The Secret Racegoer’s 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 40 years ago, to critical acclaim, with a more recent refurbish which further 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.
The biggest challenge for Sandown is 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 grandstand will stay, but it is to get a major make-over, financed in part by using parcels of land for new-build housing.
Flat stars on show
On the flat, the Group 1 Coral Eclipse Stakes has in recent years been attracting some of, if not the best, middle-distance runners. But with flat racing, there’s a small 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 can kick off with two five-furlong contests.
The plans for upgrading the Sandown’s turf won’t see a shift in the positioning of the five-furlong track so that the finish is in front of the stands as there’s not the availability of land to extend out the racecourse. It’s surrounded by roads, housing and the railway.
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 a bit of its lustre.
Preceded by Cheltenham and Aintree and followed by Punchestown, the 3m5f race is feeling the pinch. But much time and effort has been invested in the fixture to turn it into a successful Jump Season Finale.
And the pre-Christmas Tingle Creek Chase gets more popular each year, the two miles well suited to the track’s configuration making it one of the season’s most exhilarating jump races.
And, with Sandown’s natural amphitheatre, watching jump racing is unsurpassed anywhere in the country, perhaps with the exception of Cheltenham.
Without a doubt, Sandown is the quickest racecourse to get to from central London. Trains to Esher take 20 minutes from Waterloo, via Clapham Junction, although you are then faced with a walk of a little over 10 minutes 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 at the back of the stand, overlooking the parade ring.
What’s not so close at hand 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 a couple of obstacles earlier by the Pond Fence.
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 if it has made an earlier error and lost its stride pattern.
Add to that the uphill finish and Sandown Park is a true test of a jump horse and its jockey’s skills.
The same can be said for the Flat, where timing a challenge is all important coming up the hill and electing to run against the far rail or taking the stand-side route. Witness Ryan Moore on Notnowcato, a lone partnership coming wide off the bend and racing up the near side to win the 2007 Eclipse, having got in front 1f from home and not for beating.
Eating and drinking
Sandown offers a full range of eating options, from the Equus fine-dining and Brasserie restaurants in the Premier Enclosure to the well-run 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 Premier 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 for facilities, viewing and quality of sport. And being just 20 minutes out of Waterloo is another big plus.
But it does need that 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 undoubtedly one of the country’s best tracks.