Nature has contributed so lavishly to Cheltenham racecourse, as one of the most cherished and dramatic arenas in British sport, that it is incumbent on man at least not to mess up his share. The stakes were high, then, when Jockey Club Racecourses yesterday unveiled a proposed £45m redevelopment adjacent to the main grandstand. And, while it can hardly complement the majesty of Cleeve Hill, it will be received by most as a considerable improvement in function, and an acceptable one in form.
An unfortunate minority will beg to differ, namely those few dozen boxholders with a vested interest in the status quo. To more objective witnesses, however, the condemned zone unites too unprepossessing a sprawl of styles and materials to be mourned very long. Those long-standing patrons whose affection for the complex reflects family memories and a sense of earned kudos will persist in claiming a degree of quaintness for its lowly incoherence. But others will see so shabby a ghetto that they would not be surprised to see laundry hanging from the balcony of the royal box.
No sensible person, equally, would indulge the repeated use yesterday of the word "iconic" to describe the building that will replace it. It is not as if the panel of officials announcing the plans had selected a design with the remotest pretence to boldness. An "iconic" building might have made use of Cotswold stone, for instance, but that would have entailed an unpalatable combination of risk and expense. Instead, it presents to the track a terrace, some tiered glazing, and a shelf to keep the rain off – no more or less iconic than any of those other recent racecourse projects that abjured any adventurous flourish in the shape of the roof, say, or choice of materials. Those who head to Aintree next week will commend the use of wood, for instance, by the same owners; and at least Ascot dared to set everyone a challenge.
It is in its rear projection, however, that this development defines its intentions, with galleries designed to heighten the reciprocal theatre of the parade ring. A raised walkway is intended to have the same effect, while also improving circulation. Paul Fisher, managing director of Jockey Club Racecourses, appears justified in claiming that, with accommodation for 6,500 people – compared with 1,500 in the present site – and with more toilets and fewer corporate boxes, "the whole development is going to improve the experience of the regular racegoer".
Inevitably, that is unlikely to prove the case during the 2015 Festival, midway through the 22-month project scheduled to start after the 2014 one and conclude in time for March 2016. It is hoped that the steppings will already be in place, however. As for the 50-odd current boxholders, Ian Renton, JCR regional director, is "fairly confident we can provide most of the facilities that will meet their needs". His chief executive, Simon Bazalgette, assured any militants that English Heritage had already dismissed any notion that the existing structure merits listed status.