The return to racing at Towcester took one step closer with the visit of GBGB Chief Steward Paul Illingworth on Thursday evening.
Both sets of traps are now installed and connected. But for a last minute hitch, replacing newly cushioned outside fencing at the first bend, trials would have taken place today. As it stands, the first dogs are due to be tested over the new circuit on Friday morning.
Illingworth’s report is expected to be considered by the stewards on Friday. If they are satisfied, they may license the re-opening of the Northamptonshire circuit at the same meeting.
This is what owners and trainers can expect, seen for the first time fully sanded and under lights . .
The GBGB Regulatory Board met today to discuss the licensing application for Towcester Greyhound track. Whilst there are some minor details to work through, we are confident that we can make a joint statement with the new management of Towcester early next week.
Promoter Kevin Boothby was left frustrated but undeterred when GBGB Senior Steward Paul Illingworth was unable to grant Towcester its licence to operate following a video call today.
Boothby said: “He had no choice. The fence was back up at the first bend, and we had done a whole list of smaller jobs, like connecting the phones in the stewards box and vets room. The last two jobs were supposed to be really straightforward, reconnecting the power to the starting traps and photo finish. The work of minutes.
“Unfortunately when Dave (Boothby – brother), went to connect them, he found that the main wiring was damaged, so he has had to replace the lot. That has taken him until 4pm today, but it should now be ready for Paul’s visit on Tuesday morning.”
Like the rest of the industry, Boothby is hoping that Government will not scupper his plans later tonight by closing down racing. But he has no regrets over his other track, Henlow, remaining open for racing behind closed doors.
He said: “We have been entirely professional and sensible. We don’t let the trainers congregate in the paddock. They can grab a coffee but they have to drink it in their vans, not in the canteen. Fortunately we have quite a young set of trainers, certainly compared to a lot of other tracks. But our two most senior handlers, Max Alden and Reggie Alder are self isolating.
“We do all this, and I drove past Aldi on the way to the track and there must have been a queue of 300 people outside, all shoulder to shoulder.”
Somewhat ironically given the pressures faced by everyone in society, especially businesses, greyhound racing is about to see a new track open - or rather a former track reopen.
Towcester arrived in a blaze of glory in December 2014, becoming the first new greyhound track to open in 20 years. Within three it was staging the Greyhound Derby no less, with Seamus Cahill’s Astute Missile and then Kevin Hutton’s Dorotas Wildcat winning the sport's biggest event in 2017 and 2018 respectively.
Both were great occasions, grand affairs with concerts after racing keeping the party going. Towcester had a touch of class, so missing in the years Wimbledon was barely hanging on as the home of the Derby. Towcester was a breath of fresh air, albeit even on the night of 2018 Derby Final things were unravelling.
Not long after, and because of myriad reasons not necessarily associated with greyhound racing, Towcester was placed in administration. The dream, it seemed, had died - so step forward Kevin Boothby.
The Henlow promoter, a huge greyhounds man, had been so impressed by Towcester on his visits to the Northamptonshire venue he bought the company! Okay, not quite, but a lease has been secured on the racecourse and he has set about righting the wrongs of Towcester 1.0.
Towcester 2.0 is different already. The racecourse stables are now kennels, with trainers Frank Gray and Tony Tuffin on site. More will follow and a kennel strength of 200 has been spoken about - with no travel required. That last detail seems the most pertinent given the current situation.
Before lockdown a May 23 launch date had been mooted for Towcester’s return. That looks unlikely now, although the track could still be in a better position than others to start racing. Unofficial trials have taken place, albeit with strict social distancing measures in place, and the changes to the track’s layout have been well received.
Built by the Hesketh family to stage eight-dog racing which would enable them to tap into international markets, criticism of the circuit centred on the track being too wide. The circumference has now been reduced, although Towcester will remain a Hove and Central Park-type running circuit.
While so many businessmen are wringing their sanitized hands over the Coronavirus outbreak, Henlow/Towcester promoter Kevin Boothby has seized the initiative with massive plans for the future.
Boothby has invested in his own line of PPE and hand sanitizers, all part of a bigger plan for the months and years ahead.
He said: “I was looking at all the options open to us because in my opinion, the repercussions from Coronavirus will still be with us in a year’s time, maybe longer.
“It started with me looking at what position we will be in when we are ready to start racing again. I am not making any predictions on when that will be. We are working in full cooperation with Mark Bird and GBGB who will be producing a statement in due course.
“But sooner or later, we will begin racing again and it was obvious that we will need significant amounts of PPE. I have some friends in industry and have arranged massive quantities of visors, masks, gloves and hand sanitizers. It is pretty much a limitless supply. I can have 10,000 bottles of sanitizer by the end of the week, plus we are doing 75ml amd 125ml tubes on chains which people can hang around their necks.
“They are being branded as ‘Towcester’ and I will be in a position to supply to other tracks if they need it. A percentage of any sale will be going to our home finders.
“The reason that I need such big quantities is that I have plans for drive-through cinemas and theatres at Towcester. We have huge screens and plenty of space. As the weather improves, families will be desperate to get into the fresh air for entertainment and we can section off plots for small groups, even provide picnic hampers.
“It is too early to give details, but we have been approached by a major organisation who want to come to Towcester and use the facilities for performances.
“This might all seem a bit bizarre at the moment, because we are not used to it. But things are going to be unrecognisable for a long time. Can anyone see pubs and restaurants re-opening before the end of the year? Yes, you might be able to open a restaurant with social distancing, but can you make it pay if you have to cut your numbers by 75%?
“We have 320 acres here and we have never relied on public transport. What’s more we could have theatre, cinema and greyhound racing all taking place at the same time. For that we will need plenty of PPE, for staff and visitors, and we are fully equipped and ready to go.”
Towcester has been granted its GBGB license and will be ready to return to racing in June.
Promoter Kevin Boothby said: “It is a shame about the lockdown but we are ready to go at last. We won’t be in a position to trial on Monday, but definitely within the next ten days. We have been working with Northampton Council who are aware of the need for us to trial the dogs.
“At this stage I don’t know what kind of deal I will have with SIS. I think it will be next week at least before they are in a position to talk about fixtures. Ernie Gaskin and Hayley Keightley are among the latest trainers to join us and we will start off with A1-A5 grades. The lower grade dogs will be at Henlow.
“We have 600 dogs due to trial at Henlow next week over ten sessions. We have all the PPE equipment anyone can need, visors, gloves, sanitizers, masks, the lot. All trials will be for dogs in the same kennels, with the trainers and kennel staff, who have travelled together picking up their own dogs at the pick-up. When we race, trainers will be fully wearing the gear and will pick up their own dogs.
“My biggest issue is the sheer number of dogs. We are absolutely snowed under with enquiries. I reckon that within the next month, between the two tracks, we could probably call on roughly 1,500 dogs.”