Racing: Frying pan off the back burner

Ambitious plan to reopen Alexandra Park and attract City slickers to a unique horseracing track

IT WAS the quirkiest course in Britain. Celebrated for its atmosphere but reviled for the treacherous twists and turns of its "frying pan" shape, Alexandra Park was nothing if not controversial.

Since its closure in 1970, the course has slumbered quietly at the base of Alexandra Palace, dog walkers striding unaware past the still existing rails. But now, the thunder of hooves could replace the thud of wellies with a proposal by a local company to resurrect the course. Success would see City crowds dropping their stress levels and picking up their betting slips within 16 minutes of finishing work, courtesy of a direct rail link from Moorgate in the heart of the city to Alexandra Park.

Noel Farrar, Jim Fahey and Jon Kanareck, under the name FFK Racing, are the architects of the project - one of a number of independent proposals jostling at the starting gate for permission to develop at the Palace, which is regarded as a financial white elephant by its governing borough of Haringey, north London.

Despite its history, the course barely flickers in recent local memory. Only collections of race-day memorabilia at local pubs such as the Starting Gate and Victoria Stakes and the ghost of an outline of the course itself betray any of its past. Racing began at Alexandra Park in 1868 on a uniquely shaped track that could stage races over only three distances: five furlongs, one mile and one mile five furlongs.

With the five-furlong start obscured by trees and the impossibility of an uninterrupted view of round- course races, the track was eccentric rather than user-friendly. Jockeys, too, found the course far from hospitable, many agreeing with Willie Carson's verdict that the place wanted bombing.

The critics won the day and, despite gaining in popularity when evening racing was initiated in 1955, the course was closed 15 years later. So why reopen it at all? Will it succeed second time around, or merely be a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire?

"There's a lot more money now in recreational activities than there was in the 1970s and it's the perfect time to reopen Ally Pally as a community based, corporate funded, family oriented venue," Farrar says.

It is an opinion endorsed by the pundit John McCririck, who is so enamoured of the course that he wants his ashes scattered at its furlong post.

"London needs a course at its heart, like Longchamps, which has a fantastic atmosphere. Evenings at the Park had the same quality, he said. The key to the project is getting the support and enthusiasm of the community; without that it stands no chance. But my one ambition is to see the frying pan reopened and anything I can do to help, I will."

While FFK may not match John McCririck for after-life commitment to Alexandra Park, they are nevertheless resolute in pursuit of viable racing for north London, citing a monopoly of racetracks to the south-west of the capital.

Rescuing Alexandra Park from the graveyard is the latest in a stream of proposals to open new racecourses in an attempt to buck a long trend for closing them. Not since Chepstow in the 1920s has a new racing venue seen the light in Britain but there are drawing-board plans for several new tracks, with proposals by Arena Leisure for one at Thurrock, in Essex, leading the way.

History and a ready-made racecourse may yet see Alexandra Park pip them at the post. Proposals have been made to the British Horseracing Board and, vitally, to the trustees of the palace. Both have expressed interest, yet reserved commitment, the BHB with a cautious "wait and see", the trustees with one eye to the complicated legal and planning restrictions of the palace.

Not open to debate is the BHB criteria for new racecourses which Alexandra Park must fulfil to get its licence and fixtures; criteria that hinge on finance and safety - the original Achilles heels of Alexandra Park. Applicants must show provision of sufficient capital based on a sustainable business plan, from sources other than the Levy Board, as well as a significant input to prize-money from executive or sponsorship contribution. FFK is confident it can achieve both of these.

The key factor is the course's proximity to the wealthy and, FFK hopes, willing City crowds who will fund it with corporate sponsorship and entertaining. "We expect to have 100 per-cent independent finance in development, upkeep and prize money, made possible by the unique location in London and the type of track that it will be," Kanareck says.

But it is the type of track that it once was that causes concerned mutterings. With tight bends and cambers and going that was often firm or hard, one good downpour could render the turf diabolically slippery. A safety limit of 20 runners per race is likely to be enforced at the new course and racing on an all-weather surface is under consideration.

Fixtures will have to be found either by transferring from within the present list or, as FFK hopes, by creating new ones. The BHB is prepared to consider granting up to 10 new fixtures, at its discretion, to an approved new racecourse, and quite exceptionally might increase that, provided the racecourse is of "a size, quality and design comparable to the best in the country".

Whether or not Alexandra Park will stand up to such scrutiny, should it get the planning green light, remains to be seen. But ambitious FFK are confident that Alexandra Park will stand among its peers once again and prove that, although they are backing a dark horse, it is an outsider rather than a non-runner.

COURSES THAT HAVE CLOSED SINCE THE SECOND WORLD WAR

ALEXANDRA PARK

1868-1970

Londoners used to flock to evening meetings but attendances declined and losses mounted to pounds 5,000 a year.

BEAUFORT HUNT

1870-1956

Minor jump track near Badminton, Gloucs. Still stages point-to-points.

BIRMINGHAM

1740-1965

Used to attract crowds of up to 80,000 but sold for housing development.

BOGSIDE

1808-1965

Proximity to an explosives factory proved fatal in a Levy Board purge on racecourses thought surplus to requirements.

BUCKFASTLEIGH

1937-1960

Sold to investment company with no will to keep it going. Stages point- to-points.

HURST PARK

1890-1962

Sold for housing development. Turf used to lay out a jumps course at Ascot which now stages the Hurst Park Novice Chase.

LANARK

1785-1978

Tricky, tight circuit and poorly attended during final days.

LEWES

1727-1964

Poor prize-money, facilities and fixture slots hastened its demise.

LINCOLN

1597-1991

Attracted too few runners. Lincoln Handicap (horses in board game Totopoly are all past winners) switched to Doncaster.

MANCHESTER

1647-1963

Sold for housing redevelopment. November Handicap moved to Doncaster.

NEWPORT

1845-1948

Once home of the Welsh Champion Hurdle, it closed amid bankruptcy rumours.

ROTHBURY

1759-1965

Another considered surplus to requirements in a Levy Board 1960s purge.

STOCKTON (TEESIDE PARK)

1724-1981

Flop as a Flat venue, despite once luring Lester Piggott with appearance money.

WOORE HUNT

1883-1963

Sacrificed to preserve other courses after Levy Board withdrew subsidy.

WYE

1849-1975

Had dangerous bends and no funds to bring it up to new Jockey Club standards.

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