BIRTH AND RE-BIRTH
WHEN IT COMES TO THE REGION’S RACECOURSES, IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT CLOSURES.
By Dr. Paull Khan
We are all familiar with the sad photographs of racecourses of the past: long-closed, on sites where little evidence remains of the horseracing that once took place there. We have come to accept the gradual closure of tracks, for development, maybe, as a sombre fact of life. But, just occasionally, we find evidence of the reverse, and in this issue we look at some examples of racetrack renewal and rebirth in our region.
Waregem, a pristine town of less than 40,000 people, between Ghent and Lille, has for over 150 years been well known for its Grote Steeple-chase van Vlaanderen (Great Steeplechase of Flanders). But since last May, the turf track, previously used but once a year, has started to stage flat races. Marcel de Bruyne, Director of the Belgian Gallop Federation, explains:
“Flat racing at Waregem followed the creation of a new racing society, Waregem Draaft—which had previously been organising solely trotting races—and contact between its president, Lieven Lannoo and the Belgian Gallop federation”.
The success of mixed meetings at Ostend (albeit, there a combination of gallop and trotting) had been noticed, with a positive impact on both betting and attendance. It was also recognised that a number of thoroughbred owners lived in the Waregem region. And here was a turf track of some 1,330 metres circumference, idle for 364 days a year.
In 2019, there will be five meetings staging between them 15 flat thoroughbred races, all open to foreign-trained runners. Typical prize money will be €3,200-€4,750, and distances range from 900 to 2,700 metres. The flat programme culminates in a €16,000 race over the maximum distance, on the same day as the Grand Steeplechase. (To be eligible for this, though, horses must qualify through their performance in qualifying races at Waregem, Mons and Ostend).
Is it proving successful? De Bruyne again: “Yes. Turf races are a welcome variation in May and July (at Mons, there is just the all-weather track). Field sizes have been healthy, at an average of nine. The management of flat racing at Waregem asked to organise more flat races this year, raised the prize money and initiated the big race. That says it all, doesn’t it?!”
Marrakech Racecourse is the ‘new kid on the block’ in Moroccan racing, being less than two years in operation. It is the furthest inland of Morocco’s seven racetracks and the furthest from its neighbours.
Omar Skalli, Director General of Morocco’s racing authority, SOREC (Société Royale d’Encouragement du Cheval), gives the background regarding the decision to build Marrakech Racecourse:
“Before the construction of Marrakech racecourse, horse races were already organized in this area but not according to international standards. We noticed that there was an important concentration of owners in the region, with the necessity to build a modern racecourse to develop the level of races there.
“Moreover, Marrakech is the city of entertainment in Morocco and a main touristic destination. The choice of this city to host a new racecourse came quite naturally.
“From a technical point of view, this new racecourse can already be considered as a success. It fulfils the high level of requirements of jockeys, trainers and owners. International races are already organized there. It currently hosts a race day per week from February to June and from September to December.
“Even though the racetrack is not located in the heart of Marrakech, it is situated in a populated area. People from the neighbourhood come to watch the races with friends or family. It became for them a good place for entertainment on Sundays. We are working to provide more facilities, services and entertainment for the general public”.
Marrakech, as with all Moroccan tracks, is dirt, but the possibility of building a turf track in the future, if demand warrants, is under consideration. For the moment, only Arabian and Arabian-Barb races are staged at Marrakech, but there are plans to introduce thoroughbred races here in the future. Morocco’s policy, in respect of allowing foreign-trained competition, could be said to be ‘semi-open’—four races on the typical Marrakech card are open in this sense, and it is planned to increase this number. Prize money reaches some €36K for the richest race.
Morocco’s racing industry continues to thrive, and SOREC remains in expansionist mode.
“Rabat racecourse is currently in reconstruction and should be reopened in two or three years”, adds Skalli. “And within the five to ten next years, we are considering building another racecourse”.
Kocaeli Kartepe, the most recent of Turkey’s nine racecourses, was opened some five years ago, and already work is well underway on the nation’s tenth. It had, in fact, been hoped that Antalya racecourse would have been operational this year, but bad weather has delayed its launch.
The driver for new courses in Turkey is simple: the number of racehorses is increasing and there is a concomitant need for venues at which they may both compete and be trained. Sadettin Atig, Secretary-General of the Turkish Jockey Club’s Executive Board, explains: “There is no system of ‘training centres’ in Turkey—as there is in much of Europe—and so racecourses are needed to provide both stabling and the opportunity for on-track training”.
