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Fixtures blow for potential new owners; GREAT LEIGHS CLOSURE - ONE YEAR ON.

Byline: Howard Wright

THE BHA has erected an enormous new barrier to the sale and eventual reopening of Great Leighs racecourse, which was refused a racing licence by the governing body after its floodlit fixture a year ago tonight, and went into administration the following day.

Anyone hoping to relieve the joint administrators at Deloitte of their headache face a new obstacle - fixtures, or rather the lack of them.

All attempts by the administrators, who have not been contactable all week, to find a buyer have failed, and in May the BHA turned down another licence application for Great Leighs - from a consortium aiming to enter the crucial bidding process for 2010 fixtures.

As with the BHA's first refusal, no reasons for the second were published. In both cases they were believed to centre around a series of issues, ranging from structural conditions, such as the building of a seven-furlong chute and a permanent grandstand, to matters of property rights, involving tenure of and access to land on which the racecourse stables were cited.

Land issues have continued to hamper progress, since leases to vital areas of the site did not belong to the company in administration, Essex County Showground Group, but to its founder, Great Leighs chairman John Holmes, and his family and associates.

Now, though, potential buyers of the short-lived racing venue face a fresh challenge.

BHA chief executive Nic Coward revealed yesterday that his organisation can no longer guarantee that 16 fixtures will be available to a buyer, as previously laid down in the new racecourse guidelines, and from which Holmes built up a programme of 77 meetings he hoped to run in 2009.

Coward, who said he had not spoken to the administrators "for months", explained: "As far as we're concerned, Great Leighs has gone back to square one, but things have changed in the industry over the last year.

"We're about to go into the 2011 fixture list and funding process, and although we could guarantee some fixtures for a new racecourse, which Great Leighs would seem to be, we can longer guarantee 16."

Coward added: "I've no regrets about the decisions we took. We set out to the parties what we were going to do. We owe a duty to everyone in the sport. We've been fair to the racecourse, and fair to the sport."

So, to the outside world, Great Leighs, the first new racecourse in Britain for over 70 years, is no nearer opening for business today than it was when the gates closed a year ago.

It stands abandoned, although the artificial surface could probably be ready in a few days, according to Holmes, and collapsed with debts of around pounds 30 million, the bulk owed to Royal Bank of Scotland, which is 70 per cent owned by the government (and taxpayers) since the economic crash.

Its 2010 fixture slots have been taken up, and despite the activity during the last year, and a forecast from joint administrator Carlton Siddle within seven days of closure that the course would be up and running again in "around six weeks' time", no buyer is ready to sign on the dotted line.

Several local businessmen, including equestrian-centre promoter Terry Chambers and owner-breeder Bill Gredley, have been in and out of a consortium linked to Holmes.

Jockey Club Racecourses showed initial interest, in either a joint venture or management deal, but is understood to be standing on the farthest sidelines.

Northern Racing, which is believed to have had a serious bid for the course turned down in the summer of 2007, still regards Great Leighs as "a very difficult acquisition", according to group managing director Tony Kelly.

He explained: "An all-weather track is missing from our portfolio, and if there was an opportunity at Great Leighs, we would have to look at it. But it's always been a difficult acquisition, and that hasn't changed."

Arena Leisure, which carried out the day-to-day management contract and benefited financially but is still owed money, remains interested, "if the course was available at the right price", according to racing director Ian Renton, although he admitted he had not heard from the administrators "for several months".

Reading between the lines and allowing for financial and administrative issues among the various candidates, logic suggests that one runner has the edge in the race to take on Great Leighs.

Unless an unlikely entrepreneur gallops over the horizon, Northern Racing is probably the only serious candidate anyway, despite the necessarily cautious tone adopted by its group managing director.

Kelly's reference to "a difficult acquisition" remains apt, since any buyer would need to settle the outstanding issues of debts, including those owed to the banks, Levy Board and personnel such as vets, doctors and ambulance services, and the property rights. However, in terms of producing a business plan, these are nothing compared with the task of assembling a fixture programme, which is in the BHA's court.

How the trainers feel about loss of track Mark Johnston I would like it back. It was, or rather is, a good track, but I suppose they were on a hiding to nothing, as I suspect it was 'built on sand'. Although we keep saying we need an all-weather course in the north, I don't begrudge Newmarket having one so close to them, and it's a terrible waste to let it rot.

William Haggas I loved the track. It was very convenient for us and we had a bit of luck there. I can't believe it's a year since it closed. It was just down the road - perfect. I'd love to see them racing there again.

Marcus Tregoning I'd love it to come back. It was quite a long way from us, but we did quite well there and I enjoyed it. I hope they can get it going again. James Fanshawe We never had a winner there, so it wasn't my favourite course, and from the outset I was always concerned about the finances.

