I take my hat off to the management of Newmarket Racecourse. It's difficult to believe that anybody could spend the massive amount of money (£15 Million) that they have on designing and constructing a new Grandstand, and yet when it's finished it turns out to be inferior to it's predecessor.
So what's wrong with it then? Well, for a start, the amount of viewing space for paying patrons of the Members and Tattersalls enclosures has been reduced by 50%. In the old Grandstand you could go up to the second level and get an excellent view of the course from the viewing steps there. Yet it still costs the same as it did before to get in, surely the price of admission to Members and Tattersalls should be reduced by 50% as the facilities have been. The Grandstand itself is huge, and there's plenty of space in the upper levels, but it's all reserved for the toffs and corporate hospitality and members of the Jockey club.
The only viewing space available to Members and Tattersalls patrons is nineteen steps at the bottom of the Grandstand, so if you get on the very top step you might just be able to see the tops of the jockeys helmets as they cross the finishing line. Provided you're reasonably tall that is, because the steps slope up very gradually, so even the top one isn't particularly high. There is a giant screen of course, but if I wanted to watch the finish on a screen I'd stay at home and watch it on the television. A racing magazine which I read this week had a guide to Newmarket racecourse in it. When discussing the new grandstand they claim that Newmarket is a natural amphitheatre and gaining height is not important - absolute cobblers. Places like Cheltenham and Towcester are, but Newmarket most definitely isn't.
On the plus side (yes, there is a plus side), the head on grandstand, which was previously off limits is now partly available to members patrons. You can get up a bit higher in this stand but watching head on is not ideal and is a poor substitute for a decent side on view.
It also has to be said that the inside of the new grandstand is very nice, with lots of places to get a bet on, but getting a bet on was never a problem when the old grandstand was up. There are plenty of refreshment outlets as well, which makes me think that the designers of this grandstand have got their priorities wrong. I consider myself to be a fairly typical racegoer, and the main reason I go to a racecourse is to watch racing. I just want to look at the horses in the parade ring, get a bet on, and watch the race from a decent viewing position. I obviously want refreshments as well, but I don't want to stand around all afternoon drinking, if I want to do that I'll go to a pub. That's what this new grandstand (or at least the small part of it that the general public are granted access to) resembles, a large sports bar with a few viewing steps outside just in case anybody wants to watch the racing live and not on one of the numerous screens inside.
Lack of viewing height is not the only problem of course, the amount of space available has also been roughly halved, so on days such as Champions Day it's going to be a bit of a crush, it was bad enough on the inadequately small July course last year, but this promises to be a whole lot worse. They could limit the crowd obviously, but they won't do that as they clearly aren't worried about facilities for normal paying punters, and they'd take less money wouldn't they. Punter friendly courses like Cheltenham limit the crowd on the biggest days to make you more comfortable, but then again Cheltenham is a National Hunt course and therefore isn't run by selfish snobs.
I'm certainly not the only one that is disattisfied with the new grandstand, it's had nothing but negative reviews since it opened, and not just from commoners like yours truly either. I was there on 2000 Guineas day and overheard some posh annual members moaning. One of them was a big fat woman with more facial hair than the entire Maktoum family put together. "Disgraceful" she said, "this is supposed to be the best course in England". I don't know how she reached that conclusion, because thanks to this grandstand fiasco it isn't even the best course in Newmarket. I used to think the Rowley course was better than the July course, but that is no longer the case.
I have long held the opinion that flat racing is ruled by a bunch of upper class twits who treat normal paying punters with about as much respect as dog dirt, and this shambles only serves to reinforce that opinion. They reserve all of the best facilities for themselves and the rest of us have to make do with the scraps from their table. Attending meetings at some flat racing courses makes you feel like Oliver Twist going up to Mr Bumble and saying "Please Sir, can I have some more?", you get the impression they would rather you weren't there so that they could have the place to themselves. Well, if they keep on treating the paying public with such disdain they may soon get their wish, and with the subsequent loss of revenue maybe they'll end up regretting it.
Like many other racegoers, I visited Newmarket once since the new grandstand was opened, and hated it so much that I haven't been back since.
However, this season the management of Newmarket racecourse (not the same gormless management that cocked up in the first place I hasten to add), acknowledged that the whole thing had been a big mistake and decided to allow members and tattersalls patrons access to the previously off limits second tier. So everything is just like it was before, right? WRONG !
For a start, virtually the whole of the second tier consists of seating. Five big wide steps with the seats on them at the front, and four narrow steps for standing at the back. I personally prefer to stand, but if I did want to sit I'd have been disappointed, because most of the seats are reserved for annual members or the press. Which leaves everybody else to crowd onto the four narrow steps at the top. Not only are they narrow, they aren't steep enough either. This is less of a problem for me as I'm fairly tall, but shorter people are going to struggle to see over the person in front of them (unless that person is a dwarf).
Another huge problem is access. There are two ways to gain access to the second tier. The most obvious way is to go up the escalators at the back of the grandstand, but the problem with that is that to get to the viewing steps you have to go through the bars, which are inevitably packed out.
The other way is up the staircase at the side, which is a lot easier, but is so well concealed you'd never know it was there unless you happen to find it by accident like I did. Maybe they'd prefer that we didn't find it, because I got the distinct impression that us ordinary punters weren't all that welcome up there.
Yet another problem is complete lack of atmosphere. As most of the people up there are sitting down, and in most cases don't look like the sort of people that get excited very often (boring old gits in other words), they're obviously not going to generate much of an atmosphere. To be honest, I've been to funerals with a better atmosphere than there was up there on 2000 Guineas day. Compare that to something like the Cheltenham festival where the roof nearly comes off the grandstand during the finish of every race.
The management of Newmarket racecourse would be well advised to take a trip to Warwick and have a look at their new grandstand. Plenty of room, easy to get in and out of, offering an excellent view of the course, and a lot better than the one that it was put up to replace. Everything that Newmarket's grandstand isn't really.
In conclusion, Newmarket's grandstand is representative of flat racing in general, expensive, flashy, but ultimately soulless and aimed at the upper classes. Well they can have it, because that was my last ever visit to Newmarket, and I can't say I'll miss it.