Racing: Frying pan off the back burner
Ambitious plan to reopen Alexandra Park and attract City slickers to a unique horseracing track
Anna Nathanson is a freelance journalist with an interest in social issues and music. She covers a wide range of topics, including the care system, gun crime, child sex abuse, women's interest, LGBT issues and racism. Anna also has a strong background in the entertainment industry, which includes several years working at BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra, and interviews with artists such as Nas, Jessie J, Usher, Lianne La Havas and Plan B, for outlets including MTV and the Huffington Post. www.annanathanson.tumblr.com
Tuesday 10 August 1999
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
Londoners used to flock to evening meetings but attendances declined and losses mounted to pounds 5,000 a year.
Minor jump track near Badminton, Gloucs. Still stages point-to-points.
Used to attract crowds of up to 80,000 but sold for housing development.
Proximity to an explosives factory proved fatal in a Levy Board purge on racecourses thought surplus to requirements.
Sold to investment company with no will to keep it going. Stages point- to-points.
Sold for housing development. Turf used to lay out a jumps course at Ascot which now stages the Hurst Park Novice Chase.
Tricky, tight circuit and poorly attended during final days.
Poor prize-money, facilities and fixture slots hastened its demise.
Attracted too few runners. Lincoln Handicap (horses in board game Totopoly are all past winners) switched to Doncaster.
Sold for housing redevelopment. November Handicap moved to Doncaster.
Once home of the Welsh Champion Hurdle, it closed amid bankruptcy rumours.
Another considered surplus to requirements in a Levy Board 1960s purge.
STOCKTON (TEESIDE PARK)
Flop as a Flat venue, despite once luring Lester Piggott with appearance money.
Sacrificed to preserve other courses after Levy Board withdrew subsidy.
Had dangerous bends and no funds to bring it up to new Jockey Club standards.
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