Why spiralling fees are unavoidable

Auriol Wilson, clerk of the point-to-point course at Higham, clocks up over 300 hours per year for no financial reward doing a job that nobody else wants.

Auriol Wilson, clerk of the point-to-point course at Higham, clocks up over 300 hours per year for no financial reward doing a job that nobody else wants.

Wilson is not alone. Higham is just one of East Anglia's seven amateur racecourses and is home to four days racing per year - organised by the Waveney, North Norfolk, Granta and Essex & Suffolk hunts. She has an opposite number at each of the other six courses.

For six months of the year, roughly spanning November 1 to May 1, she spends an average of two and a half days per week grooming the course. A few years ago Wilson, 63, and husband Richard put out feelers to enquire if anyone would like to take over the management of the course. Unsurprisingly, they got no response.

There are a lot of hard workers within the sport. Looking after horses involves early mornings, bad weather, bumps and bruises and massive commitment in terms of both time and money.

The jockeys are the ones who really put life and limb on the line, so it is only right that they tend to gain the majority of the plaudits. But one could imply that some of the unsung heroes of pointing are those whose role - that of preparing and repairing the racecourses - does not in fact involve a hands-on equine role.

Some may be surprised at this suggestion. In recent years, the rising cost of admission to meetings has been something of a hot potato within pointing circles and on the message board of the official East Anglian pont-to-point website, www.PointingEA.com.

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Some feel the entrance fee, which reached £12 per head for the first meeting of the 2007-8 season at Cottenham, no longer represents value for money. They contend that it is these self same racecourse officials who deserve not praise but ire, for their part in this inflation.

Such opinions ignore the facts. Turning a farmer's field into a racecourse is not just a matter of sticking up some random obstacles, marking out a rudimentary circuit and hoping for the best. It is much more complicated.

Countless Jockey Club regulations need to be adhered to. The rule book concerning the organisation of a meeting now runs to 94 pages and, for example, gives exact measurements for each type of fence, stipulating the wings and running rails must be made of plastic.

Over the years these regulations have become ever more stringent while the availability of agricultural workers able to put in the hours to keep the course up to scratch during their 'quiet' winter period has diminished. Michael Gingell, clerk of the course at Cottenham, near Cambridge, used to have 30 workers on his family farm - now, despite doubling in size, it has just three.

And it is not just the Jockey Club that has high standards for its venues. It is an amateur sport - nobody gets paid for competing and, although there is prize money on offer for each race, it can sometimes amount to as little as £100 to the first past the post. But its competitors demand that courses are maintained in a professional way.

The price of admission has risen sharply in the recent past, although one constant is that under-17s continue to go uncharged. At High Easter, near Chelmsford, it cost £15 per car (potentially less than £4 each if four adults were on board) to get in to each of its 2000 fixtures compared to £9 per head seven years later.

This is a hefty jump, but it comes against a background of spiralling costs. These expenses may well come as a surprise to even the most ardent pointing fan.

For instance, fences have a finite lifespan and, on average, need to be rebuilt every four years. So a course tends to need to replace two fences each summer and this does not come cheap. Birch is the main ingredient of these obstacles and it is not uncommon for the annual bill for this raw material alone to be over £3,000 for just one course.

Birch is so dear that officials from the course at Ampton, near Bury, have decided to cut their own from Thetford Forest. This requires the acquisition of a licence and is a highly time-consuming business.

Cottenham may have the highest admission fee but it also has the best facilities, boasting one of the few point-to-point grandstands plus a number of other permanent buildings. Yet these come with their own price tag in the form of a rates bill, not to mention upkeep expenses. Gingell reveals that the stand is in need of a new roof and the initial quote is £6,000.

Another hidden cost concerns public rights of way. Ampton hosts just two meetings, but is charged £1,900 per year by the local council to close the footpaths that run across the course for those two meetings.

Simon Stearn, who has taken on the role of Ampton clerk of the course despite it being over 30 miles away from his home near Wymondham, explains: "The footpaths have to be closed and that's the fee they charge - there can be no negotiation."

As society becomes more litigious, so medical expenses have skyrocketed and pointing, one of the most dangerous pastimes in the land, has been hard hit.

Simon Marriage, High Easter's supremo, relates that the cost of paramedics went up eightfold in a 12-year period beginning in the late nineties, while Richard Wilson tells of St Johns Ambulance charges more than doubling in the last five years.

Doctors used to be recruited on the promise of a bottle of whisky and a good day out in the countryside, but with many now uninsured for outside work that is becoming more difficult.

What the occasional pointing attendee will also probably not realise is that once the meeting is over, there is still plenty of work needed to get the course back into shape for next time after it has been galloped across by sometimes approaching 100 horses.

At Higham, this means filling the divots with a combination of mushroom compost and sand, mixed by hand. This can take five paid men and Mrs Wilson up to two weeks, depending on how badly cut up the turf has been.