It was with great interest that I read Richard Hughes’s recent column in the Racing Post in which he protested at the prospect of Sandown moving its high-quality Brigadier Gerard Stakes evening meeting to a Saturday.
Putting aside the rather surprising coincidence that I am the part-owner of this year’s Brigadier Gerard Stakes winner, Western Hymn, I have a lot of sympathy with Richard’s sentiments in decrying the fact that this move would simply compound the problem of too much high-class racing being held on Saturdays, leaving the midweek fare increasingly bereft of quality horses, with the obvious exception of the festival meetings.
Richard went on to compare the sort of dedicated “racing people” that were largely in attendance at Sandown that evening with the type of crowd that is often made up of once-in-a-lifetime racegoers who are unlikely to have any real interest in our sport – especially those attracted by music nights or being part of a stag or hen night.
It is surely wrong to criticise the BHA for wanting to market horseracing to a wider audience
It is true that those of us who are close to racing also find it easy to sympathise with Richard’s views that we should be looking after our core customers – particularly the owners – rather than directing marketing spend towards trying to get anyone and everyone onto a racecourse.
But, while there are occasions when regular racegoers and industry people are understandably irritated by a large so-called non-racing crowd, it doesn’t do for racing insiders to be too purist about such things. Nobody for a moment condones the sort of boozy, yobbish behaviour you occasionally see on the racecourse, but, at the same time, racecourses can hardly be blamed for wanting to attract the biggest possible attendances. Even putting commercial considerations aside, it is the crowd, not the venue, that creates the all-important racing atmosphere and a near-empty racecourse is usually a pretty soulless experience.
Also, within every group of people attracted to the racecourse for the first time, just a few will return and one or two will become dedicated racing fans. It is these people who become the sort of followers of the sport that Richard quite rightly admires and who would largely constitute the attendance at that wonderful evening meeting at Sandown. Some would even become racehorse owners.
It is also surely wrong to criticise the BHA for wanting to market horseracing to a wider audience, especially as racing’s governing authority, bizarrely, has relatively little flexibility when it comes to when and where fixtures take place and what constitutes their race programmes.
Of course, in a perfect world, the BHA would call the tune in this whole area. They would have the final say over when a racecourse could race and the sort of programme it could put on. The current ludicrous geographical clashes of fixtures would be squeezed from the system; the BHA would find it much easier to keep the lid on the number of fixtures generally, in particular on the all-weather; and the allocation of fixtures could be based on a system that created the maximum benefit for the sport as a whole, while spreading the horse population in such a way that very small fields and uncompetitive racing would be a thing of the past.
Legal constraints, as well as parochial in-fighting, are always likely to frustrate us in finding this utopian world, but there is at least much more encouragement these days that some of the more enlightened racecourses and racecourse groups can see that what is beneficial to the whole industry is, in the long term, likely to be more beneficial to them.
Encouraging people to go racing, to watch racing on television and to bet on racing represents the only ways through which we can draw large numbers of people into our sport. First and foremost racing is an entertainment and the annoyances that may sometimes come from bringing new people into our world are as nothing to the consequences of not having them there at all.