Racing finally begins at Great Leighs

HORSE racing finally began yesterday at the first new course to be built in the UK for 80 years.

Elliot Furniss

HORSE racing finally began yesterday at the first new course to be built in the UK for 80 years.

Great Leighs Racecourse, near Braintree, hosted its first public meet yesterday afternoon and despite some rough edges and inclement weather, the debut session proved a winner with the majority of punters.

The expected opening of the racecourse had suffered a number of delays over the past couple of years but, after some last minute fears that problems with an emergency vehicle access route might signal a false start, things got underway at 2.30pm with the first race of the day.

That was won by Almaty Express, ridden by Darryll Holland - names that will go down in Great Leighs history.

Some of the most famous faces in horseracing were trackside for the big day, including 11-time champion jockey Lester Piggott and veteran tipster John McCririck.

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Great Leighs director of communications, Pippa Cuckson, said that despite the 9am inspection and the presence of animal rights' protesters at the gates, the day had gone well.

She said: “The wet weather has been grotesque and not helped us at all. We've got over that happily and we keep moving forward.

“The biggest thing we're taking from the day is people management - we are used to running large social events here as some of the people ran the Essex County Show, but this is a different crowd.”

She said the day-to-day running of the course was an “ongoing project” and the physical nature of the site would “constantly evolve” over the coming weeks and months.

One of the 3,500 race-goers who were having an enjoyable time was Aidan Ward, from Leicester, who was celebrating his 28th birthday with his wife Nikki and brother Brendan.

He said: “I just picked a winner and a second-place. It's not too bad here at all, considering it's the first day. It will definitely improve - there are only teething problems, little bits that aren't right.”

Zerin Mustafa, 52, Francesca Salih, 24, and 49-year-old Bernadette Salih, all from south London, were enjoying some of the fine food and entertainment on offer in the hospitality area and said they had not found the conditions too challenging.

Bernadette said: “It's an all-weather track so that's the whole idea - we came prepared anyway. Anything that gets people out of the betting shops or off their computers and out socialising is a good thing.”

However, one group were not very impressed with the organisation and standard of the service on offer.

Charmaine Bourton, 48, and her twin 11-year-olds Richard and Susan, had come to Great Leighs on the train from south east London with their godfather Simon Finch, 48, but said they had been left facing a long trek to the site.

After alighting in Chelmsford, they had to catch a bus service to nearby and then traipse across “muddy fields” to get to the track.

Mr Finch said: “There was supposed to be a 'hopper' bus from Chelmsford Station - but when we got there they said it wasn't running. I don't think they were ready to open.”

He also complained that the top level of the grandstand was not open, leaving race-fans with only a disappointing ground-level view of the home straight.

However Mrs Cuckson said the top floor would soon be open and explained there were not any hopper busses scheduled. She said the course website stated they would be laid on for “major race days” only.

She said: “There is a shuttle bus operating on a loop between the 'old' London Road and the main racecourse entrance, avoiding the need to cross the Great Leighs bypass.”

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