Hereford axe heralds cull of tracks
Northern and Arena to close Folkestone as well by end of year as sport feels pinch of Levy fall
Though patrons of Hereford and Folkestone will be shocked and saddened, the real surprise about yesterday's announcement of their closure is that it has taken so long for any racecourse of such mean standing to wave the white flag.
The Northern and Arena Racing Group, which operates both tracks, is to shut Hereford at the end of the year, but could yet reopen Folkestone if gaining approval for new housing on the site. Either way, the harsh reality is that too many racecourses, providing mediocre sport primarily as a medium for off-course betting, depend for their existence on an unwieldy and unsustainable funding framework – one that, in turn, destabilises the whole economic edifice of the British sport.
Even if the present volume of fixtures in the calendar is warranted, the development of artificial racing surfaces means that there is no longer an intelligible need for 60 different venues to support it. From time to time, proposals are made for a "premier" tier of racing, but these have hitherto proved hopelessly cosmetic. Racecourses in such quantity cannot sustain a healthily symbiotic relationship with the rest of the industry, but the failure to grasp that nettle has produced a culture of subsidy – not to mention, notably at many tracks in the same ownership as Hereford and Folkestone, substandard facilities and prize-money. Sure enough, Northern and Arena have promised improved purses, when distributing next year's fixtures scheduled for the closed tracks elsewhere in the group.
Perhaps the hardest loss to bear – and hardest to measure – is grass-roots interest. Racing was first recorded at Hereford in 1771 and, for all its decay, it remained a popular resort for a rural community that must now venture farther afield to Worcester, Ludlow or Chepstow. Perhaps there is scope to preserve a decentralised "fairground" tier of racing. Either way, above all in a time of recession, the cumbersome, nearly defunct Levy system cannot keep every venue alive on grounds of sentiment alone.
With the exception of a failed experiment at Great Leighs, which may yet be renewed, Hereford will be the first British course to be mothballed since Stockton in 1981. Times have changed since, and Paul Bittar, chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority, reiterated the need to recognise as much. "This decision is a matter for Northern Racing and Arena Leisure," he said. "We recognise and respect the commercial pressures behind it. While British racing is immensely popular on many levels, and enjoyed record attendances last year, the fact is that the sport's financial model remains badly outdated. This undoubtedly makes life very difficult for all who depend on the sport for their living and it also impacts upon racecourses, particularly smaller ones."
The site at Hereford is leased from the county council. Tony Kelly, managing director of Northern and Arena, said: "Attempts to extend the lease, which has 17 years remaining, have been unsuccessful. Despite being unviable for several years, we have supported the racecourse. But much-needed investment, required to breathe new life into the racecourse, cannot be justified in the absence of a long-term future for the business."
There is limited succour available on what is, pragmatically, a fairly low-key Saturday for the start of the Olympics. But well-run racecourses such as York and Ascot – never mind, next week, Goodwood – will none the less present the British Turf in a more gratifying light.
Maureen (3.05) will be short odds for the Group race at Ascot, after her desperate luck at Newmarket last time, while Planteur (3.10) will appreciate the drop in grade for the one at York.
Chris McGrath's nap
Anjaz (2.05 York)
Dimension (2.35 York)
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