This is the second in a series of articles on the history of British racecourses and their struggle for modern economic prosperity. It focuses on one of Arena Leisure’s premier dual surface courses.
Lingfield Park, a 450 acre estate set in a ‘lovely’ stretch of open land bordering on the Surrey/Sussex border, was opened as a racecourse in 1890. Originally created as a jumps only course, permission for flat racing was granted as early as 1894. Racing has been held there continuously ever since, with the only hiatus being during World War II when the course was requisitioned by the War Office as a secure camp initially for ‘registered aliens’ and then shortly afterwards for ‘PoWs’.
Originally it was owned by the Mansel Phillips family who ironically sold the park in 1886 to Mr J F Boulding due to gambling debts. He in turn passed it on to Mr R C Leigh, the designer of the racecourse – the tract of land being commercially attractive due to the opening of a rail link by Brighton & South Coast Railway with a new station at Lingfield. This not only served potential racegoers but also the transportation of horses – the only viable way of getting racehorses to a track bar walking them there in those days. A covered way was constructed between the station and the racecourse, which also offered elegant wooden stands opposite the winning post. A fixed site with permanent facilities was a relatively new phenomenon for racecourses in the 19th century. It has remained a feature of racing and racecourses’ finances ever since.
As with many racecourses ‘lovely’ Lingfield was not constructed without local objections. Unlike today’s concerns about ‘line of sight’ or ‘highway safety’, the objection focused on ‘the deleterious effect of the race meetings on the simplicity and moral well-being of the people of Lingfield’. It suggests that planning permission was no easier to gain then than now!
Racing at Lingfield, as with a number of racecourses, was under threat as an economic proposition by the 1970s and the course was sold – not without furore – to Ladbrokes, the bookmakers. Foxes and hencoops were the sort of comments aired! This was one of the first examples of racing’s stakeholders taking an active role in the management of the sport’s facilities as a protection of their business interests. It was not a successful model – the nature of the two businesses being a world apart – and the course was sold on in 1982 to Ron Muddle of Rowanglens. Muddle’s first change was to introduce, grant aided, a new drainage scheme to the course which suffered significantly from flooding and a resulting cancellation of fixtures. This was only partially successful and led to the development of a secondary all-weather track in the late 1980s. This was the first such venture in the UK and was followed by similar developments at Southwell Racecourse in 1989 and Wolverhampton Racecourse in 1993. Each track now features a different all-weather surface:
- Lingfield – polytrack (a mixture of silica sand, recycled synthetic fibres and recycled rubber/pvc) also subsequently adopted by Kempton Park and Chelmsford
- Southwell – fibresand (a mixture of sand and polypropylene fibres)
- Wolverhampton – tapeta (sand, fibre, rubber and wax) also subsequently adopted by Newcastle
By this time Rowanglens had sold out via Leisure Investments to Arena Leisure plc (now ARC), a company purchased in 1991 by the Reuben Brothers known for their background in property development. They merged the business with their existing Northern Racing to form the UK’s largest independent racecourse operator.
All-weather surfaces were a huge step forward in the development of a financially robust model for racecourses. Lingfield’s 2017 fixture list features 54 all-weather fixtures plus 20 flat fixtures and 9 jumps fixtures on the turf. This is a far cry from the 20 or so days a grass based course can open its gates but still leaves a facility potentially being unused for over two thirds of its life. It has also led, some would say, to a dumbing down of the nature and quality of racing and because each track has roughly the same flat, oval and tight layout to a less exciting and visual product. It is an issue which racing needs to guard against as with mainly synthetic surfaces the US experiences of significantly diminishing crowds emphasise.