Newmarket row over giving the Devil's its due

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The Independent Online

It may not be a Bastille or even a Millennium Dome, but, down Suffolk way, Newmarket's new £16m grandstand is a building which has got some of the troops agitated.

It may not be a Bastille or even a Millennium Dome, but, down Suffolk way, Newmarket's new £16m grandstand is a building which has got some of the troops agitated.

The Queen will officially open the Millennium Grandstand on 6 May, 2,000 Guineas day. If the monarch is feeling a little bit peckish it is to be hoped she has held back some Maundy money. Lunch in the Champions' Gallery includes morning coffee, racecard, champagne, four-course lunch ("the proper kit", according to Newmarket's chairman, Peter Player) and full afternoon cream tea. It also includes a tariff of £200.

The annual members are not amused. Two weeks ago they were invited on a tour of their spanking new premises. They were among the first around a five-storey edifice, the most valuable project undertaken on a British racecourse, a grandstand designed to accommodate up to 10,000 people.

They saw the Devil's Dyke self-service restaurant in Tattersalls which seats 200, and the 400-seater Champions' Gallery, which in format, if not pricing, looks suspiciously like Walthamstow dog track. They may even have been seen from some way away themselves, as anything over 20ft tall on the East Anglian skyline is most visible. The Millennium Grandstand reaches up 34 metres and can be spotted from Ely Cathedral, 12 miles away.

What the visitors failed to locate was the value in their membership. Initial complaints were waved away as unrepresentative, but then communication flooded in. The Racing Post, the sport's trade paper, reported around 50 letters arriving on their mat at the start of last week. The accusations in each were uniform.

They started with price. If members wish to upgrade to the Millennium Club the annual cost rises from £230 to £500. In the new members' area, they say, seating and viewing is unacceptable. Preference, it is believed, seems to have been given to those upstairs and the private boxes. There has been talk of "a wasted opportunity", "farce" and "betrayal".

There are 13 boxes on the top floor, virtually all of them designed for 20 guests. Half have been snapped up for the whole season and the remainder are available on a daily basis. The upper area offers the best viewing down what is a notoriously poor track for spectators. Members and those in Tattersalls have to monitor events from nearer ground level as those wealthier look down on them. It could be an allegory for life.

Newmarket is not the first course and racing is not the first sport to incur wrath from regulars who consider they have been trampled over in the search for the corporate shilling. Goodwood and Newbury have also been condemned for their new stands.

There were problems even before this. High winds hampered crane work and removed portions of the roof. Pilferers removed televisions. "Filching has been going on," Player said yesterday. "That's why pictures aren't up everywhere."

It is the possible theft of credit for his masterplan which upsets the chairman most. He is already reviewing the seating arrangement in the combined Millennium Club and Jockey Club area. "Constructive criticism is helpful," Player said, "but there can be too much criticism for criticism's sake. Sometimes you feel like telling them to piddle off."

The real noises will come next Tuesday, when the facilities are used for the first time at the Craven meeting. "We are already looking at the comments that were made and changes are being made with regard to the restaurant," Player said. "This is a suck-it-and-see job. You have no idea how anything is going to work."

The Chairman admits to being shaken by the reaction to his new premises. "I was taken aback by how venemous some of it was," he said. "I'm easily hurt because I care so passionately about it. If people's expectations were greater than what we've provided for I can only apologise. Obviously in their eyes we did get it wrong. So who am I to argue? But we've tried to strike a balance between all our customers.

"I don't think it reflects badly [on us]. We're very keen to address as many of the constructive comments that have been made. But I cannot put a timescale on for legal and operational reasons. When we see how the building works on raceday and what the demand is, one would be a fool if one didn't say one was going to react as best one could."

All the big guns were there yesterday. The trainers Cecil, Stoute, Cumani, Balding and Hills lended authority, while the men from Sagitta, the Guineas sponsors, were probably hoping that an element apart from customer dissatisfaction was to be the topic of the day.

What is unclear is the numbers which will gather in the members' area of the Millennium Grandstand this season. Memberships have been relinquished and Peter Player fears a pattern may have been set. "People have to make a choice about what they see on offer," he said. "Membership is around 2,000. But it might go down."