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Epsom experience

Epsom racecourse - Agonising decisions about the future of Epsom racecourse have led to the start of a £27.5M grandstand rebuild. Mark Hansford reports.

As home of one of the world's leading horse races, regularly drawing crowds of 100,000 or more, you would have thought Epsom Downs racecourse to be in rude health and able to build new stands almost on a whim. But that is far from the case.

Epsom's curious location, smack in the heart of the Epsom Downs common land - available to all for 'light air and exercise' by Act of Parliament - means it is nigh on impossible for the racecourse to make money from racing. Indeed, the legendary Epsom Derby provides more in kudos than it does in cash.

The course's owners are limited by law to 16 days racing a year; the Derby infrastructure itself must be erected and dismantled in two weeks; and most spectators for the crown jewel event get in free (it is common land, after all), even if all the facilities on the famous 'Hill' are paid for out of the race course's pocket.

Until recently, paying racegoers watched the Derby from the ageing Rosebery Stand and Grandstand plus the newer Queen's Stand. Behind these structures is the early 20th century office block known as the 1914 Building.

The area occupied by these buildings is currently in the middle of a £26.7M makeover.

This involves demolishing the Rosebery Stand, Grandstand and 1914 Building and replacing them with new stands, conference facilities and a hotel.

The decision to carry out such an extensive project did not come easily for the racecourse, which has little experience of procurement on such a scale.

'Why we are doing this was the easy bit, ' says Epsom managing director Stephen Wallis.

'Here we are running a premier event of iconic status and asking punters to go through the turnstiles and straight into a hole. It was rubbish.' Only the modern Queen's Stand offers the visitor experience desired.

The problems with Epsom's old grandstands are more than simply cosmetic. 'As long ago as 2001 we realised the lifespan of the Rosebery Stand, Grandstand and 1914 Building was limited because they were basically shot, ' says Wallis.

The stands have suffered decades of water leakage and steel corrosion is rampant.

'We tried to buy some time by last year spending £575,000 patching up the roof of the Rosebery and 1914 Building, and that bought us an extra year.

The racecourse owner had to decide whether to spend £8.7M on a more extensive refurbishment which would generate no extra revenue, or whether to spend more on a bigger project which would incorporate new facilities with the potential to create new income streams.

'It was a no-brainer, ' he says, explaining the decision to go with the more expensive, but perhaps more protable option.

But if ripping down the old was an easy decision, working out how to replace it was less so.

'There was a time when we thought building temporary facilities was the route to go down, like the Ryder Cup or Open Golf.

'Gulfstream racecourse in the US ran for a year on temporary stands. But the problem we had was that we only race for four months in the summer and would not use the temporary stands enough to make them pay. Plus in the 1914 Building we have our beer cellar, kitchens, admin, security office, bank and the well that provides the water for the course.

'The only other alternative was to build a new grandstand.

But what do we want? Our sport judges us by one day of the year, but our business is a 365 days a year business.

'In the Queen's Stand we run 400 events per year outside racing and the only way a new grandstand could be paid for is outside racing.' Epsom wanted to avoid replicating what it has in the Queen's Stand and decided it also needed a hotel.

This is because the average conference now runs for two days so any venue that cannot offer overnight accommodation is missing out.

'So we went through a whole process of designing a grandstand with a hotel on the back of it. But the reality was the land available was just too small.' 'We entied an alternative site for the hotel - behind the racecourse stables - but it was on the green belt.

'That was a challenge, but we had such goodwill locally that the planning application was not called in for inquiry.' The only other potential pitfall was English Heritage.

'The old grandstand is a crass building. But the 1914 Building is a wonderful Georgian fake and we were worried ithat it would be listed. But English Heritage did not take long to say that there were far more interesting examples of 'Victorian Georgiana'.' The new stand will roughly fill the space vacated by the old grandstand and the 1914 Building. This will have a vast betting hall at ground floor level, allowing people to flow easily through the stand on racedays.

Importantly, on non-racedays it can be used for events seating up to 800 people, a much larger space than that available in the Queen's Stand.

Efforts to accommodate more revenue-generating non-racing activities have meant that the new Grandstand will have signicantly fewer steppings - terraces for standing spectators. Capacity here will be cut to 4,000 from 7,000.

'Racing is critical to us, but our argument was there are only three days a year when we have more people than steppings.

The bookmakers might not like it because they have less punters, but racegoers just want a good stand.' Epsom eventually won and, with planning permission, opted to procure using fixed price design and build. This method helped insulate the inexperienced client from some construction risks, but raised the prospect of cost overrun if the racecourse imposed design changes after construction began.

'We're into the construction stage and even now I want to change my mind, but it's got to the point when that becomes expensive, ' says Wallis.

But, some changes were inevitable, and Epsom has had to bite the bullet and pay for them.

Wallis cites apparently simple matters like the type of beer fridges as classic examples of potential disasters averted.

'The cellars are going to be underneath the steppings, behind the bar counters. We needed double-sided fridges to allow them to be stocked from one side and served from the other, ' says Wallis.

The project team said it would be expensive - £90,000 extra.

I said we would have to nd savings elsewhere, as the visitor experience of not being able to serve chilled drinks meant it fell into the critical category.

It set a whole chain of design issues running and it was too late to make the change without it costing us, but we've got to minimise mistakes.

'Similarly, initially we had the bookies rail too high which meant some customers wouldn't be able to see the nish line.

It costs us £100,000 in extra ground work, but we could not have got that wrong in hindsight of Ascot.' Wallis is referring to the problems at Ascot racecourse where contractors are carrying out remedial work to improve sight lines for spectators in the recently completed grandstand (News last week).

Race against time Work is being carried out by Wilmott Dixon as design and build contractor. General Demolition is specialist demolition contractor.

Work is being carried out in two phases, with phase one - the demolition of the Rosebery Stand and construction of the new entrance building now at mid point.

Demolition of the Rosebery Stand began soon after last year's Derby and nished on 12 September. The entrance building will be nished in time for the Derby in June, when the exposed end of the old grandstand will be patched up.

As soon as the Derby meeting is over, phase two begins. The old grandstand comes down and up will go the new one, with the new steppings in place in time for Derby 2008, and the whole structure ready for use in 2009.

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