Your guide to Sandown Park
Once, it was a regular occurrence for Sandown Park to win national or regional awards for Racecourse of the Year. But not anymore. Yet it would be harsh to ask ‘where did it all go wrong?’.
Nothing much has changed since the Esher track was redeveloped around 30 years ago, to critical acclaim, apart from a more recent refurbish which enhanced the facilities.
Perhaps Sandown’s problem is that it’s taken for granted. Convenient for train and road travel, depending on where you’re coming from obviously, viewing that’s among the best of any track, and facilities which are mostly comfortable, but can struggle on big days.
But there are little things which count against the track. It lost the Group 2 Temple Stakes to Haydock; for a while it was deemed to be an expensive course to visit, particularly with the demise of the infield course enclosure; and the quality of some of fixtures seemed to be diluted.
There’s also the upkeep cost. To maintain the building as they are gets more expensive each year and Sandown has been earmarked for the Jockey Club’s next major project.
The trouble is the financing is linked with the undesirable plan to close Kempton Park and sell the land for housing, the proceeds from which are intended to go towards the Sandown work and a new, all-weather, course at Newmarket.
Jump season finale
In the case of jump racing, the April highlight of what is still referred to by many as the Whitbread Gold Cup, has lost some of its lustre.
Preceded by Cheltenham and Aintree and followed by Punchestown, the three miles and five and a half furlongs race is feeling the pinch. But time and effort has been invested in the fixture to turn it into a successful Jump Season Finale.
And the Tingle Creek Chase gets more popular each year, the two miles well suited to the track’s configuration making it one of the most exhilarating jump races to watch. And, with Sandown’s natural amphitheatre, watching jump racing is unsurpassed anywhere in the country.
On the flat, the Group 1 Eclipse Stakes has in recent years been attracting some, if not the best, middle-distance runners. But with flat racing, there’s another negative.
Five furlong races are run down a chute in the middle of the track with the winning post over a furlong past the stands. Not as bad as Chantilly in France, but not a lot better. And at evening meetings, the card of six races often kicks off with two five-furlong contests.
Without a doubt, Sandown is the quickest racecourse to get to from central London. Trains to Esher take 20 minutes via Clapham Junction although you are then faced with a walk of 10 minutes or more across the track or a little longer if you go the ‘front way’ round, which is recommended if there’s been a lot of rain. Time it right, however, and from the station forecourt you can catch the courtesy shuttle minibus.
It’s not only the race viewing which is up there with the best, notwithstanding the five-furlong chute. Few racecourses can match the parade ring immediately behind the stands. You can either use the terraced steps around much of the parade ring, or view from the covered terrace overlooking the parade ring, the result of the refurbishment.
What’s not so successful is the winner’s enclosure. Charming though it is in its own mini-amphitheatre, it is quite distant from the stands. The course has toyed with the idea of using the parade ring to welcome back winners of major races, but that’s yet to be implemented.
And there’s another dimension which adds to Sandown’s attractiveness. The rhododendron horse-walk is a great place to see horse and rider close-up before or after the race.
Whilst almost all of the course can be seen by the naked eye, there is always a big screen.
And seeing horses jump the iconic fences at Sandown is what makes the track special. There’s an open ditch just before the stands (it’s sits alongside a plain fence, the final obstacle in chases) preceded by the Pond Fence and on the far side of the track are the three railway fences (situated alongside the railway embankment) which come close together, one of them often catching a horse out which has made an earlier error.
Add to that the uphill finish and Sandown Park is a true test of a jump horse and its jockey’s skills.
Eating and drinking
Sandown offers a full range of eating options, from the Equus fine-dining and Brasserie restaurants in the Premiere enclosure to the self-service cafeteria in the Grandstand. Indoors and out, fast-food outlets abound.
You are never far from a bar at Sandown where the options include the excellent real-ale counter in the Grandstand, a champagne bar in the Premiere enclosure and a sports bar which overlooks the parade ring.
Depending how busy a day it is, extra bars are laid on, but those situated on the first floor of the Grandstand and Premiere enclosures can get overcrowded. And there’s a related issue of toilets on the first floor – there are not enough of them.
Whilst the Esher track is no longer a regular winner of gongs, it has to be one of the best courses in Britain both for facilities and viewing. And being just 20 minutes out of Waterloo is another big plus.
But it does need a injection of serious money because much of the facilities are showing their age but whatever is planned, care must be taken not to spoil what is predominately a one of the country’s best tracks. Don’t do an Ascot.