From the archives: David Ashforth's experience when he visited Worcester in 2005
First published in October 2005
The best bit is the walk along the River Severn. Beyond the pre-parade ring, a path runs delightfully between an avenue of trees. The river is on the left and the racetrack on the right, unless the river is unusually high, in which case it’s on the left and on the right, for one of the most famous views in British jump racing is the view of a canoe paddling down the straight at Worcester.
The Worcester Canoe Club and Worcester Rowing Club are both based conveniently near the grandstand, ready to launch their boats on either side, depending on the state of the flood plain.
Along the path, it’s peaceful and autumnal. From the river bank, a coach shouts at a boat crew, “Good control on the slide work.” On the racetrack, the runners swing round the far bend and approach the fourth last fence. In the quiet, there’s the dull thud of horses galloping, breathing hard, legs rapping through the brushed tops of the fence and then quickly disappearing down the straight.
After that, although the course is flat, for racegoers it’s mainly downhill. You can certainly have a good time at Worcester but you have a good time despite the facilities, not because of them.
Close to the city centre, the course attracts decent sized crowds for its weekend and summer evening meetings but the facilities are old and tatty and simply not good enough. The obsolete grandstand and hotch-potch of equally obsolete wooden buildings need to be knocked down and replaced by something much better but, sadly, it isn’t going to happen.
Why not? Because Arena Leisure’s £11 million development plans were washed away in the great flood of November 2000.
Arena leases the racecourse from the local authority. Soon after it took over, at the beginning of 2000, Arena announced plans for a new grandstand and hotel. They were ruled unsuitable for a flood plain and Arena now has something much less ambitious in mind.
This winter, it intends to spend £300,000 improving the accommodation for horses on the far side of the course, and £500,000 improving the facilities for humans in the grandstand and ancillary buildings. There will be refashioning and redecoration, upgrading and refurbishment, when what is needed is root and branch redevelopment. If Worcester’s unique problems make that impossible, future progress will be limited.
stand where an extension to the grandstand might stand and cannot be removed. I don’t know what the life expectancy of a bean tree is but they looked pretty healthy to me.
With only one entrance to the racecourse – from the city’s busy centre – visits are apt to get off to a frustrating start, although a new traffic management plan is being discussed, along with the possibility of riverboat services. The Pride of the Midlands is moored, with a reassuring number of life jackets, behind the grandstand.
The truth is that every single building needs to be replaced – not tarted up, not redesignated but knocked down. In the centre of the course is a green and white antiquity containing a bar and betting shop. Charmless and basic, it is beyond help.
The long wooden hut housing totesport’s large but largely empty credit office has three reasonable hospitality boxes at one end, due to be resited at the top of the grandstand. The vacated space will be used for an improved owners and trainers bar, currently housed in a strange, scruffy wooden structure.
The weighing room has a mild, faded charm, outweighed by its inadequacy, but still compares favourably with the box room designated for “Winning Connections Hospitality,” which sensibly warns visitors, “There is nothing of value in this room.” Unless it contained gold bars, there wouldn’t be space.
VIEW FROM THE SADDLE
A lovely course to ride. Like Newbury it’s got two lovely long straights and two lovely bends. The fences and hurdles are nice, too.
The ground is the problem. They have a job keeping it consistent through the season and it can be patchy, but the worst thing is battling through the city centre traffic.
The parade ring is unexceptional, the winner’s circle basic, the pre-parade ring surfaced with gravel. At least there is the excitement of spotting those obscure trainers who give a special flavour to jump racing – the Mrs Ikins and Mr Stimpsons of this world.
Perhaps Worcester could strike out boldly and lead the way in replacing the small red and white circles on the end of a stick that traditionally indicate the winning post with something bigger.
How about a large illuminated globe? There are probably some of those nice belisha beacons sitting in the Highways Department store.
At the moment, the most exciting spot is on the second floor of the grandstand (nothing else has a second floor, or even a first one). For £4.50, a machine will supply you with a “top designer perfume.” It makes a change from cigarettes and condoms.
marquee. It doesn’t today. Instead, there are tables with chairs leant against them, equivalent to a not very uplifting “closed” sign.
