This is the third in a series of four articles on the history of British racecourses and their struggle for economic prosperity. It focuses on Newmarket – the headquarters of British racing – and the growth of commercial joint ventures in promoting the sport’s financial well-being.
Newmarket is not just a racecourse – indeed it could be described as three separate courses – the town is the headquarters of racing in the UK. As a racing centre it is the focus for the breeding of horses, the education of potential jockeys, the training and racing of horses, the selling of horses at auction, and is the site of the sport’s major museum for recording and viewing its history.
The town is one of the original centres of the Jockey Club which was founded in circa 1750 amongst the inns of central London. It created its own HQ meeting place in 1752 when certain ‘racing gentlemen seceded from the promiscuous society of the Red Lion, Newmarket’s main inn, to find privacy in their own coffee-room’. The site remains, with various developments, as the Jockey Club Rooms just off the High Street. Primarily the venue for a private members’ club the Rooms are now promoted as a conference centre and accommodation for guests and corporate clients who wish to experience the racing environment.
Currently one in three people in Newmarket is employed in the world of racing either at the 70 training yards, 80 stud farms or in the management of the 70 miles of peat based training gallops where the town’s roughly 2,000 horses are trained. So racing isn’t just a part of the economy of the town, it is central to it. In the future Brexit offers a threat to that economy as many of the lads and lasses who look after the horses come from overseas, and eastern European countries in particular.
The town uniquely features three racecourses – although one, the Round Course founded in about 1665, is only used once a year for the Newmarket Plate run over 3m 6f, the only race to link the other two racecourses – the Rowley Mile and the July Course.
- The Rowley Mile Course, so called due to the nickname of Charles II, who used to ride his horse called Old Rowley on the land, is used in the early and latter parts of the Flat Season. It has a 1 mile 2 furlongs straight featuring minor undulations to ‘The Bushes’, two furlongs out. The penultimate furlong is downhill and the last is uphill, forming ‘The Dip’. Races beyond the distance of 1m 2f start on the ‘Cesarewitch’ or ‘Beacon’ Course which turns right-handed into the straight. The course is peculiar as a race can start in Suffolk and end in Cambridgeshire.
- The July Course, where racing in late June, July and August has been confined since the 1850s, is sometimes called the Summer Course. It covers a distance of just over two miles and features a right hand bend out of the Beacon Course before entering the 1 mile straight, known as ‘The Bunbury Mile’. After 2 furlongs there is a long downhill stretch before the final uphill furlong to the finishing line.
The Jockey Club which had been the regulators of the sport from the late 1700s shed its regulatory role in 2007 to become through its commercial arm, Jockey Club Racecourses (JCR), the largest owner/operator of racecourses in the UK. It owns 14 leading racecourses (counting Newmarket as one) with over 300 fixtures per annum – some 25% of the total fixture list – and invests over £20 million per annum in prize money. Newmarket in its entirety is its largest site and with its two main courses and other profit centres could be expected to contribute significantly to the overall turnover of the group. It does – but it still struggles to match some of the JCR’s more profitable venues. Just because it is racing’s HQ does not insulate Newmarket from the financial pressures of maintaining courses which only open their doors a few times a year. In 2017 there are 18 fixtures on the Rowley Mile and 21 on the July Course. This contrasts with the 83 days Lingfield Park (with the operational benefits of its all-weather track (see article 2)) is open this year. The limitation on the scale of return on assets is obvious.
The fact that Newmarket remains financially successful as a racecourse is largely attributable to the partnerships which JCR have negotiated centrally. By using the size of their estate JCR have used the benefits of scale in driving down costs and establishing favourable corporate purchasing relationships. Gate and entrance money deliver turnover but the real profit drivers for the racecourses are three major centrally negotiated corporate partnerships: