Newcastle was first to announce its intention to move to all weather racing, and local trainers were quick to voice their support for the idea, although several said they would rather it happened elsewhere.
Michael Dods, whose yard is a few miles outside Darlington, told the Northern echo, “The North has been crying out for an all-weather track for more than a decade. It’s ridiculous that there’s nothing in the north of the country at the moment. 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.”
He added that he would be disappointed to lose the turf course at Newcastle, as he said the ground there was so well looked after that there were never any problems running horses there.
Bryan Smart also welcomed the idea, but for him, the more important decision was not the location of the course but the racing surface. He said, “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. Southwell is the best-designed all-weather course in Britain, but it has the wrong surface. Let’s hope Newcastle can get it right.”
In what was almost a footnote to the proposals, Arena Racing Company, owners of Newcastle, said that they would seek to maintain the highlight of the flat season there, the Northumberland Plate, as a turf race by running to on the hurdles course.
Just a few days later news emerges that a meeting would take place tomorrow between officials at Catterick and the British Horseracing Authority. There are unique difficulties to overcome at the North Yorkshire track, which have required the support of English Heritage to overcome, as John Sanderson, chief executive of owners International Racecourse Management explained.
He said, “A team came to examine the lay-out and design of the track and made some suggestions which we incorporated some time ago when we were going through the process of consultation and tests and surveys with English Heritage which because of the Roman remains at Catterick in places is absolutely essential. English Heritage has enormously wide powers and if it objected we wouldn't get planning, but it has been fine and we got all that behind us a little while ago.”
The main concern for Catterick though, is not its 2,000-year-old heritage, but something much more immediate: will there be enough fixtures to make all weather racing viable? The BHA aims for all weather racing to have 20% of the total number of fixtures. Next year there will be 296 all weather meetings, which averages out at 74 for each of the four tracks, Lingfield, Kempton, Southwell and Wolverhampton. Add in two new courses in the north, and allow for the possibility of a resumption at Great Leighs at sometime in the future, and that number would drop to 42.
Sanderson said that there was no possibility of any change until 2016 at the earliest, and unless there was an adequate supply of fixtures the plans would not proceed.
The same timeframe almost certainly applies to Newcastle as well, because bids for the 2015 have to be with the BHA in six weeks’ time, as chief executive Paul Bittar explained. He said, “We can confirm that BHA has been in discussions for a period of time with both ARC, in relation to Newcastle, and Catterick about their respective plans to develop an all-weather track. There is an existing timeframe for applications to be made to the BHA board for new, or as in this case, existing racecourses with plans to convert a turf track into an all-weather track, to enter the next fixture allocation process. Applications should be submitted by the end of January in order to be even considered for participation in the 2015 Fixture List.”