25 May Chelmsford City Racecourse celebrates five years of racing
After the closure of Great Leighs Racecourse in 2009, there has been a clamour to bring back top-grade horse racing to Essex. Fortunately, the investors behind the Chelmsford City Racecourse project had the foresight and ambition to finally make the Great Leighs site come to life. Launched in January 2015, Chelmsford City has recently celebrated its fifth anniversary of all-weather racing, becoming only the fifth 100% floodlit all-weather track in the UK.
The official website for Chelmsford City Racecourse describes the venue as graduating from being “the young pretender to a leading contender” in UK horse racing. If you’ve never been along to a night of all-weather horse racing at Chelmsford City, here’s the lowdown on Essex’s premier racetrack.
All you need to know about Chelmsford City Racecourse
The former Great Leighs Racecourse became a disappointing white elephant from the moment it closed its doors in January 2009. It wasn’t for another four years that a new owner would finally be found. A syndicate of investors, headed up by leading sports betting proprietor Fred Done, acquired the racetrack and immediately rebranded it the ‘Chelmsford City Racecourse’, with the ambition of achieving approval from the British Horse Racing Authority (BHA) to stage race meetings for the 2015 season.
As of July 2014, the BHA confirmed that the track would be used to stage 12 race meetings in 2015. However, this was eventually expanded to an impressive 58 fixtures once the venue had proved its worth to the UK horse racing scene. There is a lot to like about the setup of Chelmsford City. There is attention to detail aplenty, with even the floodlights designed to appear like champagne flutes, as seen in the photo above.
The Chelmsford City Parade Ring is also one of the most attractive in the UK, with access given to all ticket holders. Views of the Parade Ring are exceptional throughout, allowing first-timers to get up close and personal with the horses, jockeys, and owners. The Parade Ring is also one of the best ways punters can hand-pick potential race winners. Those thoroughbreds that look well, and don’t appear to be sweating are a good starting point.
When it comes to watching the live racing unfold, Chelmsford City has surpassed its Great Leighs predecessor by building a permanent grandstand catering to all. Although it’s still located within the racetrack – alongside the home straight – visitors are still guaranteed excellent views of the racing. There is a raised betting ring which gives punters access to all the major and local bookies and the main grandstand building also has a first-floor area – the Club Restaurant – which offers 360-degree views of the whole racecourse, as well as fine dining on tap.
With UK horse racing all set to return to action behind closed doors from 1st June, it’s only a matter of days until we’ll be seeing the venue back on the daily racecards and results pages, alongside the UK’s leading horse racing tipsters.
One of Essex’s leading entertainment venues
Aside from Chelmsford City’s appeal as a credible all-weather racetrack, it has also become synonymous as one of the county’s premier venues for live entertainment. It wasn’t long until the venue was sampled as a live music venue, with the summer of 2015 welcoming ska legends Madness to a sell-out crowd of over 7,000 guests. In the first 12 months, Chelmsford City welcomed 80,000+ people through its doors, which encouraged the venue to schedule more live music for the following summer.
The likes of Jools Holland, Rick Astley, and Simply Red took to the stage after the evening racing and in more recent years, the likes of Boyzone and Hacienda Classical have graced their presence. The venue’s post-racing entertainment now rivals the likes of Newmarket Racecourse with its acclaimed ‘Newmarket Nights’ events. This summer, Ministry of Sound Classical was due to perform after the racecourse’s showcase race in its annual calendar – the Chelmsford City Cup – which is now the richest evening race in UK horse racing.
The demise of Great Leighs
We’ve already touched upon the fact that Chelmsford City Racecourse was built on the former site of Great Leighs Racecourse. It’s important to look at the reasons why Great Leighs failed and why Chelmsford City appears to have been a rip-roaring success in its place.
Back in 2009, the long-term future of Great Leighs was up in the air as the site entered administration after the course lost its licence to host UK race meetings. In the years before, Essex entrepreneur John Holmes spent a reported £30 million on achieving his aspiration of bringing top-class horse racing to the former home of the Essex county showground. Despite having significant financial backing, the Great Leighs project had question marks looming over it before it began. The racecourse – which was the UK’s first brand-new horse racing venue in 80 years – missed the original launch date by a whopping 18 months.
Even when the Great Leighs racecourse was finally ready to open to the masses in April 2008, its debut race meeting was reserved exclusively for industry officials and invited guests only. It was not until a month later that general admission was permitted, but initial reactions from first-time visitors were somewhat underwhelming. Its limited viewing facilities were a major let-down, leaving many to speculate that the project was brought to a rushed conclusion to simply try and generate revenue for a faltering dream.
Punters could only access a ‘temporary’ trackside stand that was labelled the Grandstand. Frustratingly, the stand was positioned inside the circuit, which prohibited at least half of the racetrack from view. Michael Jarvis, one of Newmarket Racecourse’s most prominent trainers, voiced his concerns publicly about the viewing facilities for fans that “left a lot to be desired”.
Although the Great Leighs all-weather racetrack itself was considered fair and true, the venue as a whole never took off. Issues regarding the venue’s payment of suppliers represented the final nail in the coffin, but Great Leighs’ loss was well and truly Chelmsford City’s gain.