Racing lost its first meeting of the year yesterday when high winds led the meeting at Ayr to be called off. Much further South high winds led to the evacuation of the Epsom racecourse site after the new Duchess Stand was damaged.
In truth, it wasn't that the wind made racing at Ayr unsafe as the course suffered only superficial damage. Race Tech, who provide commentary, television and PA services, were unable to park their lorry in its usual position, which is close to a tree which had already suffered some broken branches and was expected to be completely uprooted.
Head of public relations at Ayr, Iain Ferguson said, "The very strong winds were actually forecast to ease in the afternoon and that's not why we had to abandon. The problem is in fact a tree that is about to fall which is close to a Race Tech truck. On health and safety grounds they had to move, but it meant we would have had no scanner and no PA system. You are not allowed to race without a PA system and that is why we had to abandon, not because of the wind. It's incredibly bad luck for the groundstaff who'd made a huge effort to get racing on."
At Epsom, the roof of the recently built Duchess Stand lifted causing a lot of the insulating material to be strewn across the racecourse and nearby roads. This will be something an embarrassment for both the racecourse and contractor Willmott Dixon, who picked up in the region of £30 million for building the stand, which was only opened in 2009 .
Managing director of Epsom racecourse, Rupert Trevelyan, was playing down the damage. "We lost a few panels from the roof of the Duchess stand and quite a lot of insulation. We've evacuated the site for safety reasons and we are now in the hands of the Fire Brigade the police. With all the insulation everywhere it looks quite bad, but we will assess the situation fully when the wind dies down."
Although roads near the racecourse were reopened yesterday afternoon, Surrey police were ready to impose further closures if the wind picked up again. Mark Barrett, station manager at Epsom forestation explained that the conditions were too dangerous to try and secure the roof until the winds died down.
He said, "We have got the equipment and could have gotten that high but under the circumstances there was nothing we could do safely. I must admit it was a lot more than I expected it to be. We often get called to unsafe structures when we get high winds but this was quite severe. Where the roof panels have been torn away and were hanging over the side in those winds they were lethal. So my first concern was to get members of the public away from the danger around it. The other side was also beginning to lift as well. It's not going to be a small job and the whole roof will need to be inspected."
The Duchess Stand generates substantial income for Epsom as the ground floor betting hall converts to an 800 seat conference venue when racing is not taking place. There are smaller conference and banqueting facilities on the other two floors in the stand. A spokesman for JSC Sport, representing the racecourse, said, "Any scheduled events in the Duchess Stand will be rescheduled into the adjoining Queen’s Stand until the cleanup operation has been finished."
Contractors are due on site today, and their priority will be to make the roof safe. That will be followed by a full investigation as to the cause of the damage, and only once that has been completed would be possible to estimate the cost and time needed to effect a full repair.