Richard Fahey It was a good track, but I wish it had been further north. In my opinion, a greater priority is to have an all-weather course up here, preferably one close to Malton. It's a shame they can't pick it up and put it down in Yorkshire.

Ron Harris I don't miss it at all. I had runners there but thought that it was the most appallingly designed track you could imagine. You needed double the staff, it was costly for owners and it was run to suit those who trained in Newmarket.

Bill Ratcliffe Having trained in the north, I would say the biggest priority is to have an all-weather track up there. But considering how close Great Leighs was to Newmarket, I would very much like it to open again. It was a good track and would give us another option. Paul D'Arcy I certainly think we need Great Leighs to open again - it's sorely missed. It is a very good track, very accessible, and if they had been able to keep racing I'm sure they would have built up a good client base.

Paul Howling There's plenty of all-weather racing about, but at this time of the year Great Leighs would have been appreciated. It was a good track too. However, there's nothing we can do about it.

Tom Dascombe It would be great if we had more all-weather racing in the country, but unfortunately financial considerations prevented it.

How light turned to dark at the Essex track Feb 13, 1997 John Holmes buys Essex County Showground for under pounds 1m Mid-1998 BHB opens door to new racecourses - or all-weather tracks at existing sites - by introducing formal annual process, with floodlighting "an advantage" Jan 2002 Chelmsford Borough Council approves planning application for racetrack and permanent 120-box training facility at Great Leighs June 2003 BHB gives informal go-ahead to Great Leighs Feb 2004 Enabling work on projected pounds 40m facility starts at Essex County Showground March 2004 BHB gives confirmed approval for Great Leighs, as well as all-weather track at Sedgefield Apr 2005 BHB confirms Great Leighs will be automatically granted nine fixtures in 2006 and 16 in a full term. Holmes announces June 1, 2006, as first racing date at Great Leighs June 2005 Opening date put back to Oct 6, 2006, after fixture list gives Great Leighs no chance to stage another meeting between June 1 and July 25; five fixtures handed back to BHB July 2005 Great Leighs appears in racing calendar for first time, with 24 fixtures in 2006 July 2006 2007 fixture list appears with 58 slots for Great Leighs Aug 2006 Fixtures to mid-Nov 2006 handed back Dec 2006 BHB inspection puts back earliest opening date to April 2007 April 2007 Holmes promises that Aug 16, 2007, will be the opening date. "Only a catastrophe with the weather will stop us now," he says. Temporary main grandstand arranged by paying seven-figure sum for construction used at Ryder Cup golf in Ireland June 2007 BHA and HRA officials rule out Aug 16 start date July 2007 2008 fixture list appears with 77 slots for Great Leighs Oct 2007 Opening in 2007 abandoned; frequency of BHA visits increases, but announcement of definite opening date gets no firmer, as Feb 24, 2008 looks most promising, but slips away, then March 18 and 26, and April 4 go by March 2008 BHA sets Sunday, April 20, as most likely starting date April 13, 2008 First serious trial of Polytrack surfaces takes place; satisfactory response from trainers and jockeys April 18, 2008 BHA officials give formal go-ahead to first meeting, one hour before final declarations April 20, 2008 Great Leighs becomes first new racecourse to open in Britain since Taunton (Sept 21, 1927). Track acclaimed "among best all-weather surface in world" by trainers, including John Gosden June 2008 Granted 77 fixtures for 2009 Jan 8, 2009 Fixture run under temporary BHA licence after failure to be granted full year's from Jan 1 Jan 15, 2009 Sub-committee of BHA regulatory committee refuses to grant licence to race beyond midnight; evening fixture, 48th at course, goes ahead and proves to be last Jan 16, 2009 Essex County Showground Group, operator of Great Leighs, goes into administration March 18, 2009 Administrators put sale on ice May 1, 2009 Essex businessman and equestrian site operator Terry Chambers given 14 days' exclusivity on agreement in principle with administrators to purchase course for figure believed to be around pounds 10m May 15, 2009 Administrators reveal that Terry Chambers has pulled out of sale process; he is back in before application for racing licence is made to enable new company Great Leighs Holdings Ltd to take part in 2010 fixtures auction on June 8 May 29, 2009 BHA sub-committee turns down application for racing licence June 8, 2009 2010 fixtures bidding goes ahead without Great Leighs Sept 2009 Administrators announce acceptance in principle of fresh offer from Great Leighs Holdings, now publicly including owner-breeder Bill Gredley as member of consortium Oct 8, 2009 Revealed that Bill Gredley has pulled out of bidding consortium, citing problems "other than just buying a racecourse". No sale Jan 15, 2010 First anniversary of last fixture at Great Leighs; no public sign of sale
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Jan 15, 2010
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