Racing for change
I am as happy squashed up against the cuff of an outlandish tweed suit at Cheltenham amongst the whisky laced cacophony of sound as I am stood at the champagne bar at Ascot, forgetting to watch a race.
This means I am, like many others, content with racing as a sport and an event – and for me, as a spectator, it has no problems.
Some of those who run the sport were less content and decided that modernization was required. So, a few years back, the industry concocted an initiative called ‘racing for change’.
The major shareholders, headed by the Jockey Club, wanted a bigger slice of the piece that is the swelling sports industry market. This means jettisoning – or at least consigning to a small corner of the stands, those for whom race course dress included a tie round the neck, a Woodbine cigarette in the mouth, a Sporting life under the arm and a Trilby on the head.
As an ardent follower of this dress code and an inveterate gambler, I see little or no need for change – although I might accept the need for a slight polish.
However I am racing’s cash cow. I go to the races around ten times a year and spend the other Saturdays gloriously watching on the television. I am not the target market that they are trying to entice. The sport has me for life.
Channel Four, which is the only mainstream television channel covering racing, lead the charge for change.
In an unnecessary putsch, they fired their stable of prickly but stupendously informed characters; the rambunctious eccentric John Mcririck, the laconically erudite Alistair Down, and the former jockey with the sobriquet “the greatest’ John Francome. Their replacements more media trained, more of an ecru shade of vanilla. To replace the four time horse racing writer for of the year, Down, with the consistently woeful Richi Passad is unfathomable.
That the change did not have a greater impact is entirely due to the fact that we have a crop of great characters in the sport. But you cannot rely on every generation to produce a Frankie Dettori, a John Gosden, a Nicky Henderson and a Philip Hobbs.
On the positive side, racing is right to rest on its laurels and all attempts to make the sport more accessible should be applauded. Until you get the swing of things, a day at the races can be bafflingly peculiar event, with its own quirky language and customs.
In short, it can seem slightly forbidding and insular unless you are with someone who understands what is going on. And the insularity is compounded when we curmudgeons who do understand grunt indignantly by the naff oversimplified explanations of our practices on race-cards.
One improvement would be to make it clearer to the outside world that racing is available to all – too many still see it as a toff’s sport when nothing could be further from the truth.
There are silver ring tickets at £15, the Grandstand is £35, and the club for £75. I will always buy club, however one can have just as much fun in the cheaper enclosures without the initial outlay. There is also a marvelous predilection made by any lucky being off to the races to get dressed up. I was told as a young boy to always wear a tie to the course – this is a convention it is gloriously adhered to by most of the racing public.
I took my cousins racing, to Kempton, and they were all enamoured by the racing folk. The women marching around with their faux fox tails dipping into their Winter Pimms; the archetypal dodgy Irishmen with venality and charm in their eyes and mobiles clamped to their hands. The owners and trainers – plummy voices and haughty laughs booming like ancient Mariners in the wind. This is what Racing for change should advertise – the eccentricity of racing folk.
Jo public wants to see the burbling old beans and insalubrious chaps. It is part of the rich tapestry of the day….lest we forget the magnificent horses and brave jockeys that warm the heart.
Racing needs to cherish and celebrate the best of its history and traditions and present them as part of a package that includes a welcome that will make newcomers feel part of the event. If we just junk the old and replace it with some new plastic images it will have only one result – the destruction of the sport we cherish so much.
Racing for change