THEY are preparing for a Christmas invasion at Wetherby Racecourse. Chief executive Jonjo Sanderson tells STEVE CARROLL about their most popular two-day meeting of the year.

SOME Christmas traditions should be consigned to the dustbin. Brussels sprouts, ‘X’-Factor number ones, Boxing Day sofa sales, Noel Edmonds – all have their place in ruining the otherwise joyful yuletide experience.

But some traditions should also be cherished – and Wetherby Racecourse’s two-day Christmas meeting is the perfect example.

When it comes to the horses, you can’t beat the Charlie Hall Chase, staged in October. But when it comes to putting feet in the stands, the two meetings after the Saviour’s day are the track’s real time to shine.

Protecting this heritage is chief executive and clerk of the course Jonjo Sanderson. And no-one knows more about what is at stake.

“At the Charlie Hall meeting we get just over 10,000 people over the two days. At this meeting, we should be easily getting that just on Boxing Day alone,” he said. “We would hope to get more than 20,000 over the two days.

“Football will take precedence to a certain degree on the Boxing Day but, hopefully, we will get some decent numbers on Sunday, December 27 – the second day of the meeting.

“The racing looks very pleasing – looking at the line-up for the Rowland Meyrick Chase on Boxing Day and Mister McGoldrick (an eight-time winner at Wetherby) might run in the Castleford Chase on the Sunday.

“We have got to gear ourselves to do what we can do at a Charlie Hall but acknowledge the fact it is going to be double the number of people and prepare for that.”

Wetherby start preparing for their Christmas extravaganza almost immediately after the previous meeting has finished, when a January meeting looks at what went right and how other aspects can be improved.

That preparation hits its stride in the summer and merely winds up in intensity the closer it gets to D-day. The opening Boxing Day excursion will see Sanderson at the track at 6am.

“I have a quick look at the track and speak to the groundsman,” he added. “I’ll walk the course properly at around 8am – when you can see what’s going on – and tie up loose ends.

“Bits of rail may need moving and there’s always something small that needs the finishing touches seeing to it before we start racing. At around 9.30am, I will make sure everything is set up in the stands. The earliest we open the gates at a meeting is 10am so once the public come through we make sure we are ready then for the race meeting.

“If I am clerking, I will be in and around the weighing room at 11.30am, meeting with the stewards and going through the racing in terms of issues. When we are into racing, I make sure everything is operating smoothly on the racecourse.

“If I am operating in my other role as chief executive, I am making sure traffic is flowing – coming on and off the motorway – making sure the turnstiles are functioning all right.

“As a racecourse geared for crowds usually around the 4,000 mark, when you are trying to get 13,000 through the gates then undoubtedly there are queues.

“I am sure we walk a few miles on a raceday.”

Sanderson would be the first to say that holding the reins of the north’s biggest jumping venue has been both a rewarding, yet testing, experience.

Installed as chief executive in 2008 in the wake of a huge track realignment project – forced by extensive roadworks on the nearby A1 – things haven’t always gone to plan.

The track has had a mixed reception, and the hysteria reached a climax in October when four horses died at Wetherby’s opening meeting of the season.

That followed off-season work which saw more than £50,000 invested in the turf.

A subsequent British Horseracing Authority review found there was no reason why racing couldn’t go on but it continued to give critics fuel for the fire. Sanderson, formerly general manager at Catterick, admits he has been taken a little aback by the focus.

“I didn’t expect it to be quite as intense, but track-specific,” he added. “Ninety per cent of it has been track-related. There’s no quick fix for the track, that’s what I wish people would understand and appreciate a bit.

“I can’t say that by next October it is going to be perfect because it won’t be. It might be two, three, four or five years before we get the track to where we want to. For whatever reason, it isn’t performing as we intended it to be. All we can do is slowly, and surely, make progress.”

He continued: “I absolutely love the job to pieces. No matter what has happened over the last two or three months it has been a bloody good experience. Hopefully, I will become a better racecourse manager or chief executive for these experiences.

“You can’t always go through life riding on a high and all this will stand me in great stead. You have to experience the downs to reflect on them going forward and using them in the future.”

And on the Christmas presents ahead?

Sanderson said: “If, in these hard times, we can maintain a good crowd base for those two days and try to get the quality of racing up, and keep the Charlie Hall runners coming back, we can put on a good product and say at the end of the two days that we have done our best.”