Christmas at Wolverhampton
OTHER than Santa Claus himself, there is probably no-one more enthusiastic about Christmas than David Roberts, managing director of Wolverhampton racecourse. “I’ve always loved Christmas and believe in its magic, wholly and utterly,” he says.
Which is just as well, since the Midlands all-weather track has the busiest festive schedule in Britain, staging two meetings in the week before Christmas Day and then racing on Boxing Day and the day after.
“Christmas for us starts a long way out,” he explains, “at least a month before, when the decorations go up to start our parties. They include a massive ball for the Promise Dreams charity, which is always around 30 November and really kicks off our Christmas.
“Then we race every Saturday bar 23 December. That week we race on the Friday instead. We wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves otherwise!”
Boxing Day has been sold out since 1 November for Wolverhampton’s main restaurant, Horizons, seating just under 400, and by the beginning of December more than 800 covers, including the Ringside restaurant, had been booked.
Boxing Day has been a traditional fixture at Wolverhampton for many years, although trends have changed, Roberts points out. “Even in the old days, when it was a turf jumping track, they raced on Boxing Day. Interestingly, we regularly had crowds of 6,000 and more until the shops started their sales on Boxing Day about 15 years ago, then suddenly we lost about 25 per cent of our attendance, dropping down to just over 4,000.
“But since the sales have moved pre-Christmas and Black Friday has come in over the last couple of years, our attendance has gone back up. People aren’t going shopping any more, they’re coming back to sporting events, and we’ll be expecting somewhere around 5,500 this year.”
Management and officials at racecourses that depend on Boxing Day for an annual upturn in revenue, usually pore over weather forecasts with greater scrutiny than usual. The team at Wolverhampton takes a slightly different approach.
“Twenty years ago, when we were running on Fibresand, I’d be back here on Christmas eve, watching the weather to see if we needed to work the track all night,” Roberts says. “But we can plan better with the Tapeta surface. We know we can go down to minus eight degrees, even minus-ten, without worrying too much. The chief concern would be snow.
“Of course, we don’t stop looking at the weather forecast – we have three weather stations we use, including one on site – but because we have so many fixtures it’s an ongoing matter. It’s a long time since we looked too far ahead beyond the next fixture, because we have so many.”
Being less weather-dependant than most racecourses, and having a hotel as part of the fabric means that Wolverhampton will close its offices from 23-25 December.
“With the hotel open, I know the phones are going to get answered,” Roberts explains. “Unlike some other places, I don’t need to put on a night watchman, because we’re trading anyway through the hotel, which is open all year round.
“Beyond the hotel staff, there will be no-one on site on Christmas day, because everything else, including the chefs prepping the food, will be finished by Christmas eve. Even clerk of the course Fergus Cameron will check the weather from a distance on Christmas Day.
“Then the estate staff and chefs will be in at 6am on Boxing Day, and everything picks up from there.”
As for Roberts’ own Christmas celebrations, they are already well underway.
“My Christmas starts early,” he says. “We always go to see Santa at Harrods in November. I used to run up the stairs with my daughter Alex under my arms to get to the front of the queue. Nowadays I have to book in early-September, because it sells out within two hours of the tickets being released.
“My son Eastwood is seven, but Alex is now 22, so I don’t carry her any more! Until the age of 21 we still said she was 17, so she could get a present. This is the first year she didn’t get one, and she was furious when I suggested her annual trip might be coming to an end soon.”
Although Roberts will visit his wife Leanne’s family on Christmas Day, he will be back home ready to cook dinner. “I like to be in control,” he says.
Another tradition he will maintain is attending the festival of midnight carols.
“That goes back to when I was a boy in my home town of Torquay,” he says. “I was a chorister and would tour the hotels on Christmas eve, singing to the dinner guests, before I’d go to midnight eucharist and then a couple of services on Christmas Day.”
Today, Roberts’ singing voice might not be quite so notable, but the spirit of the occasion remains. “Working in Wolverhampton, it’s amazing how far across all the cultural barriers the celebration of Christmas works,” he says. “Everyone here, no matter what background they come from, celebrates Christmas.
“That’s how the magic of Christmas should be. It’s always been a part of my life. I get it, and we should never destroy it.”