Kocaeli Kartepe Racecourse is now regarded as Istanbul’s second racetrack, after Veliefendi, since it is but one hour away. Atig again: “Kocaeli Racecourse has a very strategic location. It is both very close to Istanbul and also to İzmit—the breeding centre of Turkey—providing easy access to the breeders and farms around that area”.
Kocaeli provides year-round racing on its 1,600 metre, left-hand silica sand track. There is capacity for nearly 500 horses in the stable area, and the track is paying its way as far as betting contribution goes, accounting for 10% of the country’s overall handle.
All of which bodes well for Antalya Racecourse, which will be larger yet than Kocaeli in terms of capacity, track dimensions and facilities. Antalya is the last major region in the country yet to boast a racecourse. Turkey being the size it is, the course’s catchment area will be substantial. It will be the only racing venue between Izmir (500 km to the northwest) and Adana (600 km east) and will be the nearest for most of the hordes of tourists who descend on Turkey’s seaside resorts. It is situated half an hour north of Antalya—the most populous city on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.
There will be two tracks: one synthetic and one silica sand (mixed with fibre and stabiliser). Seven meetings of seven races, split roughly equally between thoroughbreds and purebred Arabians, had been planned for this year. Stabling will comprise 240 boxes initially but with an ultimate capacity of nearly 1,200.
Sadly, however, in keeping with Turkey’s overall racing programme, there will initially be no races at either Kocaeli or Antalya open to foreign-trained competition, although the staging of international races will be considered for the future.
Ironically, the ‘new’ racecourse potentially of most interest to European thoroughbred trainers is in fact a replacement. Jagersro Racecourse, outside Malmo in Sweden’s southernmost Skane region, will soon stage gallop racing no more. Like so many, it has become a victim of its charmed location. When it was built, in 1908, it was in the countryside. However, with Malmo’s growing population, so grew its attractiveness to developers. Trotting, which has no need of on-track stabling, has found a suitable venue to continue at Jagersro, just 1,000 metres from the old track. But thoroughbred racing is venturing into pastures new. To Bara, to be precise, some 10 kilometres further out of Malmo.
One substantial plus would be the introduction of racing on turf. From its inception until 1979, Jagersro had been a woodchip track and, for the past three decades, an American-style dirt track. At Bara, it is planned to have both a turf outer track and a dirt inner track.
“The new Bara location, 15 minutes from Malmö, was chosen from a number of alternatives”, says Bo Gillborg, project manager for the Bara track, who, for many years was associated with Jagersro. “It is very close to Malmö, neighbouring the PGA National Golf Club and, in the future, a 170-room spa and conference hotel. The local authority—the town of Svedala—has been very positive. It was not only attractive for a racecourse, but the land is big enough to accommodate 300 horses in first-class training facilities.
“The actual planning is now in a very intense part of the process. To plan and design the racecourse, Swedish Racing has engaged world-renowned English company Turnberry to take a very active part. During spring 2019 most plans will be finalised. All functions will be designed to cater for high-class racing, including the facilities for horsemen and jockeys and a special focus on giving owners an exceptional experience. The highlight of the racing season will of course be the Swedish Derby. To have it back on the turf for the first time since 1979 will of course make some “turfists” extremely happy”.
The project is not yet assured. It must first overcome issues surrounding the past use of the site for landfill and must secure the support of Stockholm.
“Hopefully the authorities will give their go-ahead during the summer”, continues Gillborg. “Nowadays the whole planning process, with environmental issues etc., is quite thorough and detailed. So far it seems very positive. During the autumn Swedish Racing must also take its final decision to go ahead”.
Gallop racing sees this as an opportunity better to develop its own brand in a nation where trotting is far the more popular discipline. The European thoroughbred community will watch this development with interest.
So there we have it: two new racecourses (one awaiting a decision to involve thoroughbreds, the other still under construction)—one new flat-race track within an existing racecourse and one replacement build for a track fallen victim to the developers. And none of these to be found in European racing’s traditional heartlands where the significant capital expenditure has been directed, not on new tracks but rather at new grandstands where racing already exists.
Venue construction is a clear and obvious signal of market confidence in the sport in question. Let us hope these four ventures justify that confidence and that our region can look forward to many more.