but rather a serious debate based on economic lines. British racing cannot be allowed to degrade itself by ripping apart its turf and installing poorer and less attractive all-weather racing comprised of more and more class five, six and even seven handicaps racing for very little money. Let us not forget that all-weather racing is a product with a lower grade of horse, lower amount of prize money and a weaker spectacle all round.

Interestingly, this debate goes deeper to the heart of British racing than one racecourses approval to become an all-weather track. It raises the question as to how British racing integrates more all-weather racing into its programme and how this will impact on the industry as a whole.

Nick Rust said today “We are conscious that a broad range of views exist within the sport as to the proposals at Newcastle, but were mindful in particular of the demand that exists for an all-weather track in the North.

“This approval should not, however, be taken as an indication of a significant expansion in the number of all-weather fixtures or indeed an increase in the fixture list overall in the short term.

“All-weather racing has an important part to play, but its future role and scale within British Racing requires careful consideration, and we must ensure that there is an appropriate balance within the fixture list.”

This statement has to be taken with a pinch of salt given it is undoubtedly going to impact on the balance of Britain’s racing programme. With a generally agreed mix of 40% flat turf, 40% National Hunt and 20% All-Weather, it doesn’t take a GCSE maths student to see stripping away flat turf fixtures and replacing them with all-weather fixtures will impact on the balance. The BHA are likely to tinker with the structure in some form. The Jockey Club perhaps recognised this and fired a warning shot towards the BHA Holborn HQ when stating “With the introduction of another new All-Weather Track and planning permission in place for another, it is in the best interests of British racing for an urgent review of the distribution of All-Weather fixtures in conjunction with the 2016 and future Fixture List processes.”

I am not inclined to say British racing is at a turning point. It would be sensationalist and rather quite dramatic to suggest that Newcastle’s application for all-weather fixtures is going to have untold and severe consequences for our sport. However, it is perhaps fair of me to state that I believe the BHA has got this one wrong. Newcastle is one of the best supported racecourses in the north and actually plays host to some good quality racing given its location and other influential factors. The Northumberland Plate is a great yearly spectacle and its transfer to sand is an extremely disappointing move.

I would suggest the BHA need an urgent strategic review of their plans for all-weather racing in the north. If Catterick is subsequently approved as an all-weather racecourse, that would leave the north oversubscribed with all-weather racing and would undoubtedly damage the sport. The construction of an all-weather course in the north will draw away northern entries from all-weather courses to the south which will stretch an already threadbare programme of all-weather racing. If there were to be two all-weather courses, this would be absolutely detrimental for the fixture list. This is, of course, dependant on the BHA maintaining its pledge to keep all-weather racing at 20% and protecting its flat turf and national hunt commitments.

Overall, whilst not at a turning point in British racing, the sport certainly finds itself in a precarious position with regards to its very own composition. British racing cannot be an ever expanding product. The sport is currently unsustainable in its current format and cannot forever support itself. Is this leading to a stronger influence from bookmakers and powerful bodies such as ARC? Perhaps. What is for sure is that the industry must work together to ensure our sport doesn’t end up in the desperate state greyhound racing has found itself in. The BHA must remain as a regulator and not a facilitator for its own future. The BHA must provide the long-term vision for racing, and not have it dictated by the bosses of ARC or the bookmakers who need to fill screens in the betting shops in winter.

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