Fresh dawn as new tracks are given blessing

Fairlop Waters and Pembrey are under orders to be the first new racecourses in 73 years

Britain's racecourse population, which has been in steady decline for more than 70 years, could increase for the first time since 1927 following an announcement by the British Horseracing Board yesterday that it will grant fixtures to two new tracks from 2002. Proposed developments at both Redbridge, in north-east London, and Pembrey, in South Wales, received the Board's seal of approval, but two more, at Lee-on-Solent and Newcastle, did not.

For all those concerned with the long-running campaign to build a new course at Pembrey, yesterday's announcement was a reward for immense persistence. Their plans were turned down by the BHB in 1997, but the proposed track, which hopes to stage both Flat and National Hunt fixtures on turf, will be given 10 fixtures in 2002, and will be able to purchase further slots in the racing calendar from other courses. It would be only the second track in Wales, and the other, Chepstow, is 90 miles distant.

"'At long, long last it's happened,'' Jack Bennett, a leading figure in the Pembrey consortium, said yesterday. ''The work starts now. We will apply for planning permission immediately and we have had support all along from the county council so we should be all right. Then we'll have to start the building because it will need two years to mature and settle. It will be one mile, seven furlongs round the Flat course with the hurdles and chase courses inside. It will be a big, flat track, similar to Newbury.''

It is the course which Wiggins Group plc hopes to build at Fairlop Waters, in Redbridge, which will attract most attention, however. The planners envisage a 10-furlong dirt circuit, to be called London City Racecourse, holding floodlit meetings on 31 Thursday nights during the year, which is a radical departure from the norm among British racetracks.

''This is a high-quality and exciting scheme both for racing and the local area,'' Geoff Lansbury, an executive director of Wiggins Group and the driving force behind the plans, said yesterday. ''The capacity of the course will be 20,000, with 10,000 people in the grandstand, and we will be racing at exactly the same time on the same day every week. People will say, 'it's Thursday, so let's go to London City Racecourse.' ''

Wiggins' proposals see sponsorship from City firms, whose employees would be able to reach the new track via the Underground's Central line, as essential. For this reason, they do not intend to race during July and August when, according to Lansbury, ''much of the City is on holiday''.

The decision to race on dirt is also interesting in view of the growing globalisation of racing. ''This will take British racing a step further internationally,'' Lansbury said.

''We have the best grass racing and the best National Hunt racing in this country, and I'd like to see us competing internationally in the best dirt-track racing, which is a major element of the future of the sport. We'll be providing a flat, oval, one-and-a-quarter mile left-handed track, which is what international dirt-racing horses are used to racing on, and will have major prep races three weeks before each of the major international races.''

It is still far too early, however, for anyone to start reserving a table for late 2002 in the racecourse's glass-fronted restaurant. Any new racecourse needs fixtures, and yesterday's agreement to grant dates in the programme to the London City development is a significant step forward.

Yet it takes a lot more than that to turn a misty-eyed artists' impression into bricks-and-mortar reality, not least when you are proposing to do so on Green Belt land.

The Wiggins Group proposals could easily be derailed during the long planning process which will now ensue. There is significant local opposition to the scheme, which is being marshalled by the Aldborough Hatch Defence Association. A meeting of the AHDA in October last year to discuss the development attracted 300 people, all but a handful of whom were opposed to the plan.

''This is Green Belt land,'' Ron Jeffries, chairman of the AHDA, said yesterday. ''Whilst a racecourse is permitted within Green Belt developments, hotels and nightclubs and other things that Wiggins plc want to go with it are not.

''We also feel that local road structure would be totally insufficient to take the volume of traffic which is expected to use the racecourse. We object to a large conglomerate with lots of money coming in and putting an impossible burden onto the local road structure which is totally incapable of taking it.''

The London Wildlife Trust has also lodged an objection to the plans with Redbridge Borough Council, which is currently considering the planning application. All sides agree that the proposals will almost certainly be referred to a public enquiry, leaving the final decision on its implementation to the Department of the Environment.

Lansbury believes that it is a ''vociferous minority'' which opposes the London City proposals. ''We had an opinion poll carried out in Redbridge by NOP in December,'' he said, ''which interviewed a minimum of 100 people in every ward and a total sample of 2,100 people. It showed 65 per cent in favour of the scheme and a positive majority in every ward.''

Jeffries, though, promises to oppose the plans every step of the way. ''That all depends on the questions you ask,'' he said. ''The fight is now well and truly on. I have talked to local residents and there is a very, very strong feeling against the proposals.''

London City racecourse may have cleared its first hurdle yesterday, but as any punter will tell you, you can only be fairly sure of completing the course when you have cleared the last one as well.

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