Hereford and Folkestone to close
Racing has been hit with a reality check about the viability of racecourses with the shock news Hereford and Folkestone are to close at the end of 2012.
- Related Content
Arena Leisure and Northern Racing revealed their plans to close down both venues on Friday, although it is hoped Folkestone's demise will only be temporary.
A short-term stay of execution appears unlikely at Hereford, though, with the track, which has been in business since 1771, operating under lease from Herefordshire County Council.
Tony Kelly, managing director of Arena and Northern Racing, said: "Hereford is owned by Herefordshire County Council and run under a lease arrangement.
"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.
"Every effort to continue trading at these racecourses has been explored but this is no longer possible, therefore both racecourses will cease trading at the end of the 2012 season"
The local authority are hoping further discussion could yield a more favourable solution, but accept the course is no longer a viable entity for its owners.
A statement read: "Herefordshire Council deeply regrets the decision that Arena Leisure and Northern Racing has taken today to close the Hereford racecourse.
"At midday today representatives came to see us to inform us of their decision to close. This is the first we heard that they were going to take this decision.
"The lease between the council and the racecourse has a further 17 years to run and the council remains willing to discuss options with the company for the continuation of racing in Hereford.
"This is clearly a business-based decision for Arena Leisure and Northern Racing.
"We understand in discussion with them today that they have been running at a loss over recent years and their announcement and decision to close Hereford racecourse is based on their overall trading position."
There is a glimmer of hope for Folkestone racegoers as the track could reopen in the future if planning permission was granted for a residential development on the site.
That would result in a total revamp of the course, which Arena and Northern Racing feel is necessary to continue racing.
Kelly said "Folkestone suffers from outdated facilities and has been the subject of detailed discussion between the previous management, Arena Leisure, and Shepway District Council for several years now.
"When you start taking racecourses away, we'll get into serious trouble. I hadn't thought about them doing this, but it doesn't surprise me."
"The proposal for the site incorporated significant residential development, which would have enabled a new racecourse to be constructed with much enhanced amenities.
"However, these plans have been delayed following the recent Examination in Public of the local plan.
"Discussions will continue with Shepway District Council in the hope that there will be approval of development plans which would secure the future of the racecourse.
"If they succeed, work to reconfigure the racecourse could commence in 2013."
Racecourse fixtures currently staged at Hereford and Folkestone will be transferred to other racecourses within Arena and Northern Racing.
Kelly said: "Every effort to continue trading at these racecourses has been explored but it is with regret that a variety of circumstances means that this is no longer possible, therefore both Hereford and Folkestone racecourses will therefore cease trading at the end of the 2012 season.
"The fixtures will be transferred to other racecourses within the group, where we will be able to offer increased prize-money and better quality facilities for connections and racegoers alike."
Northern Racing is owned by businessmen David and Simon Reuben, who bought out Arena Leisure plc in March 2012.
Arena and Northern Racing is now Britain's largest racecourse group.
The two racecourses - Hereford is a National Hunt track while Folkestone stages both Flat and Jumps racing - will be the first to shut in Britain since Great Leighs lost its licence in 2009.
"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"
Paul Bittar, chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority, believes racing's "outdated" financial model is the root cause behind the closures.
In a statement, Bittar said: "This decision is a matter for Northern Racing and Arena Leisure. We recognise and respect the commercial pressures that lie 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.
"We are encouraged to learn that the fixtures transferred as a result of the closures will benefit from increased prize-money, but the priority for the whole sport remains the modernisation of our funding mechanism to underpin the future of British Racing and ensure a fair return for all participants."
Evan Williams is one of the leading trainers at Hereford, having saddled 18 winners in the last five years at the track.
The Llancarfan handler was in shock after hearing the news.
He said: "It really is absolutely devastating. I honestly can't believe it.
"Along with Chepstow, Hereford is probably our local track and I've had some great days there both as a trainer and a jockey before that.
"It's always a great place to have runners as it's a great atmosphere and it attracts a proper National Hunt crowd in a proper National Hunt area.
"It really is absolutely devastating. It's always a great place to have runners as it's a great atmosphere and it attracts a proper National Hunt crowd in a proper National Hunt area."
"It's really upsetting news and it's going to be a massive loss to racing in the west and to trainers in south Wales. It will be a loss to the whole country I think.
"Where there is life there's hope and I just hope something can be done to prevent this from happening."
Fellow Welsh trainer Tim Vaughan is similarly surprised by the announcement.
He said: "It's frightening really. It's quite a shock.
"It's not as though we've known there were talks going on or anything, it's just come completely out of the blue and it's hard to get your head round at this stage.
"Hereford is a track that is synonymous with National Hunt racing and it will be devastating for everyone if we lose it.
"Both Hereford and Folkestone are racecourses that have stood the test of time and this is not what racing needs at the moment."
"It's a massive shock. I'm really disappointed. Hereford has always been a well attended course and I'm surprised it's not making money. I'm sure the local people will be really disappointed."
Hereford is leading jockey Richard Johnson's local track and the course where he rode his first ever winner.
He said: "It's a massive shock. I'm really disappointed.
"Hereford has always been a well attended course and I'm surprised it's not making money. I'm sure the local people will be really disappointed.
"From a personal point of view Hereford is one of my favourite tracks. I rode my first winner there for my grandfather in a hunter chase, so it's a special place for me.
"It's just really shocking news and I can't really believe it at the moment.
"Hopefully Folkestone can get back on track at some stage."
Folkestone is John Best's local track and the Maidstone trainer expressed his sadness at the news at the loss of the only course in Kent.
Its future appears to rest on a housing proposal which Best hopes can be resolved.
"A lot of the big trainers use Folkestone and give their two-year-olds a run there before they go elsewhere. When you go there you always see a lot of regulars. They go week in week out and there are a lot of loyal people who are at the track all the time"
"They get quite good crowds there especially for some of the jumps meetings and the evening meetings during the summer are busy. This news is not good for us and not good for racing in general," said Best.
"It's quite sad they are doing this and hopefully they will resolve the planning permission problem they have been having.
"We will be affected more than most because we would go to Folkestone with quite a lot of horses.
"A lot of the big trainers use that track and give their two-year-olds a run there before they go elsewhere.
"When you go to Folkestone you always see a lot of regulars. They go week in week out and there are a lot of loyal people who are at the track all the time.
"I should think it will be a huge blow to a lot of them because if they can't go there the next place is probably Lingfield and that is over an hour away.
"When I was point-to-pointing the United Hunts meeting was the real big thing at Folkestone. It was their biggest crowd-puller of the year and would be packed on those days.
"Hopefully they will get it resolved and get it back sooner rather than later."
Champion trainer Richard Hannon also lamented Folkestone's decision.
He said: "It's a shame. I don't mind Folkestone.
"I haven't been down there for ages, but we had a runner down there on Thursday - it's a good track."
Trainer Charlie Mann has been in dispute with the amalgamated Arena/Northern Racing Group over prize-money levels.
Having successfully organised a boycott of an under-tariff race at Worcester recently, he was not shocked by the news.
"They are two good tracks and we can't afford to lose racecourses. Folkestone obviously do jumping and Flat and we run a lot of horses at Hereford," he said.
"When you start taking racecourses away, we'll get into serious trouble.
"I hadn't thought about them doing this, but it doesn't surprise me."