Racing: Razor sharp new image for Brighton

Once the province of the London low life, a coastal racecourse is fast rising above its station under the guidance of Stan Clarke, its new owner. By Greg Wood
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The Independent Online
WHEN ASKED what his newspaper was about, Derek Jameson, the first editor of the Daily Star, replied: "Tits, QPR and roll-your-own fags." Brighton racecourse used to be like that. Where other tracks attempted to project a sophisticated air, Brighton could not care less. Perhaps it felt it came with the seaside territory.

Graham Greene did nothing for its image either. No-one who read Brighton Rock, or winced as Richard Attenborough razored a bookie in the film, could imagine it as anything but a dark, violent place overrun by minor mobsters.

And that is what it was in the 1930s, when the fast trains from Clapham and Croydon made it the haunt of choice for south London low lifes. Its fortunes took a turn for the better in the post-War boom years, when for a while, huge crowds masked the course's seediness. Before long, it reverted to type. For most of the last four decades it has been decrepit, declining, apparently waiting to die. It seemed to belong 10 miles along the coast, in a retirement home in Worthing.

Even so, there were always those who loved it for its tattiness, and others who loved it in spite of it. The quick, chalky ground and downland helter-skelter lend themselves to course specialists, and Brighton can have the same effect on punters. The ones who know it best tend to gather on the balcony bar, with an almost unique viewing position directly above the winning post. It is also the perfect place to enjoy the magnificent views from the track's perch atop the highest hill in Brighton. On a clear day, you can see the Marina, the Palace Pier and about 15 miles out into the English Channel. But when conditions are poor and a thick sea fret smothers the course, you can't even see the paddock.

No longer, though, is it a track in terminal decline. It is 16 months since Stan Clarke, the man who revived Uttoxeter and Newcastle, took on his most difficult challenge. So far, he has not even reached phase two of a four-year development plan, but already the transformation is remarkable. There is fresh paint everywhere, soft new carpets in the bars, hospitality suites, and a new parade ring and winners' enclosure.

The strangest feeling for those who knew the old Brighton well is the sense that the course is proud of itself these days. Next month, it will even make it to terrestrial television for the first time, when Channel 4 broadcasts an pounds 18,000 sprint handicap.

"Two years ago, if any course had been marked down for closure, it would have been this one," Phil Bell, Brighton's commercial manager, said yesterday as a big holiday crowd milled around the parade ring. "We've spent pounds 1m on it already, on everything from painting the walls to planting flowers, and the next phase this winter will be the inside of the grandstand, Tatts and Members."

The crowd figures are improving already. "Last year for this meeting we had 700 paying customers," Bell said. "This year there are 1,400." Long term, though, he is thinking much bigger. "There are," he says, "250,000 people who live within 10 minutes of here."

It is still trippers and tourists, rather than locals, who form the bulk of the crowd. The Silver Ring is like an extension of the beach, with push-chairs and picnics, towels and ice-creams. Every face, it seems, is either pink (too much sun), or red (too much ale).

These days, the holiday atmosphere spills over into the other enclosures too, and no-one seems to mind that the horses are rarely of a quality to match their refurbished surroundings. Occasionally, though, a good one gets through. Valentine Waltz, this year's French 1,000 Guineas winner, won at Brighton as a two-year-old. A few months before that, a filly called Zomaradah won a maiden at Brighton. On her next outing, she won the Italian Oaks. So Brighton's horses are getting more upmarket, too, more good news for those racegoers who adore their trips to the top of the hill. A few of them may moan that rock-bottom standards on both sides of the running rail were part of the course's old appeal, but it is not as if Brighton will ever be an aristocrat among racetracks. The way it is going though, it should soon be upper working class and that would probably suit everyone just fine.