Until 2008, I was able to say that I'd visited every racecourse on this island, all 59 of them.
Then on 20th April of that year, 59 became 60, as Great Leighs became Britain's first new racecourse since 1927. Therefore, for the sake of completeness, and despite my lack of enthusiasm for all weather racing, I knew that I'd have to pay it a visit. Glancing through their fixture list for the remainder of 2008, I earmarked the meeting on Monday 29th December as the one that I'd frequent, thinking that all of the initial fuss would have died down by then (and that as it was over the Christmas holiday period, the M25 would be quiet).Between the course opening and when I actually went, there seemed to be two schools of thought about it. Trainers praised the quality of the racing surface and the configuration of the track, and punters said that the facilities and race viewing were rubbish.
So on 29/12/08, I went to see for myself. The course is well signposted and easy to find, and easy to get in and out of as it's adjacent to a dual carriageway, and parking is free as well. So far so good then, so I parted with my twelve English pounds (it would have been fifteen but for my racegoers club discount), and went in.
The fact that the ticket office is a prefab should have offered a clue of what was to follow, as the first thing that you notice is that the grandstand is also a prefab. That's not the worst part of it though, the worst part is that it's on the inside of the track, meaning that only the last two furlongs of each race can be seen. There are no viewing steps either, just a flat area next to the track. There's a giant screen opposite so you can see the rest of the race, but if I wanted to watch it on a screen I'd stay at home and watch it on attheraces. So for race viewing purposes, it's about as much use as a condom machine in the Vatican, but what's the inside of it like.
Well, there's a Stan James betting shop in there, and on the day I went their screens were displaying prices for races on Welsh National day at Chepstow (which was two days previously). I considered having all of the money I had with me on a Notre Pere / Cornish Sett / Halcon Genelardais straight tricast as it had paid over 4000/1, but I didn't think they'd let me.
On this particular day there was also just one tote window open on the inside of the grandstand, that's right, ONE poxy tote window, resulting in a very long queue before each race. There was a tote window open outside as well, but as it was a very cold day with a real "scrotum shrinker" of a wind blowing, not many people were using it. Of course you can always bet with the bookies in the betting ring, where there were a grand total of SIX to choose from.
To be honest, the grandstand would be more suitable for staging a barn dance than a race meeting, every time someone walks past you can feel the floor bouncing up and down underneath your feet, just in case you'd forgotten that you were standing in a prefab. There are no toilets in there that I could see , there were some outside though, you've guessed it - prefabs. To be fair , there is a permanent building down the far end of the course with toilets in it. In fact, there are a few permanent buildings, the weighing room, the saddling boxes and the stables.
This is why trainers praise the course, but punters have been complaining about it (particularly the race viewing, or more accurately, the complete lack of it), since the day it opened. All of the money appears to have been spent on the track and the facilities that punters don't use, and bugger all has been spent on the grandstand.
There's a two page spread in the racecard titled "what the experts say", where various trainers, jockeys and racing journalists heap praise on Great Leighs. "Impressive", "phenomenal" and even "world class" they say. I notice that they haven't asked any punters what they think, if they did the comments would probably include more swearing than Reservoir Dogs and Goodfellas put together. One trainer also says "no expense has been spared for the horses", and rightly so, but it's all very well having good facilities for horses and trainers and attracting lots of runners, but if the facilities for punters are rubbish, you're going to get more horses than punters coming to the track, and as horses don't bet or use the bars, you're not going to make much money.
At the time of writing, Great Leighs has had it's licence to race withdrawn and is in administration, and it's future is currently uncertain (which is bad news for anybody that forked out £500 for an annual membership). Despite it's shortcomings, as a racing fan I don't want to see any course close, and this one clearly serves an important purpose for trainers, especially those from Newmarket as it's a lot more convenient for them than than the other all weather tracks. The track itself is clearly very good, but if they want punters such as yours truly to come back again, they've got to do something about that grandstand. It's so bad it's even worse than the one on Newmarket's Rowley mile course, and that's a sentence I never thought I'd type.