More than 4,000 racegoers went to the sports for free yesterday as Towcester, Northamptonshire's only remaining racecourse, opened its gates for the first time in 18 months. And while the occasion may have been business as usual for the habitual champion jumps jockey, Tony McCoy, who booted home three winners, it was one of more significance for the track itself. Really, it mattered less who won or lost, but that the game was played.
Towcester, fair yet demanding and charmingly rural with its panorama of middle England, was forced to close down for the whole of last season and part of the preceding one because of a series of unfortunate events, beginning with abandonments caused by the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001, and more recently because of a shortage of stabling facilities. Yesterday's fixture was the first at the course since 24 May, 2002.
The ancient grandstand, which was built in 1928 and provided views of the local country estate, Easton Neston, is no more for safety reasons; it was demolished before it fell down. A new £5m stand is on the drawing board but until it becomes reality the crowd - which yesterday, despite the weather, was four times that at the equivalent meeting two years ago - will be housed in a marquee, hence the gratis entry for the foreseeable future.
The general reaction of the bumper crowd to the munificence of the course authorities was understandably positive and trainers were delighted with the new stabling facilities.
But there were a few dissenting voices as the temporary toilets and bars failed to cope with the extra numbers. Jockeys, too, complained that the weighing room area had been left totally untouched during the closure period.
But one of the catalysts for the closure period, the new stable block, was voted a success by the professionals. "It is very impressive and I hope that other racecourses take note," said Jonjo O'Neill, whose 11-4 chance Supreme Priority took the seller.
For colleague Frank Jordan, the new regime started perfectly as a cunning plan was executed to perfection. The Herefordshire-born trainer moved to within five miles of the course just as it closed for renovation last year but patience proved a virtue and a few weeks ago he decided to make sure he trained the first winner when racing recommenced.
He produced Summer Bounty fit and well after an absence of 318 days for the Sharp LCD Displays Handicap Hurdle and the seven-year-old and McCoy did the rest, scooting home at even money to beat 20-1 chance Vulgan Lane by 10 lengths and get punters off to a flier.
"No sooner had I moved in down the road then they closed down my new local course," Jordan said, "but I always had this race in mind. It was a big decision to move but we had reached a bit of a crossroads where I could have kept on training eight or 10 winners a year or try for something a bit better.
"I've got another five horses arriving this week, including two from France who cost £40,000 and £80,000 and that will fill the yard up completely, so we will have 30 horses. Hopefully we can really make a mark this season and this isn't a bad start."
McCoy's next strike came when Bearaway (4-7) ground out a four-length success over market rival Erins Lass in the two-mile novices' hurdle and the Ulsterman's treble came up when 10-11 chance Niagara was another all-the-way winner in the two-mile novices' chase.
* Oasis Dream, last year's champion European juvenile and this season's top-rated sprinter, is to be retired to owner Khalid Abdullah's Banstead Manor Stud after his next intended start in the Breeders' Cup Mile later this month.Reuse content