Some of the photos may seem familiar, others less so. But from a business perspective, work has already begun on completely re-shaping Towcester Racecourse as a business – writes Floyd Amphlett.
The official re-opening of the venue is due to take place on November 22nd, but instead of greyhounds and punters, expect to see reindeer and Father Christmas arriving by zip wire.
Yes – it all sounds very gimmicky – but behind the snow and tinsel, there is a hard headed business deal. Hence, the snow will be real (from a snow machine), as will the ice skating rink and full fairground.
Although the reputation of ‘Christmas festivals’ has varied from dismal to impressive, Winterland is at the pucca end of the market. Would you scoff at the Hyde Park version? Well don’t roll your eyes at what is being built at Towcester, because promoter Matt Bowler has transferred his expertise from London to Northamptonshire.
Bowler also handles the infrastructure for Wimbledon tennis, the Jockey Club, the European Golf Tour and is responsible for TV facilities at a number of Premier League grounds, including this year at Sheffield United.
The Towcester Winterland project will incorporate a string of separate side attractions, all with a record for crowd pleasing. On the day I visited, Bowler and his team were finalising costs for the various corporate events/Christmas parties being planned to coincide with Winterland.
London banks, credit card companies and car manufacturers have already placed their Winterland requirements, alongside a string of private parties of between 20 and 40 people.
Bowler has budgeted for footfall of 250,000 during the festival’s 42 days in situ. And after the main daily event, which closes at 11pm, guests will be able to drink and dance until the early hours.
Such is the interest that Towcester’s ‘second grandstand’, the Grace Stand – which hasn’t been utilised in five years – is already part of the plans.
Kevin Boothby might be Matt Bowler’s landlord for six weeks, but he has his own plans too. There is lucrative business to be done before Christmas, and his right-hand-mum June is helping finalise the catering requirements for the wave of pre-booked Christmas parties.
Beyond Christmas there are plans for a huge New Year party and beyond that. . .?
Kevin said: “Apart from things like the caravan meetings, pop concerts and drone racing that I mentioned before, we have signed up for two classic car shows, and have just been approached to host a catwalk show.
“But we haven’t really got going. I have a great marketing lady, with a tremendous CV, who is only due to start today, and plan to have five full time people selling the place.
“I also plan to continue working with Matt, who has a tremendous business record and has a string of projects in mind.”
As he made clear previously, greyhound racing only plays a small part in the future of Towcester, though he also pledges that greyhound racing is central to the reason for his involvement.
He said: “This is such an amazing opportunity that I sometimes find it hard to believe.
“One point I would like to make is this – although Lord Hesketh is sometimes criticised because the business failed – he got an awful lot right too!
“The facilities here are just unbelievable, by any standard anywhere. I have been into private boxes at horse racecourses that don’t begin to compare with what we have here. The Grace Stand is a fabulous building in its own right, but it hasn’t been used for years.
“We could run all kinds of events in the main building and still offer an exclusive option for people in the second grandstand. The spec is unbelievable; virtually every private box has its own kitchen.
“Another aspect that has blown me away is the amount of equipment here. It would run into many hundreds of thousands of pounds in value. It is high quality stuff and much of it has never been used. No expense has been spared.
“The other interesting thing that has come out of my discussions with Matt is you begin to realise just how much greyhound racing undersells itself. As an example, I am used to thinking of £35 for a Christmas meal and Matt talks in terms of £85-£90.
As for the comment ‘that’s all very well but can the new promoter make it pay?’, I can add only this. Kevin was decent enough to run though his business plan and he was willing to provide details of some of the agreements he already has in place.
From that – I am personally convinced that Towcester’s viability is not a consideration.
So where does this leave greyhound racing?
Boothby has already been in touch with GBGB and hopes to be issued a license by the end of 2019 or in early January 2020.
He said: “The issues with the previous Towcester executive are nothing to do with me. At Henlow, we pay all our GBGB costs ahead of time. We don’t owe them a penny. Quite honestly, if they were to ask me for a bond for Towcester, I would be insulted.
“In addition to which, we re-home all our dogs ourselves at Henlow and will do the same at Towcester. We don’t ask anybody for anything. We pay our way.”
The new boss has already carried out some survey work on the racing circuit.
He said: “We dug down to the membrane and it was just as I feared, lots of big rocks. No wonder they struggled to keep the surface in good order. Our first job is to get rid of the 800-900 tons of sand. It is absolutely rubbish, and I can hopefully sell it for construction of some sort.
“We will leave the membrane in place, and put another better membrane over the top of it. We will then re-shape the track and lay the same sand as Henlow.”
There are plans to adapt some of the racing stables to kennels for two established trainers, each with 70 greyhounds. They are expected to move in early in 2020.
The plan is for regular Saturday opens and at least one Category One event per month. But whatever other deal might emerge with the betting industry, Boothby intends to keep control of the Saturday night rights.
He said: “It shouldn’t be a problem for the betting industry, since they don’t seem to rate top class racing. But I want to see it presented in the right way. We have a fully fitted studio which provides all sorts of opportunities. It may be that I have to do my own deals.
“My ambition is to attract new people into the industry and I hope that some of the big companies who will be sponsoring other events here, will be keen to get involved in greyhound racing.”
The new promoter has been taken aback by the response from the locals to the announcement that he was taking over.
He said: “It has been incredible. Even walking into a local pub, people have come up to me and thanked me for re-opening the place. Following the piece of the Star website, we’ve had ten applications from bookies and huge interest from the local media. I really wasn’t expecting it.”
2020 promises to be an exciting year for greyhound supporters in general and Northamptonshire folk in particular. So when he takes off his entrepreneurial hat and becomes a dog man again, what does Kevin Boothby most hope for?
“Winning a big race at Towcester on a Saturday night.”