When regular Sunday racing started we were promised high quality sport with good prize-money. Seventeen years later, Sunday racing has failed categorically to live up to the initial hype.
If good horses and good racing are the main reasons why people go racing, then much more effort should be made to put on better Sunday programmes. It is illogical that the day which is regarded as one of the two principal leisure days of the week apparently holds such little appeal to stage top-class racing.
When parliament voted to allow betting shops to open on Sundays in 1994, thereby paving the way for regular Sunday fixtures, the level of jubilation among racing’s great and good suggested this innovation would provide a fantastic opportunity.
Speculation was rife. Perhaps we would have a Sunday Derby or a Sunday Grand National; certainly, Sundays would be about quality and in no time could be challenging Saturdays as the main racing day of the week.
The extent to which those ambitions have failed can been seen in the fact that the only British Group 1 race staged on a Sunday is the 1,000 Guineas, and most Sunday racing in this country is downright moderate. This is in marked contrast to Ireland, which now runs many of its top races on Sundays, and to France, where Sunday racing has always been predominant.
Are working days more attractive to racegoers than our main day of leisure?
Certainly, there are a few courses where Sunday racing still works very well in attracting big crowds – Chester being the obvious example – but even here you could never claim these were days for the racing aficionado. Yes, some Sunday fixtures in the summer are peppered with a few Listed events – and occasionally a Group 3 – but not nearly enough to justify that initial optimism when it became legal to bet on the Sabbath.
It is something of a mixed blessing that, where British racing does succeed on Sundays, it is often labelled a ‘bouncy castle’ day which, in effect, means the racing itself is not up to much and the attraction is more to do with having a family day out – nothing wrong with that, of course, but it pays little compliment to the sport that is being put on as the main entertainment.
There is an argument that Sunday racing is generally unpopular with those who work in the industry. Higher employment costs mean it is more expensive to get the horses to the racecourse, while those much-cherished non-working Sundays have become increasingly rare. In recognition of the additional costs, the Levy Board continues to pay appearance money to connections of runners on Sunday, but these have now been reduced to a mere £100.
The irony attached to British racing’s lukewarm relationship with Sundays is that there is an increasing recognition by racing generally and major racecourses in particular that big meetings need to be shunted more into the weekends.
Aside from the fact that the recent emphasis on Saturdays places a huge burden on top jockeys and trainers who can’t be in two places at the same time, you have to ask why a Wednesday or Thursday is preferred to Sundays.
Are we really saying these ordinary working days are more attractive to racegoers than the country’s main day of leisure? Did it never occur to Newmarket and York – to give two examples of racecourses that have recently pushed their big meetings into the weekend – they might do better by switching one of their days to Sunday?
Racecourses may argue that Sunday racing will never attract the corporate customer – which certainly isn’t the case for other sports – and that such a move would jeopardise Channel 4 coverage.
However, in these days of numerous TV channels, a solution could surely be found that would see Sunday promoted to its rightful place as at least the second most important day of the racing week.