It’s no coincidence that Fontwell Park raceocurse is unrecognisable now compared to the day Phil Bell first walked in as its new boss.
Over a decade, he has led its transformation into one of the top small racecourses in the country and one known for its top-rate facilities and innovative ideas to get people through the gates.
But it’s a racecourse now entering a new era altogether - one without the 47-year-old at the helm following his appointment as Arena Racing Company’s executive director for the south west, which will see him run Chepstow racecourse and oversee Bath and Ffos Las.
It follows a year in which he held the same role for the south-east, overseeing operations at Fontwell and Brighton. For nine years before that, all Bell’s energies were put into his role as Fontwell’s general manager.
And it’s the track’s new Premier Grandstand that will forever stand as testimony to the way he moved the track into an age when racecourses have to work so much harder to bring in the revenue they need to survive and prosper.
Bell, who is about to move his family from their home in Angmering, got into racing in 1998 after working in newspapers and local radio, latterly as news editor with Southern FM in Portslade.
“I went racing regularly and always thought of it as a great day out for anyone of any age,” he recalled. “And I was keen to work on the promotional side of it.
“Sir Stanley Clarke, who started Northern Racing, gave me a job at Brighton racecourse. I was commercial manager, then sales manager, then general manager at a time when Sir Stanley was buying courses that had seen better days and needed a pro-active approach.
“Several million pounds were spent at Brighton getting it back on the map and the company bought Fontwell with the same ideas in mind.
“I moved to Fontwell in 2002 and the aim was for a commercially-focused team to get more and more customers throught the gates. We built the team up and over time changed the racecourse significantly.
“For example, to get to the entrance you had to drive through a field. One of the first things we did was spend £30,000 on a proper roadway.
“Punters loved Fontwell but there weren’t enough of them. Facilities were out of date and we needed to boost hospitality and sponsorship big-time.
“In my time there we have spent £9m - £6m of which was on the new grandstand, which was a gamble because it was a lot of money to spend at a time when the credit crunch was beginning. But it’s a gamble that’s paid off.”
It was early in 2008 that Bell revealed in the Observer the grand plans for a grandstand. Funding was secured, planning permission gained and up it went, opening in 2010.
The course’s new focal point has made a huge difference to Fontwell’s income, both on racedays, when the restaurants and boxes are often packed, and non-racedays when everything from weddings to antiques fairs to business conferences are held.
Bell said: “Every area of the site has had refurbishment. We overhauled the winner’s enclosure and parade ring before we built the grandstand and that was hailed as a massive improvement by many in the industry. It really put the horses at the centre of the stage - which is exactly where they should be.
“And I feel the grandstand is one of the best around. It’s helped raise the profile of the course locally and nationally. It’s the pinnacle of my career to date and has seen all our key income lines - hospitality, sponsorship, admissions, non-racing business and advertising hoardings - increase year on year.
“It came about after Tony Kelly, the group managing director, and I talked about the need for more hospitality space. He said: ‘Let’s knock down the main stand and start again - let’s match the best facilities of any racecourse in the country.’
“It was a bold move - but the right move.”
Bell paid tribute to the Fontwell colleagues he had worked with over his decade there - those like Beccy Green, Jo Littmoden, Frances Sloper, Ed Arkell and Paul Mant - and to the companies whose partnerships with the course had also played a big part in the success, like Southern Water, grandstand sponsors 888Sport and Fuller’s, who have got heavily involved with one of the newer initiatives - the two-day October festival.
Ten years ago, Fontwell’s fixture list featured plenty of Monday afternoons and a few bank-holiday cards.
Now it has what Bell calls one of the most customer-friendly fixture lists in racing - 24 meetings strong, it still includes the weekday afternoons the purists love but also includes bank-holiday, Sunday and evening meetings for families and live music lovers and, of course, Boxing Day - the new highlight of the track’s calendar.
Bell has long lost count of how many races he has overseen but names two winners of the course’s biggest race, the National Spirit Hurdle - My Way De Solzen and Lough Derg - as those who have left the biggest impression on him, along with local favourites like Venetian Lad who run regularly at Fontwell.
He said it was an honour to have been able to attract top jockeys - AP McCoy, Richard Johnson and Ruby Walsh - and leading trainers like Paul Nicholls and Alan King to Fontwell time and time again. And he said the support of local riders and handlers was just as important in retaining the quality of racecards.
“Having the privilege of hosting the reception after Josh Gifford’s memorial service was another honour,” he said. “He was a huge supporter of the course and there’ll be a memorial race named after him in 2013.
“Overall I’m leaving Fontwell in good shape. The fight for the leisure pound is harder than ever so everything we’ve done over the years has been essential. You can’t stand still in racing.
“I take greatest pleasure from the fact Fontwell is better-known now than it was ten years ago. That’s why I wanted to get involved. It’s now an essential - and developing - part of the leisure market.”
Bell is excited by the challenge of running Chepstow - where the annual highlight is the Welsh National, which takes place on Saturday (Jan 5), the day after he starts, after being postponed on December 27 - and having responsibility for Bath and Ffos Las.
“Chepstow is a a big racecourse which has its challenges and needs to attract more customers. For example, some racing fans are put off by having to pay to go over the Severn Bridge to get there - and some of its fixtures clash with Welsh rugby internationals.
“But it hosts some of the best jump-racing in the country and races all year round with 30 fixtures. I enjoy going into racecourses and making a difference to them. And I like to think that’s something I can say I’ve done at Fontwell.”