Racing - Doncaster

PUBLISHED: 00:00 19 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:56 20 February 2013



THE white-knuckle ride they talked about at Doncaster had nothing to do with horses. It was a race against the clock involving people which they won with only hours to spare.

THE white-knuckle ride they talked about at Doncaster had nothing to do with horses. It was a race against the clock involving people which they won with only hours to spare. You can't expect to spend 32m on redeveloping a racecourse over more than 18 months without experiencing some dramas.

What couldn't be foreseen were disastrous summer floods. Their impact on the project was minimal compared to the traumas inflicted nearby but significant enough to contribute to the last minute rush to have the revitalised course ready for its first major event, the four-day Ladbrokes St. Leger Festival. Work was still ongoing on the morning of the Princess Royal's visit to officially open the five-storey grandstand, centrepiece of a scheme which has transformed the racing experience on Town Moor, as well as providing a Racing has returned to a new-look Doncaster.

John Woodcock joins the crowds and Princess Anne at the St. Leger Festival in the last of his series on racecourses around the county Photographs: Andy Bulmer Royal confidence conference and exhibition venue which Doncaster believes will be hard to beat. The princess's delight at the new surroundings was accompanied by a goodwill message from her mother, and the feelings of both were appropriately expressed when Royal Confidence triumphed in the second race of the meeting.

The Queen has a particular fondness for the racecourse. It was reinforced this time by Medley, winner of the Sceptre Stakes. In 1977, the year of her Golden Jubilee, another of her fillies, Dunfermline, won the St. Leger, the sport's oldest Classic. Rebuilding meant the race was transferred to York last year but now it's back in the town where it was first staged in 1776 and more than 30,000 greeted its return. The queue to get in was still stretching along Leger Way during the build-up to the main event, won by the 7-2 chance Lucarno and ridden by Jimmy Fortune.

It seems that everyone from Doncaster has some reason to remember the St. Leger. Chris Bell used to live close to the course and the family tells him that his first encounter with the occasion was when his grandmother took him there in his carry-cot 50 years ago. He arrives in rather grander style today and there was good reason why he was presenting prizes to the winning connections, including a new silver trophy created at Sheffield Hallam University. Bell is chief executive of bookmaker Ladbrokes, sponsor of the St. Leger Festival which this year attracted record prize money of more than 1.8m.

As a Donny lad it gives him added pleasure to be associated with a great race which has suffered setbacks in recent times but this year had the town turning out with champion jockey Willie Carson, sees things from another angle. He's also impressed with the new amenities but emphasised what matters above all to horses and riders. 'The track looks fantastic and that's the most important thing.'

Some jockeys claimed it was the best surface they'd ridden on - 'I wish my lawn was as good as this,' commented Frankie Dettori - and much of the credit is due to David Williams, the course's estates manager. Over 1m was spent on improvements which involved removing the top of the entire Flat track, which is almost two miles round. They had to dig up about 26 acres of turf. Put the enthusiasm of the old days. A re-born setting was just what the St. Leger needed.

'It had lurched from one drama to another with various sponsors and given that it's the oldest Classic with a proud history, it deserved some stability,' said Bell. As some regulars pointed out, the new Doncaster takes some getting used to. There are numerous redesigns to contend with and names to match, such as the Premier and County Enclosures. The former weighing room has become a restaurant and Champagne and seafood bar, while the preserved Clock Tower Stand - a charming antidote to corporate hospitality and slick marketing - at least reaches from the 19th century into the 21st with its updated catering.

Apart from the towering grandstand, the focal point of the new lay-out is the combined parade ring and winners' enclosure set right in front of the main viewing areas. It brings owners, trainers and jockeys closer to racing's other vital ingredient, the punters. John McCririck, for one, is delighted to see the inclusiveness and believes it's a formula other major courses should copy. Channel 4 Racing's flamboyant pundit said: 'Well done to Doncaster for the design and presenting the entire spectacle before the biggest possible audience.

Racing is a show and as in a theatre the performers should be centre-stage, not just during a race but before and afterwards too. Better this way than having part of the racing experience tucked away behind or at the side of the stands.' One of his broadcasting rivals at the BBC, former Above: John McCricrick Left: Checking the racecard Right: Francis Norton after winning the Samsung 300,000 St Leger 2-Y-O Stakes another way that's 500 tons of grass.

The overall redevelopment is far from over. A 123- bedrom four star hotel, topped by 34 apartments is being built on the site. At the opposite end, close to a new stable complex and hostel for staff that travel with the horses, another break with tradition is taking shape. Goffs Doncaster Bloodstock Sales is moving from a separate site to ultra-modern premises within the course complex and where its first auction of thoroughbreds will be held in January.

Add the fact that just down the road, in the grounds of Rossington Hall, is the Northern Racing College, an acclaimed training centre for various branches of the industry and Doncaster's status within the sport has rarely been greater. The upgrading of Town Moor has emerged through a partnership between Arena Leisure, operator of seven UK racecourses, and Doncaster Council, whose forerunners weren't always so enthusiastic about horseracing.

The corporation once attempted to ban the sport fearing it would attract ruffians to the town. However, the benefits began to be appreciated and in 1764 the local rulers raised 50 for a race called the Corporation Plate. By the early 1800s Doncaster's September meeting was a highlight in the social calendars of the nobility and gentry and the council made every effort to entertain its distinguished visitors. The town even kept its own pack of hounds so that a morning's hunting could precede the afternoon's racing.

The aim now is to ensure that today's version builds on what Dettori described as the 'electric' atmosphere of a revived Doncaster. You can't please everyone of course. We met a racegoer called Mick Punter who has come to loathe headlines which proclaim 'Punter beats the bookies'. Not him, he insists: 'I should be suing the headline-writers. I'm one Punter who definitely doesn't win.' For details of fixtures and bookings (Doncaster also stages National Hunt meetings) call 01302 304200 or

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