MOVES to bring Musselburgh Racecourse under East Lothian Council control have been branded “illegitimate” and could lead to costly court action, it has been claimed.

The Courier has learned that the council is to ask councillors to approve a move to take over the running of the racecourse at a meeting later this month.

Staff at the course were told on Monday that they would become council employees if the move is approved at the February 27 meeting.

But John Prideaux, chairman of Lothians Racing Syndicate (LRS), which jointly runs the course as part of Musselburgh Joint Racing Committee (MJRC), said the move was not in the best interests of staff and could lead to legal action.

Racing sources have described the latest move by the council as a “power grab”.

It comes after years of wrangling within MJRC, which is made up of four East Lothian councillors and three LRS members. In 2015, Investors In People withdrew its endorsement of the facility after branding MJRC leadership dysfunctional.

Last year the British Horseracing Authority became so concerned with the running of the popular venue it threatened not to renew the course’s licence unless an independent report into its governance was carried out.

The findings of that review have never been made public; but one option offered as a solution was for MJRC to be made an associated committtee and brought under council control.

Racing sources say the report also revealed, however, that that move had already taken place five years ago without anyone from LRS being informed.

This was, they claim, a breach of the contract between the syndicate and the council.

Mr Prideaux said: “East Lothian Council’s actions when they changed the status of the racecourse to an associated committee in 2013 were illegitimate and it now appears to be papering over the cracks with a cack-handed attempt to assume total control of the racecourse.

“The Lothians Racing Syndicate was never informed of this change of status, which is a breach of the existing Minute of Agreement between the council and the syndicate.  “The syndicate has not been consulted about the council administration’s plans to push through its proposals at the next full council meeting.

“We do not believe this to be in the best interests of the racecourse or the staff who put their all in to making the racecourse such a success.”

Mr Prideaux said that staff were called to a meeting with Councillor Fiona O’Donnell, acting chair of MJRC, on Monday where they were told they would become council employees.

He said: “The staff are completely demoralised. What legal right do ELC have to tear up the racecourse staff’s current contracts with Musselburgh Joint Racing Committee and decree they become council employees?

“If the council continue with this ill-thought out plan it will almost certainly end in court action.

“In addition, the proposals are most unlikely to persuade the British Horseracing Authority to extend the current temporary licence which allows the racecourse to hold race meetings. The racecourse would then be in danger of permanent closure.”

The British Horseracing Authority confirmed it had not been consulted about the move and that the racecourse’s current temporary licence runs out on April 7. A spokesperson said: “The BHA has not yet been informed of the direction that will be taken following the conclusion of the governance review.”

East Lothian Council said it was committed to securing the future of the racecourse.

A spokesperson said: “Pinsent Masons carried out an independent review which presented a number of options for the future governance of the racecourse and these are under consideration.  “The council is keen to expedite matters while working constructively with the LRS, and Cllr O’Donnell, has been keeping the racecourse’s valued employees informed during this process.”

Ms O’Donnell added: “It would be premature to suggest any decisions have been taken and the options require consideration by all elected members at a full meeting of the council on February 27.  “We have been regularly keeping the BHA updated on proposals and progress on developing these and I have met and had discussions with members of LRS concerning the way forward.  “We are confident of reaching an outcome which puts the racecourse on a sustainable footing for the future, to the benefit of race-goers and employees alike.”