Nearby, the JP Seafood van is open, offering its “famous prawn curry” for £4.50, cockles for £2.50, and rather nice looking smoked salmon sandwiches for £3.50. The van proclaims “Great Racing … Great Racecourses. Bangor-on-Dee. Stratford-upon-Avon.” No Worcester.
A few yards away, JM Racing Binoculars is probably thriving, because there is no big screen, or even a runners and riders board.
Bookmakers aren’t doing quite as well. Alan Bennett (no, not that one), says, “It’s not one of our best pitches. We normally take about £500 or £600 a race but it’s a small crowd today and we only took £200 on the last race. There are a few £20 bets but still some £1 each-way ones.”
It’s a thin crowd and, as one older man leaves, he complains to a gateman, “This is the only racecourse I’ve been to in the world where there is nowhere you can sit down and have a cup of tea.” “You can in members,” the gateman replies.
STABLE STAFF VIEW
The racecourse stables, situated on the far side of the track, are to be amalgamated and improved, to provide stabling for over 100 horses. It is quite a walk across to the saddling boxes and parade ring.
There is no hostel. Staff staying overnight are put up in bed and breakfast accommodation in the city, in twin bedded rooms. None of the staff I met had stayed overnight.
The canteen is adjacent to the stables and seats about 40 at green plastic tables and chairs, with a small terrace outside. It is basic but clean, with a traditional, rather unimaginative menu. Tea and coffee are free for stable staff, and served in mugs rather than polystyrene beakers – staff prefer mugs.
Full breakfast of bacon, sausage, eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms and toast costs £3.25, with ham, egg and chips for the same price, jacket potatoes starting at £2, beans on toast £1, and salads for about £2.40.
Richard Edwards and Marie Fish, both from Alan Bailey’s yard, were happy with the canteen.
Edwards said: “It has improved. The full breakfast is good and the tea is free. It is grand.”
Laurie Mayes, from John Akehurst’s yard, was less content. He said: “It is not one of the bad canteens – there are a lot worse – but I am a vegetarian and not many staff canteens have much for vegetarians, and some don’t have anything. Salisbury is probably the best for us. Here, I had beans and mushrooms on toast. It was all right.”
SETTLING THE SCORE
Date Thursday, October 6, 2005
Admission Club £16, Tattersalls £11, Centre Course £6. Picnic car park £5 per car
Scoring guide: 1 = pretty dreadful 2 = needs improving 3 = acceptable 4 = good 5 = well done
Getting there 2/5
Access to the city is good (the M5 is nearby) but access from the city centre to the racecourse car park is bad. Walking or cycling are recommended. The quickest trains from London take about two and a quarter hours. The station is 10 minutes walk away.
Plenty of trees, plenty of grass, and plenty of water (the River Severn). The higher up the grandstand you climb, the more of Worcester cathedral you can see. It’s a nice looking track.
You drive through a public car park and across the track to reach the racecourse car park, which is free, and a very short walk to the enclosures. (But see “Getting There.”)
£2 and good.
A uniformly low standard. While none are appalling, none are good, either. There are no toilets for men on the first or second floors of the grandstand. Improvements are on the way.
Food and drink 2/5
Little beyond burgers in the centre of the course and, amazingly, nowhere inside for Tattersalls’ customers to sit down with a cup of tea. (I’m not sure there was any tea.) The menu for the £26 three-course meal in the members’ Severn Suite restaurant looked good on paper, and the rice with beef stew (£5.70) I had in the members’ Croft Suite was acceptable, unlike the furnishings and décor. There are plans to improve them.
The good news is that bookmakers were betting to an average overround of just 1.2 per cent per runner. Elsewhere, the betting experience suffers from the run-down nature of the facilities. You can bet inside, but you can’t bet in comfort.
It’s not a bad viewing course if you’ve got binoculars but a big screen is essential, especially at a jumps course, and there wasn’t one. There needs to be.
A small crowd but a very pleasant, relaxed atmosphere.
When the most valuable prize is £5,161, the least valuable £1,946, and three races have fewer than eight runners, there is room for improvement.
Worcester racecourse is not a 21st century venue and, although improvements are planned, it doesn’t seem likely to become one. It’s quite a pretty spot, by the river, a nice-looking track with crowds on the doorstep, but run-down, outdated, and doubtless a headache to manage.
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