Racing: Daydreams and night mares take the field: Wolverhampton's plans for meetings after dark will soon be seen in the cold light of night. Greg Wood reports

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The Independent Online
IN A dark corner of Dunstall Park, Wolverhampton, sits the racecourse's old grandstand. Even in its prime it was small, tatty and unloved. Now it looks sorry for itself.

Two hundred yards away is the reason why. The racecourse has turned its back and moved on, and only a few abandoned running rails mark its old line around the boundary of the park. On what was, just eight months ago, the bare ground at its centre, the final coats of paint are being applied to a new grandstand. It looks out proudly over three compact, concentric oval tracks. There are spacious bars, private boxes and a restaurant. And, 40 years after Wolverhampton Wanderers pioneered their use in football, there are floodlights. In a country where many racecourses are close to dereliction, Wolverhampton seems to have seen the future. But will it work?

If it does not, it will not be for want of money (redevelopment has cost pounds 15.3m) or conviction. Nothing stands idle as the builders hurry to finish before the first meeting on 27 December, nor will it once they have gone. 'We don't want a race-track that's used 20 times a year,' Richard Muddle, Wolverhampton's general manager, said last week. 'Everything doubles up as much as possible. We started off trying to provide a few things for the racegoer and then thought, 'why not do it properly and use the damn thing all the time?' So we've also got a 58-bedroom hotel (due to open in 1994), a conference room and a permanent day nursery.'

Muddle is astonished by the 'enormous aggravation' many racegoers will put up with. 'They don't mind queueing, they don't mind parking in the mud and getting their car stuck, or if they do they still keep coming back.' Knowing that the regulars will turn up regardless, his aim is to also attract more discerning and uncommitted customers seeking an alternative to the pub or cinema.

It is what greyhound stadiums have been doing for years and Wolverhampton's new image owes much to Walthamstow, the London greyhound track which has proved attractive to a clientele not usually seen 'at the dogs'.

Admission to Dunstall Park is cheap, just pounds 5 for the grandstand. The compressed circuit gives excellent visibility. The glass-fronted grandstand holds a tiered, 370-seat restaurant, which will offer a four- course meal (inclusive of admission) for pounds 17.50. And floodlighting means that Wolverhampton can race when it is most likely to fill the tables - every Saturday night.

Not everyone, though, is greeting the course's enterprise with enthusiasm. The first race under floodlights in Britain will be the sixth contest on the Boxing Day card. As a slice of turf history, it will stand comparison with the first use of starting stalls, or the first race on an all-weather track. Yet shortly beforehand, SIS will switch off its cameras and Britain's betting shops close.

Tom Kelly, the spokesman of the Betting Office Licensees Association, anticipates few immediate benefits for off-course shops. 'We admire what has been done,' he said, 'but Saturday night is not a good night for betting offices. We accept it is a good night for racecourses and they have a right to race then, we are just surprised they thought they were being helpful to betting offices by doing it.'

In the 1980s, Richard Muddle and his father, Ron, bought Lingfield Park for pounds 750,000, revitalised it, and sold it on for pounds 7m. Next, at Southwell, they pioneered all-weather racing. When they come up with an idea, people tend to say, 'it's revolutionary, but with their track record, you wouldn't bet against it'.

Yet the same was said of Sir Clive Sinclair at the launch party for the C5. It may be coincidence, but Wolverhampton's second major innovation concerns not technology, but means of transport. The Jockey Club's reluctance to grant fixtures, and the simple lack of enough horses to go round, do not square with the Muddles' wish to race every Saturday. To plug the gaps, Wolverhampton will stage trotting cards on alternate weekends.

On the Continent, trotting - horses pulling buggies - rivals the popularity of conventional galloping. In Britain, however, occasional experiments have generated perplexed amusement, but little adrenalin. Spectators who liken it to 'chariot racing' are mistaken. Chariot racing was exciting.

But for Muddle, the gambling medium is the message. Trotting, like the greyhounds, has distinct advantages for occasional punters. 'There are a dozen people with buggies, they race around and one wins,' he said. 'With galloping you've got to be a genius to understand the conditions of a race.'

The drawback is that trotting is, currently at least, outside the authority of the Jockey Club. Until it is more closely regulated, the racing papers are unlikely to print the cards, and betting shops will certainly not offer odds.

Until the regular trotting meetings start, even Muddle himself might not care to predict the attendance. For the moment, he resembles Kevin Costner's character in the film Field Of Dreams, who constructs a baseball stadium in his back yard. 'If you build it, they will come,' an ethereal voice tells him.

The Muddles have built it and, thanks to a catchment area which includes Birmingham and Coventry, they probably will come. If so, the old grandstand might serve well as a museum, a reminder of the discomforts which so many of the country's racegoers once endured. But only when they have become a thing of the past.

(Photograph omitted)

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