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As Proud as Ponte—Showcase Champions 2019

Norman Gundill took the plaudits and gave the first interview when Pontefract Racecourse was crowned RCA Showcase champion for 2019, but the man who has been the driving force behind the Yorkshire track since becoming Managing Director in 1975 was only too happy to hand the credit to his in-house team of Chief Operating Officer Richard Hammill, Caroline Street, Nicola Cawood and Carol Nickels.

Looking back on the November night at Hamilton Park when Pontefract lifted the ultimate prize, Gundill says: “It was unbelievable. It wasn’t just the winning, it was the reception we got and the way that people seemed to be so pleased for us.

“It’s a great accolade for a small racecourse that operates with a small staff and on a limited budget. I was very humbled, not for myself but for Richard and the team. I’m not a marketing man and I’ve let him get on with that side of things, so the Showcase award is a wonderful tribute to what he’s achieved.”

Hammill too retains a sense of amazement. “It still feels surreal, because we never really considered it was something we could achieve,” he says. “I keep thinking someone is going to turn up and say, ‘OK, you’ve had it for a couple of months, now’s the time to take it away.’

Pontefract’s overall success was preceded by victory in the Events category, built on entering the Guinness Book of World Records for assembling the most number of people into the shape of a whippet at the course’s Flat Cap and Whippet family day.

Hammill explains the background: “We’re always looking for different things to do, and initially I came up with the idea of trying to break the world record for the number of people wearing flat caps. Guinness said we would need over 10,000 to qualify, and although we thought we might just about get that many for the total crowd, we couldn’t guarantee they would all be wearing flat caps. So instead, we came up with the idea of forming the shape of a whippet.

“Flat caps didn’t feature at all initially, but Guinness has strict rules about setting world records and everyone had to have matching tops and headgear, so the flat caps came back in and we did special tee shirts as a memento.”

More than 500 people were needed to set the record, and with the help of pre-meeting advertising, the final tally of 763 comfortably established a new mark.

Hammill recalls: “We found that people were booking purely to be part of the world record, and on the day, when we held the event at 1pm, racegoers were queuing to get into the area we’d set aside, looping all round the bookmakers in front of the stands, using both entrances in the paddock and the picnic area.

“We’re a very close-knit team here and all but one lady from the office, who had to take care of the phones, was out lending a hand. Even Mrs Gundill and her friend got involved handing out tee shirts.

“The fact it was a full team effort was one of the things that made it so worthwhile. We’d all had such input and ownership over the event, and there was no way it wasn’t going to succeed. We were going to set the world record come hell or high water, and we did.”

Hammill has other developments on his mind, especially after being invited to present Pontefract’s vision at a seminar organised by Horse Racing Ireland in Kilkenny in January.

“It was quite daunting,” he says. “I wasn’t only representing Pontefract but also the RCA and its champions award. I’m relatively new to speaking at events such as this, and certainly not going solo for 45 minutes to an hour. I did a practice and it only took about 35 minutes, but once I got started, they couldn’t shut me up. I suppose I’ve learned from the master, Mr Gundill.

This year, the close-knit Pontefract team will welcome a new member to their ranks with the arrival of Leeds University graduate Amber Hunt.

Hammill explains: “Mr Gundill is slowly trying to come in on fewer days, and there is a succession plan in place, but we can’t get there while I’m doing all the marketing. Amber has no background in racing, which we thought would be a benefit. We want her to bring in fresh ideas from outside, which we can use or adapt for racing.”

Hunt will eventually look at ways of expanding Pontefract’s non-raceday business, Hammill adds, saying: “At the moment we’re like a shop that only opens 16 days a year, yet we’ve got fantastic facilities, we’re in an amazing location for transport and views, plenty of parking, but the stands sit empty for most of the year. So non-raceday functions is an area we want to focus on, without taking away from the racing operation.”

Hammill is beginning to appreciate that with success comes scrutiny, which will intensify when Pontefract opens its gates for the first time in 2020 on 7th April.

“One of the things that didn’t really dawn on us immediately was the pressure that comes with winning Showcase,” he says. “While we ordinarily have ideas, a marketing plan and improvements we want to make year on year, we now have a lot of eyes on us, watching these improvements, and we have to uphold our end of the bargain by continuing to push forward and do exciting things.

“The top line and the bottom line is that we want to improve. We have probably punched above our weight and we’ll keep on punching. We are the champion racecourse, but there’s still a lot we want to do.”

Visit Pontefract Racecourse’s page to find out more about the course and their 2020 fixture list.

With thanks to the RCA for copy and picture.