Great Leighs opened its doors to the paying public for the first time and received a mixed reaction from the 3,500 people who turned up to test facilities at Britain’s newest racecourse.
Since the official opening on April 20, attendance has been limited to those connected with runners and press but May 28 saw the first enthusiastic racegoers head through the gates.
The majority paid £20 in advance for tickets, with 55 people turning up and paying on the door, while 500 corporate guests splashed out £100 on a lavish entertainment package which lasted into the night and featured a guest appearance from singer Alexander O’Neal.
Over 100 staff worked through the night to ensure the opening would go ahead after the British Horseracing Authority called a last-minute inspection due to “exceptional weather and the installation of additional infrastructure”.
Thankfully the 9am check passed peacefully and the first punters – who had to pass an Animal Aid protest near the entrance – made their way through the gate into the temporary stand just after noon.
“If this had been one of our trial days then we probably wouldn’t have gone ahead as we had three inches of rain in three days,” said the track’s owner John Holmes.
“We haven’t been greedy and just opened the floodgates. We have limited the numbers and for 500 people we have charged £100 per head for a major event, with Alexander O’Neal appearing for them as a surprise.
“We have been working with a major event company to organise today but the weather has made that almost impossible.
“You can only do so much for an event and we have done all we can.”
While many of the crowd came prepared for a temporary grandstand and muddy outfield, others were clearly expecting a carnival day out and came equipped for Royal Ascot.
Criticism was levelled at the lack of facilities, bar prices, lack of children’s entertainment and a noisy, echoing public address system as well as the muddy conditions exacerbated by the recent heavy rainfall.
Holmes added: “I am delighted today has gone so well, and the enthusiastic thanks I have had back from owners and trainers show they are delighted with what we have done.
“It is very clear that we have a great track, and you can only be as good as your track. You can give people free champagne but that is no good if the track is poor.
“We were clear in saying that today was not for children and there was no children’s entertainment. Great Leighs will have a couple of family race days a year, but this is an adult entertainment venue.
“We have had a mix of views come back from the general public and with every single meeting we are learning and changing. We have three weeks to our next meeting and every time people come back they should notice a difference.
“We have our foot on the gas and are going forward. We wouldn’t be here now if I was licking my wounds and looking back.”