Wetherby’s Sanderson hopeful of no show from snow

Jon Jo Sanderson
Jon Jo Sanderson
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While the romantics dream of a white Christmas, Jonjo Sanderson crosses his fingers and hopes for 25 degrees heat.

it is not that the Wetherby Racecourse chief executive wants his two young children – among others – to miss out on one of the innocent joys of the festive period.

It is just that Sanderson, his colleagues at the course and the racegoers of North Yorkshire have seen enough snow, ice and frost over the last two Christmases to last them a lifetime.

“My ideal scenario is 25 degrees on Christmas Day, cooking my turkey on the barbecue with my shorts on,” quips Sanderson, who has seen freezing weather force the abandonment of the last two festive cards at Wetherby.

“I don’t think it will be quite like that but we just don’t want more bad weather.”

The absence of racing on Boxing Day would not adversely affect Wetherby’s financial planning.

Sanderson and the board budget only for the 16 other meetings they stage during the jumps season.

But the two meetings over Christmas equate to 25 per cent of Wetherby’s annual gate turnover.

Twenty thousand punters pour into the course for the standout fixtures, filling the restaurants, the Tote booths and the paddock.

A favourable return on Boxing Day, in particular, though not budgeted for, could make a big difference during an economic downturn.

It all puts into perspective Sanderson’s unromantic approach to Christmas.

“We’ve had a lovely white Christmas for the last two years and the kids have had their fun, but now we need it to be a lot brighter,” he says.

“Even my wife, who has put up with horse racing for a long time now, has said this year that she genuinely hopes it’s on for us.

“The other 16 days support the business and then Boxing Day is a bonus.

“It’s a massive meeting for us.”

The abandonments in 2009 and 2010 were not common occurances.

In the preceeding eight years, the course only lost one other Boxing Day meet.

But with the long-range weather forecast looking favourable following an unseasonably warm Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the anticipation is rising at Wetherby of a glorious return.

“It’s obvious how much it means not just to us, but the community,” says Sanderson.

“There’s a guy in the events team who lives in Wetherby and his mates at the pub are ribbing him by saying ‘you’d better get it on this year or you’ll be in big trouble’.

“The businesses in Wetherby certainly appreciate it. It’s a kick in the teeth for them, as well as us, when the meeting is off.

“I live towards York and there’s a few people in my village who are coming and looking forward to it.

“They’ve all missed it for the last two years. We all have.

“But you can’t change the weather so there’s no point pulling your hair out about it. It’s the one thing you can’t control.

“We did everything we could have done the last two years, the place was ready, we were raring to go and the weather conspired against us.

“There’s nothing we could do about it.

“You’re in the wrong job if you lose sleep about weather patterns and weather forecasts. It’s just one of those things.

“What we have to do is make sure we’re ready and if the weather is on our side we’ve got to make sure everyone who comes has a good time.”

Three hundred staff will work the Boxing Day meet, from Sanderson as chief executive and clerk of the course to the waiters in the restaurants.

And a good day on Monday would go a long way to making up for the lost meetings of the past.

Wetherby has an annual turnover between £1.8m and £2m, with the economic downturn, allied with the untimely cold snap, nudging the figure closer to the former over the past few years.

But as Sanderson says, they hope to “make hay when the sun shines”.

Advance ticket sales that are lower than last year may suggest they will not break the record attendance of 14,200 registered in 2006.

But if people open their curtains on a bright, crisp winter’s morning on Monday, Sanderson hopes they head down to Wetherby Racecourse for a packed programme.

“We’ve got 11 very good races over the two days, with the highlight on Boxing Day being the Betfair Rowland Meyrick, which is a Class 1, Grade 3 race,” says Sanderson, who has run the racecourse since August 2008.

Exciting French recruit Halley is likely to make his debut over British fences in the race.

“On the Tuesday we’ve got the Castleford Steeplechase which is a competitive handicap.

“Punters will see potential Gold Cup or Grand National horses coming here.

“Jockey-wise, the likes of Sam Thomas might be coming, if they haven’t got rides down at Kempton for the King George VI meeting.”

As well as the racing programme, Wetherby stalwart Mister McGoldrick will be honoured for his achievements at the course.

Mister McGoldrick was a winner of eight races at his ‘local’ track and to mark his retirement he will be walked around the parade ring on Boxing Day.

“We will also present his owner Richard Longley and the horse with a little something,” says Sanderson.

“Now he’s officially retired the Wetherby board will honour his achievements either by naming a race after him, a bar, or something appropriate.”

It all augurs well for a successful end to 2011 at Wetherby.

Horse racing has been front- and back-page news at times this year with the levy debate and the introduction of whip regulations.

Being able to stage all 17 meetings this year has helped the course counter the reduction in prize money.

“We’re having to make up the shortfall ourselves,” he says, “and it makes these meetings more important than they used to be.

“It may be the bedrock for the future in that maybe we can work together much more than we have done over the last 10 or 15 years.

“We’re nowhere near where we were three years ago, when prize money was up over £100m.

“It’s not at those levels now, and I can’t see it getting back there in the short term, unfortunately.

“But it helps that we’ve raced every day, that’s for sure.”

As for the whip rules, Sanderson believes the jockeys are beginning to adapt to laws that should have been set in stone and transparent from the outset.

“It’s a shame the individuals concerned couldn’t have sat in a room before they announced it, just to go over it,” Sanderson adds.

Controversies aside, the good weather Sanderson hopes for this Christmas might make him unpopular with his children, but will make the racing fraternity of Wetherby very grateful indeed.

Racing starts at 12.30pm on Boxing Day.