Dreamland on firm footing in east London

After fiascos at Wembley and Picketts Lock Andrew Longmore finds an ambitious project which might get off the ground
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The Independent Online

Willie Carson, never one to think small, voiced the question first. "Why not," he asked, "hold the Breeders' Cup here one day?" His left hand swept over a radical vision of racing's future housed in a glass case roughly the dimensions of the champion himself. The dream is still in miniature. Yet the most astonishing aspect of the innovative and ambitious plans for the London City racecourse is that they have come as close to reality as an architect's model.

If Lord Falconer, the Housing minister and former minister for the Dome, approves the £100m project in the east London borough of Redbridge next month, racing will skip a century, missing out the 20th and hurtling straight to the heart of the 21st. Quite apart from being the first racecourse to be built in Britain since 1927, London City, with its curvaceous 10,000-seat grandstand and digital dinner table televisions, promises to be the most striking sporting facility in the country, proof that we can match the rest of the world when we put our minds to it. Staging American-style dirt racing under floodlights on regular weekday nights at an hour – and this is truly revolutionary – when the punters are free to come will mean an equally intimidating change of culture. "It will be the first racecourse ever built for the public," says Carson.

There is no doubting the location of the project's forcefield. Geoff Lansbury, executive director of Wiggins, is not just a racing enthusiast, he is an enthusiast, a man who happily admits his glass is always half full. Though he insists this is a corporate venture – "when I say I am doing something great for British racing, I mean we" – three strands of his own life are conveniently woven into the tapestry.

"Business, my love of racing and my family background," he explains. George Lansbury, his great, great uncle became the first east London Labour MP in 1910 and was leader of the Labour party from 1932-35. He too was a progressive thinker, a prominent supporter of the Suffragettes and a wartime pacifist. The Lansbury Estate lies a few miles to the south-west of the proposed new family monument. "Though I don't live in the East End, it gives you an affinity for an area when you see a street or a house with the same name," says Geoff Lansbury. "In terms of entertainment, the people here have always been treated like poor relations."

The London City course, based on a 340-acre site at Fairlop Waters, will not fail for lack of spirit, invention or sheer ambition. Architects' models never quite manage to tell the whole story. No post-racing detritus mars the perfection, no discarded betting slips blow in the breeze, no drunks are making their unsteady way home. The grandstand is full, the car park only a third full, the trees are leafy, the sky penetratingly azure. Yet the whole concept, from the sweep of the grandstand roof to the one-price-for-all entrance fee, is so enticingly at odds with the feudal structure of racing that you wonder how any political descendants of George Lansbury could possibly deny the sport a rare glimpse of democracy.

"We started with a blank slate and highlighted four elements in the project," says Lansbury. "We wanted a distinctive building, instantly recognisable, like the Sydney Opera House. We wanted to create a theatre of racing, the lights, the colours, the saddling up of horses, the weighing-room, all that should be part of the spectacle, not kept to a privileged few. We wanted the course to be user friendly for everyone, for the public, the trainers, owners, horses, jockeys, stable lads and lasses, and we wanted the design to be sympathetic to the local landscape."

The three rules of property development – location, location, location – have certainly been satisfied. A population of six million live within a 25-mile radius of the course, two tube stations – Barkingside and Fairlop – service the site and the nearest alternative racetrack, by motorway rather than as the crow flies, is Newmarket, 51 miles up the M11. Sales of the Racing Post in the district are encouragingly high, too.

Vociferous local resistance has centred on the increased traffic flow and the disruption to an essentially quiet suburban community caused by crowds dispersing at 10.30 at night. The public inquiry lasted seven weeks after Redbridge Borough Council had originally turned down the eye-catching grand-scale designs of the architects, Foster and Partners. Lansbury's point is that racing should be accessible – 31 fixtures have been scheduled for Thursday evenings, starting at 8pm, to attract corporate sponsorship from the City, armchair viewers in the US and the part-time local punter.

"At the time we planned it, Thursday was the one night without television football," Lansbury explains. "There was also a curious fact. There was a pub-diner on the site and we found that 40 per cent of its takings came on a Thursday. Apparently, people used to get paid on a Thursday and because they had to work the next day, they tended to go out locally, whereas at weekends they went into town. That tradition seems to have stayed.

"Our aim is to attract a loyal local audience and a loyal TV audience. Racing has always been for aficionados. We're wanting to attract a new breed of racegoer, someone who wants an evening's entertainment, who wants to take his wife or girlfriend out, have dinner, have a bet. At the moment, if you have money in your pocket, you can't spend it on most racecourses except with the bookies."

In full flow, Lansbury is a persuasive orator. You even nod when he says: "People should leave wanting more, like Disneyland." The significant difference is that no one mistook all-weather racing at Lingfield or Southwell for a prime-time leisure experience. Dirt racing, all-weather, call it what you will, is classified as second- rate in England, mere wallpaper for the betting shops. Carson believes prize money will be the key to changing that. "The Dettoris and Fallons will come if there is good racing, the prize money is right and there are good crowds," says Carson. "Jockeys are entertainers. They would much rather ride winners in front of 10,000 people than 300."

The support of the industry has been surprisingly robust, from trainers who see an extra opportunity to pay their bills and rival racecourse owners who are satisfied that an oval dirt track in London would broaden their market not compete for it. If a new clientele is attracted to racing, they might venture west for a glimpse of the turf. "I used to race at Alexandra Palace a few miles west of here where they had some of the first evening meetings," Carson said. "It wasn't the jockeys' favourite track because it was dangerous and they closed it, but people would pile out of the trains to get there. They love their racing here."

Now it is just a matter of waiting for the wheels to turn. After the mishandling of Picketts Lock and Wembley, the Government needs a sporting talisman. The London City racecourse will cost the taxpayer nothing. "We could have put 1,500 houses on the site," says Lansbury. "But Geoff Lansbury the individual happens to love British racing. I'd like to bring my grandson back here in 20 years and say I helped to build this."

For his 50th birthday, Lansbury was presented with a video. It featured his beloved chaser, Merrymaster, winning the Scottish Grand National. Pure fantasy, of course. Merrymaster actually finished second, but Lansbury had always hoped that if he watched the tape often enough, one day the horse would win. So his wife, Cathy, doctored the closing stages of the race and persuaded the commentator to revise his original commentary. The Breeders' Cup in east London? Why not?

Capital game: racing in London

Alexandra Palace: Horse and jockey took on the Frying Pan, as the track was known, for the final time in 1970. Set in north London, Ally Pally drew mixed reactions. Jockeys, wary of horses slipping, did not share the upbeat view of punters, based on its great atmosphere. However, it was impossible to secure an uninterrupted view of the sprint or round courses.

Hurst Park: Tucked into a bend on the River Thames, between Hampton Court and Sunbury, 'Appy 'Ampton, as the course was known, staged its final race in October 1962. Although it attracted racegoers in their thousands in its early days in the 19th century, Hurst Park was always hampered by its confined lay-out. Only half a mile or so round, it was never sanctioned by the Jockey Club for flat racing.

The demise of Alexandra Palace and Hurst Park left London with three courses – Sandown Park, Kempton Park, and Epsom.