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Racing needs to get crowds back - Newbury Racecourse

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Lack of atmosphere and incomes has hit racecourse hard

Racing behind closed doors at Newbury. Picture by Alan Crowhurst
Racing behind closed doors at Newbury. Picture by Alan Crowhurst

Newbury Racecourse is counting down the days until spectators can return to the track.

Racing fans have been starved of live sport at the venue since February 28.

And although there have been several behind-closed-doors meetings, marcomms and sponsorship director Harriet Collins said: “There has been a real sadness at those meetings because racing is not the same without crowds.

“Racing needs crowds to enjoy a winner – or a loser – high-five each other and have fun.

“We have a beautiful space here and the redevelopment is complete and it is so sad that people cannot be here to enjoy it. People want things to look forward to.

“We have just announced that Olly Murs will play next August and there has been a warm appetite for that and tickets for our drive-in pantomime this winter sold out in three hours. ”

It had been hoped that spectators would be allowed back to meetings in November, in time for the big meeting of the winter – the Ladbrokes Carnival on November 27/28.

But following Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement last month, the prospect of an imminent return looks more and more unlikely. That will only add to the financial pressure the racecourse is under.

Tough decisions have had to be made at the racecourse over the summer, with some employees being placed on the furlough scheme and 19 made redundant.

Total turnover in the six months to June 30 was down 68 per cent compared with the same period in 2019, £7.57m to £2.45m.

Loss before interest, tax and exceptional items was £1.64m, compared with a £300,000 loss the year before.

Losses after tax were £1.68m compared with a £221,000 loss in 2019.

The sudden lockdown in March left the racecourse unable to generate income, not just the racing – which generates 50 per cent of their annual turnover – but also The Lodge hotel, the hospitality business and the Rocking Horse nursery.

While the nursery is now back to virtually full capacity, the restaurants and bars remain closed.

And Mrs Collins said: “We are slightly frustrated because restaurants can reopen, yet we have two restaurants here on race days and they cannot open.

“We welcomed 3,000 people to the racecourse over the summer for our pop-up pub and believe we can operate a pub business safely, but we are not allowed to.

“We are starting to question why some businesses reopen and we cannot because we need to be moving forward.

“We are continuing to look at our options and we are confident we can ride through this crisis, but there are challenging times ahead.

“We were gearing up towards returning with reduced crowds in October and we restructured ourselves to slowly bring people back for the start of the jump season.

“But the announcement that the ban on spectators could last for another six months came as a bit of a shock to us.”

She added: “The pandemic came from nowhere, but to be honest we didn’t think back then that we would still be without racing now.

“There are still maintenance costs, the track to be looked after and all the utilities. So now we will have to be brave, innovate and look to diversify. We want to make people feel safe and confident about coming back to racing here.”

Despite all the uncertainties as the racing and hospitality industries ground to a halt, the racecourse did play its part in helping out the community during lockdown.

There was a care unit to provide testing facilities at the venue and they entered a partnership with Age Concern to help with Meals on Wheels.

The next meeting at Newbury is another behind-closed-doors event on Thursday, November 5, with the popular and lucrative Ladbokes Carnival at the end of the month.

The likelihood of fans for that is remote, but the racecourse and racegoers alike are hoping that spectators will be allowed to return early in the new year.

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