Violence at the races: marketing chickens come home to roost

Big crowds can be guaranteed at all major race meetings in the UK.
Big crowds can be guaranteed at all major race meetings in the UK.

We should be talking about the enjoyable start to the Flat season, laced with star-quality performances and healthy-sized, competitive fields.

At the very least, we should be debating the Investec Derby at Epsom next month and looking forward to the highlight of the year, Royal Ascot.

Maybe we should even be talking about the BAFTA won by ITV Racing for their coverage of last year’s Grand National. An award that probably means more than their viewing figures, which continue to be disappointing but are increasingly irrelevant in this digital, multi-platformed age. And an award that should persuade ITV to give its work better exposure, rather than hiding it away on ITV4.

However, instead, the topic of all conversations racing is something far more sinister after outbreaks of drink and drug-fuelled violence at two of our premier tracks, Ascot and Goodwood.

Hundreds of thousands have watched the sickening scenes on social media. The footage, captured on the mobile phones of onlookers, means the authorities and the courses cannot camouflage the seriousness of the trouble by issuing insipid press releases as if the incidents never happened. The pressure has been cranked up by the national media which has latched on to the story and broadcast the footage. Those authorities and those courses must now act.

Of course, what erupted at Ascot and Goodwood could have erupted, and probably has, at any track in the country. In recent years, fighting has broken out at high-profile meetings at Newmarket and Newbury, and at the Derby at Epsom. And of course, the problem hasn’t been created by racing. It is a product of a society where abuse of alcohol and drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, is rampant. The response to it within a racecourse should defer to the same aims as those in any other public place -- namely stringent attempts to prevent it happening and to bring offenders to justice.

Few can disagree with the stream of pleas for extra security that have greeted the agro which blighted Ascot and Goodwood. Good luck to any tracks that manage to strengthen their on-course police presence, however. Police numbers and resources have been stripped to the bone, so I suspect the cost would be astronomical to persuade Chief Constables up and down the land to utilise their Saturday afternoons deploying officers on the remit that it might kick off in the Frankel Bar.

On the other hand, it is high time security on British tracks was beefed up and professionalised. Too many stewards and security staff are either jumped-up jobsworths or clueless wet lettuces. A happy medium needs to be found to suit both employer and spectator. They should be trained to reflect responsibilities far greater than making sure your ticket matches the enclosure you’re entering or making sure you’re wearing a tie. For instance, it is utterly astonishing that officials only just seem to have cottoned on to the scourge of cocaine among young male racegoers at big meetings. The snaking queues to the cubicles, rather than the urinals, in the men’s toilets have been a curious phenomenon on major tracks for many years. They haven’t just appeared, and you don’t need to call Inspector Poirot to put detect the reason. Not all are in the queue because they had a dodgy curry the night before.

However, what also needs to be asked is why they are on a racecourse at all. And the answer is not one, in my opinion, that the sport, in this instance, can refer to society. It is my firm belief that what happened at Ascot last weekend and at Goodwood the previous Saturday is a direct result of the manner in which racing has been marketed and promoted over the last ten years or so.

Overwhelmed by the obsession with the need to attract newcomers to the sport and find the so-called next generation of racegoers, the warped message has been to come racing, but not necessarily for the racing. Meetings have been promoted on the back of music concerts or beer festivals or any other gimmicky sideshows that can be dressed up to appeal to the masses. The central product has been rendered incidental. The impression has been given that a day at the races is all about the extra-curricular entertainment and, while you’re at it, getting tanked up.

And how that new generation of racegoers has lapped it up. They’ve answered the call, they’ve turned up and they’ve had a good time, but they couldn’t give a fig about the racing and have no intention of learning about the delights and intricacies of the sport. Admittedly, they like a bet, but primarily, they are there for their own boozed-up, drugged-up merriment, which can easily degenerate into clashes with rival groups and, ultimately, fisticuffs. The sport has succeeded in finding droves of new racegoers, but not new racefans, and there is a serious distinction. For far too many, a day at the races is seen simply as a glorified day at the pub.

Entire busloads wobble from turnstiles to bars and back again without catching sight of a horse in the flesh. What’s more, and most tragically of all, their boorish behaviour has driven away racing regulars, devoted aficionados and supporters of the sport, who now treat certain meetings as no-go zones. Some courses, including Ascot, have introduced alcohol-free areas, which are popular. But others continue to invite bother by allowing beer to be taken out of the bars and on to the race-viewing steps and seats.

Yes, the troublemakers remain in a minority. And yes, thousands of us still enjoy having a responsible pint or two, or glass or two, to wash down the racing action. But I believe the chickens have come home to roost with regard to the way we are selling our sport. The violence at Ascot and Goodwood must surely lead to a drastic re-think in the way courses dumb down many racedays by putting the emphasis on alcohol and on music, instead of having the confidence, nay the balls, to place the horses, the jockeys, the trainers, the owners, the races (blimey, there’s enough to go on!) at the forefront of their sales drives.

The plea for change isn’t helped by sideshows such as after-racing concerts being given the seal of approval of the media, including by BAFTA-winning TV presenters, who glibly trot out platitudes that such events help to create new racing enthusiasts. There is zero evidence that this is happening. Far more evidence exists that spectators turn up well after the racing has started, clearly intending only to watch the concert. Once they’ve had a few in the bars.

How can this be serving the interests of the sport? If the concerts are, as the tracks insist, cash cows, why can’t they stage them on non-racedays? Imagine the furore if Manchester United sold tickets for a match at Old Trafford on the basis of a Coldplay set before and after the match and during half-time.

Neither Coldplay, nor any other band, was anywhere near Ascot last weekend, nor Goodwood the previous weekend. But the sport’s misguided culture of luring people to meetings and assuring them it doesn’t matter whether they are interested in the racing or not had its fingerprints all over the disturbing violence we witnessed.