The future is looking bright for Brighton Racecourse as it sheds its rundown image.

With an ambitious programme of investment and modernisation, manager Northern Racing hopes it can bring back the glory days of the 1950s when Brighton races regularly attracted crowds of 20,000.

Now, with attendance and sponsorship up and the £1.5 million Stage One of the revamp project complete, the venue has improved beyond recognition. Derelict buildings have been transformed into hospitality suites and the seating on the main grandstand has been updated and made safe.

Manager Phil Bell said: "It was in a terrible state when we took over but we have made a lot of improvements already and interest is growing."

The race track itself has existed since 1787 and had lapsed into a poor state in recent years. One of the first jobs by Northern Racing when it took over was to drain and irrigate the course in the hope improved conditions would woo back the big names in racing.

Although there is a long way to go before the course replicates its success of the Fifties, when the track was lined with 20,000 spectators, attendance is up from the average of 900 people in 1998.

Around 1,500 people attended each of the 27 race meetings last year and 90 per cent of the races now attract sponsorship, a big achievement considering none was sponsored before the new managers took over in 1998.

Besides the races the course has become one of the towns' best venues for events from wedding receptions and barbecue parties to computer fairs and exhibitions. Recently it was even used by the makers of hit movie The End of the Affair, based on a novel by Graham Greene and starring Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore.

Phil said: "They used the space in the grandstand as a dressing room. We had all the extras up here getting ready. It was brilliant."

The investment has already made a visible difference to the racecourse. One of the most obvious is the new parade ring, marked out with gleaming white railings, where horses are shown off to punters.

In the centre of the parade ground there is now a specially-constructed wooden winner's stand where race sponsors can publicly present trophies to the owners of winning horses or choose the best turned-out horse and hand over a prize to the victorious stable boy or girl.

There are also plans to provide a giant TV screen for five of next season's meetings to relay the action from all sections of the track to spectators in the stands. Race sponsors will also get the chance to have their logos displayed on the screen.

The Sixties grandstand terracing, which Phil said had deteriorated into "an awful state" with dangerous jagged edges and crumbling concrete, is vastly improved. Ploughing in cash has transformed it with modern seating and gleaming fresh paint and railings. Another old stand which adjoins it is to be demolished, halving the number of seats available.

Newly-refurbished corporate hospitality suites are available all year round for meetings as well as corporate excursions to the races providing unrivalled views of the course. The window of the Sussex Suite is only five metres from the track at its nearest point and is described by Phil as "one of the best views in racing."

The racecourse is one Brighton's highest points and on a clear sunny day the view across the town, over the Downs and out to sea is breathtaking. Phil said: "This place is Brighton's biggest secret."

Stage Two of the redevelopment, currently under way, will see the entire ground floor of the main grandstand modernised and refitted with modern bars, restaurants and betting outlets at a cost of a further £1.5 million.

Phil said: "This was an absolute dump so we have ripped everything out and are starting from scratch." The space under the stands is being converted into two state-of-the-art betting enclosures, where entrance will be £10 or £15.

At the moment it is hard to imagine what the finished effect will be as there is still a long way to go before the first meeting of the season on April 15. Teams of builders and chippies are currently hard at work and will soon even be working through the night to refurbish the interior with bars, Tote terminals and a Ladbrokes betting shop, with a bar running the length of the room. The antiquated metal shutters will be replaced by doors.

Other improvements in the pipeline include the removal of the unattractive grey cladding on the main building. By the time the work is finished Phil says it will look like a brand new building from the outside.

There are also long-term plans to build a glass-fronted restaurant on top of the stands facing the track, similar to the dog stadium where punters can enjoy a meal while watching the action or just enjoying the view.

Phil and his team know there is still a long way to go before their ambitious plans are realised but hope all the hard work will be worth it in the long run.

He said: "As you can see it is going to be pretty smart when it's finished. And coming up here is a really great day out. There has been a good response from local business and a lot of people are backing us. We want this to be something for the whole town that is good for everybody."

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