A History Like No Other And A Future Full Of Potential
Lewis Porteous heads west to a former coal pit to take in a fixture at Ffos Las
SAN FRANCISCO rather than Ffos Las might have been the inspiration behind the Village People’s 1979 hit Go West but on a crisp autumn day in south-west Wales the lyrics fit the mood perfectly, for in the open air, where the skies are blue, life is peaceful at Ffos Las.
And of course from just about anywhere in Britain, far west is the only direction to get here. From its origin near the urban hub of Hammersmith, the M4 reaches 200 miles and 49 junctions to the west. Ignoring the first 47 of the motorway’s exits, Ffos Las is a 20-mile climb through rural Wales (you need not ask in which direction) from the 48th. Nestled neatly between the former mining villages of Trimsaran and Carway, lies what was once the largest open-cast coal mine in Europe but which in 2009 became the first turf racecourse in 80 years to open in Britain.
In 2003 when plans were gathering pace to transform the abandoned 600-acre site into Wales’s third racecourse and first in West Wales since 1937, the BHA’s chief inspector of courses Richard Linley apparently told the visionaries that in his view, “never in a million years could this dump become a racecourse”. Six years later he was happy to be eating his words. From rugged man-made pit to dual-purpose racecourse, Ffos Las has a history like no other but it is towards the future that those at the track’s coalface are now focusing. Site supervisor Phil Jones, known universally in these parts as Tidds, has been here from the start, yet the radical transformation still amazes him.
“People thought it was a bit of a white elephant to start with,” says Tidds from nearby Llanelli. “They thought racing was too big for this area but we’ve been here seven years now and we’re getting better and better. We use all local produce at the course and it’s good for the local economy – it’s bringing money to the area. It’s got the feel of a family-run, village racecourse – that’s my view anyway.”
Rather than the Village People, it is local crooner Tom Jones (only in Wales) whose voice is the first to be heard on the Tannoy system, belting out a recording of his rendition of Kiss to the public.
Today a quiet midweek crowd of around 1,500 are hoping to unearth a winner or two and have the bonus of some unseasonably splendid weather at a track renowned for being one of the wettest in Britain. As a consequence, being out on the terraces or milling around the parade ring is more popular today than staying inside the modern Jonathan Davies grandstand, named after the Wales rugby star, born in Trimsaran and who started his working life as a banksman at the former mine. There is no queue at the bar, where punters can celebrate success with a pint of Double Dragon bitter, brewed locally in Llanelli, for only £3.80, while an accompanying chicken, leek and bacon pie will cost just an extra £3.50. Hammersmith prices these are not. Out front for the first race, spectators have to raise a hand to shield their eyes from the glinting sun. There is no big screen today, which is not always the case, but with unbroken and spectacular views of the pancake flat track, and commentator Richard Hoiles describing the action with his usual poise, following the plot is not hard and the crowd know exactly who is in front at the last. “Go on Dickie,” is the chorus line, delivered in warm Welsh accents that hangs triumphantly in the cool air as champion jockey Richard Johnson brings odds-on favourite Lisheen Prince home in front. Soon after, in the spacious winner’s enclosure, the champ gives his view on Ffos Las. “It’s a fantastic course,” he says. “It’s very fair and straightforward and great for young horses like him. The best horse, within reason, always gets a run and I think it’s great. "It wasn’t fields before, this is a brand new track so it will keep improving and the ground for me is getting better and better. The basics are all here.” Course chairman Dai Walters, the man with the unerring vision and considerable funds to make Ffos Las a reality, is not here to welcome back third-home Paddys Motorbike whom he owns, but business partner Dave Thursfield, the engineering brain behind the transformation from barren coal mine to racecourse, is. From the balcony of one of the cosy hospitality boxes on the top level of the course’s only stand, Thursfield surveys the lush green course that sits easily in its natural habitat. To the west the view of the countryside stretches as far as Tenby and on a day like this the setting is one of the most idyllic anywhere in the world, never mind Wales. “To whole site that we bought stretches to most of the horizons,” says Thursfield, using both hands to emphasise the sheer scale of 600 acres. “The hole, for the excavation of the coal, was basically the full area of the racecourse. It was 500ft deep at one end and 300ft deep at the other. The biggest job for us was to shape the course with the objective to get 100 per cent visibility from everywhere. “We did about three million tons of muck shifting to form the thing. We’ve two very big lakes in the far corner and all the rain that falls on the track gets collected there and then we pump it back on when we need to irrigate in the summer.” Hunkered down in the rolling hills beyond the back straight is a solar farm that creates enough green electricity to power 1,000 homes. Speaking of which, 215 new houses have already been built on the site and approval granted for another 315. Yorkshireman Thursfield, who came to Wales 40 years ago to build the M4 and never left, makes it clear that without housing permission the £25 million Ffos Las project would have been unviable. In the future, he hopes, tourist chalets and a hotel will follow. Biggest cheer of the day from an intimate crowd is reserved for one of their own as Pearl Swan lands the beginners’ chase for Pembrokeshire trainer Peter Bowen. A man used to driving hundreds of miles to the east to saddle winners across Britain, he is today enjoying the luxury of racing at his local track, just 45 miles from his base in Little Newcastle. “Ffos Las been massive for us,” says Bowen. “It creates an interest for local owners and we’ve felt the knock-on effects. A lot of owners ring us up and all they want is to run at Ffos Las or Chepstow, which is brilliant for us. It’s a fair, galloping track a lot like Newbury and hopefully the ground will be better next year. It’s been the best thing that’s ever happened for us.”
THE course’s Achilles’ heel since it opened has been some unforgiving wet winters, which at times have left it a staminasapping mudbath. So close to Carmarthen Bay, Ffos Las is always going to be hostage to the elements and yawning winning distances and few finishers have sometimes not looked attractive. Sir Anthony McCoy was a big supporter of the track when he was riding but it rather stuck when he said “there is heavy ground and then there is Ffos Las heavy”, but changes are afoot. Earlier this year 50,000 metres of additional drainage was installed at the track and the resurrected Welsh Champion Hurdle occupied an October spot in the calendar for the first time rather than February. The amount of fixtures will be down by five to 19 next year but that is more by design than racing politics, with the first fixture of 2017 slated for February 19, almost nine weeks after rather than sacrificing the turf and the track’s reputation when conditions are bound to be at their most gruelling, the course is looking instead at restoring confidence before potentially adding to the jumps and Flat programme in the summer. Thursfield says: “What we have done is not spare a penny on the track to ensure it’s spot on. Ffos Las is here to stay.” As the sun begins to set, the views across the Gwendraeth Valley are at their most spectacular and another Ffos Las first-timer, who has travelled further than most, captures the memory on his mobile phone down by the winning post. “I’m ticking all the racecourses off,” says Andy Tompkins from Preston, who braved a seven-hour journey on public transport this morning to be here and is heading back to Lancashire tonight. With only one course left on his list, he is well placed to cast the final verdict. “It’s brand new, yet when you stand here and cast your eye out across the track it’s almost like being at Hexham or somewhere that’s been here forever,” he says. “You know what? I really like it.” He is not the only one.
Article from the Racing Post. Published on Sunday, December 4, 2016