Racing: Eight go to post for new track race

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The Independent Online
NOT MUCH of note ever happens at Taunton racecourse, one of life's supporting cards. Its one and only major race each season is the Cecil Hunt Memorial Chase over four and a quarter miles, a contest which, with all due respect to the late Mr Hunt, is never going to rival the Grand National.

It does, however, possess one small claim to fame. Taunton threw open its doors in 1927, and it remains the most recently established of all Britain's 59 tracks. For 72 years, it has been the country's youngest racecourse, but now it seems that even that small footnote in turf history may soon be scribbled out. At 5pm on Tuesday evening, the deadline expired for proposals to build and operate a new course from the 2001 season, and eight hopeful candidates submitted applications.

Many of the plans are hugely ambitious. The artist's impressions submitted with the plans tend to show slim, elegant people eating dinner in the panoramic restaurant of a magnificent new grandstand. Strangely enough, hot-dog stands, discarded betting slips and boozed-up stag parties are conspicuously absent.

The proposed sites for the new tracks include Pembrey in South Wales, where Mel Davies, a prominent racehorse owner, has been trying to build a course for years. Arena Leisure, which already owns four tracks, would like to create another from scratch near the Lakeside Shopping Centre at Thurrock, while the Wiggins Group has its eye on land at Fairlop Waters, in East London. Newcastle, Lee-on-Solent, London's Docklands and Yorkshire are also though to figure among the applications.

It is now up to the British Horseracing Board to decide which, if any, of the proposals will ever make it off the drawing board. It is the BHB which is responsible for allocating fixtures, and without some horses to watch and back on a regular basis, no amount of cutting-edge interior design will ever tempt in the punters.

Since there are 59 courses already, all vying for fixtures of their own, and racing is hardly given to rash decisions, it seems unlikely that more than one or two of the applications will get further than the consideration stage. As a result, a full-scale PR campaign is under way, even though a final decision is unlikely before April.

Leading the way this week was Geoff Lansbury, of the Wiggins Group, which wants to build Britain's first dirt track at Fairlop Waters, near the M11 in Redbridge. "Our scheme is all about location," he said. "It's got a phenomenal catchment area, seven million people within 25 miles who are not served by any racecourse. An area where racing has problems is that it does not get quality crowds because of the courses' locations."

Fairlop proposes to race under floodlights on Thursday evenings, with only a two-month break in June and July. This would cater for workers in the City, who can reach Fairlop on the Underground's Central line, and also for television companies hoping to cover the meetings, who could be sure of the same start time each week.

"If racing wants a quality flagship bid to take racing into a new era," Lansbury says, "we're the only runner. If they want to be safe and conservative and just have another track, then there are other people who could be considered."

A problem for all the candidates, though, is that the BHB is unlikely to sanction a new course if they do not get an acceptable increase in the yield of the next Levy scheme when the negotiations begin in the next few weeks. There is also the obvious point that there are plenty of courses already, not to mention a well-established cycle of high-class racing. Squeezing in anything more than very ordinary betting-shop fodder could be difficult.

"We'll have to see if any of the new schemes brings something new and positive to racing as a whole," Paul Greeves, the BHB's director of racing, said yesterday. "If too many fixtures are awarded, it affects the competitiveness of racing, and we've said we're contemplating awarding only five to 10 fixtures should we be able to, unless it's a really outstanding proposal. But we have eight proposals, and some of them are very interesting."

The first hints of the BHB's thinking are unlikely to emerge from Portman Square until next year. Taunton's claim to fame may be safe a little longer.


Nap: Dance In Tune

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