Newton Abbot is one of British racing’s great delights: a small, independent jumps course a short walk from a station on the famous Riviera line from Exeter to Paignton.
However your luck runs at the races, the train ride down from Exeter St David’s with the sea, at times, just a few feet from the window, will always make it a memorable day out at the track. But the very elements that make it special also mean Newton Abbot could be hit hardest of all the country’s 60 racecourses by the suspension of racing during the coronavirus pandemic.
It is not part of one of the major racecourse groups, it draws its crowds mainly from holidaymakers, and the British Horseracing Authority has already made it clear Flat racing will be the priority when the sport resumes, certainly for several weeks and possibly for months. These are, without doubt, the toughest times Pat Masterson, Newton Abbot’s managing director, has known in three decades in the job.
“We’ve been dealt a really cruel hand specifically here,” Masterson said on Tuesday. “We lost our last three meetings last year, all together, so we haven’t raced since September, and we’ve lost at least two fixtures already so far this season, including Easter Saturday, which is our biggest of the year.”
The 6,244 that packed the course on Easter Saturday in 2019 was Newton Abbot’s largest crowd for at least 30 years. That income and more has already been irretrievably lost this year, with no end in sight to the nationwide lockdown.
“Going back to racing, it may be June or it may be July, so that could be 11 or 12 fixtures lost for us on the bounce,” Masterson says. “At the moment, we’re not looking for a whole season to disappear but we’re just going month by month and seeing what we can do.
“But the main thing is duty of care for our staff and it’s the whole country, it’s not about a particular racecourse or business. Racing needs to have ambulances and doctors, and they’re obviously in the frontline at the moment.”
Other mainstays of the summer jumping programme, such as Worcester and Perth, will also lose out significantly if the suspension is prolonged, although Worcester is under the umbrella of Arena Racing Company while Perth can depend on strong local support when racing resumes from a city with nearly 50,000 residents.
Newton Abbot, on the other hand, is very much a track to serve what is normally a huge influx of tourists to the West Country from Easter onwards. Even when restrictions on movement are lifted, it is impossible to say how many will make the journey this year.
“Whatever level of business you have, we’re all impacted in some degree,” Masterson says. “Smaller businesses are finding it more difficult than larger ones by nature of the business models they have but we’re hoping the government will extend furlough, because things like that are very helpful for small businesses, paramount really.
“But people are losing their jobs [in the wider economy] and it’s natural that maybe sport will not be the first thing on their minds when we get back. So it’s going to be a long haul I’d imagine, that’s what we’re thinking. There’s other racecourses with similar stories, it’s like every business in the country, everyone is struggling. Large trainers, small trainers, big owners, small owners, big racecourses, small racecourses, we’re all intertwined with our different problems.”