Talking Horses: Northern trainers voice support for proposals to redevelop Newcastle into an all-weather Flat course

The Northern Echo: MAJOR CHANGES: Turf Flat racing at Newcastle could become a thing of the past if Arena Racing Company's plans for the racecourse are given the go-ahead MAJOR CHANGES: Turf Flat racing at Newcastle could become a thing of the past if Arena Racing Company's plans for the racecourse are given the go-ahead

NORTHERN trainers have cautiously welcomed plans to rip up Newcastle Racecourse’s turf Flat racing course in order to replace it with a new all-weather track.

Newcastle’s owners, Arena Racing Company (ARC), intend to submit plans for a major £10m redevelopment of the racecourse by the end of January.

Those plans include a proposal to install a new all-weather surface, with a floodlit straight mile, which would create a Northern rival to Kempton Park, Lingfield Park, Southwell and Wolverhampton, which are the existing all-weather tracks based in the South and Midlands.

It is hoped that racing on the new surface would begin in 2015, with the existing turf course closing in the middle of next summer.

The existing turf jumps racing track would be unaffected, and there is the option of staging the historic Northumberland Plate on the hurdles course, which would enable it to remain as a turf event rather than an all-weather race.

“The development of an all-weather track in the north has long been an ambition of ours,” said ARC managing director Tony Kelly. “This proposal would develop the best floodlit all-weather track in the world, given the superb, wide galloping track and our ability to incorporate a floodlit straight mile.

“This track would fit superbly within the ARC all-weather championship and would give us the ability to possibly share finals day with Lingfield Park.”

The plans have been broadly supported by the region’s trainers, although concerns have been expressed about ARC’s plans for Newcastle.

ARC already owns three of Britain’s four all-weather courses, and the transformation of Newcastle would further strengthen their hand despite sustained criticism of the prize-money levels at a number of all-weather tracks.

“The North has been crying out for an all-weather track for more than a decade,” said Michael Dods, who is based at Denton Hall, near Piercebridge. “It’s ridiculous that there’s nothing in the north of the country at the moment.

The Northern Echo: GOOD GOING: Trainer Michael Dods, who is based at Denton, near Piercebridge, has enjoyed a good first half of the flat season

“We need something, because it’s simply uneconomical to send a horse to Wolverhampton or Southwell, which are the closest all-weather options. You’re talking about an eight-hour round trip, and probably ten hours to get to Kempton.

“That’s why most of the northern yards effectively shut down over the winter. If we had the choice of going all-weather racing in the north, we’d probably have 15 or so horses still in training. If it’s the same for everyone, just think of the number of jobs you’d create because you wouldn’t be laying your staff off.

“I think most of the northern trainers are behind this, but it has to be done right. That means putting on realistic levels of prize money, which is a concern if it’s going to be another Arena course, and choosing a surface that gives everyone an even chance.

“The problem with somewhere like Wolverhampton at the minute is that if you’ve got a hold-up horse, they’re getting sand kicked in their face all race and it’s just about impossible for them to get out and win. We’d want a track where, more often than not, the best horse won.”

The other main downside to redeveloping Newcastle is that you would be losing what is widely recognised as one of the best turf surfaces in the country, but Dods wonders whether this week’s announcement could encourage other northern tracks to lodge a proposal of their own.

“It would be a shame to lose turf racing at Newcastle because it’s probably in about the top six tracks in terms of the standard of the course,” he said. “The ground is always really well looked after, and as a trainer, you never have a worry about sending a horse there.

“In my opinion, we need an all-weather venue somewhere between about Wetherby and Newcastle, and it needs to have good motorway access. That obviously limits the options, but it would be nice to think that some other tracks might come up with plans of their own now that the ball appears to be rolling.”

Bryan Smart, who is based at Thirsk, is another northern trainer to have voiced his support for the plans, although again he has warned that the choice of surface will be crucial.

The Northern Echo: Bryan Smart, left, among fellow trainers, owners and jockeys at Thirsk Racecourse this week  Picture: Steve Carroll

“If the powers that be put down the right surface and support the track with money, then I’m sure we’ll all be happy,” said Smart. “Southwell is the best-designed all-weather course in Britain, but it has the wrong surface. Let’s hope Newcastle can get it right.”

Scotsman Jim Goldie sent Jack Dexter to Newcastle to win the Group Three Chipchase Stakes in June, and while he also recognises the need for an all-weather venue in the North, he claims that other venues might be better suited to the plans.

“We definitely need an all-weather track,” he said. “But it’s a shame that it looks like it’s going to be at a Grade One course. I’d prefer one at somewhere like Catterick.”

The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) would have to authorise any redevelopment and agree to the transfer of Newcastle’s existing flat fixtures on to the all-weather. However, the fact that preliminary discussions have already taken place between the BHA and ARC suggests that would be something of a formality.

“We will shortly be issuing guidelines on the development of new racetracks to interested parties,” said BHA media manager Robin Mounsey. “They will also cover the conversion of existing tracks. These guidelines will lay out the process and timelines to be followed.”

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