Absence of Christmas snow suits family man Sanderson

Wetherby racecourse chief executive Jonjo Sanderson is looking forward to the two-day Christmas meeting. Picture: Tony Johnson.
Wetherby racecourse chief executive Jonjo Sanderson is looking forward to the two-day Christmas meeting. Picture: Tony Johnson.
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THERE are four people in Jonjo Sanderson’s household who would love nothing more than the perfect white Christmas amid freezing snow squalls outside their Tockwith home.

Wife Donna and young children Orla, Tom and Teddy yearn to wake up to a Christmas Day winter wonderland.

But not chief executive of Wetherby Racecourse Sanderson for whom a mild forecast is just the ticket ahead of next weekend’s two-day extravaganza.

Sanderson, 37, has been chief executive at the A1 course since September 2008 and been frustrated by two costly wipe-outs of the track’s two-day Christmas special.

Boxing Day’s feast is highlighted by the Rowland Meyrick Handicap Chase with the following day featuring the Castleford Handicap Chase. But the fixtures were abandoned in both 2009 and 2010 by, first, five inches of snow and then temperatures that plummeted to as low as minus 15 degrees.

“There was never any doubt we were going to be off,” admits Sanderson.

But it has been all systems go since and a forecast for Christmas week that begins with Monday’s temperatures forecast to reach a balmy 12 degrees is Sanderson’s ideal, even if his young family might think otherwise.

Sanderson, who was formerly general manager at Catterick for six years, has racing on his mind and admits losing even one of the two-day meeting’s two-day fixtures is “a practical and administrative nightmare”.

He even makes the short drive to the racecourse on Christmas morning itself to check everything is running smoothly ahead of the fixture before returning home for Christmas lunch.

In a perfect Christmas scene, the snow would be falling outside his window but blue sky and sunshine is just fine for Sanderson ahead of a richly important two-day meeting that forms Wetherby’s busiest time of the year.

Sanderson told The Yorkshire Post: “At Christmas the family are a bit disappointed because clearly the two days that we have are very important and they take up a lot of my time.

“I’m not necessarily around at Christmas perhaps as another person may be with their family but they understand.

“They pray for a white Christmas and I don’t.

“There is a little bit of conflict at home because they want snow and I say ‘sssssh’. For them, I would love a lovely nice white Christmas but from a professional point of view it’s all about Boxing Day really.

“They are two very important days – not only from a financial point of view but also from marketing Wetherby to Yorkshire and the local community.

“Thankfully my wife is very understanding as I go down to the course on Christmas Day but she knows it’s what I do, it’s what I’ve grown up doing and horse racing is in my blood.

“That’s the way it has to be.

“The head groundsman will come and look at the track on Christmas Day and I’ll probably just pop down, walk the track and check in the office – not for long – maybe an hour or so – and that’s the benefit of living minutes from the course. It means it doesn’t take me away from home very long.

“And I’ll get it done in the morning as given the ages of the kids they will probably be awake from about 3am I imagine so Father Christmas will have deposited their stockings.

“We’ll go through all that shenanigans and then I will probably pop down about nine o’clock and then get home for about late morning and the rest of the day.”

Like most racing enthusiasts, Sanderson will doubtless then be reaching for his Christmas special Racing Post and casting his eye over Boxing Day’s runners.

The card’s highlight is the Grade Three Rowland Meyrick and for all that the chief executive welcomes raids from powerful southern yards, Sanderson will be rooting for another Yorkshire-trained winner.

Sanderson said: “You’d normally get somebody come up from the south and Paul Nicholls won it in 2008. It’s nice when those sorts of trainers come up and it’s a bit of a pat on the pack for you. But on the flip side their horses are obviously very good and they tend to take the prize money away from the north.

“You just hope we have some competitive horses in the north to be able to keep the money in the north and hopefully re-invest back in the north with new horses for northern trainers.

“It’s a bit of a double-edged sword really in that having runners from these southern yards is great yet on the other hand you want a fight from northern horses to keep that cash in the north, so to speak.

“Luckily, in the last three years Malcolm Jefferson has won it twice and Sue Smith won it last year which is great news and those horses have gone on to either Aintree or Cheltenham and performed very well.

“That’s all we would hope for.”

Whoever emerges as Boxing Day’s big race victor will be yelled home by a large crowd at Wetherby and the course’s biggest attendance of the season.

The Grade Two Charlie Hall Chase is Wetherby’s most prestigious race of the season as part of a high class day’s racing in November that normally attracts between 9,000 and 10,000 spectators.

But the Boxing Day card attracts between 10,000 and 11,000 racegoers and the usual figure of around 4,000 or 5,000 racegoers for the following day’s fixture will this year be swelled to around 6,500 with it falling on a Saturday.

Wetherby was criticised earlier this year for having run certain races over the wrong distances marginally but Sanderson says “Distance Gate” has now been resolved and believes a successful two-day meeting would cap a decent 2014. The course has managed to fulfil every fixture from October 2013 until May 2014 with no abandonments for the first time in 25 years.

Crowds have also been up every day with advance sales up 25 per cent for the Christmas meeting. And next year there will be more reasons to flock to Wetherby with the course having ditched initial plans of looking into all-weather racing and instead embarking on its adventure into staging turf Flat racing.

After a successful trial earlier this year, the A1 course will hold four Flat fixtures in 2015 with the first of those on Sunday, April 26 and Sanderson is excited by the adventure, while keen to stress that National Hunt racing will forever remain Wetherby’s number one objective.

Sanderson said: “That’s going to be a new chapter in our history – one for the memoirs – and we’re looking forward to that. We’ve got some fantastic facilities at Wetherby and a fantastic racing surface and like all businesses we are trying to grow and expand. But National Hunt racing will always remain the first and foremost activity of the business. Obviously we are never going to compete with York but we’d certainly like to run some flat racing of reasonable quality from here on in.”

Next weekend, though, will be all about what Wetherby does best – National Hunt racing – and there are even treats on offer in addition to the horse racing.

With gates opening at 10am, early birds will receive free mulled wine and mince pies next Friday.