It has been over five months since there was last racing at Pontefract and after a particularly testing year in 2018 the West Yorkshire track is getting ready to kick off their 16 day campaign on Tuesday, April 9.
Managing director Norman Gundill MBE explained to guests at the course’s annual press lunch how, despite one of the hottest, driest summers in history in 2018, the racecourse still fell foul of the elements with the first meeting of last season abandoned due to waterlogging and rain falling on 10 of the other 15 racedays.
The hot, sunny weather between race meetings also had a huge impact on the number of horses running on the track with the ground often being unseasonably quick and the extremes in weather resulted in a drop in total attendances through the season.
Looking forward to the season ahead, however, Norman Gundill outlined exciting plans.
Following on from the large scale renovation to the Pre-Parade Ring, Parade Ring and Horsewalk over the last two years, the racecourse has carried out a number of improvements to the enclosures in 2019.
The first thing that racegoers will notice is the changes to the layout. Both the Premier and Grandstand & Paddock Enclosures have been increased in size and the old Silver and Picnic Enclosures have been amalgamated to form one new, large Picnic Enclosure.
With more room available in each of the updated enclosures, the new layout provides a better set-up for all racegoers.
The old ‘Riders Bar’ is being completely refurbished and renamed ‘Pizza In The Paddock’. It will open in time for the first evening race meeting of the season on Friday, May 24.
Offering freshly cooked pizzas and craft ale, the ‘Pizza In the Paddock’ will also have a brand new large terraced area offering racegoers more seating and a fantastic alternative location to watch the racing.
Owners and trainers visiting Pontefract in 2019 will also have a new facility as their old bar has been almost tripled in size by knocking through ‘behind the scenes’ storage areas as well as an old Tote building.
There will also be a new wi-fi system with racegoers being able to connect to a hugely improved, faster system.
On the subject of prize money for racing at Pontefract, Mr Gundill said: “The government’s decision firstly to reduce the maximum stake on FOBTs from £100 to £2, and secondly to bring forward the introduction date to April 1 has, as anyone who follows the sport will know, caused considerable consternation and has resulted in much speculation about the number of betting shops which will close and the effect that will have on media rights income.
“The only certainty is that, for the first time since media rights income became significant, there will be a noticeable downturn in income. With prize money having to be committed before knowing what the media rights income will be, racecourse prize money has featured heavily in the pages of the racing press recently.
“The provisional total prizemoney budget for Pontefract in 2019 will be just under £1.2million (down from £1.3million in 2018). This will, however, be monitored closely and, if the projected reduction in media rights income does not materialise, the racecourse will reinstate some of the reductions.”
Although the racecourse’s contribution has reduced, they will still be unlocking all the race incentive and appearance money payments for horses in all Class 4 and 5 races. All races will still be run above minimum value and the prizemoney on all three Sundays will remain at at least £100,000.
Despite the challenges of 2018, there was some excellent racing during the season.
Manuela De Vega, trained by Ralph Beckett and ridden by Harry Bentley, was a stand-out performer in the EBF Silver Tankard Stakes. She finished the season unbeaten and is around 25-1 for the Epsom Oaks.
Clon Coulis, trained by David Baron and ridden by Ben Curtis, ended the season with a rating of 101 following her win in the Weatherbys Pipalong Stakes at Pontefract and a follow up in another Listed race at Ascot.
Isabel De Urbina, also trained by Ralph Beckett and ridden by Harry Bentley, won the totepool Pontefract Castle Stakes and had a solid record in Listed races, ending rated 99. Big Country, trained by Mick Appleby and ridden by Silvestre De Sousa, won the Skybet Go Racing in Yorkshire Pomfret Stakes and ended with a rating of 109.
The course was robbed of another big Mark Johnston headline (following his 4,000th winner being at Pontefract) when he had a chance to break the record for the most winners, but Lynwood Gold had not read the script and stayed in the stalls, giving the others a near 20 length start.