Boxing Day return gives Wetherby the chance to make hay

Jon Jo Sanderson on the racecourse
Jon Jo Sanderson on the racecourse
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Wetherby officials are hopeful that better weather will help them re-establish the National Hunt venue as the north’s premier racecourse at Christmas.

Meetings on Boxing Day and December 27 account for 25 per cent of the racecourse’s annual gate turnover.

But they have lost that significant cash injection over the last two years because of severe winter weather that forced the meetings to be abandoned.

The outlook for Boxing Day – when course favourite Mister McGoldrick will be retired – and Bank Holiday Tuesday this year is brighter, with only a slight drop in temperature from an unseasonably warm Christmas Eve and Christmas Day forecast.

Highs of 11 degrees are expected on Monday and nine degrees on Tuesday, giving Wetherby chief executive Jonjo Sanderson cause for optimism that the course will be overflowing with punters.

“These two days are very important to us,” said Sanderson.

“We have about 80,000 through the gates during the year and we expect about 20,000 over the two days. It’s our standout fixture.

“Because it’s such a big day at a precarious time we don’t factor Boxing Day into our budget.

“We’ve lost two in a row but it’s only three out of 10, so it averages out. You make hay when the sun shines and put that extra aside for the bad times.”

The biggest crowd to watch a Boxing Day meeting at Wetherby was recorded in 2006 when 14,200 people attended. Two years later, on the last occasion the weather was kind, the gate was 13,500.

Advance tickets sales this year are around two to three per cent down on 2010, with racegoers understandably wary of the winter weather and how badly the course has been hit over the last two years by the cold snap.

Sanderson said: “I would think it would be slightly under the 2008 figure, purely because people that would normally come may have found other things to do now in the absence of the last two years.

“So we need to get it back into people’s minds that we’re here and running on Boxing Day.

“I was concerned two weeks ago that sales weren’t looking too good, but people are putting their trust in the 10-day forecast.

“People can also come on the day. Plus, with Tuesday being a Bank Holiday as well, that might draw a few more.”

The storied King George VI Chase at Kempton is the main attraction of the day nationwide. But with Lincolnshire’s Market Rasen the closest course staging racing on Boxing Day, and no action at Sedgefield in the north east, Wetherby really can – with a fair wind – lay claim to being the north’s premier meeting of the holiday.

And, should both race days go ahead, it would cap a strong year for the course.

“Touch wood we will have staged 17 out of 17 meetings in 2011,” said Sanderson. “Nobody can remember the last time we went through a full calendar year without having to abandon.”

Sanderson’s festive wish and Mister McGoldrick: Page 21.