18 May 2016 – The Guardian
With the wound of its football team’s relegation from the Premier League still raw, Newcastle had a cause for sporting celebration yesterday afternoon as its new,£12m all-weather racecourse opened for business. Track executives, meanwhile, were delighted by the last-minute sale of 350 tickets in an infield marquee – to the players and staff of Sunderland AFC. “It’s great, they just phoned up to book a few days ago, to celebrate staying up,” one official said, before muttering: “Not sure it would be a good idea on one of the big days, though.” It gets very lively at Newcastle in the summer, for the historic Northumberland Plate in late June and then Ladies’ Day on the last Saturday in July, when at least 20,000 spectators will pack into the enclosures.
Yesterday’s card, though, was different. Not so busy, a great deal less boozy, and rather more educational, as around 3,000 racegoers turned up to get a glimpse of the future at Gosforth Park. Some, no doubt, did so uneasily. Newcastle’s Flat turf course was, by general consent, one of the fairest and finest stretches of racing ground in the country. It was also a track with happy memories for generations of local racegoers, and the decision to change its nature was one that some, perhaps many, would feel personally. “I was very sad to see it go,” Thomas Ramsbottom, a racegoer at Newcastle for 60 years, said here yesterday . “But there’s no getting around it, there was no one here, it was very quiet during the week. It had gone down because the southern trainers wouldn’t send horses up, it was the same horses time and again.”
The removal of Newcastle’s turf was so controversial that it spawned an online petition and several weeks of outraged letters to the Racing Post. Trainers lined up to vent their anger. “I have run many horses [at Newcastle] over the years,” Luca Cumani said, “but will not if it becomes yet another all-weather track.” On day one at least, Cumani was true to his word, but several leading Newmarket stables were among those to send a total of 100 horses to the meeting.
The first winner at the new Newcastle, though, was Tap The Honey, trained about 60 miles away in north Yorkshire by Karl Burke, while Mark Johnston, one of the fiercest critics of the decision to take up the turf, also had a winner with his first runner at the track as Turbine took the most valuable race on the card .Eighteen months and a winner have done little to diminish Johnston’s anger. “It’s exactly as I expected,” Johnston said. “I don’t think anyone doubted that with [former trainer] Michael Dickinson providing [the] Tapeta [surface] and a layout like this, it would be a fantastic all weather track. The question is whether that justifies demolishing what was almost an ancient monument. ”
There is no going back now, however, and as an eight-race card unfolded here yesterday, there was much to keep turnover rolling in the betting shops and online. Northumberland Plate day will be the big test of the new course’s appeal, but the field for the Pitmen’s Derby will remain at 20, while there will also be a consolation race for horses that do not make the cut. That, too, is likely to have a full field. The jockeys riding at Newcastle yesterday had nothing but praise for the new surface, which is expected to ride a little dead and slow in its early weeks but speed up over time as it beds in.