Staying on the right track

September 4, 2019

After an £11 million investment transformed its turf flat track into a floodlit all-weather surface, Newcastle Racecourse is pressing ahead with plans to strengthen operations on the other side of its running rails. Steven Hugill meets general manager Paul Elliott to find out more about the impact of its all-weather switch and the venue’s future commercial vision

Horseracing is woven into the very fabric of English history. For centuries, champion thoroughbreds, jockeys, owners and trainers have added their unique threads to the sport’s tapestry, their deeds supplemented by unceasing royal patronage.

From King Charles II’s reign in the mid to late 1600s, to Ascot racecourse founder Queen Anne in the early 1700s and Queen Elizabeth II in the present day, horseracing has always had a regal connection.

However, like any spectator spectacle, the sport cannot rely on past charms to safeguard its future.

To succeed, horseracing must prove itself progressive and venues must be pliable to ensure racing is relevant to all.

Newcastle Racecourse, set in the picturesque 812-acre High Gosforth Park, is a working example of such focus.

For more than 120 years, flat and jump races were run on its traditional turf tracks.

Today, however, the landscape is different.

History is working hand-in-hand with modernity, and nowhere is this perhaps more emphasised than in Brandling House.

A hospitality and conference centre at the heart of the course, the Grade II-listed former mansion was originally constructed as Gosforth House for the enjoyment of wealthy coal miner and ex- Newcastle MP Charles Brandling.

Its ornate lighting, grand stairway and balustrades remain, but step outside and the picture changes.

Across the winter of 2015 and early 2016, course owner Arena Racing Company oversaw an £11 million redevelopment of Newcastle’s two- mile, three-furlong flat track.

Grass was replaced by Tapeta, a substance comprising sand, waxes, rubber and plastic, to create a durable, all-weather surface.

Floodlights were also installed – creating in the process the only illuminated straight mile in world racing – allowing the course to supplement traditional summer afternoon and evening racing with all-year round night action.

The upshot means the course can host more meetings, and the effects have already been felt.

The course’s inaugural all-weather card in 2016 was watched by 3500 people and, according to latest financial results that cover 2017, the track’s ability to deliver more fixtures helped turnover rise from £12.4 million to £14.6 million.

Across 2019, bosses expect to hold in excess of 60 meetings on both flat and jump cards, with its all-weather circuit accounting for more than three quarters of the racing.

The impact, says general manager Paul Elliott, is abundantly clear, with the change providing
a revenue safety net against the unpredictable English climate.

“The change has been a great success and having the ability to race at night in the winter has expanded the business massively,” he says.

“We had a number of years where the weather was bad, particularly in the summer months – we came very close to losing the Northumberland Plate meeting one year – and the general view was that the all-weather track was the way forward.

“It gets pretty cold up here in the middle of January, but the all-weather track gives punters a bit of reassurance that the weather isn’t going to cause a problem.

“If a turf meeting is abandoned one year, it makes it difficult the following year because people can lose trust in it,” reveals Paul.

“The redevelopment has given us the opportunity to employ more people and secure existing roles too, and it has also helped with exposure.

“Every meeting is televised on Sky Sports Racing now, with some on ITV as well, and the track has gone down really well with the industry and trainers too,” he adds.

“We get a lot of horses from the South of the country, as well as the North.

“You can see through our runner numbers that it has been a success.

“The ground being standard every meeting means trainers have a bit more assurance that they will get the ground they want.”

However, Paul says the change of surface provides opportunities to do more than just race.

Akin to how cricket introduced family-friendly 20-over matches to keep pace with cultural shifts, Newcastle’s all-weather switch means it too is now able to offer a fresh sporting dynamic.

Cricket organisers identified a new venture that retained the sport’s core element while introducing fireworks, music and additional off-field attractions to cater for a wider breadth of clientele.

In terms of the racecourse, Newcastle’s Friday evening all-weather meetings are working in the same manner as cricket’s abridged format.

The fixture list now includes occasions such as student nights and Bonfire Night celebrations, while children also go free to every meeting.

“We race a lot during the winter on a Friday and have been able to put a number of themed meetings into the calendar,” says Paul.

“You are never going to get 10,000 people here on a Tuesday night, but the Friday nights and themed events are based around getting people that wouldn’t normally go racing to come and enjoy the sport.

We had around 4000 people here on the first running of the student night.

“Probably 90 per cent of those had never been racing before, and we made it fun for them with fairground rides and music,” adds Paul.

“Without the flexibility of the all-weather course, we wouldn’t be able to try something new and get more partners involved either.

“But because we have so many fixtures, it gives us the opportunities to get more corporate clients here more regularly – we do very well with corporate entertainment on evenings.

“It is all about getting new people in and making it an experience other than horses galloping around a track.

“We have always got to be looking forward.”

That focus on the future is borne out in proposals to further strengthen the racecourse’s commercial offering.

Plans have been submitted to revamp the venue further, which officials say will secure its place on the international stage.

The proposals feature a new event centre, which would create 25 full-time jobs and support 275 roles during construction.

The space would be complemented by a revamped conference hub and the refurbishment of listed buildings, including Brandling House and the Border Minstrel pub, which forms part of the racecourse’s estate and is named after the 1927 Northumberland Plate winner.

Furthermore, two residential blocks – containing around 170 apartments – are earmarked for previously developed land, which would help offset the event centre’s cost.

“It is about creating more than just an experience with racing,” says Paul.

“We have spent a lot of money on the track and are starting to see the rewards of that now.

“We also do a lot of outdoor events and

non-racing days, such as runs, family fun days, corporate team-building days, and we are very popular with weddings.

“We also have the Parklands Golf Club, which has seen a massive uplift in membership and paying players over the last couple of years, and we now want to spend money on this side of the track.

“You have got to move forward in order to keep going.”

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