Fontwell chief: Inaugural festival gives us plenty to build on

Rio Gael and connections after victory in the feature race Picture by Chris Hatton
Rio Gael and connections after victory in the feature race Picture by Chris Hatton

Our first two-day racing festival was a big success. For year one, we’re delighted at what we achieved – and now aim to build on it, writes Fontwell Park executive director Phil Bell.

Day one last Friday gave us our biggest weekday afternoon attendance since Northern Racing bought Fontwell Park in 2002, and over the two days we had close to 10,000 people in.

The weather was beautiful, a little too good on Saturday when we were down on numbers expected. I think quite a few went to the beach or stayed at home for a barbecue.

If we could arrange that sort of weather for our next Ladies’ Evening, we’ll be happy!

The feedback from everyone to trainers to race-goers on our festival has been excellent.

It was pleasing to hear a number of jockeys and trainers praise the quality of the ground. Clerk of the course Ed Arkell and his team have worked hard to keep the going good in a period where there’s not been much rain.

I was pleased by the quality of the racing. We had a mixture of stand-out performances and close finishes, and there were good numbers in most of the 14 races.

Rio Gael’s win in the Fuller’s London Pride Handicap Steeple Chase, the feature race on Friday, was excellent and it was great to see a couple of up-and-coming riders like Tom Cannon and Rachael Green each have a couple of wins.

The first year of a festival is all about getting it into the consciousness of race-goers and the industry in general.

When the time comes next year, the hope is everyone who came will remember it as a success, and others will come too.

In five years, I’d like to see 15,000 coming here over the two days. We want fans to come from all over the UK and fill up all the local hotels and B&Bs.

On Friday, we were lucky enough to have trainer Paul Nicholls and owner Andy Stewart do a Q&A session in Fontwell House about their horses’ prospects for 2011-12.

It was excellent to hear them talking about Big Buck’s, Denman, Kauto Star and others, and we hope to make that an annual thing. It could grow into a regular and very, very popular event.

We offered £100,000 of prize money over the two days and that helped attract so many top trainers, owners and jockeys.

We need to maintain that now and are already thinking about improvements for next year’s festival, which will be on October 5 and 6.

There’s a busy period ahead of us in the next few weeks.

We have midweek meetings on October 19 and 27 – the latter is a charity race day for Great Ormond Street Hospital – and November 4; then it’s Southern National Day on Sunday, November 13.

That will be a 999 Emergency Services Day when people will be able to get in for £9.99 and we’ll have a variety of emergency demonstrations and will raise money for the air ambulance. The BBC’s John Inverdale will host a lunch.

We’re already starting to plan for our Boxing Day meeting. It fell victim to a heavy frost last year but we have everything crossed we’ll get it on this year, and we could have anything between 5,000 and 10,000 people here.

I must end by saying how delighted I am to be starting this monthly column for the Observer which will run until the spring. I’ll be talking about all aspects of the racecourse and my role as a non-executive director of Northern Racing.