Arena splashes out but sells off racecourse land

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The Independent Online

Five years ago, few racing professionals had heard of Arena Leisure plc, but in these early months of the new millennium, it is all but impossible to escape from the sport's most aggressively entrepreneurial company. Whether it is buying another track, putting up another hotel or offering a staggering amount of money for racing's media rights, the one common link where Arena is concerned seems to be that all its figures have at least six noughts after them.

Five years ago, few racing professionals had heard of Arena Leisure plc, but in these early months of the new millennium, it is all but impossible to escape from the sport's most aggressively entrepreneurial company. Whether it is buying another track, putting up another hotel or offering a staggering amount of money for racing's media rights, the one common link where Arena is concerned seems to be that all its figures have at least six noughts after them.

The big number yesterday was £35m, the amount which the company is preparing to invest in four of its tracks - Windsor, Worcester, Lingfield and Folkestone - over the next four years. Graham Parr, Arena's ubiquitous managing director, announced the spending plans before racing at Windsor, in a clear indication that having carved out a significant slice of the racing industry in barely four years, the company's appetite for further expansion is still strong.

The development is expected to start at Worcester, where £12m has been earmarked for a new grandstand, improved accommodation for stable staff and a hotel complex which will take two years to build. No amount of money, unfortunately, will ever persuade the adjoining River Severn not to burst its banks and flood the course on a regular basis, but at least when the river behaves itself, racegoers will be able to enjoy thoroughly modern facilities.

Other plans include a development of 150 American-style barns at Lingfield racecourse, to allow more handlers to join Gay Kelleway, who is currently the trainer-in-residence at the Surrey track. "We would hope to have four or five more trainers at Lingfield and turn it into a top-class training centre," Parr said. "A lot of people want to train there because of its proximity to London, and to lots of quality racing."

At Windsor, a new bridge across the river will improve access to the course and ease the congestion surrounding its Monday evening meetings, at which crowds in the tens of thousands are not unusual. At Folkestone, meanwhile, 20 acres of land will be sold for residential development, with the proceeds being used to build a new hotel, and there will also be £200,000 to replace the all-weather surface at Southwell.

Though the "headline" figure in all this is £35m, some of this will clearly be raised by the sale of land at racecourses, most obviously Folkestone.

"Folkestone will be self-funding, and so will a lot of it, through the sale of other pieces of land," Parr said yesterday. "But overall it will show the racing industry that we are committed not only to our media-rights acquisitions, but also to our actual racecourses."

The broad sweep of Arena's interests does not fit easily with some people's idea of how racecourse owners should behave. In their ideal world, the tracks would put up some prize-money and a trophy or two, make sure the sandwiches in the public bar were no more than a week old, and otherwise let things run themselves. Those days, however, are clearly over.

"We are a well-rounded group," Parr said. "We're looking for more tracks as they become available, and we will value them as we value all our tracks, and if we can buy some, we'll buy some.

"That gets up some people's noses, but I think we can say that we've been reasonably entrepreneurial in the way we've looked at and developed the sport of racing in the last three years. If nothing else, we've certainly woken it up. It was in danger of dying slowly, but it won't do that now."

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