OFFICIALS at Catterick have vowed to press ahead with £10m plans to convert the North Yorkshire racecourse into a floodlit all-weather track – despite a rival plan being given the green light.
The move comes after the British Horseracing Authority gave Arena Racing Company – the owners of Newcastle – permission to stage Flat racing on an artificial Tapeta surface from next season onwards.
However, the plan continues to court controversy – three of Britain’s five all-weather tracks are already controlled by Arc and there is considerable concern at the diminution of turf racing at one of the North’s premier racecourses.
Although the Newcastle plan includes a one-mile straight that will be totally floodlit for the purposes of evening racing, the rest of the track will not be covered by such lighting.
The consequence is that the Newcastle executive will not be able to conform to the BHA’s rule which states that each Flat meeting must contain two races of at least a mile, or longer, without being given special dispensation.
As such, Catterick chairman John Sanderson is still hopeful that sufficient trainers and owners will back his plan which not only conforms to the rules of racing, but utilises the racecourse’s convenient location close to the A1.
“The BHA’s decision is no particular surprise to us,” said Sanderson. “Catterick has already obtained planning consent for a floodlit all-weather track that will fully comply with the rules of racing. The Catterick board view this as an investment in the future. The Catterick board is due to meet in the next fortnight.”
Although the track is unlikely to become an all-weather Flat venue overnight – there remains little consistency to the BHA’s fixture allocation process on an annual basis – the benefits to Catterick could be considerable and the racecourse are thought to be keen to activate planning permission within the next three years.
One option could be to introduce an all-weather surface at the inter-section of the existing Flat and National Hunt tracks, thereby making it possible for additional jumps fixtures to be held in the future.
Such a scenario certainly has the backing of Darlington-based trainer Michael Dods who believes that all-weather racing should be introduced at Catterick ahead of Newcastle.
“Like everybody, I totally agree that we need an all-weather track in the North,” he said. “The problem I have is that Newcastle is one of the finest turf tracks in the country. I’m hoping Catterick will get the go-ahead as that would make more sense. One of the issues with Newcastle is that there are too many 0-60 handicaps; they know if they put them on they don’t have to put much prize-money up.”
Newmarket-based Ed Dunlop echoed Dods’s views. Writing on his blog, he said: “There is no doubt that Northern trainers will be major beneficiaries of such a move, and the North badly needed an all-weather track, but it is a real shame to lose one of the best turf courses in the country, and it’s hard to imagine that the Northumberland Plate will be the same sort of spectacle in the future.”
Fellow Newmarket trainer Ed Vaughan went further, tweeting: “Newcastle destroying one of the best turf courses in the country can only be described as an act of vandalism.”
Meanwhile, Malton trainer Richard Fahey, who won Newcastle’s Northumberland Plate last year with Angel Gabriel, is thankful the North will finally have an all-weather track of its own – the nearest such track at present is Southwell. “I think we need one, and whether that is at Newcastle or not we had to get one sooner rather than later,” he said.
However, there is consternation that the Northumberland Plate, one of the most historic Flat handicaps and universally known as the Pitmen’s Derby, will be run on an all-weather surface from next year.
Yet Arc’s outgoing managing director Tony Kelly defended the move and said in a statement: “I understand and sympathise that there are some in the sport who will be sad to see a turf track converted to all weather, but the many benefits of Arc’s £11m investment will ensure Newcastle Racecourse can make an even more valuable contribution to British Racing in the years to come.”
With work due to begin this autumn, Newcastle’s Grade One Fighting Fifth Hurdle on November 28 is likely to be switched to Doncaster – Arc’s flagship course.