Racing: Straker's growing Ayr of success: Mark Popham on the course where low pricing has become the key to new profit

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The Independent Online
HELPING to save the Grand National would be enough for most men, but Ivan Straker is not one to coast along on past achievements.

It was Straker who, when fund-raising to safeguard Aintree was floundering in 1983, persuaded the Canadian owners of Seagram Distillers that the firm should pledge the pounds 400,000 needed to complete the purchase of the course, as well as sponsor the National. And when he retired as British chairman of Seagram a couple of years ago, Straker promptly set about saving another of Britain's 59 courses.

Outwardly, Ayr racecourse appeared to be doing fine but for some time the sums had not added up. Straker, on becoming chairman of the Western Meeting Club which owns and runs the course, inherited a deficit of pounds 461,935 for 1991 and an overdraft of nearly pounds 800,000.

The former Hussars Majorbrought in a new general manager, Mark Kershaw, who had run Epsom and Sandown before taking a wrong turnin his career when joining the Tote.

Kershaw cut staff and prize- money, and brought in new caterers, race-day security staff and course betting-shop operators at the track which next Monday stages its only Group race, the pounds 30,000 Scottish Classic.

There have been hiccups along the way. William Hill ended their 14-year sponsorship of the Scottish National when their rival, Ladbrokes, another major sponsor at the track through backing the Ayr Gold Cup, was awarded the on-course betting-shop contract.

Kershaw has pursued a strategy of attracting racegoers back to Ayr by offering value for money. Admission prices for the combined Tattersalls/Silver Ring enclosure are pounds 6 for many meetings, rising to a maximum of pounds 8, with free car parking and half-price admission for pensioners and the unemployed.

These prices are unlikely to rise next year, when Kershaw plans to offer parties of 10 or more admission and a four- course meal for around pounds 8 per head, a true bargain. He is keen to race at times when the public can attend in large numbers, recently securing the course's first Boxing Day fixture for this December.

The impact of the new regime on the bottom line was startling in 1992, when a profit of pounds 26,263 was returned and the overdraft fell to pounds 618,484. McDonalds wants to buy a parcel of racecourse land, and that sale could bring in pounds 400,000 to further reduce the overdraft.

Straker, looking to a rosier future, said: 'We have a Grade One track, with Grade Three facilities and a Grade Six bank balance, but there has been dramatic change and Ayr racecourse is on its way back to being Scotland's top course, not just in name but in fact.'

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