A lot of Welsh, a lot of rain and a lot of smiles: and by the way the racetrack is a cracker. Anyone making a first visit to Ffos Las is unlikely to leave it as a last one.
On the way it had looked the unlikeliest of destinations. The rain battered on the windscreen as we hammered ever west into Wales. By the time we had passed Cardiff it was necessary to ring the office to see if they had abandoned. “Oh no,” came the reply, “they say the going is good and they expect sunshine later.” By the time we had diverted through unpronounceable villages to finally swing into Ffos Las the rain had ended and the ground did indeed walk well underfoot. How could we have doubted it?
To be at Ffos Las racecourse was to share a sense of belief. The belief that West Wales deserved a racecourse and that the locals and the world would welcome it. The big sadness is that Mel Davies, the originator of that belief with his dream of a racetrack just 5 miles away by the sea at Pembrey, is no longer with us. But Dai Walters has quite magnificently picked up the baton and if there is any justice Mel’s shade now smiles down from Pembrey Mountain to where the open cast coal mine which once gave a first job for local rugby legend Jonathan Davies has been converted into a racecourse where yesterday the only reactions were positive ones.
If you wanted to carp you could say that most mobile phones didn’t work, someone had forgotten to order a big screen in front of the grandstand, and it did seem a bit unlikely that there would be a non- English speaking jockey who would need the sign “Jocis Gwyrw” to add to the sign “Jockeys Room”, or for that matter some parties who needed “Perchrnohion a’r Hyfforddwyr” for owners and trainers. That last criticism becomes an unworthy one the moment you fully appreciate your surroundings, and you fear it might be a dangerous one as the 6ft 4 of Mike Davies, the world’s biggest scrum half, looms on the horizon. Everything at Ffos Las, quite rightly, states that racing belongs to Wales too.
But pride was never going to be enough. Once we walked on to the track you could see that efficiency had been there from the start. Clerk of the Course Tim Long was completing yet another flush-faced circuit and with him was Richard Linley who rapped out a string of fact about contours, soil depth, grass growth and the small detail that there would be 60 inches of rain a year. If you want to start a racecourse the surface comes first.
That’s why the jockeys won’t mind the long trek westwards. Mind you when you think that winning jockeys Ahmed Ajtebi hailed from Dubai and Louis-Philippe Beuzelin from Barbados, a couple of hours up from Lambourn was no hardship for Michael Hills and if David Probert had to trek from Kingsclere he can at least claim victory for his upbringing in the Valleys. His success confirms that, at 20, there could still be a green light to a great career although he will have to go some to match the achievements of Joe Mercer an honoured guest in the restaurant. “Yes I remember coming down here with my brother Manny,” remembered Joe, “ we bought a coal mine.”
Those black days are long in the past and as the sun lit the late afternoon there was every reason to look towards a flourishing future. For not even gilded metropolis access or close training location can guarantee racecourse success. 35 years ago I went to the opening of Evry Racecourse hailed as France’s finest. It was 30 minutes south of Paris, five minutes from Orly Airport, less than an hour and a half from either Chantilly or Maisons Laffitte and there was even red wine in the stable lads canteen. But it was never popular. The Parisians could not be bothered, the trainers complained they had to leave Chantilly before lunch, and despite all its assets it was closed in 1996. Evry was wonderful but it did not have a heart.
Remember what happened next. A mishearing hack ran a headline – “Sheikh Mohammed has bought every racecourse in France.” It was meant to be Evry. It will never be Ffos Las.