Video/Gallery: Racing returned to Essex as the inaugural race took place at Chelmsford City Racecourse
- Credit: PA
It has been dogged by financial and regulatory problems from the start, fell at the first hurdle back in 2008 and has changed owners more than once, but today racing at Chelmsford City Racecourse got off to a flying start.
Racing is back in Essex.
Over the past 12 months new owners BetFred have invested £50m in the former Great Leighs Racecourse, mothballed in 2009 when the administrators were called in on the previous owners.
The betting giants invited 800 guests to have a flutter this afternoon as seven races ran the all-weather track, and there was a buoyant atmosphere as the first winner was announced, slightly delayed by the need for a steward’s inquiry, and the lucky ones collected their payouts.
A further 57 races are scheduled to take place at the Essex course this year, putting the county firmly back on the racing map for the first time in 80 years.
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Today’s racing was a trial run, and another small-scale event will follow on January 22 before the gates open to the public on February 1.
Between now and then there is still plenty of work to be done - racegoers today had to walk over the track to get to the grandstand as work on an underpass is yet to be completed, only a fraction of the car park was complete and there were some drainage issues around the site and areas that still needed turfing.
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Jo and John Walker, of Blackmore End, near Braintree, not only managed to secure tickets for today’s racing but were also at the opening race in 2008 when John Holmes was at the helm
“We felt they let the public in too early last time around,” said Mrs Walker. “The facilities weren’t ready.”
The original grandstand, a temporary fixture that had been used during the 2006 Ryder Cup, has been replaced with a permanent pavilion-type building with a capacity of 10,000 people.
Mrs Walker said: “This is much better, there are teething problems, like there are no bins around, but they have asked for feedback so hopefully these will be ironed out.”
Her husband said they used to be regulars at Newmarket and hoped to sign up at as annual members.
He added: “It will take a while to catch up with Newmarket, because that is at the heart of horseracing and has been for many years but there are a lot of Newmarket trainers here.
“This is a great opportunity for those looking for work as well as those coming for pleasure, it is a shame it was closed down first time around.”
For Simon Hall and partner Amy Stockwell it was a profitable afternoon, scooping wins in both the first and third race.
“We will back again,” said Ms Stockwell. “I didn’t make it here last time it was open, but it is great that there is something to do in Braintree, there isn’t much nightlife-wise.”
There has been much debate over the floodlights and residents as far away as Marks Tey have complained about the effects of skyglow in the past.
Tonight, the lights went on at the end of the fifth race but they were dimmed to reflect the half light of dusk.
“I can’t see that they will really impact people,” said Mr Hall. “They will be off by 10pm anyway.”.
Managing director Phil Siers said today: “We want to help racing and all constituent parts of the racing business to be successful. We have high-class facilities for everyone.
“It has been horrendously difficult to get where we are today. But we are confident this will work. There is total prize money of £2.2 million for 58 fixtures.”
The true test will come next month when the first full-scale event is held at Chelmsford City, and later in the season when the first night time races are held and the fllodlights are used as full strength.
What do the experts say?
Racing correspondent Terry Redhead was in Great Leighs to report on the action for the EADT and he said: “You can’t compare this to Newmarket, that has 400 years of tradition, it is a totally different surface and that is where all the major trainers are based.”
However, the proximity to Newmarket, and its high concentration of top level trainers could be the making of Chelmsford, according to Mr Redhead.
“To put horses in a horse box and drive here is great for them, it is less miles so that cuts down on their costs and it is less travelling for the horse so it will perform better. I am sure that the trainers will support it.”
When the course originally opened it was heralded for being the first new racecourse in the UK in more than 80 years.
“It was a disappointment when racing finished at Great Leighs, as it was then, in 2009,” said Mr Redhead. “Since December 13 they have spent a fortune here and the facilities are clearly fantastic.
“There have been complaints the surface is deep, which makes it heavy and slow but it has been wet so you can expect that. It will settle down in time.”
He explained that a total prize pot of £2.2m has been put forward for this year - the first chunk won by Godolphin who celebrated a hat-trick of first places.
Were you at Chelmsford City Racecourse today? What did you think?