Horseracing’s compelling new tourist attraction

The new National Horseracing Museum, costing £15 million, will be three times as big and will bid to lure domestic and international visitors more »

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Feature columnist

After the steroids scandal, the death of the sport’s most loved trainer and sundry other depressing developments, British racing – the town of Newmarket, in particular – was in dire need of good news. And in mid-July, coinciding with the long-delayed onset of a spell of real summer weather, we were at last able to crack open a bottle or three with a view to celebration rather than to seek oblivion.

It was eight years ago when a plan to re-site and upgrade the National Horseracing Museum was conceived, and plenty of local residents – myself included – were thrilled to learn about it. Then we were told how much it would cost and hearts sank. Who was the bright spark that imagined the sum required could be raised? £15 million indeed! A phrase featuring the words ‘pie’ and ‘sky’ came to mind.

However, many prominent racing folk were enthused by the idea and among those recruited as patrons of the fundraising campaign were local trainers Sir Henry Cecil, Luca Cumani, John Gosden, Sir Mark Prescott, Sir Michael Stoute and Mark Tompkins. That group could surely wield some influence, but it remained a tall order all the same.

Then came the news that Suffolk County Council had pledged £1m. Forest Heath District Council promised to stump up an identical amount. Local councils don’t generally go in that deep unless they recognise a feasible project and one that promises to yield substantial benefits to the neighbourhood and the community. If they believed, this was perhaps more than pie in the sky, and it would encourage others to become believers.

Convinced by the concept
Sure enough, others did come on board, and a lot of good work was done out of the public eye by a lot of good people before I came into a position to know more about it. Formerly just an occasional visitor to the High Street premises opened by the Queen in 1983, I was invited to become a member of the committee of the Friends of the Museum and not long after I joined I was shown a video depicting how things would be if the funding could be found.

It looked fantastic and I immediately became passionate about the project, counting down along with those more closely involved as the target, still remote, crept nearer. After the Heritage Lottery Fund stepped in with a grant of £4m, optimism grew.

As many will know, the museum in its current form offers plenty of attractions and I would strongly urge that anyone unfamiliar with the premises next door to the Jockey Club should pay a visit. There is much to fascinate and educate anyone interested in the history of the sport that has made Newmarket synonymous with horseracing around the globe these last 300 years. But space there is limited, meaning that some items cannot be displayed to best advantage, others cannot be displayed at all, and facilities for visitors are less than ideal. The move around the corner – well, two corners, actually – into Palace Street will provide an experience enhanced in every way.

If the project had merely involved the shifting of current exhibits from one building to another, it would never have flown. There is a much grander vision now, and from autumn 2015 visitors will be welcomed to the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art, the new museum being just one of three major attractions that will draw vastly greater numbers and transform the centre of the town.

Palace House Stables are the oldest racing stables in the world, occupied initially by the horses of King Charles II, the so-called Merry Monarch who moved his court from London for long periods, establishing Newmarket as the natural home of horseracing and effectively the nation’s second capital. The property was in the hands of the Rothschild family through the latter 19th, and early part of the 20th, century, and remained in use as a racing yard until its last incumbent, Bruce Hobbs, retired in 1985.

Those of us Newmarket residents who are near-neighbours of the trainer’s house and stables – my house is about 30 yards away, as the crow flies – have watched with dismay as the buildings gradually became more derelict, a veritable eyesore and a disgrace to the town. Things are finally going to change.

More space, better facilities
The trainer’s house, which I was shown over at the risk of life and limb a few years ago, and the King’s Yard are to be adapted and restored to create the new museum, providing three times as much space to display collections to best effect in a setting appropriate for a national heritage property. It will feature, among other facilities, a number of permanent and temporary galleries, a significantly enlarged library, a study centre, a meeting room and a dedicated education suite accommodated in the main building.

Palace House itself, largely restored now and retaining some features of the building as Charles II knew it, will be the subject of further amendments, upgrading the environmental conditioning and physical security to national museum standards to provide a home for the collections of the British Sporting Art Trust and the Tate Gallery, featuring items of national and international importance.

The restoration of the once-beautiful Inner Yard, built by Leopold de Rothschild in 1903, and the paddocks beyond – the site in total covers some five or so acres – will involve their adaptation to provide an equine attraction promoting the work of the Retraining of Racehorses charity. There will be live horses, former racing heroes, on the property, and the opportunity to see saddlers and farriers at work.

This significantly enhanced visitor experience was made possible only by the collaboration of the National Horseracing Museum, the British Sporting Art Trust and the Retraining of Racehorses charity, unified under the Home of Horseracing Trust, the fundraising body. It will prove a compelling tourist attraction for national and international visitors, providing interaction with horses while also showcasing the town’s unique sporting and cultural heritage.

If I had enumerated all the attractions even as recently as the spring of last year, I would have been tempting providence. The target was still a long way off when the public launch of the project was initiated at the 2012 Craven meeting, but in little more than 12 months a further £2m had been secured. We were counting down in the £14 millions for a month or two before Sheikh Mohammed, Newmarket’s main employer, came forward to supply what was necessary to get the project over the finishing line.

The days when this venture smacked of pie in the sky had vanished by the spring of this year, when companies were invited to tender for the construction job. A total of 59 entered the fray and that number was reduced to six by June. The firm awarded the contract may well be known before you read these words.

It is barely two years since my peace was disturbed for months by the demolition of the snooker club next door and the erection in its stead of terrace houses. Behind me I’ve long been suffering from the racket caused by workmen who are taking an inordinate amount of time to erect flats.

But I’m actually looking forward to the bulldozers moving in to create more noise pollution just across the way in September. The National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art is going to be the best innovation in Newmarket for generations. I’m going to make a concerted effort to remain alive for the opening ceremony.

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About Tony Morris

Feature columnist

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