Feature: The going’s good at Ripon Racecourse ahead if new season

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From litter picking and painting to selecting races and collating ground data, James Hutchinson has seen quite a transformation at Ripon racecourse.

He became the fourth generation of his family to run Ripon’s spectacular garden racecourse in 2008, when he assumed the position of managing director of the course.

RIPON 27-04-2013'Pic LouisePollard/Racingfotos.com

RIPON 27-04-2013'Pic LouisePollard/Racingfotos.com

Over the last few months he has been overseeing the course’s winter duties so that racing can go under starters orders again with a seven race card next Thursday.

As clerk of the course behind the race meetings, James must be in constant contact with all aspects involved in the racing industry. “There’s no two days the same as a racecourse manager,” James said.

“This time of year, it’s all about preparation for the season to get the course in the best shape possible for that first meeting and the forthcoming season.

“It’s about working out what races we are going to run that day. 

“As you get nearer to each meeting it becomes a little bit more regimented at certain times. Going reports have to be done a week before, three days before, two days before, so you can get into a routine with that.

“It’s just about making sure it’s all spick and span for the first race meeting. We are well on schedule.”

Alongside him, head groundsman Carl Tonks is confident he has prepared the ground to make sure the Tour de France won’t be the only fast riding in Ripon this year.

Carl, originally from an industrial background in the Black Country, has been Ripon’s chief groundsman for four years, and like James, each day throws up its own challenges to keep the ground at its racing peak.

“My parents didn’t want me to end up in a factory so my parent packed me off to agricultural college,” he explained. 

“Because I could drive a tractor I got a job at Wolverhampton racecourse and I have moved here since.

“I stayed in racing because it’s a varied job, compared to other sports. You just don’t know what you will be doing the next day.”

With Ripon’s racing heritage and the ever-changing industry to which it competes, finding new ways to draw in the punters is a constant challenge for James, Carl and the rest of the team at Ripon.

A year on from a highly stressed renovation of the course, the team are more relaxed over this year’s season.

This time last year James, Carl and the rest of the staff at the course were scurrying around fitting the new RiponBet betting system and a new bar amongst other things.

But what about the summer of 2014?

RiponBet served its purpose as the face of the course in front of punters, and James believes a greater uptake in its services will happen this year.

The internal betting operation, which replaced the Tote, has allowed the course to attract faster horses too, with an increase of prize money touching £1million for the first time.

The course may remain the equivalent of Championship level in football, but with more prize money comes bigger named entrants and greater interest from the biggest yards.

Only Chester and Bangor racecourses also have their own bookmakers, and James feels, despite a downturn in on course betting last year, having it in place will stand the course in strong stead long term.

He said: “On course betting on racecourses was difficult last year with the economic climate the way it has been.

“If you look at turnover in betting in general, they have been depressed. We certainly experienced that. 

“In terms of the return, we have been in line with expectations. We have seen a better return than we might have experienced with the Tote. In that sense, it has been a successful introduction.

“As we go forward and see the Tote’s exclusive licences coming to an end, I think we will see other racecourses following.

“It puts us in pole position having done it already.”

Carl added: “Logistically we are in control of that more than we were.

“We try to be a family orientated venue for racing. Betting can be a contentious issue in the family environment. We don’t want to be that company that turns people over and empties their pockets as soon as they walk through the door.

“Because we are in control of it, we can make a better package to the punter.”

As head groundsman, Carl has had a busy winter staving off the flood threats from presented by having a lake inside the course enclosure. Such floods hit every four or five years, but this year the surface has survived the wet weather and it’s preparation is running smoothly.

James said: “We have had a quiet winter. Having done so much last winter, we didn’t have to do quite so much this time.

“The weather has been kinder to us. The track is looking in pretty good nick for this time of year, we just need a little bit more warmth and to get a bit more growth on the grass. 

“Given the weather that we have had, it’s looking in remarkably good shape.

“We have been wet, we have had one of our wetter winters of the last ten years. But the track has coped well.”

The Tour de France’s arrival coincides with Ripon’s planned meeting on Monday, July 7. And with a campsite already in demand, James hopes the fusion of sport see a boost across all sports in the district.

He added: “Between everyone, we are putting a lot on, and we want to show how nice a place Yorkshire is so that people come back in the future. 

“Ripon racecourse is just part of the picture to help promote Yorkshire as a destination.

“We expect to see some spill over from the Tour into sports such as racing. That’s not to say that Yorkshire hasn’t already got great sport going on but it’s like the Olympics, it’s a hike in interest in sport. 

“We hope for some legacy that will affect all sports.”