Racing - Redcar

THERE have been many dramas in the 135 years since horse racing in Redcar moved from the beach onto grass but nothing to compare with the current battle over three miles and a few furlongs. With millions of pounds at stake, it threatens to become ...

There are ominous warnings from some that the dispute could put paid to what is arguably the town's greatest asset -as if Redcar hasn't suffered enough from an identity crisis. Thanks to local government upheavals over the decades it's been shuttled between the North Riding, Teesside, and Cleveland, though on the maps that matter most Redcar has never left the north-east corner of Yorkshire.

Traditionalists wouldn't have it any other way, yet ironically tradition is also at the heart of the current crisis. When racing on turf began at Redcar in 1872 one of the pioneers was the Earl of Zetland, still an inescapable name in the area, from pubs and streets to the world's oldest lifeboat. There is much goodwill towards the family and its contribution to the sport and broader issues, but that is now being tested by the Earl's great-grandson, the fourth Marquess of Zetland. Last November, at an extraordinary general meeting of shareholders of the independent company which owns and operates Redcar racecourse, he ousted three of the four board members, and became chairman. Another director on the original board, his son and heir, the Earl of Ronaldshay, had resigned ahead of the meeting to avoid the threat of being removed, with all the embarrassment that would mean for the family name.

Through seizing control with the backing of a major shareholder, Lord Zetland has since blocked a development scheme which the previous board believed would secure the course's financial future. It was about to sell three and a half acres beyond the winning post to construction firm Wimpey who had planning permission to build 138 apartments on the site. The sale was to have brought in �3.5m, out of which �440,000 would pay for the current realigning of the track to make way for the aborted scheme. Lord Zetland has criticised the way the deal was handled but admits that his wider objective involves eventually selling the present 72-acre course in its entirety and transferring racing to a 'super-track' he wants to build on 400 acres he owns at Dunsdale, three miles 'over the hill'.

'We have an opportunity in this town to make our mark on the racing industry and the wider world of leisure. I am determined we shall not squander that opportunity,' says his Lordship, who will be 70 this year. He adds: 'The Zetland lifeboat, the oldest and most successful surviving lifeboat in history, was brought to this town by my great, great grandfather in 1802.

The process in which I am currently engaged is to provide a "lifeboat" for the racecourse, to benefit the community and shareholders alike in this 21st century in the same spirit in which my ancestor Turf turmoil The eve of the new Flat season brings uncertainty over the future of Redcar racecourse with the Zetland name leading the field again. The proposed site of the new Redcar Racecoursecontributed in the 19th century.' That's not how others see it. Lord Zetland's actions have been called everything from irresponsible to 'monstrous'. Among his critics are councillors and Redcar's Labour MP who talk of an economic disaster if racing leaves its location next to the town centre. Another opponent is Major Peter Steveney, a former senior stewards' secretary with the Jockey Club, of which Lord Zetland is a member. Since losing his seat on the board the major has formed Redcar Action Group to represent the interests of shareholders who don't support the marquess and others who are also challenging him.

They claim that the cost of moving the course to the countryside would be prohibitive, fall foul of planning restrictions and threaten wildlife. Steveney says: 'It's a pipe dream Lord Zetland has had for years. His plans are misguided and will be a white elephant. We fear a massive build-up of professional costs for a project that will inevitably abort. The action group will in particular attempt to ensure that the existing Redcar shareholders do not bear any of these costs. There is already the question of financing the track's realignment but no Wimpey cheque to pay for it.

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That was a brilliant deal for Redcar and we'd hope to resurrect it. If racing on the present site isn't saved, one way or another it will be the destruction of the sport here.' All this is an unwelcome distraction for the course's chief executive, Neil Etherington. He was headhunted from regional development by the previous board in 2005 and now has to steer a diplomatic course between the opposing groups while preparing for the new Flat season. There are 17 days racing at Redcar this year with total prize money of around �1m - �50,000 of it riding on another reminder of that recurring power behind the course's affairs, the Zetland Gold Cup, a ten-furlong heritage handicap run on Spring Bank Holiday Monday.

Regardless of the disruptive politics off-stage, there will be a major innovation on race days, and one which reflects how much society has changed since racing's aristocratic origins. Royal Ascot would shudder at the prospect, but in 2007 Redcar is doing away with social divisions, removing its dress code and offering public access to all facilities on the stand side for one price. A single-status deal they call it. Etherington says it reflects the urban majority among the 70,000 racegoers who support Redcar over the season. 'We want to break down some of the perceived barriers associated with racing.

Removing a dress code is a pointer to our market, and anyway policing such a code is a management nightmare. Why deter a person from wearing, say, a �200 pair of designer jeans? 'We have to adapt to modern times and make commercial sense of race meetings. The whole business, including the way we market ourselves, is under review. The emphasis has to be on attracting the majority, not pleasing a minority.' That kind of talk in the stewards' room would have been unheard of once. It's a measure of how much is changing within racing. Last autumn Redcar's totepool Two Year Old Trophy, one of the richest contests in Europe for young sprinters, was won by 16-1 shot Danum Dancer, trained at Malton by Neville Bycroft and bought for a few hundred guineas.

Previous winning owners of the race have included a sheikh and wealthy syndicates, but last year's prize of �113,500 was shared between a group of Doncaster taxi-drivers - further evidence that on the turf nowadays Everyman can realise his dreams. Whether a peer of the realm can fulfil his dream too is another matter.

.For all booking enquiries at Redcar racecourse: 01642 484068

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