Racing: Muddle's trot into the future: Richard Edmondson on attempts to target a new breed of punter by making Wolverhampton more like Walthamstow

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The Independent Online
MORE than a ribbon will be cut when Wolverhampton's new racecourse opens for business next June. The more meaningful severance will be with racing as we know it in Britain.

The vision of Richard Muddle, the track's chairman, is of floodlit Flat and trotting competition in surroundings with a closer alliance to greyhound racing than the Turf. After Wolverhampton holds its final jumps meeting of the season on 19 March things will never be the same again.

In the intervening three months Muddle hopes to have completed a pounds 15m rebuilding of the course which will include the construction of two new all-weather tracks, grandstands, housing, roads and business and conference facilities. The vision came closer this week after a meeting with the Department of the Environment left Muddle confident the pounds 5.7m grant aid the project needs to go ahead would be met to a large extent. 'We're off and running,' he said.

There will be no running on turf at Wolverhampton next season. Instead, spectators will watch harness races as well as more conventional competition, which the chairman refers to as 'galloping'.

'Our list of priorities is galloping on the all-weather, hard surface trotting and then turf racing, because we are gearing ourselves for entertaining people during their leisure time,' he said. 'And whatever happens you can certainly say there won't be any turf racing for two years.'

Trotting has met little favour in this country, but that does not bother Muddle. 'It's not really a question of whether it's galloping or trotting because what we are trying to achieve doesn't exist in this country,' he said. 'People enjoy horses and a race and something that gives them an opportunity to gamble. That's the criteria we're working on because we're looking towards the family.'

That means programmes mainly in the evening with racegoers watching floodlit competition more akin to Walthamstow. 'The first thing we do is build a restaurant a la dog track,' he said. 'If you try to book for one of the larger dog tracks I think you'll find a waiting list of anything up to nine months so that's obviously the type of entertainment people are looking for these days. We see what people get for pounds 10 in the pubs and clubs and we've got to compete with them. We're now in the leisure industry and we're confident we have a unique product.'

And a product which Muddle hopes will please the bookmakers. 'We will be looking to get floodlighting in for next winter when racing tends to finish between three o'clock and four o'clock. The betting shops have nothing to gamble on in the second half of the afternoon and we could carry on racing from three o'clock until six o'clock if necessary with a late- afternoon programme.'

Muddle's attempts to satisfy popular culture have not endeared him to racing's purists. 'Someone described the whole thing, in a damning article, as the Muddle circus,' he said. 'I think that's the biggest compliment we've been paid.

'Although we don't want to lose sight of the purpose we were put here for, horseracing, we must realise it's a totally new ball game for the public now. I want us to be set apart from the formality of horseracing. Racing really does need to become a people's sport and here I think we have a recipe for an enormously successful venture.'

(Photograph omitted)

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